On the eve of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, the TARDIS materializes near a traditional English pub. The Doctor, reeling from his ordeal at the hands of the Time Lords after his trial for interfering in the course of history, wanders into the pub to find that it’s run by the retired Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart – embittered after years of having to run UNIT’s fight against the unknown without any help. Just as the two become uneasily reacquainted, they hear a low-flying jet smash into something nearby, and yet they never see it. When they arrive at the hillside into which something has crashed, the Doctor and the Brigadier realize it’s a Chinese spy plane using some sort of stealth technology that renders it invisible, not just to radar but to the human eye. UNIT quickly arrives, under the command of the brash Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood – an old adversary of the Brigadier’s – and takes over a nearby monastery, monks and all, to use as a temporary command post. The Doctor slowly grows to realize that something more than espionage is going on here – but by the time he realizes who’s behind it, it will already be too late…and this time even the Brigadier doesn’t trust him enough to lend a hand.
Cast: David Warner (The Doctor), Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart), David Tennant (Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood), Sam Kisgart (Ke Le), Liz Sutherland (Ling), Trevor Littledale (The Abbot), Mark Wright (Marcus), Peter Griffiths (Captain Zerdin), Stuart Piper (Adam)
Timeline: after The War Games and in place of Spearhead From Space?
LogBook entry and TheatEar review by Earl Green
Review: For years, I’ve been jonesing for someone to cast David Warner as the Doctor. Having been one of late 20th century cinema’s quintessential British “bad guy” actors, Warner’s been in everything from Time Bandits to Tron to Star Trek: The Next Generation (the memorable Chain Of Command cliffhanger), and he’s even gotten a few shots at being a good guy along the way (Star Trek V, Star Trek VI, and the often undeservedly panned Grail episode of Babylon 5, to name but a few). But he’s always had the look and the sound of someone who’d make a smashing Doctor – and now he finally gets the chance.
And here he gets an adventure perfectly suited to him – on the eve of the British handover of Hong Kong to China, it’s the end of the world as people there know it, and even before that happens everything’s going to hell in a handbasket. And the Brigadier? Given a slightly more feisty and bitter reading than usual by the ever-outstanding Nicholas Courtney, he’s unsure of who the Doctor is, or whether or not he wants to be associated with him in any way. Without the Doctor, the world was plunged into chaos when the onslaught of early 1970s alien invasions occurred as depicted in the Pertwee era of Doctor Who – only this time the Brigadier was on his own. The Autons, the dinosaur invasion, The Ambassadors Of Death and Inferno are all thrown into the soup as continuity references to the Brigadier’s now-disastrous military career, and it’s not until the dinosaurs are mentioned (complete with a reference to Mike Yates as a matyred hero who saved the world) that it sounds like “hey, over here, it’s a fanboy continuity thing!”
Positively annoying is the best description for the Brigadier’s personal nemesis, Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood. The man’s a prat. And that’s putting it nicely. Perhaps it he hadn’t been played quite so archly, the audience could almost sympathize with the man whose job it now is to hold UNIT together following its humiliating years under the Brigadier’s command – and yet David Tennant takes a special joy in playing the part just that way, and steals the scene easily. Actor Sam Kisgart – also known as TV writer and novelist Mark Gatiss – does a fine job as the villain of the piece. But I’m not going to tell you any more about him.
One caveat: the language in this story is a bit coarser than we’re used to with the Big Finish Doctor Who plays, with the S word rearing its head a fair few times in the latter half of the story. Probably not unrealistically though – after all, the loose-cannon new commander of UNIT is the one doing most of the swearing, and given the circumstances, perhaps not unreasonably so. But for those who prefer not to have their Who buzz harshed by more modern-day sensibilities, there’s a heads-up.
It’s a masterpiece of mood and setting, this one, and David Warner’s a smashing Doctor just like I always knew he’d be. The thought of a series of adventures picking up where Sympathy From The Devil leaves off is tantalizing – but then, that’s the beautiful thing about Doctor Who Unbound… it’s up to the listener to imagine where it would’ve gone from here. In some other alternate universe, Big Finish could hold a poll, determine the most popular of the Unbound Doctors, and do a brief three-or-four-story series with that actor. Probably won’t happen, but if it did, I’m not sure I can envision David Warner losing. Sympathy For The Devil feels like a movie relaunch of some sort, and it just sets my spine tingling to think what an excellent Doctor that its star would’ve made on TV.