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Doctor Who - The Ultimate Adventure

By Mark Olsen

As one of the longest-running TV series in the world, the popularity of Doctor Who has spilt over into just about every medium - books, comics, films, radio, even a No.1 hit single. Less well known are the stage versions, of which the latest - subtitled The Ultimate Adventure - has been a smash success in its London and provincial English tour, bringing Jon Pertwee and later Colin Baker to the stage amid time-spanning battles with Daleks and Cybermen and flashy laser and computer effects.

The script came from Terrance Dicks, whom anybody with any passing familiarity with the TV series will not fail to recognise as former script-writer and editor, and in more recent years as author of numerous novelisations. Dicks also wrote the Seven Keys to Doomsday play.

The plot opens in the Number 10 nightclub on Earth as a US peace envoy are kidnapped by Cybermen. Taking on board nightclub singer Crystal; Jason, a handsome young Marquis from the French Revolution; and Zog, a short furry alien that spends most of its time polishing the Doctor's boots, the Doctor sets out in a time-and-planet-hopping quest, encountering evil mercenaries, Daleks and Cybermen, a race of flying insect people and asteroid storms in the TARDIS.

John Nathan-Tuner was originally cited as director, but his decision to return to the TV series for Season 26 cancelled this idea. Director-choreographer Carole Todd, who had just returned from an Australian tour of Starlight Express was the replacement, although Nathan-Turner is billed with the nebulous term of Creative Consultant. Producer Mark Furness was behind the version of Ira Levin's Deathtrap which had starred Colin Baker and the similar TV-to-stage production of 'Allo, 'Allo, which toured here last year. He is currently planning a stage production of the TV series Bread. Furness negotiated rights from the BBC, and found the costly £500,000 budget. The dazzling on-stage special effects, involving both lasers and computer graphics, came from Foys of Las Vegas who, among their many stage productions, had produced the simulated space walks for NASA. Rehearsals began 27 February 1989 for a Thursday, 23 March opening date in Wimbledon Theatre.

Dicks specifically tuned the script for Jon Pertwee. Indeed it is filled with many familiar Pertwee-isms, references to Venusian karate and the obligatory "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" line. Dicks had also written the Seven Keys to Doomsday play with Pertwee in mind as well, but Pertwee's schedule for the series meant he had to decline. Pertwee was initially reticent about accepting the role again: "I felt it was a retrograde step. But the thought that it hadn't been done much on stage made it something new."

Jon Pertwee held the stage admirably, from all accounts, bringing to the role the same tongue-in-cheek appeal he did on TV, even taking minor mishaps such as the TARDIS console rolling away from him in his stride. "Jon Pertwee is as wonderful as the Doctor as he always is," said DWM. " He is funny, touching, and demonstrates how experienced a performer he is. Not for a second was he dwarfed by the massive amount of technical stuff around him." "Jon Pertwee is excellent," said Starburst. "His Doctor is as charming and watchable as ever, holding the show together with a beautiful balance of total conviction and comedic skill."

In relation to a question about his 71-year-old age made at the press release of the play, Pertwee said: "I still snow and water-ski, dive and ride a motorbike. I swim every day, although not in London because all the youngsters run after me saying 'There's Worzel Gummidge or Doctor Who'. Contrary to rumour Pertwee's health did not become too bad to carry on. He only ever contracted to do a three-month tour, thinking anything longer too exhausting. At the end of the run Colin Baker took over the role.

Ironically for Baker, he had turned down the role during initial casting, owing to commitments to his play Run for Your Wife. Many fans were glad to see Baker return, feeling that he had been unjustly treated during his term as the Doctor with the eighteen month cancellation of the series during 1985 and his subsequent unceremonious firing. He took up the role on 5 June 1989 in Newcastle after a remarkable only two weeks of rehearsal. The play underwent minor re-writes and scene trims to accommodate his own peculiar interpretation of the role of the Doctor.

Making a comparison between working with Pertwee and Baker, David Banks says: "Jon's Doctor is very dignified and upright - unflappable - and Jon is very much like that as well; somebody's who's very charming and paces himself very well. He can be quite sedate in my experience, but I don't think you can call working with Colin sedate because Colin has this (people say it is because of his barrister training) very quick, sometimes razor-sharp wit."

The role of the Doctor was briefly taken by David (Cyberleader) Banks, for several performances when Pertwee, suffering from a cold, took ill during a performance. Banks was the understudy for the role and stepped in at a moment's notice. His Doctor was a notably casual one, perhaps modelled on the Peter Davison characterisation, in a tan sports coat and matching pants, T-shirt and Indiana Jones fedora. The audience was naturally disappointed at Pertwee's sudden departure and reticent at Banks's replacement, but quickly accepted him, ending with a standing ovation. Said Banks: "They all were expecting Jon Pertwee and had paid a lot of money to see him. The announcement went out to stunned silence. The profundity of the silence continued for the first few scenes so it seemed like a straight play to start off with, but gradually they realised they were getting a story that made sense and a few jokes and they warmed up... And at the curtain call they just erupted and I saw little groups standing and then more and more groups - an actual standing ovation." There are already calls going out for Banks to play the Doctor after Sylvester McCoy's term ends. "It would be very nice if that happened of course! Whatever happens, I have played the Doctor and nobody can take that away from me - it is the Cyberleader's greatest triumph."

The Ultimate Adventure is not only a play, it is also a musical. There are three pop-rock numbers, one from the female companion Crystal, the second a duet with her and the male companion Jason, the third a raunchy number from the alien bar-woman Delilah. Terrance Dicks does point out that this version is not like most musicals; the numbers are tied in to the plot and do have a natural place.

The musical idea was reflected in two of the more interesting choices for casting - Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan - the teen idol stars of TV's Aussie soap Neighbours, both who have turned their screen success into success in the pop charts. Both they and Neighbours have a huge following in Britain and the casting would no doubt have been a major coup in attracting a large non-Doctor Who teen audience. But unfortunately (or fortunately for the tastefully-minded) both of their schedules allowed no room for a several month stage run.

Other members of the cast include Australian-born Graeme Smith plays the young handsome French Marquis companion Jason. Smith previously toured in England as Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Show. He liked the role, it giving him the chance to perform in an action part. Rebecca Thornhill who plays the nightclub singer companion Crystal, relished the part for the chance it gave her to sing. "I don't want to be a screamer or a dolly-bird," she said. She has two numbers throughout the play, written by Steven Edis. Judith Hibbert plays two roles, one as Delilah, who runs a lowlife bar, and the other as Mrs Thatcher (!!!)

For the inevitable villains of the piece, not one but two of the old series favourites were dusted off - the Daleks and the Cybermen, with the big surprise being that the Cybermen, weakened after the Cyber-wars, have been taken on by the Daleks as a slave race. For the stage-show the Daleks were build larger than usual so as to appear more fearsome to audiences. The new Dalek suits caused some choreography problems with operators having sit inside and push the Dalek along as well as operating the gun and sucker arm, not to mention flashing the lights on and off. In one performance a Dalek operator lost control and slid down and fell off the sloping stage. All the Dalek voices, as well as other sound effects, were prerecorded at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and synchronized by an off-stage soundman. Actors and also actresses (Cyber-women?) inside the Cyber-suits fared a little better. Even so the thought was enough to put David Banks off repeating his regular Cyberleader role on stage: "I had no intention of playing him (the Cyberleader) on stage. I just couldn't imagine how you would get people to get into Dalek and Cybermen costumes for six months. It's bad enough doing it for two days in the studio." Banks plays the mercenary leader Karl while the role of the Cyberleader is taken up by Wolf Christian. Fans might also have noticed the presence of another familiar creature - a Vervoid costume borrowed from the BBC costume department as one of the patrons in the bar scene.

The on-stage fights were arranged by stuntman Terry Walsh, who had performed as stunt double for Pertwee and Tom Baker during the series, as well as stunt arranger and second-unit director on Robin of Sherwood. Pertwee had a high degree of admiration for the stunt people: "These chaps really go for it in the fight sequences - they're choreographed, though, you can't have free-for-alls".

Of course The Ultimate Adventure is not the first time Doctor Who has appeared on stage. First was way back in 1965 in a production called The Curse of the Daleks which, although it had no Doctor, starred the Daleks at the height of the Dalekmania craze, in a story that was designed to carry on in continuity between The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth, with a team of space explorers accidentally reviving the Daleks on Skaro.

Second time up was The Seven Keys to Doomsday running for four weeks at Christmas 1974. Scripted by Terrance Dicks, it starred Trevor Martin, coming across looking and dressed like a younger William Hartnell, as the fourth Doctor, including a film clip which showed him regenerating from the third. Wendy Padbury, Zoe from the second Doctor era, played a new companion Jenny. The Daleks, in fact the only thing all three plays have in common, were present in a race to find the seven segments of the Crystal of All-Power. At the end of each performance the stage would explode. A tour was planned, but when it was ready to go they found the complexity of effects and size of the props made it too difficult to get in and out of theatres.

Probably the most interesting of the planned stage plays would have been the planned third version The Inheritors of Time that comic-book writer John Ostrander was planning to put on the stage in the US in 1986. Roger Mueller would have played the Doctor, although many disliked the idea of an American playing the role of the Doctor. Most fascinating of all is the plot, which would have had aliens called the Tribunals wanting to create a new race of Time Lords, choosing Earth. But Earth has mysteriously disappeared and so the Doctor is sent back into the past to find what is up. This incarnation would have been one between the Doctor's second and third ones. Apparently when the Time Lords forced the change of face on the second Doctor, it was unnatural hence stored up a regeneration that could be called into action by them at a later point. Sadly this very fascinating production never made it off the ground due to lack of financing. However Ostrander still remains hopeful.

Overall the production went down highly with the fans. "Doctor Who - The Ultimate Adventure is the most gloriously awful piece of nonsense you're ever likely to see on the stage. If any member of the audience was expecting a serious drama, their hopes might have been dashed ... there's never a dull moment, there are plenty of laughs, and it even gets exciting at times," said Starburst magazine. There were glitches with the technical side, but these became polished as the performers and production people settled into the familiarity of the run. A number of scenes were cut after the first night to diminish on the large and numerous scene changes, and some rewriting helped the production to move considerably more slickly. The initial complaint was that the big flashy technical side overwhelmed the story and characters. The effects were one area singled out, although the limitations of live theatre offered definite drawbacks - for example the TARDIS materialisation had to be achieved by turning the lights out, while the familiar materialisation sound effect was played and the stage- crew quickly pushed the TARDIS on to the stage.

This item appeared in TSV 15 (September 1989).

Index nodes: The Ultimate Adventure