Yes, yes. I know it was just a sketch for Comic Relief. But so was Blackadder & the Roundheads, and that’s basically canon, right?
By 1999, telly Doctor Who felt gone for good, and yet I’m pretty sure it’s about that time that I went to a Swancon or Aussiecon panel and saw a bunch of fans (in my memory it was Grant, Danny & Mondy…) talking about what Doctor Who would have to do, to come back properly as television.
After ten years of almost no British science fiction on TV, while America had given us the increasingly more expensive X-Files, Star Trek: DS9, Star Trek: Voyager and Babylon 5, it all looked pretty dire. The better science fiction special effects got, the less likely it seemed that British creators would have either the funding or the bottle to try. (It’s hilarious now to look back and remember how awesome the Star Trek & Babylon 5 effects were at the time)
A new Doctor Who would have to follow the Buffy model, the panel suggested, rather than trying to compete with the big space operas. 45 minute episodes, a story arc, an ensemble cast probably based around the same time period, or returning to it regularly to save money. It would need banter, wit, monsters and kissing, and as few spaceships or alien planets as possible.
I sat in the audience thinking, “That doesn’t sound like Doctor Who to me.”
But in 1999, Comic Relief brought Doctor Who back and showed, actually, that it could be done. Having experienced the UK Comic Relief telethon properly when living in England in 1991, I am always a bit sad to miss out (yay YouTube for bringing me the best bits) but in 1999 even in Australia we heard about The Curse of Fatal Death (possibly just those of us who subscribed to Doctor Who Magazine heard about it, actually now I come to think of it), and I was rapt when it turned up on VHS in our local ABC shop, only a few months after it had gone out on the BBC.
Seriously, we were not used to getting this stuff straight away.
It was a four parter, each five minutes long, and packed with the kind of “timey-wimey” time travel jokes that had always existed around Doctor Who, but had never been acknowledged within the show. Studio-bound, evidently on the cheap, it still managed to look better than almost every alien planet in 1980’s Who. Not a quarry in sight, but you can’t have everything.
Rowan Atkinson WAS the Doctor, the first official BBC attempt at The Ninth Doctor (we’re up to four now, right?). I don’t know if anyone expected him to play it straight, but he did and it worked. He was dressed in the TV Movie mode: historicalish gentlemanly attire and a long wig, which is fair enough because no one was QUITE ready for the leather jacket look yet.
Then there was Emma, played by Julia Sawalha. On the one hand she was a quintessential default Doctor Who companion (dressed, it has to be said, not a lot unlike our first glimpse of Clara Oswin Oswald). She was a safe choice for the role, as a very recognisable face thanks to a few plum roles over the previous decade (notably as Saffron in Absolutely Fabulous and Lydia Bennet in the best loved version of Pride and Prejudice of all time, plus a few sitcom daughters, though many of us were still nursing a deep attachment to her Lynda Day from Press Gang, written by a baby-faced Steven Moffat back in the late 80’s).
I’m also not imagining that Julia Sawalha had been widely rumoured as being a potential companion back in the day, am I? She was certainly the right age, and I’m pretty sure her name was tossed around with that of Catherine Zeta Jones as the theoretical Safecracking It Girl companion they had in mind to replace Ace.
In any case, the most important thing about Emma was the revelation that she and the Doctor were a) in love, b) engaged and c) about to settle down to get married, the Doctor retiring from saving the universe.
Honestly, I can’t think of anything more controversial, especially remembering the howls of derision and alarm that went around the world when Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor kissed Grace Holloway.
But it was comedy, right? This would never actually happen in real Doctor Who.
Speaking of things that we thought would never actually happen in Doctor Who: Moffat managed to hurl nearly all of them at the screen in his 23 minutes running time. The Master (played wonderfully by Jonathan Pryce) and the Doctor used time travel to outwit and out manoeuver each other, which resulted in the Master getting older and older but always returning to this exact moment to continue his hopeless task. There were more than four Daleks on screen at once, thanks to the wonders of either CGI or matte painting (it was 1999, okay, it looked FANTASTIC then!).
Trivia note: this story represents the final performance of legendary Dalek operator Roy Skelton, and also the first post-production work of The Mill on Doctor Who.
And, oh yes, the Doctor died and regenerated four times in the course of the story. Yes, that did take him past a certain barrier we thought would never be broken. In more ways than one!
To Emma’s dismay, her love disappeared before her eyes and was replaced… by the more handsome (“lick the mirror” is a specific subset of handsome), debonair and fast-talking Tenth Doctor, played by Richard E Grant. Sound familiar? She recovered from this shock rather quickly as, well. He was a bit of all right, really.
Sadly, one industrial accident later, the Tenth Doctor transformed into the shy and distinctly shy-with-girls Eleventh Doctor, played by Jim Broadbent. Slightly appallingly, Emma sent him back into immediate danger in the hopes of getting a hotter replacement.
The Twelfth Doctor promptly emerges, played by Hugh Grant, still floppy-haired and affable in his acting period before he learned that villains and cads were more fun.
But the best was yet to come. Well, the best for us, not for Emma. In the final moments of the story, the Twelfth Doctor died and was pronounced actually dead, not regeneratable, fully gone:
EMMA: Doctor, listen to me. You can’t die, you’re too… You’re too nice. Too brave, too kind and far, far too silly. You’re like Father Christmas! The Wizard of Oz! Scooby Doo! And I love you very much. And we all need you and you simply cannot die!
MASTER: He was the best and bravest of all my foes. From this day forward I shall renounce evil and follow the path of goodness to honour my fallen foe.
BLACK DALEK: The Doctor saved the Daleks. The Daleks too will honour their mortal enemy.
EMMA: He was never cruel and never cowardly, and it’ll never be safe to be scared again.
At which point, we got the Thirteenth Doctor, played by Joanna Lumley. Not only did Joanna have the best outfit of all the Doctors (okay they all wore the same outfit but she totally wore it best), she also explained exactly what was the big deal about the sonic screwdriver in a way that would make Jack Harkness proud (three settings!) and she finally admitted what we’ve always known – that the Doctor and the Master make a damned fine couple.
It’s sad that such a fantastic genderfloomp should end in a reassertion of heteronormativity – the Femme Doctor and the Master going off arm in arm after Emma decided the Doctor was ‘not the man I fell in love with’ – and indeed, when I described the awesomeness of this story to a friend many years later I totally misremembered the Doctor and Emma going off together instead.
But, oh. The Curse of Fatal Death is such a silly, sweet and funny celebration of Doctor Who, and it did feel like more than that, back in the day. Through the cheesy lines and the time travel jokes and the smutty innuendo, there was a sense that the joke was not on Doctor Who fans, it was BY Doctor Who fans – and actually, if so many serious, high-profile professionals could come together and make this thing, then how far away could we be from actual Doctor Who back on our screens? A REAL Doctor Who, a Doctor Who no longer reacting against perceptions of how wondrous Star Trek special effects were (really, not that hot), but prepared to stand up and be British in the face of alien space monsters.
We would have to wait another six years, as it turned out. But was it worth the wait?
ELSEWHERE ON 1999:
The Players Trilogy by Terrance Dicks [reviewed by Nicholas Whyte]