Doctor Who Review: Real Time (2002)

In the years before Doctor Who’s return in 2005, during the so-called “Wilderness Years” of Doctor Who, what was then BBCi began creating all-new online content based on the series. With the recent Cyber Monday, I figured you might enjoy the one of these that featured a classic Doctor Who monster. It’s a belated Cybermanday on this week’s Doctor Who Review!

Real Time
(Click image for BBCi Real Time website.)

Need to Know:
Real Time was the first of these webcasts to be produced with Big Finish, a group that creates all-new adventures for classic Doctors. We’ll be talking more about them later, don’t you worry.

The partnership with Big Finish allowed for a story that worked within their range, as well as giving the BBC a story of the more moderate Colin Baker Sixth Doctor developed in the audio adventures to show to a potentially wider audience.

Real Time is also introduces a blue costume for the Sixth Doctor. This was due to the desire to avoid the complexities of trying to animate the standard clown coat. The blue suit has become a widely-liked costume change for the Sixth Doctor and there have even been a variant action figure or two who sported the look.

Now, onto the review!

Review:
Colin Baker is in prime form in this webcast. His softer take on this rather brusque Doctor has always been a great feature of the Big Finish version and Real Time delivers that version in spade. He still has the anger of the early Sixth Doctor, but with that kindness that has been a welcome addition and is exemplified in the warm relationship he has with his companion, Evelyn Smythe. He’s great in this, keeping the Doctor’s lack of respect for the Cybermen, while still scared of what they’re capable of. He’s the same sassy Doctor from the Trial courtroom of his final season, but with better writing to back him up.

As a sartorial aside, I love the blue costume. It keeps all of the same lines and features of the classic series costume, but it the blue is a better look for Baker’s Doctor. It may not be the all-black Colin Baker wanted, but black’s a color for the Master or the odd Dalek, it’s not really a classic-era Doctorish hue. Plus, blue links him to the TARDIS visually, which may seem obvious, but as the TARDIS isn’t seen all that often in the webcast, so it’s not a bad reminder. The emoting golden cat badge is fun too.

Now, I have a lot of Big Finish listening to do before I can say this definitively, but at the moment at least, Evelyn Smythe is my favorite Big Finish companion. She was the first I ever heard and the brilliant performance of Maggie Stables leaves nothing to be desired. The idea of the Doctor traveling with an older companion would never be touched for long-term use on the series proper, but it’s a great idea. Evelyn is an equal player with the Doctor, not just a mere human who’s constantly less than the Doctor, but someone the Doctor takes with him because he enjoys her company more than anything else, bickering and all.

Evelyn’s the kind of companion I like: smart. She’s whip-smart and witty as all hell, more than an adequate match for the Doctor. She doesn’t take his usual nonsense in stride and is as fascinated in him as he is in her. She’s also completely platonic with the Doctor, which is always a plus in my book. It’s also nice to have a female companion outside of the 18-24 demographic.

Real Time’s Cybermen have a great creepiness factor, with exposed flesh and incomplete conversions, that the usually super-clean models of the new series lack. The body horror aspect of these Cybermen is captured perfectly in the performances of the cast, to the point where the conversions scenes can be downright gruesome, due the audio/low-frame-rate-animation leaving most of it to your imagination. It’s supremely effective in practice, so I can’t hep but give everyone involved int he production credit. The paradoxical aspect of these Cybermen, and the last-minute reveal of the Cyber-Controller’s identity, are worthy of not being spoiled.

A well-written adventure, but Real Time forces the viewer to do what Doctor Who fans have been doing for years: accept the limitations of the program. The animation is admittedly crude, but it had to be in order to work within the bandwidth available when originally released. The story is rough, but I’ve heard that the unabridged audio version handles some of the problems inherent in the tale’s construction. I can only imagine the amount of cutting necessary to get the webcast down to the short run times needed for the broadcast to work on the servers of the time. It’s limited by the limitations of the format, but like I said, that has always gone hand-in-hand with Doctor Who.

The mystery at the heart of the story is a great one, and the idea of the paradox is explored in a way I wouldn’t have expected. There are some flaws and pay-offs that were never properly planted, but the script works well, despite those downsides. The performances range from truly great to pretty darn mediocre, but that’s how it usually works with Doctor Who.

Should You Watch it?
I’d say the audio version might feel less old, but if you remember the good old days of 56K modems and America Online, you’ll have a lot of fun with this retro bit of Flash animation.

I give it four deadly paradoxes out of five.

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