Day 364 — December 30th 2021
I’m not generally a big fan of the ‘expanded media’ when it comes to Doctor Who. My take tends to be that the televised stuff is canonical and everything else is there to take or leave as you see fit. I don’t tend to listen to many of the audios (although I’m more on board with spin offs), I’ve not really touched the various book ranges, and I’ve certainly not got any interest in the fan-made ‘direct to video’ stuff from the Wilderness Years. Except, that is, for Downtime.
I don’t know if it’s just because this one features enough actors and production staff from Doctor Who to feel more legitimate, or if it’s simply because there’s something a bit magical about the idea of bringing back Lis Sladen and Nick Courtney for another adventure, and even better to throw in Debbie Watling for good measure. There’s also the fact that this ends up as a pretty good bridge between the Old and New Testaments of Who; Sarah Jane is of course important to both iterations, and the Great Intelligence’s plan here doesn’t feel a million miles away from the one it’ll later attempt during Matt Smith’s tenure.
Also making their debut here before returning in Series Seven is Kate Stewart, who’ll go on to be a recurring character across three Doctor Whos. I vaguely recall that when The Power of Three aired someone on the production team said that the Kate seen there wasn’t intended to be the same character as the one seen here, but… well, that’s nonsense innit? I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated how similar Beverly Cressman and Jemma Redgrave are, either, which helps with making them feel like the same person.
Then there’s the behind-the-scenes personnel on this one, which help to make it feel like a bit of a celebration of Doctor Who’s history. It’s written by Marc Platt CHECK who made his debut with Ghost Light at the very end of the original run, and it’s directed by Christopher Barry, who worked with all of the first four Doctor Whos CHECK. Somehow that gives this a bit of legitimacy above some of the other productions from the same time.
Sadly I don’t think it’s Barry’s finest outing, but a lot of that is likely down to limitations of budget — the the video it’s shot on gives the whole thing a cheap edge that even goes above the look of the final years of the series proper. It ends up looking a bit like a home movie, which I think spoils it a bit. Sequences like the Brigadier walking around a deserted beach in black and white white would probably be far more striking shot on film.
That’s not so say that the whole thing looks terrible, mind. The opening sequence of Victoria exploring the Det Sen Monastery is surprisingly atmospheric, and far more enjoyable than I remembered — I had it down in my head as the weakest part of the narrative, but this time I think it was my favourite bit. Then there’s the location used for the New World University; the UEA in Norwich. I grew up not far from the city and always thought the buildings there looked particularly striking, so it’s nice to see them put to good use here.
As for the story itself… I think it gets a little needlessly complicated at times, and I’ve always found myself a bit confused by aspects, in part because of a quirk between the script and the casting. Victoria is drawn to Det Sen in search of her dead father. She discovers Professor Travers, but he’s played — as in the 1960s stories — by Deborah Watling’s real life father. You can see how it all ends up getting a little muddled in my head. I think I’d do away with the stuff about her departed dad and just have her drawn to the monastery by some ethereal force. I love the idea of her heading back there 50 years after her previous visit.
Another area which used to confuse me is the status of the Brigadier — but it’s all been completely clear on this viewing so that was absolutely down to my own misunderstanding. I always thought it was strange that he’d given up his nice house from Battlefield to live in a terrace, but this is quite clearly set before that one, and there’s mention made to his upcoming retirement from Brendan School. I wonder if in my next marathon I might stick this in as part of the 25th anniversary series, abs have it as a bridge between Mawdryn Undead and Battlefield — the return of a monster from the 60s for a final showdown would fit in well with the themes of that series.
I’ve also always thought it would be great to see a version of this story transplanted to The Sarah Jane Adventures format. Have New World be a cult that’s taking over at Luke’s university, and bring Sarah Jane in to the story via that. She can call in the Brigadier when they realise what they’re dealing with. I think it could work really well there, and changing the audience might help to hammer out some of the more unusual aspects of the script.
Overall I don’t think it’ll ever be an out-and-out classic, but this feels as much a part of the Old Testament to me as any other story, and it always feels like a necessary inclusion in a marathon like this, before heading towards my final adventure.