You have to hand it to the BBC. They’ve got a cash cow on their books with Doctor Who, but they’ve never been stingy when it comes to letting others have a slice of the pie. It may be why fan projects are so prevalent: the licensing team are usually happy to turn a blind eye to the telescope, as long as they’re not for profit. The Beeb have never forgotten that it was the fans who kept the show alive during the dark years following its 1989 cancellation, and it’s this quiet, unspoken acknowledgement that keeps the show’s relationship with its audience largely healthy.
Take Velocity. It’s a fan-made ‘alternative’ take on the Thirteenth Doctor, conceived, written and directed by Chris Phillips and his partner Krystal Moore – based in Boise, Idaho. Played by Krystal, this Doctor has black leather, an extremely fetching hat and an American accent, and her TARDIS interior resembles the exhibition space in a local art gallery – but the tropes are all present and correct, right down to a jaunty arrangement of the theme (and some drum and bass). In the tail end of last year Velocity aired its inaugural episode, which saw the newly-regenerated Doctor face off against angry peasants and the Witchfinder General. BBC America liked it so much they put it on their Anglophenia page. Eight months later the team are back with another instalment – and while Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor has yet to do anything except fall out of a TARDIS and stroll through an abandoned train carriage in a video that none of us have seen, honest, the Velocity Doctor has already completed her first two adventures and seems set for a great many more.
It’s a hot, muggy afternoon in Boise when I talk to Chris – although he’s quick to reassure me that “We do get four seasons – it always snows in the winter”. It’s perfect weather for getting out and about, which, I’m told, is comparatively easy in this neck of the woods. Originally from Chelmsford, Chris moved to Idaho a while back to what is almost-but-not-quite the middle of nowhere. Boise (pronounced Boy-see, homophonically similar if not quite identical to Del Boy’s Only Fools And Horses mate) is “about three or four hundred miles away from the next big city”, and bordered by deserts to the south and the Rockies to the north, which made for some interesting location shoots.
Scenery aside it seems a strange place to make Doctor Who stories, but a lot of Velocity’s success is down to networking. Stemming from a background in video, Chris spent the first part of his life in London, and got to know a few people who would eventually go on to work on Doctor Who (including Adam Smith, who directed three Series 5 episodes). But Velocity has the feel of a home-made, home-spun production, using local actors and forests that are but a short drive away – and although there’s a good deal more spit and polish than you might be used to, the spirit is nonetheless reminiscent of the mood that punctuates many other similar fan films, except that the Doctor is a newly-regenerated woman. To the untrained eye it looks like cashing in, but Chris is swift to reassure me that the brainstorming process was entirely independent of anything that might be happening on this side of the pond.
“A year or two ago, we thought ‘We should do a female Doctor Who‘,” he says. “Because the BBC should get round to doing it at some point, and we should do it first.” Casting is part of it: there’s not much paid acting in Boise, unless you want to do local commercials, and many short films never actually see the light of day once the cameras have stopped rolling. Mindful of this, Krystal is busy doing stand-up, but she always wanted to be the Doctor. Doesn’t everyone?
Fast forward to the summer of 2017. Life (said John Lennon, although he stole it from Allen Saunders) is what happens while you’re busy making other plans – in this case ‘life’ literally meant life, with Chris and Krystal’s newborn son celebrating his first birthday not long before the earth-shaking afternoon that Jodie Whittaker was unveiled. The iron, they decided, would probably never be this hot again – and the pair made the decision to deliver some content before the BBC did, although having established a new, parallel successor to Peter Capaldi, the first footage of the official Thirteenth Doctor would draw some interesting comparisons.
“What’s funny,” says Chris, “is that their regeneration was, shot for shot, the same as ours – but ours came out first. Peter Capaldi’s eyes go to her eyes. Then you see the hand in the shirt, and in their one the ring drops off. And then you see the feet in the big shoes. And then there’s this long shot where you can’t quite see who it is yet. And it’s quite an obvious sequence.”
The first episode of Velocity centres around the trial and execution of Agnes Waterhouse, burnt at the stake in 1566 for witchcraft, and something Krystal wanted to explore. By sheer fluke the story she picked happened just a few miles down the road from where Chris grew up, enabling him to lend a little more authenticity to the project through his local knowledge – although the woods around Boise stand in for Hatfield Peverel. (There is an almost head-bursting irony to having a Doctor Who episode where all the location scenes are filmed in Idaho because it was too expensive to go to Chelmsford.) The TARDIS was borrowed from a gift shop half a mile up the road – the interior, of course, was another matter entirely.
“A lot of fan films I’ve seen are in a shed,” Chris explains. “And it’s not bigger on the inside! We ended up using a photography studio where I work. We filmed a long shot, and then I Photoshopped around it and shrunk them down so it looks like they’re in this cavern.”
That interior is where the new Doctor makes her first appearance, trying on outfits and sounding rather less Anglicised than we might be used to. There is a good reason for this, Chris assures me, emphasising that “Writing lines for American actors is way more difficult than you’d think. English people have so many phrases, like ‘I’m just gonna pop to the shops’, and my actors would be looking at the script and saying ‘What does this mean?’. The first thing we decided – which was a really tough decision – was to have American accents.”
Yeah, but an American Doctor? Really? That’s just asking for trouble, isn’t it? Chris is adamant: it’s also hard to disagree with him. “Every one of my American actors could do an English accent,” he says. “But when they’re all doing it, they’re all doing it slightly different, and it sounded really aggravating to my ears. It was people switching between Newcastle and London – the subtlety isn’t there. So I said to them ‘The executive decision is we’re gonna go with American accents on this, so that you can give a really good drama performance and you’re not pretending to be English.’ On a zero budget film with no time, getting a good acting performance is very difficult.”
He’s clearly done his homework on this (“A lot of acting in fan films is really bad – I wanted ours to be at least good enough to be on Hollyoaks”). But constructing a brand new incarnation from the ground up is a horse of a different colour, and has the potential to go very wrong simply because there are so many variables. The solution, it turns out, is to go shopping.
“We went to H&M,” Chris says of the new Doctor’s outfit. “Krystal’s quite an active person; she used to do jujitsu and stuff like that. We didn’t want anything sexy. We wanted her covered up in a shirt – we tried a few things until it felt like it fitted her and fitted what the Doctor could be. Doctor Who has always been pretty progressive in its politics, and we wanted to keep that vibe.”
Joining the new Doctor is new companion Karl, although (mild spoiler alert) there may be a little more to him than meets the eye. Still, Velocity’s focus is very much on its Doctor – and Krystal leaps around the episode’s assorted sets with a breezy self-confidence that seems very Doctorish; we instinctively like her, and want to hear her story. “Why has she regenerated as a female?” asks Chris, somewhat rhetorically. “Maybe it’s to help another woman, or see something from another perspective.”
There is – you scarcely need me to tell you – a sizeable portion (or a small but vocal microcosm, depending on whom you ask) of the DW fandom that doesn’t want to get anywhere near that story. It’s a risk you take when you throw this particular set of dice, but mercifully the torrent of abuse that often comes trailing in the wake of projects like this failed to materialise. Instead the reaction was praiseworthy and positive – and the fans, it turns out, are “a nice bunch of people, on the whole.”
“A lot of people are ready to hate the BBC,” says Chris, “and I wanted to make the jokes that the BBC can’t get away with. I want to push it harder than they can, because we’ve got nothing to lose. I was expecting a lot of people to hate on it. But everyone’s actually been really nice.”
Surely they must have had some haters? “We’re pretty grown up,” he replies. “If we were kids, we might get upset. But we’ve got our own lives. We’ve got lots going on other than our Doctor Who fan film.”
Having tackled witchcraft, angry villagers and the ramifications of changing the future in Velocity’s first instalment, Chris and Krystal have brought back a familiar foe for episode 2, in the shape of the Daleks – along with their creator. Be warned, though, that Davros is…well, not as you may know him.
“There’s no way I could put an actor in a rubber mask and not have it look ridiculous,” Chris admits. “I didn’t want to spend five hundred dollars on makeup! So we’ve given him a different look – and that’s explained in the plot, that he’s trying to regenerate himself and he’s using Time Lord technology.”
Ah, yes: the plot. We’re not giving anything away, but suffice it to say that it involves echo chambers, intrusive home gadgets, and Daleks on social media. Oh, and Skaro’s finest will also be compacted into a “nice, friendly, cute-looking one that the kids can get in”. But it’s the reinvented Davros that sticks in the mind, if only because – to use Chris’s own words – he looks “like the lead singer in a New Wave synth band”.
“With a low budget thing, the worst thing you can get an actor to do is pretend,” he explains. “Because that always looks terrible. I wanted to make Davros what Heath Ledger’s Joker was to the Joker.” If familiarity breeds contempt then he’s going the right way about all this: the world does not need another bad Michael Wisher impersonation and in any case, it’s all part of Velocity’s vision as a fan film that takes itself seriously but not too seriously, riding the fine line between drama and tongue-in-cheek pastiche. But for Chris, that’s the way Doctor Who has always been, and it might explain why McCoy is his favourite (Krystal favours Tennant, which comes across somewhat in her characterisation) and why he has a soft spot for Delta and the Bannermen: “I like,” he admits, “some of the most terrible stuff.
“When I first tried to show Doctor Who to the American actors here who hadn’t seen it before, I showed them a YouTube fan trailer encompassing fifty years. And I said ‘What you’ve got to understand about is that it isn’t good or bad. It isn’t successful or unsuccessful. It isn’t one thing or the other. It is literally the entire history of British television, and every single thing you can imagine, and every British actor you’ve ever heard of in one show. Apart from it being a guy in a box, I can’t explain it to you any other way.”
And perhaps he doesn’t need to. They seem to be pretty on board with it. And with two episodes in the can and more in the works, the future looks bright for Chris and Krystal and their thespian band of fellow time travellers. However long Whittaker lasts in the braces and boots, there’s no contract for fan productions, and the notion of a sprightly, pensioner age Time Lord running round the fields of Boise holds a great deal of appeal for both of them. “Suddenly,” he muses, “there’ll be this crazy old couple who’ve done two hundred episodes.
“I said to Krystal – ‘If this works out, you could be the longest-running Doctor ever…‘”