Buffet the Doctor Who Slayer: Remembering Death Comes To Time

It’s surprisingly easy to commit mass murder at a buffet. All you need to do is take a large serving bowl, fill it with battery acid (pop a few AAs and AAAs in for decoration), lob in a ladle, then place it on the table between the quiche, potato salad, and crudités and dips…

CRUDITÉS AND DIPS! These have NO PLACE at a buffet. Because there is no painless way to eat them in a buffet context. People either stand around, dip and eat them on the spot (thus preventing other buffet attendees from moving along the table – an unforgivable buffet violation), or dip them there and then and and put them on their plates. That is not a long-term solution. The dip will slip off. It will contaminate/wet other food. Plus the dip left behind will end up all scrapey on top and you will leave bits of your dipped foodstuff in the dip. What is needed (but never provided) is a small spoon and some Waxed Paper Ramekins (only £6.77 for a pack of 250*). But these are NEVER PROVIDED.

Is it any wonder I’ve devised a Pigbin-proof way to slaughter ‘innocent’ buffet attendees? Okay, so you’ve prepared your bowl of acid. You can even label it ‘BATTERY ACID’. People at buffets lose all sense of taste, proportion, and discernment. Once you start, it’s all about reaching the end without dropping your wine glass and buttering your chunk of french stick without upturning your amassed plate of food over other buffet attendees.

Pretty soon – from your vantage point behind the paper table cloth, under the trestle table – you will hear conversations like this:

‘What’s that you’re having?’

‘Says “Battery acid”…?’

‘Oh, can you pop some on my plate? I’m struggling to butter this french stick.’

‘Sure, if I manage not to spill my wine everywhere.’

‘Not too much… I want to leave room for some crudités and dips…’

I believe it was that clever chap Paul Cornell who stated in a Doctor Who DVD extra (that I can’t find for the life of me) that the ‘wilderness years’ – when the programme did not have a full series between 1989 and 2005 – should be called the ‘playground’ years. As in, it was the time when Doctor Who was everyone’s playground and we all got to have fun making it whatever we wanted.

But the fact is it will always be called ‘the wilderness years’ because, you know, that’s what everyone calls it and we Whotopians don’t like name changes. This aside, my suggestion is that it should be called ‘the wilderness buffet years’.

Let me explain: At a normal, less stomach-wrenchingly awful meal than a buffet, you get what’s called a main course. One prominent dish that is the central event. That’s your Doctor Who series on TV. Now, you may love it, you may dislike it with a passion that can only be vented in 140 characters in ALL CAPS MUSS GO!!!1!!?!!. But the main course is the main course, whether you spit or swallow.

In the wilderness buffet years, there was no main course, and we were all let loose with a slightly-soiled flimsy paper plate trying to hold cutlery in a serviette and a wine glass while scooping up novels, audios, comics, fan video productions, and the odd BBC TV offering into one great pile of Who.

Standing about munching away on a chicken leg in someone else’s utility room (as can only happen at a buffet) comparing your plate to the dull chap (who’s ‘a friend of Simon’) next to you, they look similar but never the same. Where did he get onion bhajis and samosas? Oh, great Logar, there was another tray full of warm exotic treats and I missed it! Did those thoughtless b*stards stood around dipping carrot sticks hide it from my view?

And the worst thing is, the Doctor Who buffet years were a bring-and-share buffet, which – as is universally acknowledged – is the worst kind of buffet in the whole of creation. And a badly curated bring-and-share buffet at that. No one had set up a WhatsApp group with an endless string of ‘Simon’s friends’ posting things like: ‘I’m bringing a UNIT quiche’, ‘Oh, I’ve made a UNIT salad’ ‘Okay, I’ll change it to a Sontaran quiche’ ‘Don’t worry, I could just take out the Bentons and Yates then it could be a Brigadier quiche, or is that still too UNITy?’ ‘It’s okay, I’ve already peeled the Sontarans…’

All of which is a rather long winded way of saying that Death Comes To Time is, if not the battery acid contribution to the Doctor Who wilderness buffet (that’s Dimensions in Time), then there is a strong argument for it being the crudités and dips. Totally inappropriate for a buffet, but perfectly acceptable before another meal entirely. The soon-abandoned nibbles at a cod Star Wars fondue, for example.

During the wilderness years, a lot of big names were mooted to have put themselves forward to take on the Whomantle: Steven Spielberg, Verity Lambert, Barry Letts, Mark Gatiss and pals, and we ended up with TV writer extraordinaire, Russell T Davies. No disrespect to Dan Freeman, but who is Dan Freeman? He’s not even Dan Freedman, or Dann Freeman. What he is, is a far more successful writer than me. Am I bitter? Is battery acid?

Death Comes To Time was the great hope for Doctor Who in 2001, then it had its own wilderness buffet year and became the great hope for Doctor Who again in 2002. It seems surprising to imagine, but the announcement of a full-blown Doctor ‘main course’ Who was just two years away from DCTT’s transmission.

Until then, Dan was the man (actually Paul Cornell was the man for a bit in-between) and his vision for Doctor Who was to take all the elements of Doctor Who and make an entirely different programme. I know we only had dial-up internet (as the painful buffering experience of watching DCTT admirably proved) but it seems Dan had forgotten to Google ‘Doctor Who’ for a refresher about recent developments, and seems to have missed Paul ‘The Doctor’ McGann. You could understand it if he’d only been in the US TV movie, but Big Finish had already released Eighth Doctor audios, so there wasn’t a rights issue.

Maybe Dan and the team wanted to reveal the untold story of Ace and Doctor Seven after Survival. Except Big Finish, Virgin New Adventure books, and DWM comics were doing, or had done that too.

Listening to Death Comes To Time again, it is clear that the intent is not to make Doctor Who, as it is set in a universe that is not the same one as our beloved Time Lord exists in. Time Lord continuity isn’t so much thrown out the window, as pushed out the back of the bi-folding doors and into a skip. There seems to be only a dozen-or-so ‘Time Lords’ in DCTT, and they are not from Gallifrey but some kind of magical temple where Dr Legg spouts mystical claptrap. That’s unfair; Leonard Fenton is a fine actor but he seems to be cast as a Yoda-cum-Master Po guru who is surprised by every word at the end of each… sentence?

In DCTT, Time Lords can manipulate time by thought/speech/some such, and they have almost infinite Logar-like powers to heal/destroy/bore us all to tears with exasperating epigrams etc. If all Time Lords have ultimate power but choose a code of non-interference to stop them using it, what about the Master? Morbius? Wouldn’t cheeky Drax have used a bit of the old super juice to wheeler-dealer up some universal get-rich-quick-schemes?

Some people love DCTT, and I must admit there is aspects to enjoy but I challenge some of their defenses of the piece. Reviews often cite that it has one of the best casts ever assembled for a Doctor Who story. Really? Yes, it big coup is getting Stephen ‘Doctor Who is childish/I can’t finish my episode, sob’ Fry. Is he a bigger name than Derek Jacobi? Kylie Minogue? Michael Gambon? Sure, it also boasts Anthony Head and Jacqueline Pearce but not only have they made more memorable Doctor Who appearances elsewhere, but sneeze and you’ll miss them in DCTT. John Sessions is also an argument, but Big Finish have commanded bigger names than him, and persuaded them to act as well. The Actor Kevin Eldon is a genius and should be in every Who episode as far as I am concerned (got that, Sir Chibnall?), but most of the performers in DCTT are a bunch of unknowns.

Claims are also made that somehow DCTT is an ‘audio movie’ that creates a ‘soundscape’ rather than your usual audio productions. Umm, Big Finish? They don’t exactly have a BBC sound-effects LP from 1976, and a chap with some wood blocks, coconut shells, and a tray full of sand. And the music towards the end of DCTT is like tuning in to Classic FM Requests and Linda from Kettering has asked for Popular Classics II with Sylvester McCoy shouting over the top, over the top.

DCTT can’t make up its mind if it’s a bold re-invention of Doctor Who, another programme entirely, or a fan-spanking continuation. Ditch Time Lord history and characterisation but bring back the Brigadier (in his own space shuttle?). Get the McCoy/Aldred dream team back together but split them up until the last few minutes, giving them only one brief scene together…

Then kill the Doctor. Yes, kill him off in an online adventure experienced by 100,000 dedicated fans. Thus sidelining the big-budget TV movie from five years before that was watched by 9 million viewers.

DCTT rather foolishly set out on a path that places it in that Doctor Who-or-not (probably not) occupied by the Cushing movies, The Pescatons, Shalka, and The Curse of Fatal Death. If it had kept more closely (not slavishly) to established continuity, it would just be another part of Doctor Who’s rich history. After all, no one wants to banish Real Time (the following online adventure) into the void.

Apparently, Dan’s plan was to end Doctor Who (an unusual move if Doctor Who fans are your primary audience) and launch a ‘spiritual successor’: The Minister of Chance. And apart from Doctor Who going on to be a huge international TV success (you can’t win ‘em all, Dan), The Minister of Chance did actually come about. Featuring Paul McGann, no less. Eh? That must have been an interesting audition:

Dan: Ok, Paul, this is the story of what happened after the Seventh Doctor was killed.

Paul: Oh, yes. I was in that one.

Dan: Um. But we haven’t made it yet.

Paul: No, I mean I was – well, am, actually – the Eighth Doctor.

Dan: Ha, ha. Yes, very funny. ‘Eighth Doctor’. Brilliant.

Paul: It’s not a joke. It really happened, on TV and everything.

Dan: TV? Who watches that any more? The Doctor died in his seventh incarnation using his Time Lord power to command General Tannis to die, sacrificing his own life in the process. BBCi webcast, 2002. Fact.

Paul: Oh. Then I think we’d better tell BBC TV, Big Finish, and everyone else to stop making Doctor Who after the McCoy era…

Dan: If you could, thanks.

Paul: That was a joke.

Dan: Oh.

But just to be fair, I have indeed purchased The Minister of Chance (which has a cracking cast and gained stunning reviews…); I will listen and for your pleasure report back on my findings at a later date. Keep checking The Doctor Who Companion for further updates. Religiously, if you don’t mind.

Sorry if you love Death Comes To Time. It is clear that some people do. But it’s good sometimes to see things from a different perspective. For example, I know that many of you will be annoyed that I spent most of this article banging on about buffets. But, consider all those readers hungry for buffet-related content who are disappointed that half way through I started writing about some obscure Doctor Who online story from 2002. So there.

*£8.12 inc VAT.