1999: Doctor Who Night
13th November 1999. The Eighth Doctor Adventures continue to be published monthly, to mixed enthusiasm. In August, Lawrence Miles’ magnum opus, the two-volume Interference, is released, expanding on the ideas of Alien Bodies and kicking off a year-long story arc that will eventually end in Gallifrey’s destruction at the Doctor’s hand on the last day of the Time War. Meanwhile, the DWM strips have brought back Grace and the Master from the TV movie, plus Beep the Meep and Kroton the Cybermen as the strip kicks off its own second big story arc. On TV, in March, Steven Moffat’s Curse of Fatal Death airs as part of the BBC’s Comic Relief. It’s a hint of some of the ideas Moffat’s going to seriously present in the 2010s, as he ploughs through the Doctor’s remaining lives, brings back the Master with breasts, and has the Doctor’s adoring companion beg the universe to resurrect him during his final battle with the Daleks. And in November, 36 years after it first aired, Doctor Who is back on the BBC. For one night only.
All the above makes 1999 sound like the series is finally getting its act together. But it didn’t feel like that at the time. The Curse of Fatal Death is an affectionate pastiche, not Moffat’s bid to resurrect the programme. It’s clearly much, much better than Dimensions in Time – but John Nathan-Turner’s intent was to make an epilogue to the show he’d made in the 1980s, not to look back at Doctor Who as a slightly tatty, but loved old kid’s programme. I laughed a lot at The Curse of Fatal Death, but I also recognised the undertone that Doctor Who was a thing of the past.
So when the BBC announced Doctor Who night, it was hard to get too excited. Particularly when the trailers featured a nonplussed little girl on the sofa with her balding, middle-aged father hiding behind it (the implication: Doctor Who is something that only odd middle-aged men are much interested in). The scheduling reinforced the point: this really was a Night, starting at 8.55pm on BBC2. Even the continuity announcer seemed slightly disdainful: ‘Once sandwiched between Grandstand and The Generation Game, tonight you get a whole night to hide behind the sofa’.
The night’s schedule is modelled on the format of BBC2’s Star Trek Night, broadcast to celebrate Trek’s thirtieth anniversary in 1996, which featured a mix of science shows, comedy sketches, documentaries and the BBC premiere of Voyager. Doctor Who Night similarly mixes a couple of documentaries, Adventures in Space and Time and Carnival of Monsters, with two science documentaries focusing on regeneration and building TARDISes, three infamous comedy sketches from Mark Gatiss plus the final episode of The Daleks and a repeat of Doctor Who: The Movie. The night’s end credits even feature a woman warbling in the style of the Star Trek theme.
This says a lot about how the BBC saw Doctor Who in 1999: as a sci-fi franchise, with creepy fans who’d like to know how to build a TARDIS, if they weren’t off kidnapping Peter Davison. Whereas in my experience the Venn diagram crossover of Doctor Who and Star Trek fans is surprisingly small. We care more about how the costumes and scripts are put together than the imaginary technology behind trans-dimensional engineering.
So even though I laughed at Gatiss’ sketches (particularly The Pitch of Fear’s description of the later Doctors as ‘any old fucker with an Equity card’, which, in a feat of Soviet revisionism, has since been stricken from the record). Even though I enjoyed seeing Tom Baker playing himself playing the Doctor. Even though, actually, a couple of the documentaries were quite interesting, I knew this was a one-off. Doctor Who‘s lack of popularity was cruelly hammered home when a heavily-trailed new season of BBC2 repeats planned for all the colour episodes starting with Spearhead from Space petered out after just three stories.
For me, 1999 was probably the nadir of Doctor Who: it felt like the BBC thought it a slightly weird obsession for a young man to hold. I was like Vince, in Channel 4’s Queer as Folk, attached to some old camp nonsense from his childhood. Had I not met a group of like-minded, talented, inspiring friends at university and the monthly Fitzroy Tavern meets in London, I think this might have been the point when Doctor Who and I parted ways.
Fortunately for me, and for Doctor Who, there were some very talented fans in a position, if not yet to revive the show on TV, then to reinvigorate it in other media. 1999 was the low point. From now on, things are starting to look up.
Next Time: ‘You all burnt, all of you. Ten million ships on fire. I watched it happen. I made it happen.’ – The Burning
I always remembered that night for the TV Movie being introduced by Tom’s voiceover, “In this one, I’m played by Paul McGann…”