Doctor Who: Looking Back At DEATH COMES TO TIME

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Matthew Kresal looks back at the orrrriginal Doctor Who web series.

"Once, long ago, on an island in a sea of clouds, there was a land where giants walked. And the giants lived amongst the other peoples of that land. And they used their great strength to help them....but the power of the giants was too great...their hands were too strong, their tread too heavy. And the more they tried to help the people, the greater was the destruction that they caused until the people that they tried to help were no more....And the giants were alone and the islands laid waste...and in their shame the giants built a temple and there they swore that never again must they meddle in the affairs of mortal men. And then they scattered, ever to wander abroad in repentance until the twilight of the world...until death comes to time."
So began Death Comes To Time, the first Doctor Who webcast. Originally “aired”, so to speak, on the BBC's official website between July 2001 and May 2002 before being released first on audio CD and then on MP3 CD. It was the BBC's first serious attempt at bringing Doctor Who back onscreen after the 1996 TV movie. Since then it has seemingly divided fans that have seen/heard it into two groups: those who love it and those who hate it. Those who hate it cite its re-writing of series continuity and, thus, its apparent non-canonical status. For others it represents not only an historic moment of this being the first webcast but for adding a new dimension to the Doctor Who universe and for giving Sylvester McCoy's Doctor a fine, if alternate, exit story.


Any discussion of Death Comes To Time must make mention of the fact that it features one of Sylvester McCoy's finest performances as the Seventh Doctor. Long known to fans as both a master clown and as a dark manipulator during his TV era and in earlier novels, McCoy finds the right balance between the two here. There are moments where McCoy's comical side shines brightly (especially in his scenes with Antimony) without it being either forced or intrusive. Yet that is just the tip of what makes McCoy's performance so good here. The Doctor of this story is a tragic figure: a tired old man who is watching everything he has spent his life fighting for being brought to the edge of destruction. McCoy conveys this tragic sense well, and no more so then in the final moments of the story where at Stonehenge he comes face to face with a madman with not just the Earth, but all of time, at stake. The result is a much finer exit, both writing and acting wise, for McCoy's Doctor then was provided in the TV movie and it is McCoy's performance that lies at the heart of the webcast.

On top of McCoy's performance, there is one of the best casts ever assembled for a Doctor Who story. Sophie Aldred returns as Ace and, like McCoy, gives one of her best performances as an older, though at first perhaps not much wiser, version of that character who is training for a new destiny. John Sessions (who incidentally auditioned for the role of the Eighth Doctor) plays Tannis, the villainous Supreme Commander who is not only bent on universal domination but is far more than just another megalomaniac. Stephen Fry gives an apt performance as the Minister of Chance, a Time Lord whose personal demons threaten everything the Time Lords have done. Leonard Fenton plays Casmus, Ace's rather poetic Time Lord mentor, whose stories or metaphors give Death Comes To Time a moral depth that often compares and contrasts with what other characters are going through, and Fenton plays this role to the hilt. Then there's the Doctor's newest companion: the naively happy-fisted Antimony, played with great humor (and even sympathy before the story is over with) by Kevin Eldon. Then there are also strong performances from Britta Gartner, Robert Rietti, Charlotte Palmer and Peggy Batchelor. Add on cameos from Anthony Stewart Head, Jacqueline Pearce and even Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier and the result is one of the strongest casts ever assembled for any one Doctor Who story.


Death Comes To Time seems to have received a lot of flack from some fans for doing something different than being just another Doctor Who story. To begin with, this is a story with an epic feeling. Many have called it more akin to Star Wars, and indeed Death Comes To Time was accused by some of ripping off the then recently released prequel film The Phantom Menace. That argument holds up only with a shallow look at the first episode, and even if the argument holds some water, perhaps it's worth pointing that in Doctor Who's past we've seen the show successfully emulate things like the James Bond Films in adventures like The Enemy of the World and The Ambassadors of Death, and Death Comes To Time proves Doctor Who can do epic stories just as well. For a story like this it needs to be epic, as it takes us from Santiny to Micen Island to the Canisian Empire to Earth as we cross space and time in a epic fashion not previously seen in the series TV incarnation.

One aspect of the webcast that has been overlooked in recent years is its animation. Though originally conceived as an audio drama, the webcast was illustrated by Lee Sullivan. Sullivan, perhaps best known for his work in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strips, brings the audio to life with a fine set of visuals. These range from the battle for Santiny, the ruins of Micen Island, the dystopian world of the Canisian Empire, a beautiful new vision of Gallifrey and to Stonehenge (almost a decade before The Pandorica Opens) for the final confrontation between the seventh Doctor and Tannis. Sullivan's illustrations also serve the characters well from a new costume of sorts for the seventh Doctor, an older Ace in a combat like suit or fine representations of Fry and Sessions as the Minister and Tannis respectively. While the costumes of both the Canisian soldiers and the Santiny resistance are rather cliched, it can be argued that they follow in the tradition set down previously by the TV series. The animation has been somewhat overlooked due to the webcast no longer being online and the most readily available version being the audio CD, but Sullivan's artwork, though perhaps primitive by today's standards, is none the less effective.


Last but not least, we come to the most controversial aspect of this webcast: where (or rather if) it fits into - and mucks about with - the established continuity of the series. First and foremost is the fact it gives the Time Lords seemingly god-like powers over time. Now, to be fair, this isn't the first time we've seen them with such powers: as anyone who's watched Patrick Troughton's last story, The War Games, will know. This is also not the first time the series has tried to rewrite its own continuity either (the Daleks are perhaps the best example of this as they had their back-story rewritten several times during the run of the original series, especially in Genesis Of The Daleks). In fact, many elements of this story have similar aspects in the series. For example, the background of the Fraction regarding the events on Micen Island bears quite a resemblance to the Minyans in Underworld. Other elements of continuity are worked in as well such as the Vampires first introduced in State Of Decay and the inclusion of UNIT. Some of the elements used in the story, such as Ace's training and the Doctor's more mysterious past, were both aspects that would have been explored had the series not been canceled after the airing of Survival in 1989, though both are explored differently here. Together these new elements, especially the Doctor's new abilities, bring new aspects to both the series and characters we think we know.

Now for the ultimate question: is Death Comes To Time canon? Perhaps the best way to approach that question is from the angle similar to those of Sherlock Holmes fan looking at pastiches. The novel The Seven Percent Solution by Nicholas Meyer is a terrific Sherlock Holmes pastiche that mucks about quite heavily with the canon of that character (sound familiar?), but that makes it no less enjoyable. Does a story really have to be canon to be enjoyed? In the final analysis then, Death Comes To Time can be enjoyed whether or not it fits easily (or at all) into the continuity of the series.

Canon or not, there can be no doubt that there is something truly special about Death Comes To Time. From strong performances to a galaxy-spanning adventure, here is a story that takes much that we know about our favorite series and gives us something new and different. Sadly Death Comes To Time is becoming a historical footnote as it is the only Doctor Who webcast not available on the BBC's classic series website, while both the audio CD and MP3 CD have seemingly gone out of print. But for a while in 2001 and 2002, Death Comes To Time represented Doctor Who's future: where the past had brought it to, what could be done today and what the series could yet do.

Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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