One of the great aspects to being a Doctor Who fan, is being able to look back through over 50 years of the shows history and discover new experiences. This particular one comes the 1995 straight to video spin-off story ‘Downtime’ which actually serves as a sequel of sorts to earlier episodes ‘ The Abominable Snowmen’ and ‘The Web of Fear’ and features the iconic characters Sarah Jane Smith played by Elisabeth Sladen, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart played by Nicholas Courtney. Directed by veteran Doctor Who director Christopher Barry, what makes this particular story so special is that it is an unofficial Doctor Who tale, which the BBC did not permit to use the character of The Doctor and was not even allowed to mention him during the story!
Downtime at its core is a Brigadier story but bridges other episodes and characters well known to Doctor Who. Former companion Victoria Water field, played by Deborah Wattling, is lured back to the Detsen Monastery in Tibet which was first visited in ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ in the hopes of finding her late father. But instead discovers The Great Intelligence still possessing the mind of Professor Travis last seen in ‘The Web of Fear’, who promises to give ‘The Light of Truth’ if Victoria helps to work with it to release him.
Fifteen years later and the story shows that Victoria has been very busy, setting up the New World Institution, a puniversity with the promise of spiritual guidance to the students. In reality the institution is the means by which The Great Intelligence plans to take over the world by infecting the world’s computer systems like a virus and controlling the minds of mankind. An artifact is needed to unlock its true power and believes it is in the hands of The Brigadier, now retired from U.N.I.T. and the institute hires Sarah Jane Smith to investigate and locate both The Brigadier and the artifact.
This DVD release really is a great look at what could be considered ‘Classic Who’ even without The Doctor starring in the story. To see such iconic characters all feature in their own story is rather exciting as a long term fan of the show and to see so many episode storylines all tied together so elegantly is a great example of why the show has survived for over 50 years. Taking the Doctor out of the spotlight allows for a different kind of Doctor Who story to be told but it still retains all the attributes of not only what makes a great Doctor Who story but of the very different style of classic and modern Who.
Comparing the current high budget special effects and slick production of Doctor Who to twenty years ago serves to show just how far the show has come. From start to finish of Downtime I had a big smile on my face watching the performances of Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney who both sadly passed away in 2011. It is rather charming to see how they both captured the screen when on camera, especially when in scenes with some rather cliché ham acting from the rest of the cast at times.
Of course after twenty years it does all look rather dated and at just over an hour long, manages to fit a staggering amount of storytelling in. The storyline of using the internet to take over the minds of people has been used since as the first adventure together of Matt Smith’s Doctor and Clara Oswald with once again The Great Intelligence in ‘The Bells of St Johns’ in 2013. You may also see the possible inspiration for Captain Jack’s military coat with the styling for the character Harrods. Downtime really is a look back at a very different era of Doctor Who but is a really fun and interesting watch.
The highlight of this DVD really is the bonus disc with behind the scenes features ‘Behind the Lens’ and a look at the post-production of Downtime. In what felt like a early precursor to ‘Doctor Who Confidential’, getting to see the actors as they prepared for scenes and to see the Director Christopher Barry at work was a real treat to watch. To see how filming was affected by snow conditions and how location shooting was done was interesting to see from a very different age of TV even though only twenty years ago. I had a real fanboy moment to disvover that a trusty Amiga was used to produce the onscreen computer visuals used in scenes. It would be great to compare it to a recent behind the scenes look at how Doctor Who is filmed today.
The post production feature is short but a great look at how visual effects were created before CGI was a natural part of the show. Despite it being an unofficial story and the restriction imposed by the BBC, was curious to see that it was still the BBC Effects team that worked on production as well as the final cut being made broadcast ready at the BBC.
Overall this is a great watch for any generation of Doctor Who fan. The nostalgia of seeing huge grey PC set ups and everyone using Walkmans was a nice throwback to the 90s and the bonus disc with the making of features rounds it off nicely. Of course as a Doctor Who fan, getting to see both Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney in their iconic roles together on screen is a real joy. Seeing how different characters were brought together for this story shows how well Christopher Barry knew the Doctor Who universe. It continues into modern Who as the character of the Brigadier’s daughter Kate has returned to the current run of Doctor Who.
It certainly has a place in any Doctor Who collection and a superb look at a very different era. Downtime is available from Amazon UK for £9.99