Popcorn can feel pain: Doctor Who at the BFI 50th anniversary screening

Strax the Sontaran introduces a 3D 50th anniversary spectacular to John Hurt, Matt Smith, David Tennant and a bunch of passionate Doctor Who fans

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“And remember: popcorn can feel pain.” With that gleeful warning from Strax the Sontaran, the lights went down and the audience prepared themselves for the day they had been waiting for: the Day of the Doctor. 

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The screening of the 50th Anniversary at the BFI London was a who’s Who of celebrities like Frank Skinner, Rufus Hound and Radio Times editor Ben Preston, many of them with their kids in tow. Yet much of the seating was given over to less famous fans, some dressed up in long woollen scarves, bow ties and fezzes. It was like a Shriners convention, without the self-awareness.

Ted, aged 10 from Battersea, was done up like an usher at a family wedding. He hoped to bump into the first Doctor, William Hartnell. “He was so good in An Adventure in Space and Time. I want to tell him not to be sad.” I told Ted I’d be on the lookout.

Doc Who show boss Steven Moffat could be spotted pacing around backstage, grumbling “It’s been non stop yak yak yak all day.” I left him undisturbed.

Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman and John Hurt all garnered rounds of applause as they entered the auditorium. Sylvester McCoy paused for a moment as he made his way across the rows, waving his straw boater until the crowd recognised him.

Ben Stephenson, BBC Controller of Drama Commissioning, was in bullish mood: “The BBC gets hugely bashed every day in the press, but it’s programmes that are going to make us win the war of the BBC.”

After some on-screen comedy business involving the 3D glasses (David Tennant told us to watch out for Smith’s chin, Smith shot back that the hi-def highlighted Tennant’s wrinkles), the show started.

Look Who fans, I don’t want to say you missed out, but you did. In 3D, the Fall of Arcadia was jaw dropping, but so were the quieter moments: an Elizabethan picnic, or alien sands with strange birds wheeling above them.

But best of all was the experience of watching with true, passionate fans. Every reference to the old series was greeted with whoops: at the end, the audience sprung into an ovation like a Jack (Harkness) in a (blue) box. 

Afterwards, Moffat looked no happier, but the fans were gleeful. “I told myself I wouldn’t cry,” said one. Time makes liars of us all.

Happy birthday Doctor. Here’s to the next fifty.


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