Doctor Who Unbound – Sympathy for the Devil
The Unbound series of Big Finish’ Doctor Who audio adventures is an impressive what if scenario that takes the legacy of the series in different directions with new actors playing the Doctor, such as David Collings, Derek Jacobi, Arabella Weir, Geoffrey Bayldon (once up for the part) and David Warner. It’s a great idea and opens the door to new interpretations of the classic series while giving fans the opportunity to hear new actors playing the Doctor.
Sympathy for the Devil is set in 1997 Hong Kong on an alternate Earth where the U.N.I.T. fought the numerous threats from space and beneath the planet with the aid of the Doctor. Discredited, Lethbridge-Stewart runs a seedy pub that appeals to the few remaining British subjects milling about on the even of Hong Kong’s independence. The Doctor arrives just as a stealth plane crash-lands bearing a British scientist who had betrayed secrets to the Russians. In actuality, it is the Master who has been meddling with the humans during his exile.
The plot meanders about with soul jars, zombie soldiers, the Keller Machine from Mind of Evil and a monastery under siege but the real charm of the piece lies in the interaction between David Warner as the Doctor and Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart. The script often gets far too fan-ish, dropping in references to other programs such as the Doctor complaining that his shoes don’t fit but to be honest only a die-hard fan of the program would be interested in this audio, so that’s kind of fitting.
The plot itself never really comes together for some reason and by the time Mark Gatiss appears as the regenerated Master, it’s all a bit strange. Personally I’m a fan of Gatiss and enjoy his work on these productions so I was keen to hear his take on the classic Master. To be fair, it is a bit too camp, but when compared to John Simm, he’s on par with Derek Jacobi. When the Master and Doctor finally have a battle of wills, it’s more of a histrionic bitching session than a confrontation of equals. The Doctor gets called out for not being where he’s needed like some deadbeat parent. This murders the slick devilish persona that Gatiss was shooting for, unfortunately.
As an author, Clements is more well known for his contribution toward the study of manga, but he also wrote the Big Finish 2000 AD audio adventure Strontium Dog. His script here is a mish-mash of good and bad. He perfectly nails many key components of Classic Doctor Who and creates a strange modern slant on the Third Doctor channeled through David Warner, but the story lacks any real content. The real attraction here is the variation from the accepted continuity and how the world went wrong without the Doctor serving with U.N.I.T. throughout the 1960′s. That in itself is very interesting, but… that’s it.
Throughout Sympathy for the Devil, there are references to televised adventures gone wrong such as Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Ambassadors of Death. It’s all very thrilling until you realize that there are these exciting stories that happened in the past while you’re stuck in this rather mediocre one. Everything cool is off-screen (or the audio equivalent).
Playing Lethbridge-Stewart’s replacement, Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood, is one-time Doctor Who, David Tenant. A big fan of science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular, Tennant has starred in several Big Finish Productions with similarly poor results as he is not a great choice for voice acting. On screen, Tennant has a habit of screeching his lines and going over the top. In audio format, he is a full blown disaster, shouting nearly every line of dialog. This is even more painful to experience as many of his shouty lines are delivered to elder statesman actors Warner and Courtney who both sound magnificent. It makes Tennant out to be a maniac.
Despite my negative criticism I do recommend Sympathy for the Devil if only for the performances from Warner and Courtney. Luckily a sequel was also recorded, reuniting the pair in an adventure against the Daleks… but that’s another story.