Retrospective: Big Finish’s The Defectors

It may be a little quaint now being as the Third Doctor is currently enjoying his own audio resurrection via the sterling work of Tim Treloar but there once was a time where Big Finish, like the Seventh Doctor hitching a ride in Bessie, where they only evoke the Pertwee era, rather than going the full Richard Hurndall and cast another actor in the role.

So for our Third Doctor week, we’ve decided to look back at the first foray of the Third Doctor into the worlds of Big Finish…

It’s great fun to have a little whimsical dark-haired Doctor interacting with Jo Grant and the UNIT crew – such a contrast to the tall, pompous Pertwee Doctor. But enough about The Three Doctors, I’m here to review the first of Big Finish’s trilogy of ‘locum Doctor’ stories…

Wouldn’t it be great if the Seventh Doctor had an adventure where he teamed up with the chaps at UNIT, met the Brigadier and drove around in the Third Doctor’s Edwardian Roadster, Bessie? Yes, you guessed it, that was Battlefield, but – apologies for going off-subject – I’m scrutinising the first in a series of three interlinked adventures leading up to the 200th story in Big Finish’s main Doctor Who range…

Imagine what would happen if the Doctor suddenly changed, leaving his friends confused and suspicious. How could the serious, authoritative, grey-haired, dapper gent suddenly become a small, tricksy, rambling hobo with a silly hat? Sorry, that’s Power of the Daleks. I should really start to offer an opinion about The Defectors

It’s annoying when you innocently click on a link, or you’re scrolling through Facebook and suddenly you’ve been spoilt. You now know a major plot point, the return of an old villain or a major casting announcement. And, like catching a glimpse of a work colleague’s, um, parts in the cycle changing room before work, it’s not something you can remove from your head once it’s there…

I remember clicking on a YouTube link to Night of the Doctor and actually cheering at the screen when Paul McGann appears in the spaceship doorway and announces, “I’m a doctor. But probably not the one you’re expecting.” I was on a work trip, on my own in a hotel in Mumbai. I kind of danced around the room a bit. Which, for me, is quite a reaction. You see, I didn’t know what was coming, and it was brilliant.

I mention this because The Defectors specifically, but not particularly successfully, attempts to echo that moment. When the Seventh Doctor appears to Jo Grant in the (distinctly un-Pertwee-era-like) pre-credit sequence, he says, “Hello, Jo. I’m guessing I’m not quite the Doctor you were expecting.”

The McGann line works on two levels: you believe it’s what he’d say to Cass right there and then, but the dialogue also reflects a huge thrill for the audience to see a Doctor we never thought we’d witness again on screen. It’s an OMGA (Oh my giddy aunt!) moment. In contrast, the McCoy line falls a little flat because it’s not quite believable in context – it’s definitely just for the listeners. The script even acknowledges this later: Jo asks, “What do you mean, ‘not quite the Doctor I was expecting’?” The Doctor replies, “I mean… Actually, I’m not sure what I mean.” No, neither do we…

But back to spoilers… it’s essential for Big Finish to promote and publicise its excellent range of audio plays. And they clearly need the occasional gimmick or high concept to drum up interest and rack up the sales. And, good on them, they are fantastic, and have pulled off many coups fans never dreamed would be possible: a whole lifetime for McGann’s Doctor, the return of Tegan and Adric, Tom Baker and Lalla Ward reunited…

So, it’s understandable that in the lead-up to their 200th main series release, they revealed a brilliant idea: later Doctors appearing in earlier Doctor’s adventures. It’s a neat concept which allows Big Finish to explore the eras of the first three – sadly deceased – Doctors in new full cast stories.

But, in a strange twist, after I heard about it, I actually spoiled the idea for myself. Now, I know we all come with pre-conceptions to an adventure and have to put them to one side when actually experiencing it. But what I thought Big Finish were announcing was a series of body swap stories. A later Doctor suddenly, inexplicably, appears in the body of an earlier Doctor, maybe even an existing TV adventure – a bit like Quantum Leap. Then you get the tension of a different Doctor having to convince his earlier companions that he is the Doctor, and struggling to ‘be’ his earlier self. There’s a teeny bit of that in The Defectors, but it’s not really developed.

For me, the problem with The Defectors is that the Seventh Doctor isn’t thrown into the midst of a Pertwee-era story – confused and with no memory of the events, forced to pick up the pieces. It’s the start of the adventure when he joins and it could easily be just a Seventh Doctor story where he teams up with Jo Grant – akin to the the Sixth Doctor and Jamie reunited in the Big Finish story City of Spires. Sure, Jo is somewhat suspicious of Doctor Seven, but then she immediately refers to the events of The Three Doctors, the Doctor concurs and off they go…

The Three Doctors 3

The other stumbling block is how to evoke the ‘Pertwee era’. When I hear those two words another phrase pops into my head: ‘the UNIT family’. They are strange kin: an older dandy scientist, a confused military leader and two of his underlings – one posh and heroic, the other northern and a bit bumbling – alongside a kooky, hippyish young woman, and a bearded galactic super villain. Yes, the Master is part of the UNIT family too, along with rhotic uncle Terrance and his lefty Buddhist best friend, Barry. And lovely Liz Sladen, of course.

And that’s the very sad thing about that era of Who: so many have passed away. Delgado, Pertwee, Letts, Courtney, Sladen… But it’s surprising how very few adventures the whole ‘family’ feature in together. Discounting Sarah-Jane, it’s just five stories spanning two years (seven stories and three years if you don’t include Delgado). But it’s still the team that define the Pertwee era.

If Nick Courtney was still with us, the Brig’s presence would have been a given (although, as mentioned earlier, he has already encountered Doctor Seven on TV, so not that much of a novelty). The Defectors does tantalise an appearance from the Brigadier. There’s a very brief muffled voice at the end of a distorted radio line – but we know it’s not going to be Nick, of course. Similarly, the coughing, mumbling Doctor at the very end isn’t McCoy but we know it can’t properly be Pertwee either – more’s the shame.

And The Defectors doesn’t quite have the feel of a Pertwee adventure. Not that they are all uniform. From Carnival of Monsters to Inferno, Frontier in Space to The Daemons, there’s plenty of variety in the Pertwee tales. But I was hoping for more of the tropes that evoke Pertwee, like lengthy vehicle chases, physical action, challenging of pompous authority figures, prison cell chats then a daring escape, a mission from the Time Lords, misguided scientists in experimental laboratories, a peace conference, the Doctor railing a the blundering military, ecological issues, Dr John Smith used as an alias, a moral speech to end proceedings or a moment of charm… Wouldn’t it have been fun for Doctor Seven to bumble through a sword fight, fall off a jet ski, or try a bit of Venusian akido?

seventh doctor

Instead it’s a solid tale of cold war secrets, a mysterious island and a race of aliens quite unlike anything encountered in the Pertwee era. Ironically the not-quite-right pub with strangely-acting publican is more reminiscent of The Android Invasion, a Fourth Doctor tale that marked the death throes of the UNIT family.

The music is varied, with occasional hints of Dudley Simpson’s early ’70s electronica experimentation but the main military theme has unexpected echoes of the soundtrack to Wartime, Reeltime Picture’s 1987 UNIT spin-off story starring John Levene as Benton. One of the few surviving members of the UNIT family, John Levene’s avuncular sergeant is mentioned but does not appear here. A pre-breakdown Captain Yates is relegated to a few cameo appearances. All of which, for me, is a shame. It’s like turning up to a reunion party to find that some of your best mates have pulled out and sent a video message. Sure, there are other interesting characters in The Defectors, but few classic faces from the era I thought this play was celebrating.

Jo Grant is bubbly, resourceful, brave and unafraid to challenge the Doctor. But top and tail the opening and closing scenes, remove a few throwaway references to the story arc, and The Defectors could have been a good Seventh Doctor and Mel adventure. That’s no bad thing, but I thought this was meant to be something else.

So, listen and enjoy but hold back your hopes for a Pertwee-flavour story featuring a fish-out-of-water Seventh Doctor, because that’s not really what you get. So it’s a disappointing start to the ‘locum Doctors’ trilogy. You might like to seek a second opinion, but, for me, The Defectors is a bit defective.