Review by Daniel Tessier
November 1st 2023 marked the beginning of Doctor Who's 60th-anniversary celebrations, as the BBC unveiled The Whoniverse, a new section of iPlayer dedicated to Doctor Who and its spin-offs. On the same day, a new miniseries was released to stream, designed specifically to honour and relaunch the classic, 20th century series of Doctor Who.
It's easy to understand the thinking behind Tales of the TARDIS. After all, the upcoming specials, which bring back David Tennant and Catherine Tate as the Doctor and Donna, call back to a series now fifteen years old, but that's scarcely engaging with the entire sixty-year history of the programme. Yes, returning showrunner Russell T. Davies is bringing back several vintage villains, but it's understandable that he realised, late in the day, that he wasn't doing enough to celebrate the original run of Doctor Who, which ran from 1963 to 1989.
Tales of the TARDIS does betray its last-minute nature, featuring only minimal new footage, sandwiching classic serials, edited into features of roughly ninety minutes. The new material has clearly been produced rather cheaply, but then, this rather helps it feel like part of the original series, which rarely had much money to play with. It's a slightly odd concept, reviving old serials on the same day that they all become available on iPlayer in their original format. Nonetheless, it makes some sense, providing a somewhat more accessible format for newer fans who may never have seen the original Doctor Who series before. It did, after all, end 34 years ago.
The real draw for longer-term fans is the new material. After all, most of us die-hards have seen these serials many times before. The miniseries is written with a cute conceit: a “Memory TARDIS,” a dream-like conjuration of the ship's history, exists on some plane, allowing the various travellers from throughout the series' span to visit, and relive their adventures. This gives us six sweet reunions between old Doctors and companions, continuing their stories beyond their original ends.
Both parts of the format have precedents. Editing serials into feature-length episodes is a tried-and-tested technique, used for both early video releases and the occasional televised repeat during the original run. More recently, Pete McTighe wrote numerous reunion scenes for Doctor Who's full-season Blu-Ray releases, which inspired Davies to try something similar for these stories. The first of these is written by Davies himself, with McTighe providing the second and last stories, and Phil Ford giving us the middle three.
It's a format that is potentially very flexible, within certain restrictions, both self-imposed and unavoidable. The one thing nothing can be done about it is, naturally for such an old show, that many of the original cast are no longer with us, including the first three Doctors. A further limitation is the desire to keep the stories to a certain length, which essentially restricts the selection to four-part serials, more or less. Given these limitations, the six stories selected are a great bunch, both showing some of the best Doctor Who from various eras, and ones that it's quite easy to enjoy without foreknowledge. Anything extra you might need to know, the introductory scene helps fill in.
Out of the six episodes, three feature the Doctor returning, although the excitement of seeing Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy back in the role on screen is slightly tempered by their appearances in last year's special “The Power of the Doctor.” Of course, the actors are now all visibly quite a lot older than they were during their time on the series proper, but McCoy's incarnation has a simple explanation: in some time streams he regenerates, in others, he doesn't. It's a simple solution that I have long thought would provide an easy way to bring back older Doctors for cameos, and it fits in nicely with the current popularity of the multiverse concept in science fiction.
Earthshock (1982) is a strong choice to start with; a pacy, action-packed story which features the Cybermen, one of the series' most popular monster races. Modern viewers might be surprised by how emotional these self-described emotionless beings are in the 1980s, but they remain recognisable to anyone who might have joined the programme with Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi or Jodie Whittaker. Peter Davison's Fifth Doctor is reunited with Janet Fielding as Tegan, and they finally address the emotional impact of losing their fellow traveller Adric (Matthew Waterhouse). It highlights a major difference between the original series and the modern version; there was rarely an opportunity to face the emotional consequences of the stories in those days. It does rather spoil the story if you went in totally blind, though, given that both the involvement of the Cybermen and the death of Adric were originally intended as surprises.
The Mind Robber (1968) is one of the highlights of the Troughton era. Given the severe limits on the availability of Second Doctor stories, what with almost half his episodes still missing, it's fortunate we have such a strong story still in the archives. The Mind Robber is actually a five-part serial but given that it has some of the shortest episodes of the programme's run, trimming it down to ninety minutes can't have been too difficult. It's perhaps less enticing to new viewers than the opener: there's no returning Doctor, and the story itself is presented in monochrome. However, it does boast a truly charming reunion between Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury as Jamie and Zoe, together on screen for the first time since 1983's The Five Doctors, and a touching tribute to Victoria, played by the late Deborah Watling.
The Sixth Doctor's era, always the most contentious, was doubtless the most challenging to represent, but Vengeance on Varos (1985) is an excellent pick. As an examination of the ghoulish spectacle of reality TV, Varos is more topical than ever and made as two 45-minute episodes it condenses into a feature nicely. Nicola Bryant – who still looks amazing – returns as Peri for the first time on screen since she left the programme in the following year's The Trial of a Time Lord, save for a brief appearance on McTighe's promo video for that season's box set. This scene ties in nicely to that and clears up some confusion about Peri's peculiar series exit.
Colin Baker got short shrift in “The Power of the Doctor” compared to his predecessor and successor, so it's good to see him get a chance to reunite with a former companion. He steps back into the role of the Doctor with aplomb, playing the more jovial, avuncular version of the character that he's honed on audio with Big Finish over the years. While Davison and McCoy squeeze into their old costumes, Baker gets a very snappy new outfit, albeit one that still fits his character's over-the-top persona. His old patchwork monstrosity of a coat is still hanging up in the TARDIS, though.
The Three Doctors (1972-3) is a fun, if slightly odd choice, given that Jon Pertwee has to share the limelight with Hartnell and Troughton. It fits in with the celebratory atmosphere, though, being a party-piece story itself. Phil Ford makes an unusual, but effective choice in his TARDIS duo. Naturally, it includes the wonderful Katy Manning as Jo, but almost everyone else from the serial is now gone. You'd have expected them to coax John Levene back to play Benton, but instead, Daniel Anthony appears as Clyde Langer from the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures. While it's a touch contrived – Clyde never travelled in the TARDIS, although he did spend five minutes inside once – it really works. Clyde and Jo met in “The Death of the Doctor” on SJA, and it's gratifying to have that beautiful series represented here.
It's a more bittersweet story than the rest, with the characters remembering Sarah Jane – one of the most important companions, officially now dead within the fiction itself, catching up with the sad loss of Elisabeth Sladen in 2011. Clyde also met the Brigadier on SJA, and there's a touching tribute to him and, by extension, Nick Courtney. The most heartfelt moment tribute, though, is to Jo's late husband Cliff, played in The Green Death by Stewart Bevan – Manning's then partner, and life-long friend.
The Time Meddler (1965) is our earliest story to get the ToTT treatment, featuring William Hartnell as the Doctor (the original, you might say) against Peter Butterworth as the villainous Meddling Monk. It's an ideal choice for a First Doctor story, combining the historical settings the series was then so known for with a science fiction twist and plenty of humour. Peter Purves and Maureen O'Brien make their first screen appearances as companions Steven and Vicki for 58 years. They slip back into their characters with remarkable ease and give long-term fans a chance to learn what they got up to after their final stories – two of the odder companion exits, it must be said.
Finally, we have The Curse of Fenric (1989), from the other end of the series' run, with a reunion for McCoy's Seventh Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace. As with Davison and Fielding, McCoy and Aldred already shared a reunion last year, but as Ace says, this somehow feels more real (being the actual Doctor rather than a projection). It's another emotional one, building on the more complex relationship their characters shared, tying in nicely to the developments in the story itself. Plus, it hints at another tangle between the Seventh Doctor and the Rani, played by Kate O'Mara, another actor sadly lost to us. It ends with a beautiful recreation of the final scene of the original series.
Davies has declared that these stories are entirely canonical, for those that care about such distinctions, and frankly, he should know. A couple of them even have the Doctor heading off for one last adventure with their companion, opening up all sorts of possibilities, even if it isn't entirely clear just how “real” their reunions are. Still, there must be even more places to visit in the dreams of time travellers. It's likely that there will be more of these productions, and I'm hopeful there will be. For all the staginess and simplicity of the bookending scenes, they really are very touching for us old-schoolers, and it's a fun way in for newer viewers, or those who watched long ago and would benefit from a little nudge to the memory.
Notable by his absence is the Fourth Doctor. Tom Baker is pushing ninety now and may not be performing at all (like all the actors returning, fans can hear him perform for Big Finish, but these are largely recorded years in advance). However, the lack of a seventh story, utilising companions as with the first three Doctors' instalments, actually raises hope that this may happen. Surely they're keeping this back in the hope that old Uncle Tom will be able to don the scarf one last time. Who knows, eh?
Published on November 12th, 2023. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.