Charity special episodes of our favourite show are always such a mixed blessing. Doctor Who is a British institution beloved for many years but when my sanity isn’t affected by unusual heatwaves I would usually avoid these ‘charitee’ specials like the plague as I realised pretty early on that if you go in expecting too much you surely will be disappointed. YouTube has been my frienemy throwing up little nuggets of Doctor Who in an attempt to feed my need for an interesting Who fix so I watched ‘Dimensions in Time’ the other night. My oh my, it drew me in even though it felt as if watching the aftermath of a car accident. You know you shouldn’t look but you can’t draw your eyes away. Yes I entered the world of the ‘charity special ‘
The common refrain about special charity episodes is ‘but it’s for charitee’ so whatever is produced by the BBC is meant to be gratefully received by the viewers regardless of actual quality. We doff our cap’ Thank-you sir, begging your pardon, ever so grateful sir’ but if I’m honest sometimes the Doctor Who offerings have been so dubious in quality for me that it makes me as a fan want to squirm in pitiful embarrassment. But I do have a sense of humour if anyone is wondering.
Depending on what you are looking for here’s my personal selection of fool’s goods and the 24-carat real deal that we gave our hard-earned money towards watching over the years.
Best for Nostalgia: Dimensions in Time 1993 – Cringe factor: 6 floating heads out of 10
This special 12-minute crossover between Doctor Who and the soap opera Eastenders ran in two parts on 26 and 27 November 1993. It’s a cornucopia of old companions (Susan, Victoria, Liz Shaw, Mike Yates, The Brigadier, Sarah Jane Smith, Leela, K9, Romana II, Nyssa, Peri, and Ace) and all the then alive Doctors broadcast in celebration of the show’s 30th anniversary. It was unique as a charity Doctor Who as there were experiments in 3D television within the BBC at the time so the audience had to wear special glasses and viewers decided in a vote which EastEnders character would help the Doctor.
Introducing it in the setting of Noel’s House Party (attached to the darn awful Mr Blobby) sets the tone for early evening mediocrity and seems to demonstrate the BBC still despised the show four years after it went on hiatus. It amazingly achieved viewing figures of 13.8 million viewers for the first part and 13.6 million for the second part, which are the highest ever ratings bar Part Four of ‘City of Death’ at 16.1 million viewers. It’s a strange beast as far as I am concerned as the Rani’s plan makes little logical sense but when you get the 1st and 2nd doctor’s heads twirling around her Tardis and she is triumphantly crowing they are “Pickled like gherkins in a jar,” you get a sense that this may have to be taken as high farce.
She’s attempting to transfer a massive time tunnel,” the Doctor explained, “to the Greenwich meridian. She has a computer in there with genetic codes and brain prints of every living creature in the entire universe.”
Hampered by having to be set on the EastEnders Albert Square market and the doctor and companion pairings are a bit odd at times although the 5th Doctor with Peri and Nyssa felt right. How did the Sixth Doctor know who Ace was by the way? On the plus side the absolutely charming Jon Pertwee, in his last official appearance as the Doctor (he died three years later) playing up to Noel Edmonds is a joy and the location filming at Greenwich with the Brigadier, the Sixth (it suits him having shorter hair) and a helicopter is lovely to see just for the spectacle.
But the Rani is still rubbish at defeating the Doctor.
Best for Comedy: The Curse of Fatal Death 1999 – Cringe factor: 8 corridors out of 10
Written by ex-Head writer Steven Moffat for Comic Relief in 1999 a few years after the movie was released I can’t make up my mind if Steven Moffat loved the show or not at this moment in time. Personally, I’ve given it a high cringe factor because as a spoof it’s a bit too close for comfort for me at poking fun at all the familiar tropes of Doctor Who (an all-knowing Doctor, the adoring female clueless companion, running up and down corridors, the useless caricature villain) but a lot of people seem to love it. I like it rather than love it. The appeal to the lowest common denominator with all the fart jokes doesn’t really do anything for the show’s then reputation so it felt as if Doctor Who wasn’t really cared about but seen as an oddball.
In retrospect you can see in those 24 minutes most of the ideas that Steven Moffat then re-used for his tenure, time travel manipulation where the Master and the Doctor are pre-empting each other by travelling back further in time, a more sexualised Doctor wanting to marry his companion (later River Song), Fluidity around gender regeneration with the first female Doctor. It does make me wonder what kind of show new Doctor Who would have started as if Steven Moffat had been the original creator of the new Doctor Who earlier instead of Russell T Davies in 2005? Would we still be talking about the show all these years later?
MASTER: They’re not breasts, okay? They’re Dalek bumps. They can detect ion charged emissions and operate as aetheric beam locators at a distance of up to twenty thousand light years.
As a positive, I was surprised at how well the actors who play the Doctors inhabit their differing personas even though it is very tongue in cheek. Rowan Atkinson and Julia Sawalha are fine although nothing special. But I have now lost count how many alternate versions there have been of the Doctor since the TV movie. Jonathan Pryce is probably the best thing in it channelling a crazed Anthony Ainley version of the Master and it is, to be honest, funny watching him fall through the trap door each time, Richard E Grant was later cast for the animated 40th anniversary story Scream of the Shalka in 2003 and Hugh Grant was offered the role of the 9th Doctor ahead of Christopher Eccleston but turned it down which probably was a blessing for all of us in the end as Chris brings a grit and gravitas Hugh Grant doesn’t possess.
Best loved by critics: Time Crash 2007 – Cringe Factor: 1 decorative vegetable out of 10
Time Crash was an 8-minute mini-episode broadcast on the 16th November 2007 as part of the Children in Need telethon. What’s interesting is that Steven Moffat’s second offering feels like the love letter to the series that Doctor Who charity contributions should always have been. Apparently, the fifth Doctor is one of Moffat’s favourites? Not sure if that is true but this tasty morsel achieves the right balance of humour and mutual respect between the two actors David Tennant and Peter Davison, who are enjoying themselves immensely playing two official doctors. The critics loved it. The public loved it. It was the most-viewed show of the night, and briefly the most-viewed episode of Doctor Who since 2005, with 11 million viewers
The 10th DOCTOR : Snap. Because you know what, Doctor? You were my Doctor.
Perhaps because of the then popularity of the programme or the parameters set by executive producer Julie Gardner, that they needed to shoot in one day and on one set with no CGI, the thick brush of parody that Steven Moffat used fourteen years previously disappears and it becomes an enjoyable character piece. The very low cringe factor was for 10’s crack about the back of five’s head (oh he was a bit mean then) but yes overall I loved it even the jokes about the celery for one of my favourite doctors.
Best for Continuity: Doctor Who Born Again 2005 – Cringe factor: 2 Slitheen out of 10
This was a 7-minute mini-episode was broadcast as part of Children in Need on the 18th November 2005 and was a two-hander episode with Billie Piper and David Tennant taking part between ‘The Parting of the Ways’ and ‘The Christmas Invasion’ with a newly regenerated 10th Doctor.
ROSE : Oh, my God, are you a Slitheen?
This short episode adds a bit of depth to the events we’ve seen in ‘Parting’ Playing on the assumption that Rose, unused to seeing a regeneration, will not just accept the change her initial confusion and fear is sensitively handled by this new incarnation. I do enjoy watching the change of mood and pace in this mini-episode between them and although she still feels overwhelmed by the gradual realisation that it is the same man. The cringe factor, albeit low is for watching David Tennant play having a seizure which made my stomach churn in sympathy.
The ends justify the means
Extra Doctor Who should always feel like a plus but on the other hand, I guess they are only there to do a job and that is to raise money for charity. The Dimensions in Time episodes will never be released onto DVD as all the actors waived their fees on the condition it would never be rebroadcast or on home release. It was a special one night only event before the rise of the internet and YouTube. Regardless of whether mini episodes like these are brilliant or not, I realise that they aren’t aimed at me, the superfan, but at ‘the general public’ to enjoy as part of an evening of awareness and fun. Maybe they deserve more credit than I have given them.
Do you agree with my ratings for each story and what is your favourite? Post your thoughts on here or on Twitter. Let’s talk.