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26 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 725: Downtime

Dear diary,

I’ve been curious about Downtime for ages. Back when I was first getting in to Doctor Who it seemed like the most amazing thing in the world - the return of three former associates of the Doctor, and of the Yeti after almost 30 years. Of course, at that point there were only two Yeti episodes surviving in the BBC archives, so the thought of a complete story featuring them instantly won extra brownie points. Over the years, I must have seen this story more times than I’ve seen some real episodes of Doctor Who, and you know what? I’ve always been confused by it.

Partly, I think, that’s because I’d never experienced the two Patrick Troughton Yeti adventures. I therefore had no clue why the little wooden carving of a Yeti was so important (and, watching again here, I note that it’s never actually explained), and I was forever getting confused by the fact that Victoria is looking for her own father - who’s long dead - but finds Professor Travers, played by Deborah Watling’s real life father, who goes on to talk about his daughter; meaning Anne. Can you see where my confusion came from? Please say you can.

And yet, somehow, Downtime always remained oddly fascinating to me. I think a certain amount of that comes from the fact that it’s the ultimate example of the programme surviving in any climate. In 1995, it had been six years since the BBC had actively produced a proper new episode of Doctor Who, and through all the false starts of various film projects in the preceding half-decade, didn’t really have much interest in the property. And yet you get a group of fans clubbing together, getting a licence to use various elements that aren’t directly owned by the BBC, and making something new with them, that sits firmly - and comfortably - within the Doctor Who world. I think it’s something to be admired, and actually, it comes off rather well.

Because this time around, I’m actually surprised by just how much I’ve enjoyed this! Truth be told, the main reason I wanted to watch it again was to see if my half-memories of earlier viewings fitted neatly in to the Great Intelligence timeline that I was pondering back during The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear last year (more on that in a moment). But then as I watched, it suddenly became less about simply ticking this one off on the list of things I needed to see for the marathon, and more about simply enjoying it. Certainly, having experienced those earlier Intelligence stories, I’ve managed to follow the plot of this one a whole lot better than ever before, but there’s numerous other things that had troubled me in the past that all fit together perfectly well here - I guess I was too busy worrying about things I didn’t understand before that I missed some important dialogue.

It’s also great to use this story as something of a send-off to ‘classic’ Doctor Who. The TV Movie being isolated out on its own in the middle of the 1990s means that it doesn’t really feel like it belongs lumped in with those earlier Doctors, and the recent reappearance of McGann in the programme means that he feels, if anything, closer to the new series than the old. The appearance of Sylvester McCoy in the film just makes it feel a little bit like a handover between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. So this story is perfectly placed to have a reappearance for Sarah Jane Smith, the Brigadier, and Victoria Waterfield. All three were on hand to celebrate the programme for Dimensions in Time, but in regards to the actually main narrative of the show, the Brig hasn’t been seen in six years, Sarah Jane for more than ten, and our last sight of Victoria was on a beach almost thirty years ago! Bringing them all back together here for a new story alongside an old foe really does work, and introducing Kate Stewart, who’ll go on to be a recurring presence in the revived series later on, makes it feel like another vital part of the ‘Wilderness Years’.

Indeed, I’ve been somewhat struck by just how much this feels like proper Doctor Who, and I even found myself slightly mourning the fact that it’s never had a DVD release with some special features. Several key members of the cast are sadly no longer with us, but it would be nice to see if given some kind of treatment, because it comes across as so much more than ‘just another fan film’.

So. The big question - for me at least - is how this fits in with the timeline I proposed last year. Back then, I suggested that following the defeat of the Intelligence on the Underground, it retreated back onto the Astral Plane, but continued its link with the ‘many human hands’ at its disposal. I think that’s borne out here - Travers has been summoned back to Det Sen and kept alive beyond his years, and Victoria is later brought to the same location, and used to carry out the task. The plan seems to be using the fledgeling internet to carry the Great Intelligence and take over the world… which isn’t a million miles away from the plan we see in The Bells of Saint John. Yeah, I’d say that this fits in rather nicely with what I’ve assumed before - and I’m glad about that! I’ll keep reviewing the situation when we reach Season Seven in a few month’s time, but I think for now this is going in as part of my personal ‘canon’ when it comes to Doctor Who.

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