A Day in the life of Doctor Who: A 50th anniversary review

Who aficionado Patrick Mulkern charts the highs and lows of The Celebration, The Episode, The Afterparty and The Five(ish) Doctors...

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A Day in the life of Doctor Who: A 50th anniversary review
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The Celebration 

"I did conventions in the 1980s and generally loathed them," says Patrick Mulkern. "They were often tacky, odorous and nearly all male. But this Celebration was bliss. Organised chaos, yes. But everyone having a wonderful time"

“No pressure then,” I said to Steven Moffat, when I was jammed up against him at the bar last weekend at Doctor Who Magazine’s 50th bash – just one week away from The Day of the Doctor, and with what must have felt like, for him, the eyes of the world watching, waiting, hoping desperately to be impressed by whatever his feverish imagination could deliver.

The Moff shrugged, gave me that disconcerting saturnine look he has, halfway between a smile and a scowl, and then… well, then we had quite an interesting conversation that I cannot, would not repeat here. We were both off duty. It would be ungentlemanly.

But I realised this is a man who loves Doctor Who as passionately as I do, and what has shone through in this anniversary week is how so many people really do adore and care about this daft 50-year-old television programme.

Beyond the blanket coverage on the BBC, in the press and online, what has impressed me is the true adoration of the fans who not only watch but who make the show. Mark Gatiss’s fan “love letter” to Doctor Who, An Adventure in Space and Time, was an utter joy and has made me laugh and blub on each viewing.

And then this weekend there’s been the live event, the Doctor Who Celebration, BBC Worldwide’s unwieldy beast of a convention (although they’re not calling it a “convention”) at London’s ExceL. I did conventions in the 1980s and generally loathed them. They were often tacky, odorous and nearly all male. But this Celebration was bliss. Organised chaos, yes. Queue central. But everyone having a wonderful time.

The main hall was like an airport mall during an air traffic controllers’ strike, except every aisle, every stand, every inch was groaning with Who ephemera: costumes, monsters, props… Merchandise stalls making an outrageous fortune. Stars and makers of the show mingling with gobsmacked fans. But most rewarding was the sight of so many families, hundreds of little kids, the new generation of fans, many dressed up as Matt Smith, David Tennant or Amy Pond.

It was actually overwhelming. Overcome by all this adoration for our favourite TV programme, I went to chill out in the green room, over the past two days abuzz with the likes of William Russell, Waris Hussein, Katy Manning, Anneke Wills, June Hudson, Janet Fielding… All familiar names to fans but some of which will have become more widely known since An Adventure in Space and Time. I passed the time with Sylvester McCoy and even met Tom Baker for the first time properly since 1978. He still exudes that barmy, otherworldly charm.

But time to hurry home!


The Episode

"It was patchy. In no way disappointing, but there were peaks and longueurs.... but the scenes between the three Doctors had sparkle"

What of the episode? How was The Day of the Doctor? Well, I have to say it was patchy. In no way disappointing, but there were peaks and longueurs.

Clearly, the script was written for David Tennant, Matt Smith and Christopher Eccleston. That would have been some union, a reward for the audience who have followed the show since 2005, but as we know (if not why) Eccleston peed over the Moff’s freshly laid-out picnic. At the 11th hour, with Smith, Tennant and Billie Piper diarised and engaged, a quick solution had to be found to make his “Back to the Time War” story work. Enter an old Doctor we had never seen before.

John Hurt is the kind of casting I dreamt of post Tom Baker so I have no complaints. I told the Moff – although I’m sure he’d realised – that in the space of one month, Doctor Who, now known for ever younger Doctors, is suddenly serving up three older ones: David Bradley, John Hurt and Peter Capaldi. All top-drawer.

Hurt, always magnificent, played his part with unremitting weariness, but the scenes between the three Doctors had sparkle. Matt Smith is always note-perfect and David Tennant didn’t seem a day older, still the romantic, cocky hero. The little dig about his Doctor’s estuary accent being a bit Dick Van Dyke was priceless.

Tennant’s Doctor yet again got the lady: the “Virgin” Queen, no less. And, note, he absconded during the wedding. A nice pay-off to The Shakespeare Code (Gareth Roberts’s 2007 episode) when an old Queen Elizabeth showed up and inexplicably wanted the Doctor’s head. Now we know why.

The scenes with Billie Piper would have worked so much better (as was surely intended) alongside an Eccleston Doctor who did not yet know her. The lack of a proper Rose may have disappointed those drooling for more Piper/Tennant schmaltz, but the Moff wisely sidestepped that entirely. And by making Piper some weird kind of interface (generated by Gallifrey’s ultimate WMD), she could use her proper voice and not that cod “I’m a chav!” accent that became increasingly less convincing.

Certain static, talky scenes ground to a halt. Maybe a bit of downtime was needed and I’ll appreciate these moments better on second viewing. Not really calling John Hurt’s Doctor “the Doctor” but rather “the War Doctor” is an awkward fudge, guaranteeing that Eccleston, Tennant and Smith can keep the numbers we know them by, so that dozens of books don’t have to be rewritten and warehouse loads of BBC merchandise don’t become obsolete overnight.

Russell T Davies always said the Time War between the Daleks and Gallifrey was best left unexplored. He established it eight years ago as a past event, and really what we saw in The Day of the Doctor did little to shake that wisdom. The scenes on Gallifrey were, as so often, boring.

But disposing with the Time War, unshackling the Doctor from his burden of guilt, is a masterstroke from the Moff, and gives the Time Lord a new goal. He spent his first few years fleeing his own people; now his mission is to find them. 

I want to concentrate on the positives. The Moff delivered so many pleasing moments. The Hartnell title sequence! A glimpse of Totter’s Lane junkyard and Clara working at Coal Hill School, settings for the first episode in 1963. Clara charging into the police box on a motorbike. The madcap Tardis airlift over London landmarks, and Unit passing off their actions in Trafalgar Square as another Derren Brown stunt. The Unit boffin wearing The Scarf…

The Zygons were returning for the first time since 1975. David Tennant once told RT they were the one monster he wanted to work with – a classic design, untampered with; their shape-shifting achieved here via a delicious/revolting transmogrification.

I loved the salute to the Brigadier, probably my favourite character in Doctor Who, delightfully played over many decades by Nicholas Courtney, who died in 2011. Well, that was my first blub. There was a gasp at the Time Lords’ mention of 13 Doctors, and that rapid intense close-up of Peter Capaldi! All the Doctors coming to the rescue with their Tardises (blithely overlooking the fact that the first three Docs could rarely, if ever, pilot theirs). And that line-up of them in all their finery was simply majestic.

A gasp and blub combined was triggered by Tom Baker, showing up as the enigmatic “Curator” – the elusive elder statesman of Doctor Who sending a 50th birthday kiss to his legions of fans. This was the greatest anniversary present, expertly played by Baker and Smith, and opaquely written by the Moff so that you could take from it whatever you wanted. For me, this elderly man really was a version of the fourth Doctor we adored in the 1970s. I can make that leap of faith. Tom always has been and always will be the Doctor.

This was The Day of the Doctor in all his forms, and I can’t wait to watch it again.


The Afterparty

"It scraped the abyss... the treatment of the former companions was unforgivable"

The evening continued with The Afterparty, which it has to be said, in true BBC3 tradition, scraped the abyss. Is the annoying Zoë Ball always going to host these live Doctor Who shows now? Oh dear. I’ve no idea who her male co-host was. The chats on the sofa (Matt/Jenna/Moff/Hurt, then Davison/Baker/McCoy) were fine, and some of the clips packages were lovely, but the treatment of the former companions was unforgivable.

Ball claimed they had the largest assembly of companions ever achieved, but so few of them were given airtime. The illustrious Jean Marsh was only given a namecheck. Ball called Matthew Waterhouse only “Adric”. The Troughton companions (Anneke Wills, Frazer Hines, Debbie Watling and Wendy Padbury) were all in sight but ignored. The male co-host nudged the fabulous Katy Manning aside with his backside. I even spotted Maureen O’Brien beside Peter Purves. She never does these things, yet there was time for a short, recorded greeting from Jackie Lane.

These BBC3 shows seem unable to function without boyband nonentities spluttering their inanities. Thus a link to One Direction in the US: two blokes who had not even seen the episode being asked to comment on it, with an excruciating 15-second delay. It was timey-wimey all right, but cut back to the BFI and the Moff had his head in hands in horror.


The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot

"Peter Davison’s lovingly crafted spoof topped the evening"

Banishing that embarrassing BBC3 interlude was quite easy with the sublime The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot straight afterwards on the BBC Red Button. Peter Davison’s lovingly crafted spoof (he wrote and directed it) topped the evening.

The conceit is that the 1980s Doctors, Davison, Sylvester McCoy and Colin Baker – older, greyer, tubbier – are desperate to be included in the 50th special, but the Moff won’t take their calls. He’s happier plotting his special with Matt Smith and David Tennant toy figurines.

There were so many witty moments in this: Tom Baker literally phoning in a performance; the 80s Docs failing to interest their families in their old episodes; John Barrowman trying to conceal his dark secret (a wife and kids); the Docs jamming into a police box with a torch like the Three Stoo(Who)ges.

There was the very cool inclusion of Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit (let’s not forget he’s a fan too) and Ian McKellen in full Gandalf garb having no idea who McCoy is. Most sublime, Russell T Davies going all John Nathan-Turner (the 1980s Who producer) and fantasising about casting himself as the Doctor. His 27-minute text message is casually deleted by Davison. Brilliant to find a way to include Davies in the 50th. And what comic timing he has!

But now we’re left wondering: were Peter, Colin and Sylv ever really under those museum shrouds in The Day of the Doctor? Come on, Moff, tell us!