These Unofficial 1980s Doctor Who Films Blazed a Trail

A female Doctor? Musical numbers? These 1980s fan films got there first.

Doctor Who TARDIS
Photo: BBC/Disney+

For all that fans have, and will ever continue to, argue about what is canon in the world of Doctor Who, the fact remains that it is a world of fuzzy edges, edges will only get fuzzier now that Russell T Davies has introduced “the Doctor-verse”.

The TV series itself is like a piece of grit in the oyster of fandom, and around that grit has formed a pearl made of Big Finish audios and novels and comic books and tabletop RPGS and (sadly, not yet any properly decent) videogames. Then there are all the unofficial appearances that definitely still count. And beyond that? The vast expanse of fan-created content, most of it created for an audience of one, and yet it is not quite as distant from The Official Version as you might think.

After all, we now are at a point where multiple actors have spent more hours playing the Doctor in Big Finish’s recording booths than they ever did in a BBC studio, and that company’s Executive Producer (as well as the longstanding voice of both the Daleks and the Cybermen) started out playing a future incarnation of the Doctor in a series of unofficial audio dramas by Audio Visuals – and he’s not the only one.

A particularly interesting fan-made Doctor Who production is the series of short films made by Seattle International Films in the 1980s. Beginning as an entry for a competition at a sci-fi convention, these films introduced a new incarnation of the Doctor and took them through four adventures (including their eventual regeneration).

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“I had already directed two 16mm shorts by the time I was 22 when I became a Doctor Who fan in the autumn of 1983 when a station near Seattle began running the Tom Baker episodes on Sunday nights,” says the producer and director of the shorts, Ryan K Johnson. “In early 1984, the Los Angeles World Science Fiction Convention announced as part of their convention later that year they were going to hold a film contest and one of the judges would be Gary Kurtz (the producer of Star Wars!). I decided I was going to make a science fiction short and enter it, and a Doctor Who fan film made a lot of sense to me.”

Johnson was relatively new to Doctor Who fandom at the time, but it rapidly became an obsession, and he consumed as much of the previous 20 years of the show as he could get his hands on in a time when the Internet and even episodes released on video were hard to come by. It seemed like the perfect subject for a film.

“I wanted to make something an audience would already have a connection to rather than trying to do something completely original that would require a lot of world building,” he tells Den of Geek.

Along the way anticipated a number of developments that would later find their way into the TV series.

Change, My Dear, and It Seems Not a Moment Too Soon

The biggest change Johnson made to the canon was in casting the lead role. He cast the actress Barbara Benedetti, who first appeared stumbling out of the TARDIS in Colin Baker’s outfit, placing her as the seventh incarnation of the Time Lord (the latest we had seen at that point).

“I chose a female Doctor because I was trying to avoid at all costs a comparison to Tom Baker, who was at the peak of his popularity at the time (at least in the USA),” Johnson says. “While I thought the BBC would never dare cast a female Doctor and rile up the fan base, I figured in a fan film you get a certain amount of latitude because it’s not canonical.”

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This alternate Seventh Doctor would be accompanied by her faithful Victorian chimney sweep companion (played by Randy Rogel, who would later go on to write episodes of The Animaniacs and Batman: The Animated Series).

New Kinds of Adventures

A female Doctor was not the only new element Johnson’s episodes would introduce. This Doctor would take the TARDIS to places it had never been before – namely, the United States, with the first short, “The Wrath of Eukor” taking on a setting reminiscent of Rambo: First Blood.

“Mainly I used what I had access to,” Johnson recalls. “The American location in the first one was because I had read about ‘trip-wire veterans’ living in the woods of Washington State and thought that would be a unique sort of hook, plus there was a state park just up the road from my house I could shoot it in.”

That first film was made with Johnson’s own film crew friends, which at the time did not include any other fans of the show.

“It was just another movie to them.  A local filmmaker (Karl Krogstad) owed me a favour to shoot a movie for me, so I drafted him to be the cinematographer on the first one because of his habit of using a zoom lens lent itself to that BBC house style at the time,” Johnson says.

Following the success of the first film, Johnson was able to assemble a club of Doctor Who fans, and with their second film “Visions of Utomu”, the TARDIS would visit a medieval fantasy setting.

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“The main thing I remember about “Visions of Utomu” was shooting in an unheated warehouse in November during a cold snap,” Johnson says. “It was amazing you wouldn’t see the actors’ breath during the scenes.  But I never had to look far to find them, they’d be huddled around the few space heaters we brought in to keep people warm.”

“Visions of Utomu” would introduce another new element to Doctor Who we would not see again on screen until Christmas Day 2023, with “The Church on Ruby Road”. The Doctor beat the villain and save the day using the power of musical numbers – namely, from the movie Singin’ in the Rain.

“I did the musical because of Randy Rogel’s extensive musical theatre background and wanted to showcase that,” Johnson says.

The final short, “Broken Doors”, was the most experimental, inspired by the more avant-garde work Alan Moore had been doing in Watchmen. Watching it now, there’s some influence from older stories such as “The Celestial Toymaker” and “The Mind Robber”, but also a bit of foreshadowing of the other Seventh Doctor’s famously opaque haunted house story, “Ghostlight”, with the Doctor’s own companion unwittingly landing the killing blow that triggers her regeneration.

But while the four shorts brought all kinds of new ideas to Doctor Who, sometimes you have to pay your dues to tradition.

“The crew (fans) were very excited about shooting in a quarry finally for “Broken Doors”,” Johnson says. “Until they realised they had to haul the TARDIS a quarter-mile in by hand.”

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Sadly, Johnson’s take on Doctor Who ended with that regeneration story: “After we regenerated the Doctor to Michael Santo, we tried to do another one with him (he was a huge fan of the series and had begged me to let him play the role) but we just couldn’t work out the logistics.”

Another Doctor Who Anniversary?

After that story failed to come together, Johnson moved onto other projects, and it seems he’s unlikely to try to create new Doctor Who adventures.

“Both the BBC and Big Finish would have to have retired from making them, I don’t see any need to try to compete with their output,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean he’s done with the TARDIS just yet.

“I’m currently working on a HD release of “Wrath of Eukor” for the 40th anniversary this year, featuring a new transfer from the camera-original 16mm footage,” he tells us.

You can find out more about the making of Seattle International Films’ Doctor Who episodes at Johnson’s own website.

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