The first unofficial Doctor Who spinoff video was Wartime, in 1988. This was made by Reeltime Pictures, known for their Myth Makers interview tapes, and is the only one of its kind that was made while Doctor Who was still on television. Their second effort was Downtime, in 1995, which we will be looking at soon, probably the best known unofficial spinoff. The point of these things mainly was to fill the gap left by Doctor Who when it went off air in 1989, to give the fans something new. Another company was also doing the same kind of thing in the 90s: BBV, which stands for Bill Baggs Video.
Reeltime and BBV had very different approaches. Although both of them were going for the nostalgia kick, BBV were much more forward thinking. Reeltime were all about bringing back the past with old monsters and companions. BBV, on the other hand, sought to give us that thrill of nostalgia by using Doctor Who actors in different roles, and making those roles sufficiently vague, leaving us to come to our own interpretations as to who the Stranger and Miss Brown are, played of course by Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant. Once the series was well-established it had a sufficient following to break away from Doctor Who a bit more, establishing the true history of the characters and also using Colin and other Doctor Who actors in specifically non-Doctor Who roles. So eventually we got multi-Doctor stories that are not actually multi-Doctor stories, but multi Doctor-actor stories, such as The Airzone Solution.
The first BBV effort was Summoned by Shadows in 1991, followed by More than a Messiah in 1992. The third in the series was In Memory Alone, in 1993. The Stranger series continued through to 1995, and after that BBV tried some other approaches, moving further into the realms of gritty adult drama with the Probe series, and then finally going down a similar route to Reeltime with the Auton series from 1997, in the wake of the popularity of Downtime, bringing back a Pertwee monster.
So before we look at In Memory Alone, a quick explanation as to why today’s article is not about Summoned by Shadows, or any other instalment in the Stranger range. Well, basically I watched all the rest of them once and can’t bring myself to watch them again. I know they all have their fans, but for me the entirety of the Stranger range is virtually unwatchable, with the one shining exception of In Memory Alone. It is completely different to the rest of the range, and requires no knowledge of the other videos to understand it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
So why is it so good? On a basic level, from the point of view of a Doctor Who fan, it is the only one that can be understood in terms of being an actual episode of Doctor Who, thanks to the premise that the Stranger and Miss Brown are suffering from amnesia. They arrive at the beginning of the story with no memory of their past life, so it is up to the viewers to fill in those gaps if they want to.
More importantly, it’s an absolutely brilliant story. I don’t normally give synopses in these articles because I figure that the vast majority of readers will be familiar with the Doctor Who stories I am writing about, but this is a special case. So just as a quick run-down, the Stranger wakes up on a train and Miss Brown on a train station, both suffering from amnesia. Once the Stranger disembarks, their whole world seems to consist of a platform and a train station, with some kind of a barrier preventing them from even walking down the tracks. Another man (played by Nicholas Briggs) is waiting on the platform for his train, and he seems to be behaving in a very strange manner. The only other sign of life is a flying robot, and a voice giving announcements over the station tannoy. The station hides a secret, and the Stranger and Miss Brown have to find out what is happening in order to escape and regain their memories.
So we have an interesting idea there, and it’s a tightly focussed plot with enough mystery to keep us hooked. The standard of acting is incredibly impressive from the three leads, and Nicholas Briggs in particular hits just the right notes of bizarre and subtly menacing. There is some leaning on the fourth wall:
STRANGER: When the train disappeared
BROWN: It was just like interference on the television, then it switched off.
STRANGER: Television, yes. Energies you could turn on and off.
…but most importantly there is an overwhelming sense of fear and wrongness about the situation, a sense that things are not where they belong and have to be put back, “everything in its proper place”. The story plays with ontology, challenging the nature of existence. How do we know who we really are, whether the world is real, whether we really exist? The Stranger and Miss Brown take the place of mannequins, which are eventually reinstated.
I really wanted to look at this as a conclusion to a Sixth Doctor week on the blog, and not just because of the connection with the lead actors. During Season 22 of Doctor Who there was an attempt to recapture past triumphs, in the wake of the 20th anniversary. The whole series got that startlingly wrong, because it was done superficially, bringing back old monsters, rehashing old plotlines, and even throwing in a bit of false continuity and a portrait of Jon Pertwee in Timelash. In Memory Alone shows a better way to capture the magic of the past. Nobody during Season 22 seemed to realise that you have to look at what made the original stories work, rather than just putting in some familiar monsters. In contrast, In Memory Alone starts with a great idea, keeps it tightly focussed, and holds our attention while a frightening mystery is explored. The format is reminiscent of the Hartnell era, where the Doctor and his companions are dropped into a dangerous world and have to learn how the world works in order to survive. In the process they fix some kind of a problem. By doing that, In Memory Alone recaptures past glories of Doctor Who far more effectively than any number of old monsters, and that is why it is the best of all the unofficial spinoffs.
In fact, I will go further than that. In Memory Alone is better than anything the Sixth Doctor episodes had to offer. It stands head and shoulders above the lot of them. Were it a Doctor Who story, I would consider it one of the very best of them all, not just the Colin Baker era. For a spinoff video that’s quite an extraordinary achievement. RP
The view from across the pond:
While revisiting Colin Baker’s era, we would be remiss in our duties if we ignored The Stranger. What is The Stranger, you ask?
After the powers-that-be axed Doctor Who in 1989, a period began which fans of the classic series refer to as “the wilderness years”. Think: Mad Max (or Fallout). A vast wasteland where the once great “Whoniverse” stood, reduced now to … nothing. But fans, Baker and Bryant included, knew there was still life hidden in that wasteland. They were determined to keep Doctor Who alive. But the evil “powers that be” said, “No, you can’t continue making Doctor Who on your own, for we own the name and it is ours! Mwahahahahaha…” (I’m paraphrasing slightly.) So in 1991, Colin and Nicola, with the help of people like Nick Briggs, stepped through a portal into a parallel universe and brought us The Stranger, a story about a mysterious traveler and his companion, Ms. Brown. Take that evil minions! You don’t have ownership of those names, do you now?! (Another paraphrasing of how we felt at the time!)
There is a hint that perhaps the Stranger is the Doctor and Ms. Brown is probably Peri, but we don’t get any confirmation of that through the videos. The fact is, Ms Brown speaks with Nicola’s native British accent unlike her TARDIS-traveling counterpart, so the chances are these are not the people we know, but one can speculate. In Memory Alone was the third in the series, and in preparation for writing a little something about it, I watched it last night. It runs just under 40 minutes in length, stars Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nick Briggs and a floating robot which might have been a reject from Lord Vader’s Empire. It takes place at a train station, briefly on the train and below the station in some underground room. Visually, I found it very jarring; frequently the camera seems too close to the actors and some of the cuts are very quick, lacking the professional touch. It could have been completed by students with a personal camcorder.
But what makes it stand out is what the story does in those 40 minutes. Amazingly, it’s utterly engrossing! The mannequin which transitions into Ms Brown is amazing and the close up of Nicola’s eye is remarkable. Then the questions begin: where are they? Who are they? Was she a mannequin? Who is the hologram (played by Nick Briggs) and why can no one recall who they are or where they come from? Briggs can look incredibly disturbing just be contorting his mouth slightly; I’m certain this falls into the uncanny valley, but his plight was fascinating. What was his purpose? How did he get there? The subtlety in the storytelling made it nearly impossible to stop watching it. There is also an astronaut which appears to be linked to the hologram. When the astronaut’s face mask opens, the image is incredibly disturbing and with every look at the face under the helmet, it gets worse, until it eventually sprays blood into Colin’s face. It’s weird, morbid and utterly fascinating.
Like the early days of Doctor Who, The Stranger proves that it wasn’t about the budget but good storytelling. The lesson that Baker’s era of Doctor Who could have learned was that pulling ideas from the show’s past was not necessary; what was needed was a good, compelling script! It didn’t hurt that half way through the story, Nicola’s hair is let down, by far the best special effect of the episode (she looks fantastic with her hair down, but that hairdo she started with was dreadful). Joking aside, it truly wasn’t the effects that I’ll remember for ages to come. I’ll be thinking about what it all meant. Part of me felt that maybe it was a reminder for children everywhere: a place for everything and everything in its place. The Stranger, who is little more than a guy on his way to work, figures it all out and has to send everyone back to their proper place and time, leaving us with some questions that may never be answered.
I thought I had seen In Memory Alone in the past, but it seems it was only the first of the batch, Summoned by Shadows, that I had seen before. It’s coming up on 30 years since I last watched any of The Stranger videos. Suffice it to say, watching this one summoned some shadow memories, but memory alone was not enough to go by. I was glad for the opportunity to watch one again after all these years. ML