Why not including any Classic Doctors in 50th would be a mistake
Guest contributor Christopher Brown explains.
First off: while I discovered Doctor Who when David Tennant’s Doctor was already on air, it was the Classic series I was introduced to and fell in love with first. It was a few years later when the combined efforts of “Blink”, Matt Smith, and the improved writing in Series 5 finally converted me to a follower of “NuWho”. From then on, I accepted NuWho as a true continuation of the show I loved despite my reservations with the Russell T. Davies era.
I was deeply saddened by Doctor Who Magazine’s announcement back in May that no Classic Doctors would be appearing in the 50th Anniversary. At the same time, I understand why so many fans don’t mind the lack of Classic Doctors. It wasn’t they whom these fans were introduced to, but the new series Doctors. I completely respect that, and when the 50th does air I hope everyone who watches it enjoys it.
But what baffles me is the accusations aimed at fans disappointed by the turn of events that they are being unreasonable, or have too-high expectations for the show.
The accusers in question often support each other as “the voices of reason”, and claim that it would have been impossible to feature the Classic Doctors in the special anyways. This is utter nonsense in my opinion, and I have written this article as what is hopefully a balanced counter-point to those arguments. As we will see below, there are many ways the Classic Doctors could have been featured in the Special.
A side-note: for the purposes of this article, I am taking everything that has been said about the special at face value. Some hopeful fans might hope that the whole announcement was a ruse and the Classic Doctors will be in the 50th anyways, but honestly I cannot see the point of such a ruse due to the extreme negative reaction it received from certain corners of fandom. I am also assuming that the nature of the plot doesn’t automatically preclude the use of Classic Doctors, and also that John Hurt’s Doctor is an integral part of the story. By “Classic Doctors” I’m referring specifically to the Fourth through Eighth Doctors; I’m sure that whatever the scenario the absence of the first three Doctors could be explained away (perhaps whatever device brings the older Doctors back malfunctions after a certain point, or the first three are too far back in the timeline to be brought back for some reason).
The most common reason thrown around why the Classic Doctors shouldn’t have been in the 50th is that the actors are too old to be convincing anymore. Before we even dive into this, the fact is that Paul McGann hasn’t even started greying yet as far as we know, so any application of this reason to his non-appearance is patently absurd.
As for the other Classic Doctors… first off, the mini-episode “Time Crash” already gave a perfectly logical explanation as to why returning Doctors looked older than during their time on the show, and that explanation could easily have been used again. Second, the implicit suggestion in this statement that the older Doctors are incapable of recapturing their performances of old is plainly silly, as anyone who has listened to the Big Finish audios featuring them can attest that their performances are just as powerful as (and in some cases even better than) they were on TV.
The second common reason is that too many Doctors in one story would overcomplicate it. This reason may be more valid, but first off let me point out that Steven Moffat is largely a superior writer to Terrance Dicks and the duo of Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who wrote the previous anniversary stories. He should have a sense of how to balance characters out while still delivering a satisfying plot. It would have been hard work, but it could have been done. And if Moffat didn’t think he was capable of writing such a story satisfactorily, then he should have found or collaborated with someone who was (Neil Gaiman perhaps? It would have been a better use of his efforts than “Nightmare in Silver”, and allowed for a two-parter in the second half of Series 7).
In any case, if it really would be impossible for there’s no reason why the older Doctors couldn’t have had cameos or reduced roles compared to Tennant, Smith, and Hurt. Perhaps give the aforementioned three the main bulk of the action, and have the Classic Doctors turn up near the climax to assist them somehow, giving each one a moment to shine in the process? They wouldn’t even have to appear in person – perhaps they could have done voice work, with their Doctors appearing as holograms or some such phenomenon?
But let’s say that this, the ideal option, wouldn’t work out for some (silly) reason. Well, there’s still an easy way at least one of the Classic Doctors could have appeared. Remember that originally Christopher Eccleston was approached to be in the 50th as well, meaning that Moffat could have had another Doctor in the story. Technically, they could have had two Classic Doctors had they swapped out Tennant, leaving two slots open. I know it would be disappointing for some for Tennant not to be included in the Anniversary, but I’ll explain why the Classic Doctors take priority below.
Which Doctors should return?
The question is: which two Doctors should have filled the empty slots? The obvious choices to me are Tom Baker and Paul McGann. Tom because he is still very much the face of the Classic series, not to mention he’s the oldest surviving actor to play the Doctor and this would possibly have been his last chance to appear on the show. Ever since he left the show in 1981, there has been something of a mystique about his Doctor; he turned down the chance to appear in “The Five Doctors”, and he only recently returned to playing the Doctor in Big Finish’s audio plays. McGann because he looks the most like he did when he started playing the Doctor and, obviously, because he of any of the Doctors deserves to reprise his role due to only playing it once on-screen.
But let’s say that Tennant, as the modern face of the show and the most popular Doctor, was chosen to be in the special anyways, meaning that only one Classic Doctor could play a major part. In which case, either option would work, though I personally would choose McGann.
As for the other Classic Doctors, now including either Baker or McGann? Go the oft-suggested route and have them play background roles. Why not have them say a few lines referencing their character, wink knowingly at the audience, and be off? In an ordinary story this might be distracting, but this is a big anniversary television story – a little wink at the fourth wall is certainly permitted here.
With all of these possibilities comes the supposed issue of the fact that the older Doctors wouldn’t be capable of the same running around as was possible in their younger days. In which case, the solution is simple – give the younger Doctors the main action/running-around roles, and give the intellectual/vocal challenges (such as talking down the main villain) to the older Doctors. There could even be some humor derived from the fact that the older Doctors suddenly find themselves aged and must adjust to it for the duration of the episode.
Forward, not back
Lastly, I would like to take a look at Steven Moffat’s excuses for the absence of the senior Doctors in the 50th. One excuse is that he wants to move the show “forward, not back.” This is quite strange, because if that was really his goal, then why bring back David Tennant and Billie Piper in the first place? The second main excuse is that he wanted to do a “different kind of Anniversary story”. Which is all well and good…but why now?
With his latter statement, Moffat seems to be suggesting that this is just another anniversary story, rather than the truly golden opportunity that it was. This was the last chance to have a traditional multi-Doctor story with the majority of the classic Doctors involved! There will never, ever be another chance to unite the Classic Series and the New Series into one story, or to celebrate the show’s history by involving the stars of prior eras.
The fact is, it’s quite possible that ten years from now some of the classic Doctors may not be around or else could be physically incapable of appearing at all. Tennant, McGann, and even Eccleston all have the opportunity to reappear for the 60th Anniversary, whereas Doctors Four to Seven may not. When the time came for selecting whom to bring back for the 50th Anniversary, I think I know who I’d have prioritized to return.
Above all, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann aren’t just national treasures to Great Britain, they are treasures and cultural icons to the whole world. Their contributions to Doctor Who are uncountable, their legacy irreplaceable. And in the 50th year, the most important since the show’s beginning, the encapsulation of half a century of Doctor Who, the fact that Doctors Four to Eight were not even approached to be involved with the Special is simply bizarre.
There are millions of Doctor Who fans who have never seen a classic episode, and probably never will. As for those who have…I’ve tried to introduce some of my friends to the Classic Series, and while some do enjoy it, others simply cannot get into it. At best, the classic series is a mere historical curiosity for the majority of the current generation of Doctor Who fans.
As a celebration of 50 years of the show’s history, this would have been the chance to showcase to all of those fans just how great the Classic Doctors were, as well as provide a firm link between the Classic and revived series. Instead, when they tune in to see the aforementioned encapsulation of Doctor Who history, the only old faces they will probably see are the Tenth Doctor and Rose, whom many already love and adore from their years on the show.
As for the supposed tributes to the classic series in the special, these feel half-hearted at best. [Possible 50th spoiler warning…]
Revisiting 76 Totter’s Lane isn’t very special – they already did so twice on the classic series! And the idea that having cameos for the paraphernalia of the surviving classic Doctors, like sticking the Fourth Doctor’s scarf on one character, is somehow a suitable replacement for the actors who wore them is a complete joke.
In the end, nothing I write here can change the course of history. Everything related to the 50th has already been filmed and decided, and when it airs, I hope it satisfies the millions of fans who watch it, with or without the optional 3D effect. But no matter how great it turns out to be, and regardless of one’s view on the matter, the lack of classic Doctors in the celebration will always be a disappointment.