Doctor Who has been striving for a very particular vibe in Series 9, combining a Classic Who approach to storytelling with a New Who energy and budget.
It’s insane to think Downtime is celebrating its 20th anniversary, because what it delivers is very much New Who storytelling with a Classic energy and a Wilderness Years budget.
Don’t take my word for it – watch Downtime yourself when it’s finally released on DVD on 16th November, and marvel at how modern it feels. There’s an older Sarah-Jane, investigating dubious goings-on at a new age hippy university, just as she would later do to all kinds of nefarious alien cover organisations in The Sarah-Jane Adventures. There’s the Great Intelligence, building itself a new web by connecting through computers and taking over people – just as it would later do in The Bells of Saint John.
There are a bunch of creepy, in-sync children working on a problem for an alien power – just as there would be in School Reunion. There’s Victoria Waterfield, being just as wet and hopeless as ever she was, faffing about in Det-Sen Monastery, but then being reborn as a tight-suited ruthless businesswoman fronting an organisation supposedly working for the world’s benefit, just as… well, take your pick – Yvonne Hartmann, Miss Foster, Miss Kizlet, Madame Karabraxos etc – would do in plenty of New Who stories. There, for that matter, is a no-nonsense Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, firing a gun to kill an interplanetary threat, which, call me crazy, but I’m sure we’ve seen somewhere pretty recently…
What becomes clear, watching Downtime, is just how pivotal it was in inspiring – or at the very least, how well it chimed with - the ideas that would go on to make 21st Century Doctor Who the success it has become. That’s why it’s insane to think that it’s twenty years old: it fits so well into the modern Who ethos, it could pretty much stand were it to be made today.
There are some elements of course that mitigate against that – the effects are of their time, which is to say the mid-nineties, and in that they keep a foot more in the Classic show than in the New variety – pyramids on top of buildings, humans who spontaneously become Yeti, green electrical crackles etc all have that feel of the McCoy era, but then that’s to be expected: Reel Time were making Doctor Who without the Doctor in it, for a distinctly niche Who-fan audience, why would they not use gracenotes that made viewers feel like they knew what they were watching. Again, it’s difficult to divorce your brain from Downtime as New Who, and imagine a world ten years before Russell T Davies’ triumphant redevelopment of the show, but that’s what you have to do to see the wonder of Downtime as what it is – ground-breaking ‘Who’ in very many ways that would go on to inform the future success of the show, while still keeping its feet in the greatest hits of the Classic era.
Those hits keep on coming too – not only are we introduced to Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, but her dad’s got a major role here as well, riffing off both Mawdryn Undead and Battlefield, the teacher and the soldier, but also bringing in real touches and twinkles of the Lethbridge-Stewart of old, not afraid to tell jumped-up little oiks they were jumped-up little oiks, even if they were superior jumped-up little oiks. Nicholas Courtney does much to carry the pace of the story through, but that’s not to say it doesn’t barrel along quite nicely enough on its own – the story of the Intelligence trapped somewhere in the void by virtue of one of its own Yeti figurines, building up its mental network again and creating a link between its spheres and humans that turn them into instant, slimline, web-shooting Yeti is coherent enough to pass muster and the cast is high-quality and rife with reference – John (K9) Leeson as a radio DJ with a conscience, Jack Watling reprising the role of Professor Travers one last time, Geoffrey (The Master) Beevers as a hobo with a heart of gold - alongside the three companions, Sarah-Jane, Victoria and the Brig, all doing their thing in an intelligent evolution of where we left them on TV. Talent behind the camera has a Classic Who connection too – Marc Platt wrote the script and veteran director Christopher Barry was brought in and keeps the tone tight, the pacing brisk without ever being too frenetic to follow (always a danger with a Platt script, but one that’s more successfully avoided here than it sometimes was in on-screen Who). There’s even a reach-back to stories like The Daemons (which gets a sneaky couple of mentions) and Planet of the Spiders, with the astral plane and things of an occultish nature blending into the sci-fi, to give the whole a feeling not of being lost between the two worlds of Classic and New Who, but of being the intelligent signpost that showed how one could become the other without losing its sense of self.
Downtime, certainly in this release, even foreshadows the 21st century fascination of fans with the production process as it happened, including a ‘Behind The Lens’ disc that takes us to the read-through of the script and gives us snippets of some of our favourite actors on and off screen – especially worth a watch now that so many of them are sadly no longer with us. It’s been a rough couple of decades.
The Wilderness Years gave us much that would help define what the triumphant return of Doctor Who would look and sound like. The Virgin New Adventures gave Who a new realism and a potential for gravitas, which gave rise to the Audio Visuals (the precursor of Big Finish); Magic Bullet gave us the Kaldor City audio stories, while companies like BBV were delivering series like The Stranger, Auton and Zygon; Dreamwatch gave us Shakedown on video. Reel Time’s entry into this arena, watched for the first time twenty years on, is a breathtaking ride, with one foot firmly planted in the Classic Who tradition, but its head screwed on and looking very definitely forward, to a version of Who which allowed the companions to be real, fully rounded human beings, capable of standing up for the Earth in their own right. As a prophecy of things to come, it’s almost scarily prescient. As a great chunk of almost-Who, it holds the attention of viewers all the way through and delivers on the promise of its outstanding cast, bringing great ideas up to date and feeling very much at home with the mindset of 21st century Who.
Win A Copy Of Downtime On DVD
We've got 2 copies of Downtime on DVD to give away, courtesy of Koch Media. The double disc release contains Downtime, the unique British 1995 sci-fi movie from the Doctor Who universe (unofficial), and a second disc containing 85 minutes of extras, including a behind the scenes look at the production with never before seen footage, and a glimpse into the editing, sound and visual effects work.
If you want to be in with a chance of winning a copy all you have to do is follow us on twitter and retweet the post below. If you already follow us then just retweet this...
#DoctorWho fans - FOLLOW & RETWEET To Win A Copy Of DOWNTIME On DVD. #DowntimeDVD @KochMediaEnt Review - https://t.co/TKiWR7mB95— Warped Factor (@warped_factor) November 11, 2015
It's as simple as that!
You have until midnight Sunday 15th November 2015 to enter. We will pick two entrants at random who will be notified on Monday 16th November 2015.
Downtime is available to pre-order here.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk