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Doctor Who: Storytelling in the 60th Anniversary Specials

Introducing Dr. Who

On November 23rd, 1963, the BBC premiered a low-budget sci-fi series titled “Doctor Who.” The show featured William Hartnell as Dr. Who, a time-traveling Time Lord who ventured through time and space in the company of his granddaughter, Susan, and her school teachers, Ian and Barbara. The actors would not be credited as “The Doctor” until 1980, the end of Tom Baker’s run.

Doctor Who is a story about a Time Lord named The Doctor from the planet Gallifrey going about the universe in their Time and Space machine called the TARDIS that looked like a 1960s police box fighting evil and saving people when they can. They gather friends who travel with them through time and space. When close to death, Time Lords have the ability to regenerate and get a new face and body. They can change gender or race, and there is no limit to what a Time Lord can be.

The original series ran from 1963 to 1989, after which it took a television hiatus. However, it found ways to continue through raw storytelling in various media such as books, comics, spinoffs not featuring The Doctor but set in the universe, and audio dramas. In 1996, there was an effort by Fox to revive the series as a TV movie, but it did not succeed, leading to the series’ continuation in non-TV media. In 2003, it was announced Russell T. Davies would revive the series, and that has continued for the past 20 years.

Doctor Who’s media footprint, much like the TARDIS, is bigger on the inside. Initially, you might encounter the TV series, particularly the 2005 revival, but as you delve deeper, you discover the vast universe of content this sci-fi franchise encompasses through visual storytelling, digital storytelling, and more.

Decade Anniversaries Before the 60th

In every single decade anniversary before the 60th, the specials would feature the current Doctors teaming up with their past selves.

The Three Doctors (1973)

The First, Second, and Third Doctors teamed up for the 10th anniversary in “The Three Doctors” to stop the first Time Lord, Omega, who gave Time Lords the ability to time travel. Omega was exiled to a universe of anti-matter and is trying to come back to the normal universe, which would destroy the universe as we know it. The Time Lords, unable to do anything, recruit The Doctors to save the day. This special introduces the idea of multi-Doctor stories and the fact that The Doctor will often bicker with their other incarnations.

The Five Doctors (1983)

In “The Five Doctors” (1983), all five Doctors up to that point teamed up after being taken out of their timelines and transported to their home planet of Gallifrey in The Death Zone, the setting for a death game ancient Time Lords played. Though Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, wasn’t there because he didn’t want to return to the show two years after he left. He did appear in some unused footage from the canceled 1979 episode Shada.

The Dark Dimensions (1993)

The Dark Dimensions charity special in 1993 saw the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors united against fellow Time Lord mad scientist, The Rani. This special isn’t really official or considered to be canon, as the show was on hiatus at the time, and isn’t well-regarded either.

40th Anniversary (2003)

2003 saw many celebrations of the 40th anniversary, though no TV specials were produced. Instead, audio dramas, comics, books, and webcasts celebrated the milestone. There was a trio of audios featuring the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors encountering old enemies in Omega, Davros, and The Master respectively. The Eighth Doctor had a comic with John and Gillian Who, his grandchildren in the early TV Comic Doctor Who Magazine strips. There was a six-part animated webcast of a new Ninth Doctor portrayed by Richard E. Grant facing slug-like aliens called the Shalka. He is teamed up with The Master and a young bartender named Alison.

This multi-platform approach to celebrating the anniversary showcased the versatility of storytelling and foreshadowed the future of transmedia storytelling, a tactic often employed by Rsquare Media to create immersive and engaging brand experiences.

The Day of The Doctor (2013)

2013 was the biggest celebration, “The Day of The Doctor,” centering around the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors confronting their hidden past self, the War Doctor played by John Hurt. The War Doctor fought in the Time War between the Time Lords and Daleks, which ended in The Doctor killing both races and a modern invasion of shapeshifting Zygons who are in search of a new world after their home was destroyed by the Time War. This was a big event, half a century of Doctor Who, and the special was put in theaters.

Pre 60th Anniversary

In November 2022, the episode “The Power of The Doctor” aired, marking the end of Chris Chibnall’s run as showrunner on Doctor Who and Jodie Whittaker’s run as the Thirteenth Doctor. This special coincided with the 100th anniversary of the BBC. The Daleks, The Cybermen, and The Master, all The Doctor’s oldest enemies, teamed up to destroy the Earth, and The Doctor has to stop them.

By then, it was known that Ncuti Gatwa would be the next Doctor and Russell T Davies would return as showrunner. Despite this, there were rumors that David Tennant would be the next Doctor, leading to some fans hoping this would erase Whittaker’s era. When the Thirteenth Doctor regenerated at the end of “The Power of The Doctor,” David Tennant appeared in a near-reverse of his Tenth Doctor costume. He says, “I know these teeth,” looks at his hands, feels his face, and then exclaims, “What? What? What?!”

I had a lot of mixed feelings about this, and so did my friends, and we had a year to sit with this and theorize and be anxious.

Anxieties About The 60th

As a woman who is more a fan of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Doctors’ eras on the show, I was worried about having David Tennant return. I was not as enamored with the Tenth Doctor as many people seemed to be.

In a much more real sense, I was worried about David Tennant overshadowing Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor and that people would keep talking about how they miss Tennant and hate on Gatwa’s Doctor. Many people during Whittaker’s run would just hate on her constantly and very loudly. I am worried about that for Gatwa too.

Russell T Davies also has a bad track record with writing characters of color, especially during his first time as showrunner. Mickey Smith and Martha Jones, both black companions, were treated horribly by the narrative of the show. Not that he couldn’t have changed and gotten better in the past 15 years, but it was a cause for concern.

The 60th Anniversary Specials

I did end up liking the specials much more than I thought I would and I had some tension and anxieties relieved. So, shall we get into the specials?

The Star Beast

“The Star Beast” reintroduces us to Donna and The Doctor and gives a brief rundown of what happened last time they saw one another. Donna took the mind of The Doctor into her own and she was able to help The Doctor and his past companions thwart Davros and The Daleks from destroying reality. Afterwards, she started to die as she was unable to hold the mind of a Time Lord in her head, so he wiped her memory of their adventures to save her. If she remembers, she will die. Now, The Doctor’s old face has returned and he immediately bumps into Donna and her daughter Rose as a spaceship crashes in London. The ship belongs to an alien called The Meep, and The Meep is being pursued by Wrarth Warriors. This story is based on a 1980 comic of the same title and featuring Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor. The comic got an audio adaptation by Big Finish in 2019.

Catherine Tate and David Tennant slip back into the roles of Donna and The Doctor very easily, as they haven’t really left the roles. They’ve done Big Finish audio dramas together. Their banter continues even as Donna doesn’t remember The Doctor. A few new additions to the cast are Yasmin Finney as Rose Noble, and Ruth Madeley as Shirley Anne Bingham, UNIT’s scientific advisor. Rose is great, and I am so happy for positive trans representation on Doctor Who, one of the biggest shows in the UK positively representing trans people when trans people there are facing horrible discrimination. Shirley is a great positive representation for wheelchair users too, showing that wheelchair users and similarly disabled folks can cross their legs and even stand sometimes. Russell T Davies is off to a good start with positive representation.

I do have some negative things to say about this. I think the pacing is a bit too fast for the story it’s telling. Then again, I did listen to the two-hour audio adaptation, which had the same story, so maybe I was harshly comparing the audio and the special. There was also a moment in the story where we learn Rose’s deadname, and since then people have been referring to her character with that name, even though it isn’t her name anymore. As a trans woman, it felt very unnecessary to include that character information. I didn’t like the new TARDIS interior or the new sonic screwdriver either; those designs just didn’t appeal to me.

By exploring the psychological impact of isolation and the blurring of reality, “Turn Left” demonstrates the power of storytelling to evoke strong emotional responses in audiences, a technique often employed by Rsquare Media in crafting compelling brand narratives.

Overall, I did like this episode. It was a solid 7/10.

Wild Blue Yonder

The Doctor and Donna get stranded at the end of the universe, stuck on a mysterious ship with random announcements and the walls rearranging themselves. They might not be alone, though. They discover beings from beyond the universe that mimic and take the form of the time travelers. The beings say they are Not-Things, they come from Nothing, and now The Doctor and Donna have to escape them and find out what is going on in this ship lost at the edge of the universe.

As opposed to the cameo-heavy and fast-paced “The Star Beast,” this was a slow character study of The Doctor and Donna and their relationship. It is amazing and has been compared to episodes like series 4’s “Midnight” and series 9’s “Heaven Sent.” The idea of a spaceship lost at the edge of the universe is an excellent sci-fi horror concept, and this episode executes that very well with the slow tension of The Doctor and Donna realizing they aren’t talking to who they think they are. The line “my arms are too long” instantly goes up there with other lines like “are you my mummy?” from “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” two-parter in series 1 and “who turned out the lights?” from “Silence of The Library/Forest of the Dead” two-parter in series 4 that send chills up fans’ spines.

The CGI is a little goofy in this episode, but that is one of the reasons I adore Doctor Who and why the classic series is one of my favorites. I love when CGI and special effects look silly.

And finally, at the end of the episode, we see The Doctor and Donna return to Earth and see Donna’s grandfather Wilfred Mott, a fan-favorite character played by Bernard Cribbins, who unfortunately died in the middle of shooting the episodes. It was lovely to see The Doctor and Wilf unite again, if briefly.

An excellent story I will happily rewatch. 9/10.

The Giggle

The Doctor and Donna have returned to Earth to find that the whole human race has gone mad, with people insisting they are right no matter what. The Doctor discovers that The Toymaker, an entity from a different plane of existence, has entered the universe to mess with The Doctor’s beloved Earth. The First Doctor encountered the Toymaker before, in the 1966 episode “The Celestial Toymaker,” and it was insinuated they had met prior to that story.

Neil Patrick Harris plays the Toymaker with plenty of campiness and threat. It kind of reminds me of his character in “The Matrix Resurrections”; he can play a damn fine villain. We also get to see more of UNIT, and it is lovely to see them again.

And of course, we got an introduction to Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor, and he is fantastic! He makes me so excited for the new series, and we got to spend longer than a minute or two with him, as The Doctor didn’t regenerate but bi-generate, so David Tennant’s Fourteenth Doctor and Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor coexist and have one last game with The Toymaker.

Some folks have been mixed on the bi-generation thing, but I am one who likes when Doctor Who breaks its own canon. I am a defender of the Timeless Child reveal of series 12 with the Thirteenth Doctor.

I am very excited to see Ncuti Gatwa in the role for however long he stays.

A bit messy but solid. 8/10.

Conclusion

The Doctor Who anniversary stories are some of my favorite stories in the show. These three specials don’t compare much to “The Five Doctors,” “The Day of The Doctor,” or even “The Power of The Doctor.” I like when there are multi-Doctor stories, but Russell T Davies isn’t too fond of writing them, so it’s understandable why he didn’t do that. It would have been nice to see, though. Then again, it is a lot to put the weight of a 60th anniversary on a new Doctor’s shoulders, so I can understand bringing David Tennant back, and I much preferred this version of Tennant’s Doctor to his Tenth Doctor. Russell T Davies has reassured me about his return to show running, only leaving me with some anxiety about handling a black Doctor with his previous track record on black characters on Doctor Who.

Doctor Who has had a sprawling story over 60 years with such humble beginnings. Contact Rsquare Media to schedule a free consultation and to get your story told from your humble beginnings to now.

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