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!
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 Finish 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 companions 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 Doctors, Project: 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.