the Doctor had not been UNIT's scientific advisor?
1997 and a lone exile arrives on Earth, years later than planned.
On the eve of the Handover, an advanced Chinese stealth bomber crashes in the hills above Hong Kong. The discredited UNIT has just 24 hours to steal the technology, rescue the passenger and flee to international waters.
Down by the harbour, there's big trouble in Little England - a bar owned by an old soldier, who simply wants to forget the past. But an ancient evil is stirring in a place of peace.
The Doctor finds a world on the brink of terror. A world that has lived without him for years. A world that is frighteningly like our own
David Warner (The Doctor); Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart); David Tennant (Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood); Mark Gatiss (The Master (Ke Le)); Liz Sutherland (Ling / Girl in Street / Pub Customer); Trevor Littledale (The Abbot); Mark Wright (Marcus / Private Jacobs); Peter Griffiths (Captain Zerdin); Stuart Piper (Adam); Jonathan Clements (Bouncer / Chinese Pilot / Monk / Tannoy Voice / Bomb Control); Gary Russell (Newsreader); John Ainsworth (Pub Customer)
I love the voice work of Mr. Warner & Mr. Courtney. I found the characterization of Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood to be off putting. I understand it is a different world but I found him to be really rude and looked for him to get his comeuppance. I enjoyed the Master getting the twist toward the end. The story could have been a little longer to round out some characterization. Super review by Eiphel. 8/10
David Warner as the Doctor, Nicholas Courtney as the Brig, Sam Kisgart as the sinister Ke Le and David Tennant cursing himself blind. What more could you ask for?
After kicking off the series with a big thematic story and a grand premise of immediately obvious implication, the second tale in the fascinating Unbound range steps things down to a much subtler tone. It takes a far less grandiose question - What if the Doctor had never joined UNIT? - and examines it on a much more fine detail level than Auld Mortality.
The conclusions it draws are fascinating and disturbing. Lacking the Doctor, UNIT has been forced to take far more drastic and destructive action to repel the various invasions of the 70s and 80s. The sort of action that has demanded explanations (and it's the sort of action that the Silurians suggests might have been quite likely). The Brigadier is faced with a bitterly ironic dilemma - when he does his job right, no evidence is left that he has done so.
Courtney rises to the occaision, giving one of his best performances for Big Finish. This alternate Brig is a fascinating character. Retired from UNIT with no official indictment, but humiliated by the woes of the organisation under his control, he's left the country to escape his grievances and is running a bar in Hong Kong. Yet the story doesn't make him a miserable drunk as would be the cliché (there's enough material there to suggest he might drink, but equally he might not), rather, he's a man exiled by his embarassment, living a lonely, bored life. Courtney sounds weary when first he appears, beaten down, but once events sweep him back up the malaise evaporates. He gets a foil in David Tennant's Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood, and given a tangible figure to confront we see the spirit rising again in the Brig over the course of the play. By the end he's seen a significant change, and is more like the Brig of old.
As well as his scenes with Wood, the Brig's scenes with the Doctor make for interesting listening. He shows a very real sense of abandonment and when set against Warner's rather different Doctor, the dynamic is quite intriguing. For quite some time, their relationship is prickly, not at all like that of the 'real' Brig and Doctor. Yet as the play develops, so too does the Brig, and by the end of the play they form a companionship much more reminiscent of the 'real' Brig and Doctor, yet still distinct. It'll be interesting to hear them in Masters of War.
Which brings us to Warner. I'll admit that coming into the play, Warner was the main excitement. An absolutely fantastic choice for the Doctor that I couldn't wait to hear. Well, I might have been burned by expectation. Not that Warner is bad - far from it - but he doesn't always feel like the Doctor. He's a striking contrast to Pertwee; no action man, he almost drifts in the current of events, wraithlike, cool throughout, delivering comment from a step detached. He's not emotionless by any means, he has flashes of a simple easiness, like popping into a bar for a drink, but he's far less up-front than the Doctor generally is, and at times he feels almost cold. This really comes through at the end of the play, where he seems much less invested in the outcome of events than we might expect from the Doctor. He still hopes for the best outcome, but he doesn't let the other possibilities haunt him.
Perhaps this is a realistic take on a Doctor exiled by the Time Lords. He shows some real smouldering anger toward his people. Maybe that anger is isolating him. Not a million miles from the way the Brigadier has been changed, in fact. Part of me wants to recognise this as a brilliant development of the concept. After all, this is Unbound. It may be missing the point to feel he's not the Doctor. On a purely intellectual level, it's compelling - As well as the above there's also hints of confusion and apologeticism. It is quite a rich portrayal, for sure and I could see myself finding a lot of interest on relisten. But I'm not sure if I enjoy it.
Sam Kisgart provides a delightfully sinister turn as Ke Le. With a character like this, it'd be very easy to sink into moustache twirling mad scientist territory, but Kisgart avoids the trap. He flirts with this sort of pantomime villainy, skimming the entertaining aspects off the top, but maintains enough gravity that when he wants to he can be genuinely chilling.
Amid this congregation of miseries and monsters sits David Tennant, responding to the melancholy tale by bellowing string after string of expletives, and he's absolutely bloody hilarious. Admittedly it's not exactly the most deep, layered character study ever portrayed, but who cares? I defy anyone not to love every minute of Wood's onslaught. And actually, he does provide quite an effective foil for the Brigadier for all that.
The smaller parts are not really on the same level as that lot. Adam and Marcus are a pair of drunken Brits and to be fair, Stuart Piper and Mark Wright play them as such. Which means they're not particularly endearing. Adam, who gets a bit more coverage, does end up being moderately sympathetic, but it's not really a memorable role. There's also, Ling, Adam's girlfriend, who I initially thought would be a much more tolerable counterpart to his drunken arrogance. That wasn't the case. I'm not really sure what happened with her. In her introductory scene she seems like a level headed girl. In every other scene she is either ranting or crying. I think she really started to get on my nerves when she threatened to ditch her boyfriend because he wanted to check the crashed aeroplane for survivors. Yeah, what a dick... Admittedly, that's not really Liz Sutherland's fault. More praise is due to Trevor Littledale as the Abbot, who plays him with just the right measure of tranquil cheeriness and philosophy so as not to slip into charicature. The scene in which Ke Le marches him at gunpoint is particularly good.
Besides the characters, the other striking aspect of the story is the feel of the thing. Warner's Doctor couldn't be more different to Pertwee's, and yet the Pertwee era is unmistakeably present throughout. In part it's the presence of UNIT and the Brig. In part it's the clever references to the Pertwee era stories, and little flourishes of the appropriate set dressing (Buddhist monasteries, for example). But it's something that comes to more than the sum of its parts. It's just a vibe that's very much tangible, and that recollection of an era marked by wide-eyed idealism makes the cold realism that the premise tosses all over it that much more icy.
The Hong-Kong handover setting is instantly interesting. With only 70 minutes to introduce everything and tell a story, it's a well chosen backdrop that provides a rich background without too much exposition.
Thematically it's a story couched in a fog of exile and lack of understanding, yet don't be put off; it's far from depressing. Despite the seemingly gloomy concepts, there's quite a bit of humour in the story. Tennant's foul mouthed tirades are absolutely hilarious, and there's various easter eggs, mostly unobtrusive, for fans to spot. There's also a bunch of references to the titular song, which I kinda dig, because it's one of my favourites (the G'n'R cover particularly).
All of its thematics and character aside, the plot, on the level of action scenes and macguffins, is a sort of psuedo sequel/remake of a 70s era story that I confess I haven't seen. For those that have it might seem a bit familiar, though really there isn't that much similarity. It's not hugely substantial, but (as with Auld Mortality, really) the plot isn't the point. It's the characters and themes that make up the meat of the thing, as the Unbounds should be, and the story is more than sufficient to support it all. 8/10
**** Spoilers Below ****
Apparently the original plan for the story was a slice of post-apocalyptica and didn't feature the Master. I'm glad they changed their minds, though, because he's a perfect fit. If the 'what if' stories ultimately capitalise on the subversion of iconic aspects of the show, then this story is about the iconic aspects of the Pertwee era, and the Master is the most fitting thing imaginable. Well, him and UNIT - And that's exactly what we've got.