Review: Doctor Who: Downtime

DOWNTIME_2D_SMALL-600x851Reeltime Pictures, out now

1995 – and the Brigadier, Sarah and Victoria Waterfield encounter the Great Intelligence once more…

For those who didn’t live through those turbulent years, this was the second of the Great Doctor Who movies that were released in the period between the end of the classic series and the Paul McGann TV Movie. Terrance Dicks’ Shakedown – featuring the Sontarans and the Rutans – had been produced for and shown at the DreamWatch convention in 1994, with Sophie Aldred, Carole Ann Ford and Michael Wisher amongst its cast. Downtime went one better in terms of continuity, bringing back Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen, Deborah Watling and her father Jack Watling in the roles they’d made famous on screen, with K9 voice actor John Leeson and former Master Geoffrey Beevers also guest starring. The script was by Ghost Light’s Marc Platt, and the director was Who veteran Christopher Barry.

Now, 20 years after its VHS release, it’s available to watch on DVD. There have been murmurings of extra footage featuring Sylvester McCoy to be inserted, and other threats to its release, but here it is in all its original glory. And it’s a lot more fun – and more coherent – than I remember from the time. Lis Sladen isn’t in it as much as you might hope, but this is a Sarah Jane that fits nicely between K9 and Company and School Reunion (or her first Big Finish audio series if you want to be really picky). Nick Courtney picks up the Brigadier without a problem (and bear in mind, in continuity terms, this is before Battlefield on most reckonings), as effective in his “get off my world” speech as he is in more emotional scenes. Debbie Watling isn’t best served by the middle portion of the script – she’s much better in the opening and closing sequences, and in her “Scottish Widows” bits haunting the Brigadier’s dreams – but it’s lovely to see her once more working with her father Jack. Beevers makes a credible character of his serving man who’s falling on hard times, and Beverley Cressman is good as Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, the character Jemma Redgrave would go on to canonise on the TV show over 15 years later.

The production veers between the extremely competent and the… er… less so. Barry has some ambitious plans for Platt’s equally ambitious screenplay, and a large part of it comes off, thanks to a number of professionals behind the cameras. There are a few weak links on the acting front – wasn’t Peter Miles available to play Christopher?! – and some of the “fight” sequences don’t really succeed. The effects are what you’d expect from the period!

This new release comes with a second disc of well-edited behind the scenes footage which chronicles the making of the episode, at least from first read through to end of filming (and a separate programme deals with post-production). As with Reeltime’s recent Virgin Publishing release, it’s fascinating to see so many familiar names and faces as they were 20 years ago – and to see the stars of the show in off-camera moments.

Downtime was sort of made canonical by its inclusion in Virgin’s licensed Missing Adventures series (as Shakedown was in the New Adventures), and while it certainly shows its budgetary restrictions, it holds up better, it has to be said, than quite a lot of contemporary television of the period!

Verdict: Still enjoyable after all these years, it’s good to get a chance to experience Downtime again. 7/10

Paul Simpson

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