It’s no surprise given its longevity that Doctor Who has had a large number of spin offs, whether it be movies, books, comics, audio and even other television programmes. Some have been great, some less so, but all have had that vital quirk, that thread of Doctor Who DNA, running through them. This article is what I consider the Top 5 spin offs, whether it be based on quality, nostalgia, or something that made the property stand out. Some of the spin offs in the list are available via that choice Major Spoilers link to Amazon, otherwise, you’re going to have to use some of your legendary internet archaeology skills to dig them up. I’d be keen to read what your top spin offs are in the comments section below.
THE VIRGIN NEW ADVENTURES
Since the 1960s, Doctor Who stories were ‘novelised’ and sold in the millions to eager fans. With repeats a rarity in the UK, there was a market for these slim volumes that were often the only way for readers to experience the mystery of stories screened in the 1960s. The imprint, Target, was later brought into the Virgin Books, and with the last Doctor Who stories capable of being novelised petering out in 1990, the hunt was on for more material.
‘Broader and deeper’ was the tag line for the New Adventures, an ongoing series of books that launched from the last televised adventure, ‘Survival’ and struck out into virgin (excuse the pun) territory. The first handful was modest in their aims, with the range only really exploding with fan fiction writer (at that time) Paul Cornell, whose debut novel, Timewyrn: Revelation blew the tops off fan minds around the world. A tale which involved the Doctor’s multiple psyches as much as it did the mysterious Timewyrm, Cornell tapped a rich vein in bringing to life a more brooding, mysterious Doctor, with an exasperated, and rapidly maturing Ace as his companion. Your writer remembers being captivated for an entire Friday evening as he plowed his way through Cornell’s first novel, amazed by the possibilities the author had opened up in terms of Doctor Who fiction. Future writers, most of them talented fans, took up Cornell’s baton, and blazed their own paths, adding to a mythos that rapidly took the place of the lamented series.
Over the course of 61 titles, the New Adventures courted controversy (sex! swearing!) while allowing new authors their chance to debut in a tough publishing market. Indeed, Virgin was one of the very few mainstream publishers who allowed unsolicited submissions to be sent by eager fans keen to have their name on a cover under the Doctor Who title. And yes, your writer himself has a copy of those submission details, but events, dear boy, events, ensured he never put pen to paper in any serious way. Companions would die, and then be resurrected. Entirely new companions, who had never appeared on screen, were created to accompany the Seventh Doctor on his adventures.
Writers such as Cornell showed how to bring adult themes to the range. Other writers like Lance Parkin, in his book ’Just War’, took a nuanced approach to a Nazi occupation of a British dependency. Marc Platt contributed an influential book, ‘Lungbarrow’ which examined the entrails of Gallifreyan society and found it to be remarkable indeed. Lawrence Miles, the most anarchic of the New Adventures writers, took a hammer to established continuity in books such as ‘Alien Bodies’ but was also marked by an astonishing talent. The range also featured future New Series writers, – Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts all made solid contributions to the range (Stephen Moffat contributed at least one story to an anthology series, which, unsurprisingly, centred on continuity). One sour note is that there was only ever one female writer published by Virgin. Kate Orman, an Australian writer, was in the top league of authors for the range. Her debut novel, ‘The Left Handed Hummingbird’, is worth of note as it combines mythology and science fiction in a way the series often tried to achieve, but rarely reached. She returned to the range again and again with whip smart novels that still dazzle.
By the time the BBC took the license back, the range had broken new ground again and again. Cleverly, the last book, ‘The Dying Days’ presented an adventure featuring the new Eighth Doctor, snubbing the BBC and providing a fitting coda to a fabulous range of books you, dear reader, should hunt down.
THE AUDIO VISUALS
This spin off, or more accurately, a fan continuation, is probably the most niche of my choices, but the stories can still be found lurking in some of the more fashionably obscure corners of the internet. In the mid-80s, there was a section of fandom dissatisfied with the direction of the television series. As mentioned in previous Top 5s, producer Jon Nathan Turner’s approach to the look and feel of the show was felt by many as an abandonment of its grittier, scarier principles. Indeed, a number of more prominent fans damned the show as ‘light entertainment’ instead of a science fiction drama for teenagers and adults.
With limited resources, but a bucket of determination, and at times, talent, Audio Visuals was born. The first episode, ‘The Space Wail’ is the poorest of the lot, sadly, but does lead to a regeneration into a new Doctor, played by none other than Big Finish audio supremo (and voice of Daleks and Cybermen in the new series) Nicholas Briggs (it also won’t be the only time you see his name in this article). Briggs brought a vulnerability to the role rarely seen outside an actor like Peter Davison, but also a firm determination to bring justice to an unjust universe.
The beauty of the Audio Visuals, aside from being a training ground for a number of people (Gary Russell, Nicholas Briggs, audio engineer Alistair Lock) was in bringing a new sense of danger to Doctor Who. With the Briggs’ Doctor’s sense of vulnerability, and an ongoing narrative where past decisions and incidents had future repercussions, anything, and everything, was on the table. The Doctor became a victim of PTSD, which was compounded by an addiction to a compound called Sargol. Stories such as ‘Carny’ ventured into the psyche of the Doctor and his companions. ‘Planet of Lies’ prefigured the destruction of Gallifrey as depicted (three times, no less) in the new series. Recurring characters such as arch-capitalist Cuthbert provided an ongoing villain (as well as an example of the resistance to the policies of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by British fandom) and assisted in developing a larger feel to the Audio Visual universe. And the decision by fourth series producer Gary Russell, to create an arc storyline, was at least twenty years ahead of that same structural decision by Russell T Davies.
As the range progressed, the story telling and acting improved, to the point where a number of the stories during the four seasons are on par (and indeed, were adapted for the Eighth Doctor range) with anything released by Big Finish. Stories such as ‘The Mutant Phase’ or ‘Sword of Orion’ (the Big Finish adaptation of the latter isn’t quite as good because the ending is less ambiguous) brought a pulse pounding sense of adventure and excitement to the range, with the added edge that companions could (and did) die, and that Briggs’ as the Doctor, was capable of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. Of special note is the music composed for the range, which created audio soundscapes which helped fill the lack of visuals. By the end of its run, the four seasons stood up as a quality product light years better than its beginnings. While a niche product, and almost forgotten, the Audio Visual range is well worth hunting down, for its unique and evolutionary take on the character, and some unforgettably exciting stories.
BIG FINISH PRODUCTIONS
In the early 1990s, the BBC released two entirely new adventures on tape starring Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor, written by the producer of his era, Barry Letts. ‘The Paradise of Death’ and ‘The Ghosts of N-Space’ were lapped up by eager fans starved of new content since the series went off air in 1989. While not great examples of Doctor Who, the potential of audio dramas using characters and elements of the series didn’t go unnoticed. So when a business known as Big Finish Productions picked up the license to adapt books from the Virgin Books New Adventures range, fandom’s ears pricked up.
A year or two later, with Gary Russell as producer, Big Finish obtained the license to produce new audio dramas featuring some of the classic era Doctors. Indeed, the very first story ‘The Sirens of Time’ written by Nick Briggs, starred Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, returning to the roles they made their own during the 80s. The even bigger coup came a year or two later, when Paul McGann agreed to reprise his role as the Eighth Doctor, with a series of four production, starting with ‘Storm Warning’ (and adapting a pair of Audio Visuals stories – ‘Sword of Orion’ and ‘Minuet in Hell’).
Big Finish has gone on to spawn literally hundreds of audio adventures for Doctor Who. With Tom Baker agreeing to come back, with David Tennant being able to play the role again on audio, Big Finish has stamped itself as the source of exciting new adventures for the series. And there is one particular story of the entire range I would like to single out as being the exemplar of why Big Finish, and this range, gets all the deserved positive attention.
‘Spare Parts’ by writer Marc Platt, stands at the pinnacle of Big Finish’s output. Not only that, but it has inspired at least three new series stories (Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel and elements of World Enough and Time). Featuring the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, it is an origin story (one of many in Doctor Who, but none better than this) of the Cybermen. It is also a tragedy, which gives it such raw power, as the Doctor and Nyssa encounter the antecedents of the Cybermen, a race of people, dying from a number of maladies, who make the fatal choice of choosing survival over individuality.
The power of the story comes from the setting, a drab 1950s style English community barely holding onto life. With the all-powerful Committee resorting to digging up human body parts to feed the conversion purpose, this is a society that deserves to die, but like a zombie, lurches forward, creating havoc and death with every step. The Cybermen conversion process is particularly hideous, with a key scene involving a teenage girl named Yvonne, confused after her conversion process goes awry, makes her way home to proudly show her father her dedication to the cause. Yvonne’s piteous tears as her father seeks to comfort her would wreck even the most hardened of listeners, as Platt exposes the full horror of what the Mondasians are unwittingly being forced to give up – their humanity. And while the Doctor and Nyssa think they may have directed the Mondasian’s towards a slightly brighter future, the final, chilling lines and our knowledge of ‘The Tenth Planet’, indicate otherwise.
BBV – THE STRANGER
It’s hard to work out which is more obscure now, the Audio Visuals, or the range of fan made video dramas from BBV Limited. The audio stories, probably, but BBV runs a close second. This is a pity, because for a while, BBV provided a range of exciting, odd, but definitely compelling stories.
Like the Audio Visual range (and frankly, both groups shared a lot of fan DNA) BBV rose during the mid-80s, around the time of the show’s original cancellation. BBV stands for Bill and Ben Video, the husband and wife (Ben is a nickname of Helen) team who set up the company. With Doctor Who in a creative rut and staring cancellation in the face, BBV took advantage of the situation, and the skills and interests of an enthusiastic cadre of amateur filmmakers and began making and releasing stories featuring actors from the series.
Due to copyright issues, the first stories, while they clearly echo Doctor Who in the casting of Colin Baker as the Stranger, and Nicola Bryant as Ms Brown, aren’t exactly Doctor Who. If you squint your eyes and tilt your head, you could make them out as a continuation of the Colin Baker era, with Baker playing a more toned down version of his Doctor, with Bryant dropping her fake American accent. Further adventures included Michael Wisher (the original Davros) and Sophie Aldred (Ace) and Nicholas Briggs (who wrote and appeared in the third film, ‘In Memory Alone’).
While barebones in terms of budget, what the films lacked in flair, they made up for in moodiness and deeper storytelling than its forebear. Baker, particularly, benefits from losing the acid flamboyance of his role as the Doctor, instead taking on a brooding character seeking to find his memory and place in the world. In latter stories, a backstory and name is given to his character, making him a terrorist on the run from a dictatorship he hoped to topple, providing even greater depth and nuance to the final stories.
Aside from The Stranger, BBV also went fishing for more Doctor Who talent, particularly in the 1993 story, ‘The Airzone Solution’ – which featured Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (not as the Doctors, but in a variety of more human roles) as they attempt to uncover what the Airzone solution actually is. Combining elements of mystery and environmental collapse, ‘The Airzone Solution’ is a fun frolic, helping to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Doctor Who way better than ‘Dimensions in Time’ ever did. It carries a heavy environmental message as well, which is no surprise as it reflects the concerns of the day. The (thankfully) brief sex scene between Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant aside, ‘The Airzone Solution’ is a brooding tale that builds on the years of experience BBV had gained since their first story, ‘Summoned by Shadows’.
Latterly, BBV produced a trilogy of Auton inspired stories with some very good early CGI effects. Another ‘big’ story, ‘The Zero Imperative’, featured a direct Doctor Who connection, in the form of former 3rd Doctor companion, Liz Shaw, who headed PROBE, which investigated the odd and uncanny. Written by Mark Gatiss, these stories, again light on budget but heavy on storytelling and brooding atmosphere, leant heavily on Gatiss’ interest in horror and the occult.
The range also expanded into audio, with a series of spin-off releases featuring The Professor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred), which featured more scripts from Nicholas Briggs and Mark Gatiss, as well as a host of talented fan writers.
While BBV appears to be largely defunct, in its prime, it scratched an itch for fans keen to experience that Doctor Who thrill. At its best, it provided that mordant British approach to science fiction, where the victories are only partial, the atmosphere dark and brooding and the world a dangerous place to be.
THE DOCTOR WHO MOVIES
With all the shenanigans that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s about a possible Doctor Who film, it was hard to remember that back in the 1960s, Doctor Who had made it to the cinema screen, in two fondly remembered adaptations.
Produced and written by Milton Subotsky, who co-formed Amicus Productions, the two movies are comparatively faithful adaptations of their television counterparts, though on relatively larger budgets. Subotsky, an American by birth, was producer on a number of well-known horror films of the era, including The House that Dripped Blood and Scream and Scream Again (okay, not exactly highbrow fare, but popular enough in their day). After buying the film rights from Dalek creator Terry Nation and the Doctor and the TARDIS from the BBC, Subotsky set about creating his Technicolor versions of two well regarded stories.
So, why are these films included in this list? These movies are fun, big, color, hectic fun. Subotsky and Amicus Productions didn’t exist to ask the audience to contemplate the ennui of human existence in an uncaring universe. They existed to make money by entertaining the masses any which way they could. And boy, with these two films, for all their foibles and 60s settings, did they entertain.
From Peter Cushing’s slightly dotty, slightly doddery human scientist named Dr. Who to the big budget spent on the sets and the Daleks, to the all action sequences both on Skaro and on Earth, the movies set themselves up to thrill and scare the audience. The scenes on Skaro, especially in the petrified forest, are still as haunting and atmospheric today as they were to the audience back in 1965. Sure, the Daleks don’t laser people to death, but blow gas all over them. And yes, they don’t do too much to innovate on the television versions. But they are a great way to spend an afternoon, as your writer did in the early 80s when they were shown on commercial television here in Australia.