The Feast of Steven

Junkyard Advent Day 1: what built today’s snowman?

A Happy Christmas to all of you at home!  That line was inevitably going to form part of this article, so let’s get it done straight away.  Welcome to December on The View from the Junkyard!  We’re going to be very predictable and go all Christmassy, so we will be writing about every single Christmas episode of Doctor Who, plus some bonus stories and episodes that we can tenuously squeeze into the theme of the month.  There will also be a variety of Christmas-themed weekend articles, including Six Degrees of Who articles about The Box of Delights and The Chronicles of Narnia, an exploration of how Doctor Who and the theme of Christmas interact, and lots more festive treats.  Most importantly (because I’m a bit biased) there will be a piece of original artwork every day for the next 25 days, with 24 of them challenging you to work out “what built today’s snowman?”, although if you’ve watched lots of Doctor Who that won’t be too much of a challenge (and today’s certainly isn’t!), and then on Christmas Day there will be a piece of very special artwork to celebrate the day.  We will be writing about Twice Upon a Time some time between Christmas and New Year.

So let’s start with a break from tradition (although we have done this once before, for Halloween) by looking at a single episode from the Classic run of Doctor Who, the first ever Christmas special, The Feast of Steven.  First of all, it is important to bear in mind that Christmas Day viewing habits have changed.  As bizarre as this may seem, there actually used to be a time when people spent Christmas with their families without turning on the television.  So while Doctor Who can nowadays expect this kind of thing to happen with the viewing figures:

Death in Heaven: 7.6 million
Last Christmas: 8.3 million
The Magician’s Apprentice: 6.5 million

In 1965 this is what happened:

Coronas of the Sun: 9.1 million
The Feast of Steven: 7.9 million
Volcano: 9.6 million

…and I picked a really bad example for the recent one, because although it is the most recent in terms of a Christmas episode between two series, it is from a time where Doctor Who viewers were starting to lose interest.  If we look back a few years we see this:

The Big Bang: 6.7 million
A Christmas Carol: 12.1 million
The Impossible Astronaut: 8.9 million

So in 1965 just continuing with the Daleks’ Master Plan story wasn’t going to be a good option because a significant chunk of the viewers were going to miss a bit of the plot, and a storyline that was on the bleaker end of the Doctor Who spectrum wasn’t really going to be ideal for Christmas Day.  Just three weeks earlier we had seen our first companion death.  So instead we move into the part of the serial that is basically a rerun of The Chase, with the Doctor on the run from the Daleks, something that would continue for the next couple of weeks.  Far less commented on is the fact that the episode that follows this one was actually the first New Year Doctor Who Special, continuing in a similarly frivolous style and including actual New Year’s celebrations within the narrative, albeit incorporating the Dalek plotline back in.

The Feast of Steven was therefore going to be something fairly disposable, and a chance to have a bit of fun with the format.  It was never going to see the light of day again after its broadcast, anywhere in the world, with the episode removed from the run for overseas sales.  So the approach we get here is a gradual dismantling of the fourth wall throughout the episode, before smashing through what’s left of it at the end of the episode.  Everyone tried to disown the ending and put it on Hartnell, but it was scripted and rehearsed, and according to the Doctor Who section of the BBC website was something of a tradition in the 1960s for Christmas episodes, although I am yet to find evidence of this.  If anyone knows of other shows that did the same, please make use of the comments section.  Let’s look at how well the episode builds up to that moment:

  • The scanner isn’t working and needs to be fixed: this is signposting our televisions being also faulty for this episode, with the Daleks absent this week and our normal view of how Doctor Who works being gradually broken down.
  • The Doctor thinks he has met the man in the police station in Jaffa.  That’s because he has: the part is being played by Reg Pritchard, who also played Ben Daheer in The Crusade.  It’s an in-joke, and a fourth wall break for those who are aware of the significance of the moment.  His bizarre complaint about a vanishing greenhouse makes little sense, unless you look at it simply as a parallel for the Doctor’s vanishing bluehouse.
  • The Doctor tells Steven off for putting on an accent when he is speaking to the police, to which he replies “everybody else is doing it”.  This is a remnant from an earlier version of the story, which would have been a crossover with Z-Cars (the producer said no to the idea).  As written, it is an intentional fourth wall break, because it makes fun of what would have been the Z-Cars actors putting on their usual Liverpudlian accents.
  • The Doctor Who regulars in a film studio are dangerously close to the actors moving out of the narrative into their own behind-the-scenes (e.g. the sort of thing Mrs Brown’s Boys now does all the time).  Even the brief encounter with Charlie Chaplin takes a little swing at the fourth wall, with a real actor appearing as a character in Doctor Who for the first time.  This has a similar jarring quality to Kylie Minogue being mentioned in Doctor Who and then actually turning up as an actor in an episode.  It’s a bit timey-wimey.  After all, if Chaplin is a real person within the world of Doctor Who, then so is Frazer Hines, who acted with Chaplin in A King in New York (1957).  It’s a shame Hartnell never worked with Chaplin, which would have really closed this circle.
  • Following on from the above, Steven and Sara being unfamiliar with the concept of a film set is a little in-joke.  The Doctor’s comment that it is “full of Arabs” is also an (unpleasant) in-joke that anyone who has researched Hartnell in detail will understand.

And after 25 minutes of bashing against the fourth wall, the Doctor finally realises that it has collapsed, walks towards it, and talks directly through the screen to the viewers at home.

It will be a long time before another Doctor Who writer realises that there is no such thing as an immersive Doctor Who viewing experience and has the confidence to show a character talking directly to the viewers, and it will be even longer before the Doctor himself does it again, but it will happen again.  And sadly it will be a very long time before Doctor Who gets another episode on Christmas Day.

You see, when the Doctor wished everyone a Happy Christmas, it really was a happy one for a Doctor Who fan.  1965 was a year of incredible popularity for Doctor Who, the year of Dalekmania and the year where Doctor Who had its big screen debut.  The series had scaled the heights of the viewing figures charts, landing in the top twenty nearly 30 times, and even hitting the top ten on eight occasions.  Doctor Who was riding high, and would not be seen on Christmas Day until it was achieving similar, or even greater levels of popularity.  So if you’re a fan of Doctor Who, take a moment to appreciate how amazing it is that we get a Christmas episode every year, and think back to that wonderful moment where the Doctor gave us all his good wishes for a happy day.  RP

The view from across the pond:

December 1st… the countdown to Christmas has begun!  C-24

Doctor Who has a long standing tradition with Christmas.  It’s a happy time and it should be shared with a happy show!   And let’s face it, every episode is a bit like Christmas for fans!   And in 1965, when the 12-part epic The Dalek Masterplan was airing, episode 7 fell right on Christmas Day.  The Feast of Steven, as part 7 was titled, was a bit vaudevillian.  The Doctor is arrested and tells the police that he’s a citizen of the universe and lives in the police box.  The crew get caught up in some shenanigans on a movie set and Steven is asked to replace the lead.  It’s all silly fun that must have been utterly enjoyable to watch.  Unfortunately, it was scrapped for not having any resale value and is now a missing episode; it can no longer be seen anywhere.  An epic piece of history has been lost to time!  (If only we had a TARDIS!)

There are some fun in-jokes, like the Doctor claiming to have met a man before because the actor played an earlier role in Doctor Who.  A meeting with a young Bing Crosby and an altercation with Charlie Caplin just add a bit of character.  But the Feast of Steven is most well-known for one major thing: the Doctor addresses the audience.

Now I’m not big on breaking the 4th wall, but if we can allow ourselves to get past such a breach of protocol, it might say something about the crew.  Namely, I think it’s a testament to William Hartnell and says something about our show.  It was an acknowledgement of the viewers in a way very few shows would ever think to do.  Hartnell, typically cast as the tough guy, was now loved by children and he knew it!  He was a hero and relished the role.  It’s only natural then that he has a brief moment to wish his fans a happy holiday.  Kudos for doing something different!  It stands as a testament to the way Hartnell was feeling about his time as this amazing character.  And I realize that the writing directs what the actors say, but even with the image that still exists, there’s something more sincere in his eyes.  It looks like the message was from the heart!   Nowadays actors can use Twitter or Facebook to send messages to the fans but back then, this was the best that we could hope for. And there’s something wonderful in it!

And it started a tradition that would be picked up decades later: there would be Doctor Who on Christmas!  May there always be Doctor Who on Christmas!!  (25 days until the next Doctor Who Christmas!)

If I may be allowed to borrow from William Hartnell…

“Incidentally, a Happy Christmas to all of you at home.”   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Massacre
or the epic story this Christmas special interrupted… The Daleks’ Master Plan

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Christmas, Doctor Who, Entertainment, First Doctor, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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