Over its half-century run, Doctor Who has expanded from its televised origins into novels, comic books, and audio dramas, but there hasn’t yet been a truly great Doctor Who video game. There have been a number of attempts, but every one of them has received a justified critical thrashing. Games like Doctor Who: The Adventure Games and Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock feature voice-overs from the show’s stars and scripts from its writing staff, but they fail to adapt the show’s spirit. They take a premise that offers all of time and space to its audience but refuse to trust players with actually traveling through time, and they give their intelligent and creative hero nothing better to do but hide behind rubble to avoid killer robots or solve basic brain teasers to unlock electronic doors. There is one game that accurately captures Doctor Who’s essence, but to find it we need to look beyond the official games and beyond the name Doctor Who altogether.
Brøderbund Software’s Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? was originally released in 1989 (the same year Doctor Who’s original TV run came to an end) for the Apple II, but over the next four years, it made its way to most major consoles and home computers. Where In Time casts the player as a Time Cadet working for the ACME Detective Agency, sent traveling throughout history arresting members of V.I.L.E., Carmen Sandiego’s gang of punny-named thieves. Although its scope was limited to Earth from 400 A.D. to the far-flung future of 2014 A.D., rather than the Doctor’s jurisdiction of “all of time and space,” Where In Time still replicated the sense of adventure, danger, and mystery that gives Doctor Who so much of its life.
When it’s booted up, Where In Time generates a new heist to be busted, and no two of its mysteries are solved the same way. Players could start a new game and be told that Queen Elizabeth’s personal tea set has been stolen. Landing the time-and-space machine in England circa the 1950s and scanning the area, players discover an invitation to a party from Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec dropped by the perp. Clue in hand, it’s now up to the player to decide where and when to go next: feudal Japan, Renaissance Italy, and fin de siècle France are all presented as options. Don’t bother alt-tabbing out to Wikipedia and looking up the answers, either, since players are on the clock for every mission and usually have no more than five or 10 minutes to track down the mark.
The rhythms of each mission mirror an episode of Doctor Who almost exactly: The hero turns up unannounced, sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong, solves a mystery in the nick of time, and zips away without bothering with cleanup or paperwork. Players travel through time in a Chronoskimmer that functions much the same way as the Doctor’s TARDIS, serving as not just a vehicle but also as a mobile lab and headquarters. The Chronoskimmer’s scanner is similarly reminiscent of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, since both are all-purpose gadgets used to quickly pick useful information out of a scene, and both make satisfying electronic chirping noises when used.
But where the Doctor Who games have players pushing blocks and jumping around like Mario in order to advance, Where In Time actually requires them to think like the Doctor. A functioning knowledge of history is necessary for success, forcing players to develop the sort of data retention that has saved the Doctor time in and time out. Learning that the perp was interested in meeting the Zapatistas, would players know they should be traveling to 1910s Mexico to cut her off? If they didn’t know instantly, they’re probably headed for failure. In the licensed games, players could stand around for all eternity without consequence.The countdown clock in Where In Time is so punishing that players need to move constantly and never make mistakes, which much more closely resembles Doctor Who’s “20 minutes to the end of the world” urgency.
Even Doctor Who’s irreverent sense of humour is handled better in Where In Time. The comedy in the Doctor’s own games is dialogue driven, with characters often quipping out loud to themselves. Where In Time deploys the same kind of madcap humor that’s built right into Doctor Who’s premise. If it seems too absurd that one assignment might be to catch the thief who stole the entire Taj Mahal, just remember that the Doctor once battled a time-traveling alien who was trying steal the Mona Lisa. Fans of the show’s cheeky depictions of historical figures are well served by Where In Time too: Pilot the Chronoskimmer to 1950s Spain and players will accidentally land in Pablo Picasso’s living room, with the artist himself eyeing this sudden apparition with equal parts confusion and annoyance.
Doctor Who is a show that celebrates creativity, wit, courage, pacifism, and the infinite possibilities of adventure, but the Doctor Who video games are about following instructions, pushing boxes, collecting trinkets, and listening to context-free zingers. While the official games look and sound like the BBC’s flagship series, they treat the renegade Time Lord less like an eccentric genius and more like Guybrush Threepwood or Pitfall Harry in a bow tie. But in Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?, crimes are being committed throughout history, and only the player’s character is clever and quick enough to get to the bottom of them. All of time, and space, anything that ever happened, or ever will. Where do you want to start, Doctor?