Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of a little thing called Doctor Who, a sci-fi TV series that’s been all the rage these days, thanks to a particularly excellent season and a stunningly talented actor who’s donned the persona of the Doctor effortlessly. If series 8 is only but the beginning of what Peter Capaldi can offer us as the Twelfth Doctor, then we are in excellent hands. Alas, tonight is the series finale.
Doctor Who entered our lives for the first time in 1963, quickly becoming a pop culture staple that has invaded pretty much every form of entertainment at our Earthly disposal. Whether it be the TV series, comic books, novels, or countless licensed products, we can pretty much hang with the Doctor whenever we want.
But there’s one dimension where the Doctor has yet to plant his flag: video games. Although the Doctor has graced consoles and PC with his presence on a number of occasions, the video game world just hasn’t received its fair share of the time vortex.
Maybe it has to do with quality of the games, which in most cases is seriously lacking, but it’s odd that the Doctor isn’t one of those licenses that truly shines on gaming platforms. Previously, I wrote about my wish to see Telltale, the developer behind many of the biggest licensed point-and-click adventures to date (The Walking Dead, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Fables, Game of Thrones, etc.), work on a Doctor Who game. It seems like a match made in heaven, exactly what Doctor Who needs to take over the video game world, but that might not happen for some time — still I remain hopeful!
Recently, Doctor Who has seen success in the mobile gaming market with the popular Legacy puzzle RPG that very much serves as a companion app to the TV series. But that’s not enough, is it? I want a TRUE adaptation.
Still, let’s not be glum. There’s a new Doctor in the TARDIS. That means that we’re bound to get a lot of new licensed products in the next few years. On BBC’s list is undoubtedly a video game or two.
Until then, let’s take a look at the Doctor’s big video game adventures thus far. Geronimo!
Editor’s Note: This list features OFFICIAL Doctor Who games in chronological order. But we would also like to acknowledge the hundreds of games that have been created by fans. You can find more info on those here.
Doctor Who: The First Adventure
1983 | BBC Software | BBC Micro
Although the Doctor’s most underwhelming adventure ever, we have to start at the beginning: The First Adventure. Starring the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), BBC’s first attempt at a Doctor Who game was basically a clone of popular games of the time, such as Pac Man, Frogger, Space Invaders, and Battleship. Find your way out of a labyrinth before the Weevils of Ourouborous Vl turn him into dinner, cross a moat full of obstacles in order to save your companion, shoot down the Terrordactyls stalking you in the Great Space-Time Void, and detect and destroy invisible monsters.
At the time, these mini-games were the best of both worlds: you get the Doctor in the form of games you already loved. Unfortunately, the “new paint” wasn’t very impressive, especially when the Doctor was nothing more than a little white dot that served as your cursor.
Interesting is the game’s use of the show’s structure — most of the official Doctor Who games that have been released use some form of episodic structure. Whether it’s individual episodes that come together as a larger arc — such as this game — or standalone episodes, it’s a piece of the show that’s been around in games since the very beginning.
Though this was the first OFFICIAL Doctor Who game released by the BBC, it wasn’t the first ever made. Just a few months before, UK’s Computer and Video Games magazine, which is now defunct, featured a BASIC code for a little game called Dr. Who Adventure for the Atari 400 and 800 systems. The game starred you as a companion, as the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) faced off against The Master in an arguably even less impressive game than its successor.
About the only thing that was impressive about 1983’s helping of Doctor Who games was the cover art, which is very pretty indeed.
Doctor Who and the Warlord
1985 | BBC Software | BBC Micro
The Doctor had another outing on the BBC Micro in 1985, designed by Graham Williams, former showrunner during the Tom Baker years. Williams’ involvement is worth nothing (even though Chessfield Microgames did the heavy-lifting) because this was a text adventure. The ex-showrunner undoubtedly had a hand in the story, which involves a strange planet called Quantain and a desperate search for The Doctor amidst a bloody war.
The Warlord, King Varangar, throws all that he can at you: androids, gypsies, and his bodyguards. There are plenty of perils on Quantain to type yourself out of. At some point, you are transported back in time to the Battle of Waterloo, where you must outwit both Varangar AND Napoleon.
There actually isn’t all that much Doctor in the game, but you can assume it’s the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker), who was in the TARDS at the time.
Either way, Six got his very own game that same year…
Doctor Who and the Mines of Terror
1985 | Micro Power | BBC Micro, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64
The Doctor’s first platformer! Deep into the mines of Rijar the Sixth Doctor went to stop The Master and his evil minions, the Madrags — goblin-like creatures that are out to get you. Along with his robot cat, Splinx, who could fetch and store items bigger than itself, The Doctor explored the complex cavern systems that led to a final confrontation against his archnemesis, who planned to use The Doctor’s brain to create a Chaos Weapon — I don’t have to tell you what that does, do I?
Other enemies included murderous robots that looked a lot like a certain exterminating supervillain. Micro Power couldn’t officially call the robots “Daleks” because Terry Nation, the creator of the Dalek, owned part of the rights to them.
The game was a bit complicated to play on the BBC Micro, since it was so big you needed to install a special ROM chip on the console in order to play it. And the game didn’t fare much better for Micro Power, who was forced to shut down soon after releasing the game due to the crippling costs.
Six just couldn’t catch a break.
1992 | Admiral Software | PC, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST
But no fear, as NuWho has proven this last few years, you can’t keep The Doctor down! The TV series came to a screeching halt in 1989, but that didn’t stop the BBC from commissioning another game based on everyone’s favorite scifi hero three years later. And yes, that’s Four flying around in a hovercraft in the beginning of the game.
Admiral Software created a platformer that was the equivalent to a big anniversary special: a multi-Doctor story that let you play as the Second, Fourth, and Seventh Doctors! You could even play with a friend, who would join you as companion Ace or a UNIT soldier. Unsurprisingly, people went all wibbly wobbly over it.
This was also the first time the Daleks were featured in a Doctor Who game. Davros, creator of the Daleks, leads his army to invade Earth. And the Time Lords send The Doctor to stop him, of course. During the adventure, The Doctor met up the trusty K9, and even traveled back to Skaro, the birthplace of the Daleks. Yeah, this was an EPIC adventure.
Plus, the cover art was gorgeous:
There just isn’t cover art as good as this anymore. Retro is king of the cover art. Maybe because publishers needed to compensate for the actual game…But that’s not the case here. Dalek Attack might be one of the best in the Doctor Who game library.
Doctor Who: Destiny of the Doctors
1997 | BBC Multimedia | PC
Which is why it’s a shame the BBC didn’t publish another Doctor Who game until 5 years later, when gaming had made the jump to 3D. To The Doctor, I’m sure it was a simple jump into the future, but it was an eternal wait for fans, who not only didn’t have a TV series (the 1996 TV film, doesn’t count as a treat, does it?) but also didn’t have a new game to play.
At least developer Studio Fish took what worked in Dalek Attack and implemented it into their own game, namely the multi-Doctor story — with a twist. But while the game featured the first seven doctors, you don’t really get to play as any of them. Instead, you play as an electro-telepathic blob named Graak, who the Doctor created to stop The Master from bending the universe to his will.
Throughout the adventure, you travel to every Doctor’s TARDIS, saving them one by one from The Master. You also face off against Sontarans, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Zygons, and many more classic enemies during the game. To top off the rogues gallery, Anthony Ainley reprised his roll as The Master for the final time before his death in 2004.
The game also featured brand new recorded audio from Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Nicholas Courtney (aka Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart). William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton were voiced by impersonators, while Jon Pertwee, who originally agreed to appear in the game, passed away before recording took place.
As per the quality of the game, this one is particularly an eye-roller since it gave us not a game where we played as The Doctor, but instead a game that just had a bunch of Doctors. And the graphics, even for the time, make you want to poke your eyes out with a sonic screwdriver.
The best part of this game was the HUGE database that was included in the package. Players had access to over 600 entries from the BBC archives, which included info on episodes, characters, villains, and exclusive video clips from the classic series.
And then The Doctor slept for 11 long years until 2007, when Eidos Interactive made Top Trumps: Doctor Who, based on the classic card game from the late 60s. This is what it looked like:
This is Tennant and friends’ only appearance in a Doctor Who game to date. It came out for the Nintendo DS, Wii, PS2, and PC. Perhaps the next Doctor Who game should be a multi-Doctor story that properly features some of the iconic characters of the Davies years. Anyways, let’s move on…
Doctor Who: The Adventure Games
2010 | BBC Wales Interactive | PC
Enter Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor, for his long tenure in the video game TARDIS. Smith has appeared in more video games than any other Doctor, in no small part due to the growing popularity of the show during his tenure.
In 2010, gamers got a new dose of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff. Unfortunately, the quantity of games during the Smith era doesn’t necessarily mean quality.
The Adventure Games — the best this new era had to offer — arrived as episodic content for PC. Released, one by one, as standalone episodes that made up a season, these games had you face-off against the classic rogues gallery. There was a Dalek story, one for the Cybermen, the Vashta Nerada returned, and there was even an episode that took place completely in the TARDIS.
The Doctor and Amy did a bit of platforming and solved some puzzles, there were wise cracks, and the usual shenanigans, but Sumo Digital wasn’t really able to capture the essence of the show. Even veterans Phil Ford (“The Waters of Mars,” “Into the Dalek,” Torchwood, and The Sarah Jane Adventures) and James Moran (“The Fires of Pompeii” and Torchwood), who wrote the scripts, couldn’t save these episodes. The writing felt formulaic, more interested in giving players the chance to fight the usual villains than telling original stories. Of course, it’s more likely the BBC’s fault, who treated these games more like promotional companion pieces to the TV series. Fans who lived in the UK even got the games for free from the BBC website.
BBC planned to put out a 2nd season of The Adventure Games, but it was cancelled just after one episode, which featured Guy Fawkes and his Gunpowder Plot.
Again, there’s something to be said about the structure of the game. The episodic nature of the stories on the show — whether standalone or as part of a larger arc — helped catapult NuWho into success. The structure has worked for Telltale over the years, and it could be an easy way to tell a complex Doctor Who story without becoming a convoluted.
Perhaps the problem with the games is that they haven’t been able to tell the deeper stories that tend to become classic entries in Doctor Who canon. Instead, they’ve always opted for the silliness of Gaawk, Splinx, and all-around punchline fodder. But in a post-The Last of Us world, a deep, complex story is within anyone’s reach.
The Doctor Is Imprisoned in the Video Game Pandorica
Doctor Who: Return to Earth – 2010 | Nintendo | Wii
Doctor Who: Evacuation Earth – 2010 | Nintendo | DS
Doctor Who: The Mazes of Time – 2010 | BBC Worldwide | iOS, Android
Doctor Who: Worlds in Time – 2012 | SEGA | PC
Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock – 2012 | BBC Worldwide | PS3, Vita, PC
I wasn’t kidding when I said Matt Smith was in a bunch of games. 2010 to 2012 were saturated with Doctor Who games, which I’ve combined into one entry because they’re all pretty much the worst. While at times The Mazes of Time and The Eternity Clock have their charming moments — the latter features a few funny moments between The Doctor and Professor River Song — Nintendo and SEGA’s handling of the franchise can be filed under abysmal. Tom Baker would growl at them, Colin Baker would choke them out, and Peter Capaldi would call them pudding heads.
Still, all of these games pretty much play the same (and you should already have figured out the common theme): a mix of puzzle solving and platforming is all that stands in the way between the usual rogues and that whimsical Doctor. Can The Doctor stop [insert rogue here] from unleashing the [goofy sciencey timey wimey gadget/machine] on the [insert celestial body here]? It’s all rather boring.
Developers did try some new things in terms of genre, at least. The Mazes of Time was a mobile game that served as a companion to the TV series, while Worlds in Time was an MMORPG. Still, these new formats weren’t enough to grab players’ interests. Critically panned and barely sold, these games locked The Doctor in the video game Pandorica once and for all. Two years later, the video game franchise still hasn’t recovered.
What We Can Learn From This Timey Wimey History
It doesn’t seem like the BBC has ever really taken Doctor Who games seriously. In fact, from their viewpoint, the games might not serve as anything more than interactive commercials for their show and a way to make a little bit more money off the brand.
From the very best entries (Dalek Attack) to the worst (most of the recent ones), Doctor Who games have taken many shapes: side-scroller, 3D platformer, MMO, card game, text adventure. Although not all ideas have worked, the best thing about this franchise is its flexibility. I don’t see why Doctor Who couldn’t be ALL of these things with the proper care and attention. Doctor Who, a series full of awesome ideas, screams the indie treatment.
Maybe, probably, the publishers are the ones that have thwarted the games, filling them with enough fanwank to appease the most die-hard Who fans. Stuffing your game with TV series references and characters hits the nostalgia button, sure, but a good game it does not make. A game, first and foremost, must be a game — not an extension of a TV show.
The Doctor Who games should provide us situations we can’t get anywhere else, such as multi-Doctor stories that feature all Twelve Doctors (past comic books have taken this same approach) or Doctors we won’t be seeing on the show anymore, stories featuring lesser-known Doctors (Eight and the War Doctor), or stories that are genuine attempts at giving us something original. I don’t want to read more ad copy that reads “Play as your favorite characters from the Doctor Who television series.”
Basing a game on a franchise that pretty much breaks its own rules of continuity at will should be a HUGE opportunity for some larger than life, creative ideas. The Whoniverse deserves it.
There’s a new Doctor in the TARDS, one with a much darker personality, but with just enough wit to entertain us on Saturday nights. I say they make a video game that does him justice.