23 July 2017


The Nineties saw a slew of fan produced Doctor Who spin offs of varying quality but none has the provenance of Downtime. It stars three iconic series regulars- Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen and Debbie Watling - in their original roles and is written by Marc Platt who’s `Ghost Light` was part of the last regular season of the original series. Even more impressively it is directed by Christopher Barry who helmed such series classics as `Brain of Morbius` and `The Deamons` and it even features the Yeti, John Leeson as a DJ and Geoffrey Beevers! You can’t get much more Doctor Who than all that!  Shot during an unseasonably wintry late March in 1995 it is a good watch for fans of the series as well as a fitting tribute to the main stars none of whom sadly are still with us.

As a production Downtime belies both its budget and period with a rigour that makes the most of limited resources and it is here that Christopher Barry’s experience is clearly at work. He marshals his front and behind camera personnel to breathe life into what is actually a fairly thin narrative. Each scene is of a higher standard than you might expect with the actors delivering their all for a script that is essentially a drawn out episode one with about ten minutes of episode 4 tagged on!  Writer Marc Platt does home in on some strong character moments for each of the main cast which remove the coldness you often get with fan led productions. He also effectively time locks the story by making good use of the then new computer and mobile phone world; in some senses only the hardware has dated. Who knew so many people had mobiles twenty years ago, it certainly didn’t seem that way. The mass ranks of kids tapping away silently on keyboards seems rather prescient now! However what the writer doesn’t do is provide enough story beats to move things forward meaning that we spend nearly three quarters of the production skirting around the edges, cutting between enigmatic portents and tentative investigations. Thus the climax seems sudden and rushed. 
However as was proved more recently the Great Intelligence is not an easy antagonist because the freedom you might imagine a formless being might provide a writer turns out to be the opposite as you end up with the same motif of possession. So you have to have some sympathy for Marc Platt though he was probably reassured when Steven Moffat and co were only able to deliver a similarly woolly motivation for this villain eighteen years on. Let’s face it even `Web of Fear` has a weak ending. On the other hand Platt’s dialogue is strong and he defines each character strongly, it’s just that the plot needs a few more levels to it.
The story revolves around the New World University, a sinister establishment full of robotic students, which is a front for the Great Intelligence to make its return if it can collect a number of objects. A prologue featuring an amazingly youthful looking Victoria links us directly to the two Sixties Yeti stories. As the Brigadier’s daughter Kate has one of these objects – called a locus- she is a target and naturally calls her Dad who is already having visions in which a former pupil Daniel Hinton is warning him about the place. It’s not clear how this is happening though- when we first meet him the Brig’s been asleep in this world for three days.  Meanwhile Sarah Jane Smith is investigating the place herself. Inevitably these strands pull together though not without some awkward contrivance.  Thus the story is much stronger on the character interaction than it is on the fantasy elements- I’m not sure for example how this virtual world in which we meet the Brig came to be and even less sure how someone can turn into a Yeti which is supposed to be a robot?
Luckily crew and cast give it a real push and save what could otherwise be too static an affair. There are some superbly realised sequences set in the virtual world which, rather than do the obvious thing and have people in front of jazzy graphics, Barry shoots in black and white on a windswept beach with a treated sky. It looks fantastic even now. As the threat builds and bits of webbing start showing up everywhere a sense of impending doom is achieved. When the action does kick in, the cameras frame it so tightly and it’s edited so well that it provides some genuine excitement. A battle between UNIT soldiers and Yeti in front of a setting Sun is terrifically staged while inside the campus building use of shadows and unusual contours plays to the story’s advantage. Christopher Barry is just as good in the lower key moments; some scenes between the Brigadier and his daughter are particularly good.
The acting is excellent throughout. Given the lead role Nicholas Courtney brings his gruff but friendly approach to the fore with ease and has a real rapport with everyone. While still clearly the same character his age brings an extra dignity and the scene where he discovers he is a grandfather is played superbly. I don’t think he’s ever been better as the post 70s Brigadier than he is in Downtime. 
As his daughter Kate, Beverley Cressman brings just the right mixture of independence and vulnerability. Mark Trotman is also excellent as the story’s lively enabler Daniel who ties everything together even if it is not always clear whether his character is alive or not! He brings a zeal to a role that convinces the viewer and is a strong contrast to the cold demeanour of his fellow students.
Elisabeth Sladen has less screen time than her other co-stars but her portrayal of Sarah is spot on, much more so that in K9 and Company especially when she is first interviewing Victoria. Debbie Watling handles the possessed out of time Victoria very capably indeed, you’d never have imagined her as a villain but she proves her versatility. Her father Jack Watling also re-appears as the possessed Professor Travers and Geoffrey Beevers has fun playing a former down on his luck soldier.
The ending is quick and perfunctory feeling as if it needs another 15 minutes to properly unfurl but even so the sudden action sequences provide a suitable climax.  Downtime is well worth seeing if you’re a Doctor Who fan not only for the strong performances but also the direction and visuals.

Should Downtime be canonical?

Remarkably it slots into series continuity seamlessly well; not only with the original series but even the current one! It seems to maintain the Brig’s timeline with him on the brink of retirement from his post UNIT school teacher job established in `Mawdryn Undead`. Kate could just about be the daughter from his relationship with Doris (mentioned in the 70s and seen in `Battlefield`). You can imagine that having used a gun for the first time here and discovered her father’s hitherto secret occupation she decided on a change of lifestyle and 20 years later we find her heading UNIT with very similar hair! Her son Gordon would be an adult now and perhaps as unaware of his mother’s occupation as she was of her fathers. Victoria fits in too as the Doctor left her in the present day so here she goes back to Det Sen in 1980 and it possessed by the Intelligence.
As for Sarah, this is actually a much better match than the spin off K9 and Company where she was living in the country. Here she’s gone back to the Metropolitan magazine and is clearly the same inquisitively bold character she was in the 70s and again a decade later. Of course nowadays Metropolitan is probably an online only resource! 
The Great Intelligence never quite lives up to its name; it tried the same plan about 15 years later in `The Bells of Saint John` The only real oddity is how the Yeti turn into people but perhaps they are more advanced robots than previously seen and the Daniel we see in `real life` is a robot all along but his actual consciousness is still alive.  All in all though there is nothing in Downtime that contradicts events before or since so in that respect if you want to think it’s canonical (and I do!) then it is!!

  • The dvd includes a behind the scenes feature which shows just how much effort and skill went into the production as well as the appalling weather conditions all concerned had to endure. Some outdoor filming even had to be cancelled due to a snowfall and this was in late March.
  • The University of East Anglia was used for the campus filming. Unlike most Doctor Who today the London scenes were shot in actual London!
  • Apparently the production used a loophole in BBC contracts which meant it was possible to licence characters directly from their creators.
  • Mark Trotman who plays Daniel has since worked in management training and development programmes for Jones Lang LaSalle, HSBC, and the BBC; interview, appraisal and feedback techniques for Hays Recruitment, and the Santander Group; and client care strategies for the Nationwide Building Society. Whether he can still vanish into thin air is not known.
  • Peter Silverleaf who plays Christopher Rice remains an actor who appeared in Game of Thrones, The Hour, Law and Order UK, Doctors, Skins, Holby City, The Bill and Casualty amongst others over the last 20 years.
  • Direct references to the Doctor are kept to a minimum though when he wakes up after an attack the Brigadier imagines that someone could be a new incarnation of the Time Lord. Sarah also references the conversation she had with the Doctor when wearing Victoria’s dress in the first episode of `Pyramids of Mars`. Victoria never says “I want my dress back” however.

1 comment:

  1. Not seen Downtime since it first appeared on VHS, but I've recently had a hankering to revisit it. And since it's now available on a pressed disc I've a feeling I'll track it down sooner or later.

    All these 90's spin-off videos are fascinating, not least for the way that some of them seem almost to be acting as show-reels to the BBC - "Doctor Who can still be made as a decent low-budget series, and here's the proof!". Whether the BBC actually took any notice of them - certainly in terms of suggesting how a new series should be developed - is doubtful though.