Put up a poll on a forum or online somewhere with the question “Who should play the Doctor next?” and there's a very good chance one actor's name will appear somewhere on that list every single time. That name would be David Warner, a noted UK actor with a career spanning five decades and taking in everything from Shakespeare to Star Trek, and a man who has long been a popular choice for the role of the Doctor amongst fans. Yet many of those fans might not be aware of the fact that Warner has already been the Doctor thanks to Big Finish Productions and their Doctor Who Unbound range more than a decade ago.
Though decades before that, Warner had been considered for the role on screen. When Jon Pertwee gave producer Barry Letts word of his intention to leave the series with its 1973-74 season, Letts went on the hunt for a new Doctor. Warner was one of the actors considered as a possible Fourth Doctor, as Warner himself talked about with Doctor Who Magazine in 2014:
“What did happen years ago, my agent called me and said, would I be interested in being considered for or having a meeting about playing the Doctor. But I wasn't available at the time, so that's the truth. I was approached about whether I would be interested in having a meeting, but I wasn't able to pursue it. Maybe you can thank me for Tom Baker's success...I think they went the right way, don't you?”Over the next three decades Warner would build a career highlighted by big-budget Hollywood films. These included The Omen (appearing briefly alongside Second Doctor Patrick Troughton), the 1978 film of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Time After Time, Tron, John Carpenter's In The Mouth Of Madness and 1997's Titanic among others. Warner also appeared in three separate Star Trek productions including two consecutive films playing first a Federation ambassador in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and then Klingon chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered County, before a memorable guest role as Captain Picard's Carrdassian interrogator in the 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter Chain Of Command. Warner also won an Emmy award for his role in the 1981 miniseries Masada and was nominated for his role in the 1978 miniseries Holocaust having played SS leader as Rudolf Heydrich, one of its architects of that genocide.
It was in 2003 that Warner's time to play the Doctor finally came. With Doctor Who off the television screen for over a decade as a regular series and going into its fortieth anniversary year, it was effectively left to audio drama company Big Finish Productions to celebrate the occasion. One of the ways they did so was with a series of “what if?” stories set outside of the usual canon, asking “what if the Doctor never left Gallifrey?” or “what if the Valeyard had won The Trial Of A Time Lord?”. The range, appropriately called Doctor Who Unbound, also saw a number of actors who had been considered for the role over the years finally taking the part, with Warner starring in the second release of the range, Sympathy For The Devil.
Sympathy For The Devil opens in 1997 Hong Kong on the eve of its handover from the UK back to China and asks “what if the Doctor had never been UNIT’s scientific adviser?” Warner plays an alternative Third Doctor who arrives years past his intended arrival date in a world that isn't quite our own and not quite that of the usual Doctor Who universe. He soon runs into a retired and disgraced Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (played as always by the late Nicholas Courtney) who is running a pub after years of UNIT failures. As the two catch-up, an invisible Chinese stealth jet crashes into a nearby hillside and draws in UNIT, currently commanded by Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood (a pre-Tenth Doctor David Tennant). As UNIT attempts to recover the plane and its passenger, the Doctor soon realizes he is facing an old enemy with a plan of his own.
Warner’s alternate Third Doctor is a terrific example of what the range accomplished. Starting out in a bit of a daze from a regeneration, Warner's Doctor quickly gathers strength as the story goes along. There's perhaps more than a hint of Pertwee’s authoritativeness to him but he's also perhaps a bit calmer in dealing with authority figures than Pertwee's Third Doctor was. There's an air of dignity and compassion to Warner's Doctor as well the sense of man becoming aware of just how much time he's lost. It's a fine performance but not the only one to hear in the story.
Indeed it's a supporting cast to behold. Nicholas Courtney gets a chance to play a very different version of the Brigadier in Sympathy For The Devil. Here he is a man who has been let down by the system and feels like he has failed in life following his years at UNIT without the Doctor by his side, one who almost needs the Doctor to bring him back to life. Another highlight is David Tennant's Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood, a fantastic foil for the Brigadier as he goes about issuing orders or berating the Brigadier on the ‘Probe 7 fiasco’ and how lives were lost whenever UNIT provided security at a peace conference while calling "Lethbridge". The story also benefits greatly in its second half by the presence of the Master, played with considerable charm and menace by Mark Gatiss in a role that brings to mind a more malevolent version of Sherlock's Mycroft. Add on the rest of the cast and the result is superb.
Jonathan Clements' script takes many elements from the UNIT era stories. These include a list of UNIT’s failures under the Brigadier, ranging from the Auton invasions dealt with by the ‘plastic purges', the aforementioned berating's by Brimmicombe-Wood, or how the plot draws on elements from The Mind Of Evil. Both the script and sound design do an effective job of setting the story in its time and place while also combining it with those Doctor Who elements added in. In fact, Sympathy For The Devil might well rank as one of Big Finish's best ever productions and (despite its Unbound nature) serve as a prime example of what Big Finish can do at its best.
The story was left slightly open-ended with the Doctor and Brigadier being able to travel through time and space thanks to the events that transpired. Though the Unbound series was intended to be finite, the success the story bought creatively and commercially would eventually open the door for a sequel. Long planned and oft delayed, the sequel finally saw the light of day in December 2008. Titled Masters Of War, it not only took Warner's Doctor and the Brigadier away from Earth but also saw them facing up against the Doctor's greatest enemy: The Daleks.
Told across two CD-length acts, Eddie Robson's script for Masters Of War is an epic tale. Opening with Warner's Doctor and the Brigadier arriving on Skaro in which they discover the Daleks occupying the Thal's city, the story starts off as typical Doctor Who fare of rebels rising up against an oppressor. It's only at the end of the first disc that the truth of the Dalek's occupation is revealed., changing both the stakes and narrative gears for its second disc as Davros (played once again by Terry Molloy) comes onto the scene and the battle for Skaro really begins. It's an audio that feels like a big-budget epic movie thanks to the fact that Robson seems to instinctively grasp the potential of the Unbound range
It's also helped by some fine performances. Warner builds on his earlier performance from Sympathy For The Devil to become a Doctor in full control of his senses, making up for lost time and with a terrific wit to boot. Backing him up is Courtney's Brigadier playing the role in a way we could only see in an Unbound story: a previously failed army officer finding redemption on an alien battlefield far from Earth and in fine form as well. The icing on the cake is Molloy's Davros and Nicholas Briggs playing the Daleks who are both given a chance to be something different and they take the opportunity to shine, especially in the second half of the story. As much of an epic as it is, Masters Of War never loses sight of its characters and some of the character moments are the biggest highlights thanks to the performances.
Once the battle is over, it's time to leave, but not for everyone. Courtney's Brigadier elects to stay behind to help with the recovery having realized that this is a Doctor on a mission to make up for lost time, something he feels like he's accomplished already. In what amounts to a farewell to the character of the Brigadier after nearly four decades (albeit in hindsight), the two part ways, with Warner's Doctor off to new adventures elsewhere and the Brigadier settling in for a quieter life. It would seem to be a proper farewell to both the characters and the Unbound range in general.
Or was it?
More than seven years after that parting of the ways, Warner's Doctor is about to return. Announced earlier this year, both Warner's Doctor and Gatiss' Master will be appearing alongside Bernice Summerfield (played by Lisa Bowerman) in the latest series of The New Adventures Of Bernice Summerfield. Entitled The Unbound Universe, the four disc box-set is due for release later this year with a dimension crossing tale that promises plenty of apocalyptic action and suspense. Will it be Warner's final outing as the Doctor? As Tom Baker's curator would say: “Who knows?”
What is apparent is that Warner's Doctor has been one of the most successful of the Unbound Doctors. Featuring in two excellent stories which both showed off his talents and the potential he might have had as one of the Time Lord's official on-screen incarnations if things had perhaps been a little different. Yet listening to Sympathy For The Devil and Masters Of War again makes me thankful not just that Big Finish gave him a crack at the role but also for the superb storytelling that Doctor Who can bring whether Unbound or not...
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.