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Looking Back Over Doctor Who’s Anniversaries

Guest contributor Gustaff takes a trip back in time to look at the past anniversaries.

We’re fast approaching the big Five-O, so what better reason do we need to go back and examine the different recipes that the previous Anniversary Specials have utilized to try and determine in what direction the 50th will go. I will act as Ghost-of-Anniversaries-Past and take you back to four groundbreaking dynamics in Doctor Who’s 50 year heritage.

THE THREE DOCTORS – 10th [TIN] ANNIVERSARY

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What is it about?

The Third Doctor is investigating a mysterious blob which is hunting him for down for Omega. The situation proves a bit too tough for the Doctor, so he calls the Time Lords for assistance. Shame they are much too busy to help, but vote that it’s okay (for them anyway) to break one of the cardinal Time Lord rules and send the Second Doctor to help out. Unfortunately the two Doctors much prefer to fight each other so the First Doctor is sent in to take charge. While the Third Doctor and Jo are sent to meet Omega, the Second Doctor, the Brigadier and Benton stay on Earth to content with another set of monsters that have invaded UNIT. Eventually they too are transported to Omega’s universe where they learn Omega wants to leave and that they have to act as the Atlas’ holding this universe together. The Doctors trick Omega, escape back to their universe, the Second Doctor goes back to where he came from, as does the First and as a reward for saving the universe, the Third Doctor’s exile on Earth is lifted.

Story Style

The Three Doctors was written with some emphasis on divide and conquer as the story does feature the Doctors apart for a considerable amount of time, although not nearly as much as with later specials. This story gives us plenty of humor and every character gets to do something which actually adds to the story. The Brigadier offers the comic relief, Benton acts as the genre savvy bloke, the Second Doctor is on standby to whimsically troll and be the clever one that sticks the plot together while the Third Doctor and Jo channel Sherlock and Watson and explore the narrative. All in all, the story is spread evenly and has a good pace that makes it feel as though the story has just the right length without wasting too many scenes.

What worked?

This story was tailor-made for two Doctors, although we have three; the minimal involvement of the First actually boosts the story’s dexterity. The writers spent enough time pitting the Doctors against one another as would later become tradition, included plenty of jokes without taking away the seriousness of the situation, didn’t waste the main characters and let sufficient continuity nods slip out of the bag to keep fans happy.

What didn’t work?

Professor Tyler. I can’t imagine the story suffering without his involvement or extended involvement. Also the special effects in this story are less than desirable, even for Doctor Who at the time. Omega’s constant rants and hammy raves took away some of the seriousness that was being set up and was downright annoying, but other than that, this story stands as one of the better multi-doctor specials we’ve had.

THE FIVE DOCTORS – 20th [CHINA] ANNIVERSARY

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What is it about?

A vacation to the Eye of Orion takes a turn for the worst when the Fifth Doctor’s past lives are abruptly removed from time, causing the Doctor to collapse. He, Tegan and Turlough are transported to the Death Zone to meet up with the First Doctor and Susan, while the Second Doctor teams up with the Brigadier, the Third rescues Sarah-Jane and the Fourth and Romana get stuck in a Time Eddy. The Time Lords try to find the Doctor…fail…then decide to use the perfect man for the job – the Master. I’m not sure if this logic works or not, but okay. I suppose he is an expert at finding the Doctor, but he’s also an expert at trying to kill the man once he’s found him.

Back in the Death Zone, the First Doctor takes off with Tegan towards the Dark Tower, the Second Doctor and the Brigadier do the same, but head down under while the Third Doctor and Sarah-Jane go up high. There are a few encounters with Cybermen, Yeti, the Master, but while the Fifth Doctor escapes and finds the plot back on Gallifrey, his other selves make it to Chamber of Rassilon. Five plays the Harp of Rassilon, which leads him to the Fort of Rassilon, gets hypnotized by Borusa using the Ring of Rassilon and accompanies Borusa to Rassilon himself (Anyone else wondering how the Time Lords refer to Rassilon’s undergarments?). Once there, the Doctors trick Borusa and make it to the end of the plot and spend some time bantering with one another before leaving. Afterwards, Five is awarded the title of Lord President – again! He escapes his duty in his TARDIS and reminds Tegan with a sly grin that he prefers it this way as “that’s how it all started.”

Story Style

The Five Doctors feels as though it could’ve been called Race to Rassilon Tower. It has a Race to Witch Mountain or Journey to the West plot feel about it with the Doctors each being given their own companions and their own obstacles preventing them from reaching the Dark Tower. This actually works well as it allows for multiple villains to show up without making it feel forced.

What worked?

This story, which featured four Doctors instead of five, like its predecessor, works. Adding another Doctor would’ve just slowed down the story significantly. The plot is extremely thinly spread, but just manages to achieve what it sets out to do. Scattering villains and Doctors around proved a capable plot device that worked as a way of paying homage to the past without it feeling as though it had been done out of compulsion. Another excellent idea is that the Doctors, most notably the First Doctor, is teamed up with a companion from his future. The idea of the Doctors not being accompanied by their respective companions adds a new dynamic to the narrative and gives it an inimitable zest.

What didn’t work?

There isn’t much banter between the Doctors and unfortunately, the narrative is so crammed full with guest stars that some of the characters are wasted. I am of course referring to Turlough and Susan. This story wouldn’t have been damaged if they weren’t included as the bit with the Cybermen attempting to blow up the TARDIS was poor. Very poor indeed!

DIMENSIONS IN TIME – 30th [PEARL] ANNIVERSARY

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What is it about?

The Seventh Doctor and Ace land in an EastEnders soap opera, but the Rani does something which shuffles the Doctor through his various incarnations and replaces his companions until we have seen about three-quarters of all the actors who have graced Doctor Who with their presence. The setting shifts between twenty years ago to twenty years later; leaving the audience sucking their thumb because they have completely lost faith that there is any sort of plot to this story. The Rani captures Romana, who transforms into Leela, whose presence has somehow messed up the Rani’s plan by having two Time Brains in her computer even though Leela isn’t a Time Lady. UNIT also show up for no apparent reason other than to show the audience that Doctor Who can now afford a helicopter instead of a disguised car like they had in Battlefield and have the Brigadier finally meet the Sixth Doctor, albeit at the cost of the plot. The Seventh Doctor then instructs K-9 to solve the climax of the story. It’s as simple as that…or is it?

Story Style

I wasn’t aware it had one. The most obvious thing that comes to mind is that they wanted to cram as much of thirty years’ worth of Doctor Who into a story that isn’t even thirty minutes long. From the companions popping up with no explanation, to the montage of monsters that don’t really do anything, this story is Mount Nostalgia erupting in a volcanic mess.

What worked?

Attempting to do a Doctor Who special on the minuscule budget they had and the devotion of the actors to reprise their roles without pay shows their commitment to Doctor Who. Other than that, who knows?

What didn’t work?

You’re not seriously expecting me to answer this one, are you?

ZAGREUS – 40th [RUBY] ANNIVERSARY

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What is it about?

Who knows? No seriously I don’t. I’d be ever so grateful if someone could please tell me what and where the plot is because I can’t seem to locate it anywhere and I’ve listened to it like four times already. The Eighth Doctor is suffering from Zagreus Syndrome and acting like a ham, while Charley slips into a bad parody of Alice in Wonderland where she begins to meet the Doctor’s previous companions, albeit playing different roles and not really adding to the narrative at all. We are introduced to the Fifth Doctor, now a rude reverend, the Sixth Doctor as an egomaniacal (that’s not much of a change really) vampire and the Seventh Doctor playing a dirty old man. Meanwhile the Eighth Doctor meets the TARDIS in the form of the Brigadier and is led on another adventure, switching between Doctor and Zagreus while Romana and Leela, the only two people that actually make a lick of sense to be in this story, are left to drag the tale on until we arrive at the very end where the Doctor dies, has a brief conversation with his three other selves in the afterlife, then undies, saves the day and is expelled to an alternative universe by Romana for everyone’s own protection. Oh and Rassilon’s in this story too somewhere.

Story Style

Following roughly the same baseline as Dimensions in Time, Zagreus tried to tell a longer story in three parts. Unfortunately these parts were too long and made the story dense. Indeed, the story is in fact so long that the plot tends to be forgotten by the listeners not even halfway through.

What worked?

Trying to give all the actors involved in this story something to do. The irony of the situation is that they killed the narrative that way.  The idea of Zagreus is great, the TARDIS coming to life and the Doctor exiled to a universe without time…all great! The idea of past actors playing different roles is also a blameless notion, but as the story is in audio format, one tends to wonder why they couldn’t just be reprising their roles as the Doctor. It’s audio. We can’t actually see the age.

What didn’t work?

The plot in general, the length of over 3 ½ hours, the amount of returning guest stars, the characterization of the Eighth Doctor, the characterization of Charley Pollard…again, Charley Pollard trying to take charge of the situation, Charley Pollard confessing her love for the Doctor, the TARDIS as a man, the TARDIS torturing the Doctor. The list goes on and on and on and on. I’m not exaggerating, it really does go on. If you think I am, I’ll put it in perspective for you: The first ten minutes of this story is a ‘Previously on Doctor Who’ from the Neverland story. That has to be the longest recap ever!

COMING SOON: THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR – 50th [GOLDEN] ANNIVERSARY

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As we can see, the recent milestone celebrations haven’t really delivered. This adds to the pressure of making the Golden Anniversary something that’ll blow the last forty nine years of Doctor Who out of the water and make us really ask: “Doctor Who?”

We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. Stories that are too long and too cluttered with too many returning actors sound like a dream come true, but can quickly turn into a night terror the likes of which could scare the Daleks.

Another important aspect that was present in all the past Anniversaries was the homage to the past. Unfortunately, in the last few decades, television has evolved to a point where things Doctor Who could’ve gotten away with forty years ago, just won’t fly anymore. Nobody minded Pat’s greys in The Two Doctors, or Jon’s increase in width in The Five Doctors, but today, where the majority of Doctor Who fans are not diehard fans, things like these are impractical. The best you can hope for are Fake Shemps like they had in The Name of the Doctor.

Lastly, realize that it is impossible to please everyone. I want you to stop reading this article for a moment and just imagine your ideal Anniversary Special.

Have it?

Okay. Now forget it and realize that it won’t be anything like that. It will be much better!

Step back in time...

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