Children in Need’s history of Doctor Who specials dates back to a time before Pudsey Bear even existed. Feature-length special ‘The Five Doctors’ was first aired in the UK during the 1983 Children in Need telethon, a full two years before Pudsey became the charity’s official mascot.
Doctor Who has a rich tradition of supporting BBC charities – including a 1999 Comic Relief special penned by none other than Steven Moffat – and there have been six further Doctor Who specials for Children in Need in the three decades since ‘The Five Doctors’.
They range from the sublime – aka ‘Time Crash’ in 2007…
…to the ridiculous. And we mean really, brilliantly ridiculous:
Some Doctor Who fans never really got over the 1993 ‘Dimensions in Time’ special, a set of two mini episodes which aired on consecutive nights, the first on Children in Need and the second on the 1990s Saturday night fever dream known as Noel’s House Party.
It’s partly because it was actually supposed to be a 30th anniversary celebration of Doctor Who, so the somewhat rushed feel and bizarre choice to set it in EastEnders’ Albert Square was a bit off-putting, especially considering they’d convinced five original Doctors to take part (from Pertwee to McCoy), as well as much-loved companions Mel, Ace and Sarah Jane Smith.
It’s also not surprising some fans felt a bit put out, considering ‘Dimensions in Time’ replaced the original 30th anniversary plan: a cancelled feature-length episode called ‘The Dark Dimension’.
But if you let go and try not to take it too seriously – and accept the novelty of having so many beloved Doctor Who characters reunited in one place for a good cause – ‘Dimensions in Time’ really is a 1990s delight.
For one thing, the audience all had to put on hilariously flimsy and unconvincing 3D glasses to watch it, ostensibly just so you could get the unpleasant impression that the disembodied heads of William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton were flying right at your face in the first scene.
The EastEnders cast might not have been an impressive feature at the time, but it’s a wonderful nostalgia watch now, with appearances from classic characters like Pat and Frank Butcher, Sharon Watts, Ian Beale and even the Mitchell brothers.
And in a timey-wimey way, we also have the added benefit of hindsight now, so when John Pertwee and Mel discover they’ve somehow landed in Albert Square in 2013, the show’s predictions for what life would be like 20 years down the line are amusingly inaccurate. According to ‘Dimensions in Time’ in 2013 we’re all wearing flares, there’s a law making all-over sunblock mandatory, trains look like rocket ships, and the ravages of time have been so cruel to the ‘20 years older’ Pauline Fowler that it looks like she’s been dug up.
An aged-up Kathy Beale looks eerily accurate, though, and Pauline also prophetically laments ‘I wish my Arthur were still alive’, even though her beloved husband wouldn’t be killed off until three years later in 1996 (and a bit rich considering she’d infamously smashed him over the head with a frying pan just two months earlier).
And – as the very 1990s clipart-esque graphics confirmed – this was also the first time viewers could phone in and vote for the outcome of a Doctor Who episode. Fans were tasked with deciding whether part two of ‘Dimensions in Time’ would show the Doctors being assisted by Eastenders’ teenage tearaway Mandy Salter or stall holder Big Ron. Mandy won with 56% of the vote, and although the result was an anti-climactic five-second adjustment to the episode, you can now see a poor-quality version of the Big Ron edit which was never aired (you only need to watch the first 65 seconds – the rest of the episode is the same):
Oh, and there are outtakes too:
It’s been six years since the last Doctor Who special for Children in Need – a one-minute Peter Capaldi clip featuring Eddie Redmayne called ‘Looking for Pudsey’:
In recent years, Children in Need has only had previews of upcoming episodes (plus a superfan visiting the TARDIS with Jodie Whittaker, and this lockdown message) so it’s about time we had another light-hearted Doctor Who exclusive to look forward to. As a 2022 watch of ‘Dimensions in Time’ proves, when viewed through rose-tinted (hopefully not 3D) lenses, they only get better with time.
The 60th Anniversary specials are scheduled for November 2023 – the same month as Children in Need usually airs – so the odds are looking good.