I have, no kidding, been waiting all my adult life for last weekend. Waiting for the 23rd of November 2013. Fifty years after the broadcast of ‘An Unearthly Child’, the first episode of Doctor Who. Roughly thirty-six years after I first saw an episode while sleeping over at a neighbour’s house where Episode 1 of ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ was playing. And something like 34 years since cliffhanger at the end of the first episode of ‘Terror of the Zygons’ so comprehensively scared the hell out of me that I wasn’t allowed to watch Doctor Who again for a year or so. Man, that stuff gets under your skin.
For most of that time, ever since 1989 when the show was cancelled amid plummeting ratings and daring experimentation, I expected that the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary would be marked somehow, probably with a slew of cash-in coffee table books and maybe a retrospective documentary with some of the show’s past stars and production staff. I quietly hoped Tom Baker would still be around to gleefully expound on his glory days.
For a while it looked like that’s all it would be. The 30th anniversary was marked with the release of the nigh-unwatchable special “Dimensions in Time”, which brings back several stars including Jon Pertwee and Liz Sladen, but also several characters from Eastenders (on whose set it was filmed, cheaply). I’m going to be honest, it was so awful and so laden with mid-nineties British pop culture references that I’ve always found it unfathomable. I’m pretty sure Ive never been able to sit through it all the way to the end.
The 35th anniversary was a little better. By 1998 the movie starring Paul McGann had come and gone and all hope was now lost that the Doctor would ever be back on the telly. So be it. We few dwindling fans still had the books to enjoy, and if the BBC Books-produced Eighth Doctor Adventures were never quite as compelling as the Virgin Books-produced New Adventures, there were still a few good ones amongst the range. One of them was Lance Parkin’s The Infinity Doctors, a book steeped in the rich continuity of Doctor Who without ever pretending to be part of continuity. I loved reading the book, but I came nowhere near close to getting all the references. Maybe you should just read the Wikipedia explanation.
Of course, a few months before the 40th anniversary in 2003, we got ‘The Scream of the Shalka’, an animated webcast starring Richard E Grant as the Ninth Doctor. It was okay but not great, if we’re honest, but that didn’t matter because Shalka represented a brave new frontier of cheaply-made broadcast Doctor Who. At last we’d have new Who on our screens again, even if we had to painfully download each episode over slow dial-up in order to watch it on our tiny post-millenial computer monitors. That version of the future lasted all of a few weeks before the revelation, four weeks before the anniversary, that Who was coming back to broadcast television in 2005. And that Christopher-frickin’-Eccleston was gonna be in it.
Sorry, Richard E, but whatevs dude. We got Eccleston.
And all of a sudden the 50th anniversary was not only in sight, but hell, it might even get a real story. I was pretty chuffed. I wasn’t especially engaged with fandom at the time, but I’m guessing the sense of anticipation has been rising to hysterical levels in the meantime.
What I didn’t expect was that the whole damned world would suddenly catch up to me and what I (naively) imagined was a relatively small pocket of geek fandom. Doctor Who got big. Bigger than its heydays of the Dalek-obsessed Hartnell sixties or the mad-about-Baker mid-seventies? I don’t know and can’t be arsed looking up viewing figures for the sake of a personal anecdote, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the show is currently more popular than it has ever been. It’s almost certainly generating more money than ever.
So all of a sudden we go from me and a few friends in our quiet little bubble occasionally glancing at a clock counting down to the 23rd of November, to every freaking news show in the English-speaking world (including maybe even a few in America!) joining in at the end of the countdown like a drunken New Year’s Eve crowd in Times Square suddenly catching on that something is happening on the monitors.
It’s a pretty far cry from the late 80′s when, if you mentioned to someone that your favourite show was Doctor Who, you’d be asked “Oh, is that still on?” (Until it wasn’t, obviously). Then you would cry a little inside, because Sylvester McCoy’s last two seasons were really damned good, especially if you ignore the existence of ‘Silver Nemesis’.
Personally though, the other thing I didn’t anticipate was falling sick – or rather discovering that I’d fallen sick a long time ago. Instead of having an ever-tightening sense of anticipation and excitement, I was just too damned tired to get that worked up about the anniversary. Instead of engaging on a year-long blogging project talking about my love for the show, I couldn’t even muster the energy to watch new episodes more than once. (Happily there were more than enough excellent anniversary-themed blogging projects going around, so the absence of my contribution is hardly a critical hole in the conversation).
Instead of finding a way to celebrate for an entire year, I got tired and went to bed early. I can still feel the judgmental glare of my younger self, who probably thought some themed viewing parties and perhaps a little cosplay was in order. Stow it, young ‘un. Grumpy old future-self is taking a nap.
But as the date drew nearer (and I started treatment on my protracted sleep deprivation) I started feeling that old buzz again. The excitement of new Who. The sense that something big was going to happen. The expectation that the BBC and Steven Moffat would pull out all the stops to deliver a major event.
The teasers – or spoilers if you prefer – started leaking out. The anniversary story would feature the return of an old monster. It would be a multiple-Doctor story. Gallifrey would feature somehow. There would be time travel shenanigans. Daleks? Yes, probably Daleks!
And then came the end of Season 7B, and the sheer WTF ending of “The Name of the Doctor”. There was a regeneration we never knew about, the version of the Doctor who fought in the Time War and killed all the Time Lords (except one or two) and all of the Daleks (except for one or two million) and destroyed Gallifrey. The one who endured the trauma that left Eccleston’s Doctor with PTSD. The one who did something so profoundly un-Doctorish that he’s been in denial about it ever since.
Okay. That was a pretty compelling setup. I was onboard.
(Spoilers from here on in)
When it came, the anniversary was an embarrassment of riches. I’m hard-pressed to tell you which bit I loved the most.
Mini-episode: First there was the last little teaser mini-episode, ‘The Night of the Doctor’. Paul McGann *finally* got to reprise his portrayal of the Doctor onscreen, and it was short but perfectly formed. I was just transported with glee to see him back in the part. The highlight for me was his salutatory recitation to his departed companions from the Big Finish audio plays. Hilariously the list ignored the ones from the BBC’s own line of books, although I felt a bit bad for the long-suffering Fitz Kreiner, who I thought deserved a shout-out. Don’t worry Fitz, you’re still part of my head-canon. Also, it was nice that they brought back the bonkers not-even-pretending-to-be-scientific mysticism of the Sisterhood of Karn. McGann’s performance was an intense distillation of nearly ten years of playing the part in audio plays. He turned a good script into a goddamn tour de force. In six minutes, ‘The Night of the Doctor’ underscored what a damned shame it was that we never got to see the McGann Doctor (even if a series in the vein of the 1996 movie would probably have been terrible)
(Also: “Will it hurt?” Yeah, I sort of sob-laughed at that).
Anniversary: It was big. It was an event. It starred three Doctors at once and jammed all the rest in at the sides. It dropped a nuclear retcon right in the heart of the new series. It was a transformative event that nudges the show in a new direction without fundamentally altering its premise. It was sentimental, yes, but at least the sentiment this time around was redemptive optimism.
It pretty much did what an anniversary show should do. It celebrated the past and reinvigorated the future. In no small part, it did the latter by being simulcast worldwide, drawing an almost-unprecedented audience for any form of television, let alone a piece of children’s drama. (And let’s all be thankful they didn’t take the opportunity to do a callback to the Archangel Network from the climax of ‘The Last of the Time Lords’.)
I have minor complaints, of course (I wouldn’t be a Doctor Who fan if I didn’t). The sight of the airlifted TARDIS being choppered over London was a piece of pointless, bewildering spectacle that somewhat over-egged what was already a pretty rich pudding. Most of the scenes with Elizabeth I were more stupid than they were wacky, and disappointingly sexist in a story that did better with its other female characters. I disagree with the premise going around that they did fundamental damage to the character of the Tennant Doctor, but a lot of people invested in his performance disliked those scenes intensely, and I can’t much argue the point.
(Except to say – ZYGONS! Fuckin’ boo-yah!)
I also don’t really know what to make of the appearance of Tom Baker, but I have also concluded that I don’t care much. It was in there because he was one of the most beloved parts of a long-running television series, not because it made particular story sense. (And frankly, even though I can’t quite make sense of it, him turning up as either an implausibly well-informed curator or a future incarnation of the Doctor living out his retirement on one of his old bodies is no more nonsensical than the continuity errors in ‘The Five Doctors’ or any part of the plot of ‘The Three Doctors’).
Docudrama: And then came the surprise highlight of the anniversary, An Adventure in Space and Time, the dramatisation of the making of the original series in 1963. Going into this I had some mixed feelings – the actors playing Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert and William Hartnell are all dead ringers for their counterparts. The teaser shots of David Bradley as Hartnell in particular looked scarily good. On the other hand it was written by Mark Gatiss, one of the modern Doctor Who writers of whose work I’m not especially fond. So I was expecting it to be an interesting look back at British television production in the 1960′s, and not much more than that.
Instead, it was a heartwarming and touching drama about bravery and the inevitability of change. For his faults, Gatiss’ nostalgia-steeped perspective on Doctor Who served him well here. The historical touchstones of the show – Daleks crossing the Thames in a deserted London, the extras walking about in the ridiculous butterfly-man Menoptera costumes – never overwhelmed the intersecting stories of Lambert’s rise to confidence and success and Hartnell’s arrogance softening as his health begins to decline.
Purists might decry the absurd moment toward the end when a confused Hartnell, almost too overcome by emotion and ill health to record his final scene, looks across the TARDIS console to see Matt Smith smiling encouragingly at him. It was a blatant vote of thanks to the man who started it all from a lifelong fan (Gatiss and probably everyone else involved with the production). I don’t know what Hartnell would have made of the fact that his program would go on to survive him (and two of his successors for that matter) but it’s easy to imagine he’d be pleased.
Hell, I hope that Doctor Who outlives me too. I never want to see the last episode again.
Coda: It wasn’t an official part of the anniversary, not exactly, but Peter Davison’s hilarious fly-on-the-wall faux-documentary The Five(-ish) Doctors Reboot was a delightful bonus. Davison (aka the Fifth Doctor), Colin Baker (the Sixth) and Sylvester McCoy (the Seventh) are all awaiting for a call from Steven Moffat to invite them to be in the 50th anniversary episode. When the invitation is not forthcoming, they take matters into their own hands. Clearly made with love for the new show from the stalwarts of its past, it’s wry and hilarious, with a gratuitous host of cameos by Doctor Who luminaries all too willing to take the piss out of themselves. John Barrowman’s bit is especially amusing and there are several surprise appearances that top even that. It’s well worth a look, especially if the anniversary episode itself was not to your tastes.
It’s taken me a week to get through this entry, which is pretty indicative of the energy I have for writing at the moment. Things are weird at work, I am contemplating a new career and meanwhile the recovery of my lost sleep remains a slow business. I think I’m going to have to call time on the Month of Relentless Positivity, seeing as I wasn’t even able to hit my mark in two months (and that’s why NaNoWriMo has not appeared anywhere on my radar this year. Next year I might plan ahead and do NaNo, but probably not in November).
But at least I have Doctor Who to keep me sane. Roll on, Christmas special. Let’s see what you’ve got for us.