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Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death

Review by Brad Schmidt

Perhaps the truth - one that fandom would be loathe to admit - is that American-produced Doctor Who would be for the best. Certainly, compared to Dimensions in Time, the television movie was far superior. Such a comparison cannot entirely be made with the latest television Who, Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death, which is intended to be farcical - but it still appears as if America was the only country interested in producing the show with extensive thought. It's a pity new Who was only made in order to parody itself.

That aside, The Curse of Fatal Death is a treat for fans, and a menagerie of stars for the general public. Rowan Atkinson is the Doctor, which is remarkable if only for the time taken to have this famous British actor play such a famous British role. Julie Sawahla as companion Emma is cleverly portrayed, hyperbolically wide-eyed. The stand-out performance is undoubtedly Jonathon Pryce's Master, even in farce picking up from Roger Delgado and Eric Roberts' portrayals - which in a serious light perhaps illuminates the Master's tendency to appear inevitably humorous, due to his constant failure. These three are joined by Joanna Lumley, Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent and - perhaps most amazingly - Hugh Grant, in what is at times a laugh-out-loud sketch.

Divided into four parts, Fatal Death hits its stride halfway through. The premise is amusing enough, but not quite enough to last over the first two episodes, renewing the same jokes, as writer Stephen Moffat attempts. With the inevitable inclusion of the Daleks, and the main trio's shift to the inside of a Dalek spaceship, suddenly the ‘toilet’ humour seems actually hilarious and not quite so pathetic - perhaps by then the momentum of the skit's silliness caught me too.

The Curse of Fatal Death is best shared with fans, which is worrying in light of the fact it was made for most of the general public. And for fans it is brilliant - technobabble, plot holes and identical corridors make for admiration of Moffat's scripts. For the public, there is the cast, and nods towards the publicly-debated sexuality and gender of the Doctor, but little else - aside from the obvious slapstick and vulgarity, which is still entertaining.

But it would be hard not to grin at a Dalek whispering, or at the fabulous interplay between Emma and the Master. Reviewing what is almost a review in itself is difficult, especially when every minute or so Fatal Death drops a clever plot device that cannot be mentioned without spoiling the humour. The only aspect of traditional Who Moffat missed manipulating was the special-effects side of the production, which is too convincing for Curse of Fatal Death ever to be taken as an entirely satisfactory summary of Doctor Who!

Review by Peter Adamson

“...When I look back at Doctor Who now, I laugh at it, fondly.”
(Steven Moffat, TSV 43)

Doctor Who has for most of its history shared a delicate partnership with comedy. Although some of the series' writers have come from comedy backgrounds, out-and-out comedy in Doctor Who rather than despite it has been something of a rare commodity.

On the whole then, I think we've been lucky with Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death. Okay, it's not actual Who, and we're sadly unlikely to ever see its cast reunite for a feature film, but what we did get was honest fun. A little bit tired, a little bit rude, but fun in its own right rather than at the expense of ‘our’ series and us. In a decade which has seen more Who produced for fans and by fans than for what by any other term could be called ‘the general public’, the Comic Relief extravaganza was a resounding success. It also raised a lot of money for charity and with luck, will raise more on release of the video.

“I dearly loved Doctor Who but I didn't think my love of it translated into it being a tremendously good series. It was a bit crap at times, wasn't it?”
(Steven Moffat, TSV 43)

So to the skit itself: a game of four parts, five Doctors, five Daleks, and one companion. I must say I think the skit's producers were exceedingly shrewd in many of the decisions they made. Moffat's call to have no jokes at the expense of wobbly sets, poor acting or rubber monsters meant that nobody was short-changed by jokes which were tired even before Jim Broadbent first played the Doctor in Victoria Wood. The sets were honest (no Cutty Sarks barely on display here!) and the effects reliable and cheap - I would've been really disappointed if they'd used morphing effects for the regenerations. The music is recycled - true, as is the title sequence (though it's still the best), and the Daleks were sometimes a bit dodgy, but it could have been a whole lot worse. And it might have even looked better in 3-D. Best of all were the choices of Doctors - both a fan's dream and something that (at least British) public could cheer on as well.

“Doctor Who was not limited merely by the limitations of the times or the styles that were prevalent then. It was limited by the relatively meagre talent of the people who were working on it.”
(Steven Moffat, TSV 43)

I rather think David Howe sadly missed the point a little in his recent online criticism of Fatal Death, suggesting that the BBC deliberately used up the Doctor's remaining regenerations to silence fans. To me, taking the liberty of putting household name actors (for free!) in the remaining ‘roles’ not only saves the integrity of the series' genuine leads (as was likely Moffat's intention), but also allows for some great ‘what if’ scenarios. What if Richard E Grant really was the Doctor? He'd be great! Vain, foppish, arrogant - oh no, hang on... Hugh Grant as youthful, vulnerable and sweet - ah. Still, Jim Broadbent was great fun, and it's a shame he didn't have longer screen time. Joanna Lumley was... a coup, and given that a male - female - male sex change might have looked a little bit unbalanced, I think everyone got away with it quite well as it is. As the Master, Jonathan Pryce was - well, priceless at times, and astonishingly close to Roger Delgado in some shots. I've no quarrel with his casting at all - really quite lucky. And Julia Sawalha - well, she made the most of a traditionally limited role and didn't carry explosives on her. I'm at a bit of a loss over her “Scooby Doo” line though...

“My memories of Doctor Who are based on bad television at the time...”
(Steven Moffat, TSV 43)

Fatal Death is more than the sum of a writer's memories. There's obviously been a fair bit of series scholarship in here, and not some small overlooking of some more recent continuity. I think this is where the skit also played to its strengths; not in ‘dumbing down’ the series it plays with (rather than lampoons), but just representing the basics without trying to be too clever. The technobabble wasn't excessive, and the monsters were recognisable and not cheapened. I contemplated writing this critique thinking that Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death was going to be ‘the TV Movie of 1999’ - meaning that we could expect a few fanzine issues dedicated to it, some unnecessary fan fiction explaining it all away, and then silence. This way, with the special's video distribution yet to be organised, the effect may be slightly delayed, but the strength of the comedy elements in this unfortunately unlikely to be reprised special ought to have some longer lasting impact on fandom than McGann's brief tenure. Reintroducing humour into Doctor Who after a good five or so years of serious fiction might be the fresh air that fandom is needing, and if that's the result of the skit for us, then I think another good deed will have been done for everyone.

This item appeared in TSV 58 (September 1999).

Index nodes: The Curse of Fatal Death