Part of the story of Doctor Who’s return is the story of a generation of fans steadily establishing themselves in the television industry and, to varying extents, remaking it in their own image. From a broad perspective, this shouldn’t be that big a surprise. Doctor Who declined artificially into cult television. Cult television’s audience is middle class white men. Middle class white nerds also double as the sorts of people who become professional television writers. And so it’s not a huge surprise that the up-and-coming writers of the 1990s and 2000s included a large number of Doctor Who fans in their ranks.
But the nature of fandom, with its strong DIY ethic, meant that a fair number of these up-and-coming television producers found themselves making delightfully amateurish direct-to-video projects for the Doctor Who fan market. A complex set of legal rules meant that, in effect, almost every part of Doctor Who other than the actual premise of Doctor Who was copyright by the writers who created them or their estates. This meant that as long as you were willing to never mention the Doctor or the TARDIS at all anywhere in your story you could, if you were willing to pay a bit of money to the relevant estates, do all manner of Doctor Who spinoffs. Thus stuff like Shakedown, written by Terrance Dicks and featuring the Sontarans along with Carole Ann Ford and Sophie Aldred playing parts other than Susan and Ace. Or Downtime, featuring Victoria, Sarah Jane Smith, the Brigadier, and the Yeti. Similarly, while you couldn’t do Doctor Who as such, you could readily, say, hire Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant to play “The Stranger” and “Miss Brown” respectively and pretend that you were doing something other than making Doctor Who. And people got real starts here - Mark Gatiss’s first writing for video wa s achain of videos for BBV featuring Liz Shaw and a host of Doctor Who actors in other parts, while Nicholas Briggs is a mainstay of these things. Big Finish are themselves the heir to this style of production, and basically what happened once everybody finally got enough practice that they could reliably make things that weren’t awful.
There was a torrent of these things in the 90s, and we’re spoiled for choice on what to take. So let’s do Downtime, from Reeltime Pictures, and The Airsone Solution from BBV, the big two of the companies doing these things. Neither, to be clear, quite manages “good.” The flaws are obvious, but they’re generally juxtaposed with moments of genuine quality. Downtime, being the one that’s actually tied into Doctor Who, is probably the best place to start.
The problems here are numerous. Marc Platt can, obviously, write well, and we’ve seen him do so twice already in this blog. But we’ve also seen him stumble with a continuity “clarifying” mess in Time’s Crucible, and unfortunately those are the tendencies that largely rule the day here. Downtime is, by necessity, an almost entirely backward looking piece, seeking to cash in on fan pseudo-nostalgia for The Web of Fear and The Abominable Snowmen. There are no ideas present beyond trying to do those stories again, only on a wildly smaller budget. Platt’s conceit, trying it into a cyberpunk style where the Great Intelligence tries to take over computer systems, is probably the right take for this story in 1995, but there’s still not an idea here beyond nostalgia. There are no concessions to the casual viewer to be seen here - if you’re not already familiar with the Yeti then you’ll be complete out to sea, doubly so when Jack Watling shows up. As with Platt’s Ghost Light, the script has no interest in stopping to actually explain its plot. But where Ghost Light was a surprisingly slick production held together by a coherent and familiar aesthetic, this is a visual wreck that reveals the sloppiness of Platt’s script.
Which brings us to the production. Obviously a direct to video production is going to be… subdued in what it can accomplish. In the hands of an intelligent director and a scriptwriter with reasonable expectations this doesn’t actually have to be a problem: Doctor Who can and has been done gloriously on the cheap. But Downtime wants to be the second coming of The Web of Fear, which is something it has nothing like the budget to do. A wise director might have worked around this, but instead they’ve got Christopher Barry coming out of a decade’s retirement, and he seems to go almost out of his way to highlight the cheapness of things. He’s occasionally salvaged by genuinely good locations - the University of East Anglia is a delightful setting, and it’s grotesquely brutalist architecture works wonders. If anything it’s too good a location - perfect for a futuristic dystopia, but just silly for a bunch of garishly dressed mind controlled students.
The acting is similarly problematic. Elizabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney are predictably good, with Courtney clearly relishing the opportunity to be a downmarket leading man, remaining calmly unflappable as things unfold around him. But Sladen has a bit part that’s largely extraneous to the story. Deborah Watling, meanwhile, is almost unwatchable. She’s not helped by the fact that Platt has written her to be a blundering idiot that would be difficult to play well, but there’s no way to lay the disaster that her role in this represents entirely at Platt’s feet.
But these are only parts of the real main problem, which is that this is a production entirely about resurrecting Doctor Who’s past. That it’s terribly made could be forgivable if it felt as though it were trying for greatness and missing - that, at least, is endearing. This, however, is The Warriors of the Deep for the 1990s. It’s still more forgivable simply because the expectations for a direct to video production start lower, but the fact remains that this is shooting for mediocrity and missing.
The Airzone Solution has, on balance, a higher basic level of quality. The writing is loose - Nicholas Briggs has many talents, but writing is not the foremost of them, and he’s early enough in his career here as to be especially rough. The basic structure of the story is all there, but he doesn’t have the emphasis in the right places. The story is focused on Colin Baker’s weatherman character, who’s clearly meant to stand in as a sort of everyman, but whose arc just doesn’t quite hang together. There’s no visible reason why he’s the person who gets visited by Peter Davison’s spectral journalist, and his role in the plot resolution is, while stressed heavily by the narrative, actually largely irrelevant, with Sylvester McCoy’s environmental activist doing the actual work.
But the larger problem is that it’s got the same odd split between trying to accomplish something new and trying to be Doctor Who. It’s cast everybody in visibly different roles than their Doctor Who roles, but the only reason anyone is going to buy it is if they’re Doctor Who fans, which means that everybody is being pulled in the wrong direction, playing their characters like the Doctors they aren’t. Part of this is apparently a late bit of recasting - McCoy and Davison’s parts were apparently swapped late in the game to accommodate Davison’s schedule. This leaves McCoy in the awkward position of playing a character who’s miles from his wheelhouse. McCoy tries to give him the Doctor’s mystery and knowledge, but with a character who doesn’t entirely know what’s going on. Davison manages the ghostly journalist seeking to have his work finished well enough, but it’s a part that would obviously be suited to McCoy. Other aspects of the casting just feel unnerving: the decision to have an overt romantic plot between Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker is so blatantly an attempt to be shocking as to
The supporting cast is similarly a mixed bag. Michael Wisher obviously enjoys being Not-Modeled-On-John-Major-Honest-We-Promise, and an early career Alan Cumming upstages the actual main villain with a gloriously slimy portrayal. Jon Pertwee, on the other hand, borders on the actively painful in an utterly pointless role inserted just to have a role for Pertwee, and that he’s visibly sleep-walking through. Director Bill Baggs, on the other hand, turns out to be quite good, coming up with some quite nice camera placements and complex framings. But the overall effect is a production that has the ambition of being a taut eco-thriller but that doesn’t have the nerve to be anything other than a cheap and disposable cash-in on the fandom market.
But this is largely a question of nerves. The Airzone Solution clearly has the same basic problem as Downtime, which is a lack of confidence that the audience wants anything more than reheated Doctor Who leftovers. For all the bombastic cleverness of the New Adventures at their best, the truth remains that there’s a large, even dominant bloc of Doctor Who fans who want the past, straight up, and with no alteration. (There still are - a brief perusal of Doctor Who forums will find no shortage of people who genuinely believe the new series would be better and perhaps even more popular if they were just recycling old 80s scripts and production values.) Even Virgin, much as it clearly wants to just run away and do something new, clearly felt gravity in this direction, approving the Missing Adventures line to provide proper old-fashioned Doctor Who for those who wanted it.
And while there’s also a section of fandom who wants to break ties with the past and declare that Doctor Who is now fully and properly a series of novels, they’re clearly a minority viewpoint, if even a serious one. Doctor Who simply doesn’t have the freedom to break from its past that thoroughly. And that leaves it a poisoned chalice for anyone wanting to revive it. Even working in its shadow, as The Airzone Solution does, is claustrophobic. The show with the most open-ended and flexible premise imaginable has, at this point, become a straitjacket binding anyone in its vicinity to a nostalgia-inflected phantasm.
The Airzone Solution is in many ways the really compelling and surprising one here, because it’s in a genre that the New Adventures were themselves doing better. We’ll look on Friday at the last part of Cartmel’s trilogy of eco-thrillers, but the short form is that every single one of them is sharper than The Airzone Solution. Their characters are richer, their situations are more dramatic, their sense of environmental hell is scarier. This is possible at Virgin partially because the cost for producing a novel is far lower than that of a video project, and thus they can get away with a measure of edginess, and partially because Virgin has an institutional commitment at this point to not being warmed over nostalgia leftovers, at least in the New Adventures line itself, but crucially, even the slight resistance they give is controversial within fandom. And it is a slight resistance. So many of its books are thoroughly soaked in continuity and the past as to not even be funny - just in the past two weeks we’ve done Original Sin and Head Games. And yet even this was causing angry flame wars.
A look at the production credits on Downtime exposes at least part of why. The producers list is a bevy of usual suspects dominant in 1980s and 1990s fandom. And in this regard it’s possible to understand a split among those who got professional credits between those who worked in the fan scene and those who made their bones in non-cult television. The writers who made the jump and worked on the 2005 series were those who did work on soap operas and mainstream shows. Gareth Roberts, Paul Cornell, and Russell T Davies all spent time on Coronation Street. Moffat made sitcoms. Mark Gatiss, the one writer on the 2005 series who did do fan productions, did The League of Gentlemen as well. Only Nicholas Briggs made the jump from fan productions to having anything to do with the new series, and that was on the back of his work at Big Finish.
All of which said, there is an importance to this material. The production community that formed around works like these is the one that went on to become Big Finish, which did have a real influence on the future of the show. But that was years down the line, and after the coherence of Doctor Who had been thoroughly broken to pieces by the abject mess that came in the aftermath of the TV Movie. It wasn’t, in other words, until the pull of a rawly nostalgic take on Doctor Who had been thoroughly and completely broken that fan attempts to make Doctor Who could have the freedom to do something other than slavishly try to resurrect the past. But in the mid-90s we weren’t there yet.