As you’ve seen, we got our first female Doctor.
We are very very very happy about it.
Except, of course, there is another story, before that one, featuring a female Doctor. A Big Finish story, set in an alternate universe, as part of the Unbound range. Starring Arabella Weir and David Tennant. Written by Nicholas Briggs.
The worst Who story ever made.
A story so bad it deserves a sort of ritualistic sending-off – now that it is irrelevant, that it has truly been sent into the trashbin of history, it deserves a methological dissection and assassination.
We are obliged to provide. Even if it costs us our sanity. Scribbles, Tibby (who is discovering the story!) and special guest Janine Rivers are on the case.
Pray for their souls.
CONTENT WARNING – transphobia, sexism, discussions of suicide, self-harm and addiction.
SCRIBBLES: Really, from the cover, you get a sense of what will go wrong with this story. All the Unbounds are a different color, and this one’s pink. Because, you know, women, innit? Though I suppose the implications of “Sympathy for the Devil“‘s cover being yellow and set in Hong Kong are much worse… It’s just the crassest possible understanding of what it wants to be about, and that sums up the issues with the story. By trying to engage with serious stuff like a woman Doctor and depression and working life, it ends up becoming one of the most offensive disasters of Doctor Who. But hey, history’s got a new course now with Jodie Whittaker. So now this is just an antiquated punching bag. Let’s give it a start, shall we?
(Nicholas Briggs warns us that Sainsbury’s do not actually explode)
Ah, the good old Sainsbury’s disclaimer. Here we go into the hell.
TIBERE: What the fuck is that joke.
SCRIBBLES: It leads to a turd explosion plot.
TIBERE: Sounds like a metaphor for the episode … Oh, we’re talking cakes. I don’t want to hear Briggs talk about the way he likes to wet his biscuits.
(Time Lords talking)
SCRIBBLES: God, it’s surreal hearing Tennant in this.
TIBERE: Bad acting. Baaaaaaad acting.
SCRIBBLES: He’s above this material, really.
TIBERE: Not exactly elevating it either.
TIBERE: De-materialization is the new “NO NOT THE MIND PROBE”.
SCRIBBLES: Wait for the dog food bit, then Tennant really gets to play with the worst.
TIBERE: That’s two BF audios with dog food. I think “Corpse Day” is the less traumatizing.
JANINE: I’d rather eat dog food than listen to this one.
SCRIBBLES: The whole lesser races line reminds me, there’s probably an attempt to get comedy at how xenophobic the Time Lords are, but this audio unfortunately makes them look rather vindicated.
JANINE: I think as long as Big Finish fetishise the Time Lords (which they really do), they need to be more careful with that sort of thing. If you both adore the Time Lords and emphasise their xenophobia, you land yourself with an unfortunate subtext.
SCRIBBLES: Forget unfortunate subtext, this story’s outright unfortunate text.
TIBERE: “Theta Sigma”. Would you like some continuity wanking with your transphobia? And obligatory “daaaaamn the acting is bad”.
JANINE: “Oh shit.” Well, this reminds me of a YouTube comment I saw the other day saying that the Capaldi era’s use of mild swearing is the reason it’s “more mature” than previous eras. I’m starting to think Briggs was behind that account.
TIBERE; I’d like to think that was Tennant’s reaction to seeing the script, and that they just left it in the audio.
JANINE: Tennant wanted into the show real bad. This is the hour of “entertainment” where you get to see him selling his soul for a part in Doctor Who.
SCRIBBLES: Could there be a more fitting pre-titles line than David Tennant saying “Oh, shit”?
(We meet the Doctor)
TIBERE: Arabella Weir seems Doctor-ish enough.
SCRIBBLES: She is, she manages as much sympathy as possible for the character in spite of it all. But the story actively just slams her with the worst. For example, this introduction. Ah, the one scene where it seems like she’ll get to be like the Doctor, only to be revealed she’s working in Sainsbury’s digging out pound coins. And, of course, the sonic immediately goes to a vibrator joke.
TIBERE: BECAUSE NO ONE DID THAT BEFORE.
JANINE: I should add, there’s nothing wrong with working in Sainsbury’s. But that’s a story of its own. ‘The Doctor works in Sainsbury’s’ and ‘the Doctor is a woman’ are two potential Unbound premises that shouldn’t have gone together for obvious reasons.
TIBERE: It seems like they’re saying she works at Sainsbury’s because she’s a woman. “Back to the kitchen”. Basically.
JANINE: Is this what Nicholas Briggs images women are like, socially? Or in fact… is this what he images it’s like to be in the pub, socially, in general? This is like what a nine year-old would write if brief with a pitch like “write me a story about what grown-ups do”.
TIBERE: Cheese and Cherry. Sounds like a very bad combination. Like, I don’t know, raw meat and chocolate. Oh. He’s called Cheese because his beer tastes like cheese. What a joke!
SCRIBBLES: Cheese is just abominable as a character.
TIBERE: Burp count – 2.
SCRIBBLES: Amazing how much better drunk comedies Big Finish has done, like “The Revolution“. Here it’s burping and jokes about self-induced vomiting.
TIBERE: I just got my physical copy of “The Revolution“, today. I could be listening to that instead. Why am I like this, Scribbles? Why do I like pain?
JANINE: Is this woman the Doctor, or the Vicar of Dibley?
TIBERE: You’re getting too English there, Janine, I’m lost.
JANINE: Let’s just leave this audio then. Let’s group-watch The Vicar of Dibley. It’s a great show. Please? Please can we?
TIBERE: I’m up for it. Or even a live-comment of paint drying. That’d be fun.
SCRIBBLES: Her thinking the Master is staring at her and everyone else thinking she’s getting checked out is a fun beat. Done unpleasantly, but a fun idea.
TIBERE: I’ve lost the count of burps.
JANINE: And of course, it’s one of those stories where women are “birds”.
TIBERE: Would you like some sexism with your classism and transphobia? And three more burps. In a row! X2 points, congrats! You have found the secret of comedy, Briggs!
SCRIBBLES: Even Weir can’t manage the best line delivery when she’s burping through each one.
TIBERE: Venusian aikido. That’s mildly fun.
JANINE: “Ooh, you feeling a bit sicky babe?” This is, isn’t it? This is what Doctor Who’s saddest male fans think women are like.
TIBERE: And now we’ve reached the vomit!
SCRIBBLES: I nearly quoted that myself. It’s abominable. Now she’s puking all over the not-Master who thought she fancied him. Yikes. I mean, this isn’t a plot, it’s a series of vignettes that attempt at comedy and miss horribly, generally stumbling into something worse. I’ll give it credit, though, “trolleys are like Daleks without the interesting bits” is a fun way of juxtaposing real world struggles with Doctor Who adventures. There’s something that could be meaningful in this in that the most overwhelming adventure is day to day working class life, but it doesn’t go with it.
JANINE: I think a better story from that angle would have actually just been a series of vignettes, or scenes from different stories done with a female Doctor. No plot at all. A selection of writers, just experimenting for an hour. Nothing special, but fun. It could have been fun.
TIBERE: Annd one more burp. Wahee. And she sees her former self. It could be a powerful commentary on gender dysphoria. Except Briggs seems to believe becoming a woman is genuinely awful and loathsome. Aaaand another burp.
JANINE: How fitting is it that Briggs plays this Doctor? This is just an hour-long wank, isn’t it? “Look at how great a Doctor I’d be, better than any woman who’d ever try it”. I know. I’m never, ever, ever going to be offered a job at Big Finish now. But it’s fine, I’ve already infiltrated under the guise of “Janine H. Jones”.
SCRIBBLES: And he’s given the most cutting, depressive woman Doctor-related lines. He’s there to tell her how disgusting she is.
TIBERE: “The dreaded Quarks”. That actually sounds like something the man who wrote “Return of the Krotons” would say. Actually, seeing your past self in the mirror, isn’t that a “Power of the Daleks” reference? So much fanwank. You know, it’s weird Briggs has a son. Considering his apparent disgust of women, I’d kind of expect him to be gay …
SCRIBBLES: “Pay no heed to the one known as Cheese!” Yeah, I’d like to ignore all of this.
JANINE: The burps are getting closer together! They’re heading for a – oh, no… all over the mirror… no, that’s just gross, why would you do this.
SCRIBBLES: Oh, god, that vomiting sound effect makes me queasy. It’s realistic as hell. Of all the places to find realism…
TIBERE: MORE VOMIT! I LOVE VOMIT! VOMIT IS FUN! I WANNA BATHE IN PUKE!
JANINE: Did you know, they produced a Torchwood audio called ‘Uncanny Valley’, which features, basically, audio porn? This… is not “Uncanny Valley“.
SCRIBBLES: There’s outright porn in this year’s Toshiko audio.
JANINE: That’s a fab one. But they all seem fab now. Even “The Victorian Age” sounds like a masterpiece against this.
TIBERE: Oh, and in the list of Master aliases, they quote “Eric” and “Robert”. That is half funny. Half.
SCRIBBLES: Tragic that they don’t give us the story of the Doctor’s drunken one night stands with random men.
TIBERE: I’d love to have any Doctor’s list of one-night stands.
SCRIBBLES: Calling a woman with facial hair a bitch. This is such a pleasant take on gender, isn’t it?
TIBERE: Would you like some transphobia with your transphobia?
SCRIBBLES: I always thought it would be a lot of fun to explore Time Lords as refugees on Earth, trying to blend in, badly. A bit like wizards trying to be muggles in Harry Potter. But here, it really doesn’t work.
JANINE: To do that sort of story – which is a less problematic version of the “comedy foreigner” stock character – you need characters who are a bit lovable. They can be flawed in many ways, but at the end of the day, you have to enjoy them. You have to think they’re sweet. A bit like Elf – he’s an irritating sod, but you want him to be embraced by others, you want more people to think like him about the world. Their worldview has to be quaint in its bizarreness. These Time Lords are too abhorrent for that to land here.
TIBERE: Oh, another male authority figure shitting on her. Metaphorically, I mean. It seems to make sense that it would be metaphorical, but it’s better to warn people, I think. Considering the audio we’re talking about.
SCRIBBLES: Oh, here we go into the Princess Anne plot. God, that’s a dated, aimless joke.
TIBERE: Is it bad if I’m relieved they didn’t make a lesbian joke after talking about “big scissors”?
SCRIBBLES: We are on the lowest rung of entertainment. One can expect anything.
TIBERE: I’m almost expecting a Ian Levine cameo. Or the Abzorbaloff to show up in a tutu and sing “Deutschland Uber Alles”.
JANINE: Did you not hear? Ian Levine has entered a fugue state. He has escaped from reality, and is now imagining himself reliving this audio, over and over again, because the truth is too painful to live with.
TIBERE: I hope he never escapes this dimension, being constantly tormented by Furies and their “Vagendas of Manocide”.
SCRIBBLES: The real protagonist of this story is the unseen woman with facial hair who screwed these Time Lords over. I’m rooting for her and the Doctor to team up and ditch everything. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this before…
JANINE: This reminds me a lot of some really sharp feminists satires about overthrowing the patriarchy because they’re too stupid to actually sustain themselves. Except it isn’t a feminist satire. It plays the tropes straight… and then it keeps playing them straight. The sexism is never undercut, the sins are never called out, the true ideology is never uncovered. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across something like this before.
SCRIBBLES: It’s mired in unpleasantness and stereotypes. “Are we going to mug an old lady?” I’ll admit, I laughed at that one, but it’s reductive as it all. Tennant is too good for this story, but damn, he brings a vague degree of being listenable. Oh, and here we go, turd explosion.
TIBERE: “Unpleasant gases”. Fascinating.
SCRIBBLES: Gotta give the story credit, though, the conversation between Cherrie and the Doctor about working class life being like a hamster running in a wheel really works. There’s an interesting idea at the core of this, using the Doctor to explore depression and midlife crisis and disillusionment. But it generally undercuts it. Still, that is a good scene. I get the sense that’s the story this wants to be about, and one person I know who actually enjoy this story likes it for that. But this thing just dodges it as much as it can. For example, we’re right back into the fecal matter incidents after that.
JANINE: Really, the story itself is just a hamster running in a wheel. It has this vision of what’s ahead of it, of where it wants to go, but it keeps going round… and round… and round… and then when it leaves the wheel you realise that it’s done a few shits in there for good measure.
TIBERE: Yeah, that scene almost works. I mean, it sounds like there is a plot for a bit. That’s a nice feeling. A story. Themes. Ideas. Wit … Oh god wit … Sorry wit. You’re dead. You’re buried. And now Cheese is back. Well that is fascinating. Surprised they didn’t do a “cheesy” joke. Now they’re talking about the dumping grounds below the supermarket. Where there is, according to Cheese, “pooey stuff”. I’m betting they’re gonna put the TARDIS is there to make a “witty” Unearthly Child reference.
SCRIBBLES: “I think that hamster’s running in your head, Doc.” Oh, it’s trying, bless it. It’s trying to dig itself up like those toxic shit fumes in the car park that it devotes so much time to explaining. But instead, we get it falling on the lowest quality, crassest material, full of unpleasant comments at everything. And from shit, we go to eating dog food. I feel like that sums up how this story fails.
TIBERE: Aaaah, the dog food. Wonderful. CIA and dog food. Fascinating. Oh, and there’s a good joke about the Time Lords just loving to sit around in robes and be pompous. Okay. I’ll take that.
JANINE: I really think at this stage that there should have been two stories. The story of the first female Doctor – preferably written by someone competent (when was this, 2002? Even Moffat would have been up for that, probably) – and the story of Time Lords, maybe the Doctor included, failing to live as a human being on Earth. Those two stories are utterly irreconcilable. There are so many problems telling both at the same time.
TIBERE: Worse thing is, they have good female writers at BF! Like, Jacqueline Rayner is fucking amazing, why not her? Una McCormack? Lisa Bowerman, even?
SCRIBBLES: Kate Orman, if we wanna get unrealistic in a beautiful way.
JANINE: Lisa Bowerman as the Doctor, writing and directing, with a guest appearance from Bernice Summerfield.
SCRIBBLES: But yeah, splitting the stories would have been good. The depression story in real world crassness could be a functional juxtaposition, but not with all the cringey comedy being pointed toward the gender change.
TIBERE: And more Cheese drunkness .They’re talking about the different sort of alcohol they might drink. I am fascinated as fuck right now. I can taste the interest oozing from every second of this story, the care and talent and beauty literally flowing into my face like a deep hot flow of lovely vomit with chunky bits.
JANINE: We’re even at the point where the acting is unsalvageable. Tennant has his moments, and Weir is quite good, but otherwise this is pretty awful stuff.
TIBERE: Cheese is the worst.
SCRIBBLES: The whole rubber mask plot is just idiotic. It’s not enjoyable meta, it’s just laughing that Doctor Who could be naff. We know, that’s part of the charm. Some great stories have been about that, like “The Grel Escape“. This not so much. I’m pretty sure this whole broadcast intrusion plot is a reference to the Max Headroom incident. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cycVTXtm0U0 It’s fairly infamous and a cool in-joke that could make for a better story.
JANINE: Composer hat on: the music is poor too. But then, I’d hate to have scored an episode like this.
TIBERE: Two more burps! Dammit. So many burps. They have just tried vodka. I feel compelled to join them at this point. And I fucking hate vodka.
SCRIBBLES: The maximum of this audio’s intelligence: cutting from Tennant burning his mouth to vodka burning Weir’s. And now we’re off to porn.
TIBERE: Well, it’s meta, a bit? ‘Cause that audio lets a shitty taste in the mouth as well.
SCRIBBLES: And suggests porn is preferable?
TIBERE: Porn lets a pretty nice taste in the mouth, usually.
JANINE: Let’s just live-comment on porn instead. Any recommendations?
TIBERE: I think there are some pretty good porn parodies of DW. “Doctor Whore”, for instance. With the Doctor turning into a woman and screwing Martha and Jack at the end.
JANINE: I don’t understand. Why does the Doctor have to be a woman to screw Jack?
TIBERE: And Martha! Also, a woman of colour. I think it’s pretty nice.
JANINE: I’ll finish working my way through Big Finish first, thanks…
TIBERE: It features the line “let your angel weep on my face”. It’s funnier than anything in Exile.
SCRIBBLES: “You feeling a bit sicky again, love?” Ooh, here we go. And a clever cut by matching topics again, this time going from that to Tennant complaining about how disgusting the food is, which probably makes him feel a bit sicky, too.
TIBERE: Tennant sounds very very bored. And confused. I’m not talking about his character. He just seems to be … “Uh. Okay. So … That is … Yeah …”
SCRIBBLES: And yet his delivery is the most natural sounding thing in this, still. Perhaps because of that.
TIBERE: They’re calling the Doctor a “he”. They know about her situation, or do they misgender her on purpose?
SCRIBBLES: Yep. We’re getting closer to the worst, most offensive bits now, but that’s a lovely taste of what’s to come. Which, like the Time Lord duo’s spoonfuls of lard and burnt beans, is not a nice taste.
TIBERE: Snoring. I’ll take it over the burping.
SCRIBBLES: “It’s that hamster again! I need another drink.” Well, it’s trying. And then it runs off to the alcohol again. I’m not sure if it’s the Doctor drinking to avoid her problems, or the script. Every time it dares to touch on that relevant story of human numbness it dives away into a crass drinking comedy.
TIBERE: The hamster gag is the high point of the story, really. It reminds me of my pet hamster back in the days. He was called Galant. He escaped his cage and my cat ate him. It’s a far more interesting story than “Exile“.
JANINE: I had a hamster who used to escape every night and we had no idea he was doing it. Renegade hamsters. There’s an Unbound story I need.
TIBERE: Ooooh, and we’re back to Mr. Transphobia. And of course, it introduces the stupidest thing, that a sex change regeneration comes from a suicide. This is like an inception of offensive. This is just … Wretched. Fuck you, Briggs.
JANINE: Did you know fans are still barking on about that? That you can only change gender if you commit suicide? It’s disgusting. And it’s everything that’s awful about ‘canon’ and ‘continuity’. Those ideas harm this show and they harm its fanbase.
TIBERE: Yeah, I’ve seen people bring it up in relation to Missy and the Master in TDF. She kills her former self and that turns him into a woman.
JANINE: It also has a really unfortunate transgender subtext, with the high rates of suicide and suicide attempts within the transgender community. What’s worse is that this is a comedy. That’s not cool. You don’t joke about stuff like that, and you certainly don’t do so in way which vilifies that particular community. It’s so, so gross.
SCRIBBLES: I still see people speculate whether that “rule” holds and hate every moment. Like you say, it’s too hard hitting an area played off as a light nothingness. Oh, hell, this is the worst bit, or one of them. “I’m a man of action trapped inside the body of a drunken woman!” Yuck. And the whole suicide explanation. Bloody awful. “Pull yourself together man! I mean, woman!” Damn, this story really thinks it’s as funny as it gets, and it’s horrific. Really, truly offensive.
JANINE: I just like to remember that it’s part of the Unbound series. Even if you do buy into this canon fad, it’s still not technically part of Doctor Who continuity. And, interestingly, I don’t see the same fans jumping to the defense of Shearman’s Unbound: Deadline.
TIBERE: Really, it says so much that Briggs cast himself as the Doctor. And not good. It just gives him an image of a megalomaniac obsessed with continuity and wanting to keep Who a little white, straight male island. Which you know, when you know Big Finish has had a Nazi companion before one of colour … Is … Just … Not great …
SCRIBBLES: I get a bit of a sense of an intended juxtaposition here. Trying to cross the suffering of these Time Lords trying to fit into human society with Weir’s Doctor, exploring the disillusionment of the real world and the need to cling to science fiction to get beyond that, arguing for the power of Doctor Who. But instead its very existence is like a cancer, and it devours itself in a seek to destroy everything the narrative is. The ending is the final note on that, as you’ll see soon. This is a story bent on its own destruction.
TIBERE: I mean, I get it’s the Time Lords who say that and that we’re not supposed to give it to much attention, but there’s really a colossal amount of contempt in here towards working class. I mean, I guess it can be a danger of Who’s premise, but the writers are generally good at avoiding it. You know, the chips scene in “Parting of Ways” with Mickey’s line about “that’s what the rest of us do!”. Here it just feels like Briggs is condescending to all of those poor little people that don’t have the chance to travel the stars. “You poor proles who don’t get Doctor Who, keep being miserable and drink yourself to death, that’s all you deserve.”
JANINE: Compare this to something like “Retail Therapy“. In that audio, Goss uses more intimate situations to explore Jackie’s concerns as a working-class woman. It takes the class tensions from within Doctor Who and interrogates them in brave and inventive ways. It’s possible to do.
SCRIBBLES: And my understanding is, this story was written from a position of sympathy for someone close to Briggs who was struggling with this, and with him in a dark place himself. Or so I’ve heard one person argue. At best, I guess, this is Briggs’ own struggling with this kind of oppressive state, but instead of, like “Retail Therapy“, finding grace there, it finds numbing destruction and emptiness. And the Princess Anne jokes continue to utterly miss the mark. Which goes without saying, but I just thought I’d mention it.
TIBERE: Oh, the Old Doctor in the vodka bottle. DID YOU GET THAT THE WEIR DOCTOR IS AN ALCOHOLIC?! ADDICTION IS FUNNY PEOPLE?! LOL! LAUGH!!!! LAUGH NOW! WOMAN ARE FUNNY! DEPRESSION IS FUNNY! POOR PEOPLE ARE FUNNY! ARE WE NOT HILARIOUS!
SCRIBBLES: The Briggs Doctor’s comment about her killing herself again with alcohol poisoning to become a man again is deeply offensive in every conceivable way.
JANINE: Okay, a longer comment: I want to talk about alcoholism. And I want to talk about it because… as far as I’m aware, I’m the only person here who has actually struggled with alcohol dependency before, and in response to a trauma (which you could argue is sort of happening here). So for a story that’s already taking misogynistic shots at me, I feel like throwing up (they’re already providing the sound FX too!). The fact is, this isn’t a story about a woman struggling with alcohol addiction, where the writer sympathises with that struggle – it’s a chance to point and laugh at her. Haha, look at that stupid cow, unable to go a single night without getting pissed off her head. And in another way, very much not laughing – it’s about being angry with her too: how dare the Doctor become a woman, and how dare she drink instead of saving aliens? There is no sympathy for her, no acknowledgement that this is a sign of a serious mental illness, or a serious addiction, or a cycle she can’t escape from. It’s… ugh.
SCRIBBLES: Weir’s doing such a good attempt at finding the grace in her character, hitting the melancholy feeling at the heart of this story it so desperately wants to be. Going off my comment earlier about how the story keeps dodging these things to do dodgy comedy, I have to wonder, was that a defense mechanism for Briggs rather than face the darkness of life head-on? I dunno, this story hits such a clear low, all I can do is wonder about the mental health of the writer at the time.
JANINE: I keep imagining something a bit different – one of these dudebros joking around about how he wants to “offend as many people as possible”, attacking women and alcoholics and trans people and the working-class and everyone he can think of. But you know, I think it might not be that – I think Briggs might just be a decent guy who was in a bad place and severely misfired. That sort of thing happens, occasionally. It’s a shame he never owned up to it.
TIBERE: Freaking Judi Dench couldn’t salvage this. Worst thing, it’s not even Briggs’ brand of unbearable laziness. He just decides to be freaking awful. And it’s a conscious decision. It’s not a story that tries to hide its prejudice and shitty ideas and politics. It takes pride in it. It’s someone being bigoted and proud, like some kind of young Kek-branded racist with a MAGA hat. And I agree with you, Janine, I don’t think Briggs is a bad person or anything. But … damn. This is a scar on his reputation that will not fade, ever.
SCRIBBLES: Weir’s goodbye to Cherrie and Cheese nearly manages to salvage itself as a beat. Her resolving to be herself and be the Doctor, giving advice to get out of that trapped world she’s shared with them, but no. We go into a different final scene, the horrible village ending where the story destroys itself and any grace it had.
TIBERE: “I’ve been getting drunk every night since I was fourteen!”. Oh, fuck this. Don’t play a teenager getting shitfaced every night as a joke! What the fuck is wrong with you, Briggs?!
JANINE: “Face it Doctor, you’re lost”. Wait… did they just make a joke about a woman getting lost on the way to the TARDIS? Did they really just go there? At least there’s nothing about her parking the TARDIS badly, but still…
SCRIBBLES: Oh, hell, I can’t believe I missed that. That’s dreadful. Oh god, and now here’s the dumbest alcohol joke of the lot coming up. Speckled bloody Goat. We gotta have one last scene about drinking awful tasting substances.
TIBERE: Pirates. Why are there pirates. I don’t understand. I just want a hug. And booze.
JANINE: Oh Tibere, they’re not pirates, they’re just from the West Country. Well, the actors probably aren’t.
TIBERE: What the fuck is the West Country? Who is Old Joe? Why am I listening to this?!
JANINE: There’s something quite uniquely satisfying about being the only woman and the only English person during a live commentary on “Exile“.
SCRIBBLES: This feels like a dreadful joke at the expense of country people, West Country if you’re right. Guessing they’re seen as more uneducated and lower class?
JANINE: Well… I think it’s the West Country. I’m now doubting myself, because the voices don’t sound right. I think it’s basically “generic farmer voice” (which is almost certainly what the script said, I’m sure it didn’t specify Devonshire), and yes Scribbles, they’re seen as being less educated. In terms of accent and dialect, we’re really, really bad at representation in this country. Try finding, for instance, a serious and believable character from Birmingham. There’s one out there somewhere, but it’s not easy.
TIBERE: “Speckled Goat”. I’m relieved they didn’t make a goat-fucker joke, honestly.
SCRIBBLES: Still calling the Doctor him even when they realize what’s happened to her. Seriously. God dammit.
TIBERE: AND TWO MORE BURPS! YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAS! I LOVE BURPS! BURPS ARE FUN! BURP BURP BURP! BURPY BURP! See! I’m funny! Laugh! God, I’ll never shit-talk the Slitheen stories ever again …
SCRIBBLES: Oh, hell, here we go, right toward the conclusion. The worst bit of the lot in my mind.
TIBERE: Are they implying that she committed suicide just to change sex and hide, too? Well that’s … Offensive as fuck.
SCRIBBLES: Yes. She changed gender to be something other than the Doctor. It’s absolutely horrific. A woman as the antithesis to the Doctor, “sex-change” as a denial of the real self, all that crap with suicide…
TIBERE: Because people who commit suicide do it knowing they will keep on living and for very practical reasons. Fuck you, Briggs.
JANINE: With all the trans people unhappy with their bodies and considering suicide, this isn’t just a shitty message, it’s dangerous. “Kill yourself and you might become a woman”. I mean… holy hell. Why does this thing not contain trigger warnings? I know people who would have really struggled listening to this, in a far heavier sense than we’ve struggled.
SCRIBBLES: Instead, Big Finish plugged it after the Whittaker announcement. It’s the skeeviest way of taking advantage of a successful step forward as a society to sell offensive old trash that need be forgot.
TIBERE: Like, the problem is not just that “Exile” exists, it’s the fact that apparently no one involved regrets it or apologized for it. It’s fucking shameful. Nope, they just spit it back when we do get a female Doctor. It’s nothing to be proud of … Oh, eh, Tennant just went “weeeeeeeell …”. Reminds me of better stories. It’s a nice feeling. One more burp. Yay.
SCRIBBLES: And they’re going on about how embarrassing and disgusting sex change is before calling it nothing personal. Seriously, dear god that is dangerous and offensive. It’s absolutely personal, absolutely toxic, and absolutely cruel and cowardly.
JANINE: It’s almost a satire. Almost. But it’s way too on-the-nose. You don’t write satire when it’s going to make people self-harm at the end.
TIBERE: You’re right, really – this is not just bad and offensive, it’s actively dangerous. I can see that story doing harm. I can see someone harming themselves or committing suicide over this. It’s … baffling. And honestly, infuriating.
SCRIBBLES: Here’s my least favorite quote. “Doctor, you have been found guilty of crimes against the laws of time and Time Lord decency. You stole a TARDIS and interfered in the affairs of others, but worst of all, you had a sex-change regeneration.” It does not get worse than that. It really doesn’t.
JANINE: Is it meant to be a joke? It’s meant to be a joke, right? Right? But even if it is – even if it’s laughing at Time Lord society for being backwards and dumb – it still creates irreparable damage. The Time Lords are transphobic and in the minds of some fans will always be transphobic. And a lot of those fans will take the Time Lords as the mouthpiece of the show, or they’ll miss the fact that it’s a joke – and I’m not even sure it’s a joke myself – and yeah, that’s when you end up with fans doing and saying awful, awful things.
SCRIBBLES: It has to be a joke attempt, but it comes out horribly. Particularly given the direction this ending takes, which validates them, not her. Seriously, it’s basically her being coerced into suicide. The final note in the repulsive thematic arc of this story is to destroy its grace and good in Weir and to vindicate the Time Lords with success.
TIBERE: The worst way is how they follow that line with a dumb joke about not being any guards. They … So not realize their own bigotry, don’t they? If you’re going to be this awful, at the very least be honest about it! Don’t disguise your fucking abominable views under a thin layer of shitty jokes!
JANINE: The music now is just a slow, generic synth rendition of the main theme. The composer must have got so bored that they couldn’t even write new pieces. Don’t blame them. (You’re about to tell me that Briggs did the music, aren’t you?)
SCRIBBLES: Here we go, her off to die at the hands of David Tennant, and it’s played off as a joke. Cue credits. Seriously, screw all of that.
JANINE: It’s almost fitting. Almost. It seems perversely on-point, in a very prophetic sense, that Tennant is the one who sentences a female Doctor to death. Because, of course, it’s his era that’s helped to breed a whole new generation of anti-female Doctor fans. It’s not solely responsible – and it’s in no way, shape or form the fault of Russell T Davies – but a hell of a lot of mainstream viewers are pushing the narrative that the show went downhill after David Tennant and Jodie Whittaker is the final nail in the coffin (specifically, a hell of a lot of women on my Facebook. They were my friends).
SCRIBBLES: Really, “Exile” is a vital artifact of history. Just the worst possible one. It shows everything toxic and destructive about Doctor Who, fandom, and much of society as a whole. At best, it’s a dragon for the Thirteenth Doctor to slay. At worst, it’s a signifier of the darkest and still prevailing sides of fandom and a call to arms for them against progressive change. It’s the counterpoint all Doctor Who needs to define itself against, in my eyes, the absolute nadir the series can and will ever produce. I hate it all, but also almost feel like it’s needed. Though, given, as mentioned before, it could probably drive someone to suicide, no, that’s never needed…
JANINE: I want to return to what you said earlier, both of you, about how they should have apologised for this and that they’re actually still promoting it. For the record, I don’t hate Nicholas Briggs. Though he’s written a lot of crap, he’s also done some decent stories (“Blue Forgotten Planet” is lovely, “The Enigma Dimension” is the best John Hurt story Big Finish did). And I don’t know if you knew this, but he’s been passionately defending Jodie Whittaker on Twitter and it’s really, really lovely. Good for him. I’ve heard good things about him as a person, everyone seems to enjoy working with him – so I want to be specific about my anger here. I’m not going to throw bricks through the guy’s window. This was a singular mistake, but it’s still a lingering problem.
SCRIBBLES: Briggs can be wonderful, and he certainly seems like a perfectly decent guy. Same with Tennant, and all the rest involved in this. That’s really what makes this all so horrible. It’s not like, say, “Nekromanteia“, a story by a writer who has never returned and that is gleefully rejected by everyone. This is a story that’s by people still vital to the current landscape of Doctor Who, and, like you say, doing wonderful, positive things for it and supporting Jodie Whittaker. And they produced this, without public apology or trying to put out disclaimers or any of that. Instead, “Exile” gets plugged. It’s disturbing, the dissonance around it. That nobody seems to want to admit the problem.
JANINE: The thing that bothers me is that they haven’t apologised for this. Okay, so, maybe that would be seen as harmful to the company, fine, don’t issue an apology. How about trigger warnings? No, that’s against policy, right, okay… how about you just get rid of the damn thing then? But I suppose the fans wouldn’t let it drop, so that’s pointless anyway. So let’s forgive all of that – which I’m not very happy to do anyway – let’s just look at the least they could do to apologise for producing this. And that’s to just leave it be. But no, they don’t. They dig it up like they’re proud of this shit.
SCRIBBLES: They have warnings for other audios! The Torchwood ones pretty much unanimously have a warning for difficult adult content. The shocking thing is that nobody thinks any of that is necessary for this, when nothing Torchwood offers, even Corpse Day, cuts this deep.
TIBERE: I don’t think they even get why or how this is offensive. Which is … Terrifying, honestly. Ignorance is just as harmful as active bigotry, and this is about the most ignorant, prejudiced story I can think of.
JANINE: In the end, this is where I struggle to give money to Big Finish. It’s everything that’s always appalled me about it – and let me be fair here, it’s not that I’m specifically appalled by Big Finish as a company. They do a lot of good, on the whole (a story about domestic abuse and their first transgender writer and actress, over the last year). But I’ve been finding this flavour of Doctor Who more and more problematic recently. It’s a consumerist vision of Doctor Who that I’m not happy with, because I don’t think Doctor Who should ever make that move towards consumerism. You could say it’s already that, and I think to an extent it is – it’s part of a public service, which we pay for over here in Britain, so we have certain expectations and we expect our license fee to go towards good television. But the issue with making material like this is that it becomes a pedantic and spiteful game of obtaining licenses and chasing copyright laws. It means that a fan like Briggs can come along and get the right license, make stuff like this, and it’s considered as being sacrosanct by fans. His interpretation of Doctor Who is considered as infinitely superior to another fan’s interpretation because he’s got his fingers in lots pies, he’s got his own company, and he’s legally allowed to sell it. That doesn’t seem in the spirit of Doctor Who to me.
TIBERE: That’s where I put some mandatory “To the Death” hate, right? But yes, absolutely agreed. It’s not too much of an issue when Big Finish purposefully positions itself as secondary to the TV show, as almost an analysis and commentary on it – like Doom Coalition, which is very much Classic Who aesthetics put through a New Who prism. And it wasn’t an issue when they were this weird oddity doing some experimental storytelling during the wilderness year. But it becomes a huge one when the vision of the show they promote is in complete and utter opposition to the ideals of the show. The show has had two major companions of colour, including a lesbian – Big Finish has only had a white woman pretending to be Middle Eastern. The show has rejected cheap “death and consequences, GoT-like storytelling, Big Finish made “To the Death”. The TV show brings back Rona Munro, Big Finish brings back fucking Marc Platt, despite him having never written a single good story in his entire Who carrier. Independently of the political positions of those that provide that content – because, as you said, a lot of them are relatively progressive, left-leaning people, there is something inherently conservative about BF. Their very being came from 80’s and 90’s fan clubs, from a select bunch of very white guys and very white gays hanging around and worshipping the show. And even at their most progressive, they still have to put out content that reflect this epoch and ideas. You have Torchwood, but also the Fourth Doctor Adventures. It’s an incredibly schizoid position to be in. And it’s an incredibly problematic one. Because sometimes, this passive conservatism, this unproductive nostalgia, comes back to the surface and explodes – like in this.
SCRIBBLES: I can accept Big Finish as a side commodity, premium fanservice for fans who want to explore beyond the televised series. Maybe that’s just the American in me blinded by capitalism gone wild and used to the idea. But I can’t accept something as destructive and horrible as this being sold as a fanservice commodity, just business. That’s horrific. But of course, you’re right. Doctor Who has no limits, no official boundaries. I’m glad Big Finish does open up a little with things like the short trip competition. But it should be a place for new talent to gather and explore with fan support. At its best, it does that. Torchwood has been a wonderful range, for example, digging into new talent and new horizons and beautiful sides of fandom. That’s Big Finish at its best for me. At its worst, it does “Exile“.
JANINE: And Exile teaches us about that danger: that capitalism dictates what’s considered ‘real Doctor Who’. Maybe we should accept Big Finish’s authority (I don’t think we should, but maybe there’s an argument for it) – but in which case, Big Finish need to accept their own responsibility, if they’re going to be responsible in part for this series.
SCRIBBLES: I think they’ve been getting better at it. Ideologically, Big Finish has been changing to match the televised series, exploring things like, topically, gender change quite more widely and freely in recent years in positive ways. But they’re nearly always going to be a step behind as a result. And that lags. Furthermore, given how long they existed without the shadow of the new series, there are skeletons in the closet still sold alongside modern triumphs. I suppose this explains why I’m always on edge when a fan posits that Big Finish is so superior to the new series, so much more daring and exciting and high quality. It’s not. Of course it isn’t. Big Finish currently exists in a lovely supplementary niche. But the people who argue for its superiority, to me, are very politically charged in an unpleasant way. It’s aspiring for a return to Big Finish as free to explore political positions and narrative directions that the new series has successfully rejected with good reason. It’s inherently a reactionary fan impulse, and that scares me far more than Big Finish as the company themselves, who have grown a lot. They may foster that space in the shadows of the past, but they are not that space. Some merely want them to be.
TIBERE: I think that, at the end of the day, what truly defines Who is its constant reinvention, this ability it has to shed its skin and be reborn every few year, hell every series – every episode, really. I don’t like all of what the show did, far from it, but I think even in eras I’m not enjoying much, like, I don’t know, Colin Baker’s, or the tail end of Tennant’s run, there is a sort of value, there is a show trying to tread new ground and do new things. Big Finish is a strong complement to the TV show, but it can’t ever be better than the TV show, or even like the TV show, because it is fundamentally defined by its connection to it. It is a secondary text, to get all critical theory-esque. It’s not what you’d call fanfiction either, be it only because it is wholly acknowledge and is part of the Who brand. But it cannot exactly exist in the same space as the show – and the problem is, “Exile” tries to. “Exile” tries to make a statement about one of the biggest, most long-lasting ideological issues in the world of Who – the very idea is mean-spirited, in a way. It feels like reactionaries trying to make a tree fall on the tracks of the TV show. And that kind of wound doesn’t go away easily. I’m not saying Big Finish can just change their business model like that, or that they should. But I feel like they have a duty to have more principles, and to live and work by those. Because as it stands out, you two are spot on – Big Finish is a machine that produces content. It’s not a dig against them, because that content, in a lot of case, is pretty damn good. But even if it’s not good, it sometimes seem like they don’t care. Content is its own justification. Adding more stories to the oh so crucial canon is its own justification. Prolonging every single thread of the show is its own justification. The only thing I can ask them is to try to apply the values of the TV show they effectively curate. To examine critically their stories, to wonder if this story or that one is worth to exist, to ask themselves how they can best use their space and their platform. Because really, “Exile”, and that’s the worst part, is just a joke. It’s a bad, shitty joke someone drunk tells you at 2 am in a pub. But in the logic of content production, if you see an opportunity to make money out of something, well, you do it, don’t you? And you shouldn’t. I think it’s no coincidence that some of the best stuff BF ever did has them being very, or entirely, independent from the show. Bernice Summerfield, Vienna, that kind of things. Because when you have to really craft something, you can center it around ideas, and principles, and a core drive. If you don’t have those, “Exile” is the logical endpoint. If every avenue of storytelling, even those that bring nothing or are actively harmful, is pursued, of course you are going to end up with this. I hope they can learn from their mistakes, and really, there are positive signs for the future (be it only, finally, the casting of a woman of colour as a companion in the upcoming Time War range!). But I think making positive changes is not enough – you also need to face your mistakes, and owe up to them. You need to exorcise “Exile“, so to speak. Which is the whole purpose of this little exercise we’re doing here, by the way – it shouldn’t be forgotten. If we are to ask better of BF, it’s a memory that is worth keeping around, as a reminder of the worst of the worst, and as an incarnation of every systemic problem the company faces.
JANINE: I think they’ve benefited, ideologically, from a lot of the new talent, and I think Briggs himself has grown up an awful lot since he made this. As you say, they’re progressing, and although fans tend to glorify the early days of Big Finish, the newer stuff is probably far more admirable from a political standpoint. But the basic ugliness of Doctor Who as a pure commodity resurfaces in situations like this. I’m not actually surprised that they used the Jodie Whittaker announcement to plug “Exile” at all – that’s what you’d expect of consumerist Doctor Who. The TV series has made a decision to produce stories with a female Doctor. Big Finish, a company, are responding by saying: “we’ve made a product which matches this description, and we can sell it to you”. In the end, they’ll always see their endeavour as making a product to demand and profiting from it. Do I blame them? No, of course not, that’s what they have to do. But that doesn’t stop it being ugly. And I think this particular occurrence, using something so great and so progressive to sell a product which is offensive and dangerous, with no content warnings – I think that is blameworthy, and I think that was avoidable. This happened once. It shouldn’t have happened again.
UPDATE 24 AUGUST 2017: Nicholas Briggs has made a relevant statement regarding “Exile” in Doctor Who Magazine.
“I think I made a lot of bad decisions on that. At the time I thought, ‘I don’t want to do the “typical” thing, which is just to do a Doctor who is female and just does Doctor-y things. […] It was appalling, really. I’m quite ashamed of it… It feels like it was from another era. I would never wish anyone to judge me on all those ill-made decisions.
“And it’s such a shame, is it not, that we didn’t do a really good female Doctor who we could have written further adventures for, like we did with David Warner. I’ve regretted that for quite some time.”
We greatly appreciate his apology and, in light of the steps forward it is time to celebrate, are entirely willing to forgive.