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Death Comes to Time (Pilot)

tx: 13th July 2001, 12.00pm, BBC Online

Doctor Who: Death Comes to Time featured Sophie Aldred as Ace, Jon Culshaw as Guard and Senator Hawk, Kevin Eldon as Antimony, David Evans as Pilot, Leonard Fenton as Casmus and Stephen Fry as The Minister of Chance. Senator, Soldier and Civilian were played by Richard Garraty, Senator Sala by Britta Gartner, Fighter Pilot by Benjamin Langley and The Doctor was played by Sylvester McCoy. Admiral Mettna was played by Jacqueline Pearce, General Tannis by John Sessions, The President of Santiny by Huw Thomas and The Captain by Moray Treadwell. The music was by Nik Romero and the script editor was Nev Fountain. The sound was by Jon Taylor and technical presentation was by Will Crader Acosta with Alec Haigh-Munroe [sic]. The producer was Dan Freedman.
In early 2000 rumours began to circulate regarding a new Doctor Who radio project initiated by the BBC. Within weeks, the BBC website admitted that a pilot was indeed in progress, produced by comedy writer Dan Freedman, written by Radio 4's Colin Meek, and starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred as the seventh Doctor and Ace. By May, popular actor/writer Stephen Fry had also been linked with the pilot, as had actor Kevin Eldon, though the nature of their characters remained highly secretive.

One of Freedman's early ideas was to involve Doctor Who fans worldwide, by asking at the BBC website for DAT audio tapes of the following roles..

  • Drowning People
  • Prisoners in a very cramped, abusive jail calling for help
  • Ship to Ship/ to base communications
  • Fighter Pilots

These extracts would, he claimed, be edited into the final product, which looked set to be a 25 minute pilot episode with the potential to inspire a full series. In June 2000, Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Dan Freeman, Kevin Elden, Nev the script editor and Adam Henderson (Sophie's newly born son) spoke live to internet users via the BBC website, discussing the character of Ace, the BBC novels, Doctor Who in America and the new radio pilot. Among the hints dropped were the following revelations...

  • Ace's character progression will be "startling" (Aldred)
  • "The Doctor's journey into his own darker side continues" (McCoy)
  • The pilot will feature a "fantastic" new version of the series theme (Freedman)
  • "Cheap is the last thing, in radio terms, that could be said of this programme" (Freedman)
  • "It involves death - a lot of people die; there are a lot of massacres, battles, and you see the Doctor's battle with his own desires as well as with the baddies. It's also not as clearcut as many stories in that the boundaries between the good and bad guys are slightly blurred." (Freedman)
Taped in October 2000 with a cast including Stephen Fry, Leonard Fenton, Huw Thomas, Kevin Eldon, John Sessions and Jacqueline Pearce, the programme was due to be the first of a six-episode story, and post-production was completed in December. Originally intended for broadcast in early 2001, with simultaneous CD release by the BBC Radio Collection, the pilot's progress to the air was interrupted in January by the announcement that Radio 4 considered the programme's quality to be of low standards. Freedman quickly approached other BBC radio stations, but none had suitable slots for transmission, and BBC Spoken Word, who produce the range of Radio Collection 'Missing Stories' CDs, were reluctant to devote their minimal budget to the serial's completion. However, BBC Online's Doctor Who site was earmarked as a possible outlet for the pilot and series, and on Sunday June 10th it was announced that Death Comes to Time would be split into six segments and offered for download as the BBC's first interactive drama.

BBC Online News headline, 10th June 2001With an upload date of July 13, publicity began in earnest. BBC Online News ran a special feature on the event (pictured left), and the BBC Doctor Who site became a forum for Death Comes to Time information, with regular reports from Dan Freedman concerning the nature of the broadcast. "This is really really important: every time you listen to the prog it will register on the BBC's counter. For the first time in DW's history we [will] have exact viewing figures, (or downloading figures or whatever). One of the problems I encounter time and again is that people in charge don't think DW is popular any more. If I can go into my next meeting about DW projects I may or may not be involved in with a huge wad of figures, then there's no argument against it and it makes reviving DW a risk-free venture for the bosses..."

A 2 minute preview trailer was released on June 15th, introduced by McCoy and featuring the new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme with clips from action sequences and the TARDIS landing scene. With both audio-only and "enhanced" versions available, the style of the episode's presentation was revealed with animated titles running over the audio. On July 29 it became clear that artist Lee Sullivan had provided BBC Online with a number of exclusive sketches, two of which were previewed at the official site that day, which would be used to create a full-length visual presentation to accompany each segment.

Sylvester McCoy answered questions for the site in early July, and appeared with a Dalek on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 12 and with TARDIS and Dalek props on BBC Breakfast Time on Friday 13. From July 9 BBC2 even transmitted a short trailer for the episode, using a variation of the BBC Online animation to present a visual clip from the CAL Video Doctor Who title sequence while an announcer declared "It's the end - but the moment has been prepared for..." (Logopolis, 1981) and directed viewers towards the BBC site.

Some of the animated illustrations that formed the "enhanced" version

Subtitled At the Temple of the Fourth, the pilot episode of Death Comes to Time premiered at 12 noon on July 13 2001. Each of the five RealMedia clips was available in low quality, sound only and enhanced formats, with the low quality and enhanced versions showcasing the completed colour illustrations and the enhanced version including cross-fades, pans and simple animation, as well as an opening title sequence and a closing credit list. The segments each had individual titles, and a short tag-line:

In addition, the expanded Death Comes to Time area of the site included a photo section, a making of feature and a screensaver featuring more of Sullivan's artwork, as well as a brief history of the programme for first-time and casual listeners.

Databank entry for The TARDIS

As for the interactive element, the download page for each episode contained cross-references to "TARDIS databank" entries - aka RealMedia clips of scrolling text and an animated illustration. Included were: Ace (From waitress to intergalactic saviour), Antimony (The Doctor's muscle), Canisians (Vicious, war-like killers), Casmus (A very wise philosopher), The Doctor (A mysterious traveller in Time and Space), Gallifrey (The home of the Timelords), Micen Island (The sad history of an abandoned planet), The Minister of Chance (An old friend of the Doctor), The Oath of the Fraction (A solemn promise), Santiny (A beautiful and peaceful planet), General Tannis (A very nasty man), The TARDIS (It's bigger on the inside...) and Timelords (An ancient and very powerful race). All the clips were silent and could be viewed while listening to the episode.

Here the revised characters of The Doctor and Ace were revealed, along with the new addition to the TARDIS crew, Antimony. Nothing was listed about Ace's past beyond the scope of the TV series, although the use of the surname McShane and the illustration of Aldred in a stylish leather bodysuit suggested links to the mature Ace of the Virgin New Adventures. The Doctor was described as being "over 900 years old", a surprisingly minimal advance on 953 (as stated in Time and the Rani, 1987), and "a master of complex plots and schemes, playing chess with eternity. But, in order to carry out his grand plans, he needs his companions Ace and Antimony." Antimony, meanwhile, "is unfailingly polite, extraordinarily curious, and very good with his fists. The Doctor likes subtle plans, Ace enjoys explosives, and Antimony likes thumping things."

The net-poll asking whether Doctor Who should return on the BBC received 10,000 replies in the first 2 days, with over 99 per cent in favour, and after 3 days over 100,000 different people had downloaded the pilot episode. "Let's just say we're smiling," Freedman responded.

On August 10 2001 it was confirmed that the final 5 episodes of Death Comes to Time would be produced, although it has yet to be decided whether BBC Online will continue to host the story.