Journeys in time and space: why BBC Studios has created a Doctor Who episode in VR
To coincide with our Future of TV issue, The Drum spoke to BBC Studios to find out how the Beeb’s commercial arm is innovating in interactive and immersive media, from VR to MR to video games.
Throughout the 56-year run of Doctor Who, television audiences have watched the show’s enigmatic title character escort ordinary Brits across the universe, transecting time and interdimensional space. For the first time, however, The Doctor is taking viewers with her directly, in an episode created specifically for VR.
The Edge of Time, due to be released in September, is a special episode created as a one-shot game by the BBC’s commercial production arm, BBC Studios, and VR specialist game developers Maze Theory.
The Drum spoke to the team behind the project to find out how they plan to push one of the broadcaster’s most venerable characters into a new entertainment dimension, and about their ambitions for further work in VR.
“The bread and butter of our business is taking BBC IP like Doctor Who, Top Gear, BBC Earth – all of those different programmes – and looking at opportunities to bring that IP to market in other formats,” says Bradley Crooks, head of digital entertainment and games at BBC Studios.
He adds: “Doctor Who is about creating great stories; it’s about emotions and experiencing adventure and so on, and we thought that VR would be a really great fit for it.”
The episode features all the components Whovians have come to expect from a proper adventure – from Daleks to dangerous sci-fi phenomena. Crooks, who joined BBC Studios after years in the gaming industry, says that Maze Theory’s developers understood the particular tone and ideals behind Doctor Who, a sci-fi show beloved by fans for its compassion as much as its characters and plot. “Maze Theory really understood what the IP was about from a storytelling perspective. For us, the exciting thing about Edge of Time is not just that it’s going to hopefully be a great game in its own right, but it’d be the first time that players will have been really able to get into Doctor Who adventure in that level of immersiveness.”
The episode is the latest in a series of immersive experiences created by BBC Studios and a variety of partners using BBC IP, as creative experiments – and increasingly, commercial endeavours. Examples include Home – A VR Spacewalk, in which users embark on a perilous spacewalk mission outside the International Space Station, and Life In VR, a VR experience produced with Daydream in 2018 that took users on an educational journey beneath the Californian coast to the ecosystems of the deep ocean.
Crooks says that, in line with the Studios’ mandate to reach new markets, Edge of Time “is not aimed at kids” and is designed for fans of the show in the 18-29 age range, part of the new demographic the show has managed to cultivate in recent years via streaming services and the web. “Partly why we’re doing [Edge of Time] now is because we believe there’s enough of a market for it to be successful creatively and commercially,” he says.
BBC Studios has followed up the success of Life in VR with BBC Earth – Micro Kingdoms: Sense, a mixed-reality experience developed by Preloaded in partnership with the BBC’s Natural History Unit. The project sits alongside recent work for Top Gear, in which users take the role of a rookie crew driver preparing to tackle a menacing series of eccentric stunts – including jumping over a filling station in a petrol tanker and racing another driver to the last spot available in a supermarket car park.
According to David Bradshaw, AR/VR producer at BBC Studios, the three films “take the humour and energy of the TV series and translate them into a 360 immersive film. You’ve got a director, a hapless behind the scenes crew and The Stig performing some incredible stunts – you really get a feel for what it’s like to be a part of the Top Gear experience.”
The film has been developed to be as accessible as possible to Top Gear’s wide-ranging audience, says Bradshaw. “They’ve been distributed on YouTube so you can watch them back on a VR headset – and you'll get the best experience from doing so – but they're also really fun and engaging to watch on a mobile phone,” he says.
As well as fulfilling BBC Studios’ commercial mission, Edge of Time, Micro Kingdoms and the three Top Gear films have provided space for the team to experiment and discover how to use VR effectively, as well as related formats such as AR and MR.
Tom Burton, head of interactive, says: “It’s a really interesting exercise for us – a chance to explore what it means to translate our experience in natural history storytelling into VR.”
“We’re always keeping one eye on what’s coming next. Augmented reality offers a huge opportunity to allow an audience to understand and delve deeper into a subject, and in the context of their own world. It’s one thing to tell a story by recreating the whole world around you, it's another thing to deliver that information or that story where you are.”
Crooks points to another move which he hopes will spur many other projects and partnerships like Edge of Time. Last year it launched BBC Gaming First, an initiative the team hopes will help it turn more BBC IP into video games by approaching such projects from the ground up – as with Edge of Time – rather than simply licensing BBC characters or stories to developers, as the Corporation did over the previous decade with Doctor Who, itself part of the early history of gaming via titles for the BBC Micro such as Doctor Who and the Mines of Terror.
“I think the future of IP development and content production is going to be across lots of different platforms and media with the opportunity to bring audiences in from different areas and move from one to another,” he says. “The successful franchises of tomorrow will be those with great content around them, whether that's in gaming or immersive media. I think we can help to realise that kind of future.”
Out this week, our Future of TV issue looks at the struggle between streamers, broadcasters and brands for eyeballs – from Netflix’s investment in immersive formats to National Geographic’s VR experiments, to why Reese’s and Michelob are making ASMR videos. Get your copy here.