It’s been a busy week for genre anniversaries. C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley both died 50 years ago, on 22 November 1963. As, of course, did John F. Kennedy, his death being the inspiration for a whole sub-genre of time travel stories in everything from Quantum Leap and Red Dwarf to Stephen King’s best-novel-in-years, 11.22.63.
But of course the main event was the BBC’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the world’s longest running SF programme, Doctor Who, the first episode of which was broadcast on 23 November 1963. To review everything the corporation broadcast would take the world’s longest blog post. In lieu of that, here is a roundup of the TV celebrations, now presumably all out there somewhere to be caught-up on via various online and physical formats.
First up was the iPlayer release of The Night of the Doctor. This seven minute short was also available on the BBC’s ‘red button’ channel. It starred Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and served as a prologue to the main event, The Day of the Doctor. A second prologue, The Last Day (3 minutes), featured a soldier at a pivotal moment in the Time War.
Broadcast simultaneously in 94 countries, and shown simultaneously on 1500 cinema screens around the world, The Day of the Doctor was a 78 minute special and the biggest, most ambitious single episode in the history of the programme. (Yes, The Five Doctors was longer at 90 minutes).
The cinema showings were in 3D and the BBC showed the episode in 2D on BBC1 and simultaneously in 3D on the ‘red button’. I watched it in 2D and it looked superb. I sampled the 3D version later (I recorded both) and while it looked remarkable with gorgeous lighting and sense of depth, it also constantly reminded me that I was watching television rather than being immersed in drama. That said 3D was specifically incorporated into the story, with a 3D alien painting being an important element of the story, something which reminded me a little of Mark S. Geston’s 1992 novel Mirror to the Sky.
The Day of the Doctor was fantastically well done, funny, filled with typical Steven Moffat ingenuity – the man not being phased one bit by the pressure of producing the biggest and best episode ever – laden with fan pleasing moments, and yet still delivering a story which freed the programme from the frustrating restraints of the departure of the Time Lords from the Doctor Who universe and explained why there are still so many Daleks around, but also offered a serious examination of the doctrine that the end can justify the means. Take that, ‘War on Terror’.
BBC3 followed-up the end of the broadcast with Doctor Who Live: The Afterparty. This involved Zoe Ball and Rick Edwards making banal chat with a host of Who cast, crew and fans for an hour. I stuck it for five minutes (and that was an ordeal) before trying the ‘red button’ documentary The Day of the Doctor: Behind the Lens. This was essentially Doctor Who Confidential revived for one frustratingly short 13 minute electronic press kit style episode narrated by Colin Baker.
Baker was back in The Five Doctors(ish) Reboot. Also broadcast on the ‘red button’, an excellent 31 minute comedy written by Peter Davidson and starring Davidson, Baker and Sylvester McCoy and featuring cameos from a Who’s Who past and present. The more you know your Who history the more you’ll get out of this, but it’s done with a great sense of fun, from Steven Moffat playing with his David Tennant and Matt Smith action figures to John Barrowman being ‘outed’ as secretly straight. Everyone sent themselves up nicely and even if there was a bit too much wandering about in corridors that itself was entirely in keeping with a homage to the classic series. The resolution of our heroes quest tied-in nicely with a scene in The Day of the Doctor itself, and a very famous film director made a surprise cameo.
Me, You and Doctor Who: A Culture Show Special (BBC2) was an intelligent, affectionate and insightful 60 minute look at the enduring cultural impact of Doctor Who, written and presented by British film and TV expert Matthew Sweet. The same channel also had The Science of Doctor Who (60 min), a lecture from the Royal Institute by Professor Brian Cox, a playful but serious look at the possibilities of time travel and an enquiry into the Fermi Paradox. At the opposite end of the quality scale was, BBC3’s dreadful Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide. 118 minutes of history and commentary by Who luminaries and the usual gallery of talking heads, narrated by Russell Tovey and edited as almost random soundbites intercut with 2 second clips for those with no attention span. As Michael Bay regularly reminds us, what might work in a trailer is exhausting stretched to feature length. Meanwhile Matt Smith and David Tennant materialized as guests on The Graham Norton Show, and doubtless many other places across the BBC.
Going right back to the beginning, BBC2 offered a TV film, An Adventure in Time and Space, a broad strokes drama covering the origins of Doctor Who, particularly focusing on producer Verity Lambert’s struggle to get the programme on air and then on First Doctor William Hartnell’s problems with his declining health. The production lovingly evoked the early 1960’s setting. David Bradley gave an astonishingly good performance as William Hartnell, Jessica Raine and Sacha Dhawan were spot on as Lambert and director Waris Hussein respectively, and the rest of the cast, including Brian Cox (not to be confused with Professor Brian Cox) as Sydney Newman, were excellent. Despite squeezing four years of real life into less than an hour-and a-half, and losing the heroine before the end, An Adventure in Time and Space delivered moving drama. The interviews appended to the end credits were beautifully done, and the photos showing the actors and the real people they played side by side revealed how uncanny the physical casting was. A real highlight of the week. Then no sooner had it finished than BBC4 screened all four parts of the first Doctor Who serial, An Unearthly Child.
There was a lot more across the BBC radio stations that I wasn’t able to keep up with, including a complete reading every night of one of the original Doctor Who novelizations. There was even more online on the BBC’s various websites. All in all the BBC did the Doctor proud.