FOR SARAH JANE, THIS
STORY TAKES PLACE
BETWEEN THE DOCTOR
WHO TV STORY "THE
FIVE DOCTORS" AND
THE TWO-PART NOVEL
VHS VIDEO (RTP0087)
RELEASED IN SEPTEMBER
AND OFFICIAL VIRGIN
PAPERBACK (ISBN 0-426
-20462-X) RELEASED IN
In 1966 the Doctor
defeated the Great
Intelligence, but he
knew it wasn’t a
NOW his companion
Victoria, whose mind
had once hosted the
evil entity, might fall
prey to its power.
in an age THAT IS NOT
her own, and haunted
by visions of a father
she refuses to believe
is dead, is SUCCUMBING
to madness. But are
the visions plaguing
her really JUST THAT?
Or has the Great
again made Earth
(1 70-MINUTE EPISODE)
Downtime is really something of a dream for a Doctor Who fan as writer Marc
Platt really takes the time to wallow in the series’ rich mythology. We have two of the show’s most iconic characters: Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Sarah Jane Smith. We also have one of the Doctor’s lesser-known companions: Victoria Waterfield. Reading about the three of them at different times of their lives is enthralling in itself – for the Brigadier, this story takes place after his nervous breakdown (depicted in Mawdryn Undead); for Sarah, the events of Downtime take place a short time after The Five Doctors; and from Victoria’s viewpoint, this story is set many years after her parting company with the Doctor way back in Fury From The Deep. The one thing that these three wonderful characters have in common is that the Doctor profoundly influenced all their lives.
And then he left them all behind.
Platt’s story is on the one hand a nostalgic romp, yet it is also a quite modern, cutting-edge, techno-thriller (at least it is on paper - take one look at a ‘Chilly’ in the video and words like ‘modern’ and ‘cutting-edge’ will soon dislodge themselves from your thoughts). The Great Intelligence has taken over New World University in London. Its students – nicknamed ‘Chillys’ by the public – are under the Intelligence’s control, as are both Professor Travers and Victoria. And who could possibly save the day? It could only be the Brigadier and Sarah Jane, backed up by a modern-day UNIT (Brigadier Charles Crichton, Captain Bambera et al), K-9, and even the Brigadier’s estranged daughter, Kate.
As captivating as the main storyline is, inevitably fans will enjoy the character stories far more, particularly that of the Brigadier. For me he really carried the story; it was just so incredibly fascinating to find out about his other life. His private life. The life that was only ever so slightly hinted at towards the end on television. But Downtime is not about Doris and planting trees. It is about the daughter that his ex-wife bore, the grandson that he has never met, and all the mistakes that he has made with his family. And he could never tell them why.
Because of the emphasis on his thoughts and feelings, the novelisation is in many ways superior to the original production; Platt really allows the reader to get inside the Brigadier’s head, breaking new ground. And as I have hinted at above, it also allows Platt to have some great fun with continuity. For example, in the book the author has added a beautiful scene at the beginning that sees a very young Brigadier discuss recent classified events like the much-hyped ‘London Event’ (The Web of Fear) and of course the 1963 Shoreditch Event (Remembrance of the Daleks) with none other than Group Captain Gilmore – the first man to approach the United Nations with the idea of UNIT. Glorious!
I also enjoyed how Platt portrayed the good old UNIT days. Much like in Battlefield, the new generation of UNIT are used by the writer to hammer home just how special the 1970s were. “The Blunder Days” (a corruption of ‘blood and thunder’, not a slight on UNIT’s competence) are the truly stuff of legend, and men like the Brigadier are revered.
But the Lethbridge-Stewart that we see in this story is a different man to the Brigadier that led UNIT for so many years. He is a wiser man. Downtime sees him take the first steps towards being the contented man that we would meet again in Battlefield. There is one beautiful moment in the book where the Brigadier compares his participation in the Doctor’s life to that of a “volunteer from the audience”, but he is anything but bitter about it. If anything he seems to miss the Doctor and the “The Blunder Days”, yet in his heart he knows that they are over and that he has a new life to begin. One that includes his daughter and his grand-son and I suppose, eventually, Doris.
However, as entertaining as the video is, unfortunately it does look shockingly cheap - even upon its initial release it already seemed dated. The horrendously-dressed Chillys look like they have escaped from the 1980s; the effects are sparse, and compare poorly even to Doctor Who’s worse days; and for some reason the plot just doesn’t seem to hold together half as well on screen as it does in print. If I had not read the book first, much of the storyline would have passed me by.
Thankfully though, Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney should both be praised for their sterling performances; Courtney is particularly outstanding. However, I was less impressed with Deborah Watling, who at times seemed quite wooden, and even her father failed to impress me the third time around as Professor Travers. On the whole though, the video is not only faster in terms of pace but it is also better balanced. The Brigadier, Victoria and Sarah Jane are given a much more equal share of the action than in the book, which dwelled a little too much on Victoria for my liking. Whilst the opening chapters about her struggle to adapt to life in the 20th century are undoubtedly interesting - her journey to Tibet, the inheritance, the search for her mother’s grave etc - they do seem to kill the pace of the story. Still, it is a novelisation and at the end of the day it would not be worth reading unless it offered some new insight into the characters and the story. If nothing else, these long opening chapters put the events of the video into perspective.
Finally, Sarah Jane is like a breath of fresh air in the novel; Platt writes for her incredible character so very well. As I have said above, Sladen is wonderful in the video but even so
the Sarah Jane that I read about in the book seemed much more like the Sarah Jane that I remembered from Doctor Who. It’s just a shame that the novelisation did not take as much time to focus on Sarah’s life as it did the Brigadier’s and Victoria’s. Personally, I would
much rather have read about Sarah’s daily grind than Victoria’s misadventures. If I were to have one complaint with the novelisation, it would certainly be that Sarah was not given enough to do.
Nevertheless Downtime comes recommended in either format, but to those like myself
who are sucker for the show’s mythology then I would have to say that the book is the definitive version of the story and as such should be read first - you know you will only end up watching the video afterwards regardless, whereas if you do it the other way round I would imagine that you could be tempted to skip the book - especially once you have laid eyes on those bloody Chillys...
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This story is set on 14th September 1995, 25 years after the Great Intelligence last attempted an invasion of Earth. This suggests that The Web of Fear was set in the early 1970s.
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‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.