The Doctor Who Column: How to celebrate the 50th anniversary..?
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The much vaunted 50th anniversary of Doctor Who looms - but what to do about the absent faces and avoiding previous celebratory Who disasters..?
We human beings have a strange way of dealing with getting older. It happens at the point of milestone birthdays, so when the Big 40 morphs ominously into the Big 50 it's a hell of a shock, and then worse still, it turns devilishly into 65. And so on. Someone asked me the other day how I'd be celebrating my next milestone birthday, which is only a couple of years away – at which point I just started bawling so loudly the sobs could be heard 100 miles away.
Slightly less wussy people tend to forget about the misery of big birthdays by inviting the world and his wife to a great big party. More often than not, these events are not so much the happy-go-lucky kiddy parties from golden ages gone by, more one long booze-up with enough alcohol to make even Phil Mitchell raise his eyebrows. Friends and family congregate in a musty village hall to nibble on cucumber sandwiches before moving onto a champagne or five, ultimately staggering around in a queasy conga line to the strains of Russ Abbot's Atmosphere.
Even TV programmes mark their birthdays – some choose to mark the event with defiantly grim long faces than others. Coronation Street recently celebrated its 50th birthday by choosing to stage its own mini disaster-movie with all the birthday cheer of a Leonard Cohen greatest hits album. Doctor Who will also mark its Big 50 next year, and already there are countless guessing games as to how the event will be celebrated. The most common request seems to be a big celebratory adventure in which past Doctors come back to the fold to defeat a terrifying enemy. The speculation went into overspill this week when online showbizzy news oracle Digital Spy published an interview with none other than Doctor Number Eight, Paul McGann. At the close of the interview, inevitably the old chestnut of a possible return to Doctor Who was discussed, and interestingly, McGann was said to be waiting for a phone call to invite him back. Hmmm, 50th anniversary cameo, maybe?
"This is hot property for the Beeb, so naturally the buzzwords of Embargo and Priority Red Code One Top Secret will be ricocheting around their Press Office like angry wasps"
Well, past anniversaries have tried this big reunion to general acclaim. The Three Doctors may have been hampered by iffy production values, a walking humanoid bellow in a Mister Men mask and walking jelly babies (and also the sad sight of Hartnell reduced to a couple of pre-filmed inserts in a potting shed), but the interplay between Troughton's and Pertwee's Doctors made the whole thing come alive. The formula was expanded to even greater success in The Five Doctors. Again, as with these big birthday party shebangs, arranging the event was a logistical nightmare, taking into account the fact that William Hartnell wasn't alive and that Tom Baker didn't want to be involved. But in the end, I still have a lot of time for The Five Doctors. Not only do the past Doctors get a good showing, there's enough monsters and companions to keep the fans happy.
Which isn't an adjective that can describe the reaction to Dimensions In Time, the terrible so-called anniversary misfire that ill-advisedly combined Doctor Who with that beacon of good cheer, EastEnders. I mean where do I begin? The Rani camping it up like no tomorrow? The non-existent plot? The floating Hartnell and Troughton heads? Perhaps the most galling aspect of Dimensions is that there are even more blasts from the past than in The Five Doctors, but all that creative talent goes to waste in a trivial dirge that's the equivalent of being whacked in the face repeatedly with a copy of Terry Wogan's 'Floral Dance' record for half an hour.
Quite what's happening with the Big 50 is anybody's guess. Now this is hot property for the Beeb, so naturally the buzzwords of Embargo and Priority Red Code One Top Secret will be ricocheting around their Press Office like angry wasps. But all things considered, would a big reunion along the lines of The Three and Five Doctors work in today's day and age? I must admit, trying to disentangle this argument, I'm in two minds. There's one half of me, the dull realist, who would think that it would be a folly of Red Or Black proportions, as the following ramble bears witness.
"The problem is that Who fans have discovered the earlier days of Who through DVDs, so they would see right through a recast"
For one thing, three Doctor actors are sadly, no longer alive. Back in 1983, The Five Doctors worked around the loss of William Hartnell by casting a doppelgänger. Actually, Richard Hurndall looks nothing like Hartnell, but stick a long flowing white wig on him, ask him to tug at his coat lapels, and you might get away with it. Actually, that's unfair – all told, Hurndall did a very good job – mainly because he played the First Doctor his way rather than opt for a straight-ahead imitation. Another factor contributing to Hurndall's portrayal was that, by and large, 1983 audiences were not quite as familiar with Hartnell as they would be today. There weren't any DVDs or repeats on UK Gold or whatever – admittedly, the 1981 repeat of An Unearthly Child and a quick flashback to The Tenth Planet in Earthshock were small crumbs of comfort for dedicated Hartnellites, but generally, 1983 audiences were more forgiving.
Unlike today – not only would you have to recast Doctor Number One, sadly, the same rule applies to Doctors Two and Three. The problem is, more Who fans have discovered the earlier days of Who through DVDs, so they would see right through a recast. And if the unthinkable were to happen with recasts for all three actors, who would play them? At a pinch, the sons of Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee could, in theory, be asked – whether or not they would want to take up the offer would be another matter. But as with Hartnell, I actually can't think of anyone who could replace them. I guess that all three actors made the parts of The Doctor their own to the point where they are irreplaceable. Although let's hope that the production team doesn't go down the Dimensions route and make weird floating heads of Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee. Besides taking the creepy factor to whole new levels, it's not really the most respectful way to pay homage to three acting talents, is it?
So that leaves the surviving Doctors, but even then this is still not a straightforward walk in the park to arrange. How many Doctor actors would want to come back? In theory, the most problematic Doctor actor to convince would be Christopher Eccleston, given the various news reports and rumours over his departure. Whether or not they stick the Ninth Doctor in a pesky Time Eddy is open to question, but even with that problem established, would the other Doctors wish to return? Tom Baker has since said that he regretted his no-show in The Five Doctors, so it's possible that he may come back for a potential Eleven Doctors special. Peter Davison appeared in Time Crash, so there's a further good sign. And given that Paul McGann gave positive feedback to the big question about his return, that's another step in the right direction. Whether or not the fans would mind that their Doctors don't really look the same as they did back in the day is another can of worms, but I'd be inclined to think that they'd be a pretty forgiving bunch. Well, either that or Moffat can re-use his timey wimey excuse for slightly older-looking Doctors as backup.
The other main obstacle with a big reunion special is how to get the story right. There's a difference between 20 years and 50 years. A lot has happened since then, so potentially, you're looking at a much longer story. In fact, by the time you've fitted in countless references to companions, monsters, friends and foes, One Direction will be hobbling around on walking sticks and accidentally spewing their false teeth in the craggy faces of their geriatric fans.
So what to do? Well, if a special 50th story does materialise, then the key rule is to keep it simple. The Five Doctors for me, any road, works because of its simplicity. The Death Zone stuff is a bit reminiscent of that great 80s kids show called The Adventure Game – if you don't remember it, then what happened was that three celebrities would be whisked off to a bizarre alien world where they would have to complete various oddball tasks and challenges in order to get back home. Heck, even the Cybermen had their very own version of The Vortex game (ie: you had to make it across a giant board thing without getting evaporated by a badly superimposed BBC Micro Computer splodge or in the Cybermen's case, hit by lightning). So hopefully Moffat or whoever gets to write the thing will keep the story simple rather than descend into self-indulgent, convoluted gibberish.
Another juggling act that the privileged would-be writer will have to contend with is how to get the balance right for young and old fans alike. How many elements from the so-called classic era do you bring back? And more to the point, would they stand up in today's day and age? Well, Jo Grant was brought back to rapturous applause for the Death Of The Doctor episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures – partly because Russell T. Davies wrote for her with considerable skill, but also because of Katy Manning's ever-endearing portrayal. If they choose to bring back just one companion, then it deserves to be Jo. Mind you, the recent DWM interview with Sophie Aldred suggested that Ace could also have been brought back successfully, so maybe a 50th anniversary tale would be the perfect opportunity to put that idea into practice.
"Captain Jack. Torchwood. Amy. Rory. River Song and her ready-made supplies of smug. How would you manage to fit that all in to a two-hour story?"
As for NuWho – well, that's a whole lot of history in itself. Rose. Rose's family. Rose's goofy boyfriend. Martha. Martha's sour-faced family. Donna. Donna's grumpy mum. Donna's rather wonderful gramps. Captain Jack. Torchwood. Amy. Rory. River Song and her ready-made supplies of smug. How would you manage to fit that all in to a two-hour story? And then there's the tricky decision of which monsters and villains to bring back. Well, you'd have to have the Daleks, the Cybermen, probably The Master – The Pandorica Opens tried a similar sort of thing for the final five-odd minutes, so that sequence proved that a menagerie of returning monsters can be done. Although I'd like to see some Zygons, Axons, a Rutan and the Taran Beast join in with the festivities. No Slitheen please.
That's a lot to encapsulate in one story. If the BBC does decide to proceed with a special anniversary tale, they'd have to stump up the pay for the hapless writer, purely on the grounds that it'd be a task and a half to try and assemble. In today's media-savvy day and age, there would be more scrutiny on this monster project than ever before. Expectations would be raised so high that they'd be floating above the clouds. So to try and weave some sort of story that not only fits in the long, rich tapestry of Doctor Who, but tells a good, simple, coherent story at the same time is a big ask.
But do you know what? The little nine-year-old John wouldn't have raised such pressing issues when The Five Doctors first went out amid the grimy mire of the Children In Need telethon. He wanted past Doctors, the best monsters, the chance to see old companions who he'd only read about in books, an exciting story – and he got all of them. No doubt, nine-year-old John would rightly discredit the weary hack that he'd become as a needlessly moaning minnie. So come on BBC, this is a golden opportunity to celebrate one of the most unique programmes in your catalogue (and certainly one of the longest running). Get as many past Doctors, memorable companions, cool monsters and a talented scriptwriter to give today's kids their very own equivalent of The Five Doctors.
Just don't do a repeat of Dimensions In Time, I'm begging you.
John Bensalhia is a freelance journalist who has extensively written for more than 10 years on subjects such as franchising, ports, Italy, DIY, tractors, sports and arboriculture. Not to mention reviews for Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, which he's been a fan of ever since he was a little kid.
When not writing, John likes drumming, guitar strumming, cycling, cartoon drawing, pre-1990s music and animals. He lives with his lovely wife Alison and many guinea pigs. Catch some of John's work or get in contact through his website at www.johnbensalhia.co.uk.
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