Today is Red Nose Day, and in honour of the fundraising occasion Doctor Who has re-released a classic Comic Relief sketch about the Time Lord, 1999’s Curse of Fatal Death.
Featuring the talents of Julia Sawalha, Rowan Atkinson, Jonathan Pryce, Jim Broadbent, Joanna Lumley and Hugh Grant among others, it’s an affectionate pastiche poking fun at the classic series – but looking back on it now, it’s also full of ideas and details that would later turn up in the real Doctor Who when the series was revived.
The writer of the sketch was now-showrunner Steven Moffat, who has form for holding on to clever Doctor Who ideas he came up with before he was involved in the series – but it’s still interesting to note early forms of gags, quotes and castings that would later turn up in the sci-fi series.
Starting with a 50th anniversary favourite…
Never cruel or cowardly
In The Curse of Fatal Death, when Hugh Grant's incarnation of the Doctor expires after apparently using up the Time Lord's final regeneration, Julia Sawalha’s companion eulogised:
“He was never cruel, and NEVER cowardly…”
Fast forward to Moffat’s Doctor Who 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, and it’s revealed that the name the Doctor chose for himself (that’s ‘The Doctor,’ fact fans) was also a promise, as explained by David Tennant and John Hurt’s incarnations of the character...
Clara: You told me the name you chose was a promise. What was the promise?
Tenth Doctor: Never cruel or cowardly.
War Doctor: Never give up. Never give in.
Props to Moffat for keeping that one in his head for nearly 15 years.
2015 two-parter The Magician’s Apprentice/The Magician’s Familiar included a cracking joke where Davros grandiosely presents the Doctor with a rare curio – the only other chair on Skaro (apart from his own wheelchair), poking fun at the Daleks’ lack of legs or bottoms.
And you can see the genesis of this gag in The Curse of Fatal Death, where Swalha’s Emma questions why the Daleks even possess the chairs they’ve tied her and the Doctor to on a spaceship.
“We will explain later,” is the terse reply, continuing a running joke where the series’ biggest recurring plot holes are waved away by the Doctor.
Richard E Grant
In Fatal Death, Grant plays an energetic, confident Doctor after regenerating from Rowan Atkinson’s incarnation, and would later take on the role of the Time Lord again for an animated webcast called Scream of the Shalka (where he played a new Ninth incarnation of the Doctor which was later ignored by the revived series).
However, fans will know him better from his time in Moffat’s era of Doctor Who, where he played various versions of classic foe The Great Intelligence until 2013. Finally, canonical recognition!
The depiction of regeneration used in the sketch is rather similar to the version seen in the modern Doctor Who series, with yellow light bathing the Doctor's face before he makes the change.
And while this isn’t something Moffat brought with him to the new series – that form of regeneration has been around since the Russell T Davies era – it might still have offered some inspiration, especially since the team working on The Curse of Fatal Death’s special effects were future Who VFX artists The Mill.
Given the current furore around whether the next incarnation of the Doctor should be a woman (following Peter Capaldi’s departure this Christmas), it’s amusing to see The Curse of Fatal Death playing with this idea nearly two decades ago.
Foreshadowing Moffat’s efforts to make gender-changing regenerations canonical through Michelle Gomez’s version of the previously-male Master, we see the Doctor change from his male Hugh Grant form into Joanna Lumley, before walking off arm-in-arm with Pryce’s villain.
That’s Steven Moffat for you – very ahead of his time (and space).
It’s clear that Moffat can’t resist a sucker joke. In Fatal Death, Emma calls out The Master on his proudly-displayed new Dalek sucker. “So what can you do with that then?” she incredulously asks him, but he has no idea either. It's a confusion shared by brand new Who companion Bill in the scene used to introduce her character.
“It’s got a gun and a sucker? Why? Did they run out of guns?” she wonders. Clearly Moffat’s always been a sucker for a bit of meta humour.
And one that ALMOST happened – Hugh Grant
While The Curse of Fatal Death sees Hugh Grant as The Handsome Doctor, years later it emerged that we nearly saw the Love Actually star play The Actual Doctor, specifically the Ninth incarnation instead embodied by Christopher Eccleston.
"I was offered the role of the Doctor a few years back and was highly flattered,” he said in 2007.
“The danger with those things is that it's only when you see it on screen that you think, 'Damn, that was good, why did I say no?' But then, knowing me, I'd probably make a mess of it.”
Still, not to worry – we managed to see a brief snapshot of a Hugh Grant Time Lord, and in this crazy world that’s really all any of us can ask for.
The Red Nose Day broadcast begins on BBC1 tonight (Friday 24th March) at 7:00pm