Today is the 49th anniversary of Doctor Who. And that means we're just 365 days away from the show's big 50th birthday — complete with what will assuredly be the anniversary special to end all anniversary specials.
But whatever Steven Moffat and company have planned for 2013 won't be the first grand birthday celebration Doctor Who has enjoyed. So now, let's take an authoritative look at every previous anniversary special. Strap in, this will be a strange and sometimes underwhelming ride. Featuring multi-Doctor hijinks, renegade Time Lords, a surprising amount of Nazis, hastily forgotten webcasts, and even the occasional crossover with long-running British soap operas. Let's dive in.
The first birthday that Doctor Who properly commemorated was its tenth, which is fair enough when you consider the show spent the vast majority of its first decade simply fighting for its survival. But by 1973, Jon Pertwee was entering his fourth year on the program, the show's Earth-bound approach and large supporting cast of UNIT personnel had struck a chord with the public, and the show's future seemed more assured than it had been at any point since the heady days of Dalekmania at the beginning of William Hartnell's tenure.
But now, the show was ready to end the Doctor's exile and allow him to return to traveling space and time on a full-time basis. To get back in the Time Lords' good graces, the Doctor would need to defeat his greatest foe yet. That of course would be the Time Lord founding father Omega, who spent the last few million years stuck in an antimatter universe — just the sort of opponent that might require the assistance of the Third Doctor's two predecessors.
I'm on record as saying that "The Three Doctors" is my pick for the worst ever classic Doctor Who story (although I'm such a uncritical diehard that I still rather like it). The show's record with multi-Doctor stories is spotty at best, although relatively few of the problems with the story have to do with the additional Doctors. To be sure, the 1973 production team clearly doesn't quite know how to write Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor without turning him into a bit of a silly caricature, and William Hartnell's failing health means the First Doctor only appears via a few remote cameos, although I've always found Hartnell's clear determination to participate rather endearing. Indeed, that very point is discussed in this feature from the recent DVD re-release:
No, the problem is that "The Three Doctors" has, well, three Doctors at its disposal, but barely any story for them. Omega is a shouting, one-dimensional villain, the Brigadier is reduced to a complete buffoon, and there's so much padding that one of the boring supporting characters actually declares his escape attempt was "a bit of a waste of time." The whole thing feels like a fairly large missed opportunity — I'm still a bit bummed that Frazier Hines' work commitments meant that the Second Doctor's trusty companion Jamie MacCrimmon couldn't come along for the fun — but it does at least provide a nice little postscript for William Hartnell's involvement with the show, and it established the bickering relationship between Troughton and Pertwee's Doctors that they would carry forward in the next big anniversary special, as well as any public appearances the two made together from that point forward. And it does get in its fair share of nice little moments, including Sergeant Benton's wonderfully understated reaction to the TARDIS:
The show itself didn't do anything to mark the 15th anniversary. The fourth story in the season-long "Key to Time" arc did go out on November 25, 1978, just two days after the show's birthday. That story is "The Androids of Tara", which is probably the best of the season, a fun romp that takes the basic structure of The Prisoner of Zenda and throws a lot of robots into it, which always makes everything better. (The Futurama episode "The Prisoner of Benda" is an equally good illustration of this point.) Still, the anniversary didn't pass completely unremarked upon, as the BBC's long-running current affairs program Nationwide ran a nice ten-minute tribute to the show, complete with Tom Baker on hand in the Fourth Doctor's costume, in just another instance of the line being blurred between Tom Baker and the Fourth Doctor.
Incidentally, if you're wondering about the show's fifth anniversary — and why wouldn't you? — it's perhaps worth pointing out that an episode did actually air on November 23, 1968: the fourth episode of the rather excellent Patrick Troughton Cybermen epic "The Invasion." That episode sadly no longer exists, although an animated reconstruction was created for the recent DVD release. It's particularly notable as a Cyberman finally shows up for the first time right at the end of the episode, as the show realizes four episodes in that a Cybermen epic really ought to have some Cybermen in it.
Well folks, this is the big one. After a 20th season that had featured returning villains in every single story, "The Five Doctors" was the epic 90-minute TV movie that brings together all of the first five Doctors. Well, except for William Hartnell, of course, who had died a several years before and so was replaced by Richard Hurndall, who gives a distinctive performance that isn't really anything like Hartnell's First Doctor. And of course Tom Baker, who had only recently finished his record-setting seven-year run as the Doctor, declined to appear, so he's represented only by some spliced-in footage from the unfinished Douglas Adams story "Shada." But it's certainly got Peter Davison, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee, and the whole thing is kicked off with archive footage of William Hartnell, featuring his beautifully delivered monologue from the end of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth." It's maybe the single most effective moment of "The Five Doctors"... which I suppose is a pretty damning criticism of "The Five Doctors", but I'll get to that after we watch the first minute or so of this video.
Anyway, the thing is that there's no shortage of classic Doctor Who stories that are legitimately compelling and intelligent, stories with good writing and acting and even sometimes direction. To be sure, there are usually a few embarrassing hiccups in even the best classic stories that are likely to put off non-fans, but that doesn't change the underlying vitality of the stories being told. "The Five Doctors", well, it isn't vital. It's just a romp, a big, silly adventure that somehow has to cobble together a story featuring four Doctors, a bunch of companions, the Cybermen, the Master, the Time Lords, and even a quickie cameo from a Dalek. Terrance Dicks's script just barely makes it all hang together, but this — much like the Paul McGann TV movie, of which I'm a fairly ardent defender — works much better if you can selectively switch your brain off.
While it might have been fun to throw all four available Doctors together and have them go through the adventure together — and I'd say The Avengers has pretty definitively proven that a team-up story on that sort of scale can work, with good writing — the story splits all the Doctors off onto their own mini-quest, only bringing them together right at the end. "The Five Doctors" has more than its fair share of dodgy moments — Susan implausibly twists her ankle when it becomes clear Terrance Dicks can't think of another way to get her back to the TARDIS, and Sarah Jane Smith notoriously requires the Doctor's assistance to pull her up after she falls down an exceedingly gentle hill.
There are relatively few homages to the show's past, most likely because Dicks was understandably too busy just trying to retrofit a working story around this impossible number of Doctors, companions, and enemies. But at least it starts and ends well — it of course begins with the Hartnell monologue, and it wraps up with the Doctor deciding to go on the run from the Time Lords once again, with a closing theme that mixes together Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer's original score with Peter Howell's Davision-era arrangment. "The Five Doctors" is far from perfect, but it seems silly to be too tough on it when it's clearly trying so damn hard.
"Remembrance of the Daleks" is by a pretty wide margin the best anniversary special the show has ever done — indeed, I might place it at number three on my all-time list, behind only "The Caves of Androzani" and "The Robots of Death." From the opening pre-credits scene, which splices together 1963-era soundbites as a spaceship looms above the Earth, the story is a brilliant evocation of the era in which Doctor Who was born, though it doesn't sugarcoat the bigotry and ignorance that pervaded early sixties Britain.
The whole thing is intended as an extremely loose sequel to "An Unearthly Child", the show's very first episode. The 7th Doctor and Ace return to the 76 Totter's Lane, the same junkyard where his adventures started all those years ago. Except now we know why the First Doctor was hanging around there in the first place — he was trying to hide the Hand of Omega, a powerful Time Lord weapon once used to turn a star into a black hole and harness the power of time travel. Now multiple Dalek factions — including the much beloved Special Weapons Dalek! — are after it, as well as a bunch of humans of variably good intentions.
The story is chock full of nods and winks to the show's past, right down to the implication that Ace leaves her boarding house just as an exciting new show called Doctor Who is about to premiere. "Remembrance of the Daleks" throws out references to classic stories like "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", "The Web of Fear", and "Terror of the Zygons" — although not in a way that requires viewers to have actually seen the stories to follow the plot — and the return to Coal Hill School features some subtle visual nods to the fact that the Doctor's original companions Barbara and Ian used to teach there. The story even emphatically disproves the old notion about how Daleks can't climb stairs.
All in all, it's pretty much the perfect anniversary special. Wait, what's that? "Remembrance of the Daleks" isn't the official 25th anniversary special? Then what on Earth is? Oh goodness, I think I know where this is headed...
So here's the deal with "Silver Nemesis", as much as I can figure it. For each of the three seasons of Sylvester McCoy's tenure, the show would take every single leftover idea it had, including all the half-formed ones that didn't really make any sense, and just cram them all into one massively overstuffed story. In his first season, that's "Delta and the Bannerman", which is a lot of bonkers fun and probably the highlight of a very odd season. In the show's final year, it was "Battlefield", which is pretty much the epitome of a glorious mess. Sandwiched in the middle is "Silver Nemesis", the show's official 25th anniversary story.
The story's conception can be traced to two things: freelancer writer Kevin Clarke, who had never seen the show before, pitched a story where the Doctor is revealed to be God, and producer John Nathan-Turner, because the 25th is the silver anniversary, requested that the silver-clad Cybermen be involved. The result is a story that somehow involves a time-traveling 17th century sorceress, a bunch of Neo-Nazis, and a platoon of extremely easy-to-kill Cybermen fighting over a statue of living metal that orbits Earth every 25 years, and has now finally crashed. Also American stage actress Dolores Gray shows up as a ridiculous caricature of a rich Texan woman, because... honestly, your guess is as good as mine.
The story has a few links to the show's history, notably a crowd scene packed with various old Doctor Who actors and production team members. But the whole "silver" theme never really develops into anything, except possibly a Cybermen snuff film, as the once fearsome Mondasian bruisers are reduced to mere cannon fodder, and fairly ineffective cannon fodder at that. It's not an unmitigated disaster, but it's definitely the worst of classic Doctor Who's creative resurgence in its final two seasons, and it seems silly to call it the 25th anniversary story when something so much better is just sitting right there. Oh well.
Ah yes, "The Dark Dimension." Where to begin with this legendary lost production? In 1992, Doctor Who was a particularly low ebb. The show had been off the air for three years, and there was little reason to think the public wanted it back. The TV movie — which, for all its faults, likely kept the flame of Doctor Who burning long enough to enable the 2005 revival — was still four years and a thousand drafts away. Into this void stepped Adrian Rigelsford, a long-time fan and writer who approached BBC Enterprises with a plan to make a direct-to-video film for the following year to mark the show's 30th anniversary. The idea supposedly spun off from Tom Baker, who according to Rigelsford had gone to the BBC and informed them that he was willing to reprise the role for the first time in over a decade. If that sounds a bit muddled... well, so is everything else to do with "The Dark Dimension."
The plot, as best as people can work out, began with the Seventh Doctor's funeral, with it then being revealed that the Fourth Doctor had never regenerated, instead growing older to match Tom Baker's own current age, and now living as a hermit. This alternate Fourth Doctor teams up with versions of the Brigadier and Ace, the latter of which only remembers the Doctor through some strange dreams she's been having. And the trio encounter versions of the Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors, as well as the Daleks, Cybermen, and Ice Warriors, all while leading up to a final confrontation with the grand manipulator, the villainous Hawkspur. The Fourth Doctor finally saves the day, then regenerates through all his subsequent incarnations in a flash so that the restored Seventh Doctor can resume his adventures with Ace.
Honestly, it sounds like it could at least theoretically work, although by all accounts the actual script is pretty dire. Part of Rigelsford's brief was to make the special darker and more mature, playing up Doctor Who's horror elements and creating new, much scarier and more grotesque versions of the three returning monsters. The thing might still have gotten made, if not for a couple key factors. First, BBC Enterprises was actually the marketing wing of the BBC, and so had little experience in mounting a production — crucially, they didn't bother to actually contact any of the Doctors other than Tom Baker, assuming all would want to be involved and not require trifling matters like contract negotiations. In particular, Jon Pertwee and Peter Davison said they had no interest in making cameo appearances in an anniversary special that was all about Tom Baker. The second problem was that, again, BBC Enterprises was a marketing wing, and BBC1 eventually pointed out they had no business making original productions in the first place, bringing "The Dark Dimension" to an ignominious end. For even more on this whole bizarre story, go here.
With "The Dark Dimension" scrapped, it fell to the show's longtime producer John Nathan-Turner to come up with an anniversary special that would be aired as part of 1993's Children in Need Telethon — the same annual charity event that also saw the premieres of "The Five Doctors" and later mini-episodes like "Time Crash", and "Space"/"Time." For reasons that could best be described as "poorly thought out", the Children in Need organizers apparently required Nathan-Turner to write a Doctor Who story that crossed over with EastEnders, the popular long-running soap opera about working-class Londoners.
Nathan-Turner came up with a story that involved the Rani, a villainous Time Lady who had made a pair of appearances late in the show's run, attempting to capture all the Doctors' incarnations in a time loop. She had supposedly already captured the 1st and 2nd Doctors, allowing for the late William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton to be represented as floating statue busts. Tom Baker was only willing to appear in a pre-filmed monologue, which left the other four surviving Doctors to make up the bulk of the 12-minute special.
The central conceit is that the Rani's interference is causing the 7th Doctor and Ace to shift into earlier Doctors and companions — sometimes multiple companions at once, which might be a bit strange if I had the slightest clue how all this worked — as they flip between 1973, 1993, and 2013 in Albert Square, the setting of EastEnders, complete with a few cameos from that show's cast. Also, it finally allowed the Sixth Doctor to meet the Brigadier, which is one of those things that I realize shouldn't matter to a sane human, and yet it totally matters to me.
"Dimensions in Time" is generally considered the worst thing to ever carry the Doctor Who imprimatur. This reputation wasn't helped by the fact that it was only aired the once in 1993, and the cast only made it on the understanding that it would never be repeated or released on video or DVD. Honestly, watching it now, it's pretty awful, but I'm not sure it's quite that awful. It's silly, pointless, faintly embarrassing for all involved, and kind of painful to watch, but at least it's not actively offensive. Yeah... not my best defense. I still like it better than "The Runaway Bride" though.
My knowledge of Doctor Who spin-off media is tilted decidedly towards the audio dramas as opposed to the books — as you'll see in a moment — so I don't have as much to say about Lance Parkin's 1998 novel The Infinity Doctors. It's certainly the most innovative anniversary celebration, as it doesn't just eschew the usual multi-Doctor escapades, it actually doesn't necessarily feature any of the Doctors we know. The novel is set on Gallifrey and finds the Doctor fully integrated — or perhaps reintegrated — into Time Lord society. The main character might be the First Doctor when he was still a young man, or it might be the Eighth Doctor at some indeterminate point in his then-ongoing adventures, or it might simply be a Doctor who doesn't fit into the show's continuity as we understand it.
It's an intriguing approach, a way of streamlining the Doctor to his essentials and throwing him into a strange yet oddly familiar setting. He's not the only possibly familiar character to show up — one of the Doctor's closest associates is known as the Magistrate, and it's strongly hinted that he's meant to be the Master. The story is set against the backdrop of a peace summit between the Sontarans and Rutans. Omega himself is also heavily featured, which is only appropriate considering his central role in "The Three Doctors", not to mention "Arc of Infinity", which kicked off the 20th anniversary season. And for all its intentional ambiguities about its larger context, The Infinity Doctors accidentally serves as a rather intriguing prelude to the Time War, as it's made clear that the Time Lords have long known Gallifrey's destruction will one day come, and the Doctor will likely play the crucial role in its fate. You know, I think I've just talked myself into reading the damn thing.
Poor old "Scream of the Shalka." Here's the deal — in mid-2003, the BBC still had no interest in bringing Doctor Who back as a TV series, and the primary, if rather vague, interest in the property was to take it to Hollywood and turn it into a movie. As such, the BBC's website, then known as BBCi, decided something was better than nothing and so secured approval to make an official continuation of the show, with a new, Flash-animated Ninth Doctor whose adventures would be told in webcasts.
Richard E. Grant, best known for his work as the gloriously inebriated actor Withnail alongside Paul McGann in Withnail & I, was cast in the role, and he was given a pair of companions: Sophie Okonedo as levelheaded barmaid Alison Cheney and Derek Jacobi as a robotic, seemingly tame version of the Master. Paul Cornell, who went on to write one of the all-time best stories of the new series with "Human Nature"/"Family of Blood", scripted the story, which found the irascible new Doctor and UNIT working together to repel the invading Shalka from a small Lancashire village. The whole thing was slated to premiere in November 2003, providing an all-new, official story for the show's 40th anniversary, even if it probably wasn't quite what fans wanted.
But then, in very bad news for "Scream of the Shalka" but excellent news for everyone else, BBC One Controller Lorraine Heggessey managed to convince BBC Worldwide to bring the show back to television. Russell T. Davies was brought in to oversee the new series, and on September 26, 2003, the revival was officially announced. The rest is history — and so was "Scream of the Shalka", which still hadn't even aired yet! The webcast was kicked out of the official continuity, plans for a DVD release were quietly shelved, and the whole thing withered away to nothing.
Honestly, this was probably for the best. "Scream of the Shalka" certainly isn't terrible, but it's a resolutely minor work, telling a deeply traditional story about UNIT and aliens in quiet English villages whereas Davies's new series — for better or worse — kicked Doctor Who squarely into the 21st century. Its main, albeit accidental legacy, is how many people involved in the webcast went on to work on the series — Paul Cornell is one of the best writers the new series has had, Derek Jacobi of course went on to play the Master for real in "Utopia", Sophie Okonedo appeared as Liz 10 in "The Beast Below", Richard E. Grant himself is set to appear in next month's Christmas special, and "Scream of the Shalka" even features a cameo from a rising Scottish actor called David Tennant, who I believe had some minor guest role on The Sarah Jane Adventures or something. Even so, I'd still like to know what the hell was going on with that robot Master.
While Richard E. Grant was enjoying his brief, abortive tenure as the 9th Doctor, his four predecessors came together for this three-hour audio drama from Big Finish, who have been making officially licensed Doctor Who audio stories for over a decade. Beyond bringing together Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann — plus some archive audio of Jon Pertwee, in a particularly nice touch — the rest of the cast includes former companions Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier), Anneke Wills (Polly), Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), Louise Jameson (Leela), John Leeson (K9), Lalla Ward (Romana II), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), Mark Strickson (Turlough), Nicola Bryant (Peri), Bonnie Langford (Mel), and Sophie Aldred (Ace) in one gigantic story. Except almost none of those actors are playing their familiar characters, for reasons that are — well, they're damn complicated. Let me take a deep breath and see if I can explain this thing...
So basically the Eighth Doctor and the TARDIS have been infected with anti-time, which they contracted while visiting an anti-time universe in order to fix the paradoxical survival of the Doctor's companion Charley, who should have died on an airship but didn't, and so the anti-time has completely scrambled the Doctor's mind, so the TARDIS creates these simulations of moments where invaders called the Divergents from another parallel universe almost broke through into our own, and the people in these simulations look like previous Doctors and their companions because it's all being built from the TARDIS memory banks, except it's all a trick and Rassilon is behind it, because he's evil now, and so the Doctor and these three men who look like the three previous Doctors but aren't quite them have to team up to take him on, and the whole thing is sort of a big homage to "The Five Doctors", and then the Doctor dies, except he doesn't, and he has to go off into the other parallel universe, where the Divergents live.
"Zagreus" clearly can't be summarized without making the speaker sound like a complete lunatic, and that's pretty much the problem with it — there's an awful lot going on in it, but I've listened to it twice and still barely understand what's going on. And this isn't like "Ghost Light" or "Warriors' Gate" — Doctor Who stories that are deliberately difficult and opaque and deserve multiple viewings to puzzle out. The whole thing feels like one very long excuse to not just do a straight-up multi-Doctor story, and while a lot of individual elements are intriguing, it never really coheres like it should.
It does, however, offer an interesting take on the Doctor's relationship with the TARDIS that serves as a potential alternative to Neil Gaiman's interpretation in "The Doctor's Wife", and much like William Hartnell's inclusion in "The Three Doctors", Jon Pertwee's posthumous cameo is a heartwarming touch. Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy get a decent amount of time together, although they only get a single brief scene with Paul McGann where they're all playing their Doctors.The run-up to "Zagreus" did feature a trilogy of stories entitled "Omega", "Davros", and "Master", in which the 5th, 6th, and 7th Doctors respectively each took on the titular iconic foe, and they ended up being a rather more successful celebration of the show's illustrious past.
November 2003 also saw the release of a 3rd Doctor novel written by the two architects of that Doctor Who era, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks. While "Scream of the Shalka" tried to push forward and "Zagreus" tried to celebrate everything — both with decidedly mixed results — Deadly Reunion is content to tell a pair of straightforward stories set comfortably in the world of early seventies Doctor Who.
Barry Letts writes the first of these, a flashback to the Brigadier's early days, when he was still just Second Lieutenant Lethbridge-Stewart. His time mapping Greek islands for the British army brings him into contact with beings who really, really appear to be Greek gods, not to mention a brief fling with a 3,701-year-old woman. Terrance Dicks handles the second half of the story, which if certain reviews are to be believed is dangerously close to just be a thin rewrite of "The Daemons." The whole thing is weirdly mystical and decidedly familiar in the way only Pertwee-era Doctor Who can be, and is probably best left for the diehard fans of that particular era.
Perhaps because the 45th anniversary isn't that big of a deal — especially when the revival had only been going for four years at that point — there's no acknowledgment of Doctor Who's sapphire anniversary on the show itself. The 2008 Christmas special, "The Next Doctor", is the episode that aired closest to the 45th anniversary, and beyond the fact that its title vaguely recalls the titles of anniversary specials past, there's nothing that really indicates it's meant to commemorate a milestone for the show.
But Big Finish stepped into the gap to provide an exceedingly fun 45th anniversary adventure in the form of "Forty-five." The audio drama is actually four linked stories featuring the 7th Doctor, Ace, and their new traveling companion Thomas Hector Schofield, or just Hex. The short stories include an early expedition of legendary archaeologist Howard Carter — voiced by Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch — mind control experiments gone awry on a distant planet, a trip into Ace's past in the final days of World War II, and a confrontation with the Word Lord, an extra-dimensional assassin who has mastery over language in much the same way the Doctor has mastery over time. The number 45 is a recurring motif throughout the stories before its significance is at last revealed in the final story.
While "Forty-five" is light on the celebratory flourishes and homages to the show's past, what it does do is showcase all the different kinds of stories Doctor Who can tell, as well as weave the sort of complex temporal mystery that is the sort of story that only Doctor Who can tell. Much like the technically unofficial "Remembrance of the Daleks", it's the best kind of anniversary special — one that celebrates Doctor Who simply by being a damn fine story in its own right. And if there's anything Steven Moffat, Matt Smith, and company should take from all these past anniversary specials as we head towards the 50th, that's probably the best lesson of them all.