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DVD Review - DOWNTIME (1995)

Long awaited DVD release of the little seen Doctor Who spin-off.


Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Keith Barnfather, Christopher Barry

Starring: Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen, Deborah Watling


"For the new generation of Whovians, Downtime may look too dated, but for completists, steadfast fans and the interested, this long awaited DVD release is, while perhaps not exactly essential, nonetheless an enjoyable and faithful addition to the Doctor Who universe."




As a geek, I love the idea of shared universes, the concept of fictional worlds so carefully and thoroughly constructed that they are home to multiples of characters and infinite plot possibilities. Shared universes are the thing at the moment, too, with at least part of the buzz of Marvel’s dominance to be found in how the various properties interweave and co-exist, and other studios attempting to ape the approach (see the ongoing DC effort, and rumours of Universal’s monsters hooking up again). You can see the appeal; it is as if such creative cosmoses, given enough energy and intelligent design, seem more real and convincing for all their expansive detail. Almost as if they’ve taken a on a life of their own. Take Doctor Who; the severe fan investment and extensive multi-media continuity in and of that show means that, even if it were to be taken off air, it wouldn’t mean the end of it - the universe would continue, in the hearts and minds of fans (and their fiction), but also in supplementary spin offs. Which is exactly what happened with Downtime, the 1995 DTV feature which was an unofficial offshoot of the time-travelling Gallifreyan’s main show, produced when Doctor Who had a two decade or so hiatus.
Essentially a more adult Sarah Jane Adventure, Downtime sees the Great Intelligence return (last seen in The Web of Fear - which this film is a sort of sequel to), with the retired Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), and Sarah Jane Smith (sadly departed Elisabeth Sladen, so lovely here) teaming up to counteract its projected plans to use the ‘computer internet’ in order to mind control the populace. With The Doctor unable to appear for contractual reasons, will these two be able to overcome the combined might of the G.I., Victoria Waterfield and their bunch of marauding yetis? Directed and written by Chris Barry and Marc Platt, both veterans of the officially sanctioned series, and, due to the then BBC’s convoluted copyright policies, featuring many established characters, this is as close to the real deal as legally possible (the Cybermen get a name check, while the Doctor is only alluded to; although the BBC does get credit for effects and costumes).
Despite being made in the mid-90s, the look of Downtime is pure Thames television circa 1984, with cheap costumes and harsh, glaring lighting. But Doctor Who was (is) always a bit ropey looking: it’s a machine powered by imagination and a thrilling resourcefulness, not production values, and Downtime is no exception. Despite a couple of winking references to Robert Maxwell, the plot is reasonably fresh, and oddly prescient; threats to civilisation through the infiltration of digital networks seem increasingly likely (just ask Sony), and the ‘chillys’ who have already fallen under the web’s influence and are all too eager to spread the word, they behave and speak like those creepy be-suited guys in town centres who encourage you to take ‘personality tests’ (brilliantly, the chillys are decked out in none-more '90s yoof uniform of green sweater, even more garish baseball cap and massive headphones). It is now jarring not to see Doctor Who related material filmed in lovely Cardiff and surrounding areas - for us Welsh, the show is part of our national identity; certain street signs in the capital have Daleks on them, and, full disclosure, my partner was actually in The Sarah Jane Adventures - but the brutalism of the University of East Anglia makes for a suitably futuristic location, with its zig-zagging walkways and unforgiving concrete construction supporting the totalitarian techno terrors of the storyline.
A curio, then. For the new generation of Whovians, Downtime may look too dated, but for completists, steadfast fans and the interested, this long awaited DVD release is, while perhaps not exactly essential, nonetheless an enjoyable and faithful addition to the Doctor Who universe.
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