I’ve written before , in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! [Paperback Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) All other ebook formats]. about Rob Shearman’s Doctor Who Unbound story Deadline, and I’m going to try not to repeat myself too much in this essay, but given that this book is entirely about Doctor Who without the character of The Doctor, it needs dealing with in some form.
Because Shearman’s play is very different to the usual run of Doctor Who Unbound. For the most part, the series follows a simple formula – what if the Valeyard (an evil version of the Doctor from the story Trial Of A Time Lord) had won? What if the Doctor had never left Gallifrey? What if we could get David Warner to play the Doctor?
But here, Shearman goes for something very different – what if Doctor Who had never been broadcast at all?
Derek Jacobi plays a hack writer, Martin Bannister, who started off as a promising playwright but is now best known for writing the least popular episodes of the 80s police drama Juliet Bravo, and whose career seems to have started to go downhill from the time he was asked to write stories for a planned TV show called Doctor Who, a show that was never actually made. Everything would have been all right if that show had been made. His marriage wouldn’t have ended, he would have a better relationship with his son, he’d be an acclaimed writer.
Shearman’s script is a poignantly humorous look at a life falling apart. Every one of Bannister’s relationships is built on multiple layers of lies – he praises his nurse’s bad attempts at writing in order to encourage what he sees as her sexual advances, but once he actually makes a move she backs off in revulsion even though she had clearly been interested while he was not attainable. He romanticises his relationship with his son during his son’s childhood years, but the son is so angry with his father that he lies to him, claiming his mother has died, just in order to try to get any reaction from a man he’s never felt close to.
And throughout this, Bannister is rewriting his life in his head, imagining himself as the Doctor, off on adventures in time and space. These adventures are badly-written versions of early First Doctor stories – An Unearthly Child and The Daleks in particular, but also the unmade story The Masters Of Luxor – which of course in Bannister’s mind has exactly as much or as little ‘canonicity’ as any of the other stories.
In the end, Bannister goes and locks himself in a wardrobe, refusing to come out, saying it’s bigger on the inside. He’s finally retreated totally into his fantasy world, and it’s strongly implied that he may have died there. But it’s also implied that this horrible, mean-spirited man who has wrecked the lives of everyone around him is coming out of a coccoon, that he contains within himself an urge to be better – to be The Doctor.
Shearman’s play also has a very interesting textual interrelationship with Marc Platt’s Auld Mortality, the first of the series of Unbound stories of which Deadline was the last. Both centre around writers who regret paths not taken in their past lives, and reunions with members of the family from which the writer has been cut off. In both, the central character takes refuge in fantasy worlds that are Doctor Who stories. But in Platt’s story, the writer is the First Doctor, who chose to stay on Gallifrey and write novels based on alternate realities that he creates while staying in his home, which he never leaves. In fact, the stories that Platt’s Doctor writes are also adventures that Bannister’s Doctor has – fictional stories from a ‘non-canonical’ universe’s fiction. If the stories are never written, then they all count equally.
This Doctor writes stories of ‘the Adventurer’ and his adventures through time and space with his casket-shaped TARDIS. But when he’s trapped in one of these stories (a story about Hannibal which bears some resemblance to Hartnell-era historical stories), he discovers the TARDIS is just an empty box – just as Bannister finds that his wardrobe is really a TARDIS, at least in his own mind.
Both stories were written in 2003, the fortieth anniversary of the TV show, a time when the show had been off the air for fourteen of those forty years, a time when the central fact about Doctor Who was that it was in the past and that it had been stopped, and the central question among fans was whether doing something different would have kept the show alive. Both are ultimately about escape from this question, from “an old cooking-pot of memories and ill-researched approximations” as the Doctor describes his writing in Auld Mortality. Auld Mortality in particular specifically argues for pluralism and freedom, and the point of both stories ultimately is that the only true death is to allow regrets from the past to limit our choices in the future.
We are limited, ultimately, only by what we can imagine, and to settle for less because we’re scared of failure is to invite that very failure. A writer who doesn’t write, or a traveller who stays at home, no matter what their reasons, are fundamentally the antithesis of the Doctor, which is why they can only appear in stories about the Doctor’s non-existence.