Cyberons, sexy Zygons and Mark Gatiss: the bizarre world of the unofficial Doctor Who spin-offs
An oral history of the franchise's unlicensed spin-offs with Sylvester McCoy, Nick Briggs and those at the heart of Who's fan-made films
Colin Baker, the man who played The Sixth and arguably proudest Doctor, was next to naked. But he didn’t seem bothered by the bare front peeking through his limp dressing gown. And nor by the vision of a dying Peter Davison that had caused him to collapse while presenting a live TV weather report moments earlier.
Instead, in this semi-stripped moment, his focus belonged solely to Nicola Bryant, the actor who had played Doctor Who companion Peri – and the woman currently planting kisses down his exposed chest.
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A surprising turn, many would think, but Baker seemed completely at ease. Yet soon there would be things he couldn’t ignore.
Soon he’d unearth a plot to replace humans with a synthetic race that could survive a poisoned atmosphere. Soon he would encounter a mysterious Michael Moore-style filmmaker who took the appearance of Sylvester McCoy. And, perhaps most worrying of all, soon he’d witness an apparition of Jon Pertwee that would vanish as unexplained as it had appeared.
Of all the directions Doctor Who could have taken, few could have predicted this. Yet the above is exactly how many fans celebrated the show's 30th anniversary in 1993: watching a half-naked Colin Baker in The Airzone Solution, a fan-made straight-to-video multi-Doctor story.
Except this wasn't actually a Doctor Who story. Not officially, anyway. But while Baker, Davison, McCoy and Pertwee weren’t actually playing Time Lords, The Airzone Solution was Doctor Who in all but name. As McCoy explains to us, the film was “a kind of shadow of Who. Something different with major Whovian influences.”
And although not a licenced Doctor Who production, The Airzone Solution had more of a standing in the fandom than anything the BBC had gifted Whovians since putting the show on hiatus four years earlier in 1989.
While the amateur filmmakers behind Airzone managed to reunite four Doctors for an hour-long special, the BBC’s planned anniversary extravaganza The Dark Dimension collapsed completely mid-production. From its wreckage the Beeb merely marked three decades of the most influential British sci-fi creation with a Doctor Who/EastEnders crossover introduced by Noel Edmonds.
True, this Children in Need short saw the Tardis back on BBC1, but Romana riffing with the Mitchell brothers and the Fifth Doctor crossing paths with Pat Butcher was hardly the glorious return of the Time Lords many had imagined.
So, with fans’ appetites unsatisfied, thousands fed their hunger for Who with The Airzone Solution and the string of 24 other spin-offs films that emerged in the show’s wilderness years – the decade and a half without a regular Doctor Who TV series.
They weren’t official BBC stories, but they did heavily borrow from Doctor Who mythology and featured a mix of past actors, characters and suspiciously familiar monsters (no points for guessing what the ‘Cyberons’ were based on).
More importantly, though, these films nurtured Who’s biggest stars of the revived series. Writer and actor Mark Gatiss, voice of the Daleks Nicholas Briggs and writer Robert Shearman, alongside the likes of Alan Cumming and Reece Shearsmith: all cut their teeth on these films.
And while many of these stars might look back at them with a blush, the spin-offs may well be the reason they ended up working on the revival show.
Despite their shaky CGI, shoestring Sontarans and nymphomaniac Zygons (more on that below), these films actually silently shaped the Doctor Who we know today...
The first, the unoriginal, you might say
It all started in Wartime. All 25 spin-offs were sparked by this 35-minute one-off, a fan-made story that centred on Whovian favourite Sergeant Benton. Although not a household name for modern Who viewers, Benton was a stalwart soldier of the Pertwee era of the show, a key UNIT officer who battled against Cybermen, Daleks and even dinosaurs on Britain’s streets.
Yet it’s not the return of original actor John Levene as Benton, the character’s surreal confrontation with his soon-to-be-widowed mother or even the fantastically 1980s CGI skull that stands out about Wartime. It’s the release date: 1987, two years before Who was pulled off air.
In other words, Wartime wasn’t made in response to the cancellation, but for a very different reason.
“We made Wartime because we weren't happy with the way that Doctor Who was going and we thought we could do better,” says Wartime producer Keith Barnfather, one of the founding members of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society and former BBC and Channel 4 employee.
“That was an absolute joke considering the funds available. The only reason that [Wartime] got made was that everyone who did it did it virtually for nothing.”
With borrowed costumes, a minuscule budget of only a few thousand pounds and a filming location they had never visited beforehand, Barnfather and his newly-formed production company ReelTime Pictures got Wartime in the can in just three days – about a fifth of the time it takes to film a modern Who episode.
The result: a creaky-looking drama with questionable effects and an enthusiastic but ultimately forced performance from Levene. But all these glaring flaws weren’t important. All that mattered was it had got made. A group of fans had actually put together a real self-contained show set in the world of Doctor Who.
“I was happy – it was the first time we did anything and we actually finished it!” says Barnfather. “It's not a bad little drama. Even today I can watch it and not cringe.”
Most importantly, however, Wartime proved that independent spin-offs were possible. It showed that Doctor Who stories didn’t require Doctor Who on BBC1. Because when the show was finally cancelled two years later in 1989, other also looked to put their own Who adventures on camera.
And this time the Doctors themselves would want in…
The Time Lords materialise
Determined, brilliant, completely barking mad: there are many ways to describe Who filmmaker Bill Baggs. Indeed, some labelled him all three after he founded BBV Pictures in 1991, kick-starting projects with some truly out-of-this-world ambitions.
Why? Although only a young video editor at BBC Nottingham, the aspiring director/actor aimed to do more than tell Doctor Who stories about background UNIT soldiers. Baggs wanted the Doctors – and plenty of them.
Staggeringly, he got one in his first film. After a script was cobbled together for short drama Summoned by Shadows, Baggs approached Colin Baker to play a lead character known simply as The Stranger, a mysterious and eccentric unnamed traveller who roams time and space with a younger companion. Nothing like The Doctor, of course.
And despite not actually playing a Time Lord, or knowing virtually anything about the film, or having met the man behind it, Baker signed up.
"I could not believe it. I was wetting myself with excitement!” remembers Baggs. “As a Doctor Who fan you have little fantasies about this, but you never expect them to pan out! I was blown away and deeply honoured.”
Although we can’t be sure of Baker’s motives for coming on board – he declined to speak to us about the spin-offs – Baggs puts forward one theory: “I think from Colin's point of view, he was doing a lot of theatre work after Doctor Who, so why not give up a few days and potentially invest in me, fool that he was,” he says with a laugh.
“From his point of view, I had no profile. He didn't know me from Adam, apart from being this potentially up-and-coming director. But if you show passion and desire then often people will support you.”
Whatever the reason, Baker did join the project. And despite Baggs becoming cripplingly star-struck after meeting him at rehearsals (“I asked him for a cup of tea and disappeared down the corridor!"), filming soon started in true Doctor Who style: in an empty quarry – the same one, in fact, where Baker had filmed Attack of the Cybermen years earlier.
Like Wartime, this drama had a minuscule budget (just £3000 in total) and, as with the majority of Doctor Who’s 1980s episodes, it hasn’t aged well. Baker’s wonderfully understated performance, however, still shines through. He’s quiet and thoughtful throughout, showing fans exactly what his widely-criticised Doctor could have been.
As Mark Gatiss later told Doctor Who magazine (issue 332) about the films: “I remember watching them and thinking they didn’t look very flashy, but in terms of trying to portray real characters they were a massive improvement on Doctor Who!”
Gatiss wasn’t the only one taken with Summoned by Shadows and what would become ‘The Stranger series’ – thousands bought the films on VHS by post and at conventions.
Demand became too high, in fact. “I had to set up three VHS machines in my bedroom and I was duplicating videos through the night,” says Baggs, recalling how he had to call on his parents to help his videotaping “mini-factory”.
Above: a clip from The Stranger: More than a Messiah
So many copies would be sold, in fact, that by 1993 Baggs had the confidence to embark on a project bigger than anything he done before: a one-off special for Who’s 30th Birthday, The Airzone Solution, the film that would eventually feature a scantily-clad Colin Baker.
Fortunately, that scene doesn’t represent most of the film. Penned by the emerging Nicholas Briggs, Airzone was an environmental thriller set in a near-future Britain where pollution forces the government to build giant filtration plants to clean the dying planet.
And in true Doctor Who style, these centres actually serve a much more sinister agenda: kidnapping and experimenting on innocents to create a new species of human.
Baker once again signed onto the project and Baggs convinced Peter Davison to jump aboard (“that was another moment of punching the air!” Baggs recalls). This was soon followed by McCoy, a monumental achievement considering he was technically still Who’s incumbent Doctor.
Like previous spin-offs, this was by no means a major project with BBC1 exposure and a large pay-packet. But, for McCoy at least, it was a way of keeping the fandom thriving.
“We wanted to feed a hunger that was alive at that time for more Doctor Who,” he says. “I knew the BBC had made a huge mistake by putting Doctor Who into hiatus. I also knew the fans loved [the spin-offs]. For the fans I thought ‘yeah I'll do this!’”
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Furthermore, with a TV revival appearing absurdly unlikely in 1993, McCoy considered the project the only way Who could survive on screen.
“You might find this hard to believe, but I don’t really have a Tardis. I couldn't really travel back in time and tell everyone ‘we're going to make a TV film and then they're going to bring it back again!’” he chuckles.
With these three star signings, others followed suit. Actors including Nicola Bryant, original Davros star Michael Wisher and the then-relatively-unknown Alan Cumming all joined the film.
But then someone even the omni-ambitious Baggs thought too unattainable got in touch: Jon Pertwee, The Third Doctor. “Sylvester came to me one day and he said 'I’ve been speaking to Jon Pertwee and he's been asking why he's not in it. He might get in touch!’” Baggs remembers.
Sure enough, the call came, with Baggs happily at the former Doctor’s mercy. “It was very charming to actually have an actor so connected to the show call and say ‘I’m in it, whether you like it or not!'”
Pertwee may have been completely unfamiliar with the script when he turned up to set the next day – Peter Davison actually had to hold up cue cards for him during scenes – but in it he was. And for two days, four Doctor Who leads were brought together for some good old-fashioned low-budget sci-fi.
“It obviously didn't have quite the financial support that the BBC gave Doctor Who. But it was great because the fans were so involved,” recalls McCoy “We were treated very well. We all had a great time!”
McCoy’s recollections of the shoot are all positive, whether teasing Baker “for taking his job”, filming a chase scene that would fail any modern risk assessment (“I took my glasses off and would be driving around half blind!”), or simply spending time with his Doctor Who co-stars.
“I remember filming and just sharing the day with Colin, Peter and the glorious Jon Pertwee. It was great because it was still alive. When the BBC stopped it, you thought 'well, that's it, goodbye'. Doctor Who is one of the great jobs,” he says.
“And although this wasn't Doctor Who, it was very like Doctor Who.”
The Pandorica opens
As suddenly as the Tardis surfacing from the time vortex, a whole series of Doctor Who spin-offs materialised after The Airzone Solution. Some good. Some bad. All brilliantly weird.
For ReelTime, the makers of Wartime, the next Who project entailed a team-up between Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith and The Brigadier (a role reprised by original actor Nicholas Courtney) in a story called Downtime featuring the Great Intelligence and some gloriously low-budget Yeti monsters.
This was followed up by adventures featuring Sontarans, a Shakespeare-loving Draconian and even former Doctor Who companion Sophie Aldred, this time playing an unnamed character with, completely coincidently, the same direct way with words as Ace.
But while these characters were typically used with the BBC’s permission, other spin-offs – mostly those created by maverick Bill Baggs under BBV Pictures – simply gave a heavy nod to Who, such as the murderous robotic machines featured in Cyberon or the aforementioned interstellar traveller The Stranger.
But despite the glaring similarities, there seemed to be little fear of the BBC shutting down production. “We didn't care!” laughs McCoy, who starred in many of Baggs’s later spin-offs. “They deserved to get annoyed because they abandoned it and the fans!”
On other occasions the dramas blended the show’s characters and actors in ways that, simply put, just didn’t make a lot of sense – even by Doctor Who’s timey-wimey standards.
Take the Torchwood-esque PROBE series, directed by Baggs and penned by future Who and Sherlock stalwart Mark Gatiss, a writer slowly gaining success with The League of Gentlemen at the time.
This mid-1990s series centred on the Preternatural Research Bureau, a paranormal investigations unit led by classic Doctor Who companion Liz Shaw, a character Baggs had got permission to use. Original actor Caroline John even reprised the role, a casting that appeared to ground the drama firmly within the world of Who.
However, for rights reasons PROBE wasn’t permitted to mention The Doctor or most events surrounding the show – a restriction that meant Liz was forced not to recognise a non-Time Lord character played by John Pertwee, an actor she had shared adventures with during his tenure as The Doctor.
Mostly, however, the spin-offs followed new characters battling old Doctor Who baddies as they wreaked havoc over the planet. Most notable of which were the Auton films.
Featuring the likes of Reece Shearsmith and CGI that rivalled that seen in the 2005 revival show, the first two of BBV’s ‘Auton Trilogy’ of the late nineties are widely considered the best independent Who spin-offs.
“They are by no means perfect, in fact they're horribly flawed. But I wrote and directed both of them under fairly impossible budgetary and time constraints, with a lovely team of actors,” says Nicholas Briggs. “I think we managed to create something that worked pretty well.”
However, Auton’s biggest impact on the Who fandom came just before the revival of the main show. Just as the BBC had to reach a deal with the Terry Nation estate to use the Daleks in the show (negotiations that fell through at one point over allegations the broadcaster wanted to make a ‘gay Dalek’ cartoon), they had to consult Bill Baggs, who still held the rights to the Autons thanks to an agreement with the estate of creator Robert Holmes.
“Before it restarted, the BBC phoned me up and asked me if was okay for me to do an Auton show,” laughs Baggs.
“I told this to my wife thinking she wouldn’t say anything, but it happened to be the weekend she was at the Gallifrey convention. And a bit later I got a phone call saying ‘why does the whole universe know that the first episode is an Auton one?!’ I had to apologise humbly.”
Furthermore, some have said characters created for these fan-made spin-offs may have actually inspired those that appear in the main show. Foremost of which: Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, UNIT commander and daughter of the Brigadier.
Kate appeared in Chris Chibnall’s The Power of Three in 2012 and the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor – but a character with the same name, background and blonde hair first featured in fan-made film Downtime 17 years earlier.
“Let’s just say we came to an accommodation,” says Downtime producer Barnfather on his subsequent chats with the BBC around their use of the character. “I would never do anything that would hurt the programme or bring it into disrepute.”
Yet Kate Stewart aside, can we say these fan-made spin-offs really gave more to Doctor Who than they took? Did they really inspire the plots of modern Who? Considering the stories the show has produced since its 2005 revival: absolutely not.
However, what if you judge the impact of the spin-offs by the talent they gifted to the main show years later? Well, that’s when things get a lot more interesting…
Stars are born
However flawed these films were, they're where the Who writers of today learned their craft. They didn’t just make talent like Mark Gatiss and Big Finish head Nick Briggs known amongst dedicated fans, they also gave them a platform to jump to the main show. And, even more importantly, they nurtured the creativity needed for their later projects.
Briggs is the prime example here. Through his extensive work in the world of unlicensed Who he perfected performing Dalek voices, mastering the equipment and vocal tics needed to make a convincing tinpot terror. And this meant when the BBC announced the Doctor Who revival, Russell T Davies was quick to get Briggs on board.
“[Davies] had me in mind from the moment he'd decided he was bringing the Daleks back – not just because he thought I was good at doing Dalek voices, but because he was aware that I had the technical know-how to recreate them,” Briggs explains. “In the absence of a BBC Radiophonic Workshop, I was the sort of total solution. Very lucky for me.”
However, the spin-offs did much more than offer Briggs a route onto the main show. “Any 'turn around the block' creating something, no matter how flawed, is invaluable experience for a writer or director or any kind of creative person,” he says.
“It's one thing to dream, but it's quite another thing to get the practical experience of actually creating and finishing something.
“[The spin-offs] gave us a real 'go' at bringing a dream to life, and helped us realise that we could not only create something, but create something worthy of an audience.
“Actually making things engenders a feeling of permission to create. That's a big hurdle for any creative person. Do I have the right to create, to communicate, to entertain? Having practice at making something helps to give you that feeling of permission.”
Mark Gatiss echoed a similar sentiment in a League of Gentlemen blog, explaining that although he didn’t want it to be released on DVD, he had gained valuable experience writing The Zero Imperative, his first ever TV script.
“Christ, for all I knew, they were the only things I would ever get to make,” he said. “And I learned a frightening amount from working on them.”
And one of the lessons Gatiss appears to have learned is how to work with some tricky characters. Namely, Bill Baggs.
“I'm a constant meddler when it comes to the scripts,” recalls Baggs. “But Mark tolerated that really well. I remember we would sit together and improvise scenes, which I loved. I'd like to get hold of his writing sometimes and give it a tweak and an edit, but I take my hat off to him. He's been so successful. There's nobody else who deserves more and having that experience with him is fantastic.
“But Mark probably wouldn’t have his career in Doctor Who without BBV.”
So, why didn’t Baggs end up working on Doctor Who like Gatiss? Why is it that the man at the heart of the unofficial fandom spent, as he puts it, “a lot of time wondering when the phone was going to ring”?
Rather than being asked to direct an episode, why did Baggs fail to break through to the show, instead funnelling his energy into an alternative medicine, Emotional Energy Healing, and becoming an ‘Akki energetics practitioner’?
Despite Baggs’s assertion that he could work on the main show if he wanted to but simply chooses not to, there could be another reason behind his absence. As Gatiss once told Doctor Who magazine, although he had a “great time”, Baggs “had some very strange ideas as a producer.”
And although Gatiss was referring to Baggs’s tendency to swap scenes around “arbitrarily”, this isn’t one of the strange ideas that fans eventually knew him for.
The misadventures of Doctor Screw
We should say this up front: Bill Baggs wasn’t the first to bring sex into the Whoniverse. During the show’s hiatus years, characters such as Bernice Summerfield (written as a companion of Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor) were often portrayed enjoying some, shall we say, advanced docking maneuverers on the Tardis. Summerfield even apparently had a fumble with The Eighth Doctor himself in book The Dying Days.
However, while ReelTime Pictures kept their films PG and in a similar style and ilk to the main show, stablemate BBV and Bill Baggs became ever more proactive in bringing the saucier side of Who to screen.
That image of a naked Colin Baker we brought up before? The one where he romped with Nicola Bryant, who played Peri in Who? That was thanks to Baggs, who directed the unscripted scene (from under the bed – “I had to! There was no space in that room!”) against the wishes of writer Nicholas Briggs.
“I'm credited as the writer of The Airzone Solution, but I did not write that scene,” Briggs says adamantly. “It was irrelevant to the plot. [Baggs] seemed to agree with me. But I later found out that he just gave up arguing because he could see I wouldn't change my mind. Then he deliberately deceived me and wrote the scene in any way.”
Baggs, however, stands by it. “Everyone had an opinion about it,” he says. “People got grossed out by it and some found no problem at all.”
But that scene was nothing compared to 2008’s Zygon: When Being You Just Isn't Enough, dubbed by one reviewer as “the only Zygon-based soft-porn film ever to have been made”. And that’s not an exaggeration. Fortunately, it doesn’t feature the red starfish-like aliens making use of their suckers, but the 18-rated film does see the Zygons at the centre of some very NSFW activities in human form.
Although billed as a serious drama, Baggs openly says it was initially envisioned as something more titillating. “I met a guy at a convention who was into soft porn and he convinced me there was a market for it – not that I had a massive desire to produce a soft porn film, but you're always interested as a director/producer what markets there were.”
But looking back now, Baggs concedes the project was a misstep. “It was my mistake and nobody else's,” he adds, before quickly adding: “I'm glad I tried it, though. It was a massive learning experience.”
Zygon wasn’t quite the end of Baggs’s spin-off ideas, with BBV releasing When to Die, a PROBE drama in memory of Liz Shaw star Caroline John in 2012.
However, since then Baggs has been focused on producing theatre dramas, and although he and McCoy still enjoy times together at conventions, the sun has set on the golden time (and space) of BBV films.
A fandom regenerates
26th March 2005, 7pm. For fans across the world, this was the moment the ‘real’ Doctor Who returned to screens. After over 15 years of waiting, the universe’s foremost Time Lord returned in a regular series, captivating a whole new generation of Whovians.
But for the makers of the spin-off films, it was a bittersweet moment. Producers like Bill Baggs had spent years trying to cater for fans with nowhere else to go, fuelling the fandom with films made possible by pure passion for Who. And now it was over: the fans just didn’t need BBV.
As Baggs says, “It was frustrating on one hand and utterly delighting on the other.
“Before they announced they were reviving Who, Alan Cumming and I were actually going to do a special drama, an anniversary special for BBC South with Alan Cumming as The Doctor,” he laments. “But we ended up getting a call from a Who producer telling us we had to stop because the show was coming back – that’s when I first found out.”
Today BBV only operates a small web business and while Barnfather and ReelTime Pictures still film an occasional Who spin-off, they mostly specialise in the likes of archaeological videos in the Greek world (“We’ve got quite the reputation in Cyprus”).
Yet some still claim that fans owe a great debt to Barnfather and Baggs. “The reason why we've got Doctor Who now on television is thanks to those fans who did it way back then,” says McCoy. “The fans of today should be thankful to him because he helped keep alive Doctor Who.”
But is it really true that without their work keeping the fandom alive, the BBC would have never recommissioned the show? Not everyone is convinced.
“That's absolutely rubbish,” says Barnfather. “The programme would have come back – it's a franchise that will never die! Even if the Doctor Who fandom didn't exist, the BBC would have brought it back.”
“The facts just don't support it,” agrees Briggs. “The people who made the decision to bring back Doctor Who to television had no idea that any of these things existed.”
Yet while it may not be the reason for Doctor Who’s revival, it’s undeniable that these films fostered talent that would change the Tardis forever.
Perhaps more than anything, the films represent how the fandom and the series are forever intertwined. These 25 forgotten spin-offs demonstrate that the line between dedicated fans and the show is beautifully permeable, ideas and talent forever travelling between the two.
And that’s still true to this day. Remember WhoLock, the viral video that imagined two of TV’s greatest characters together? Or the perfect fan-made trailer for Peter Capaldi’s first series? The editor of these films, who goes by the pseudonym John Smith, actually went on to work as a VFX artist for Doctor Who.
This is the real beauty of Who: its fans are constantly creating, inventing new ideas that could make their way on screen in years to come. It’s a collaboration that makes Who and its lead Time Lord arguably stronger than any other sci-fi fandom.
And sure, this symbiotic relationship might bring to light some of the stranger facets of the fandom, or a nymphomaniac Zygon or two. But, just like the Tardis, these spin-offs have often taken The Doctor where he didn’t want to go, but precisely where he needed to.
Originally published 27 November 2018