Friday, 21 June 2013

50 Years in the TARDIS: Doctor Who's Anniversary Specials, part 3

Despite some success in revitalising interest in the programme, particularly through anniversary-centred episodes such as Remembrance of the Daleks (which, as noted last time, revised the past while looking to the future), Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989, after its 26th season. The plans laid out for a darker, more proactive Doctor were eventually pursued through a series of original novels, and most fans look to Doctor Who: The Movie (featuring 8th Doctor Paul McGann) as the next iteration of the series.

Dimensions in Time (1993)
Yet there is the tricky issue of the 30th anniversary special Dimensions in Time. Around thirteen minutes long, the first part was shown (like The Five Doctors) during the 1993 Children in Need telethon, while the second part was featured in the following night’s Noel’s House Party. Likely the most disparaged Doctor Who episode of all time (even beating stories such as The Twin Dilemma, Timelash, or Time and the Rani), this is admittedly a mess of a programme, which deposits multiple incarnations of the Doctor, various companions and monsters, into the Albert Square set from Eastenders (characters from that soap opera also appear), and a limited number of other London locations. What narrative there is revolves around a plot by the Rani (hardly a top tier villain) to trap the Doctor in a time loop.

The programme was also filmed and broadcast in Nuoptix, an experimental process that 3D expert Charles W. Smith described as offering a ‘depth-effect... an optical novelty capable of giving an illusion of depth on certain scenes’. (Smith 1994, 19) As such, it wasn’t the stereoscopic 3D that we are familiar with these days (and which is being used to film the 50th anniversary special), but still required audiences to wear VTL (visual time-lag) glasses similar to the polaroid/anaglyphic glasses more familiar to 3D viewing. (the BBC seemed confused about whether Dimensions in Time was in stereoscopic 3D or not, with images of viewers in red-green anaglyph specs featured in the Radio Times: yet such glasses wouldn’t work with the Nuoptix footage!) Aside from all this, the general consensus appears to be that the depth effects added little to the already disjointed special.

Dimensions in Time is also, to my knowledge, the only intact Doctor Who episode that has never been released on DVD: likely due to rights and contracts issues, as the special was largely thrown together at the last minute by producer John Nathan-Turner.

However, Dimensions in Time is fascinating because once you get past the bad 3D, the Eastenders’ actors and the non-existent script, it is clear the programme relies purely on a collective (or public) memory of Doctor Who to survive. It is Doctor Who reduced to visual spectacle, and is perhaps the ultimate anniversary special in the sense that it dispenses with narrative logic to offer the programme’s ‘greatest hits’: multiple Doctors, companions and monsters. As such, it relates to some of the themes identified in The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors:

Multiple Doctors / Absent Doctors: Five Doctors appear here, with Jon Pertwee becoming the only Doctor to perform in the 10th, 20th and 30th specials; he is joined by Tom Baker (who is filmed separately from the others, appearing as some form of cosmic DJ broadcasting warnings to his other selves), Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. As with previous anniversary stories, the Doctors are kept apart, with no comic interaction or rivalry shown between them (a likely effect of the last minute nature of filming); and there are two absent Doctors: the First and Second Doctors were not recast for this special, and are present only as floating mannequin heads in the Rani’s TARDIS (heads that are, for the most part, almost unrecognisable as either Hartnell or Troughton).

The Time Lords: Apart from the Rani, who is a renegade Time Lord (or Time Lady), the special offers not further insights into the Time Lord culture or history.

References to a shared narrative past: As noted above, the spectacle of Dimensions of Time is almost wholly about that shared narrative: appearances from various companions, and an array of monsters (including Cybermen, Sea Devils and Ogrons, although no Daleks) that suggests the producers simply raided the BBC prop department. The programme also features the Brigadier, giving Nicholas Courteney the dubious honour of being the only companion to be in the 10th, 20th and 30th specials (it is also his only canonical television appearance alongside the 6th Doctor).

Narrative change: There is no relationship between the episode and the ongoing series, given the show was still cancelled at this stage, with no sign of its re-commissioning or return.

Promotional materials: although there is a feature in the Radio Times, there is little other supporting work promoting the anniversary here.

The Scream of the Shalka (2003)
Produced as a Flash animated story for the BBC website and intended to function as the introduction to a new Ninth Doctor (played by Richard E. Grant, who had previously played a comic version of the Doctor in Steven Moffat’s 1997 Comic Relief sketch, The Curse of Fatal Death), this Paul Cornell-scripted story is an aborted new beginning that is now best seen as a parallel ‘What If..?’ adventure. Broadly enjoyable, the show doesn’t quite pull off its revisionist take on the series, although Cornell’s novelisation offers more background for his conception of what the online animated programme could have become.

Cornell, who had written Doctor Who novels and comics, created a more embittered, aloof Doctor who had suffered an undefined loss (of a female companion) and now travelled with a robotic version of the Master. It is not, however, really a story that offers any real comparison with other anniversary shows, and the relationship with the 40th anniversary appears only tangential.

As is clear from the supporting Radio Times issues (with their inter-locking covers featuring the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors), however, the popular memory of the series appeared to be based around nostalgia for the cancelled version of the programme, and hopes for Russell T. Davies’ new incarnation. Even in these covers, though, certain themes recur: notably a reliance on Multiple/Absent Doctors (the First, Second, Third and Eighth are absent) and references to shared narrative history (costumes, monsters, TARDIS)...

50th Anniversary thoughts
As we approach the 50th anniversary special, scheduled for Saturday 23rd November (and thus the first TV anniversary show since Silver Nemesis to be broadcast without any association with Children in Need), it is unclear what (if anything) current showrunner and writer Steven Moffat intends to draw from previous commemorations.

What is clear is that there is no longer one collective memory of the show (if, indeed, there ever was). The 2013 anniversary special needs to target different collective memories: post-2005 fans who might have only partial knowledge of the preceding 40 years, long-term fans, and a general audience who wouldn’t know who the Brigadier or UNIT was.

We are also in a situation where the anniversary special is being executive produced by a fan for the first time. Pennebaker and Banasik (1997) discuss the idea of a generational cycle of memory, where official commemoration only happens after people in early adulthood have grown up, and are now in positions to produce or influence media remembrances: that is precisely the situation Moffat now finds himself in, which likely means he is highly aware both of what previous anniversary shows have done, and what themes/issues to avoid or tackle.

Based on this, what is the likelihood of the themes identified in the 10th, 20th, 25th, 30th and 40th returning for the 50th? [SPOILER WARNING ON!]

Multiple / Absent Doctors: There have already been brief appearances of old Doctors since Matt Smith took over as the Doctor (and Moffat took over running the show): visual appearances of all the faces in The Eleventh Hour and Nightmare in Silver, repurposed footage of Doctors and costumes in The Name of the Doctor. The BBC have already publicised the involvement of David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, we now know that John Hurt is playing a character called ‘The Doctor’, and there have been various dismissals / comments from the other surviving actors.

Likelihood: aural appearances highly likely, visual appearances less so (due to the obvious aging of many of the actors, although Moffat partially got round this in Time Crash)

The Time Lords: Since the programme’s return in 2005, the Time Lords have been largely absent, killed off in a Time War (which has been referenced as recently as Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS but never shown on screen).

Likelihood: High, particularly given the appearance of Hurt as a previously unknown / unseen version of the Doctor

References to a shared narrative past: fan favourite villains the shape-shifting Zygons have already been teased, and it seems likely that a certain Silurian and Sontaran may appear. Again, Moffat knows the value of the show’s iconography, so appearances by the Daleks and the Cybermen seem likely. The show may also take a cue from Remembrance of the Daleks and revisit narrative locations such as Coal Hill School, and it has been revealed that the Brigadier’s daughter, and head of UNIT, will return (continuing the Lethbridge-Stewart link through the 10th, 20th and 30th specials)

Likelihood: 100%, if only because that is usually the purpose of an anniversary special, to encapsulate what is best known/loved about a programme

Narrative change: The introduction of the Hurt Doctor in The Name of the Doctor has already potentially shifted the narrative of the whole programme, and the announcement that Matt Smith will be leaving the show, opening up the introduction of a Twelth Doctor, means that change is almost inevitable. (this could also be seen as a pattern for the show: Jon Pertwee's final season started in 1973; Peter Davison's final season started in 1983...)

Likelihood: Guaranteed

Whatever else, it is clear from its specials that Doctor Who offers a different perspective on media remembrance than the traditional journalistic/documentary celebrations. More often than not, Doctor Who’s anniversary specials are a chance to celebrate and encapsulate central tenets of the programme’s history (the Doctor, monsters, companions), to visually recreate specific elements of that past (costumes, locations), or (since the 25th anniversary) retouch and reinterpret that narrative and fictional past.

But, given Steven Moffat knows more about the previous anniversary specials than most, perhaps November 2013 will offer up something new (rather than something borrowed or blue)...

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