Doctor Who has something of a troubled past when it comes to stage productions. 1974’s Seven Keys To Doomsday presented an entertaining story, but without the involvement of any of the actors from the television series at the time, while The Ultimate Adventure was anything but, wasting the talents of Jon Pertwee and Colin Baker in a tale which demonstrated some of the era’s worst excesses. And the less said about Richard Franklin’s vanity piece Recall UNIT: The Great T-Bag Mystery, the better.
The latest attempt to translate the Time Lord to the stage is the unimaginatively titled ‘Doctor Who Live’, currently touring the country.
Nigel Planer stars as Vorgenson, an intergalactic showman who has invented The Minimiser, a device which allows him to shrink and capture monsters from across the universe (though mostly from the 2010 series of Doctor Who), as well as a few old allies of the Doctor’s, and even the Doctor himself. It falls to the time traveller to try and stop Vorgenson, but there is an even greater menace (quite literally) waiting in the wings.
If all this sounds a little bit familiar, that’s because this story is a direct sequel to the 1973 tale Carnival Of Monsters, in which Jon Pertwee found himself trapped inside the Miniscope alongside a cavalcade of creatures, under the supervision of Vorg, who is revealed to be Vorgenson’s father. It’s a neat touch, and one of several references to old stories hidden within the dialogue.
Vorgenson is by far the main character in the production, and it’s clear from the outset that Nigel Planer has never had more fun. He manages to make Vorgenson sympathetic, despite his actions, and moves events along in a suitably grand fashion.
Also appearing is monster voice artist extraordinaire, Nicholas Briggs, who gets the chance to don a bowler hat and padded jumper to play Winston Churchill, in a brief, but fun cameo. While not quite Ian McNeice, who played Churchill in Victory Of The Daleks, Briggs puts on a decent impression of the character, and is instantly believable as the former Prime Minister.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who Live without the Doctor himself. Unfortunately, Matt Smith is too busy filming the actual show to commit to a four-week national tour, so his appearances are confined to pre-recorded video clips, which never feel particularly satisfying. Every one of his appearances in the first half can be summed up as ‘Ooh, you’re a bad man, Vorgenson, and I’m coming to get you!’
Smith is on fine form, and the dialogue is snappy enough, but the show’s limitations mean the Doctor is never able to interact with the events on stage in any meaningful way. It’s only in the show’s final 15 minutes, when the video footage is used in a slightly different fashion, that it proves to be anything like a satisfying solution.
And then, of course, there’s the monsters. There’s an impressive array here, from Cybermen and Ood to Scarecrows and Weeping Angels. Unfortunately, this is where the production really begins to show its limitations, as the ‘plot’ settles into a standard routine. Vorgenson introduces a monster, half a dozen of said monster have a bit of a wander around the arena floor, marginally interacting with a few members of the audience while music from their stories plays, and then Vorgenson sends them back into the Minimiser (or backstage, as it’s known to theatre afficionados).
The Doctor’s warnings that the monsters could escape and cause chaos never come to pass, and the show begins to feel incredibly repetitive, as we get one isolated monster parade after another. One child sat near me kept asking his parents when the actual show was going to start.
It’s only once the Daleks appear, predictably near the end, that we begin to see what the show could have been, as they interact with the Doctor and face off against another of the show’s villains. They also come equipped with some impressive laser and pyrotechnic effects, and in a definite highlight, the ability to fly. (The new Dalek designs look a lot better in person, incidentally.)
The final ingredient in the mix is, of course, the music. Murray Gold’s score (again, mostly taken from the 2010 series) has been rearranged to give it a little more of a ‘rock’ feel, and is performed live by a 16-piece band. This may prove a disappointment to those who were at the Proms in July (myself included), but it was still a joy to hear some choice favourites from the soundtrack given a new spin to suit an arena venue.
Unfortunately, the balance between music and dialogue was not always quite right, and even from the third row it was a challenge to pick up on some of the lines. It should also be noted that there were no video screens relaying the stage action to those seated further back, so unless you have eagle-eye vision, you may have to rely on the £10 programme to know what Vorgenson looks like. Fortunately, there’s not much action on stage until the end, so you won’t be missing out on too much.
Doctor Who Live has been described by Who supremo Steven Moffat as containing “the same excitement, adventure and suspense that viewers have come to expect from the TV programme”. It doesn’t, and anyone going along expecting anything approaching a live episode of Doctor Who is going to be rather disappointed. However, as a fun, but throwaway celebration of the current series, a chance to see some of the monsters up close, and to hum along with some of Murray Gold’s memorable music, it’s worth a look.