Sunday, 29 November 2015

DVD Review: Downtime

Reviewed by Matthew Purchase

The unofficial spin-off Downtime was produced by Keith Barnfather for Reeltime and was released on VHS in 1995. 20 years on it has finally received a DVD release, but does it stand the test of time?

It’s hard to imagine the time when new Doctor Who wasn’t being made, with new material only being released in the form of comic strips and books. Today I count my blessings that we currently have 13 new episodes being made a year, not even mentioning a K9 film and new BBC Three spin-off Class which are currently in pre-production. During this period companies such as Reeltime Pictures and BBV started making their own productions, using elements from the TV series that the BBC did not hold copyright for, and often with an array of cast members associated with the TV show.

With Downtime, the links with the TV series are aplenty. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Sarah Jane Smith, Victoria Waterfield, Professor Travers, Yeti, and UNIT all feature from the main show and there is even the introduction of the Brigadier’s daughter Kate, who would later be introduced as a recurring character to the revived series. But whilst it is wonderful to see all these old faces again, the sheer number of links to the TV series does over-complicate the plot and it just feels as though they have put in as many of these elements as they can to make up for the lack of the Doctor.

The storyline might not be the best in the world, but it has a perfectly serviceable plot that is certainly better than several stories from the end of the classic run of Doctor Who. Marc Platt does commendably well in incorporating all of these ingredients into a 70-minute story, which is certainly no mean feat. It is reminiscent in some ways of twentieth anniversary special The Five Doctors, a story which included lots of elements from the show's past whilst working them into a functional script, resulting in the narrative lacking in places.

It’s great to see the Yeti on screen again (even if the costumes are vastly inferior to the 60s BBC versions). The plot concerning personal computers (then a relatively newfangled concept) might have seemed a new and exciting idea at the time, but it does feel dated now, along with the garish green pullovers - but then, this was the 90s...

For a direct-to-VHS production, the acting is surprisingly strong. Of course Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier) and Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith) are the stars of the show, slipping back into their previous roles effortlessly. It is also lovely to see Deborah Watling (Victoria) back on screen with her real-life father Jack Watling (Professor Travers) after an absence of 27 years from the TV series proper. Beverly Cressman’s portrayal of Kate Stewart is quite easily reconciled with Jemma Redgrave’s interpretation (opposite Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi's Doctors), and there is certainly a physical similarity. In this story she doesn’t initially know about her father’s dealings with extra-terrestrial beings, so perhaps it’s this story which leads her towards the path to taking charge of UNIT?

Classic Doctor Who director Christopher Barry - who helmed ten TV stories featuring the first four Doctors - does a wonderful job at shooting this production. His style here amalgamates the essence of classic Doctor Who with what might then have been considered a modern production. Similarly, the music score feels modern for the time, whilst also harking back to previous Doctor Who scores, particularly 1968 Yeti escapade The Web of Fear.

The DVD release of Downtime includes a second disc of bonus content. The first of these features is a look at the making of Downtime, consisting of behind the scenes footage with occasional subtitles providing context to the images. I didn’t realise how many people were involved in this production, and certainly after watching this feature I have more respect for the love and attention that was given to Downtime. Watching it, you wouldn’t think it was a low-budget straight-to-video production. Included in the feature was a nice surprise; an all too brief section of footage featuring Jack Watling rehearsing his lines. I don’t think I have ever seen any interviews with Watling, so it’s wonderful to see a snapshot of this important Doctor Who actor. Whilst it was nice to see how Downtime was made, the feature does go on a bit too long and I started to become slightly bored at seeing every single aspect of the filming. Perhaps this item could have done with being cut down to about 50 minutes to try and keep up the interest; however it is certainly worth a watch.

The second extra looks at Downtime's post-production, which in contrast to the behind the scenes feature is too short, running to around 7 minutes. Featuring the editing, CGI and music scoring, this feature gives a fascinating insight as to how the production was put together. Ian Levine enthusiastically discusses his thought process behind the incidental music, showing the experimentation involved with different instruments in order to get the right sounds. But most interesting of all is seeing how the CGI effects were achieved. We take it for granted now, but the software used at the time reminded me of using Microsoft Paint on top of a video. It is a real insight into how CGI was achieved back then.

All in all, whilst Downtime might not be the best of Doctor Who's independent spin-offs, it is clear that this production was made with love and affection for the television show during a time when Doctor Who was hardly in the public consciousness. I would certainly recommend getting this DVD if you have never seen Downtime before. It might be as close to a brand new classic Doctor Who episode as you can get.

★★★☆☆

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