Considering it’s a programme that’s concerned with making the unusual palatable for the mainstream, Doctor Who has been to some pretty odd places in its pursuit of the peculiar. Never more so than in the “Wilderness Years”, that stretch between 1990 and the early 2000s when the series was out of broadcast, and its fans took stewardship of the franchise. The original novels published by Virgin prior to the transmission of the TV Movie were frequently strange enough, blending adolescent fantasy with childish make-believe, but the almost wilfully baroque Summoned by Shadows – the first instalment of BBV’s unlicensed and off the leash video series starring Colin Baker as a substitute Time Lord – is possibly the nadir (or zenith, your mileage will almost certainly vary depending upon when and in what circumstance you first saw it) of the wild abandon of the period.
The story of how these dangerously copyright infringement-provoking video dramas made it to production is frequently more interesting and more odd than the stories they actually told, which were often derivative and suffered from generally somewhat lacklustre production values – although they undoubtedly meant a lot to those who were desperate enough for a fix of Doctor Who in moving pictures that the likes of Dæmos Rising and The Terror Game had to suffice. Principally, although far from exclusively, Dylan Rees’ comprehensive account of those years is the story of two men; Bill Baggs and Keith Barnfather. Baggs’ Bill and Ben Video (or BBV) was at the more licence-baiting end of the spectrum, producing pseudo-Doctor Who stories in a mostly completely unofficial fashion, while Barnfather’s Reeltime Pictures would licence characters and monsters from the TV series and build its stories around who and what was available. Each was successful enough in its own right to continue this practise pretty much throughout Doctor Who’s transmission downtime.
The portraits Rees paints, with the aid of archive interviews and around fifty newly conducted ones, is equitable but not always flattering, a smorgasbord of unfulfilled hopes and broken promises – as well as successful battles against the odds and some frankly remarkable turns of events. Some of the stories are familiar – Jon Pertwee inveigling his way into The Airzone Solution, for example – some much less so, and the author takes a reasonably neutral stance, largely allowing the interviewees to tell their own stories themselves.
If you’re a fan who skipped the wilderness years, this book (a narrated history, rather than episode guide) is an excellent – albeit perhaps slightly too extensive, at times – way to catch up. If on the other hand, you’re one of the dedicated who bought into the unauthorised spin-offs in the absence of an official alternative, this is an absolute must-read.
DOWNTIME – THE LOST YEARS OF DOCTOR WHO / AUTHOR: DYLAN REES / PUBLISHER: OBVERSE BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW