Doctor Who 50th Anniversary – The Big Five, part three.

My fuel for the anniversary was ignited at last! Although that said, there had always been one part of the anniversary celebrations I was excited about. As soon as it was announced and the casting began, my interest was piqued, and when I saw David Bradley in costume and the rebuilt original TARDIS control set, there was no doubt in mind that An Adventure in Space and Time was going to be a gem of the anniversary.

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#3: An Adventure in Space and Time

Now this was something truly special. On the outside it looked like it was going to be a docudrama about the origins of Doctor Who, but when you watch it you realise it’s about so much more. It’s about two people struggling in industry not suited for them.

In terms of production there really is no faulting this amazing piece of television; the past is lovingly recreated, the old sets are perfectly rendered anew, from the junkyard in Totter’s Lane to the TARDIS interior, although there is something most odd An-Adventure-in-Space-and-Time-poster-1about seeing an original Cyberman and Menoptra in colour. And for the most part the casting is also superb; David Bradley convinces as William Hartnell, thankfully not attempting an impersonation, but rather a performance. Jessica Raine also puts in a sterling performance as Verity Lambert, Doctor Who’s first producer, and having seen Verity is many a documentary, I can easily accept Raine as her. On top of that Brian Cox and Sacha Dhawan pull in very respectable portrayals of Sydney Newman (the godfather of Doctor Who) and Warris Hussein (the very first director of the series). However, for my money, the rest of the cast, although good, don’t convince me as the actors they are supposed to be portraying – the worst of these being Reece Shearsmith, who I greatly enjoy in The League of Gentlemen, but he totally fails to convey an ounce of Patrick Troughton’s charm and charisma, with not even a suggestion of Troughton’s mannerisms. Indeed, it was the only moment I was taken out of the drama and wondered what had gone wrong.

Unfortunately ninety-minutes is not a lot of time to cover three years of TV production, especially for a show that was running almost every single week for those three years, and so we often skip large chunks of time with a few snapshots of various key moments, like the Daleks being filmed on Westminster Bridge on a Sunday morning in 1964. But this is a minor niggle, for the  moments that count are shown in their full glory. From Hartnell’s initial reluctance to take part in what he first regards as a kid’s show, to his steady realisation that he’s become a national hero for the children of the UK, witnessed most effectively in the subtle way his relationship with his granddaughter mellows, and when he’s almost worshipped by a group of school children while out in the park with his wife. It is incredibly touching to see an old man sodavid-bradley-william-hartnell-space-time out of his depth one moment, then within his element the next when acceptance sets in. Alongside Hartnell’s growth from grumpy old man to loving grandfather, we watch Verity Lambert struggle to make her voice known in an industry of men who fail to see her as anything more than Sydney Newman’s assistant. But struggle she does, until she gets her show made and convinces everyone that she was the right person for the job, and her gender is irrelevant to her position. This is shown wonderfully in her relationship with Warris Hussein (the only still-living person portrayed in this drama, a challenge Sacha Dhawan takes on with aplomb), a British-Indian who has his own struggles in the industry due to his ethnic background.

There are many wonderful touches seen throughout this production, including tying in the Doctor’s epic monologue at the end of The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve with the failing health of William Hartnell, as he realises that, like the Doctor, it will soon be time to retire and end his adventure; Sydney Newman’s reading of the first Dalek script cutting to images of Nazi iconography (although I did question the use of ‘exterminate’ as this point as the Daleks’ infamous catchphrase was not coined until a few Dalek stories later); the cameos at Verity’s leaving do (I spotted Anneke Wills and Jean Marsh instantly, actresses who played two of the First Doctor’s companions), and Carol Ann Ford (the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan) as a woman calling her children in to watch Doctor Who and even William Russell (who played Ian Chesterton, one of the Doctor’s original companions) as a car park inspector at the BBC. But the best moment of all was the surprise appearance of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor when William Hartnell realised that his end had come, but the future of Doctor Who was assured. There was something matt-smith-adventure-in-space-and-time-600x335magical about seeing the First and Eleventh (Thirteenth?) Doctor both standing at the original TARDIS console (a scene I was hoping to see recreated in the anniversary special, with the Eleventh Doctor looking up and seeing his original self reflected back at him – alas, it did not happen).

There was a couple of moments that didn’t work (the aforementioned Reece Shearsmith being a prime example), but the majority of the docudrama was superb. A rare moment of poignant drama among a TV schedule that is usually more style than substance. A reminder of the difficulties Doctor Who faced at the beginning, and why it is such a success story today.

And now I was ready. It was only a couple of days until a trip to the cinema to see Doctor Who in 3D… But would it work? Would be a celebration of fifty years of Doctor Who, or would I, once more, become Steven Moffat’s worst critic?

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Doctor Who 50th Anniversary – The Big Five, part two.

My enthusiasm for the anniversary of Doctor Who was waning, and listening to The Light at the End did not help. Already I was tiring of Doctor Who, after watching every single episode over a period of five months, and researching every novel, comic and audio adventure produced, to cook my own slice of the anniversary cake – namely my book, Companions: Fifty Years of Doctor Who Assistants. Something was seriously needed to kickstart my excitement…

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Luckily the BBC were forced to released a very unexpected surprise after a mini-episode, a prequel to the anniversary story, was leaked earlier than planned. It was officially released on Paul McGann’s birthday, and what a present it was for him, and what an anniversary treat for all the fans!

#2: The Night of the Doctor

No one really expect this. Since 2005, when Christopher Eccleston appeared in Rose,  it was the one question every Doctor Who fan wanted answer. When and why did the Eighth Doctor regenerate? The obvious conclusion, based on visual evidence in that first story, was shortly before the Nu Series, at the end of the Time War. But then earlier this year we saw the end of series seven and discovered a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor, the one who fought in the Time War, and it was John Hurt! This threw us all into a tiz, trying to work out how he fitted in the grand scheme of things; was he the older version of the Eighth Doctor, was he the Ninth Doctor (thus making Eccleston the Tenth, and Tennant the Eleventh and so on)? We were all hoping that the anniversary special would answer this, and despite McGann’s insistence to the contrary, I for one was certain he’d appear somehow. But not like this!

8docI, like so many, clicked that youtube link to see this minisode (as they’re now called) and watched as the TARDIS rushed through space to help a ship about to crash. And like all the others, my mouth at first fell open, and then broke into a wide smile when a voice said ‘I’m a Doctor, just probably not the one you expected’ and the shot cut to Paul McGann standing there with a cheeky grin on his stubbly face.

For the first time Steven Moffat (whose reign as producer has not always inspired me with confidence) was God. He delivered, in seven minutes, the best piece of Doctor Who he had ever written and produced. Finally all our questions were answered. This was the Eighth Doctor who had lived a long time past the TV Movie of 1996, who had endured much pain and loss, who had lived through the Big Finish audios (yes, for the first time since Nu Who began, the Big Finish Eighth Doctor adventures were given their place in TV canon when the Doctor names all his Big Finish companions – a lovely touch, and a most unexpected one [and one that creates more work for me, when I come to to revising my Companions book]), and was now battered and bruised by the Time War, which he refused to become a part of.  At last we knew, it was not the Eighth Doctor who fought in the Time War, and it was not he who regenerated into the Eccleston Doctor shortly before Rose. 

After years of playing the Doctor on audio, McGann stepped effortlessly back into the role, in an outfit that was the perfect evolution from that which he wore in the TV Movie. I had always liked the ‘dark eyes’ look Big Finish took to using, leather jacket and satchel included, and it always seemed a nice link between the old and new, but the outfit McGann sported in The Night of the Doctor changed that view for me. And his scenes on Karn were superb. Oh yes, Karn. Another surprising touch. A return to the location of the 1976 story The Brain of Morbius and the Sisterhood of Karn, a race of immortal The-Night-of-the-Doctor-regenerationbeings who elevate Time Lord science. For four minutes the Doctor was actually dead, unless he chose to take the offer given him by the Sisterhood, regeneration or final death. It was a sad but noble performance as the Eighth Doctor chose to end his life and become the warrior needed to fight the Time War.

There is really so much in these seven minutes to love. None of it was expected, but all of it so gratefully appreciated. It finally gave us that link between the ‘original’ series and the ‘new’, proving once and for all that they are but one series. And it was the moment I fell back in love with Doctor Who. Suddenly my fears of the anniversary special faded, somehow I just knew that Moffat was going to do a damn good job, and I held to my belief that we would see all the old Doctors in one form or another, and we’d see Peter Capaldi turn up (it was too much of an opportunity to pass up, in my view, a fact I told many people over and over again).

But before that special was something else entirely, the one thing I was truly looking forward to it. An Adventure in Space and Time

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary – The Big Five, part one.

So, it’s been a week since the official anniversary of Doctor Who – fifty years of the longest-running science-fiction series in the world. And this time, it truly was the whole world, with an anniversary special shown at the same time in ninety-four countries, both on TV and (for the first time since the ’60s) in the cinema!

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We were treated to a whole host of shows, events and merchandise to mark the occasion – everything from books and CDs, to documentaries, conventions, TV specials, a cinema release in 3D, and special look at the origins of the series. But for me only five really mattered (plus my own book celebrating the series, but we’ll get to that later), and it’s these five that I’ll giving my appraisal of here.

#1: The Light at the End

The first step of the anniversary for me began when Big Finish released their multi-Doctor anniversary adventure, The Light at the End. Now I have to confess that I’m not a huge fan of Big Finish’s main range of Doctor Who adventures – I stopped listening to them when the TV series returned. Might seem a little unfair of me, but I easily tire of the over-reliance on returning monsters and companions that started to litter the releases from that point. Truly original pieces of drama seemed to diminish bit by bit, which is fine since, in my view, Big Finish needed to cater for the core group of fans – those who wanted Doctor Who as it used to be. I like my Doctor Who to continue to grow with the audience, with the social development of our culture. For me during the Wilderness Years (when there was no TV Who) Virgin Books, BBC Books  and Big lightFinish provided us with a Doctor Who that continued to grow, to echo the decade in which it existed, as it always did on TV. Then, in 2005, Doctor Who returned home to BBC One and the books and audio adventures seemed to lose a lot of their ambition, their originality. Which is a shame. There were some true classics produced between 1991 and 2005 – not to say that Big Finish haven’t produced some sterling stuff since, but usually it’s in their spin-off series’, like the Gallifrey series, or the I, Davros plays and, primarily, through the ongoing series of adventures for the Eighth Doctor that were being produced for transmission on BBC Radio. So, The Light at the End would be my first, for fun, look at a Big Finish play in a long while. (Bearing in mind I had to scour all of the Big Finish releases when researching my anniversary book, so it’s not like I haven’t heard the majority of them.) At the time it seemed that the official anniversary story, Day of the Doctor, was not celebrating the classic series but rather focussing on the mythos and characters introduced since 2005. The BBC insisted that no old Doctors would be appearing! To me, and so many other fans, this seemed to be a slap in the face. It was the anniversary of  fifty years of Doctor Who, not just Nu Who (as the series from 2005 to present is affectionately called), and so the cast list of The Light at the End decided me on getting that story. This seemed to me to be a true celebration with countless characters from the old series returning. For the old fans an anniversary story was an excuse to bring back as many old faces as possible – the strength of the story was secondary. We wanted something like The Five Doctors, which is not a terribly interesting story – it’s not known for its complexity, but it is known for the pure fun and nostalgia of seeing so many old friends return. And so The Light at the End

Hmm. How quickly one’s view can change.

It took me a while to work out why I left The Light at the End feeling so blah. The story was straight forward enough, although possibly not the most well-structured. It certainly brought back a whole host of old friends, every Doctor from the first to eighth made an appearance, countless companions. Essentially all one could want from an anniversary story. At least that’s what I had always thought. but upon reflection I came to realise the problem – for me, at least. Ever since Virgin got the licence to publish original Doctor Who fiction the guest appearance of old Doctors and companions had become something of a regular occurrence. Indeed, the very first novel, Timewyrm: Genesys, featured guest appearances by the Third and Fourth Doctors. Later stories saw the return of all kinds of Light_at_the_end_limited_collectors_editioncompanions from Peri to Liz to Susan, and featured all sorts of multi-Doctor stories (although none topped Lance Parkin’s Cold Fusion which featured a bona-fide reason for two Doctors being in the right place, and a wonderful spin on how the Seventh Doctor did not recall the events already, since his fifth self was also involved – the answer was simple, he did remember!). Big Finish have also featured various versions on the multi-Doctor story over the years, everything from The Sirens of Time (their very first release! Much like Virgin and BBC Books did before them), to The Four DoctorsProject: Lazurus and The Wormery. Even companions got their own stories with releases like The Five Companions. And so the problem as I see it; The Five Doctors was a success because of the nostalgia. Characters we had not seen in years returned, Doctors joined forces for the first time in ten years (well, eleven really when you consider The Three Doctors was transmitted in 1972, almost a year before the tenth anniversary). In The Light of the End it’s essentially just more of the same. We hear all these actors so often throughout the year, hear these characters interact, heard the various Doctors team-up countless times. There’s no sense of anniversary or nostalgia. Linking it to 1963 didn’t do anything except offer a failed attempt to enforce a feeling of nostalgia. We can’t orchestrate such a thing; it comes from within, from the memories. Don’t get me wrong, hearing Tom Baker and Paul McGann together is fun (although the BBC were soon about to officially do something even better with these two!), but having actors come in to impersonate the first three Doctors is not. I can see what was being attempted, but it felt like an insult. It didn’t help that none of the three actors sounded anything like the characters they were supposed to be (something in common with the Patrick Troughton impersonator on the upcoming An Adventure in Space and Time). I left the story with a feeling of blah, of ‘yeah, seen it all before’, and I realised that it was no longer just enough to have loads of old actors return to Doctor Who. An anniversary, to me, needed to be something different. A good story, a development of the mythos of the show, and a sense of nostalgia.

Enter the BBC’s first surprise… Coming in part two.