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A Night with the Doctor

A review of BBC2's ’theme evening’

By Paul Scoones

Proving that it doesn't take a multiple of five years for the BBC to mark the anniversary of Doctor Who, the series' thirty-sixth year was celebrated in style with a two-hour ‘theme night’ on the UK's BBC2, Saturday 13 November 1999.

The conglomeration of clips, interviews, science shows and comedy sketches - all linked by Tom Baker, playing the congenial, if rather wacky, host for the evening - was followed by the UK's first uncut screening of Doctor Who: the TV Movie. Evidently New Zealand television censors are a lot more liberal in their views of what is permissible at certain hours than their British counterparts. The TV Movie screened here uncut at 8.30 PM in 1996 and 9 PM in 1999; in the UK, the uncut movie went out at 11 PM!

As the presenter of the evening, Tom Baker did his usual off-the-wall take on life. Many of his lines seemed ad-libbed or perhaps scripted by Baker himself. “I'm called Paul McGann in this one,” he intones solemnly when introducing the TV Movie. Tom's costume, a June Hudson-styled black variation on his Season Eighteen outfit minus the scarf was strikingly elegant and brought to mind suggestions that Tom might have worn something similar had 1993's abortive Dark Dimension gone ahead.

The main feature of the Doctor Who Night was a 40 minute documentary entitled ‘Adventures in Space and Time’. This segment featured a roughly chronological overview of the series with a large number of generally well chosen clips and comments from people involved in making Doctor Who. The line-up included such familiar names (though not always familiar faces), as: Verity Lambert, David Maloney, John Nathan-Turner, Dick Mills, Jim Acheson, Terrance Dicks, Wendy Padbury, Carole Ann Ford, and all surviving Doctors barring McGann. It is a pity that McGann couldn't be persuaded or wasn't available to take part, as his views on the movie four years on from the event would have been very interesting. His absence does not bode well for his involvement in any future productions.

Colin Baker seems to have aged alarmingly rapidly since he last appeared in TV, and Sylvester McCoy also appears to have undergone a transformation. Remarkably, there's no mention in the documentary of the Master or indeed the Brigadier. A Doctor Who documentary without Nick Courtney is something of a novelty! Jon Pertwee's absence brings to mind the fact that this is the first such production since his death, and his passing is felt all the more for the way the documentary rapidly passes over his era, possibly due to a shortage of relevant people available to comment on this period.

This was followed by ‘How to Live Forever’, a documentary about the biology of regeneration. Getting an expert in the field of genetics and cellular rejuvenation to talk about how the Doctor's body works might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but on screen this segment was out of keeping with the pace and focus of the rest of the line-up. A companion piece on the theoretical possibility of time travel, presented by another expert, was shorter, snappier, and all together more interesting.

The confusingly titled ‘Carnival of Monsters’ segment was a rather uneven run-through of the various creatures featured in the series. The selection was rather uneven, giving a lot of screen time to Morbius and Robot K1, but conversely omitting the Yeti altogether and briefly passing over the Ice Warriors. It was clear that the exposure given some of these creatures was entirely dependent on the availability of the actors who had the misfortune to wear the costumes. Nevertheless it was great to see Stuart Fell reminiscing about playing Morbius with infectious enthusiasm, and Graham Cole, now very familiar face to viewers of The Bill, recalling his days as a Cyberman and other assorted nasties. The segment also featured an imaginative use of clips put to pieces of stirring classical music, and the ‘statistics’ given for each monsters' abilities reminded me of trump-card games. It was disconcerting to see Anneke Wills revealing that she still has nightmares about Daleks - no wonder she avoided any association with the show for so many years!

The three comedy sketches were undoubtedly the highlights of the whole production. ‘The Web of Caves’ was the best of the three, and effectively sent up Doctor Who without being unkind to the programme, which is no mean feat. Mark Gatiss created an appealing, McGann-esque version of the Doctor whom I for one would like to see return to the screen. The last sketch, in which two fans - sorry, enthusiasts - have kidnapped Peter Davison was wickedly funny for sending up the worst excesses of fandom. Just pray the general public wasn't watching!

The final episode of The Daleks was an odd choice to screen as the one complete episode of the evening (the TV Movie not withstanding). Given how heavily weighted the documentary coverage was towards the black and white era of the series, it would have been nice to have something classic and in colour, perhaps a Tom Baker episode since his era is generally held in highest regard by the general public. It was also odd that The Daleks episode was re-edited, losing a section from the middle but conversely inheriting a large chunk from the preceding installment, the end result running some two and a half minutes longer than the original.

Ultimately, experiencing the Doctor Who Night made me want to go away and watch certain stories again. As such it felt almost like an over-extended promotional trailer for BBC Video. I was however surprised to notice the rather fuzzy or grainy appearance of some of the clips, notably those from Terror of the Zygons, The Moonbase and Logopolis.

One of the predominant memories that will stay with me long after viewing this theme night is of Tom Baker prancing around a deserted, run-down playground. It's a slightly troubling image that strikes me as some sort of metaphor for lost youth and the glory days of the series. This, combined with costume designer James Acheson's depressingly fatalistic view that the series won't return, lends the production a final lasting feeling of serving as the series' epitaph.

Let's hope I'm proved wrong soon.


(times & durations are approximate)

8.55 Doctor Who Night
Tom Baker introduces the evening's line-up

8.57 The Pitch of Fear
Comedy sketch starring Mark Gatiss and David Walliams (duration 3:30)

9.00 Adventures in Space and Time
Documentary about the history of Doctor Who, narrated by Peter Jones (duration 40:06)

9.40 How to Live Forever
Science feature on the biology of regeneration, presented by Professor Tom Kirkwood (duration 6:09)

9.50 Carnival of Monsters
Unnatural history - the monsters of Doctor Who, narrated by Fenella Fielding (duration 31:52)

10.20 The Web of Caves
Comedy sketch starring Mark Gatiss and David Walliams (duration 5:39)

10.25 How to Build a TARDIS
Science feature on the physics of time travel, presented by Dr Jim Al-Khalili (duration 4:25)

10.30 The Daleks: The Rescue
Episode 7 of the first Dalek story. (duration 24:47)

10.55 The Kidnappers
Comedy sketch starring Mark Gatiss and David Walliams (duration 3:20)

11.05 Movie: Doctor Who
The 1996 TV Movie uncut, starring Paul McGann

This item appeared in TSV 59 (January 2000).