Image Credit: Adapted from Hazel Nicholson (CC BY 2.0, Flickr)
Image Description: A picture of Sainsbury’s, with Exile’s cover inset
James Ashworth asks whether Big Finish’s Exile, starring Arabella Weir, really is the worst Doctor Who audio ever made
With Jodie Whittaker on our screens as the first official woman Doctor, many have been looking back at other takes on a female Doctor. With Joanna Lumley’s turn perhaps the most memorable, back in The Curse of Fatal Death (1999), it’s time to look back on the attempt its creators would rather we just forgot. Exile, starring Arabella Weir, was produced back in 2003 as part of Big Finish’s Unbound Range, where writers are allowed to explore a ‘What If?’ approach to the Doctor’s life. It sought to explore what happened if the Doctor had escaped the Time Lords at the end of The War Games (1969).
‘I just made it up as a bit of a joke at the time really because it is a fairly humorous episode.’
So said Nicholas Briggs in an interview with Susan Hewitt. Unfortunately, for a joke, it’s really not that funny at all…
Before we come to the negatives, let’s look at the bright side. As the story opens, we are reminded by the author himself that Big Finish Productions does not believe that Sainsbury’s car parks are prone to exploding. So far, so Douglas Adams. Maybe it isn’t as bad as people say? We open at the end of The War Games, with the Chief Time Lord Adjudicator attempting to pass sentence on the War Lord, and then the Doctor, while being constantly undermined by his subordinate. As the Doctor arrives, they realise that the Doctor has escaped, with a guard arriving in his place. Despite the protestations of the president of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society back in 1977, taking The Time Lords off their pedestal was a masterstroke by The Deadly Assassin, and the concept is still fun here. This continues as these two Time Lords, played by Toby Longworth and one David Tennant, track the Doctor to Earth, engaging in a fish out of water comedy as it turns out their information is useless. Dressed as hippies and trying to spend shillings in the year 2000, they are forced to politely mug someone, stage a broadcast intrusion from a bedsit (reminiscent of one which interrupted a transmission of Horror of Fang Rock (1977) by WTTW Chicago in 1987), and try to conquer the intricacies of tinned goods. If the question at the heart of the story had been ‘What if the Doctor had been exiled with another Time Lord?’, we’d be off to a flying start. But unfortunately, the rest of the story has to happen.
William Shakespeare, of The Shakespeare Code fame, wrote many comedies. As Nicholas Briggs professed, Exile is meant to be humorous. However, if I were to sum this up as a Shakespeare play, it would have to be The Comedy of Errors. Or in this case, ‘A Tragedy of Errors’. The Doctor hides on Earth, and works at Sainsbury’s to escape the attention of the Time Lords. She also spends her evenings getting blind drunk with her food themed friends Cherrie and Cheese, with plenty of vomit and burping to fill up any spare space. And I must emphasise the sheer amount of burping that the listener is subjected to in a misguided quest for laughs. After a cringe-worthy scene in a bar, where another pubgoer is mistaken for the Master, she becomes involved in a plot to save Princess Anne, who is to open her Sainsbury’s car park, from a supposed alien attack caused by the drunken misinterpretation of her fellow Time Lords’ intrusion into the TV signal. As you may have guessed, it just isn’t funny. It just seems to be a sting of awkward, drawn out moments that don’t entertain and don’t lead anywhere. The constant repetition of the joke about the evil Quarks may raise a smile the first time, but wears thin with repetition. Even this could be forgiven, but the worst is yet to come.
The worst part of Exile is most certainly its attitude to a female Doctor as a concept. In order to become female, the Doctor had to kill themselves, in a weird hybrid regeneration of the second and fourth Doctors, leading to the present incarnation. Bad enough? It gets worse. The previous Doctor, whom she hallucinates about while drunk, is misogynistic at best, or a horribly sexist and transphobic figure at worst. This means the first female Doctor to have their own episode as the primary Doctor is played for cheap laughs, and is treated as a drunken fool throughout. She doesn’t even get the episode to herself as the only Doctor! While this audio would still be bad if the Doctor was male, the fact that there was a conscious decision to make the Doctor female, vilify this change of gender, and then produce something where the Doctor is treated by her fellow Time Lords, and her former self, as lesser because of it, is the true crime of this audio. The ending puts a cherry on the metaphorical cake by having the two other Time Lords pull one last trick on her.
Would I recommend this audio? Certainly not. It’s offensive, and certainly the worst Big Finish audio I have listened to. If, out of some morbid curiosity, you still desire to listen to it, it is worth pointing out that in more recent interviews with Doctor Who Magazine Nicholas Briggs has stated that he ‘made a lot of bad decisions…’ and is ‘quite ashamed of it’. I’m sure he didn’t set out to make it this way, but unfortunately, the end result is abysmal. The ball is firmly in Chris Chibnall’s court, and I wish him and Jodie Whittaker all the best with Series 11. Thankfully Exile was a long time ago now and if it served as any precedent at all, provided an example of how not to present a female Doctor. Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker have shown they know better.
Tides 42 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link