‘Downtime: The Lost Years of Doctor Who’ reviewed

❉ The definitive study of the many spin-offs produced during Doctor Who’s so-called Wilderness Years.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” said no one ever (although they should have done) when referring to that period of Doctor Who’s history in which the programme wasn’t being made (1990-1995, 1997-2004), an era often called The Wilderness Years.  Here at We Are Cult Sam Michael recently took a look at that time from the perspective of a young fan, but for anyone in their mid-teens (or older) The Wilderness Years was one of the most exciting, creative and expressive eras the series has ever had, principally because there was no series. Fandom had come of age, and with no new stories being shown it was a great time to look back and analyse.  It’s no surprise that some of the best writing about Doctor Who was produced in that period, but it didn’t stop there.  With no new Who on TV the fans started to make their own – The Wilderness Years were the time of the (semi)-official spin-off video which are the subject of Obverse Books’ latest release, Downtime: The Lost Years of Doctor Who.  Dylan Rees has written what will probably come to be regarded as the definitive story of those videos and CDs.

Wartime, the first spin-off, was actually released in 1987, but is still covered by this exhaustive study of the many, many projects which came our way before the series returned in 2005.  It’s Bill Baggs and BBV who come to dominate the narrative (three separate series of films – The Stranger, PROBE and Auton; four seasons of audio CDs; numerous other films) and this entertaining read has to carefully balance telling the story of how all these things came to be, whilst at the same time acting as a guide to them.

In lesser hands this could have been a horrible mess of a book, heavy on facts and analysis but with no narrative to actually explain the background to the product, but thanks to more than forty new interviews with most of the key players Rees has managed to tread the line carefully: this covers every film, CD and webcast perfectly.  Context is provided for every film, there are interviews (both contemporary and modern) which are occasionally surprisingly frank (not everyone comes out of this that well, although Rees mostly refrains from passing judgment and allows the parties involved to give their own accounts of what happened while leaving guilt or innocence to be decided by the reader) and this never becomes so bogged down with detail that it becomes turgid.

As someone who watched the films as they were released this is an illuminating read – I thought I knew all there was to know about More Than A Messiah or Downtime, but this has proved me completely wrong, so much so that I found myself digging out the DVDs for a timely re-watch.

It’s not easy to produce a book which works as both a story guide and detailed behind the scenes study, but Dylan Rees has managed it here, and the story as a whole is fascinating, funny, sad, alarming and sobering.  Rees is clearly very fond of his subject and his regard for the films shines through.  As many of them are now available on DVD it’s about time that viewers have a detailed written guide to them: as guides go, I can’t see this being bettered.

❉ ‘Downtime – The Lost Years of Doctor Who’ by Dylan Rees is published by Obverse Books: http://obversebooks.co.uk/product/downtime/

❉ Alun Harris is the co-author (with Matt West) of ‘Justyce Served‘, a history of the fan-made Audio Visual dramas, the precursor to Bill Baggs’ BBV Productions and Big Finish’s official audio dramas.

Become a patron at Patreon!