In 2023, the British science fiction phenomenon Doctor Who will celebrate its 60th birthday. Over the decades, the show has achieved a level of cultural prominence, but even though the current version of the show is still going strong, there was a dark period in the early 90s when it almost died out. Magazines, comics, and novels kept the series relevant to fans, but the Doctor’s adventures and popularity continued in arcades thanks to pinball.
Pinball can trace its origins to late 18th century France and is credited with starting the wave of 20th century tabletop games. This year celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Doctor Who Pinball Machine released by Midway (under the Bally brand name) in September 1992, designed by Bill Pfutzenreuter (Pfutz) and Barry Oursler, a duo who created over three dozen pinball machines between them , including those based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Dirty Harry.
Doctor Who Was Kept Alive By Pinball
The Doctor Who the TV series had gone on hiatus indefinitely in 1989, and the 1996 TV movie Paul McGann was not even an idea yet, but the BBC was still seeking to license the property. Doctor Who Pinball featured the first seven Doctors, each associated with a unique scoring feature selected by the player as the game progressed. In addition to hitting balls around the board and trying to hit bumpers and light up icons, the machine had a unique Time Expander unit.
It was a moving mechanic with different levels, which challenged players to lock balls and collect targets in hopes of opening up the game’s multi-ball mode. In the fine tradition of the Doctor Who comics , themed artwork covered the cabinet, and the game featured a light-up TARDIS in the bottom right of the board and a Dalek topper. The game also used a digitized version of the series’ famous theme song and audio clips of the Seven Doctors. Sylvester McCoy, the seventh and current Doctor at the time, recorded his own dialogue specifically for the game.
The Doctor Who pinball machine was very complex
In the gameplay itself, the First Doctor gave players an extra bullet leading to a video mode. The second doctor gave more time to do a combo shot to double the score. The Third Doctor allowed for an increased chance of scoring extra balls. The Fourth Doctor made it easier to access the Letter Collecting mode. The Fifth Doctor let the player double Jet Bumper’s score, while the Sixth Doctor increased the playground multiplier by an additional half point. Finally, the Seventh Doctor granted an extra shot when the Time Expander was hit, allowing for a faster multi-ball lock.
This was all done on a rising and falling mini-playground, featuring several firing doors (adorned with small images of Daleks) and an in-game video feature where the player got to battle the Dalek Emperor, who reveals himself being Dalek creator Davros. If this all sounds incredibly confusing, it was. The rules of Doctor Who Pinball were much more complex than other pinball machines released at the time, which unfortunately did not help the popularity. Although the game is popular with collectors, casual gamers have had a hard time understanding the game’s complex and ever-changing rules.
How Doctor Who Pinball survives to this day
These pinball machines lasted in arcades for several years before establishments began to disappear at the turn of the 21st century. Decades later, a digital version inspired an online update, dubbed Doctor Who: Master of Time, which was released in 2016. Based on the original pinball but focusing on incarnations of the Doctor who debuted after the classic series, the new version featured a new voiceover recorded by (then current) Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez portraying the sneaky Mademoiselle. It also included voice clips from other NuWho doctors. The updated version is still available for purchase online.
While video games featuring the Doctor have been hit or miss over the years, Doctor Who Pinball Machine has certainly kept the candle of the Who fandom lit during a dark time for the franchise. It also served as a bridge between Classic Doctor Who and the modern era of show business, paving the way for the franchise to hit the 60-year mark. While it doesn’t completely stand the technological test of time, it’s a product of its time, a wonderful piece of nostalgia, and one that ends up being as complex as the source material itself.