It 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