“Downtime” is not an actual episode of the Doctor Who series. However, it is a direct to video spin-off that forms a sequel to two Doctor Who stories from Patrick Troughton’s time on the show, namely “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear”. As such, I’ve placed a review of the story among my Doctor Who reviews, since it represents a unique piece of spin-off merchandise. Any number of Doctor Who novels have brought back old companions and old enemies, and so have many of the Big Finish audio plays, but an actual video production set in the series continuity with the original actors is a rarity.
“Downtime” may be a sequel to two Troughton stories, but ithas the look and feel of a story taken from Sylvester McCoy’s time on the show. The music and effects would have fit right in to a McCoy-era episode, as would the odd characters and the unreal dialogue they spout. Not to mention the production shot completely on video. The story is written by Marc Platt, who also wrote “Ghost Light” for Doctor Who’s final season.
The Doctor is absent from this particular story, which nevertheless manages to assemble an impressive cast of Doctor Who alumni to reprise their characters. Nicholas Courtney, Debbie Watling and Elizabeth Sladen reprise their roles of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Victoria Waterfield, and Sarah Jane Smith respectively. Surprisingly, so does Jack Watling as Professor Travers, a central character in both Yeti stories who never appeared in Doctor Who again. Other Doctor Who alumni also appear in this production, including James Bree, Geoffrey Beevers and John Leeson. Christoper Barry directs, and Ian Levine is one of the producers.
All of this leads to a continuity-fest of the sort that I often enjoy, though unfortunately some of the inside jokes tend to draw the knowledgeable viewer out of the story. “Downtime” details the Great Intelligence’s third attempt to conquer the world. To do so he has to free himself from the physical body he’s been trapped in, that of Professor Travers. The Intelligence lures Victoria back to the Det-Sen monastery and influences her to create a new body for him in the form of the computer network at New World University. He also demands that she ‘find the locus’, which turns out to be a physical item that has bound him to our world. All well and good, but the story doesn’t exactly explain everything clearly with regard to the locus, or how it came to exist, so anyone not familiar with the two earlier stories isn’t necessarily going to know what’s going on. Even fans of “Doctor Who” might have a problem, given that only one episode from early in each story still exists. If the Intelligence used loci in “Snowmen” or “Web of Fear”, I’m not familiar with it. I know the Yeti figurines were used in “Web of Fear” as a lure to the Yeti so they would attack various individuals, but unless I’m mistaken it appears that the use of the figurines as binding agents upon the Intelligence is something new. The script should have taken a little more time to explain as it went along.
There are other areas of the plot that don’t get enough explanation. The Brigadier experiences dreams/visions/whatever where he sees Victoria watching him, and where he communicates with Daniel Hinton, a former student of his from Brendan school. The story indicates that Hinton is meddling with black magic, something the science-centric Doctor Who has never before embraced, and this supposedly explains how he is able to contact Lethbridge-Stewart. However, it is never explained how or why Victoria continually appears in these visions. I can assume that he connection with the Intelligence explains her mental presence on the astral plane, but since the story never makes that clear, it would just be an assumption. And it seems unlikely that Victoria would spend so much time and effort to track down the Brigadier if she could just pop onto the astral plane and say hello. Admittedly, the scenes set on the astral plane are very moody and atmospheric, with nearly monochrome imagery and music that sets the tone very effectively. The moment where the Brigadier sees a sign for Picadilly Circus buried in the sand and hears a Yeti roar is one of the more evocative moments in “Downtime”, conjuring up as it does distant memories of the events of “The Web of Fear”.
The three major characters drawn from Doctor Who aren’t always well-served by the script. Sarah Jane is her old self, and while her presence is very welcome, she isn’t exactly integral to the plot. Elisabeth Sladen plays her with ease, bringing Sarah back as though she’d never been away, much as she does in The Sarah Jane Adventures. Debbie Watling, on the other hand, is less than impressive as an older Victoria, marooned in time. She’s actually pretty bad in the prologue, as is James Bree, but she improves later on when playing the vice chancellor. I assume (there I go again) that she’s being controlled/influenced by the intelligence to do the things she’s done, i.e. help the intelligence build a new body for itself and set up a university that essentially brainwashes hundreds of students. Sarah Jane is very much her old self, but Victoria is a complete stranger. And it’s terribly frustrating that she and Sarah clearly share a connection through the Doctor, yet they never quite figure that out. In the end when Sarah and the Brigadier do realize who Victoria was, she’s vanished and her reaction to the loss of fifteen years of her life is never explored.
The Brigadier is the true protagonist of the story, and Nicholas Courtney plays him as well as ever. We finally get a glimpse into his past in the form of his daughter and grandson, and how they relate to one another. It’s this plotline that I feel is the most successful, far more than the university storyline with Victoria.
As one might expect from a fan made production, however professionally produced, there are numerous self-referential moments in “Downtime”. Some of the less intrusive include mention of Lethbridge-Stewart’s time at Brendan school and his retirement, and Victoria’s genuinely funny complaint: “I think I’m going to scream.” The various references to the people and events of the two yeti stories are reasonable, given that “Downtime” is a sequel to both. The UNIT action codes that happen to be the same as the production codes for those two stories is getting too cute by half, as is Victoria’s question of “Father?” to Professor Travers, who is played by her real-life father. And yeah, the Brigadier thought he was at Cromer… very funny. There comes a point when inside jokes stop being amusing and just draw the viewer out of the story, and several of Downtime’s insular references do just that.
So what’s the verdict? “Downtime” is a story that could have been far stronger than it is with some more exposition and less of the oddities that plagued later Doctor Who. But its heart is in the right place, and it’s genuinely enjoyable to see various companions of the Doctor interact to solve a crisis. “Downtime” is far from perfect, but it’s a good effort and worth owning.