Some three years after Doctor Who’s ignominious cancellation in 1989, a pinball machine based on the series appeared in arcades and bars, a time-bending feat only this redoubtable series could achieve. Thanks to a recent Kickstarter project (well, not all that recent, but only recently fulfilled, in the way of most Kickstarter projects these days), a faithful digital recreation of this 1992 Bally/Midway table has surfaced as part of the Pinball Arcade collection (on most major computer/mobile/console platforms), bringing the sullen face of the Master, the pepperpot pastels of the Daleks, and, of all things, the Whomobile to life once more.
With a whopping 7,752 units produced, according to the Internet Pinball Database, the Doctor Who table was not some niche product in the pinball world but a substantial investment in a licensed property that, though no longer airing new episodes, still held significant cultural cachet. I’m not sure how long a pinball machine gestates in design and production before being introduced to market, so it’s unclear whether the table was approved for production/design prior to the show going off the air or not, but the enduring draw of the Doctor has to account for the pinball machine being introduced three years after the show no longer aired regularly in Britain. With PBS being the primary driver of Doctor Who in the United States at that time, this might be the only pinball machine to ever be based off of a show from the public broadcaster (unless I never paid attention to a Sesame Street table in my youth).
I’m no pinball wizard, being a mere plebeian flipper, so I can’t comment much on the gameplay as represented in the Pinball Arcade version of the table. The iconography, however, is striking for its use of all of the Doctors to date. The display of the Doctors on the back glass focuses on the most recent iterations first, with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor getting top billing, rather than putting Tom Baker front and center. Davros and the Daleks round out the rogue’s gallery behind the Doctors on the back glass.
On the table itself, each Doctor features along with a representative companion or companions: Susan and the First Doctor; Jamie and Zoe with the Second Doctor; Jo (and Bessie!) with the Third Doctor; Leela with the Fourth Doctor; Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan; Peri and the Sixth Doctor; and Ace with the Seventh Doctor. It’s an exhausting litany of detail, and the table designers didn’t merely rest on recent iterations—they went all the way back to the beginnings and worked from there. There’s quite a bit of understanding of the show’s history in this table, even if it’s all drawn in broad strokes.
The Doctor may have been gone from the screen during the lean years of the ‘90s, but his adventures were only a quarter away and are now playable again.