For International Women’s Day, we’re looking at the most notable female-led stories in Doctor Who history. Starting with the first full story featuring a woman as the Doctor.
Unbound was a series of audio plays released in 2003 to celebrate Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary. Each was a standalone “What if?” story that explored scenarios in both the Whoniverse and the real world. Like ‘What if Doctor Who had never been made?‘ or ‘What if The Valeyard had won?‘ or ‘What if the Doctor hadn’t fled Gallifrey?‘
Unsurprisingly, the Doctor’s fateful trial at the end of The War Games proved tantalising for writers. The Unbound series produced two alternate outcomes for it. One where the Doctor is exiled to Earth but two decades later. Which eventually led to the ongoing adventures of David Warner’s version of the Doctor. The other, decidedly more tongue-in-cheek ending, sees the Doctor escape, force a regeneration and live a self-imposed exile hiding from the Time Lords. Also, the Doctor is now a woman played by Arabella Weir.
It’s been six months since the Doctor slipped the Time Lord’s grasp. Under the pseudonym Susan Foreman; by day, she’s a Sainsburys trolley attendant. But by night, she’s a barfly, constantly off her newly-acquired tits on cheap lager and mistaking anyone dressed oddly for a Time Lord extraction team. When two Time Lords really do come looking for her, the Doctor is torn between an eternity of thoughtless oblivion…or a disintegration field. Her decision may surprise you, though not if (like me) you’ve ever worked at Sainsburys.
I’d be remiss not to mention that Arabella Weir has appeared in Doctor Who on TV. She played the harvest ranger Billis alongside Bill Bailey and Paul Bazely questioning Madge Arwell (played Claire Skinner). Toby Longworth has an impossibly long list of voice acting credits for Big Finish and Nick Briggs needs no introduction. Also David Tennant, I think he was an extra in one episode or something.
The Farce Show
It’s pretty clear from the very start that this story is not meant to be taken too seriously. If Nicholas Briggs’ disclaimer about Sainsburys car parks doesn’t tip you off, Tennant’s baffled “Oh shit!” should do it. To call it Doctor Who done as farce sounds like a criticism but it’s meant it in the best way. The characters are written and played over-the-top, particularly the Doctor’s drinking companions played hilariously by Hannah Smith and Jeremy James. The setup for an action-packed, albeit puerile, final showdown is built-up and then expertly cast aside.
Tennant and Longworth are terrific together as two high-ranking Time Lords who, like the Doctor, are trying to blend in. But since they lacked her experience with Earth, they make a right hash of it. The script spends most of the runtime as two separate storylines. One of the Doctor looking for alien incursions at every turn and another of the Time Lords failing to draw her out. It’s a little like a Road Runner cartoon in that sense. However, the chance to embrace the farcical nature and tying the two plotlines together comedically (i.e. each faction just missing the other one) isn’t taken. Though that kind of gag works best in visual mediums. Nevertheless, as script writer and director, Briggs seems to have delighted in the chance to make a totally off-piste Doctor Who story.
In fact, speaking to Blogtor Who editor Susan Hewitt last year, Briggs said of ‘Exile’…
“…We’d been doing Doctor Who, and repeating the format over and over again, and we felt, ‘Let’s do something new. Let’s break the rules and see how Doctor Who would work with all the rules broken’. So it is very much of its time, and I wouldn’t recommend it for younger listeners.”
The Madwoman with a Box
But, surprisingly, the Doctor goes through a really well-defined character arc in the midst of all the chaos and hangovers. We’ve had stories since the revival where the character has retired but finds himself ineluctably drawn back into being “The Doctor”. This take is very different and arguably more mature, giving the Doctor space to choose rather than slipping into old habits out of instinct. The final scene gives Weir a chance to play the Doctor with some real pathos, which only makes the ultimate punchline all the funnier!
When Jodie Whittaker was cast as the Thirteenth Doctor, the first woman to play the role as a TV series lead, some pointed to Exile (and this) as the real first outing of a non-male Doctor. But it’s not really a fair comparison since the basis of this play is not “What if the Doctor was a woman?”. Instead it’s “What if the Doctor had escaped the justice of the Time Lords?”. That the Doctor is a woman doesn’t affect the story at all.
That’s not to say just anyone could have been the lead. The script is most definitely suited to Weir’s unique comic timing. But to call this the first take on a female Doctor is missing the point, since she’s actively trying to not be the Doctor. If you’re expecting a full-blooded Doctor Who adventure with a woman as the Doctor, you’ll be disappointed. But for a funny, pantomime-style take on Doctor Who, with a woman in the title role, ‘Exile’ is definitely one to check out.
What if… the Doctor had escaped the justice of the Time Lords?
“They want to punish me for being me!”
All the Doctor has to do to avoid being caught by the Time Lords is work in a supermarket and go to the pub. It’s a cunning plan – certainly far less dangerous than fighting the dreaded Quarks and all those other alien fiends.
But just when everything seemed mundane and safe, alien transmissions, exploding poison gas, Princess Anne and wobbly trolleys burst onto the scene to ruin everything. It’s a crisis! A fiendish alien plot! And the Doctor must use all the resources at her disposal to defeat it.
She’ll probably need to have a large vodka first, though.
Written By: Nicholas Briggs
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs