How does a fan-made episode of Doctor Who measure up?

The Doctor's unwelcome series break in 2009 prompted US fans to make their own episode, but how does it compare to real Who? Here's our look at Fire & Ice…

Few were pleased when they heard that 2009 would not see a new series of Doctor Who, but merely a handful of specials. But not many of the displeased masses went to such an extreme as to set up a project with the aim of creating their own thirteen-episode series.

Ambitious American fans did just that, setting up Doctor Who 2009, a fan film project intent on creating a new Doctor, a new companion and a new series. In 2009, the BBC screened about 175 minutes of new Who adventures (that’s three hour-long episodes, minus credits and “next time…” trails). DW09’s efforts brought us just one 70-minute episode. Not quite the 13-episode extravaganza we’d been promised. This is forgiveable – it’s not got the time, money or sheer force of the British Broadcasting Corporation supporting it, so what do you expect? Undeterred, I decided to give the debut episode Fire & Ice a watch. Bits of the project’s website seemed to be malfunctioning – I got a 403 Forbidden error trying to access the episodes page – but I managed to download the episode (1.61GB in a WMV file, by the way) via the torrent link on the homepage. As a first episode, Fire & Ice resembles the debut of Eccleston, Piper and Russell T Davies’ rejuvenated Who, Rose. New companion Alice Hemmingway – Jennifer Richman, doing the finest acting in the episode – is more or less the focus of it, and is even introduced by whacking her alarm clock.

Like Rose’s Autons, Fire & Ice brings back a classic villain (I won’t say which, in case you want to see the episode for yourself) so you can be assured that this is most definitely Doctor Who, even though you’ve never seen these strange people. Obviously nothing fan-made is definitively canon, and if you don’t care about such things, skip straight to the next paragraph. But for the fans who do care about canon, DW09 annoyingly doesn’t even attempt to integrate itself with the Whoniverse in any coherent way.

Some elements of the show are exported wholesale (UNIT and the alien threat), some are alluded to in neat nods to Who proper (Alice’s phone runs on the Archangel network) but nothing is contradicted – unless you count the presence of this unknown Doctor, of course. The story itself is a bit long, and you could easily cut it down to the length of a standard Who episode (and why it’s at 70 minutes baffles me anyway, it’s not exactly a normal runtime – even if you add in standard American advert times). However, the plot itself is a decent Who story – except the finale, where trigger-happy UNIT takes centre stage.

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The script struggles in places – the old cliché of characters saying “so I was right” to themselves pops up here and there. But most of it wouldn’t be out of place if David Tennant – rather than Kenneth Raymond Moore – was spouting the pretentious (but quite enjoyable) nonsense about fantastical other worlds and how Earth is “full of colour”. Not that you’d know that our blue dot was full of colour from watching Fire & Ice, in which every frame seems to have been drained of it. Any vibrancy is lost in an ugly, murky world of dull colours, to the point that you half-wish the episode was in monochrome.

Things don’t get much better in the villains’ lair, which at points matches Alien Vs Predator – Requiem for impenetrable darkness, although this may be for good reason – despite most of the lair looking good, the aliens themselves look unthreatening and a bit shabby, especially the one you see prancing around in suburbia. Fire & Ice, sadly, seems to have inherited some of the worse aspects of new Who, instead of brushing over them with its fresh new take. Loud music – some pinched from Murray Gold, as the credits attest – thunders over scenes with such volume that you sometimes can’t quite make out what’s being said, a big problem in the Doctor’s first proper scene. Chief among the continued traditions is the sonic screwdriver.

It was thought to be a storytelling menace back when Peter Davison took over and was promptly destroyed in The Visitation. Nowadays, it’s gotten worse. Under Russell T Davies’s supervision, the Doctor’s gadget has become an iPhone with superpowers – Steve Jobs is probably cooking one up as I write.

Want to mend some broken barbed wire? There’s a setting for that. Want to get a cash machine to eject its contents into the streets? There’s a setting for that. Want your past self to save the life of someone who will be important to them later on? Well, there’s a setting for just about anything. Fire & Ice shows us that it can make fire. That would have been a great time-saver in The Forest Of Fear*. Is it any wonder Alice calls it a “magic wand”? Evaluation of Fire & Ice ultimately rests on whether or not you think it’s fair to judge fan-produced episodes by the same standards as you would a BBC production. It’s almost certainly not, but if you are attempting to provide a replacement for the BBC series during its pseudo-sabbatical year, then you are just inviting all sorts of nitpicky criticisms that fan efforts are usually excused.

As a fan film, it’s a well-executed little story that opens up a good opportunity for further adventures. But consider the other side of the coin: Rose was good enough to be given a Christmas special and a second series the day following its broadcast. Fire & Ice would, if we’re being completely honest, not.

You can find out more about it here.

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*Or you might call it episode 3 of An Unearthly Child, or 100000 BC, or The Tribe Of Gum. But honestly, let’s leave the naming debate for another time.