By Matthew Kresal
The last Doctor of the Original Series.
Picture courtesy BBC.
When Doctor Who went off the air in 1989, it marked the end of an era. Indeed, for a time it seemed the end of the series, at least on-screen. Yet, with its premise of an alien traveller in space and time wandering eternally, it wouldn’t fade away and it would only be a matter of time before there were attempts to revive it, either as a reboot or continuation. These were at play throughout the years that followed. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor, who had walked off into the proverbial sunset, would receive a belated swansong of sorts across 2001-02 with an online serial that would serve as both reboot and continuation tale: Death Comes to Time.
To understand how Death Comes to Time became the story that it did, it’s necessary to first get a sense of where Doctor Who stood in the lead-up to its creation. The end of the TV series led to what has come to be termed the Wilderness Era for the series, but that’s something of a misnomer given the sheer number of stories produced in that period for various media.
A series of original novels, picking up with McCoy’s Doctor and his companion Ace (played by Sophie Aldred) began less than two years after their final on-screen adventure.
Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred on location in 1988.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Doctor Who Magazine, with its on-going comic strip, likewise continued publication (something it managed not only until the eventual return in 2005, but to this very day). And, starting in 1999, a series of ongoing audio dramas based off the series would build off of two BBC Radio serials produced earlier in the decade. That’s not including independent productions from companies that took advantage of individual writers retaining copyright to various parts of the series mythos (and stretching the legalities to breaking point in some cases).
This plethora of Doctor Who came with some issues. Without its parent TV series still being active, everyone wanted their version to be the definitive continuation of the franchise. The result led to a number of creative decisions that included deliberate and contradictory fates for Ace (perhaps the most infamous being the Doctor Who Magazine comic killing the character off). The arrival in May 1996 of a continuation TV movie with McCoy’s Doctor regenerating into Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor did nothing to settle matters with the apparent contradictions in canon the TV Movie introduced led to a decade plus long debate as to whether McGann’s Doctor counted. Indeed, McGann’s incarnation would at one time have four separate continuities going at once, two of them being comics in different publications!
A plethora of outlets. This is Dr Who Magazine, October 1989.
Picture from Editor's collection. Can you see why he needs a large house?
Into which stepped Dan Freeman. An up and coming writer/director, Freeman became acquainted with Aldred in the late 1990s, being invited to attend a performance of McCoy performing Samuel Beckett monologues as part of the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was this performance where McCoy, as Freeman would later write, “left you in no doubt that this master clown also had the ability to convey a tragic darkness,” that would serve as the launching point for Freeman’s efforts to bring McCoy’s Doctor back again. An effort that would see Freeman’s project get picked up as a pilot by BBC Radio 4 for a potential radio revival of Doctor Who that could lead to an on-going spin-off series. That pilot episode was recorded in 2000 with a cast that included McCoy, Aldred, John Sessions, and Stephen Fry. For the first time since 1996, the BBC was moving towards producing new Doctor Who.
At least for a while. Radio 4 underwent another of its periodic changes in management, a factor that seemed to have had an effect upon the entire Corporation and efforts to revive Doctor Who across the Wilderness Era.
In the case of Death Comes to Time, the new management decided not to go forward with the completed pilot as a series, leaving the project in limbo. At least until BBCi, as the Corporation’s online component was then known, became aware of the project. Offering a little money for flash animation to accompany the project, the pilot episode debuted on the BBCi Cult site for the series on 13th July 2001.
The release was publicised with a segment on Radio 4’s Today programme in which host John Humphreys spoke with McCoy and the Daily Mail science writer and Doctor Who fan Michael Hanlon. An interview during which Hanlon expressed scepticism at both how successful a Doctor Who revival could be along with doubting that streaming programmes online, such as original drama, would ever catch on.
Yet Death Comes to Time’s opening instalment, At The Temple of the Fourth, did so. It was something of an unexpected success for BBCi, which sought to fill the gap now created. After discussions with Big Finish about that company creating what were being termed “webcasts,” a decision was made to first let Freeman complete work in Death Comes to Time.
It’s remaining four episodes were recorded in the closing months of 2001 and, following post-production work, would be released between February and May 2002. Though the pilot episode was well received, the fuller series would be less so, bordering on the controversial by the time of its conclusion as Freeman (under the pseudonym of writer Colin Meek) took the serial into unexplored territory for Doctor Who.
Freeman was, by his own later admission, not a massive fan of the series. As such, he was less than concerned with fitting it into the wider series canon. The extent of this became clear as Death Comes to Time presented its own idiosyncratic take on the Time Lords, or at the very least, a small group known as the Fraction. A group which included the Doctor himself but also Fry’s Minister of Chance as so-called “Gods of the Fourth” with powers that could allow them to reshape time and space at will. A power that came at great cost for its use, forcing them to live by a code that is tested by the presence and machinations of universe-conquering warlord General Tannis (played by Sessions).
The serial would see the Doctor, travelling with a new companion named Antimony (Kevin Eldon), uncovering the various strands of Tannis’ plot in a galaxy-hopping tale while Ace was being trained by fellow Time Lord Casmus (Leonard Fenton). It would all build up to a confrontation at Stonehenge that would offer McCoy’s Doctor a very different ending to what the 1996 TV Movie had offered, sending Ace out into the universe without the Time Lords of old.
As all that might suggest, this wasn’t the Doctor Who universe as many fans would have known it in the early 2000s. Nor, it seemed, was it the one that McCoy’s Doctor and Ace had occupied on screen between 1987 and 1989.
Freeman’s vision of the series leaned toward the mystical, even New Age in places, bordering at times on fable. Something that Death Comes to Time at times was at pains to point out as it moved between the Doctor or the Minister’s actions with the lessons Casmus was teaching Ace. While the series had engaged in the exploration of Buddhist concepts during the late Jon Pertwee era under producer Barry Letts, it had never gone as far as Freeman did with the serial, creating what was very much an alternate version of the series. One that, as evidenced by McCoy’s Doctor appearing in just a single scene of its penultimate episode, was as interested in exploring said themes as it was in being a Doctor Who story.
Even so, and due to McCoy and Aldred’s involvement from early in the project, a number of echoes of plans for their characters remain. The Doctor being revealed to be far more than just another Time Lord owed something to the Cartmel Masterplan, named for the original series’ final script editor Andrew Cartmel, who had been building up a backstory for the Doctor’s origins. Ace training to become a Time Lord in her own right was another idea Cartmel and the show’s writers had considered for the prospective 1990 season of the show, unrealized by the show’s ending.
Other aspects of the show’s lore had echoes in the plot, such as the background of the Fraction bearing quite a resemblance to what occurred with the Time Lords and the Minyans in the Tom Baker era serial Underworld. The inclusion of vampires as an ancient Time Lord enemy and the appearance of both UNIT and Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier offered tie-ins to the series larger canon, coming at the suggestion of script editor and Doctor Who fan Nev Fountain. An intriguing bit of foreshadowing came with the ending at Stonehenge with its universe altering consequences amid an invasion of Earth, something echoed in the episodes that brought Matt Smith’s first year as the Doctor to an end in 2010.
Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Why do senior officers in fiction usually have double-barrelled names?
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Further with hindsight, there are several aspects of Death Comes to Time that continue to speak in its favour. Among them is Sylvester McCoy’s performances as the Seventh Doctor. Long known to fans as both a master clown and as a dark manipulator during his TV tenure, Freeman’s script allowed McCoy to find the right balance between those extremes. There are moments when McCoy’s comical side shine, such as in his scenes with Antimony, without it being either forced or intrusive. Yet that is just the tip of what makes McCoy’s performance so strong here. The Doctor in Death Comes to Time is a tragic figure: a tired old man putting on a happy face, watching everything he has spent his life fighting for being brought to the edge of destruction. McCoy conveys that sense of melancholy beautifully, building to his final scene. If part of why Death Comes to Time exists was to give his Doctor a better send off than he’d received in 1996, then it succeeded without question, allowing him one of his finest performances in the role.
The strength of the performances extends into the wider cast. Aldred returns as Ace and, like McCoy, gives one of her best performances as an older, though at first not wiser, version of that character finding a new destiny in the wider universe.
Sessions offered a fun villain with Tannis, bent on universal domination but turns out to be far more than another of the series megalomaniac villains. Fenton’s Casmus offered both moments of poetic beauty and light relief, the latter also being true of Eldon as Antimony which makes the eventual fates of both characters all the more effective. Featuring cameo appearances by the likes of Anthony Stewart Head, Jacqueline Pearce, and Courtney as the Brigadier, Death Comes to Time offered what remains one of the strongest casts ever assembled for a Doctor Who story.
Arguably, though, the real star of Death Comes to Time was Fry’s Minister of Chance. Offering an apt performance, Fry’s Minister was a Time Lord whose personal demons threatens to unravel everything that the Fraction stands for. Like McCoy’s Doctor, the mix of the comic with the tragic was to be a defining trait, playing to Fry’s strengths as a performer. The instances of the two paired off were among the serial’s highlights, bookending it in many ways.
The focus on the Minister was no accident given that, when Freeman began the project, the plan had been for an eventual spin-off to focus on the character. By the time Death Comes to Time had finished, however, Freeman had considered ignoring the events of the serial to build further Doctor Who stories upon. In the event, Big Finish rather than Freeman would get the commission to do further webcasts in the next couple of years, though Freeman would return to the character a decade later with The Minister of Chance podcast series, featuring Julian Wadham in place of Fry alongside a number of Doctor Who and British SF alumni in its cast, including McCoy and McGann.
What Death Comes to Time most resembles with hindsight is Big Finish’s later audio drama series Doctor Who Unbound. Yet, unlike those audios, this began as an ongoing affair rather than a series of one-off tales. Though it would not spawn a continuing series, instead helping launch a series of productions that would contibute to the eventual revival of the series on TV, Death Comes to Time remains a unique take on the Doctor Who universe. One especially worth seeking as a vision of what Doctor Who might have become in the early 2000s.
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