Monday, 17 June 2013

50 Years in the TARDIS: Doctor Who's Anniversary Specials, Part 2

In 1973, The Three Doctors established several dominant ideas around how to celebrate and commemorate a ten year television anniversary: multiple Doctors appearing, an ‘absent’ Doctor, references to (and expansion of) Time Lord history, discussion of a shared narrative past, and narrative change to the shape of the programme. As Derek Johnston has observed (in relation to my last blog post), the programme was also a remembrance of ten years of a show that couldn’t be re-watched and was rarely repeated (indeed, many of Doctor Who’s early episodes had been wiped by the BBC and could not be re-broadcast).

Ten years later, in 1983, the series revisited the anniversary special in The Five Doctors, an episode that sat outside of the normal run of the series (broadcast on November 23rd as part of the Children in Need telethon): but this special had a more self-reflective tone that can be linked not only to an increased audience for the programme (on a global scale as much as a British one), the presence of  but also a 1981 ‘Five Faces of Doctor Who’ series of summer repeats that included early adventures including The Three Doctors and which reasserted certain notions about remembering the programme’s past: the stern grandfather (Hartnell), the playful fool (Troughton), the action-man (Pertwee), the kooky alien (Tom Baker); familiar monsters, faithful companions.

In The Five Doctors, a mysterious figure retrieves each of the five Doctors (and a relevant companion) from their own time-streams: so, the First Doctor is reunited with his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford), the Second with the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), the Third with Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen), etc. They are all taken to an alien landscape (that the Doctors eventually recognise as the Death Zone on Gallifrey), and forced to avoid familiar villainous adversaries (a Dalek, Cybermen, a Yeti, the Master) while playing ‘the Game of Rassilon’. Meanwhile, the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) tries to solve the mystery with the High Council in the Citadel of Gallifrey.

As laid out, the narrative feels like a metaphor for writing an anniversary storyline: the necessity of selecting each Doctor and companion team, placing them in danger, relating that to a known monster. This self-reflective quality is also clear in some of the dialogue and interactions: Sarah Jane’s surprise that it is the Third Doctor she meets not the Fourth (‘all teeth and curls’ is the Third Doctor’s comment), the familiar (from The Three Doctors) bickering between Second and Third, the Brigadier’s comment ‘Splendid chap... all of them’ (a deliberate echo of The Three Doctors’ ‘Splendid chap... both of them’), and the interaction between Tegan (Janet Fielding) and the Fifth Doctor about going on the run from his people in a rickety old TARDIS: ‘why not, that’s how it all started’.

Like The Three Doctors there is no referential sense of 20 years having past, or that there is such a concept as 20 years or 1983 in the fictional world being displayed. Here, as in 1973, the passage of ‘real time’ is less important than the concept of reuniting a series of known actors and characters. However, in other respects the programme hews close to the themes introduced in The Three Doctors:

The multiple Doctor / the ‘absent’ Doctor: As already noted, the programme brings together five Doctors, although using six actors. After a brief clip of William Hartnell, the role of the First Doctor is played by Richard Hurdnall; Troughton and Pertwee return; and Davison continues to play the Fifth. Absent here (bar some clips from the untelevised episode Shada) is Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, who choose not to appear, having only been out of the role for two years.

The Time Lords: Whereas Time Lord hero Omega was the villain in The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors offers more glimpses of the Time Lord society by delving into its dark past, and the figure of Time Lord founder Rassilon. Unlike The Three Doctors, which revealed unknown aspects of Time Lord society and history, by the 20th anniversary there had been several programmes devoted to Gallifrey, its people and customs, so the planet itself was much more familiar. That also allowed writer Terrence Dicks to exploit knowledge of President Borusa, previously a friend of the Doctor, and make him the unseen villain of the piece. The figure of Rassilon hangs over most of the story, but with some uncertainty over how positive he was, either encouraging or stopping Gallifrey’s dark times.

References to a shared narrative past: There are continual references to ‘old’ events: the Second Doctor and the Brigadier talk about Cybermen and Omega, and are chased by a Yeti; the First Doctor and Susan talk about the Dalek’s home planet, Skaro; as noted, Sarah-Jane Smith talks about the facial difference between 3rd and 4th Doctors.

Narrative change: Although The Five Doctors has less impact on the wider series narrative than The Three Doctors, it works to redefine and underline the programme’s central concept: a Time Lord on the run from his own people, adrift in time and space. It also appoints the Doctor to the position of President of Gallifrey, something that is does return in the Colin Baker story The Trial of a Timelord.
Promoting the Anniversary: Once again, the programme was promoted through a special Radio Times cover, a magazine, other media appearances (Blue Peter, Pebble Mill), and a major BBC-organised convention in April 1983, ‘The Dr Who Celebration: Twenty Years of a Timelord’. Based at Longleat House in Wiltshire, the convention was a huge success, with over 35,000 people attending. Like the other promotional materials, the convention worked to stress a particular remembrance of the programme that drew on monster costumes, the showing old episodes, and appearances of the actors who had played the companions, villains and the Doctors.

Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) and Silver Nemesis (1988)
Only five years later, due to threats of cancellation, production postponement and the replacement of Colin Baker, interest in a Doctor Who anniversary was at a lower ebb and, despite several stories and events marking the programme’s silver anniversary, the emphasis was back on ‘in-season’ celebrations closer to The Three Doctors than The Five Doctors. While all four stories from season 25 can be described as commemorating the programme’s past in some form, the two villain-centric stories offer the most obvious anniversary elements.

Unlike previous anniversary programmes, both Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis use the idea of 25 years as a central narrative conceit: the former taking place in 1963 (days or weeks after the Hartnell Doctor left), the latter story taking place on 23rd November 1988, and built around a comet / spaceship that revisits Earth every 25 years (because the Doctor got his calculations wrong when it was launched). More self-referential than The Five Doctors, most notably through a recreation (and repositioning) of the programme’s own fictional past (Remembrance revisits Coal Hill School and – where Susan went to school in An Unearthly Child and I.M. Foreman’s junk yard, where initial companions Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) first discover the TARDIS), neither story features the multiple or absent Doctor approach of previous specials (although Hartnell’s Doctor is referred to by one character), or old companions.

However, other tropes are present: no Time Lords are seen on screen, but both stories revolve around their advanced technology (the ‘Hand of Omega’ (a stellar manipulation device) in the Dalek story, and a living metal discovered by the Time Lords in Silver Nemesis); the episodes also feature the series’ most recognisable recurring monsters: the Daleks (and their creator Davros) and the Cybermen; and both stories represent attempts to shift the narrative direction of the show, making the Doctor into a more active participant in his own drama, a Time Lord eager to manipulate the future.

As such, the programme’s 25th year saw a reconstruction of its own history (something that Steven Moffat’s current run has also attempted, most notably in The Name of the Doctor, the lead-in to the 50th anniversary special), setting up bridges between the present, past and future of its fictional world, offering a new framework for understanding the previous 25 years and repositioning the show for its immediate future...

That future, however, was shorter than anyone knew...

Next time: From Dimensions in Time (1993) to Scream of the Shalka (2003)... to 2013?

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