“Sympathy for the Devil”

Sympathy for the Devil CD CoverPoking around on the Big Finish site, I looked through the ranges of available audios and found one that really piqued my interest. No, it’s not the “Gallifrey” range: I’ve already ordered those and I’m bouncing up and down waiting for the CDs to arrive. It’s the “Unbound” range. This series of audios is analogous to Marvel Comic’s “What If?” series, telling stories of what would have happened if… We’ve seen one episode in the modern Doctor Who that did the same thing: “Turn Left” showed what happened if Donna had turned right instead of left, leading to her never having met the Doctor. The “Unbound” range is similar, dealing with things like “What if the Doctor had never left Gallifrey?” or “What if the Doctor’s core philosophy had been different?” The plays feature different actors playing the Doctor, supporting the assumption that the Doctor’s regenerations are influenced by his experiences and situation.

While purchasing a different subscription, I was offered a free audio and took the opportunity to get an “Unbound” audio, selecting “Sympathy for the Devil” because of its basic premise: what if the Doctor, condemned by the Time Lords and exiled to Earth, had arrived in 1997 instead of 1968? This Doctor was played by David Warner, and of course, arrives with no companion in Hong Kong on the eve of the handover of the territory from Britain to China.

I should note that “Sympathy for the Devil” was released in 2003, before the premiere of the modern show, so it only refers to the classic show timeline.

Spoilers ahead. Lots of them.

Upon his arrival, the Doctor encounters Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The last time he saw the Brigadier, he was Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart at the London Underground. This Brigadier, however, is no longer with UNIT, and is running a pub in Hong Kong. Without the Doctor’s help, the Brigadier had been able to establish UNIT and had battled alien menaces, but history took a very different turn, as he had to come up with different solutions to all of the many problems. For example, the middle of London is dominated by a large lake, because to battle the Silurians, he had to send Mike Yates on a suicide mission into the past to drop a nuclear bomb. Other examples are given, but the gist of it is that though the Brigadier had varying degrees of success fighting off threats, his claims of the extra-terrestrial origins of these threats got him branded as s nutcase, and he eventually left UNIT in disgrace. He’d been heading for New Zealand, but ended up staying in Hong Kong.

While the Doctor and the Brigadier are catching up (and they’re not friends; they barely know each other), an airplane crashes in the hills outside Hong Kong, and they go to investigate. Meanwhile, UNIT also arrives, because the plane was carrying a British defector to China, a very dangerous scientist. The UNIT forces are led by Colonel Brimmicombe-Woods, who is disdainful of the Brigadier and suspicious of the Doctor. Now, this part is the major part of the episode, so I’m going to distill it down into a few sentences, with very major spoilers, so stop reading here if you don’t want to know.

Okay, I’m moving on.

After investigation and action and plot twists, they discover that the occupant of the plane is the Master, who had been trapped on Earth without a TARDIS by the Time Lords, and he’d been hatching plots for thirty years, trying to get the Doctor’s attention. He’s lived through all of the years of invasions and attacks, not to mention the regular human things going on on Earth, wondering how the Doctor could allow all of these horrible things to happen. Of course, some of it were his schemes, as he’s not averse to causing chaos in order to get his ticket off this planet. His current plot is to create an army of mind-controlled soldiers, but he had been fleeing China (where he had defected) when his plane crashed.

Nicholas Courtney, David Warner, David Tennant

Nicholas Courtney, David Warner, David Tennant

That’s about as much of the plot as I’m going to reveal here. I found this episode to be very enjoyable, because it contains a lot of Doctor/Master banter, double-crossing, and plot twists – in short, it felt very much like a Third Doctor/Master episode, and it was really nice to revisit that era and that type of episode, something that the show hasn’t done for a very long time (the Doctor/Master dynamic in the modern show is very different). In addition, the three main characters of the audio, the Doctor, the Brigadier, and Colonel Brimmicombe-Woods (man, that’s a handful to type), were designed and portrayed very well, starting at odds with each other (the Brigadier doesn’t trust the Doctor, as he was at the first instance in which the Brigadier encountered alien threats but then never appeared again for thirty years; the Colonel thinks the Brigadier is a nutcase; the Doctor is freshly exiled and thinks he should be able to trust the Brigadier but obviously the Brigadier has other ideas) but coming to a working truce and trusting each other. It only helped that the four main characters were played by some of the best actors in Britain: David Warner as the Doctor, Nicholas Courtney (who else?) as the Brigadier, Mark Gatiss as the Master, and David Tennant as the Colonel. (No, I didn’t know Mr. Tennant was in this when I selected it. I knew he played Colonel Brimmicombe-Woods, but that character wasn’t listed in the synopsis of the play. This was complete coincidence on my part, and quite a nice surprise.)

The bottom line is that “Sympathy for the Devil” was a great play, taking advantage of the greater freedom that working in an alternate timeline gives you but still providing the great dialogue, twisty plots, and wonderful characterizations we watch/listen to Doctor Who for. And it was nice having a different Doctor for once. Based on this one, I’ll be picking up more of the “Unbound” series as I work through the audios.

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