Doctor Who is a global phenomenon. Starting in 1963, it's one of the oldest science fiction TV shows, sprouting a cult following and reaching international pop culture status over the years. The revival of the series has run since 2005 (after a hiatus from '89), coinciding with early internet fandom culture to transform a formerly cultish UK-oddity to a pillar of modern nerd culture.
All in all, that makes it over 50 years old—a damn sight older than I am. In all those years only one video game based on the show has truly flirted with success. Doctor Who: The Adventure Games is a near-perfect concept for a Doctor Who video game, let down by some unfortunate circumstances at the time. Like millions of other kids, I was reared on re-runs of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker's performances as the enigmatic Doctor. They'd face terrifying threats that would haunt my nightmares, but I'd always be safe in the knowledge that he'd have a plan – something cunning, daring, and oh so clever. No fan didn't want to go on those adventures, to explore a slew of strange worlds and historical settings alongside him, overcoming danger effortlessly with coolly-assured smarts. I also grew up on video games—the Sega Master System in particular—and the desire to mix my two obsessions was always there. It wasn't until discovering broader genres on PC a few years later that I started to see how it could happen. So many point-and-click adventures that defined my childhood gaming seemed to share some of Doctor Who's clever, high-concept brilliance. Legends such as Monkey Island, Broken Sword, Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade to the wonderfully forgotten like The Adventures of Hyperman and Cyberia—yes, with a "c."
The point and click adventure game genre seemed the perfect fit for Doctor Who. Perhaps 90% of Who stories could be adapted into adventure games—even if the solution to the puzzles would always be using the sonic screwdriver to "reverse the polarity"—it's interacting with the situation with a thinking cap on, observing and not simply looking, engaging. But these were the "Wilderness Years" of Doctor Who, when it seemed an artifact of the past and Christopher Eccleston's smiling Ninth Doctor grin was still just a glint in Russell T Davies' eye as he was hard at work on Queer as Folk. That dream came to pass when years later, Charles Cecil—the architect behind the Broken Sword series—would go on to spearhead the first solid attempt at a Doctor Who game in 13 years. All we'd had in the 5 years post-revival—a period literally screaming for any kind of modern Doctor Who game—was a bizarre Top Trumps tie-in for PS2 and Nintendo DS.
Was this it? The motherload? Not only the revival-era Doctor Who game the world seemed so prepared for, but one that was in a safe pair of hands? Broken Sword is a well-deserved classic, and while it might be obnoxiously hard in places (as so many of those older adventure games often were), the narrative was filled to the brim with adventure and intrigue the likes of which is a stone's throw away from Doctor Who.
"We can do things that can't be done in a television series—we can have amazing environments and amazing creatures that you couldn't do in television," claimed Cecil—and for the most part he was indeed right. Some of the spectacle you can offer in a project such as this would of course go well overbudget for a BBC series like Doctor Who. It's a game that literally invites you to walk around the ruined halls of a Dalek City on the planet Skaro; a crashed Cyberman spaceship in the Arctic Circle; a futuristic underwater city.
You even get the opportunity to explore a chunk of the TARDIS and its control console at your leisure. It may sound basic, but the opportunity to step out and explore things like this directly hasn't been available for Doctor Who fans before or since. Let alone task you with getting inside the Doctor's head to connect the dots and come up with solution just as he would. The series improved as it continued. The voice cast grew more comfortable; the puzzle designs a bit more intricate. The unique sense of exploration and interactivity with a Doctor Who world doesn't fully come into its own until "The Gunpowder Plot," the final episode. It was larger in scope than its predecessors, offering much freer, though still quite limited exploration of its world—1605 London.
All the episodes feature facts and trivia about the locations and objects beyond simply Doctor Who pop quiz answers, but the facts about London in 1605 are much more plentiful. The ability to walk around these historical and scientific locations while learning about them has huge educational potential, as well as just being nice to look at. That educational aspect is literally how Doctor Who was first conceived. The only medium in which you can get hands on with Doctor Who's original intention is an interactive one.
Doctor Who: The Adventure Games feels bursting at the seams with ambition and love, ready and willing to apply the lessons learned from the Golden Age of Adventure Games to Doctor Who. In many cases this overlooked game shines with potential. The very real truth here is it's the best Doctor Who video game we've ever gotten.
But it was also bursting at the seams of its own production and distribution limitations. It was cut down just as it was finding its feet, with initial circulation limited to free downloads from the BBC website in the UK only, and sketchy Direct2Drive distribution internationally (only the first two episodes found their way to the platform). It wasn't until 2014 that the series made its way to Steam with little fanfare, bundled into one package. This was well after the concept of Doctor Who: The Adventure Games had been scrapped in 2011, in favor of pursuing projects like the critically panned Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock, a console-focused action platformer.
Only five episodes of Doctor Who: The Adventure Games were ever made—four making up the first season, to accompany season five of the show, and only one episode was ever released from its second season, alongside the sixth season of TV.
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It's a shame because, in the end, the series turned out to be much more than just a video game tie-in. They're "interactive episodes," a natural extension of the TV show into a digital format you can simply explore and take part in yourself. And it shows there's more ways to go with a tie-in these days than the now-cookie cutter Telltale route. These were tailored suit and fez to fit the mood of the Doctor.
Even 50 years deep, Doctor Who remains a unique piece of sci-fi television. It's about a small time traveling team who always, always try to take the peaceful and clever routes through a situation. It calls for a more considered type of game, and it finally got one with Doctor Who: The Adventure Games. It absolutely doesn't deserve to be forgotten, or to be dimly remembered just as some free download game from a TV broadcaster's website, doomed to the same league as so many Cartoon Network flash games (of which only Cartoon Cartoon Summer Resort still holds up). If you look for yourself, you'll see the potential hiding within.