Doctor Who, remarkably, is now celebrating its 60th anniversary with a much-anticipated return for showrunner Russell T Davies, and David Tennant and Catherine Tate making a huge comeback to the show.


Of course, this is not the first time the sci-fi has marked a milestone with special appearances. The 10th anniversary saw the Third Doctor Jon Pertwee cross paths with his two predecessors, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell.

The trio faced off with a cast-out Timelord Omega, who was residing within a black hole in an antimatter universe, looking to exact revenge on the Timelords. We also saw many Doctors and companions reunited in the 20th. anniversary serial The Five Doctors, which saw the Doctors trapped inside the Death Zone on Gallifrey, facing an array of threats.

Most recently, Matt Smith and David Tennant united with War Doctor John Hurt to fight a threat from The Zygons involving Queen Elizabeth I and the 21st Century National Gallery and prevent Gallifrey’s destruction in the Time War.

While much is being kept under wraps about the nature of Tennant’s return as the Fourteenth Doctor, and whether we are likely to see more friends and foes appearing, there are certain lessons these new specials learn from previous celebrations on how to honour the show's past and drive it forwards into a new era with Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor.

The Three Doctors being the first multi-Doctor storyline set a precedent for others to follow. The interplay between Troughton and Pertwee remains a particular delight, but it never cheapens the storyline being told, with the Time Lords breaking the first rule of time to get the Doctors to help prevent Omega’s return.

Omega posed a formidable threat, and the Doctors combined were needed to keep him at bay. Omega would return to face the Fifth Doctor in the Arc of Infinity.

The conclusion of the storyline sees the Doctor given a new time circuit for the TARDIS and restored memory of how to operate it fully, taken away at the end of The War Games and thus helping shape the direction for the remainder of The Third Doctor’s adventures.

William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee as the Three Doctors looking into camera
William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee as the Three Doctors in Doctor Who.

The Five Doctors, a feature-length special from 1983, sees Doctors One, Two, Three and Five trapped in Gallifrey’s Death Zone. The episode saw the return of a number of companions and adversaries including Daleks, Cybermen and The Master alongside the likes of Sarah Jane Smith, The Brigadier and Susan.

The Five Doctors feels heavier on nostalgia with so many reunions throughout, although it introduces Rassilon, who would return as an adversary for the Tenth and Twelfth Doctors and brings up the concept of The Doctor being president of Gallifrey. It is still a thrill to see various Doctors interact and so many familiar faces, even if it doesn’t wholly change the thrust of the show.

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With the show off-air between 1989 and 2005, there were limited opportunities to celebrate the 30th and 40th anniversaries, with a crossover skit with EastEnders and Dimensions In Time in 1993.

2013’s Day of The Doctor saw our heroes save Gallifrey from presumed annihilation, something which had been a major theme of the revived era, especially for Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston.

Coupled with the minisode The Night of The Doctor, the episode explored John Hurt’s War Doctor, filling in the gap between the Eighth and Ninth Doctors, something that occurred offscreen. The saving of Gallifrey opened up the return in future appearances and was a key part of Peter Capaldi’s tenure in the TARDIS, and also came into play in the following storyline The Time of The Doctor, when Matt Smith’s Doctor was granted another set of regenerations.

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The Day of The Doctor also saw the return of The Zygons after a near 40-year absence. The Zygons posed a threat for both Elizabethan England and 21st Century London. This plot thread would be followed up directly in the 12 Doctor serials, The Zygon Invasion and Zygon Inversion in 2015.

The Day of The Doctor and its supplementary materials showed that the show could look back to its past in both the original and modern runs of the show, but also tell a story that changed the narrative of the show in the future, driving it forward.

We have since seen other multi-Doctor episodes like Twice Upon A Time and The Power of The Doctor, perhaps meaning we might see fewer crossovers in these upcoming episodes. Having multi-Doctor appearances outside of the main celebrations does slightly rob us of their impact.

While we know little about the upcoming specials, it is clear that they will have a direct influence on Russell T Davies’s second stint as showrunner.

The return of The Celestial Toymaker, a villain from William Hartnell’s era, and the first TV appearance for Beep The Meep, already ensures that the show is acknowledging its history. The reason behind the familiar appearance of The Fourteenth Doctor and the return of Donna Noble adds a sense of mystery.

The three episodes seem likely to address past friends and foes, with the likes of Kate Stewart appearing, but also pushing us into a new era for the show in time for Ncuti Gatwa’s first full episode at Christmas just weeks after the specials’ conclusion.

Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer with episodes of the classic series also available on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.

For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide and Streaming Guide.


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