June 30th, 2013
By the early 1990s, it had become clear, despite the BBC’s occasional claims otherwise, that Doctor Who would not be returning to the TV any time soon.
While the New Adventures were an acceptable substitute for many Doctor Who fans — and in the opinion of many even an improvement on the TV show — there were those who simply weren’t satisfied by words on a page, and needed to see old character actors being menaced by improbable monsters before they could feel fully happy.
Enter BBV Productions, producers of Who Methadone. BBV were one of a small number of companies (most notably including their competitors Reeltime Pictures) who made cheap direct-to-video films that were almost, but not quite, Doctor Who.
These companies had two main methods of operation. The first was to get a license for a minor Doctor Who character (usually one created by Robert Holmes, whose estate was rather freer with licenses than many others) and build a film series around them. This led to such stories as the Auton trilogy from BBV or Reeltime’s White Witch of Devil’s End (a spin-off based around the comic relief character from The Daemons. Possibly the nadir of this technique came with 2008′s Zygon: When Being You Just Isn’t Enough, which is almost certainly the only Zygon-based soft-porn film ever to have been made.
The other technique, which BBV used over and over, was to cast actors from Doctor Who playing roles that definitely, honestly weren’t their Doctor Who roles, no honest guv. So for example there was the Stranger series, in which Colin Baker played a nameless traveller through time and space while Nicola Bryant, who had played the Sixth Doctor’s companion Peri Brown, played “Miss Brown”. They also released a series of audio dramas, featuring Sylvester McCoy as “the Professor” and Sophie Aldred as “Ace”.
Two people who we’ll hear a lot more of later were often involved in these productions as writers and actors. One was Nicholas Briggs, later to become the voice of almost every monster in the revived TV series, as well as one of the people responsible for Big Finish Productions.
The other, Mark Gatiss, is now a major star in Britain, thanks to his appearances with The League Of Gentlemen and his subsequent TV career (which has included writing and appearing in the post-revival Doctor Who), but in the early 90s he got some of his earliest professional work writing the PROBE series for BBV, as well as appearing in it in a variety of roles.
PROBE, the Preternatural Research Bureau, was BBV’s attempt to cash in on The X-Files and Doctor Who simultaneously, by having Liz Shaw, the third Doctor’s old assistant from UNIT, and a companion played by Louise Jameson (who had previously played the fourth Doctor’s assistant Leela) investigate strange goings-on as part of a covert government organisation.
The Zero Imperative, the first PROBE story, does everything you’d expect. It features Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker and Jon Pertwee, all as characters who have doctorates — and has an end-scene cameo from Peter Davison, setting him up as a villain for a future story. It has a cameo role for Sophie Aldred, and it features former topless model Linda Lusardi. It’s shot entirely on video, and looks cheap.
The script, as well, does everything one would expect from Gatiss. It is, of course, a horror story and very much in the Gothic mold, set in a psychiatric hospital in which the doctors might be madder than the patients — or is something being hidden, something much darker, an evil from the past, returning once more…?
You know the kind of thing. Gatiss is a wonderfully talented humorous writer, but he is not overly blessed with originality when it comes to non-comedy writing, and it’s clear to see where this is going right from the start, when a child’s creepy voice sings “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…”
The dialogue, also, is typically Gatiss, right down to him giving Pertwee lines about preferring old words, lines which seem only to exist to have Jon Pertwee say “daguerrotype” or “dirigible”.
But somehow, it actually sort of works. It’s no masterpiece, but the sheer incongruity of trying to do The X-Files on a budget that wouldn’t cover that show’s coffee breaks, having the Mulder role being a middle-aged pipe-smoking woman who’s clearly coded as lesbian, having it be Gothic horror rather than conspiracy SF, and having references to Doctor Who continuity dropped in at random moments, makes it something unique, and interesting.
One of the things I will be arguing as we continue is that this kind of material can have value. Lawrence Miles has said that Doctor Who is his native mythology, and there is a rich enough set of images and allusions in its fifty-year history that in much the same way that classical or Biblical allusions can enrich literature for those who are familiar with them, but make works inaccessible to those who are unfamiliar with those texts, so it becomes possible to create works that can only be understood by those with a working knowledge of Doctor Who — a shared culture which can be used as a place of departure or basis of discussion.
The PROBE series isn’t one of these — it’s not good enough or interesting enough, really, to be worth much consideration. It’s something a bit like Doctor Who, for people who didn’t have enough of their favourite TV show and were willing to accept it as a reasonable substitute. That it’s watchable at all (and it is reasonably enjoyable) is a minor miracle.
But BBV, Reeltime and the rest were finding the new ecological niches left by Doctor Who‘s cancellation. Over the next decade and more there would be a huge flowering of creativity, devoted to creating ever more distant variations on the basic theme of Doctor Who. Some of it would even be great art.
The Zero Imperative, of course, isn’t that — it’s not trying to be. But it’s one of the earliest things to show that the potential was there.