As any reader of this blog knows, I am a major fan of Doctor Who. When the series was canceled in 1989, I felt that it had just hit a kind of second stride and was more than a little disappointed that it had disappeared before the next big resurgence in science fiction hit TV with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Red Dwarf and the X-Files. What I much later discovered was that the creative talent behind Doctor Who had reformed into a kind of guerrilla film making effort under Bill Baggs called BBV. Baggs created so many video projects that it is stunning – from stand-alone tales to adventures featuring the Autons, Zygons and more. BBV even invented some monsters based on similar ideas such as the Cyberons who bore more than a passing resemblance to a certain other robotic menace.
Starting with the very like-Doctor Who series The Stranger starring Colin Baker (Doctor No. 6) and Nicola Bryant (Peri Brown), BBV productions were very much in the spirit of the departed Doctor Who. The stories were wildly imaginative and unsettling yet wonderful and fantastic. The follow-up Airzone Solution brought together several luminaries of Doctor Who – Jon Pertwee (Doctor No. 3), Peter Davison (Doctor No. 5), Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (Doctor No. 7). Written by Nicholas Briggs (later the voice of several monsters including, but not limited to, the Daleks and Cybermen in the new Doctor Who series), a major contributer to the post Classic Who phenomenon by working on documentaries, audio dramas and more, the Airzone Solution was an ecological thriller that excited many a fan and was also released on Doctor Who’s 30th Anniversary.
The next series of direct to video films focused on the activities of the Preternatural Research Bureau or P.R.O.B.E. Starring Caroline John who reprises her role as Liz Shaw, the program feels like a precursor to both the X-Files and Torchwood. Mark Gatiss wrote all four films and each one has a kind of chilling yet strangely familiar feel to it. It may just be that I cannot separate the actors from the comforting embrace of Doctor Who, but it all feels so familiar.
The first film, The Zero Imperative, centers on the activity in a psychiatric hospital run by the shifty Dr. Dove (McCoy). Before the installation is shut down due to financial difficulties, the rich industrialist Peter Russell (Colin Baker) swoops in and saves the hospital from its troubles. This arouses the suspicion of Liz Shaw who has been investigating unexplained happenings in the hospital dating back to its previous director Dr. O’Kane (Pertwee) who is relaxing in a kind of retirement in a house a short walk from the hospital grounds. Dr. Bruffin (played by a very young Mark Gatiss) is determined to discover why Peter Russell has bought the hospital and discovers that the industrialist has close family ties to O’Kane, his parental guardian.
The more that Gatiss and Shaw dig into the mysteries of the hospital, the more they discover that there is a great deal of secrecy around Patient Zero, a case that Dr. Dove is determined to keep secure. Russell is also attempting to gain access to the restricted ward where Zero is kept with no success. As the separate investigations progress, there are several unexplained killings. Dead bodies turn up with no explanations and Dove is anxious that his unknown plans not be interrupted by anyone curious enough to get involved.
Eventually, it comes out that Patient Zero is O’Kane’s younger brother who went on a killing spree years ago and murdered O’Kane’s parents. O’Kane moved his brother to the nearby hospital to keep an eye on him as long as he could but there seemed little that anyone could do to help. Dove, on the other hand, was sure that Patient Zero was the key to unlocking dark forces that were converging with our reality and worked on enhancing the patient’s illness and mania hoping that it would cause a crossing over through the invisible barrier between the realms. All of the pieces of the puzzle come together, revealing a sordid morose tale of insanity and destruction with alien possession as the possible culprit.
If this all sounds bizarre, you don’t know the half of it!
McCoy, Pertwee and Baker shine in this film and get to expand their acting range beyond what they were allowed in Doctor Who. McCoy in particular seems to relish playing the mad and devious Dr. Dove whom he manages to portray as strangely believable whereas many actors would go over the top. Baker is also very restrained and composed as Peter Russell, a man haunted by his past and compelled by forces he cannot understand. I had already seen how great Baker could be in the Stranger, but here was excellent. The surprise addition of Peter Davison in the stinger ending is also a nice touch and the perfect lead-in to the Devil of Winterborne.
Sylvester McCoy, Peter Davison and Colin Baker in a rare photo op
The BBV productions were made on a show-string budget with the biggest resource available being determination and genuine affection for the product. It may be a little sleepy at times and look like what it is at others (a direct-to-video product), but it is also very chilling and interesting, taking the Doctor Who mythos into unknown territory. In my own humble opinion, it blows Torchwood out of the water by comparison.
Unfortunately, finding a copy of this series is next to impossible, but is available for free viewing online here: P.R.O.B.E. at Daily Motion.