THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Big Finish Productions
Deadline

Written by Robert Shearman Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2003
What if... Doctor Who had never made it to television?

Starring Sir Derek Jacobi
Also featuring Genevieve Swallow, Peter Forbes, Jacqueline King, Ian Brooker, Adam Manning

Synopsis: It's been forty years since Martin Bannister encountered the Doctor. They were different men back then. Martin was young and talented and The Times' seventh most promising writer to watch out for. The Doctor was mysterious, crotchety and possibly oriental. It was an encounter that destroyed both their lives.


Reviews

A Review by Rob Matthews 30/9/03

Bitter. That's the word that comes to mind after listening to this.

Getting Derek Jacobi involved in the 'Doctor Who Unbound' series sounded like a bit of a coup, and with Robert 'Jubilee' Shearman scripting I was expecting something a bit special. Well, this is different, but not special.

It's not a Doctor Who story as such, but I knew that going in. It is, rather, a story that is in some refracted way 'about' Doctor Who, taking place in a world where Doctor Who never made it to the screen. This premise has some potential but the approach taken here simply baffles me. Here 'Doctor Who' exists only as an addled memory-of-an-idea in the mind of an unpleasant failed hack. It's poisoned his life and destroyed his family, and has even more unpleasant consequences on the life of the hack in question as the story progresses.

The point being what? To tell a story about the life and death of a horrible man?

It reminds me a bit of Woody Allen's Stardust Memories - its attitude to Doctor Who itself (transcribed through a faintly amusing Juliet Bravo substitution) seems one of ambivalence verging on loathing, and its treatment of fans snide and nasty (just listen to the speech-impeded wanker who interviews Bannister). It even takes time out to sneer at, of all things, the audio adventures. And no, before you ask, not even in a good-humoured way. It's overly self-referential as regards Who lore and fandom and all that, and yet soaked through with bitterness about the whole thing.

So I feel rather bitter too. As I say, with Jacobi and Shearman at the wheel I'd been looking forward to this one. But the best description I can come up with - and apologies here for making Matthew Harris queasy:

Curdled fanwank.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 5/10/03

I listened to Deadline one evening, lying on my bed, it was 10:30 when I pressed the play button. My wife slept soundly, and the picture of domestic bliss was complete with a headphoned Doctor Who fan totally enthralled at the alternative DW story that surrounded him.

Martin Bannister is a resident at an old peoples home - the sort I used to visit quite regularly to see my Auntie Annie. My own Grandma (Annie's sister) has said that she will probably end up there, and that's out of choice, because she always liked visiting there. When she's old she would like to be a resident there, she is fond of telling us. She's 100 in April 2005, and still living in her own house, but when she's old she'd like to live there! She continues to amaze all her ever-increasing family, with her fortitude and brightness.

So here we have Martin Bannister - fancies himself as a writer, who's made a bit of a mess of the relationships in his life. His son Philip visits him, first time in ages. The nurse, Barbara, tells him his room is messy. An interviewer comes to see him wanting that nostalgia glow for his Juliet Bravo magazine readers. But Martin feels Bravo was his worst writing, yet that is his legacy. He believes he's better than that, reality and fantasy intermingling in his riddled mind.

Sir Derek Jacobi is the star here, quite a coup for Big Finish, and he brings the complex Martin to life brilliantly. The most high profile of these alternative Doctors, he gives us a sympathetic and intensely real character. Is he the Doctor? Is this just part of his imagination? The listener is guessing all the way through. He's an excellent actor, delivering a brilliant script, to us very fortunate listeners.

Rob Shearman has emerged as the premier Doctor Who writer since he burst onto the stage with The Holy Terror in 2000. His audio stories have consistently been voted the best that Big Finish have to offer. I was very pleased to see his name as one of the writers for the Unbound series - a set of stories that has exceeded my expectations, they are actually better and more interesting than the usual monthly releases - and that's saying a great deal.

Deadline sees Rob Shearman delving into the murky world of reality, but with one foot firmly planted in fantasy too. It's the mix of these two opposing genres that makes this play unique. I doubt if any Doctor Who story has so been based in reality, whilst still keeping that unearthly magic too. At times we are really in the real world, uncomfortably so, which Shearman acknowledges in his script. With its tale of bad fathers, separations, teenage attitude, disrespect for the elderly - this is uncomfortable in places. But then a magic wardrobe in the corner promises new worlds, and I was back in to the escapism Doctor Who gives me in spades.

Derek Jacobi is brilliant in this - but credit must also go to the supporting players. Peter Forbes excels as Philip (or is it Ian), Martin's estranged son. Jacqueline King is just the right side of sympathy as Barbara. Adam Manning also deserves a mention, his is a little too real portrayal of teenage angst for my liking, as grandson Tom.

Not all Deadline enthralled me, I must admit, but with so much excellence around it I mustn't grumble. The Juliet Bravo interview seemed a little too harsh, and I wasn't too struck on the Sydney Newman character with his changing accent. But the whole was so much more than these quibbles. After all Derek Jacobi is in every single scene (I seem to remember it that way) - and that's impressive enough.

I lay there and was totally submerged in this reality/fantasy play. At 11:20, when the story seemed to be building to a rousing finale, the batteries ran out of my stereo - how irritating is that! I quickly nicked the ones from the remote, eager to reach the conclusion, and discover which side the play would eventually fall on. Heads for reality, tails for fantasy - I had no idea until the very end.

I did get to the end, with my eyes fully open, and my brain working overtime. Quite often I doze off during these nightly listens, tiredness overwhelming great Doctor Who. But not so here. I didn't get to sleep till 1:00 that night. I lay there thinking over what I had just heard, and thoughts turned to my past. Fantasy and reality merged, as it does in many readers I expect.

This is just excellent - it really is. Alternative Who surpassing its original inspiration. Rob Shearman really is the best writer in Doctor Who - full stop. 10/10


The Singing Time Lord by Andrew Wixon 14/10/03

I suspect Rob Shearman has built up a considerable store of goodwill with Big Finish’s fanbase: as writer of many of the company’s most impressive tales – Holy Terror, Chimes, Jubilee – he deserves no less. But I’ll be interested to see how much of that capital he’ll have left once fandom comes to terms with Deadline.

This isn’t a Doctor Who story. It’s about Doctor Who the TV series… except it isn’t, really. It’s about a TV series, an unmade TV series, with some suspicious resemblences to the Doctor Who we know and love, but it uses that TV series as a metaphor for imagination, fantasy, hope (rather like Auld Mortality, which this links into very, very loosely).

The closest thing to Deadline I can think of is Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, in which fact and fiction collide around an embittered writer. In this story the writer is Martin Bannister, intelligently played by Sir Derek Jacobi, who was nearly the man who wrote the first episode of Doctor Who, and who now pegs the experience as the start of his decline and failure. To say much more is risk spoilers (and our editor is probably already heartily sick of editing spoilers out of my reviews – even from the review title on one occasion!), except to add that Doctor Who-ish scenes appear, reflecting the twists and turns of Bannister’s memories, hopes, and regrets.

Shearman writes with his customary ironic verve and even allows hints that this story is somehow vaguely canon after all… but it’s best not to worry about things like that. This seems like a very personal work, about the price and craft of writing, with Doctor Who as a convenient dramatic frame. Certainly he’s harsher on the series and fandom than almost any other writer I can recall – DW fans are satirised ruthlessly, essentially accused of taking the show much too seriously, while escapist fantasy is implicitly shown to be just that – a means of running away from harsh and unwelcome reality. I may be wrong about Shearman: this is just my reading of the play’s take on the choice between fantasy and real life.

But this is to assume that Deadline is a play that was written to make a point specifically about the series, and I don’t think it was; it seems too deep and personal a piece of work for that. Hugely impressive, but much more Radio 4 than anything else BF have produced – it’s magnificent, but it isn’t Doctor Who.


A universe without the Doctor... by Michael Hickerson 10/12/03

With the good Doctor not slated to make a return appearance on our television screens until 2005, the task of celebrating the good Doctor's 40 year run in an original fashion has fallen to the novels, a BBC web cast and the Big Finish audio dramas. Of the three, it is Big Finish that is offering up the biggest wealth of original Who material that celebrates 40 years of our favorite Time Lord.

To start things off, Big Finish offers up a series of "What if" stories in the Unbound saga. Each of these stories has taken a different element of the Doctor Who mythology and expanded on it. We've looked at what might have happened had the Doctor not left Gallifrey and what might have happened had the third Doctor not been exiled to Earth during the period of the UNIT stories (I will NOT open up that can of worms by trying to place a time and date on the UNIT stories). We've even brilliantly speculated what might have happened had the Valeyard won the day in the end of The Trial of a Timelord.

And while each of the previous Unbound stories have addressed what might have happened if Who had taken a different turn in the mythology of the series, Deadline offers a look at what might have happened if we'd never had a mythology at all.

I'm sure the question of what would the world be like without Doctor Who has occurred to many of us over the years. Certainly, I wonder if I'd be richer having not spent so much time and money on the wide variety of Who memorabilia that I've purchased over the years. I've also wondered if there would be another show that would catch my interest and inspire such a passion in me as Doctor Who does to this day.

It's an interesting question.

But Big Finish fan favorite, Rob Sherman, takes the concept of what if there were no Doctor Who and takes it a lot further. Sherman creates a character who could have created Doctor Who... a writer who was seen as the next big thing until he "slummed" in television writing and wrote some rather badly received stories for a popular television drama at the time, that is still beloved by fans today. His stories are considered by fans to be some of the worst of the show and he has a rather standoffish relationship with the whole thing, seeing his time in television writing as being the decline not only of his writing career but of his whole life. Had he created the science-fiction drama, Doctor Who, he might be better remembered and not just a footnote to a show that he never really liked or wanted to be part of. (Indeed, the irony of the writer's stories being considered among the worst by fans on the net works very well. It also made me think of Bill Strutton, who wrote The Web Planet for Doctor Who and recently passed away. Certainly I've never been kind to the story, considering it one of Doctor Who's worst... so am I really any better than the fans portrayed in this story?)

It's a fascinating character study... made even more fascinating because the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. Shearman offers up some different takes on how the Hartnell years might have gone in the hands of his character... and they are grounded enough in the familiar Hartnell epics to be familiar, but at the same time a different enough to rouse the interest.

But the character of Martin Bannister really comes to life thanks to the superlative performance of Derek Jacobi. I have to admit it's quite a coup for the audio adventures to get an actor of the name and caliber of Jacobi for this story and Jacobi does not disappoint. It would be easy to portray Bannister as one-note, but Jacobi brings depth to the performance.

Martin is, in essence, the Hartnell Doctor as a real man. We see warmth and affection from him for his grandson and a yearning for his family, a crotchety old man who is quick to anger and even an older man who occasionally fluffs his line and doesn't always see the fine line between reality and fantasy.

And the ending of this one ably blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Does Martin escape off in the TARDIS with Susan to have grand adventures or has his grip on sanity finally snapped? Does Martin die in the end, never having seen his dream fulfilled except in his own mind? It's a bittersweet ending to a story and one that doesn't necessarily lend itself to easy answers. And just like the endings of all the Unbound dramas to date, it leaves you with a lot of questions that wander around your head for several days after the story is finally over.

In all, it's a mark of good Doctor Who. Yes, Deadline isn't technically a Who story, so much as an examination of the show and its fans. But in the end, it's an interesting idea to think about and contemplate... what if we had no Who? (Another interesting question I think would be: what if Terry Nation hadn.t come up with the Daleks to save Who way back when...where would be today? But that's another series of stories, I think)

Deadline is thought provoking and entertaining. There will be some who take offense at Sherman's portrayal of the fans and his attitude toward the series. But just as Greatest Show did back in season 25, this anniversary story examines the state of Doctor Who 15 years later. And it's an interesting and unique portrait. Whether you agree or disagree with Sherman, you certainly won't find yourself able to pull yourself away from listening to this release. As with all the Unbound stories (so far), this one comes with my full, ringing endorsement.


Nasty... by Joe Ford 19/12/03

Sir Derek Jacobi is going to be in Doctor Who! Whoopedido! There I thought I'd get that out of the way before actually writing this review because I feel perfectly justified in saying this Rob Shearman's worst script yet, that it fails as either a comedy or a drama, that it leaves a nasty aftertaste and it has some shockingly close to the mark scenes. I only mention Derek Jacobi at first because other people who have commented on how utterly wondrous this is seem to be finding excuses because such a big name has been enticed into the worlds of Who. Well with no disrespect to Sir Derek, who gives a superb performance, this is story is horse dung, pure and simple.

I heard it when it first came out and promised myself that I would never listen to it again. However I was in such good cheer after finishing The Wormery I thought "Why not?" and after all it was the only Unbound story I had not reviewed.

I have the same feeling as I did after I read Andrew Cartmel's War-trilogy, that there was some undoubtedly good writing in them but their subject matter had no place in Doctor Who. Ah, I hear you cry but these are Unbound adventures, the chance to play about with the usually unthinkable but some of the themes of this story, mental illness being used to comic effect, heavy suggestions of paedophilia and incest, don't have any place in Big Finish at all no matter how well disguised and parodied they are. Even in this mini series they knew not to go too far (the Doctor as a woman was intriguing, his being killed continually was dramatic) and this warped tale of Martin Bannister and his loose grip on reality failed to have anything to say about anything.

I suppose it was bound to happen. As Steve Scott said in his outstanding review of the new series, we fans build things up so much that anything that is delivered is bound to be a disappointment. And after The Holy Terror, The Chimes of Midnight and Jubilee we have collectively beefed up Rob Shearman to Robert Holmes status, is it any wonder that eventually he should fail to deliver. Even Holmes was found lacking on occasion.

My biggest problem with Deadline was that Bannister simply wasn't likable so I found it hard to give a damn what happened to him. Kudos to Jacobi who delivers everything the script demands but this selfish, abusive and thoughtless character appealed to me in no way whatsoever. I understand a character who becomes wrapped up in fantasy to ignore the painful reality of his life, if the story had stayed on that track it would have been fine but Martin seemed to realise how much he had hurt everyone and just did not care. How awful. He had no time for Barbara's poetry, too obsessed with his own work and ignores his son's pain in favour of getting to know his grandson. He was cranky, bad tempered and quite rude. His final decision to hide away in his fantasy rather than live up to his responsibilities shows how much of a coward he is too. Overall, a bastard.

The story continues Shearman's obsession with twisted characters. In the past these nutcases have been such fun (Rochester in Jubilee was a laugh a minute character) but given the non status of these Unbound CDs his leash has been removed and the results are quite offensive in places. Philip is a Rochester style character who starts off as a family man but soon descends into a hopeless loser who is so desperate to seek his Dad out he pretends his mum is dead, buys a hamster and burns it so he can turn up with the ashes. That's just not funny on any level (and shame on you people who are giggling now!).

And what about Susan the nice friendly care assistant who halfway through the story flies of the handle and delivers a scathing, insulting speech on how disgusting Martin is. Is this supposed to be shocking? Good because it was, shockingly worthless. Such a bizarre, schizophrenic turn for the character was unjustified. Shocking for shocking sake is the lowest form of entertainment.

And even little Tom, the boy who is utterly obsessed with his video game and claims he wishes everyone would stop trying to get know him and buy him some video games! Maybe this is how society perceives kids but they most certainly are not all like that and this dangerous stereotype disgusted me. The children I know are imaginative, intelligent and exuberant and I take insult to suggest they are anything like Tom. And those incest undertones chilled me to the bone...

For a story that claims to be about fantasy it has its head far too rooted in reality. This is not why I buy Doctor Who merchendise, to be reminded of how terrible it is that people spend their last few years in stain infested nursing homes, that older men sleep with younger kids, that people hurt animals for the bizarrest of reasons... all that stuff can be dealt with on The Bill. Has Rob forgotten the true spirit of the show so exemplified in The Wormery, the chance to explore the realms of imagination and have exciting adventures?

And by mixing Bannister's fantasy life of Doctor Who, Ian, Barbara and Susan with his own crazy life Rob comes close to perverting the spirit of those early adventures. I know he was just trying to show how Martin's dysfunctional family were infiltrating his fantasy (why? Guilt? Lack of ideas?) but hearing those first Doctor adventures suddenly shifting into real life drama was undeniably unsettling. While he does get to tell a few good jokes about the series' genesis (particularly Newman's "No bug eyed monsters I hope?") it felt as though Rob was poking fun a bit too much ("Doctor Who... sounds oriental!"). While he does include some marvellous dialogue about how wondrous the series can be it is somewhat impotent when he is crushing the spirit of that show with this little play of his.

Ooh aren't I nasty bugger... but then that was the main feeling I got from this play, that it was nasty. A squalid, spiteful piece that revels in its own perverse identity. Let's just be thankful it's not 'real' Doctor Who, huh?

And those poor Juliet Bravo fans out there... after having their show ridiculed here and immortalised in the League of Gentleman series three they must be hanging their heads in shame...


Void by Mike Morris 9/9/04

Did I like Deadline? Uh, what? Like it?

Well, I couldn't exactly say it made me giddy right down to me toes; rather, it made me cower in the corner and put my brain through an iron-barbed mangle. A bit like watching The Office; that feeling of embarrassment. Like it? Like it? This isn't a story you like. It's not a story that entertains. Rather, it pulverises you into submission, like Chinese Water Torture. Agh.

Yeah, I though it was brilliant.

It was brilliant because, er, erm. Damn. Wrapping an argument round this one isn't easy. I adored it, although I won't listen to it again for a long, long time.

The reviews above seem split between admiration and pure revulsion. As a Doctor Who fan this isn't an easy one to get a grip on; it's not like any other Doctor Who story. This tale of an abandoned, unloved and not-very-nice hack mouldering out his loveless life in a dirty old room isn't Doctor Who. The monster and the hero are one and the same. Cor.

But it's brilliant; it is brilliant. And it is a Doctor Who story, and a worthwhile one. It's quite the best audio I've heard yet - for a kick-off it actually seems to have been edited, which is an uncommon thing in these audios. Interestingly, it's billed on the box as 70 minutes, but in fact it's only sixty - maybe they decided to edit it after making the sleeve?

Anyway, the easiest way for me to get a grip of this story is to look at what other people have said, and then disagree with them. So apologies to all I shout down here, I'm not being confrontational for the sake of it... I just want to use the following quotes as jumping-off points for discussion. I think the best way I can argue what this audio is is to argue what it isn't. If you get me.

Joe Ford: "This is not why I buy Doctor Who merchandise, to be reminded of how terrible it is that people spend their last few years in stain infested nursing homes, that older men sleep with younger kids, that people hurt animals for the bizarrest of reasons... all that stuff can be dealt with on The Bill."

Joe likes saying this; he's mentioned it as a theory elsewhere. Now I can understand where it comes from, but I think he's dead wrong on this. Personally, I think Doctor Who can go anywhere and doing anything it chooses to. There are no limits. And you know, I think we should be reminded that the world can be an unpleasant place for many unfortunate people.

Or are there limits, after all? Well, yes, but I don't think it's a good idea to formulate abstract rules of what Doctor Who can and can't do. I've done it myself in the past, and I'm sure I've shouted a few of them on these pages, but I was wrong to do so. Some other rules you hear include how the Doctor should never be violent, or should never carry a gun, or should never kill anyone.

Funny thing is, I broadly agree with the above... but they aren't rules. The Doctor shouldn't kill people... but he has done so on many occasions. He has gassed Solon, for example. Cold-blooded, premeditated, and ultimate pointless.

These things are more guidelines that naturally emerge from the fundamental of the character. Who is the Doctor? Well, ultimately he's someone who goes around fighting evil. We think murder is evil, so naturally the Doctor doesn't do it. This is because he has a respect for life, so he detests killing, so obviously he detests war. Which means he is a pacifist, which means he doesn't carry a gun, and that he doesn't go around thumping people. These aren't impartial rules, formed for their own sake; they are logical extrapolations of the character. However, they aren't hard-and-fast. If the Doctor really, really has to, he will kill someone, but he won't like doing it and he'll only do it as the last resort. Like anyone, he's a complex character, not a collection of abstractions. The Eighth Doctor will boot someone in the ribs because he's passionate, and because he's angry, and because it's a momentary urge of feeling.

To get back to Joe's argument - I might paraphrase it as "Doctor Who has no business dealing with the ugliness of the real world." Now, Joe does have a point here. Thing is, Doctor Who is about a guy who travels around in a space-time ship. The premise is escapist; it's escapist fiction. Taking that as a given, it seems perverse to take this guy who can go anywhere and do anything, and have him immersed in the real world. And, as a parallel point, he fights evil. Which means most of the stories are morality plays, and morality tends to be portrayed as black and white. The real world is all a bit grey.

So while it's kicking against the flow of the series to get all real-world on us (and if Who did it all the time it would come across as portentous), I don't think it's something it should never ever do. Ultimately, if Doctor Who has got something to say about the real ugly world, it can go ahead and say it. I think Joe might know this himself; in his Rags review he comes up with an excuse for liking the story's ugliness which I found a bit unconvincing, and in his review of The Mind of Evil he praises that story's real-world grittiness.

The key word, I think, is "ugly". Ugly is where we start inhabiting that world of grey morals; where we are asked to look up to nasty people. Look at the film East is East, where we're asked to sympathise with a wife-beating bully; or Trainspotting, where our hero is a self-involved heroin addict who does nothing but let his friends down. The reason those films qualify as ugly, in my dictionary, is that they still portray these people as fundamentally decent human beings. They show what, I think, are the two terrifying truths of human behaviour - that good people can do evil things, and (even more strange) that evil people can do good things. Put those two together and good and bad people become confused, heroes and villains meet, and we don't know what's right and what isn't. A bit like life in general.

Given Doctor Who's espousing of Good and Evil, frequently as elemental forces, it doesn't often dip its toe in these waters. But ugliness is something, I think, to be treasured in contemporary culture. It's not something we get a lot of; most dramas are immersed in a neatly packaged sanitised world of good-people bad-people, and don't ask us to empathise with bad people or understand the dregs of society. Ishiguro and Kafka inhabit this wasteland of morality; Rushdie can write about someone taking a shit and find a beauty in it. Ken Loach's films are immersed in ugliness. But let's face it, the dominant force in drama is Ally bloody McBeal, or Friends, with nice pretty people worrying about nice pretty problems like Relationships (zzzzzz). That's shite, and it's lies. Ugly is truth. And ultimately, the function of art is to find truth. What great stories can do is take ugly and find something beautiful in it; render the black canvas and have a light, somewhere, shining all the brighter. So if Doctor Who can do this, then damn it, it should try.

To reach the final point; Joe says if he wants all that stuff he'll watch The Bill. I'd say not to bother, because The Bill is a load of shit. Which is where the nub of the argument is; Doctor Who doesn't have to conform to rules, but it does have to be good. If it kicks against its own flow, then it has to be very careful how it does it. If it shows the Doctor killing someone, it has to make damn sure that the audience knows he has no other option, knows why he's done it. It has to do it well. And because ugliness is rather alien to its brief, if it does ugly it must make damn sure to do it well. It's why I hate that AIDS cure at the end of Damaged Goods; it's the real world, it's real life, and then something that tasteless and ill-considered pops up. It stands out sharply because it's not something that Doctor Who would ordinarily touch with a bargepole. It's dreadful.

And Deadline? Yes, I think it does it very well indeed. Because...

The uncomfortable paradox at the centre of it is that the principle character is the one we're told does the nastiest things; but he is by far the most personable, most reasonable character of the lot (with the partial exception of the Juliet Bravo fan, of whom more anon). As we burrow into the heart of Martin Bannister, we find that he's done some horrible things... and yet he doesn't come across as a horrible man. Rather, he's an emotional void, a man who doesn't understand people and doesn't feel the attachment of love. And so, he shows the absurdity of what people do for love. When we hear, in flashback, his wife begging him not to go, it seems silly and hysterical, as is reflected by Martin's bemusement. He doesn't set out to be nasty, he just lacks empathy.

The tension comes from the character's fascination with the worlds of Doctor Who. In his dreams he's immersed in adventures and morality plays, but in his life he doesn't seem to understand the first thing about it. His remarks about his ex-wives dying in the wrong order are callous, but they aren't vindictive. He may suddenly leave people, but he's never cruel to them. To really magnify this effect, we're given Phillip, the family man devoted to his children. Yet he it is who does the story's most disgusting act, pretending his mother has died and bringing her ashes to Martin - in truth, the ashes of a guinea pig.

This scene is brilliant. "If you wanted to see me, you could have phoned," says Martin - and we're forced to ask, well, is Martin right? Love has driven his son to these lengths; his son is alone, unloved, on the edge of falling apart and brutally kills an animal in some weird, confused plan. The absurdity of people is thrown in our face, against the background of the central character, an emotional vacuum. The revelation of the guinea pig made me laugh, briefly, but then made me ashamed of myself for doing so. But as an action it's so absurd, so stupid, so desperate, that it's at once tragic and blackly amusing. Drama? You bet. As Martin says, he did lots of bad things but he never killed a guinea pig.

Why I think it works is that, at the end of the day, Phillip still has more of a life than Martin. It may all have gone tits-up, and he may be alone with a miserable son, but dammit, he has the memory of being in love; he has felt something. What's Martin got? Loneliness, abandonment, and clinging to a half-assed story he never wrote. It's bittersweet, it's uncomfortable, but it's a hell of an argument for love. It feels real because love is tragic, and painful, and drives a man to kill an innocent creature. Because love is terrible, and yet still worthwhile. Bob Dylan wrote a song lyric; "Love's not an evil thing." It's one of my favourite lines, because it suggests that the writer has been so badly hurt by love that he's thought it might be evil. And yet he still knows, in spite of that hurt, that it was worth it.

Ugly? Undoubtedly. Beautiful? Yes, I think so.

Michael Hickerson: "We see warmth and affection from him [Martin] for his grandson and a yearning for his family, a crotchety old man who is quick to anger and even an older man who occasionally fluffs his line and doesn't always see the fine line between reality and fantasy."

Do we? If anything, I would say Martin is an emotional void. And yet, yes, these things are present... but it's because they aren't present in him.

It's a story of negatives. We find out the meaning of what's there by what's not, and at the centre of it there's Martin, a complete non-person. And the others...

They are defined, generally, by him, but more by how they don't react to him. His son is the most obvious example here, as the person who has spent his life desperately trying not to be like his father. Then there's Barbara, who is defined by how she doesn't react to him, doesn't engage with him, ignores everything he says and calls him a "mucky pup" like he's five. There's Tom, an obnoxious teenager who is defined by having nothing to say to Martin.

And where has this got them? Phillip's desperation to not be Martin has left him hollow at the core, unable to articulate what he feels or what process his own hurt. Barbara's non-reaction to the person in front of her, and her retreat behind a blithe cheerfulness, has left her repressed and lonely, until she ends up spitting venom at Martin in a brilliantly nasty scene. And then there's Tom, an obnoxious teenager who dismisses Martin as a boring old git, unaware that he's exactly like him. "You try too hard, Dad tries too hard too," he says, in a mirror scene of Martin leaving his wife.

Tom's rejection of Martin is brilliant, because it finally shows Martin the horror of what he's done to everyone else - by putting him on the other side of the fence. For years, Martin has been faintly baffled by people prying into his own world, trying to get to know him; he found it pathetic. And suddenly here he is, desperately trying to make one relationship work, but the person he's chosen doesn't care and isn't interested. In fact, he's immersed in his computer game, just as Martin was immersed in his writings. And just as Tom's computer game is moronic, Martin's writings were never very good. It's a painful and piteous thing to see...

...and, just as everyone's character is defined by what they don't do, the value of caring is shown up because it's not there. Martin, his heart as empty as a vacant lot, realises that he has done more damage and hurt more people than he could ever imagine. We have to care, we have to love, or we end up like this. So this story is all about heart, simply because of its absence.

Rob Matthews: "Its attitude to Doctor Who itself (transcribed through a faintly amusing Juliet Bravo substitution) seems one of ambivalence verging on loathing, and its treatment of fans snide and nasty (just listen to the speech-impeded wanker who interviews Bannister)."

Rob's point here, and his major gripe with Deadline, is that it fundamentally insults its audience; that it has a pop at fans. I really don't agree with this at all.

The important point about the fanboy is that we are seeing through Martin's eyes. The drama's purpose is to insert us into Martin's life, and because of that, the people we meet are filtered through his perceptions. Martin regards Juliet Bravo as rubbish hackwork, so people who are devoted to it will seem nerdish to him. A similar criticism is made of Tom's character; again, Martin would see someone like Tom as obnoxious (having said that, Tom is played too aggressively).

And yet, leaving aside the question of fanboy's speech impediment - which, to be fair, is unnecessary and unsubtle - it misses something rather important. Of all the characters we meet, he is the happiest. He exists as part of a community, and he has by far the most vibrant, meaningful life. Martin's rubbishing of him is incredibly barbed, but there's a beautiful comeback when he shows just how hollow the man's life is; "You were doing a job thousands of us would have given our right arms for! I would have loved to have done written for Juliet Bravo!" he says in frustration. That isn't a slight on fandom - this is a world devoid of hopes and dreams, and the fan is the only person to have any. So who cares how he's perceived? Or, to put it another way, who cares how the public perceive us? It puts me in mind of Tom Baker talking about fans, and how he once saw a trainspotter and thought "How wonderful, he's excited about a number on a train. It's just a number on a train to me, and it's a whole world to him!" And we find, ultimately, that Martin isn't as contemptuous as he'd like to be; he's horrified that his stories are no good, he's so disappointed when the story he considered his best (and pretended not to remember) is revealed as rubbish.

If anything, this story shows how wonderful Doctor Who is and how great it is to be a fan. Even the cheap copy of Doctor Who that exists in Martin's head is important, in fact to Martin it's the only thing that matters. The characters are crap; the monsters are rubbish; the plot is stupid. And yet, at the core of it all, there's still the beautiful premise of the man and the time machine, travelling from world to world (in much the same way that Barbara's poetry is important, and it's important that she writes it, even if it is appalling).

Here's the thing; Martin desperately needed Doctor Who to happen. He needed to see those stories, or even to write them. When he leaps for his cupboard at the end, desperate to be taken away from this awful life, we see what might have happened. Would Doctor Who have redeemed Martin? Had it happened, would he have written something meaningful? Would it have taught him the value of love? Would he have been somewhere else, not rotting in a dirty nursing home?

So, if ever a story was about Doctor Who being important, this is it. Look at the world without Doctor Who; look how good it is to have Doctor Who to flee to. There are, of course, a few counterpoints; views of Martin as immersed in his fantasy world, paralleling this with being a fan. However, I don't think this is a slight on fans at all, just a commentary on obsession. Ultimately, when the story finished I uttered a sigh of relief and thought, "Well thank god I'm not like that." Thank god Doctor Who exists. Thanks god it elevates us above the banal, crushing routine of everyday life. This story doesn't insult fans, it questions them. And the answer; being a fan may seem sad to the everyday world, they may think we're nerds, they may think we're pathetic. But we're not. Doctor Who matters. Being a fan of it is good. And here was a man who needed it.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I believe in morality, even if this world is an amoral place (hark at the tortured intellectual). Well, most of what I think about morality is taken from Doctor Who. Doctor Who's morality is beautiful. So I live my life according to Doctor Who, and yes, that bloody well is a good thing. Before I listened to Deadline, I might not have had the courage to say it, but now I do.

Rob Matthews: "The point being what? To tell a story about the life and death of a horrible man?"

Or, to paraphrase; why is this guy's story worth telling?

Because it matters. Because he has something to say. Because Martin's sad, lonely existence can tell us something about ourselves. Because emotions are worth relating, no matter who feels them. Because love and hate, happiness and sadness, good and evil, joy and tragedy, are not the sole provinces of the beautiful and the good.

"I was going to be the best playwright since Shakespeare. Hell with it, I'd be better than Shakespeare... as the years go by you realise you aren't as good as Shakespeare, and you aren't as good as those other nine writers to watch out for... you scale down your ambitions. You pride yourself you can always meet deadlines. Then you'll be proud if no-one sacks you when you stop being able to meet them... and you end up with nothing left to write. Because you've nothing left to say. And you're not sure you ever did." That's tragic. There are glimpses of a young man bursting with potential, but never realising it. With Doctor Who he might just have touched genius, perhaps, maybe; it might have given his life meaning. And then there's the slide, the sad progression to Martin's current state, as elegantly summarised by Shearman in another story; "All on its own. Quite without purpose. Quite insane." The fact that he realises the error of his ways too late, that anybody he could have loved has gone, that nobody wants to listen to him any more, is heart-rending. His moving desire to show his grandson beautiful worlds is twisted by his own insanity and the suspicious world he is trapped in, until it's construed as a sick slice of paedophilia. We watch Doctor Who to escape from that world, but also to understand it. So Martin may not be pleasant, but his feelings matter, his tragedy is moving and his story is more than worth the telling.

Andrew Wixon: "It's magnificent, but it isn't Doctor Who."

I would have agreed with Andrew immediately after listening to Deadline, or even a couple of days later. But now, I think that it really is Doctor Who, precisely because it isn't. Um, does that make sense?

Just as Deadline shows us the meaning of love by showing us a loveless world... just as it shows us the beauty of being a fan by having its main character attack fandom... just as it shows the values of human attachments by giving us solitary people... just as it shows what feelings mean because its main character has no feelings... just as it shows us all those things, it shows us the beauty of Doctor Who by taking it away. This world without Doctor Who, and without a person like the Doctor, shows us exactly what he does. We're immersed in a world with no good and evil, no right and wrong, nothing worth believing in - so we come up gasping, desperate for the moral absolutes that Doctor Who can animate so effortlessly. This is Doctor Who through absence. It's like looking at Doctor Who's footprint; after all, what is a footprint but the absence of a foot, the marks left when it is taken away? By removing Doctor Who from the narrative, this story really makes us appreciate how beautiful Doctor Who is.

Rob Matthews: "Curdled fanwank."

Wow. As metaphors go, that one's ugly and unpleasant, but undeniably brilliant. Hmm, sounds familiar. I only wish I could come up with something as snappy to counter it, but I can't.

So; Deadline is horribly ugly, and Deadline is indescribably beautiful. No, that's not right. How about; Deadline is difficult and uncomfortable, but uplifting and affirming. No, no, that's not either. Maybe; Deadline is loveless and lonely, but pulsing with heart. Or perhaps; Deadline is a brutal look at being a fan, that shows us just how important it is.

Or try this; Deadline is a wonderful audio drama. And I loved it.


Set yourself a deadline to listen by Charles Berman 2/11/11

Deadline is not easy listening. It's not meant to be. Instead, it's powerful, and wrenching, and profoundly human. Rob Shearman, author of some of the best Doctor Who scripts there have been, took the challenge of writing a play for Big Finish's Doctor Who Unbound series of stories outside of established continuity, produced a play that is not simply set in a reimagined version of Doctor Who's fictional world, nor is it about Doctor Who itself so much as it is imagination and the need to care for other and be cared for by them, but is an insightful drama about people in a quotidian world that uses the very existence or lack thereof of Doctor Who in a way that -- to people familiar with its history -- will only make the play more appreciable. In one line, Shearman hints that he is aware that this drama -- broad in its human observations -- will nevertheless be heard mainly by the more enthusiastic of fans of one off-the-air (at the time of writing) television series.

It's the story of Martin Bannister, a writer who never achieved success because he could never understand people enough to create characters, and who could never understand people because he could never look beyond his ambition to write -- and his geriatric escape into the world of a science fiction series called Doctor Who that never made it past the pilot stage. There's he's Doctor Who, he's loved by a grandchild, and he's the hero -- it's a world that looks more and more appealing than his lonely real life.The Doctor Who sequences -- recognizable scenes from Hartnell stories rewritten to be noticeably worse (Bannister is a pitiable figure, but never by any means a very good writer) -- are witty for Doctor Who fans who recognize them, but equally sad in context.

Bannister is played -- in a coup -- by Sir Derek Jacobi, one of the greatest actors of our time, and known, among many roles, for his extraordinary Hamlet. This is appropriate since Deadline is very much the tragedy of Martin Bannister, who in a sense has already fallen but who falls again and again more painfully each time over the course of the play. He wants to know how to care about others, but he is flawed in a way that makes him place himself first, that makes him care more about being the kind of person who understands people than about actually understanding people. The Juliet Bravo fans who comes to interview him are there to rehabilitate the reputation of the scripts he wrote for that series, but he reviles them all as unworthy of his best writing just before he realizes he could have connected with the man who has such a deep affection for some of his work. His relationship with his lonely night-warden can be one of only either weary dismissal or direct advances that provoke hostility. His son Philip has become the kind of man who burned a Guinea pig and claimed it was his mother just in order to get his father's attention; Philip offers to be friends but Martin decides without any thought that it must be too late. In a painful scene, after Martin has decided that his last chance is to makes things "perfect" with his newly discovered grandson, he hits him to get the apathetic child's attention away from a video game.

Jacobi's performance, like Shearman's script, is a little piece of brilliance. He makes Bannister what he should be: recognizably a horrible man and sympathetic because he wishes he were not so horrible, but can ultimately find no way of interacting with the world outside himself that can effect this. There is a moment where he exclaims "I'm so tired of hurting people!" just has he threatens his son with a chair. It's a cornerstone of the play to me, and it's played brilliantly. This is a great hour of drama that showcases a great performance. It happens to be tied up with Doctor Who, and we who happen to know who Sydney Newman was and who can quote the dialogue from An Unearthly Child and The Daleks have that much more of an advantage in appreciating it.