It’s a somewhat disconcerting feeling to find out something hitherto unknown about yourself or your work via someone else’s book.
Let me explain. About a thousand years ago, when I was a callow youth, I wrote a script for BBV Productions, a company that did barely licenced spin-offs from the then dead Doctor Who. Straight-to-video dramas and audio plays featuring characters and monsters from the show’s past, licenced out from under Auntie Beeb hrough an ownership loophole and sold to a small subset of fandom desperate for anything to plug the ever widening gap between seasons.
Plenty of writers, big names and small, tried their hand at providing audio-visual Polyfilla for the crack down which Doctor Who fandom was in danger of falling.
My own tiny role in this was to do an audio play, released in September 2002, which was largely inspired by Chris Brookmyre’s Parlabane novels and utilised the one-and-done Tom Baker era monsters The Rutans – snotter-esque shapeshifters tied in the show’s continuity into a never-ending war with the Sontarans.
In2Minds, as the story was eventually called, came and went without fanfare. Out of it I got a cheque for three hundred notes, a free CD at Panopticon 2002, and a vague sense of ‘well, I had a crack at it, but it’s not for me.’
Fast forward 13 years, and I’m interviewed by email by Dylan Rees, who says he’s putting together something looking at those lost years of semi-pro fan productions. That something turns out to be Downtime, published earlier this year by Obverse Books, which takes in the production of everything from the most recent Minister of Chance stories all the way back to 1987’s Wartime.
The near-400 pages of archive scouring, research and new interviews with the key players in Doctor Who’s other wilderness years is an impressive bit of work. Rees appears to have dug up pretty much everyone with even a tangental connection to the fan productions, from no-marks like myself to big names such as Mark Gatiss.
That era of Doctor Who’s history is just as interesting, and arguably just as important, as the periods when the show was on the air. Many of those having creative input into the regenerated Doctor Who since 2005 can be found in Downtime, where they cut their teeth with scripts or stories for the likes of BBV and Reeltime.
It was a cut-throat time, in some ways, with an increasing number of outlets battling to cash in on the dwindling fan pound. Alongside the official homes of Doctor Who on VHS and DVD, and in print via Virgin’s New Adventures and BBC Books’ Eighth Doctor Adventures, you had the semi-official, semi-pro stories from Bill Baggs and co, reuniting cast members from the show’s past in ways that were designed to brush up against Doctor Who without ever actually committing to being it in name.
With little money or resources, these films varied wildly in terms of success when in came to quality. There were some notable standouts, such as Shakedown, made in part by the rebooted former DWB as something to sell their convention and new-look newsstand magazine on.
But there were others that, in some cases, produced the odd scene which left viewers looking for the bleach to scour out their eyes…
Reading Downtime, it’s interesting to see how the passage of time, and the filters of those interviewed, portrays this era, and especially some of it’s leading figures. Its fair to say Bill Baggs does not come out of the book particularly well. Accusations from cast and crew members, most notably Nicola Bryant and Nick Briggs, of him ripping them and others off over payments and contracts, are detailed and then occasionally rebutted by Baggs himself.
The book depicts him somewhere between visionary and conman, a charismatic figure able to charm former Doctor Who stars looking for work into appearing in his films for a pittance, then moving onto the next mark when they start looking for proper recompense.
With few people lining up to defend Baggs, at times the book — and indeed the editorial line often taken by Rees – begins to feel lopsided, especially during the chapters dealing with BBV’s efforts in producing videos. There’s praise for his passion and determination, but the sheer weight of criticism ensures, even with Baggs’ own involvement in the book, that this isn’t one he’ll be giving to his granny for Christmas.
It’s not all about BBV and Bill Baggs’ travails, though, with Downtime digging into the production of the other big hitters from the mid-90s — such as the aforementioned Shakedown and the proto-Sarah Jane Adventures film Downtime, both of which would end up being novelised for Virgin’s official Doctor Who books range.
Once we move into the audio era, as BBV and Magic Bullet look to exploit that spin-off audience while Big Finish develops ‘official’ Doctor Who stories, things seem to settle into a slightly more familiar pattern, although familiar tales of money and production problems continue to plague some of the output — most notably around the controversial Zygon movie.
There’s a peculiar, and slightly wry, irony to the regular bodying Rees hands out to BBV for the at-times haphazard and indeed shoddy-sounding production approach to their output, especially the video releases, given how error-strewn Downtime turns out to be.
It’s a book crying out for another pass by a decent sub-editor (and yes, I’m aware of the irony of me pointing this out). Literals and errors abound, from simple typography issues to getting Samuel West’s name wrong. It is a tad unfortunate, given the long gestation period for the book, and the impressive amount of research and interview legwork that’s clearly been put into it, that it at times reads like an almost-finished penultimate draft.
But that aside, Downtime represents as detailed a history as you could ever need for what was a remarkable and strange era of Doctor Who.
Who, Star Trek and Star Wars are the most notable genre film and TV franchises to spawn not only fan communities, but actively creative ones generating their own films and episodes. As fan films these tend to have been tolerated with a blind eye turned towards them, although the Axenar fiasco seems to have had a knock-on effect on the Trek fan film community.
Doctor Who though, perhaps uniquely and because of the way BBC contracts were issued in the 60s and 70s, spawned this curious semi-pro world where films and audios had a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat of legitimacy — not really Doctor Who, but allowed to use bits of Doctor Who to make it seem real. Depending on how you squinted, it could or could not be a continuation of the show.
It’s hard to imagine, in these days of brand guidelines and licencing fairs, we’d ever end up with a similar situation should Who go off the air again, making Downtime as much an obituary for the world of spin-off media as it is a chronicle.
As for what I said earlier, about things you learn about yourself? Going by what’s revealed in Downtine, it turns out In2Minds – which curiously ended up on iTunes earlier this year without any warning — was meant to be the first in a series that never materialised. Turns out my commissioning loss is the audio drama world’s very definite gain…