With a revolving door for cast and crew, a constantly shifting roster of characters, and a format so flexible as to render basically any conceivable storyline quite possible, Doctor Who might as well have been created specifically as a platform for spin-offs. Aside from the thousands of officially licensed novels, audio dramas, short stories, and films, there’s a tradition of fans producing their own Doctor Who material – not just the usual prose fan fiction, but actual audios and videos.
Things are exacerbated in the case of Doctor Who by a BBC rule allowing freelance writers to retain control over characters and concepts they create for the series, meaning that essentially anyone can lease the rights to (say) the Brigadier or the Zygons from their respective creators and use them as they please. In these cases the boundary between official and unofficial Doctor Who grows increasingly hazy, particularly as numerous writers have dabbled in both. Another approach, often used in conjunction with the former, is simply to file the serial numbers off any character you can’t get the rights to, usually just by changing the name. One small production company, Bill & Ben Videos (or the BBV, as they call themselves – yes, really), formed specifically as a response to the show’s cancellation, and to take advantage of the demand among fans for any new thing vaguely resembling Doctor Who. Another way to get the BBC’s legal team to turn a blind eye, of course, is to remain obscure enough that you’ll never make any money.
The Sci-Fi Sea Cruise is a service offered by a group of well-off American Doctor Who fans, led by one Dan Harris, the architect of this strange and minuscule corner of Doctor Who. The central hook, as summed up in slightly ominous fashion by their website, is this: “You get to MEET them at a con… You get to KNOW them on a cruise!” That’s right – it seems that Doctor Who actors, writers, and producers are offered free luxury cruise tickets if they’ll agree to spend the holiday fraternising with whoever else bought one. The first cruise took place in 1988, making it nearly contemporaneous with the show’s cancellation and “wilderness years”; since then, many more have taken place. They’ve managed to ensnare some fairly impressive guests, too, with heavy hitters like Nicholas Courtney, Peter Davison, and Sylvester McCoy all making repeat trips, and many other familiar faces making at least one. Admittedly, these are mostly people whose involvement with the show was largely in the past… but even so.
In 1995, the cruise advertised themselves on a local public-access television station with “The Androgum Gourmet”, a three-minute sketch where an Androgum (the cannibalistic, orange-eyebrowed aliens from peculiar multi-Doctor serial The Two Doctors) prepares to eat a science fiction fan. It’s got no Doctor Who actors and isn’t particularly funny, but it does represent the team’s first effort to produce an unofficial piece of live-action material set in the Doctor Who universe, and its willingness to use such a strange, obscure alien race (even Big Finish haven’t touched the Androgums) hints at an intriguingly off-kilter creative process.
Now, under normal circumstances, the Sci-Fi Sea Cruise would just be an amusing anecdote; another slightly odd corner of American Doctor Who fandom that no-one else quite understands. (For an idea of how culturally specific it is, note that on their sole European cruise, which launched from the UK, only one British person bought a ticket – the rest flew over from the US.) In 2001, things got a little more interesting as the cruise began to offer “creative workshops”, where fans get together for writing sessions and have the actors read out their fanfiction. Recordings of these events were distributed to cruise passengers on DVD, along with interviews with the celebrity guests. All well and good, but still nothing earth-shattering. It wasn’t until 2003 that things really got insane. That was when they stared making their own Doctor Who films.
Oh yes. The first real attempt at a narrative video is Death Takes a Holiday, a story featuring the Brigadier with Zoe Heriot. In the years since, the cruise adventures have only grown stranger and more ambitious. The Seventh Doctor teams up with Jamie McCrimmon and spin-off companion Bernice Summerfield, marking her first-ever live-action appearance. Susan Foreman faces off against the Master. The Seventh Doctor and Ace encounter a sinister gatecrasher at Sergeant Benton’s wedding. And that’s just for starters. The series is littered with surprising cameo appearances, and all returning characters (apart from the Master, who gets some new incarnations) are played by their original actors, and all manage to work luxury cruise liners into the plot. These videos, generally around fifteen minutes long, are written by the cruise organisers, sometimes with the input of whichever proper Doctor Who writer they’d invited that year, so don’t be surprised when you see names like Terrance Dicks or Verity Lambert in the credits. (Yes. I know.) These videos are bizarre, they are terrible, and they are amazing. (They also infringe on enough music copyrights that they get taken down quite routinely, so you might have to google around a bit to find them.)
Sylvester McCoy has probably reprised his role in more unofficial productions than any other Doctor Who actor. From excellent work in some of the Time Travellers audio dramas right down to unfunny rubbish like Do You Have a Licence to Save This Planet?, it’s likely that this man single-handedly kept the BBV afloat for many years. Paul McGann is probably too concerned with his credibility to portray the Eighth Doctor in an unofficial production, and Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, Hurt, and Capaldi are likely all too popular in the mainstream to stoop to this level, but McCoy is an entertainer to the core. To his credit, he takes any chance he gets, to the degree that he still feels like the “current” Doctor for anyone producing their own material off-the-grid. Christopher Lloyd looks positively reluctant to play Doc Brown by comparison.
When we see these well-loved British actors performing alongside wealthy American tourists who’ve never acted in their lives (oh yes, I’m afraid that’s part of the deal too), the contrast is so sharp that it’s almost disconcerting, but it lends the whole enterprise a distinctive, surreal tone. Viewed against the backdrop of Mediterranean waters and ancient Mayan pyramids – locations that Doctor Who, with its limited budget and studio-bound nature, could never hope to replicate – this clash of charisma and embarrassment, of the professional and the amateur, is incredibly striking. After watching more than one cruise video, they begin to take on a cursed, inescapable, almost purgatorial aspect.
Interestingly, the later cruise videos refer to events which occurred in previous ones, genuinely attempting to weave together an ongoing continuity out of this madness. It’s even possible to imagine them as a strange lost season (season 27? series 0?), something to bridge the gap between the classic and revived series. And seriously, when you’ve got the BBC making fecking Dimensions in Time during that gap, is the cruise really so outlandish? At least they tried.
The characters are almost always dressed in civilian clothes, either because the cruise didn’t have a costume department, the actors couldn’t be bothered changing, or both. We can rationalise it by reminding ourselves that the characters are usually supposed to be on holiday; naturally this is more satisfying in some cases than others.
Unlike the blinkered vanity projects of Ian Levine, the cruise videos are generally playful and good-natured, and are fully (or at least mostly) aware of their own ridiculousness. Even when they’re bad, they’re oddly endearing. Only the special effects really disappoint, with amateur chroma-key and ugly superimposed graphics that fall far short of the classic series’s charmingly ambitious efforts.
Considered together, the videos’ implication is that the Doctor’s various incarnations and their companions occasionally have experiences where they end up in civilian dress, hanging around with a bunch of American tourists (often either the same individuals or, more troublingly, identical ones) on various luxury cruises. The ship changes each year, yet the cruise itself continues to act as a magnet for our favourite time-travellers.
It would be tempting to suggest that all these seemingly unrelated yet curiously recurrent events are part of some vast and complex scheme orchestrated by a master villain, or perhaps some surreal side-effect of the encroaching Time War. (Really, it’s the only way any of it makes sense.) If so, it’s a particularly far-reaching one which has ensnared several incarnations of the Doctor and numerous companions over the course of many years. Is the Sci-Fi Sea Cruise somehow connected to the Enemy? Only time will tell.
Certain types of Doctor Who fan, the sort that unironically champion concepts like “realism” and “suspension of disbelief” as the most important aspects of good fiction, will take issue with the cruise videos, dismissing them as “stupid”, perhaps even “non-canon”. Nevertheless, they remain live-action Doctor Who material produced with the direct involvement and approval of some of the show’s most iconic actors and legendary creative personnel, and as such I shall be examining them with the profound and absolute reverence that they so clearly deserve.
As for the future? Their video output may have slowed down over the years, become sporadic and unreliable… but the Sci-Fi Sea Cruise is still out there, somewhere. May it sail on to strange new seas, and take us with it.