The curiously named Doctor Who: The First Adventure is an odd duck – a collection of four minigames each flagrantly ripped off of an existing game. In sequence you took the Fifth Doctor (or at least, he was the one on the box) through a Pac-Man-like maze to find the three segments of the Key to Time, a Frogger-style prison break, a Space Invaders-inflected battle with “Terrordactyls,” and, finally, a 3-D Battleship clone searching for the Box of Tantalus, which presumably contains a satsuma at the bottom, just a bit further down than you can actually reach. There are other snarks to make here – the fact that apparently the Doctor has nineteen regenerations total these days, for instance, and that the TARDIS on the packaging looks as though happiness did, in fact, prevail.
The interesting point, however, is that there’s a clear arbitrariness to this. This sounds nothing like a Doctor Who plot. Indeed, it doesn’t sound like much of any other kind of plot. It sounds like an excuse to stitch together Pac-Man, Frogger, Space Invaders, and Battleship(s) into a single computer game. Which, not coincidentally, it probably was. Similarly, the next two Doctor Who computer games were fairly straightforward executions of existing genres. Doctor Who and the Warlord was a standard issue text adventure, and Doctor Who and the Mines of Terror was a sequel to another game that got reskinned as a Doctor Who game midway through development. These are, in other words, not so trying to make a game about Doctor Who as they are games that Doctor Who has been cudgeled into. (Doctor Who and the Warlord, I’ll admit, may be an exception – Graham Williams is apparently among the developers. I can’t get it to run easily on anything I own, and while what I can read makes it sound like a bog standard text adventure, I also suspect there could be more to it. But it sounds unpromising.)
This leads us to an important observation to start with about video games, which is that they are not narrative devices in the same way that other popular media are. That’s not to say, as some extreme positions in game studies have, that narrative is completely extraneous to video games. It’s clearly not. But they’re only indirectly narrative objects. A video game, at its core, is about the interaction of a player and a set of rules through a specific mechanism of control. Most good games are first and foremost about exploring the implications of these controls. To take the easiest historical example, the thing that really advanced between Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. was that in Donkey Kong Mario’s jumps were parabolas with fixed start and endpoints. Once you hit jump, things were out of your hands and where Mario was going to land was already determined. Whereas in Super Mario Bros. Mario could be controlled in mid-air, leading to a vast number of different things that can be done once you hit jump. And most of Super Mario Bros. is about exploring what sorts of tricky things can be pulled off with this fancy-pants jumping mechanic.
So in a very real sense, Doctor Who: The First Adventure and the other 80s games are mostly about pinching from other video games, and the Doctor Who stuff is just visual iconography. It’s not even just about licensing and the idea that Doctor Who fans will probably buy it, because the same year there were two more games to actively invoke Doctor Who, neither of which had any sort of legitimate license. One – Escape From Moonbase Alpha – didn’t even make anything of its Doctor Who/The Incredible Hulk/Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy/probably some things I didn’t catch at the quick glance I took at the game crossover. The other, Lords of Time, was somewhat more blatant. 1984 featured a third, The Key to Time, and 1985 a fourth, Time Lords – designed by Julian Gollop, who would go on to design X-Com – which features a wealth of Doctor Who races and planets with vowel shifts (The Zarby from the planet Vortys, for instance, and the Cyburman from Mundas). None of these are quite blatant enough to be viably sold as Doctor Who games, but all are clearly playing with the iconography.
This is the way in which the narrative elements of video games ought be understood – not as storytelling in any conventionally recognized sense of that word, but as a sort of context for the play mechanics – something that serves to tell us how to interpret the mechanism by which the game is controlled. So why the fascination with Doctor Who as a game theme, clearly in excess of its mere marketing potential? Not, let’s be honest, that at least some of these – the officially licensed ones, particularly – aren’t at least somewhat about the marketing potential. But the existence of this wider sphere of games points towards something else.
Broadly speaking, I would suggest that part of this is the playful logic of the hacker scene, a term I mean here not in its modern “the people who are going to crawl through your phone lines and steal your identities in a manner that it is not entirely clear will be distinct from the plot of The Faceless Ones” sense but in the sense of amateur enthusiasts who like mucking around with computers. There is a freewheeling quality to this scene, and in the 1980s it combined with the fact that making a computer game was still something a hobbyist could accomplish. (Actually, it still is if you muck around the wide world of Flash games, but that’s another story.)
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that this playfulness intersected with Doctor Who, which can pretty easily be argued to be the most conceptually playful television drama of all time. Of course the iconography of Doctor Who was popular among homebrew video game designers. What the hell else were they going to be watching? In this light, what’s telling is the way in which they do simply pilfer the iconography with little regard for content or storytelling. You can see, in things like Time Lords or The Key to Time the divide between what the series was doing in the mid-80s – continuity porn – and what people who liked the series liked, which was a set of impressions and images built around a small core of terms like “the Time Lords” or “the Key to Time.” Again, in other words, we see those threads that are, in sixteen years’ worth of history, going to bring this back to being a television blog again. Even the licensed efforts display this sort of cavalier “let’s just play with the vague feel of Doctor Who” attitude.
By the 1990s, though, things had changed somewhat. Not quite with the hobbyist scene, which tends to find ways to adapt, but with the official games. 1992’s Dalek Attack still didn’t, strictly speaking, make a goddamn bit of sense, but it displayed a very different relationship with the series’ iconography. It was fastidious about making sure that all, or at least most, of the bits it put in came from the game, with the Daleks, Ogrons, and Davros all appearing, including various forms of the Daleks carefully lifted from the series, a selection of Doctors to play with a standard lives counter as opposed to picking the most current one and regenerating him into himself until you hit the Game Over screen, both Ace and a UNIT soldier as second players, et cetera. Perhaps the most telling detail is differing features for different versions of the game, with some platforms getting the Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh Doctors and others getting the Second, Fourth, and Seventh.
What’s changed is twofold. First, there’s a growing shift in the late 80s and early 90s towards “cult” television that we’ll track off in other realities as we cover the New Adventures. And Doctor Who gets swept up in that. Since I at some point have to tip my hand with regards to this, this is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it remains an awkward fit, and large swaths of what Doctor Who is get lost in the shuffle. As good as Virgin, Big Finish, and swaths of the BBC Books are, and as lousy as Aliens of London was, there is a sense in which the proper reaction to farting aliens walking on screen is “oh good, we’re back.” On the other hand, it’s not like there was another context that a cancelled television show was going to survive for sixteen years than as a cult product. Much like John Nathan-Turner’s combined bid to reach the fandom and soap opera audiences in the early 80s was the right move at the time (if badly executed), the move towards a cult audience was the only sensible decision to take. And a cult audience thrives on these sorts of details. For the most part, Dalek Attack is straightforwardly the sort of thing you do if you’re trying to make a video game to appeal to a cult audience.
But the gameplay is an absolute shambles. It’s an exceedingly sloppily-controlled platformer with unforgiving difficulty to boot. It’s a game designed to market to a cult TV audience, but it’s never going to succeed on its own merits. This is, admittedly, not actually a change from the 80s games. What has changed, however, is technology. It’s possible, in 1992, to make a game that someone could identify as a Doctor Who game for reasons other than text and the presence of a big blue rectangle somewhere in the game. You can have enemies who are recognizably Ogrons and a player sprite that is recognizably the Second Doctor. There’s an increase in the visual density of information that a video game can present, and as a result the iconography grows more and more detailed. This presents an odd problem – it becomes increasingly possible to do something that actually looks like a Doctor Who story in video game form, but the medium is still oddly suited to it.
Oddly, then, the best bit of Doctor Who video gaming from the 80s and 90s (we’ll check in on the topic again in the Moffat era – sorry, no Destiny of the Doctors planned due to not being able to get it to run on anything) was the Doctor Who pinball machine from Bally, a thoroughly charming piece of work that manages a perfect blend of nods to fans and broader reinterpretations that capture a vague iconography of Doctor Who, and combines it with what happens to be a damn good pinball machine as well.
This is not, I should note, just my opinion either. When I needed to have my machine lightly serviced, the repairman whistled appreciatively at my choice. It has a solid reputation in the pinball community as an underappreciated gem of a machine. (Most people picking machines from the era favor the Star Trek: The Next Generation or Addams Family machines, both of which were also grand, but Doctor Who is apparently the connoisseur pick.) The phrase he kept repeating about it, and it’s accurate, is that there’s a lot of things going on.
The thing about pinball is that it is not primarily a game about trying to keep the ball out of the hole between the flippers, but a game of controlling the ball on the flippers – often learning to hold it or slow it down so you can make carefully picked shots. What the Doctor Who machine does that makes it so charming is to have, at any given moment, as many as four different areas of the table you can productively be shooting for – two related ramp shots for bonus multipliers and extra balls, an area with bumpers that helps unlock additional Doctors, and the table’s big centerpiece, the “Time Expander,” which is a three-tiered section that rises up out of the playfield and controls the game’s multiball.
In addition to this there’s the alluded to mechanism of unlocking Doctors, of which there are seven available; you get one for free each ball, and can unlock more through skill shots. Each either increases the points available or decreases the difficulty of one of the aspects of the game, adding a level of complexity to the whole thing that falls exactly at the right point on the difficulty scale. If you don’t know what you’re doing it’s still a big carnival of lights that makes congratulatory noises at you periodically. If you do, it’s fast-paced and nervily exciting.
And on top of this is layered a great set of allusions to the show, both well-done and gloriously atrocious. Sylvester McCoy provides scattered bits of dialogue for it, and the table makes nice nods to all of the Doctors. The bacl glass has drawings of all seven that are at once clearly recognizable and bizarrely off (what happened to Peter Davison’s hair is an enduring mystery of the world), and the drawings on the table squeeze in a plethora of companions, including some thoroughly weird choices. (The credits indicate that they have Sarah Jane Smith, while the image on the table could be any Pertwee companion other than her. On the other hand, the inclusion of Sergeant Benton is wonderful, given that he is one of the few Doctor Who companions one can imagine playing a pinball machine.)
The multiball, in which you deactivate the Master’s “Time Expander” (which is why all seven Doctors are together) to reveal that the real villains are the Daleks and Davros, is a mad team-up, and anyone who isn’t thoroughly charmed by the fact that one of the ramp shots is themed on the Whomobile frankly has no place in fandom. It’s a completely over the top pile of disjointed references wrapped around a damn good pinball machine.
Is is at all like Doctor Who? Well, no. But it’s exactly like what a Doctor Who pinball machine, once you think of that concept, should be. And, in turn, it’s exactly what a piece of licensed merchandise should be: completely suited to its purpose, and made gleefully fun by its iconography. Any canon this isn’t a part of is pointless. This is the very essence of why the series is not just good television, but good culture.