Why Has There Never Been a Truly Great Doctor Who Video Game?

The Doctor's adventures aren't an easy fit for the world of gaming.

Doctor Who TARDIS
Photo: BBC/Disney+

When it comes to sci-fi universes, Doctor Who can claim to have one of the biggest. Beyond its 60 years and counting of TV adventures, the show has three spin-off series (so far), two animated stories, one failed pilot, and a collection of licensed Doctor-less adventures, countless audios, comics, books, board games, tabletop RPGs, and that’s not including the stuff we missed which people are going to remind us about in the comments.

But there is one area where the TARDIS just can’t quite seem to properly land – the world of video games.

If we look at Doctor Who’s compatriots in the Holy Triumvirate of Science Fiction Mega Franchises, Stars both Trek and Wars, this has never been as much of an issue. Star Wars was one of the first licenses to really fully embrace video games as a medium, and even if we only count the pure classics we would still have too many to list here.

Star Trek, with its focus on more science fictional storylines that are less suitable for video game-style high action, has not been as successful, but still has numerous fondly remembered games under its belt, including the multi-coloned Star Trek: Voyager: Elite Force, the dated-yet-classic Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and Star Trek: Judgement Rites, the simulator Star Trek: Bridge Commander, the recent Star Trek: Resurgence and the ongoing MMO Star Trek: Online.

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All of these games have been faithful to the show to a greater or lesser degree, but between them, players can enjoy the Trek fan’s fantasies of exploration, diplomacy, solving complex moral dilemmas and occasionally shooting things with a phaser.

But while there have been a few attempts to capture Doctor Who in video game form, the list of those attempts is a short one, and we have yet to see one that captures the fantasy of boarding the TARDIS.

Early Adventures

The first licensed Doctor Who video game appeared 20 years into the show’s history, released for the BBC Micro and programmed by Jeremy Ruston. Featuring Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, who looks like a pixel, Doctor Who: The First Adventure gave you 15 lives, sorry, “regenerations” to survive the game’s four “episodes”, which variously mimicked existing games like Pac-Man, Frogger and Battleships. In short, it felt like a bit of a transparent cash grab.

The next stab at a Doctor Who game would be more ambitious, if less visually spectacular. To start with, this game would have talent from the actual show behind the wheel, in the form of Graham Williams, the producer of three seasons of Tom Baker’s era.

Doctor Who and the Warlord was a text adventure, recorded onto two sides of a cassette, taking you to locations such as the planet Quantain and the Battle of Waterloo, but also didn’t appear to include that much of the Doctor himself.

That same year also saw the release of Doctor Who and the Mines of Terror, a platform game starring the Sixth Doctor, a game that performed poorly enough that the Doctor wouldn’t appear in a video game again until the similarly platform-based Dalek Attack in 1992.

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Dalek Attack was the most ambitious attempt at a Doctor Who game yet. It features a fantastic plinky plonky pixelated computer rendition of the Doctor Who theme tune and Sylvester McCoy’s title sequence, and some great Dalek voices. But there is something about seeing Tom Baker’s Doctor flying through a sewer on a Dalek hovercraft blasting lasers that doesn’t feel very… Doctory.

Probably the most investment that has gone into a Doctor Who game so far is 1997’s Destiny of the Doctors, long into the darkest depths of the Wilderness Years. With a plot written by legendary Who writer Terrence Dicks, voicework from every surviving actor to play the Doctor (apart from Paul McGann, sorry), Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier, and the final on-screen performance of Anthony Ainley as the Master, who for the first time provided his own goatee, rather than relying on a prosthetic.

The game also took the Doctor into the third dimension, ingeniously taking advantage of the limitations of the technology by setting it inside the TARDISes of the Doctor’s previous incarnations (Infested with all the monsters that you know and fear).

The TARDIS’s roundel-lined corridors leave much to desire in terms of variety, the psychic, yet silent genetically modified Graak is not the most gripping protagonist. On the whole, the game’s not hugely fondly remembered, but it didn’t lack for ambition.

More Adventures

Doctor Who gaming was quiet for a while but in 2010 it returned with what is probably the peak of Doctor Who gaming so far: Doctor Who: The Adventure Games released via the BBC website during the fifth season of the New Series. Starring Matt Smith and Karen Gillan as the Doctor and Amy Pond, these five games were basically small, self-contained point-and-click adventures.

They didn’t offer the scope and exploration fans wanted from piloting their own TARDIS, perhaps, but they worked as stand-alone interactive episodes in their own right, even forming a sort of mini-season of the show. The third game, “TARDIS”, even anticipates the TV show’s “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” by a couple of years.

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But while the games functioned as a nice addition to the show, and were well-received by fans, it was not long before Doctor Who gaming pivoted again, this time into console games.

The first of these, and probably the most glossily produced Doctor Who game so far, was The Eternity Clock, an Eleventh Doctor and River Song adventures that interspersed puzzles with platformer levels because for some reason developers keep thinking that navigating a side-on selection of obstacles is what Doctor Who is all about. Still, the cut scenes are well-produced and acted.

The Eleventh Doctor continued his run as the most video*gamed Doctor through the Nintendo DS game Evacuation Earth, and the Wii game Return to Earth, which lacked The Eternity Clock’s glossy finish and replaced it with a lot of finicky puzzles. Meanwhile, The Mazes of Time saw the Eleventh Doctor and Amy exploring a series of top-down 3D levels.

All of these games arrived in relatively quick succession in the couple of years following 2010, and then the scene went quiet again (barring some digital collectable card-style games that we’re ignoring for the purposes of this article).

But the next time video games offered us a chance to board the TARDIS it would be in an entirely more literal fashion.

Virtual Realities

Yes, in the 2020s Doctor Who noticed that VR was starting to be a thing again, and tried to get involved. Its first foray into this was Doctor Who: The Runaway, a free virtual reality adventure that you can complete in under 15 minutes. With some nice animation and a chance to actually stand inside the TARDIS, it’s a fun little diversion.

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But before that, we saw Doctor Who: The Edge of Time which is far more ambitious. A sort of virtual reality escape room that takes you throughout space and time, as well as into the TARDIS itself, with both Jodie Whittaker and David Tennant taking turns as the Time Lord, this is the closest game we’ve seen yet to the Doctor Who game of fans’ dreams.

But even here, the Doctor is mostly off-screen, as you play a faceless, nameless human companion following her (and his) clues across time and space. And while you get to “fly the TARDIS”, you don’t get the fly the TARDIS, only complete memory puzzles pushing random controls to take you from one scene to the next.

In fact, weirdly, probably the closest we have got to a genuine official TARDIS simulator is the Lego: Dimensions tie-in, Lego’s attempt at cashing in on the “toys as video game DLC” craze started by the likes of Disney Infinity and Skylanders.

In Lego: Dimensions, providing you had the right toys, of course, you could board the TARDIS, regenerate through every incarnation of the Doctor and have the TARDIS console room change to match, and fly around various IP tie-in sandbox maps to your heart’s content.

The Quest for the Ultimate Game

But while there have been some enjoyable games, nothing quite feels like the game Doctor Who fans have been waiting for.

“With every IP, the big question is figuring out the core fantasy, which is where I think a lot of developers have gone wrong,” says Richard Cobbett, Narrative Designer on games such as vampire simulator, Nighthawks, as well as the Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies games.

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Doctor Who video games are a small but varied grab bag, but at its best Doctor Who gaming has provided us with the occasional stand-alone episode, but nothing that gives us the fantasy of being invited aboard the TARDIS in the way that Jedi: Fallen Order scratches your lightsaber-fighting itch, or Star Trek Online lets you live out your starship captain dreams.

Doctor Who does face challenges that its sci-fi brethren do not, however. First of all, let’s get it out the way – guns. The Man Who Never Would has no phasers, no blasters, only a screwdriver, and as Terry Pratchett once said, joysticks don’t have a “Don’t Fire!” button.

“Oddly enough, I feel like Doctor Who shares a myriad of game design problems with Superman,” says Xalavier Nelson Jr, Studio Head of game developer Strange Scaffold, the developer behind El Paso, Elsewhere and the upcoming kidnapping simulator, Life Eater. “Their fantasies rely on morality, restraint, and a unique openness of problem-solving which is incredibly hard to build a game around, regardless of your budget.”

But violence isn’t all that essential. Watchdogs: Legion, for instance, has its share of gunplay, but that is purely an optional extra, and the remaining combo of running, hiding, and “pointing gadgets and things to make them do stuff” is extremely Doctor-y – especially if you pick the right outfits.

The other obstacle to the Doctor Who video game we all want, is the sheer scope of it. All of time and space sounds very nice, but in practical terms that is a lot of content to build – even if you go down the procedural generation route.

Probably the closest you can get to that kind of scale is space exploration sim No Man’s Sky (and as it happens I have built a working TARDIS console room in that game), but even that doesn’t allow you to travel in space as well.

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But maybe you don’t need to be the Doctor, as Cobbett points out, “The fantasy isn’t being The Doctor, a character who is intentionally written to be largely unknowable and several steps beyond our understanding – it’s travelling with the Doctor, and both getting to know and befriend this enigmatic figure from across time and space, and having the ultimate tour guide to the greatest stories in any universe.”

Rather than a massive time and space sandbox, Cobbett argues “I’d want to start with a comprehensive character creation system to let you put yourself as much as possible into the role of a new companion, and then join him on a series of linked but largely standalone episodic adventures in the vein of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary/Judgement Rites. Historical characters, futuristic adventures, and at the centre of them all, the madman with a box you can never hope to entirely understand, dragging you along for the ride.”

Nelson also argues that, with the companion often serving as the audience proxy in the TV show, they, not the Doctor, are the natural game protagonists.

“Typically, when you’re put into a position to pitch a game working around these challenges, one of the strongest moves you can make is to live out adjacent fantasies. Accompanying the Doctor, rather than being them. Becoming the Jimmy Olsen to an accurately-depicted Superman,” Nelson says. “The companions of the Doctor often contain vibrant but constrained multitudes, which makes them ideal game protagonists.”

Of course, Doctor Who also faces a third, unique restriction, that perhaps explains why most recent games have been so small-scale.

“The main issue of course is that with the development time on a game that’s truly worthy of the show, you’re probably finishing it right around the time the entire show is about to reinvent itself,” Cobbett says. “Would the BBC ever let you make up a new Doctor, or pull a Big Finish and tell stories about, say, Eight? Even if they did, would the fans resonate with that decision? Probably not. But, now I say all that, some kind of Big Finish style Whoniverse VN series has some potential, doesn’t it?”

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Nelson, meanwhile, has his own ideas.

“If I had to pitch a Doctor Who video game? I’m going with a TARDIS-based kart racer,” he says.

Doctor Who returns to BBC One and iPlayer in the UK, and to Disney+ in the US in May 2024.