Downtime –
A 90s Time Capsule

Doctor Who’s original run ended 1989. The Paul McGann special notwithstanding, it didn’t return to TV screens until 2005. But that didn’t mean the intervening years were entirely Doctor Who-less. A number of non-BBC productions emerged in that time, created by enthusiasts desperate to fill the gap. None of these stories featured the Doctor, instead having companions and adversaries lend an appropriate air (often possible because copyright for these elements resided with the creator, not the BBC – a state of affairs that I can’t imagine happens these days).

This week, and some twenty one years after its original release, I’ve finally watched one of the better regarded spin-offs, Downtime. Released in 1995, Downtime is considered the end of the ‘Yeti Trilogy’ that began with The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear (the original conclusion was to have occurred in 1969 with The Laird of McCrimmon, but this serial was cancelled due to a quarrel between Yeti creators Haisman and Lincoln, and the BBC).

As long-time followers have probably picked up from this blog, I love the Doctor Who yeti – and their master, the Great Intelligence – so why did it take me so long to see Downtime? Truth is, it’s always been a hard tale to track down – at least until last year’s DVD release. Moreover, I did manage to grab a copy of the novelisation some years back, so I pretty much thought I’d ‘done’ it already – especially as an independent production’s budget was never going to match up with the unfettered visuals of the written word.

But I finally bit the bullet, even though I wasn’t expecting anything groundbreaking. I love Babylon 5 (also twentyish years old), but that show hasn’t aged well visually, and one forty minute episode doubtless had a hundred times the budget of Downtime’s seventy minute runtime. And boy, does Downtime have its problems. The Marc Platt story, while a clever, intriguing capstone to the trilogy, is a little too convoluted for television. The limited budget rears its head not just with the special effects, but with scenes where the director had no choice but to settle for the first (and probably only) take.

But while more notable for its ambitions than its ability to fulfill them, Downtime’s still a fun little tale. In addition to the call-backs to earlier stories and events, there’s a wry bit of social commentary about the youth of today being sucked into the internet and away from real life – except, of course, ‘today’ was twenty years ago. I can’t help but think what the Great Intelligence might make of Pokemon Go! The first ten minutes are probably the weakest, which is a shame, but if you can forge on through, there’s plenty to enjoy.

Would I recommend Downtime? If you’re a Doctor Who fan, it’s definitely worth a watch. Downtime’s also a remarkable example of what fans would do to keep the spirit of the show alive in the long darkness of the 90s, and how willing actors were to be sucked into such productions – in addition to Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen reprising their roles as the Brigadier and Sarah Jane Smith, you have Deborah Watling and Jack Watling returning as Victoria Waterfield and Professor Travers, as well as John Leeson (K9) and Geoffrey Beevers (the Master) in supporting roles. In today’s age of Youtube, high-definition cameras, and visual effects software, it’s easy to forget just what a challenge it was to make something like Downtime without the backing of a TV network.

Am I glad I finally watched Downtime? Absolutely. But then I wasn’t in it for the story (which I already knew) or the special effects (which I can ignore). For me, Downtime‘s a time capsule, a chunk of TV from two decades ago, featuring two actors I loved while growing up, and who sadly are no longer with us. I speak, of course, of Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen.

When I was a kid, I knew Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Sarah Jane Smith through my growing shelf of Doctor Who novelisations. Later on, when VHS releases and repeats became more frequent, I got to see the actual portrayals of the characters; Courtney’s wonderful dry delivery, and Sladen’s earnest, plucky characterisation.

For me, these two have always been as much as part of Doctor Who as any of the actors who’ve taken the title role, as the Master, and streets ahead of the Daleks. The chance to see Courtney and Sladen in those roles again, in a production I’d never seen? Well worth the price of admission. While the acting in Downtime is… mixed… the scenes with Courtney and Sladen come alive. In those moments, I was watching Doctor Who, not a spin-off, and it was great beyond words. But, as they say, your mileage may vary.

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