Sympathy for the Devil

Posted in Audio by - October 24, 2018
Sympathy for the Devil

Released June 2003

For a series intrinsically built around constant change, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Third Doctor’s exile on Earth during which he allied himself with UNIT and formed arguably the closest thing to a family he has ever had retains such a cherished fondness. Accordingly, the era is also the one most suited to the alternative realities that this Unbound series presents, and Jonathan Clements’s ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ sees David Warner take on the role of a Doctor who arrives on Earth in 1997, never having served as UNIT’s scientific adviser after his two encounters with the organisation in his second incarnation.

Though not necessarily a unique strategy, telling how the familiar events of the Pertwee era played out without the Doctor present is immensely satisfying and altogether horrifying, UNIT seemingly resorting to explosions and violence on most occasions and leaving desolation and destruction in its wake across the globe. With China a global superpower in this world that is so similar and yet so very distinct from that shown on television, there’s always a pervading tension of possible war on everyone’s mind, and the revelation that the Master has been brainwashing soldiers for the Chinese as monks continue their centuries-old chant to prevent a parasite from feeding on human misery perfectly incorporates both a familiar threat and type of religious symbology that so often featured throughout the Third Doctor era even if here it is the Master who has been stranded and forced to live through the sequence of disasters with the Doctor nowhere to be seen.

‘Sympathy for the Devil’ features quite a robust cast, and David Warner easily assumes the leading role of a well-meaning but intimidating man who quickly becomes frustrated by the limits of life on Earth. Naturally, the Time Lords don’t like the Doctor interfering, but the Master is quick to point out that he cannot see the big picture as he insists on the helping the little people. Yet it’s this very desire to help on a small scale that develops an undoubted degree of humanity for this mysterious figure that contrasts so perfectly with his decision to abandon the Earth to the madness enveloping it at the story’s end because he has no close affinity with it or its people. Of course, setting this story in 1997 allows for a very mature look at a Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart whose life has taken a very divergent path without the Doctor alongside him. This is a downtrodden man whose career ended in disgrace with a forced honourable discharge, the mistakes that kept drawing attention to him and his rantings about the dangers of plastic daffodils creating a reputation from which he could not escape. Quite wondrously, though, he still retains an undeniable pride and sense of duty and heroism, and Nicholas Courtney perfectly balances the tumultuous blend of sentiments to prove that the Brigadier is very much still the same man on the inside and one perfectly suited to join the Doctor for continuing adventures off world.

With the Mark Gatiss employing his own anagram in Sam Kisgart as he portrays the Master, this version of the renegade Time Lord likewise forms an instant impression. The Master has been shown as both a more suave and sophisticated as well as a more maniacal genius, but this incarnation is well-placed in between those extremes, smugly relishing his evil but acting with a fairly even temper and calm charisma that complements the Doctor’s own morally grey moments excellently. Rounding out the major supporting cast is David Tennant’s Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood, a fascinatingly complex military individual who manages to show a compassion for those under his command despite a brash arrogance with little regard for political correctness. He’s remorseless in his contempt for the Brigadier, and his desperation to escape when the clock strikes midnight shows just how innately human he is when all bravado and stature is stripped away and only survival matters. This is not a character who could carry a series or even appear on a regular basis like the Brigadier, but this no-nonsense and unfiltered approach provides a gruff counterpoint to the Brigadier’s own style.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plot elements that borrow from ‘The Mind of Evil’- while perfectly serviceable- fail to deliver as much of a lasting impact as the immense performances that bring them to life. The dynamic between Warner and Courtney is spectacular, and it’s incredibly easy to imagine these old comrades who have just discovered each other again having many glorious adventures together throughout the cosmos. With an evocative world on the brink of terror after the Doctor was not there to avert so many disasters, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ fills the remit of this range perfectly while showcasing the incredible talent both in front of and behind the microphones that Big Finish has on offer.

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