downtimeIt was a funny old world being a Doctor Who fan in the 90s.  I had watched quite a bit of 80s Doctor Who but wouldn’t really have described myself as a fan, but from 1992 onwards I was a true devotee, buying every book, magazine and VHS tape as they came out.  But new Doctor Who on television during this time was rare as hen’s teeth.  Luckily some Doctor Who fans stepped in to try to fill the void with some unofficial spinoffs, and sell them as direct-to-video films.

That’s not quite the beginning of the story, because the phenomenon of the unofficial video didn’t actually hail from the so-called “Wilderness Years”.  The first one was Wartime in 1987, and that’s important, because Doctor Who was still on television at that point.  So these videos were not just about bringing back Doctor Who, but were about bringing back what was considered to be a better time for the series, with Wartime featuring Benton and UNIT.  Downtime in 1995 was very much from that same tradition, with the Yeti, Victoria, Professor Travers, the Brigadier and Sarah Jane Smith.  Note that all of those elements are from the 60s and 70s.  Also in the cast, but playing different roles from the ones they were known for in Doctor Who, were Geoffrey Beevers, John Leeson and James Bree, and the title music utilised the Buddhist chant “om mane padme hum”, also used in Planet of the Spiders.  The director was Doctor Who veteran Christopher Barry.

So this is very deliberately backward looking, and makes no concession to viewers who might not be familiar with the original characters, or with The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear.  But it didn’t need to.  Nobody buying this would be anything other than a dedicated fan of Doctor Who.

So far, so 60s/70s Who.  But I haven’t mentioned the writer: Marc Platt.  Aha, you might say, so this doesn’t entirely reject the 80s then, because the writer is the same man who gave us Ghost Light.  And you would be half right.  Because Marc Platt was one of those writers who came in at the tail end of the Classic Series when the lunatics were starting to run the asylum.  Nowadays entirely lunatics run the asylum, and I mean that in the nicest sense of the phrase because they generally run it better.  Doctor Who is now almost entirely made by fans.  This was starting to happen before the Classic Series went off air (going right back to Full Circle in fact, but much more noticeably during the McCoy era).  So Platt is not just a McCoy era writer.  He is a Troughton era fan.

Having said all that, this is much more than a futile attempt to send us back two or three decades.  Yes, the Yeti are back, but the Great Intelligence are very much trying to infiltrate modern Britain, using computer technology.  Downtime also creates new continuity, introducing the Brigadier’s daughter Kate for the first time.  There are plenty of canon immigrants from audios and books into new Doctor Who, but Kate is something very unusual, as an unofficial video character who eventually ended up in the television series, albeit played by a different actress.  Maybe she can regenerate?  Perhaps the Doctor took the Brig and Kate’s mother for a spin in the TARDIS once, and Kate ended up with the same powers as River?  Best not to think too much about that.  In fact, it is quite difficult to square this Kate as being the same character as the one we see on television, as she bears such a grudge against her father for his time spent working for UNIT.

So how could anybody get away with making this stuff and selling it?  Well, the BBC own the copyright to Doctor Who, but a lot of elements introduced by different writers over the years belong to the writers.  So just about anything is fair game, as long as permission is given by the right people and the Doctor doesn’t show up in the TARDIS.  The inclusion of Victoria, Sarah Jane, the Brigadier and the Yeti was therefore achievable, although the Yeti unfortunately couldn’t look exactly the same as they did on television, as those original designs were created in-house.  That’s a shame, because it would have been great to see those creepy Web of Fear Yeti once again.

In fact, as a nostalgia piece that references the 60s Yeti stories it does fall a bit flat.  Some of that is inevitably down to the small budget, but more importantly the choice of location robs the story of the kind of atmosphere and fear factor of seeing Yeti in the underground.  The returning companions are also not very well-served apart from the Brigadier, who is central to the story.  Sarah Jane doesn’t get a huge amount to do, and Deborah Watling might as well be playing a different character, as this older, possessed Victoria does little to evoke her original portrayal.

But with so many original elements from Doctor Who, this has much more of an authentic feel than many of the unofficial spinoffs, and ultimately that was probably all that most fans really wanted at the time.  We couldn’t have Doctor Who, so this kind of thing sated the appetite for a while with a bit of Not-Doctor Almost Who.  Most of the 90s fan videos verged on being unwatchable, but this was one of the select handful that we could place in a category labelled “not a bad effort”.  It is not the best, because there was just one shining example that really did achieve Doctor Who levels of brilliance: In Memory Alone.  And the difference was that production started with a great story, whereas Downtime started with a shopping list of companions and a monster.

The legacy of the Wilderness Years lives on, most recently with The White Witch of Devil’s End, not a bad anthology series on DVD with Damaris Hayman telling tales of Olive Hawthorne’s life protecting the village, and another spinoff has just been announced, Anomaly, which will feature the return of the Downtime version of Kate (she was also in Daemos Rising, another one that’s just about watchable).  But I don’t think we will ever see the like of such an ambitious fan project as Downtime again, until maybe we find ourselves in the Wilderness again one day.  Let’s hope we have to wait a very long time.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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9 Responses to Downtime

  1. Mike Basil says:

    Having seen Ian Levine’s trailer (for his private Dr. Who projects) and the section where he planned to add newly shot Sylvester McCoy footage into Downtime, it’s easy to enough to see what the two most specific differences are in Downtime. One: The Doctor wasn’t in it. Two: The Brigadier has a central role in a Dr. Who story for the first time. Having seen Wartime prior to Downtime, it was the best time to comprehend the potential for UNIT spinoffs which have now carried on for the modern Who’s UNIT via Big Finish. AUTON had an entirely new UNIT cast. Daemos Rising featured Kate (as then played by Beverley Cressman) in the starring role to proper her as the new head of UNIT. But Downtime, like Wartime, worked more as a companion spinoff than a monster spinoff. I might be basing that on how I preferred the original Yeti costume design to what the had this time round.

    Don’t get me wrong. The Yeti were still good monsters for Downtime, certainly as the first villains that launched Brigadier’s legacy. So once again the Whoniverse proves its creative talent for the completion of circles. This was the same year of course that Pertwee made his circle completion with Devious, which was clearly very special for Pertwee. So Downtime as a special story for the Brigadier and for Nicholas Courtney was most pivotal for the Wilderness Years.

    It was also good seeing Elisabeth again for Sarah’s second spinoff (after K-9 & Company) before she finally achieves a series spinoff with SJA. Deborah’s reprisal as Victoria is most honorable in regards to much more dimension it gave her character as opposed to her time on Dr. Who. With her obvious psychological vulnerability proving more dramatically effective than all the screaming she originally had to do, it specifically affirmed how the Wilderness Years homages could achieve certain elements that the classic Who for whatever reason couldn’t.

    Beverley as Kate is very good, especially in the scene where she tells the Brigadier that he has a grandson. No disrespect intended to Jemma Redgrave. But it’s easy to imagine what it could’ve been like with Beverley continuing as Kate into the modern Who. She’s a good actress and does Kate fine justice for Daemos Rising. John Leeson for his third beyond-K9 role in the Whoniverse, after Dugeen in The Power Of Kroll (which I reminisced with on Twitch TV just yesterday) and the voice for the Dalek Battle Computer for Remembrance Of The Daleks, is a always a joy when he does something other than K-9 in Dr. Who.

    But Courtney takes the prize as the best asset to Downtime. So I was very grateful for the chance to finally see it on YouTube. He was more dramatized here than ever before as the Brigadier, and most especially as a family man thanks to Kate and Gordon. He quite successfully proved to fans that a companion can be heroic against alien villainy without the Doctor. It was a needful change, after K-9 & Company, Wartime and PROBE (in part anyway) kept the villainous forces more on an Earthbound level. So even if the Yeti didn’t look as good as they did in the 60s, they had their due here too thanks to the Wilderness Years powers that be.

    Thank you, Nicholas, and thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      I’ve seen this video before and it never fails to impress! Wonderful job…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      The version with McCoy edited in after the fact is awful. It’s like taking a nice chocolate cake and sticking a sprout on the top.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mike Basil says:

        That’s a very good analogy. Downtime quite agreeably worked best as a companion-and-monster spinoff. As for monster-spinoffs, specifically in reflection of the new characters in the heroic or anti-heroic roles like in Shakedown, AUTON and Deconstruction (which was a 2005 Cybermen-spinoff fan-film from Westlake Films that’s on YouTube), they may earn considerably more popularity on occasions without facing the Doctor as their opponent in the given story.

        McCoy may have done his best for whatever Levine’s intentions were. But McCoy’s best Dr. Who spinoff contribution was as Dr. Colin Dove in PROBE: The Zero Imperative.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. DrAcrossthePond says:

    I remember when this came out but never got to see it. I looked online for some way to watch so I would join Roger in today’s posts but the best I could do was order the DVD and, considering the quality from what I’ve seen of other DVDs from the Wilderness era, I opted against it.
    I was familiar with Victoria basically being a whole different person through the story which seemed incredibly foolish considering she was such a great character and one we cared about so much during her time with the Doctor. But the production quality comes off as little more than a student film which does not warrant a $20 price tag that Amazon suggests. There are movies of far superior quality that you can buy for less than that these days! One of those movies that my wife and I really appreciated that fellow time travelers might like is called About Time, which is currently in Walmart for $5, to give an example. Downtime, without even featuring the Doctor, shouldn’t be 4x the cost of that movie!

    So alas, I may post a commentary on Downtime one day, but that’ll be when I can find the episode at a greatly reduced price!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      I think comparing the production quality to a student film is a little unfair. A lot of money was spent on making this in comparison to most other fan videos and it does show, although obviously watching it expecting to see something equivalent to a TV movie or a film is a silly way to approach it. It is what it is. As for the price tag, I’ll say the same as I often have to say to my customers: production runs. A quick google on the film you are talking about shows 14 million dollars in DVD and Bluray sales. Think about how many units they manufacture in one run and what that does to the production costs. Downtime is well worth the money in my opinion, and nobody is profiteering there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • DrAcrossthePond says:

        I’ve love to get some of our readers to watch the trailer and give some feedback just to get an idea of what they think of the “student film” comment. It’s not that the story isn’t worth it; having not seen it, I’m in no position to judge. It’s a value judgement on the money I’m spending on a production that misuses Watling, lacks the Doctor, and has lower than average production values. The moment the Doctor turns up, my willingness to part with money escalates. But without him, I’d need to know I’m spending the money on something I want to allocate the time to.
        Your point about profiteering is a valid one though.
        I’ll say this: your admiration of it would definitely spike my interest that should I locate it, I would watch it. Not convinced I’ll buy it yet but I would certainly give it a view.


        Liked by 1 person

      • Roger Pocock says:

        Do you mean the trailer for the DVD release? Well, that’s an awful trailer, so don’t draw conclusions from that! It’s a problem I’m going to come up against when I talk about Studio Ghibli films because the trailers are nearly all terrible. As for the inclusion of the Doctor, that’s not the be-all-and-end-all. I mean, you really wouldn’t want that if you could see the version with McCoy edited in! To give you a parallel, I could put together a list of the top 5 Big Finish ranges, and probably all of them would be spinoffs without the Doctor at all. The thing is, Downtime isn’t the greatest thing in the world, but I could name dozens of Doctor Who stories I would like to watch a lot less! Would I say it’s an essential thing for you to buy? No, probably not. That would be In Memory Alone.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Mike Basil says:

    The first (full) story I saw with Victoria was The Tomb Of The Cybermen when it was fully recovered and release straight to VHS. I remember episodes with Victoria from The Troughton Years on VHS which were The Abominable Snowmen and The Enemy Of The World. Then I got to hear The Evil Of The Daleks’ recovered audio track on cassette. That benefited my best impression of Victoria’s character in regards to how long I had to wait for the chance to finally see Downtime on YouTube.

    Babelcolour does great tribute videos for Dr. Who stars who’ve passed on. I remember when they had a memorial tribute video for the 50th with ABBA’s The Way Old Friends Do.

    Liked by 1 person

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