Downtime: The somewhat infamous 1995 Reeltime production will be re-released on Monday 16th November around twenty years after it was first put out on VHS. This time it’ll be with some entirely ‘new’ content of production extras which warrants this reissue being a two-disc set affair. Now I was amongst the first to get wind of this rumoured release (oh hark at her!) as I was in consideration to knock up a review of some sort for it at the request of the somewhat infamous himself Mr Bell. When I agreed to this review gig I did so with some mild trepidation, for one thing I have some very vivid memories of the original video cassette release of Downtime which failed so dramatically to entertain me as a teenage Dr Who fan and which proved to be a bit a waste of some hard earned pocket money it has to be said, a lingering resentment I think I share with many fans who shelled out for the film upon its original release. For another thing I’m very much aware just how much stick this Reeltime film gets amongst certain sections of the old Dr Who series fan community so I’m a little weary of unwittingly adding to its reputation as just a bit of a bad ‘cash in’ held by some and then again there are some fans who will defend to the death the legacy of Reeltime and anything Who related… even the turgid and bad stuff, and I’ve no wish to get on their bad sides.
Anyway, Mr Bell managed to talk me into it, it must be said I didn’t take much persuading after all and he duly sorted out a review copy to be winged over to me in plenty of time to watch it and do any research required. In the meantime I planned on busying myself by watching ‘The Web of Fear’ and reading the online bumf which had been emailed my way.
Incidentally when I told my mum what I was to be reviewing she got surprisingly rather excited about it saying she’ll tell the neighbours… I think to be fair to her though she had thought I said ‘Downton’.
Eventually the package arrived, I’d like to have been able to review the extras disc as well as the main film to be honest as that seems a bit more exciting than a simple reissue of the original on DVD as well as being able to report on what the cover art is like but I only received a simple burnt copy disc with the title hand written on in marker and a print out so I can’t do that but that’s okay, after all if they sent out the full package to every two bit blog to review (with the good chance many just want a freebie) then it would be a costly enterprise indeed. As for the cover for the moment it looks remarkably similar to the original if memory serves me right. There’s the good old Brig, service revolver in hand looking pensive to each side of him are Sarah-Jane and Victoria Waterfield with a pyramid of silver balls (not too dissimilar to that seen in a Ferrero Rocher advert) balances in the middle of the pic. Above them stands a red eyed yeti cast in black save its claws stands menacingly above and behind that shaggy beast is an ominous row of shadowy figures.
Ohhh! Looks exciting, yea, sure it does. I thought the same bloody thing when aged 15 I spent the little money I had on ordering this esoteric Who related offering from the foul smelling pokey Comic & Cult TV shop in my provincial home town. Ahem. Well time to look at this with a fresh perspective.
The director, the late Christopher Barry who needs little introduction to Dr Who fans as a legendry director of various episodes from the 1960s & 1970s, does his best with the limited capability of the equipment attempting to frame shots in such a way to suggest far more drama than the script and the action can deliver sadly though at times it looks outdated even for 1990s efforts. He’s at his best in the case of Downtime when framing long scenes of dialogue (which luckily for him Platt is only too eager to provide) and using the lighting and shadows to far more reasonable effect than a shoe string budget should allow; such as the first scene set in the Tibetan monastery which is reminiscent of the opening set up scene for The Web of Fear to my uneducated eyes. If the entire project had been filmed in black and white possibly in a retro almost noir style then it would have looked far more impressive even today than in its colour form which looks drab and washed out.
Although, which parts Barry actually directed and which parts were instead done by the ‘other’ director on this project I’m none too sure. You see Reeltime Pictures founder Keith Barnfather, himself a director of much of their output is here also credited as being a ‘Director’ so that might help explain the jarring odd sensation of the whole not quite coming together in the end edit, two different styles of filmmaking certainly would account for the many misses than hits on display here.
Scriptwriter and Dr Who Stalwart Marc Platt is certainly at his best when writing lines intended to be read by the male characters and some of the best lines are unsurprisingly given to the Brig to come out with. When I first sat through this on grainy VHS back in the day I didn’t even pick up on the line ‘I thought I was in Cromer’ uttered by the Brigadier as he awakes from his deep coma like visit to the astral plane but now hearing it again as if for the first time I get the nice reference to the moment in the Three Doctors where an indignant Lethbridge-Stewart refuses to believe he’s been transported through a portal to a place outside of time and space (which handily for the Beeb looks remarkably like yet another quarry in Wales) and says something along the lines of ‘Looks like Cromer’. What the good people of Cromer must make of its tenuous connection to the longest running science fiction series in the UK or to being likened to a dreary blurry astral plane or even a quarry is anyone’s guess. And Nicholas Courtney is a delight as the aging man of action finding him thrust back into the strange happenings of alien goings on in contemporary Britain.
As for the plot well it involves a rather too literal association for my liking between of web firing Yeti and then still nascent World Wide Web. Seems the Great Intelligence has some scheme to ‘jack in’ (yes, that’s the sort of terribly dated lingo used here) to the internet and using all the cheap electronics that his rather naffly named and not at all menacing sounding New World University has been researching and producing. The faculty of this huge campus seemingly just Victoria, a creepy henchman acting as second in command and the sort of terrible on site DJ who is a mix of Timmy Mallet and the worst sort of forced jollity essence from old radio one. The university is attended by an army of uniformed students all dressed in the same forest green fleeces and yellow baseball caps which do nothing to help the enjoyment of this film. As uniforms go this was bad even by 1990s standards looking more like the sort of thing the Scouts did to try to look ‘cool’ when they updated their look. All the students seem to be permanently plugged into their Walkman’s which of course is another aspect of the Tech-Cults means of control over them with the Great Intelligence using them to transmit his orders.
A very basic plot summary with spoiler alerts!-
Victoria Waterfield has trekked back to Tibet being led on by a ghostly voice of her father to come and rescue him, instead she finds the possessed form of Professor Travers and a dodgy accented Tibetan Monk in shades. Somewhere between then and the setting of the film she has managed to set up a new University called New World with the ultimate goal of bringing enlightenment to the planet. She’s done this using the crafty investments she’d built up and the hundred years or so of interest they’ve accumulated. As mentioned before New World excel in radio and computer technology research and have a reputation of being something of a cult along the lines of a parody of Scientology.
For some reason these cultish members of the university take to observing and annoying the estranged daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Kate. This is all because she has stashed the much sought after Locus in her son Gordon’s toy chest.. as you do. Unaware this is the real reason for the harassment and in a bit of a pickle she attempts to contact her father. Around the same time she’s doing this the Brig, now in the stages of early dotage and still teaching maths (although its mentioned he’s soon retiring) at the Brendon School is drawn into a deep sleep and wanders the wishy washy looking astral plane being chatted by the oldest looking schoolboy ever called Hinton. Hinton is working to uncover the goings on at New World in the process he gets found out, falls off a balcony and then goes on to befriend possibly the most one dimensional character ever seen, ex RAF tramp about town ‘Old Harrods’ who sounds like he’s from a Victorian melodrama rather than 1990s Britain (another odd flaw of Platt is his inability to write ‘working class’). Meanwhile in a further plot development Sarah-Jane Smith is on her way to the New World University to do a story on their activities at the institute’s request.
Along the way there is some really terrible extra acting (to say nothing of the main cast who at times seem to be flagging) twists and turns of various obviousness and nothing is really unexpected (really, don’t expect many red herrings here) and some really silly looking Yeti who seem to have been made using the same fur Henson employed to create Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street.
I’m afraid though Platt’s script does fall rather flat outside of the whimsical nods to references to old Who and is rather too full of the sort of overly melodramatic, needlessly long speeches which on paper probably read as being quite deep and serious but once uttered aloud in a very hammed up acting style best left to theatre than film by a cast very fond of looking away to the middle distance it becomes oddly amusing and irritating in equal measure. Now I enjoyed this very same sort of deposition when it was used so well in the McCoy 26th season in stories such as the Brigg’s penned ‘Curse of Fenric’ and Platt’s own ‘Ghost Light’. All this brooding, staring into the abyss chit-chat helped draw the viewer ever deeper into the otherworldly madness unfolding (I still think Ghost Light and Fenric are just some of the finest and most gothic pieces of writing to grace the original run of Who ever)
But when used in the modern office and granite grey Brutalist architectural surroundings of the University setting and sitting next to other lines littered with such dated 1990s cod-Cyberpunk twaddle it fails to ignite the same sort of suspense here and rather feels a bit too much like filler designed more simply to pad out the required run time than explain the plot or add character depth – there’s a good reason he’s referred to as a ‘Dr Who author’ rather than script writer. Part of the reason for the lines failures must, I’m afraid, fall upon the cast. Dr Who was often accused during its original run of being a tad hammy at times and being quality of employing some extras with dubious acting abilities but Downtime seems to relish filling the screen with such a cast. Obviously cost was an issue I suppose so maybe a few here n’ there are friends and family roped into the fill the background but it doesn’t explain nor excuse the over acting in which the main cast indulge in. On watching it again I’m struck by how much it reminds of a children’s TV series which was aired around the same time this was released on video called Dark Season, written by a certain Russell T Davies and being set in a school in which other worldly strange goings on are happening might explain the familiarity to this being as it is set in a University environment.. Also oddly enough reminds me of the Demon Headmaster when I come to think about it.
Still though, ignore the acting as best you can and what have you got left? Does the story work? Is it all bad? Well like most of Doctor Who through the 1980s the answer to those questions is ‘no’ and thankfully ‘no’. Downtime tends to be one of those Reeltime productions which comes in for a bit of a hammering from fans for all manner of reasons but its intention was a good one, to offer fans a chance to experience more stories made by fans and set in the Dr Who universe (Or Whoniverse as I call it – chuckle) and lets not forget that this is the story which despite being outside of the BBC’s control still introduced an entirely new character of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart into the canonicity of the current series.
Okay so it was totally unofficial and the budget is obviously a restriction on the quality of the production, the sound is one such issue which is marred by those restrictions with some dialogue threatening to be drowned by traffic and even a water fountain and hell we were never to going to get hordes of uniformed Yetis stomping around London’s streets, but given what else was actually being made and aired on British TV in the mid-1990s was it really as bad as it might seem now through eyes spoilt by 21st century advances in ever more impressive computer graphics and the affordability of those effects for use in even low budget indie movies? Reeltime employed graphics which for the 1990s weren’t really all that bad so it seems an easy shot to start pulling this film up for failures to convince me that that massive grey pyramid is really there or that green lightning bolts are being shot out of it. Frankly I’m more concerned by the dodgy accent used by the ‘Tibetan’ monk at the start of the thing and let’s face it if we’re going to start ripping into this for being dated in its special effects then we’ll have to do start doing that for every official Dr Who episode which the Beeb made between 1963 and ’89…
I haven’t the bloody time frankly, do you?
With the benefit of hindsight it’s easier for me to appreciate the work done with the limited budget, resources and none main cast acting skills that Reeltime had to be work with. We might forget that even the proper Dr Who episodes made just six years prior to this enterprise had its fair share of dubious dabbling in computer graphics used in special effects and the Beeb had more experience, a slightly higher budget and people who were experts to fall back upon so in the scope of mid-1990s, mid-range special effects Reeltime doesn’t do too badly really, obviously bad graphics overlaid onto a scene in post edit are much easier to pick out in a crisp (and supposedly cleaned up) picture of the DVD release with an eye which has become used to such ticks and has been rather spoilt by ever greater leaps of fantasy offered by slicker and more affordable CGI which means even an indie company like The Asylum can produce some pretty nifty graphics at times. Graphics which back in the 1990s would have been just utterly amazing if they could have had them. Sadly they didn’t and what they did have now looks so outdated and naff to be very off putting, it doesn’t even have the appeal of being bad in a fun retro manner like most other Who special effects and I wonder if they might have been better off just redoing all that side of things for the rerelease on DVD and generally improving such shots when they could. I doubt many viewers would have minded, I think most of the people who will be buying this DVD issue will already have the VHS copy so they could easily compare the two.
I have to admit though that back in 1995 when I got it on video I ended up simply fast forwarding after trying my best to plough through the relentless plot and achingly slow pace of it all to get to the much promised UNIT battle scene… well, it hardly seemed worth the time. Of course as I mentioned before the budget constraints once again had a part to play in the outcome of the very short battle scene but it really can’t excuse the terrible ‘play dead’ acting on display here as the UNIT squaddies chests move with each breath plus it’s no wonder they all got killed as few of their rifles even fire and its clearly just a rifle soundtrack played onto the action and the actors gamely making it seem as if they’re firing by jerking the guns about a bit.
Also the Yeti frankly just look daft, not at all as terrifying as their cover art counterpart suggest they might be … okay, they might just be dafter than they had ever looked in the Abominable Snowman in which they seem quite cuddly and no where near as disconcerting as they appear in The Web of Fear prior to this enterprise. They still move with all the grace of a hopping Womble and seem as threatening as one as well but they do ultimately get the job done. Just a shame the first time we see one it’s all rather comic. Speaking of comedy it’s all rendered a bit more so by one poor soldier building up his role into a speaking part by shouting ‘Ouch!” as he falls to the Yeti’s vicious claw swipe, a swipe which has the same library ‘whoosh!’ sound each time it claws down on its prey.
If I was grading this in Daleks I’d have to give it an honest opinion of three and an a half Daleks (wait, is a half Dalek just Davros?) out of a possible ten.
Essentially a worthy attempt to keep the memory alive and some aging actors in work, whilst it might not be the Brigadier at his best at least he’s the central hero this time round and doesn’t have to fake his own death like in Battlefield or come across all bolshie and borderline thick headed as in the UNIT stories of old. Nicholas Courtney is on good form slipping easily back into the character like an old pair of slippers and having most of the best lines in the process. He plays the role with a knowing wink and tongue firmly in his cheek as a bit of fun. Elisabeth Sladen is again just wonderful as Sara-Jane, the companion I had the biggest crush for by the way, making the best of the daft plot and dodgy acting going on around her and being graced with a few good scenes herself. Sadly Deborah Watling doesn’t really do it for me here, she’s far too fond of attempting to pull focus by hamming it up which given the company she’s keeping is some feat. Again though it has to be said it is rather nice to see her reprise a classic role. Jack Watling is great as Travers and is finally old enough to play him without much make up, despite having been in the clutches of the Great Intelligence for years this Travers is a far less grumpy soul than previously, slightly beaten and worn down by the torment and stress of being possessed by the GI and Watling does well at playing it.
So a bloody good effort truth be told but one which is hindered by budget restraints and which has aged terribly, for some reason the mid-1990s seems characterless unlike the 1960s, 70s or even the 1980s era. It will never be counted amongst the classics but still a good insight into how Marc Platt might have progressed if the series hadn’t been axed when it had cutting the supposed 27th season’s Cartmel Masterplan dead in its tracks. He’s certainly delivering much of what we had come to expect from the 7th Dr’s swansong with drawn out dark ramblings and melodrama to the fore. Of course I personally prefer his stuff when its scripted for the Big Finish audio adventures, he’s far more of a spoken word writer best suited to radio than an action scene one. The little action we get in Downtime often fails to convincingly move the story on and I think some of it was added if only to break up the plodding dialogues and increasingly convoluted plot which much like the Web sprawls out in many tangents. At a run time of 70 minutes it might just be a little too long for the subject matter to justify but then again any shorter and it wouldn’t seem worth it. Probably something for the die hard ‘old’ fans than something to treat a new series fan to this Xmas.