Alongside BBV, the other big player in small Doctor Who spin-offs in the period between TV incarnations was Reeltime Pictures. Predating BBV by several years – it was set up in 1984 – Reeltime was the brainchild of Keith Barnfather and made its name with a line of interviews with many of the key players from the original series – from both in front of and behind the camera – under the series title Myth Makers.
In 1987, the company released the first commercially available Doctor Who spin-off in the shape of Wartime and the only one that the BBC authorised while the original show was still on the air. Produced and directed by Barnfather from a script by Andy Lane and Helen Stirling Wartime returned to the screens one of the supporting characters from the Jon Pertwee era – UNIT soldier Sergeant (now Warrant Officer 1) John Benton, played as he was in the 70s by John Levene.
Surprisingly, Wartime turned out to be more of a supernatural/psychological horror than the science fiction one might have expected. Benton is on his way to the headquarters of UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, the military team that The Doctor briefly joined as a scientific adviser) when he experiences a flashback to his childhood in Lancashire. He stops off to visit the grave of his older brother Chris whose death he blames himself for. As a mysterious figure lurks in the woods intent on stealing the radioactive materials that Benton is accompanying back to UNIT, Benton begins to experience a series of inexplicable events, including a visitation from the ghost of his father as his guilt begins to consume him.
Running less than 40 minutes Wartime moves along at a fair clip, never becoming dull while never really being totally satisfying either. Levene is good as the tormented Benton and Michael “Davros” Wisher is on hand again as the ghostly father but inevitably the production values tend to let it down. And Barnfather’s direction is a little too busy for its own good, perhaps betraying some insecurity which is perhaps understandable. But at its best Wartime is surprising effective thanks to a well crafted script and generally strong performances.
Although it’s a less ambitious production than some of subsequent productions from Bill Baggs and co, Wartime is still a remarkably assured piece is due some credit for being the first independent production to legitimately make use of the BBC’s characters. Reeltime were allowed to use the character of Benton thanks to a legal loophole – the BBC retained the rights to Doctor Who and its main characters but individual writers retained rights to the minor characters they created. Benton had first appeared The Invasion (1968), an eight-part serial featuring the Cybermen, written by Derrick Sherwin and Reeltime were able to get permission to use the character directly from the writer. This opened the door for both Reeltime and BBV to featured other supporting characters and even alien races in their productions..
Reeltime went on to craft an increasingly interesting series of Doctor Who related dramas, including Mindgame (1998) (featuring Sontarans and Draconians), the self explanatory Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans (1995), Downtime (1995) (which featured the yeti and positioned itself as a sequel to two Patrick Troughton stories, The Web of Fear and The Abominable Snowman) and Daemos Rising (2004) which features the alien race from the Jon Pertwee/Third Doctor story The Daemons (1971).
In 1997, Barnfather revisited Wartime, adding a credit for the previously unacknowledged voice over by Nicholas Courtney, in character as Benton’s superior, the much-loved Brigadier Lethridge-Stewart.
- His promotion from sergeant had happened in Tom Baker’s debut story Robot (1974-1975) and he left UNIT in 1979 positioning this story at some pint in the latter half of the decade. ↩