After the Paul McGann Movie in 1996 it felt like Doctor Who might never be coming back to television. The big revival had come and gone. So in 1999 even a silly little comedy sketch was welcome. People still remembered Doctor Who, and that was important. The Curse of Fatal Death was made in aid of Comic Relief, and it has taken on a special significance in hindsight, as it was the first televised Doctor Who episode written by Steven Moffat, who would eventually go on to be the showrunner between 2010 and 2017. So we have two very different approaches to watching this: what it means to us as fans now, and what it meant to us at the time.
The View from the Junkyard: 1999
The most striking thing at the time was the cast. The idea of big-named stars being attracted to making Doctor Who seemed like an impossible dream, but here we had a charity episode starring Rowan Atkinson, Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha and Jonathan Pryce. How on earth did that happen? If you look at who made this, you can see the connections. I have been recently rewatching the television episodes of Mr Bean (starring Rowan Atkinson) and noticed looking at the end credits that they were produced by Sue Vertue, who is of course married to Steven Moffat (they met in 1996), who worked with Julia Sawalha on Press Gang. The Executive Producer for The Curse of Fatal Death was Richard Curtis, and I don’t think I need to explain his writing credits (or if I do, then I’ll explain later). So in the name of charity (and presumably friendship) these huge stars came together to make The Curse of Fatal Death. Playing the Doctor for most of the story is Rowan Atkinson, who does something with the role that is not a million miles away from Blackadder, giving him a deadpan humour that works well.
As for the story, it did feel like an attack on Doctor Who at the time, and not a particularly affectionate one, poking fun at all the obvious targets. The theme was basically: let’s make jokes about how cheap Doctor Who used to be, and how badly it used to be written. All the “explain later” stuff and corridor jokes seemed rather tedious and even the title was a cheap shot. It also felt like a misremembered version of what Doctor Who used to be, in particular what we would now call the “timey wimey” plot. Time travel in the classic series was hardly ever used for any purpose other than to drop the Doctor into a new story, but here it was the focus of the story, an easy way to get in some jokes. The relationship between the Doctor and his companion also seemed to be focussing on a misremembered past, but note how this aspect and the use of time travel within the narrative are both features of The Movie, along with the mid-episode regeneration. So this was a bizarre hybrid, something that seemed to be superficially harking back to the classic series, but was built around mis-steps from 1996, right down to the Doctor’s costume and floppy hair.
The View from the Junkyard: 2018
Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner has just come to an end, so how do we now interpret The Curse of Fatal Death in light of his work on Doctor Who, and this being his very first credit? Well, the extent to which he ended up reusing ideas from this is quite astonishing. So many things we watched at the time and thought, “but Doctor Who isn’t like that”, eventually became integral to the series: the use of time travel within the story, the romantic relationship between the Doctor and his companion, the Doctor actually marrying a companion (of sorts), even little things like throwing the Master and the Daleks together in one story, and the familiar dialogue; the Doctor has “put a lot of work into” the universe.
But the two most significant bits of foreshadowing are the relationship between the Doctor and the Master, and the gender-swap regeneration. In order to set up the twist at the end, with the two of them going off together, the Master cannot be portrayed as a complete monster here, and their relationship bears some similarities to the journey Missy takes during the Capaldi era. Moffat hits the nail on the head with the love/hate vibe between them right out of the blocks. We end up with a female Doctor and a male Master, and of course we will eventually get the reverse of that. And the Thirteenth Doctor really is female now! So this is all either a massive coincidence, or more likely a future showrunner’s vision of where to go with Doctor Who in a silly little microcosm, with the absurd humour turned up to eleven.
Who would have ever thought The Curse of Fatal Death would become something akin to a blueprint for the return of Doctor Who? It’s a funny old world. RP
The view from across the pond:
Doctor Who went off our screens in 1989, came back in 1996 for a single blip on the radar, with Paul McGann as the new Doctor and then… it was gone until 2005 when Russell T. Davies helped resurrect our favorite series. But while we are in a week of spin-offs at the Junkyard, we can’t ignore one smaller blip on the radar. In 1999, Doctor Who made one additional appearance that you may not be aware of and in this one, the Doctor would be played by Rowan Atkinson.
And Richard E. Grant.
And Jim Broadbent.
And Hugh Grant.
Oh, and Joanna Lumley!
Yes, it’s true! Written by Steven Moffat long before the return on the new series, we had a tribute to some of those classic elements that made Doctor Who both wonderful and campy. Following in the tradition of many horribly titled episode of the classic series, Moffat gave us The Curse of Fatal Death! (You thought the Deadly Assassin was bad!) But unlike those serious attempts by the series, this Red Nose Day special was intended for comedic effect. In fact, Jonathan Pryce’s Master is all too happy to come up with some equally inane lines, just to illustrate how over-the-top things could be. “And it will be a deadly vengeance. It will be the deadly vengeance of deadly revenge!”.
This 20 minute special uses music from Tom and Peter’s era paying homage to the original run of the series! It also includes a reference to Rowan’s Doctor as his 9th body, thus validating that McGann’s Doctor did happen. (This is further verified by the opening shot of the TARDIS in the vortex coming straight from The Movie of 1996.) There’s a lot of one-upmanship between the Master and the Doctor, which contributes to the comedy superbly. Easily my favorite bit as both time lords “bribe the architect”! And the sheer love they clearly showed for the series is evident. How? I’ll explain later. No, sorry, that’s not me saying “I’ll explain later”; it’s the line they use as often as it was used in the original series. Not just relegated to the Doctor, even the Daleks, when asked why they have chairs on their spaceship answer with, “I’ll explain later”. The Master also gets a chance at it when asked why he’s called “the Master.”
This was also a hint of things to come. Years before the show returned, we can see how this influenced the reboot. When the Doctor dies and regenerates, it’s more like the bright energy blasts that come with the 2005 series. And this is where the Doctor’s promise was first revealed when his companion/fiancé, Emma, says he was “never cruel… never cowardly”. (Yes, you read that right: he’s planning on getting married and settling down…) She tells him he cannot die because he’s too silly and like “father Christmas, the Wizard of Oz and Scooby Doo.” Sound familiar? And remember when Matt Smith’s Doctor said he put a lot of work into the universe? That too, started here! “Look after the universe for me. I’ve put a lot of work into it!”
Then Emma says what we fans knew all along: “maybe even the universe can’t bear to be without the Doctor.” And she was right. It just took the universe a little longer to realize it but 2005 was just around the corner….
Now, on October 7th, Jodie Whattaker will take over as the first female Doctor almost 20 years after Joanna Lumley played… um, the first female Doctor? Yes, you read it here, folks. Joanna Lumley was the last incarnation to end this silly little romp, and she’s a lot of fun. It’s worth the 20 minutes; it’s quirky, fun and an absolute tribute to the series, written by people who loved it and would eventually bring it back to life. ML