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Downtime

Video reviewed by Nicholas Withers

Although we are lacking new Doctor Who on our TV screens, the video market seems to be producing a steady stream of spin-off stories. The latest of these is Downtime, touted as the third story in the Yeti/Great Intelligence sequence.

Downtime is similar to the two previous video productions set in the Who universe. As with The Zero Imperative the central character (or in this case characters) come from the Doctor Who universe. With The Zero Imperative it was Liz Shaw, whereas Downtime has Sarah Jane Smith, the Brigadier, Professor Travers, and Victoria Waterfield. As with Shakedown, it revives an old enemy for the nineties.

Downtime starts with some atrocious acting by James Bree, an actor who should never even think about acting in the role of a Tibetan monk, and Deborah Watling attempting to act 15 years younger and more innocent. Both fail miserably. However once we get past this annoying prologue things begin to pick up. The theme music is very well done and suitably atmospheric.

The dream sequences set on the astral plane, where the Intelligence is trapped, are well realised and atmospheric. The use of black/white/red colours only increases the dreamlike nature of the scenes as well as the starkness.

The majority of the acting is good, with regulars Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen easily slipping back into the roles that must be second nature for them by now.

Perhaps one noticeable flaw is the way in which Sarah Jane Smith is introduced to the story. The impression one gains from the original TV series is that she would never be a info-mercenary for hire, yet that is exactly what she is at the beginning of Downtime. The New World University has hired her to track down information (some of it classified) on various people. Perhaps this is not so much a flaw in the plot as the failure to reveal motives well enough. Later on it does become clearer Sarah is interested in what the New World University is up to, which could explain why she allowed herself to be hired by them.

If taken as canonical, Downtime raises some interesting questions about the Brigadier's family. It would seem that Doris wasn't his first wife.

Most of the video effects are well realised, from the dreamscapes and the pyramid-topped university building, to the web stretching over the sky and the transformation of people into Yeti. However where the story falls down is in the Yeti themselves. There can be little doubt that the new design for the Sontarans in Shakedown was brilliant and better than the originals. However the new Yeti do not stack up in comparison to their predecessors. They appear to have gone on a severe diet, and chosen a bizarre colouring. I would have preferred a radical redesign along the lines of the revised Sontarans, or even the originals in preference to the crimson freaks in Downtime.

The plot itself can be a bit confusing, even more so for one unfamiliar with the two prequels (The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear) to this story. This is mainly because of the 'Ghost Light Effect' (cramming a Marc Platt script into too smaller time). However a second viewing clears up any lingering confusion over main plot elements, and hopefully the novel will fill in various plot holes and history gaps.

The other problem with the script is that it is continuity-laden and perhaps not easily understood by people unfamiliar with Doctor Who. In this regard Downtime is very much a fan production for fans.

Downtime has the slight feeling of a tragedy hidden behind the traditional happy ending of the defeat of the Great Intelligence and the reunion of the Brigadier and his family. Professor Travers is possessed most of the time and in the few moments of lucidity is greatly confused and sad. Ultimately he is killed. Victoria is the second tragic figure. Dislocated so far from her home time, and in constant search for a father figure, this leads her into causing much of the catastrophe in the first place. Finally at the end she quietly disappears, still alive but alone and so far from home.

Apart from a disappointing prelude and the new Yeti design, Downtime is another significant step forward in the production of Doctor Who-related video stories It also reaffirms that should Doctor Who fail to enter production elsewhere, a British production is no longer an impossibility.

This item appeared in TSV 46 (January 1996).