Doctor Who and Eastenders: a history of soap and space

From the Queen Vic to the TARDIS. As Eastenders prepares to mark its 30th anniversary, we look back at its encounters with Doctor Who...

Back in the mid-eighties an actor who played “Third Assistant” in a Doctor Who story called The Savages (1966) and the director of another Doctor Who adventure, The Underwater Menace (1967), came together to create one of the BBC’s most successful television shows.

And when they got together, it was murder. Well, not quite. (Though the first episode did feature a victim who would later die, fact fans.) But what they did create was Eastenders.

Broadcast on February the 19th 1985 (in between episodes one and two of The Two Doctors), this creation of Who alumni would go on to share numerous links with the long-running science-fiction for years to come. Even its time-slot owes much to the adventures of everyone’s favourite Gallifreyan.

In an interview in 1993, former Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner, described how when his show was moved to twice-weekly slots (after airing on a Saturday for its first 18 seasons), he noted that the audience doubled – demonstrating that early evening drama slots could work. JNT said: “I think that what we were doing was really rehearsing which of the two evenings of the week would be ideal for a soap opera which had yet to be named, which was Eastenders.”

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Of course, whenever Who and ‘Enders come up in conversation, there is always an elephant in the room. So let’s get that out of the way.

The elephant? Dimensions In Time.

If you’re not aware of Dimensions In Time (and, may I say, lucky you), then have a seat. Back in 1993, the BBC were going to celebrate Doctor Who’s 30th anniversary with a special feature-length story, The Dark Dimension, starring Tom Baker and the surviving actors to play Doctor Who at that time. Though the adventure almost made it to the filming stage, it was binned. And, as some kind of placation for fans, a two-part crossover with Eastenders was devised as a 3D special for charity telethon Children In Need (the second part was screened as part of Noel’s House Party the following day).

For those curious about the plot, please don’t be. This abomination (and don’t let people tell you it’s so bad it’s good, it’s not – it’s just bad, plain awful bad), sees The Rani capture the Doctor’s first two selves, sending time askew with various Doctors and companions mixing it up and meeting the inhabitants of Albert Square.

Don’t worry kids though, it’s not canonical. So Dimensions In Time won’t confuse you with the various mentions Eastenders has actually had during Doctor Who (all post-2005).

The soap has been name-checked on three occasions on screen. In 2006’s The Impossible Planet, when Ida Scott said, “There’s no turning back,” David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor retorted: “Oh, did you have to? No turning back? That’s almost as bad as nothing can possible go wrong, or this is going to be the best Christmas Walford’s ever had.” Later in the same series, Eastenders even featured more prominently. In Army of Ghosts we’re treated to a scene in the Queen Vic (that’s the local pub in Albert Square, in case you didn’t know) starring Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell shooing off the ghost of Den Watts in her bar (we’ll come back to Dirty Den later on). Lastly, in the Matt Smith era episode Night Terrors (2011), Rory describes the tower block they’re investigating as “Eastenders-land”.

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Reciprocally, Who has been referenced in ‘Enders many times. Back in 2008, an ongoing storyline featuring rabid Whovian Bradley Branning came to its conclusion when his wife Stacey took him to a Doctor Who convention, complete with K9 and old-skool Cybermen, as a Valentine’s gift. Sadly, reader, Bradley is no longer with us…

UPDATE: A further Who nod was made during the BBC’s 30th anniversary Live Week celebrations, when the ‘character of Tamwar Masood (played by Himesh Patel), previously established as a Doctor Who fan, live-Tweeted the following: “Although I’m glad I’m wearing a bow-tie. Bow-ties are cool. #TamwarTweets”

On a more hilarious note, a couple of years later in 2010 a conversation about Doctor Who’s “gay agenda”, well John Barrowman at any rate, cropped up in a conversation between Ricky and Charlie Slater. The latter commented, “Gays in Doctor Who? Wouldn’t have happened in my day!” Given that Charlie was played by Derek Martin, who portrayed a number of uncredited roles in the sixties and seventies and was part of the HAVOC stunt team in the Jon Pertwee era, we can only assume the writers were having a slight giggle. (He finally got a named character in 1977’s Image Of The Fendahl)

Of course, Martin is not the only actor to have appeared in both shows. We should say there are a lot. A LOT. We’re not going to deluge you with them all but let’s have a look at some of the more notable actors and actresses who’ve crossed from Gallifrey to Albert Square – including a few you might not have known about.

The Doctor’s companions have often made that very jump, with Caroline John (Liz Shaw), Mary Tamm (Romana I), Peter Purves (Steven Taylor) and Sophie Aldred (Ace) all making an appearance in ‘Enders. Most notable was Louise Jameson, Tom Baker’s chum Leela, who had a large part in the soap – playing Rosa di Marco from 1998 to 2000.

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If we flip it, you’ll find big names down Walford way who have travelled in space and time on Doctor Who. We mentioned Dirty Den earlier, actor and webcam enthusiast Leslie Grantham was well-known for his salacious role as the Queen Vic landlord. Just a year before he joined Eastenders, the naughty boy played Davros’s sidekick in the Peter Davison classic, Resurrection Of The Daleks (1984).

Another relic from the first year of ’Enders, and still there, is Dot Cotton. June Brown who plays the ciggie-loving gossiper popped up in The Time Warrior (1973), which was also the first story to feature Sarah Jane Smith and the Sontarans. Fact fans will note that Dot not only appeared in Dimensions In Time but also a sketch for the 2011 National Television Awards Sketch. It featured Matt Smith and saw her reveal that she did the Doctor’s laundry.

Currently, you can see Annette Badland light up Albert Square as Babe Smith, having joined the cast just over a year ago. The actress made her mark in 2005 as Margaret Blaine, or as some of us know her Blon Fel-Fotch Pasameer-Day Slitheen, in the two-parter Aliens Of London/World War III and in Boom Town. The same year in Who saw the Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, befriend Lynda shortly before she was blasted by the Daleks in the series one finale, Bad Wolf/Parting Of The Ways. Played by Jo Joyner, the actress proved very popular in Albert Square as Tanya Branning. She left the show a couple of years ago but has returned to celebrate the 30th this week.

The following finale in 2006, Army Of Ghosts/Doomsday, with David Tennant and Billie Piper saw them meet Torchwood’s Yvonne Hartman, played by the effervescent Tracy Ann Oberman (and most recently causing erotic hilarity as Mrs. Purchase in Toast Of London). In Easties she was the veritable Lady Macbeth as Chrissie Watts and oversaw the demise of the aforementioned Den Watts. And by “oversaw” we mean she killed him.

We could go on. For a very long time. So without turning this piece into some kind of listicle, it’s worth mentioning: Michelle Ryan, who starred in Planet Of The Dead (2009) as Lady Christina de Souza and walked the streets of Walford for five years or so as Zoe Slater; Rudolph Walker, who appeared in Patrick Troughton’s epic finale The War Games and has been Patrick Trueman on Albert Square since 2001; Michelle Collins, a rather forgettable Captain McDonnell in Chris Chibnall’s 42 (2007), was Cindy Beale for a decade in the soap; and Ian Reddington, a memorable villain in both shows, playing Tricky Dicky for two years in Eastenders and Chief Clown in the Sylvester McCoy story The Greatest Show In The Galaxy (1988) – winning the much-coveted “Villain of the Year,” voted for by readers of Doctor Who Magazine.

And for obscurists, the television giants David Walliams, moley alien Gibbis in The God Complex (2011) and Hugh Bonneville, Captain Avery in The Curse Of The Black Spot (2011), have both briefly popped up in ‘Enders. As has popular Sherlock Holmes actor Jonny Lee Miller, who starred, uncredited (but dig deep enough and you’ll find his name in the paperwork) as a very young boy in the Peter Davison classic Kinda (1982).

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Behind the camera too are some notable Who alumni who’ve crossed the streams, as it were. Mal Young, who helped bring the Time Lord back in 2005, was also an executive producer on Eastenders and oversaw its storylines as BBC’s controller of continuing drama. Who Legend Barry Letts who is best known for his work as producer during the Jon Pertwee era (and returned as executive producer to oversee the end of the Tom Baker years) and directing almost thirty episodes between 1967 and 1975, took on directorial duties in Albert Square in the early Nineties. Other directors who’ve helmed both shows include: Alice Troughton, the terrific Midnight (2008); Graeme Harper, numerous stories from the classic and new eras; Keith Boak, the chap who took on Christopher Eccleston’ first block of filming; and classic director Peter Moffatt, who took duties on five stories during the Eighties.

Let’s not forget the writers, though there’s not so many to choose from: Glen McCoy, the author of the rather terrible Timelash (1985); Matthew Graham, the Life On Mars co-creator who penned the less-than-loved Fear Her (2006); Keith Temple, Planet Of The Ood (2008); and Catherine Tregenna, a Torchwood writer who will have her first Doctor Who story on screen later this year.

So there you go. Eastenders and Doctor Who, a wonderful history and, at times, some fascinating crossovers. And some extraordinarily bad ones too. Happy Birthday Easties, here’s to some more connections in time and soap and space.

Thanks to Kevin Jon Davies and Roger M. Dilley.