Can You Have White Darkness? (Punchline)

Punchline, Robert Shearman, BBV, Sylvester McCoy, Doctor Who, Jeremy LeadbetterIt’s rare enough that Robert Shearman is mentioned without some close variation of a particular phrase. In magazines and on entertainment websites, it’s “the man who brought the Daleks back to Doctor Who”. In conversation, it’s “the guy who wrote the one where Christopher Eccleston’s in the bunker with the Dalek”. I’m not saying that “Dalek” isn’t a great episode – just that it’s the tip of an iceberg a bit more splendid and surreal than you might imagine.

Following an unusual career path for a Doctor Who writer, Shearman started out by earning some acclaim as a proper playwright. In 2003, he made the jump to Big Finish, where he wrote half a dozen Doctor Who audio dramas before Russell T Davies roped him in to write an episode for the first series of the show’s revival. That episode, “Dalek”, was itself based on Jubilee, an audio Shearman had written for the Sixth Doctor.

In the rare event that you meet someone who listens to Big Finish audios, they’ll likely agree that Shearman’s work is the best the company has to offer. But there’s one Shearman audio that they probably haven’t heard – one that virtually no-one has. Even Shearman himself seems unsure of its title when a 2015 interview momentarily dredged it up. In the dim and distant year 2000, under the cover of a pseudonym, the cautious playwright made his discreet first step into the world of Doctor Who with the BBV’s Punchline. And it’s brilliant. One fan review even alleges that McCoy called Punchline the best science fiction or fantasy production he’d ever taken part in, and while the anecdote’s source remains elusive, it’s all too believable.

Now, a little context. The brazenly-named BBV, short for Bill & Ben Video, is a small company specialising in Doctor Who methadone. They exist to take advantage of the gaps in the BBC’s official Doctor Who output, avoiding legal action by changing character names, paying writers for the use of individual creator-owned Doctor Who elements, or some combination of the two. Naturally, the BBV’s heyday was the period between the show’s cancellation and revival. Punchline is the twenty-first BBV audio drama, and the tenth and final entry in their series The Time Travellers. The first six Time Travellers stories, released in 1998, depicted the ongoing adventures of “the Professor” (Sylvester McCoy) and “Ace” (Sophie Aldred), two totally original characters who are definitely not thinly-veiled versions of the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Released the following year, the remaining audios surreptitiously adjusted the characters’ names to “the Dominie” and “Alice”… but we know the score. In terms of quality, the series is about what you’d expect from a low-budget, legally liminal spin-off scripted largely by fan-writers like Mark Gatiss and Nigel Fairs: conservative and straightforward. Punchline, on the other hand, is startlingly good, and represents a sharp swerve into the surreal and atypical.

Shearman is admirably up-front with regards to his writerly interests. The majority of his short stories centre on the complexities of love, interrogating messy, damaged, and basically realistic relationships between men and women by placing them in a context which resembles our own world with a surreal twist – for example, “giving one’s heart away” might be a literal act rather than a figure of speech, or the whole of Luxembourg might mysteriously vanish while a woman’s husband is on a business trip there. These magical-realist elements often walk the line between whimsical and morbid, weaving the entertaining with the sickening as baroque fantasy trappings decay to reveal a stratum of disturbingly ordinary human drama. Some of these stories are fun and high-concept, while others are nebulous and almost impossible to summarise. Shearman also evinces a deep-rooted but playful fascination with Christian mythology; the most obvious point of intersection here with relationship drama, Adam and Eve, are recurring characters, as are Jesus, angels, and demons, with numerous stories taking place in the Garden of Eden or some variation on hell, heaven, or limbo. (One Eden riff, “The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World”, is pretty much the best short story I’ve ever read.) In Shearman’s Doctor Who stories, the Christian themes are generally suppressed, but supernaturally-tinged domestic comedy-drama remains a constant throughline. So does Shearman’s fondness for metaphysical prison settings and the postmodernist use of transcendent, identity-eroding experiences as climax, conclusion, or both, frequently with the revelation of some metaphor which bridges the mundane and human with the otherworldly.

So what does Shearman do for his first cautious foray into writing for his own guilty pleasure? Well, after a jaunty theme tune which does its best to convince us we’re listening to the wrong disc, Punchline introduces us to its central characters: middle-management everyman Dominic Perkins (Sylvester McCoy), his devoted wife June (Susan Travers), their crafty teenage son Kevin (Neil Bull), and Dominic’s boss Sir (Barry J Gordon). The previous Time Travellers audios were standard Doctor Who stories with the serial numbers filed off, but Shearman opts for disorienting in medias res, and tosses the listener into the deep end with no idea why the Doctor is seemingly now a human family man – a hook that makes the story immediately compelling, even to a more casual listener. One possible influence is Paul Cornell’s 1995 novel Human Nature, which also began with the Seventh Doctor living as a human, but Shearman adds a metafictional layer, trapping the Doctor in another genre as well as another species. Ace is omitted entirely. We’re thrillingly unmoored here. The previous Time Travellers stories had to obscure their Doctor Who nature for legal reasons, but Punchline has artistic ones. The sitcom format also helps Shearman to distil Cornell’s Doctor-as-not-Doctor concept down to his own preferred theatrical scope, eschewing the obvious opportunity for an epic in favour of something far more introspective.

The first thirteen minutes of Punchline run through a clichéd sitcom plot. Dominic arrives home from work and greets his family, only to find out that Sir is coming over for dinner. Kevin’s taken up painting as his weekly get-rich-quick scheme, and Dominic manages to spill paint on his trousers just before Sir arrives. Hilarious mishaps ensue, with the sound of studio laughter following the characters’ cheesy one-liners. Dominic’s catchphrases are “That’s my wifey!” (when June says something nice) and “Oh my golly gosh, oh cripes!” (when something goes wrong). The audience loves them. At one point, something seems to stir in Dominic’s memory, and he murmurs to himself, “I seem to remember when I wasn’t frightened of anybody… and I didn’t have a boss… and I didn’t have a son…” This reverie is accompanied by copyright-friendly faux-Doctor Who synths and an escalating sound of static; this comes to a halt when the other characters snap Dominic out of his headache, but now the story is beginning to take shape. When Sir reveals that he’s a vegetarian, Dominic uses Kevin’s green paint to disguise a steak as a vegetarian dish. Enjoying the meal, and impressed with June’s looks, Sir offers Dominic a promotion, bringing us to the happy ending of the “episode”. The jaunty theme music kicks in… only to be distorted by the sound of a tape fast-forwarding as we’re thrust into the beginning of the next episode.

June greets Dominic as he arrives home from work. Kevin announces a get-rich-quick scheme. Sir comes to visit. Dominic panics, manages to resolve the problem, and we move on to the next episode. The details vary, but the format remains. Gradually, as the story loops, Dominic begins to recognise how drab and superficial this scenario is. He starts to piece together vague memories of another life; one where he had exciting adventures across time and space. There’s a sense that Dominic has been part of this sitcom narrative for a very long time.

As the story goes on, Dominic becomes increasingly self-absorbed. He obsesses with figuring out what sort of reality he’s in, ignoring the other characters as they try to placate him. Pre-empting Graham Linehan’s joke about Reynholm Industries in The IT Crowd by several years, Shearman has Dominic suddenly question what his boss’s company even produces, only for Sir to struggle replying. (For a moment it’s tempting to imagine that Dominic works at Thomas Ligotti’s Red Tower, but then Sir synthesises some of Dominic’s mocking suggestions and settles on “Japanese jelly jars” and “jumping Japanese jelly babies”.)

Eventually, Dominic even begins to hear the audience’s laughter, and deduces experimentally that it responds to inflection rather than dialogue. Guessing that some kind of alien mind control is involved, he looks out of the corner of his eye and discovers the machine generating it. When the others assure him that it’s just a perfectly normal CannedLaughterTron, Dominic remarks with interest: “So, the logic changes as we go one… that’s cheating, you know.” When Dominic smashes the machine and refuses to continue as a sitcom dad, Kevin is forced to “play both parts”, alternating between his own dialogue and his father’s until the episode ends.

Torn between the reality he perceives and the one in his memories, Dominic confronts Kevin and June: “In case you’re really real, I’m sorry… but I would sacrifice you and your mother quite happily – I would reject this world and all of its sanitised comforts – for just one taste of the adventures I see in my mind.” (TARDIS travel as divorce – that’s a new one.) In order to test his new solipsistic hypothesis that nothing happens when he’s not present, Dominic opens the front door before anybody has rung the bell – opens the door in violation of dramatic logic – and finds an empty void. Kevin is horrified by what he calls the “white darkness”, but we know it for what it really is – the sea of static, that televisual aether lurking beneath the surface of all programming. Assured of his sanity, Dominic waits for Sir to arrive, and in a scene set to a great Doctor Who-style synth version of the sitcom’s theme, Dominic suggests that Sir turn the company’s attention towards a new product: time machines. With a space-travel component, to give it the edge over competitors. And while we’re at it, make it dimensionally transcendent, and in the shape of a small blue box. Essentially, Dominic manipulates the genre conventions of the current narrative in order to hack his way into a new one.

Although Dominic speculates that Sir or Kevin might be the alien controlling his world, an attentive listener will identify June as the villain of the piece early on. Sir makes too many comments on how attractive Dominic’s wife is, and Kevin’s cheerful declarations that he wants to find a woman just like his mother are equally suspect – both of these characters exist to elevate June, to bolster Dominic’s love for her. (At times, the story feels like a meditation on different types of Doctor Who fandom, with Dominic sensibly asking for change and June as the unreasonable fan who wants to have her Doctor forever.)

When Punchline finally turns macabre, it’s earned and effective. Under June’s instruction, Kevin suddenly transforms into a twelve-foot alien slime monster covered in razor-sharp tentacles, an evil “true form” bestowed via a diegetic retcon. June urges Dominic to kill the monster with the Technobabble Bobulator gun, a thinly-veiled sonic screwdriver. He wanted to be part of a Doctor Who story, so she’s made a clumsy attempt to twist the sitcom into one. What she didn’t predict was Dominic’s complete rejection of violence; growing exasperated, she takes the gun and kills Kevin herself. Increasingly dismayed, Dominic begs her to stop this charade and let them talk. She obliges, dismissing Sir, who fades out of existence.

When Dominic tells June that he cannot love her, she reveals that she can change her appearance, change her personality, become whatever he wants. Dominic replies, “I cannot love a person. Not one single person. My love is for the universe. My duty is to the universe. I cannot commit to just one person within it.” When she asks why such an impersonal love should even matter, he has no answer.

Various writers have offered their explanations as to why the Doctor, at least in the classic series, refuses romance. The suggestion here – that the Doctor’s intense philanthropy somehow renders intimacy impossible – echoes the dualistic model of specific and general love outlined by Cornell in Human Nature, where the Doctor explains to his human incarnation’s former fiancée: “I hope that one day, when I’m old, when my travels are over, and history has no more need of me, then I can be just a man again. And then, perhaps I’ll find those things in me that I’d need to love, also. Not love like I do, a big love for big things, but that more dangerous love. The one that makes and kills human beings … It’s a dream I have.” However, given that the character is an immortal time-traveller, this feels less like a practical decision than one governed by some abstract alien morality. Shearman would later revisit the question in Scherzo, where the Eighth Doctor – in a similar bout of claustrophobic honesty – tells Charley Pollard that the Time Lords say he takes companions as memento mori. Is his love for the universe somehow bound to the knowledge that he will one day die?

Dominic asks June to take away the house and “bring back the void”, saying it “seems more honest somehow”. She complies, and Dominic sees in the distance the prototype Sir built for him – the blue box. June changes technique, and instead asks Dominic to take her with him. If he doesn’t like domestic sitcom, they can give space adventure a try, and she can play his companion. Dominic attempts to tell her that he doesn’t want a fantasy, that he’s going to the real world, but June says that he’s simply escaping her fiction and entering his own; that his adventures in time and space, with their weekly cliffhangers and regular universe-saving, are no more real than Kevin’s get-rich-quick schemes and Sir’s coming to dinner. “Real life doesn’t have happy endings,” she tells him, in one of the story’s sharpest lines, “Real life is about faded love, and regret, and paralysing loneliness.”

The best thing about her argument, of course, is that it’s completely correct. We know this, even if the Doctor doesn’t. His adventures are fake, every one of them, and the possibility of the series acknowledging this truth is one of the few genuine tensions that remain within it, unbroken. Dominic fears that he might one day open a door in his own universe and find himself facing the same void; that he might have to face the truth. In the end, he refuses to take June because he’s afraid that she’s right, and he wants to forget that possibility. As Dominic walks away and the static crowds in, the only words the lost June can find are her husband’s catch phrase: “Oh, my golly gosh. Oh, cripes.”

It’s not uncommon for science fiction and fantasy shows to air an episode which explores the possibility that the entire story is taking place in someone’s head. Really, it’s odd that mainstream Doctor Who has never tried something similar. What sets Punchline apart from most coma-fantasy-type stories is that it doesn’t present two possible realities, but three. Where a more usual example like “Normal Again” asks the fairly obvious question of whether Buffy is a vampire slayer or a delusional mental patient, Punchline gives us a third option: that both the fantasy and the reality are equally fictitious components of some larger, unknowable system. (Perhaps this isn’t even metafiction but… something adjacent. Intrafiction? Megafiction?) It’s a particularly effective approach because it bypasses the flattening dullness of the “all just a dream” ending, and also because, well, it’s actually the best way to conceptualise these things. Fictional realities and the fictional fantasies that exist “within” them really are equally real fictions that co-exist within our own universe.

One of the story’s most unsettling aspects, and the source of much of its understated power, is that its events are ultimately left almost completely unexplained. The Doctor is trapped in some sort of sitcom-like reality by June, but we never find out who (or what) she really is, what planet (or universe) they’re in, or how she managed to snare him. It seems incredibly arbitrary that this powerful being should use a genre of late 20th-century Earth television programming as the model for the Doctor’s prison… until you remember that the Doctor’s own home, Science Fiction Adventure Serial Land, is just one door down. June’s point, and perhaps the point of Punchline, is that everything that can be said about the sitcom can also be said about Doctor Who. Dominic thinks out loud, grasping for understanding, and while he eventually seems to escape, we’re denied any real closure; robbed of the usual moment where the Doctor looks back on the shenanigans of the last four episodes and makes a quip. Ambiguous settings will recur throughout Shearman’s Doctor Who work – he similarly chose not to name the planet where his Sixth Doctor audio The Holy Terror takes place because doing so would diminish it somehow, reducing a vividly strange and alien world to just another piece of trivia to be processed and catalogued by the TARDIS Data Core – but with Punchline he hits the pinnacle of that approach right out of the gate.

The entire cast is excellent. McCoy gets to exercise everything from his usual comic bluster to the more elegiac quality of his later work, Travers’s June hits the perfect balance between shrill and poisonously sweet, Gordon’s Sir is the platonic ideal of the nasty sitcom boss, and Bull’s Kevin vacillates between desperate and stern in a way that really sells his precarious position as a local inhabitant of an unstable reality. I really can’t stress how enjoyable and easy to listen to this audio is – I’ve consumed an ungodly amount of Doctor Who media, and I genuinely think this is the single most underappreciated artefact of the series. Even stuff like Iris Wildthyme and Faction Paradox have small, dedicated fandoms to keep them alive. Punchline has… well, there’s a good plot summary on Dr Who Guide, and Hisi79 has posted a cool illustration on DeviantArt. That’s… pretty much the entire discourse surrounding it. With this in mind, I felt I had no option but to write a stupidly detailed analysis in a quixotic quest to combat my favourite Doctor Who story’s absence from the collective consciousness.

Concerned that dabbling in obscure Doctor Who knock-offs might harm his reputation as a proper playwright, Shearman wrote Punchline under the pseudonym Jeremy Leadbetter – a name he lifted, quite instructively, from The Good Life. An overly sweet British sitcom of the 1970s, The Good Life follows the adventures of suburban couple Tom and Barbara Good, and their next-door neighbours, Jeremy and Margo Leadbetter. (Jeremy is played by Paul Eddington, whose other sitcom, Yes Minister, also gets a nod when Dominic complains that his work mostly involves taking paperwork from the “in” folder and putting it in the “out” folder.) Beginning with his fortieth birthday and mid-life crisis, the first episode hinges on Tom’s decision to quits his stable but boring job so that he and Barbara can begin a new life as self-sufficient farmers (the premise of the series from here on out). Really, it’s only in the first episode of The Good Life that significant Punchline parallels can be found. It’s one of those sitcoms that begins not with a typical episode’s plot, but an instigating event, means that the first episode is the only one where anything substantial changes. If anything, Punchline is structured the opposite way: it begins with a sequence of many bland, indistinguishable “episodes”, which gradually fracture until the cycle disintegrates and the protagonist escapes back into his ostensibly “original” mode of living.

It’s not difficult to see why Shearman might enjoy the show – his short fiction largely revolves around similar middle-class couples and their anxieties and neuroses. But while he may be drawn to this milieu, he’s also savvy enough to want to interrogate it; to explore the horror that lurks, implicit, behind the smiling face of suburbia. Why shouldn’t the ear in Blue Velvet have its counterpart across the Atlantic? Punchline takes the notion of a mundane crisis, of a mental break and desire for change, and makes them the engine of the story, stretching the first episode of The Good Life across an entire imaginary show. Both protagonists begin their story feeling mired in convention, but where Tom only wants to escape the capitalist machine and live off the grid, Dominic rejects his entire mode of reality. Punchline is The Good Life simultaneously condensed and writ cosmic.

In The Good Life, the central conflict is between the worldviews of the self-sufficient Goods and the more conservative Leadbetters, without much intra-marital disagreement. Shearman streamlines this to a more manageable level, eliminating the neighbours: Dominic keeps the Goods’ renegade nature and June stands in for the Leadbetters’ more manipulative, shrewish presence. The only real embellishment Shearman makes to the basic set-up is the addition of Kevin – both couples in The Good Life are childless, so giving the Perkinses a son serves to smooth Punchline into a slightly broader sitcom pastiche, making it feel like a commentary on the genre rather than a needlessly specific Good Life parody. (The couples in Shearman’s work sometimes have children, but they’re usually false or shallow in some way – they’re cuckoos in the nest, or distant disappointments, or never existed at all beyond dreams and hallucinations; they’re not real people but literalisations of the flawed relationships that bore them, and which lie at the real core of Shearman’s stories. Kevin is all these things and more.) Accordingly, The Good Life‘s real-world setting of Surbiton, London is punningly smudged by Shearman into “Suburbton”. A few offhand moments where Tom refers to his boss simply as “Sir” are exaggerated and extrapolated, with Dominic’s boss being literally named Sir, the last in a line of Sirs dating back to the Norman conquest, and the husband of Mrs Sir. The Goods’ interest in simple living becomes Dominic’s wistful half-memory of adventures in time and space. (You’ve seen Jamie Mathieson write TARDIS travel as addiction. Now get ready for TARDIS travel as agriculture.)

Shearman gives the Punchline characters overtly self-aware dialogue such as “Look darling, it’s our loveable layabout son Kevin!” and “Well, that’s another adventure ended happily, darling!” The Good Life isn’t a postmodern series, and was likely selected by Shearman because its very classical nature allows it to be used as a stand-in for sitcom itself; for a style and format of television that is emphatically not Doctor Who. You could just as easily write a similar story where the Doctor is trapped in a police procedural, or a horror anthology, or a magical girl anime… but somehow sitcom strikes the right balance. Maybe it’s the looping, purgatorial storylines, maybe it’s the laughing, invisible observers, but the format seems almost to bare itself for this sort of deconstruction. I’d go further and say that something about The Good Life itself invites this sort of attack. A similar fourth-wall-breaking parody features in The Young Ones, where the Good Life title screan appears halfway through an episode only for Vyvyan Basterd to tear it down, shouting that the Goods are “Nothing but a couple of reactionary stereotypes confirming the myth that everyone in Britain is a lovable middle-class eccentric.” Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews have also said that, back when Father Ted was intended to be a satire on sitcoms, the jaunty music they requested that Neil Hannon compose for it – eventually reworked as “Woman of the World” – sounded, well, rather like the theme from The Good Life.

Adult Swim’s 2014 viral video Too Many Cooks is predicated on the same sort of joke, starting with what seems to be a cheesy American sitcom opening, then extending it to unnerving length, gradually ramping up both the humour and the tension by breaking the fourth wall in ways that riff on the underlying genre (for instance, the characters eventually switching places with their own on-screen credits in a weird kind of meta-body-horror-comedy). This structure, beginning as a straight example and slowly escalating into nightmarish exaggeration, is now a familiar part of internet-era genre deconstruction, with Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared providing an analogous takedown of the puppet-based children’s television format.

Which brings us to the one thing that’s slightly awkward about Punchline: the medium it’s parodying through fusion with Doctor Who, multicamera studio sitcom, is strictly a televisual one. Shearman soon learned to write more specifically for audio, and gave us the excellent Scherzo, which is almost impossible to imagine working as a television episode. However, Punchline’s conceptual focus on television means the listener can never quite forget that that’s where this particular story belongs. There are fleeting attempts to gesture at the disparity – for instance, June attempts to reassure Dominic by kissing him, only for Dominic to see through the artifice and realise that she’s actually just making kissing noises while standing six feet away from him; that this is how they’ve always lived. This could almost be a jab at John Nathan-Turner’s “No hanky-panky in the TARDIS” rule, but it’s delivered as if it were a meta-commentary on audio drama… in an audio drama that’s otherwise dedicated entirely to commenting on television. We can salvage this, however, if we remember that Dominic’s awareness of his situation is still growing. Perhaps he’s beginning to realise not only that he’s trapped in a television sitcom, but that he’s trapped in a television sitcom trapped in an audio play. This also ties in neatly to the confrontationally meta finale… though it doesn’t change the fact that this story would work far better on the screen. Preferably shot on tape and at 4:3.

Shearman would revisit many of Punchline’s themes in the Doctor Who Unbound audio Deadline, a sort of spiritual sequel centring instead on an elderly television writer (Derek Jacobi) who failed to create Doctor Who, and now struggles to connect with his family. It’s an excellent story in its own way, but it’s much more straightforwardly metafictional, and while it threads the reality-or-delusion divide with more finesse, it lacks the perverse sitcom fun I find in its antecedent.

The enclosed, focused nature of Shearman’s later Doctor Who stories still echo his theatrical background, but Punchline is stagey in the extreme, with the action restricted to four characters and a single house. If the BBC still adapted novels and audio stories to television, this would make one hell of a bottle episode, for Capaldi or any other Doctor. Come to think of it, why haven’t the BBV already done this themselves? It’s a stunning script that could be filmed on a shoestring with minimal changes, but they’re just messing about with stuff like a Liz Shaw film that doesn’t even have Caroline John. When you’ve got this languishing in obscurity, making Do You Have a Licence to Save This Planet? instead is inexcusable. And unlike their Colin Baker video series The Stranger, the fact that the character can’t dress like the Doctor or call himself the Doctor isn’t even a weakness. Seriously Bill Baggs, if you’re somehow reading this, just grab McCoy and three decent stage actors, set aside a weekend, and shoot Punchline in your house. There you go, best Doctor Who spin-off ever made. (Just try not to turn it into a weird porno like you did with that Zygon film Jon Blum and Lance Parkin wrote for you.)

Any fan listening to Punchline today will note the clear parallels to “Heaven Sent”: both stories have the Doctor using a combination of logic, determination, and sheer attrition to escape from an inexplicable bespoke prison in a pocket universe where experiences loop endlessly and he is the only real person. And thanks to Shearman’s commitment to ambiguity, the question of how long the Doctor spends in it is even more unnerving: four and a half billion years is pretty bad, but at least that’s just a number. However, barring the obvious comparison to Shearman’s later audios, Punchline’s closest relative in official Doctor Who is probably The Mind Robber.

A metafictional five-part serial from 1968, The Mind Robber has the Second Doctor using the TARDIS’s “emergency unit” and finding himself transported to a strange world inhabited by fictional characters like Gulliver and Cyrano de Bergerac. The land’s master is eventually revealed to be an early 20th-century writer, who is himself enslaved to the Master Brain, a strange organic computer that needs his creativity to power its world. Now an old man, the writer seeks to trap the Doctor in his place so that this world (named “The Land of Fiction”, seemingly by fan consensus) may continue forever; the Doctor is able to defeat the computer and rescue him. As in Punchline, the nature of this world and how it came to be is left unresolved. Both stories involve a powerful being ruling over a strange, overtly fictional world outside the normal Doctor Who universe; a being who wants nothing more than to be with the Doctor forever. Where The Mind Robber begins with the TARDIS in a white void, and has the Doctor wandering into a world of fiction, Punchline begins in a world of fiction, and has Dominic wandering into a white void to find the TARDIS.

The Mind Robber describes the Land of Fiction as a place “out of reality”, which could mean it’s less real than the Doctor’s universe, but could just as easily mean that it’s more real. The story’s main threat is that the Doctor’s companion’s will be “turned into fictional characters”, and the final scene does not actually show the characters escaping, leaving open the rather earth-shattering possibility that they don’t. In any case, once you make the barrier between fiction and reality as porous as The Mind Robber does, there’s no going back: aspersions are cast on the basic nature of your story. Punchline explicates this subtext, with June outright telling the Doctor that his adventures could be just as much of a fantasy as her sitcom.

In her essay on The Mind Robber for TARDIS Eruditorum, Elizabeth Sandifer suggests that the serial can be read as an alternative origin story for the Doctor – one where the Doctor was the original Master of the Land of Fiction, who he abdicated to live his stories instead of dreaming them. This is the act of “treason” that Gulliver accuses the Doctor of, and this is why the Master Brain wants to become one with him again. Given that it deals with reality-warping, this theory is also impossible to disprove. I like this theory rather a lot, and certainly find it a lot more interesting than the more conventional sci-fi backstory the show would give the character later in the same season.

The idea of the Doctor having some secret and mysterious past is hardly new. During the Sylvester McCoy era, the writers attempted to revitalise the character of the Doctor by dropping hints that he was something more than a Time Lord. Their idea was to detail aspects of his murky past in such a way as to raise more questions than they answered. Occasional lines of dialogue began to imply the Doctor’s involvement in Gallifrey’s grandiose history. Marc Platt’s serial Lungbarrow was set to bring this plot to its culmination… until Andrew Cartmel had second thoughts and discarded the script. After the show’s cancellation, Platt finally released Lungbarrow as a novel; a bizarre labyrinth of continuity fetishisation and gothic sci-fi world-building. Lungbarrow’s grand solution to the question of the Doctor’s origins was to reveal that (A) Time Lords are created asexually from machines called Looms, and (B) the Doctor himself is the result of an ancient being who co-founded Time Lord civilisation being reincarnated after falling into one. So, the Doctor is still our wacky renegade Time Lord, but he also used to be a mystical pre-Time Lord, and can remember bits of it sometimes. The “cosmic hobo” is distilled into “cosmic” and “hobo”. We get to have our Doctor and exchange him for weird thematics too.

This proposal that the Doctor is the reincarnation of “the Other” has been widely criticised for undermining the character’s status as a regular guy taking on injustice… as well as being generally convoluted and ridiculous. However, I must admit that I rather enjoy the endless possibilities and absurd debates the idea has generated. Intentionally or not, the preceding Seventh Doctor novels offer pleasingly contradictory clues as to the Other’s identity. Dave Stone’s Sky Pirates hints that he was the Greek god Dionysus. Paul Cornell’s Human Nature implies – in a passage contributed, bizarrely, by Steven Moffat – that the Other was a Victorian scientist who built his own time machine, in the style of HG Wells’s Time Traveller (whom he might even be, really). In the closing pages of Lungbarrow, Platt himself offers the idea that the Other is somehow the hybrid son of the Doctor’s own companion Leela and her Time Lord husband Andred, which manages to be consistent with the TV film’s “I’m half-human, on my mother’s side” twist while also imbuing several Tom Baker serials with a deliriously creepy undertone. (A few years later, Justin Richards’s Sometime Never… skipped over the Loom business and said the Doctor was originally Soul, one of eight evil crystal people born during the Big Bang as a result of a mishap involving a dog and some diamonds, and who ended up running off with the girl who would become Susan Foreman after getting amnesia and coming to believe that he was the Doctor. I don’t understand this one, so we’ll forget it.)

Additionally, the concept of the Other has spurred the imagination of many fans (most of whom seem, perhaps wisely, to have read Lungbarrow’s Wikipedia article rather than the book itself). Perhaps the most entertaining micro-fandom it’s spawned is Doctor Nyarlathotep, which is exactly what it sounds like. In short, the Other is a clumsy idea, but it can be used as a port to mainline pretty much any concept you want into the heart of Doctor Who – to postulate an answer to the show’s eponymous question. The name is ostensibly meant to distinguish him positionally from Gallifrey’s more famous founders, Rassilon and Omega – he’s “the other one” – but it can also be read as suggesting that he’s unknowable on some deeper level. It hints at the existence of a vast, unseen narrative which contains Doctor Who in the same way that Doctor Who itself contains Human Nature, and the existence of a character who contains the Doctor just as the Doctor contains Human Nature protagonist John Smith… and in this jump from two layers of reality and identity to three quietly looms the possibility of even more. I think that’s brilliant.

What does any of this have to do with Punchline? Well.

When Elizabeth Sandifer put forward her idea of the Doctor as the exiled Master of the Land of Fiction, she didn’t discuss the similarities between this idea and the Other mythos, but I think it’s both an evolution and a refinement. The Doctor as the master of all stories, a being synonymous with fiction itself and compatible with every kind of narrative, feels massive enough – but also true enough – to be the secret in this particular Abrams’s mystery box. Gallifrey as a rationalisation of the Land of Fiction, a backstory created diegetically when a character moved from one mode of reality to another, is far stranger and far more interesting than Gallifrey as a planet with sci-fi aliens on it. And isn’t there something of the situation comedy in the Doctor’s endless, formulaic cycle of bases under siege, of pseudohistoricals and captures-and-escapes?

But if we agree with this reading, it still doesn’t quite provide an origin story. The Mind Robber becomes an incident where the Doctor went back to his true world, didn’t quite remember it or understand what was going on, and left for more adventures. We still haven’t seen the origin itself – the moment the Doctor left. What if Punchline is that story – a prequel to Doctor Who itself?

Now, Punchline is ostensibly a Seventh Doctor story, given that it stars Sylvester McCoy. However, not being licensed by the BBC, it never actually makes any direct reference to the show’s events. Nor does it reference the other audios in the Time Travellers series, leaving their Ace out entirely and refusing to specify the events on either side of the Doctor’s stint in sitcom purgatory. Dominic’s name does seem to be a play on the Dominie, but even so, there’s really nothing about Punchline to tie it to any particular chronological placement. And if any existing Doctor should be used to represent the character’s mythic pre-history, the best choice is surely McCoy, whose era had that very idea as one of its hallmarks. The Seventh Doctor always exerted a strange control over the show’s past – consider Remembrance of the Daleks, which implies that the First Doctor was already working to facilitate his schemes when he fled Gallifrey. In many ways, McCoy’s incarnation seems to embody the all-deforming gravitational force of narrative itself.

Perhaps it’s not even necessary to choose one chronology. In the closing scene, June begs, “Don’t leave me on my own again… not in this loneliness, not all over again.” It’s a brief moment, but the repeated wording seems a conscious decision. The implication is that these events have some kind of circularity to them, even outside the obvious cycle that forms the focus of the story. Perhaps the sitcom world and the Doctor Who world form some sort of ouroboros, endlessly feeding into one another; an alien dance of fictions whose denizens can never understand them. (Paul Cornell arrives at a similar idea with his 2007 audio play Winter, which takes place inside the Fifth Doctor’s mind as he regenerates, and finds him happily married, living in a blizzard-bound house with two infant children named Tegan and Adric. Nyssa’s astral projection comes to help, and we eventually learn that the Doctor’s wife Anima is actually Kamelion, whose psychic link to the Doctor is being exploited by the Master to halt the regeneration and kill him. It’s a good story and well-told, but its thoroughly-explained narrative and faintly absurd placement within the final scene of The Caves of Androzani prevent it from matching the haunting universality of Punchline. Rather than constructing a TARDIS, the Doctor escapes this dreamworld by merging with a Watcher, as in Logopolis. There’s also some genuinely thought-provoking dialogue as he finally parts with Nyssa, which speaks to the centrality this kind of domestic fantasy has in the Doctor’s psyche: “Each life creates the next – no wonder Time Lords and Buddhists get on so well. There was a moment there when it actually looked like I was going to get off the wheel of life, wasn’t there? When it looked like I might actually have found my Nirvana. But you were here to put a stop to that – to be the grit in the wheel. Or should I say the grain…?)

Dominic seems to interpret the images and ideas intruding upon his mind as memories, but if the Doctor is indeed the one true Master of the Land of Fiction – with the Master of the Land we see in the story a pale replacement – then the Doctor is also a storyteller, a writer, an artist. Rather than brimming with memories, his mind overflows with the stories he will one day live. Considered as a Mind Robber prequel, Punchline forms an origin story that eschews the continuity fetishism of Lungbarrow to more evocatively depict the experience of fleeing from one narrative world to another, with all the existential strangeness that would imply.

In Punchline, the TARDIS is not something Dominic recovers, but an idea which exists only in his mind, and which he must have Sir create for him; June does not recognise it, so it cannot have been present when she snared him. The audio’s staginess even harks back to the small casts and simple sets and special effects of the very first Doctor Who serials – despite its 1970s vibrancy, it’s tempting to visualise it in black-and-white.

We have already the quintessential image of the anarchic Doctor rebelling against those who seek control over others – the basic ethos that will echo throughout every era of the show, and the incorruptible core of Doctor Who. And yet, Punchline complements the Doctor’s compulsion for justice with a stranger desire: to forget the truth that he is nothing but a player, and that the universe he saves every week no less scripted than an episode of The Good Life. The Moffat era’s concern with the nature of stories and memories, with ancient secrets and forgotten prophecies, begins to make more sense.

For a fan, seeing the Doctor as part of a conventional domestic family is far more surreal than even the most overtly bizarre alien adventure. One of his most interesting mysteries is that we know he was once a family man, a father and a grandfather, but that this aspect of his character is confined to the forbidden, unobservable time before An Unearthly Child. In 1964, William Hartnell supposedly pitched a spin-off called The Son of Doctor Who, where he himself would have played the Doctor’s evil son, an adventurer with a TARDIS of his own. It didn’t happen, but it’s telling that Hartnell even deemed the idea plausible. Nowadays, the idea of placing the Doctor alongside a wife and child has such mythic weight it’s basically impossible. This leaves Punchline feeling rather primordial. Granted, Kevin doesn’t appear to be Susan’s father, but there’s still a sense that a gap has been bridged. We’ve finally seen the Doctor’s family, even if we don’t understand how the pieces fit. Lance Parkin hit on something similar in his 1996 novel Cold Fusion, which introduced Patience, the Other’s wife, but Shearman’s angle has real, substantive drama.

The being who called herself June declared that she would show Dominic her love by accompanying him on all his adventures; claimed that that she could change her appearance and personality to whatever he needed. The alarming possibility presents itself that this is exactly what she did, and that every companion in Doctor Who is another incarnation of June; that this obsessive, tragic creature subsumes and rewrites her own identity and history again and again, becoming the inexplicable granddaughter Susan, then Vicki, then Zoe, then Sarah Jane and Ace and Rose and Clara, all so that she can be with the Doctor forever. If the one you want only loves everyone, the only solution is to become everyone. The core of Doctor Who stands revealed as the most warped love story ever written, and – most horrifyingly of all – Dimensions in Time, where all the Doctor’s companions inexplicably share one transcendent mind and it’s possible to slip from a sci-fi universe into the literal EastEnders one, starts to look like an airtight, perfectly logical episode. However, while the closing moments of Punchline are inconclusive, the implication is that Dominic escapes and June cannot follow. Under the “origin story” reading, she instead remains behind to become the Master Brain, the Mind Robber herself, eternally longing for the Doctor to complete her. When the Land of Fiction becomes Gallifrey, she becomes the Matrix, that all-controlling blind idiot goddess at the centre of creation.

In one interview, Shearman says that the difference between a joke and a horror story is that the latter goes on longer. Most of his short fiction reflects this idea, with daft premises growing thorny and disturbing as they exceed the joke’s natural lifespan… as they cross the punchline. What’s curious about this is that his endings are also punchlines of a sort. He couches them in ambiguity, often bringing us to the brink of some thunderingly strange conclusion, only to ask us to imagine for ourselves what happens next. One protagonist prepares to reunite with the wife whose face he has seen in strange places across the world since he left her; another, who tells stories to the wilderness, finally hears it begin to answer. The revelation that we’re not about to have the ultimate truth handed to us on a platter can serve as a kind of twist in itself. There’s an interesting rhythm here: stories which start like the set-up for a joke (say, the Doctor in a sitcom), continue past the joke’s length (“I seem to remember when I wasn’t frightened of anybody…”), and ultimately arrive at what amounts to a macabre punchline anyway; a punchline of a different sort.

In naming his forgotten BBV audio, Shearman may have been revealing more than he knew. If this is the origin story… maybe the real punchline is Doctor Who.

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