Sonic screwdrivers at the ready! ... in the new VR Doctor Who episode, The Runaway, you become the companion. Photograph: BBC
Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord enters a new dimension – VR – and you must be her companion, pilot her ship and save an alien.
The BBC is releasing Doctor Who’s first adventure in a new dimension – virtual reality. The Runaway is an animated mini-episode set inside the Tardis, where the viewer plays the Doctor’s temporary companion.
Jodie Whittaker reprises her role as the Doctor in cartoon form, animated by Passion Animation studios. The viewer wakes up in her Tardis after a space accident, and is immediately involved in an emergency situation as the Doctor tries to take a cute but rather volatile alien occupant back to their home planet.
There are some interactive elements – at one point you have to pilot the Time Lord’s ship, at another use the Sonic Screwdriver – but it is more of a scripted drama piece than a game. The plot, delivered mostly via a witty monologue from Whittaker, is necessarily slight, but makes for an enjoyable 13 minutes.
Zillah Watson, head of the BBC VR hub, said they’d worked hard to produce something with Pixar-quality animation on a BBC budget. Fans will be delighted that the animation gives the clearest view to date inside the Thirteenth Doctor’s Tardis, as it is much more brightly lit than it has been on the TV show. As the story unfolds, at times you get a real urge to peer round the corners and see a bit more of the console, and the script cleverly delivers a few surprises where action suddenly develops away from where your attention has been focused. But you don’t hop around lots of different planets or sets, and you are largely kept in a stationary position, so you can’t freely explore the environment.
Watson praised the lively performance of Whittaker and writer Victoria Asare-Archer, saying that when making VR projects, the BBC must always remember what they already know about making good drama. She described the episode as “a magical adventure” that “shows the enormous potential virtual reality has for creating new kinds of experiences that appeal to mainstream audiences.”
This isn’t the first time Doctor Who has been animated. Tenth Doctor David Tennant appeared in two adventures, The Infinite Quest and Dreamland, and the BBC has animated missing stories from the 1960s. Doctor Who has also been made interactive before, with 2005’s Attack of the Graske being available via the red button on TV sets.
If The Runaway has a flaw, it’s that it falls between two stools – there’s not enough for the user to do to call it a game, but equally it’s not really an episode either. It will be released on 16 May, downloadable for free from the Oculus Store and Vive Port for use on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
The BBC will also be placing it in over 40 libraries around the UK for people without headsets at home, with Watson saying that for every VR project, the BBC is trying to get a broader audience interested in putting on a headset, perhaps for the first time.
The Runaway may be the last glimpse of Doctor Who fans get this year. Whittaker and the rest of the Tardis crew are currently in production for series 12 of the revived show, but broadcast is not expected until early 2020.