Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Doctor Who: 1999

After episode 696 (Doctor Who): The Curse of Fatal Death
First broadcast: 12 March 1999
<< back to 1998

"How are things?"
Rowan Atkinson meets the Daleks
Dr Who & the Curse of Fatal Death
In June 1999, Doctor Who Magazine #279 spoke to six writers all working in popular telly about how, if asked, they would bring back Doctor Who. It's fascinating to read Gary Gillatt's "We're gonna be bigger than Star Wars" again today. Four of those writers would write for Doctor Who when it returned in 2005 - but not in the way they told DWM.

"'Well, it would have to be made on film,' [Russell T Davies] said, and probably with the Doctor trapped on Earth to save money. 'I don’t think you’d put a 50-minute film series on during Saturday teatime,' he suggested with almost as much prescience as Steve [Moffat]’s 'The core elements are a Police Box, a frock coat and cliffhangers.' On the other hand, who can disagree that 'The key ingredient is death,' and Russell closed with 'God help anyone in charge of bringing it back – what a responsibility!'

In fact, they were already working on getting Doctor Who back on TV. Russell's acclaimed eight-part drama Queer as Folk (first broadcast 23 February to 13 April 1999) included a regular character who was a Doctor Who fan, with clips from old episodes, jokes only fans would get and a cameo by the real prop of K-9.

On 12 March, a new Doctor Who adventure, The Curse of Fatal Death, was broadcast as part of Comic Relief on prime-time BBC One. The script was by Steven Moffat.

On 13 November, Mark Gatiss co-wrote and starred in three more comedy sketches about Doctor Who - one with him as the Doctor in a pastiche of the show from the 60s, another exploring how the show was first commissioned (something Mark explores again this week in An Adventure in Space and Time), and one with Peter Davison gamely playing himself.

All these productions - Russell's, Steven's and Mark's - fondly mocked the conventions of the old show show. For all Steven and Mark created new incarnations of the Doctor, their sketches were more about looking backward at what Doctor Who had once been as it was reviving it anew.


The Curse of Fatal Death is not a template for a new series. It's certainly not a manifesto for the way Steven runs the show now. It's full of things that worked as jokes because they were so unlike Doctor Who as we knew it.

Yet, they're all things that were central when the show returned: fart jokes, jokes about the sonic screwdriver as a phallus, the companion and Doctor explicitly in love, the companion's confused feelings about that after a regeneration, lots of stuff about the Doctor's mythic place in the universe... Most obviously of all, it embraces the daft fun of Doctor Who as a key part of its appeal.

I think there's something else, too. When the Master brings in an army of Daleks, the Doctor greets them with a pithy line: "How are things?"

The joke is that he's so casual, that his words sound so ordinary. It's not the way the Doctor has ever spoken before. But it will be.

Next episode: 2000

(Ian Stuart Burns has also written about that article in DWM.)

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