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Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death

Review by Jamas Enright

“Welcome to the Sofa of Reasonable Comfort.”

I loved this story, and this video release was much anticipated. Before I begin the review, I would just like to point out that the proceeds of the video sale go to Comic Relief, so you should all go out and buy a video if you haven't already.

“Can you still love me in my new body?”
“Actually, I don't think I'll have too much of a problem with that.”

There have been a few changes from the original broadcast format for the video, the first being a new opening credit sequence with the TARDIS having a red nose for a light, and Rowan Atkinson's face superimposed on a star field. The originally broadcast four episodes have been re-edited as a two-parter. The opening sequence for the second episode is the original, recap included, so those that missed out on seeing this story in its original form can still get a feel for what it was like.

Rowan Atkinson works well as the Doctor, giving his incarnation an air of confidence and compassion that all Doctors have, as well as incorporating a romantic side, which has obviously developed since McGann's Doctor. Of course, Rowan also delivers a Doctor with impeccable comic timing and an infinitely flexible face.

Wonderful cameos for the other Doctors, Richard E. Grant, whom I remember from Hudson Hawk, Jim Broadbent, whom I don't know, Hugh Grant, an actor I admire, and the lovely Joanna Lumley, whom I prefer to remember for Sapphire and Steel as opposed to Absolutely Fabulous. Now there could be an interesting link with the Elementals.

Julia Sawalha plays a decidedly stronger female companion, and although I found her accent rather grating after a while, she plays second fiddle to the Doctor well.

But Jonathan Pryce, who goes completely over the top as the Master, and yet remains entirely in character, steals the show. If anyone is the Master, it is Jonathan Pryce. And he has very nice breasts, er... Dalek bumps.

The story itself has a wonderful mix of corridors, enemies, and death-defying situations, but mostly, of course, humour. Some of the jokes are over worked, and some don't work at all, but most of them find their mark and score a smile.

“Never work with Daleks or children.”

For those who have seen the sketch before, a more anticipated feature of the video would be the behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Curse of Fatal Death, which lasts about as long as the actual story!

Harry Enfield narrates the documentary in a rather jolly mode. The documentary is split into three segments, to match up with the three days of shooting, but focusing on something different each day.

Day One features the creators and the performers, beginning with Richard Curtis, the Comic Relief Executive Producer, and Steven Moffat, the writer, discussing how the production came about, but quickly moves on to the actors themselves. Rowan Atkinson only says one line, or rather one word, “Welcome”, at the beginning of the documentary, and that's about it for him. This is rather a down-side, as it would be nice to hear him talk about his views of Doctor Who and playing the Doctor in particular, but I've heard that he doesn't really do that sort of thing. Pity.

However the other six main actors are more than ready to spill the beans. Richard E. Grant confesses to not really knowing what he's doing, nor really much of a Doctor Who fan, but since he's ‘lick-the-mirror gorgeous’, I'm willing to let him off. Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley, despite their brief appearances, are clearly Doctor Who enthusiasts and we get to hear about how they grew up with Doctor Who and how they prepared for the role of the Doctor. And they'd all like to play him (or her) again if possible, except Jim Broadbent who demurely turns down the idea.

Julia Sawalha talks about, of course, being the companion, and about having talked with Louise Jameson to learn how to be a ‘sexy and intelligent’ companion, or at least, according to her, intelligent. Like the others, she clearly shows her passion for being involved.

Day Two looks at the Daleks. Steven Moffat gets to try one out, and he finds it's not all fun and games. It does look very cramped in there too. The Daleks were provided by an amateur Who fan production team, who were quite chuffed to be asked. Footage from their film is included with the Daleks in action. Those props are really spot-on.

Day Three shows how costume lady Rebecca Hale achieves the ‘sewer’ look of the Master's costume, and at the TARDIS console, which was also supplied by the amateur Who production team.

The documentary is a very thorough look behind the scenes. It's a shame about Rowan Atkinson's non-appearance, but otherwise a great look at how to make comedy Doctor Who.

“I did extensive research for this role. Of course there have been many Masters in the past, and I looked long, long and intently, at a photograph of one of them for seconds.”

If you need a reason to buy this video, it is Jonathan Pryce. Throughout the documentary, he stays in character as the Master, and insists on being addressed as such. He is the one person who kept me watching. His air of dignity as he delivers, for example, the line quoted above, is a sheer joy to watch.

All of the fluffed scenes feature Jonathan Pryce in some way. Watch for him speaking in Welsh. Even when lurking behind Steven Moffat, he plays to the camera. This is the man who really carried the show. Maybe that's a little biased, but once you've watched the video, you might find yourself agreeing with me.

“I am a Silurian, and I'm going for my tea break.”

The other bonus on the video is the inclusion of three Doctor Who sketches, that have previously never been seen on video - at least not a professional release. The first is a skit by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, recorded in 1987 but has never been transmitted. The set is based on The Trial of a Time Lord courtroom, and features George Layton as the Doctor, looking like Tom Baker but acting like Robert Powell from The Detectives. French and Saunders are two Silurian guards, and the skit revolves around them trying to understand the convoluted plot line, remembering past experiences of Doctor Who, and failing to act properly according to the director's directions.

This skit is reviled by Doctor Who fans, but I'm guessing that these are the same fans who hated the Comic Relief sketch, as I found it rather funny. It is over-long, but it's more of a parody of the making of any cult TV show, of which Doctor Who merely happened to be a convenient example.

“In that case, I'll creep around behind him, and you show him your operation scar.”

The second sketch is from Victoria Wood as seen on TV from 1987, featuring Jim Broadbent as a rather manic Doctor, obviously an omen for the Comic Relief skit to come. At a mere 70 seconds, it's very short, and for that I'm glad. I found it very confusing, and although I know of a big fan of Jim Broadbent who loved it, for me it didn't work.

“I wanted to say that!”

The third sketch is from The Lenny Henry Show from 1985 in which Colin Baker regenerates into Lenny Henry in the opening titles. Henry makes the Doctor his own, and the skit is more of a piss-take on Doctor Who than the Comic Relief sketch. It features plenty of technobabble and running up and down corridors, and Cybermen! I like Lenny Henry and thought this was very funny. I rate it best of the three ‘bonus sketches’.

“Very serious Doctor Who fans won't like it.”

The main point of the video is of course the Comic Relief skit, but the added bonuses of the behind-the-scenes documentary featuring plenty of Jonathan Pryce, and three Doctor Who based sketches, make this video a must-have. And if that isn't enough to persuade you, just remember that it's all for a good cause, and if Doctor Who can help in that cause through comedy, I can accept that.

This item appeared in TSV 59 (January 2000).

Index nodes: The Curse of Fatal Death