Since hitting screens in 1963, Doctor Who has gone from televisual titbit to cultural phenomenon to institution to something approaching a secular religion. It’s older than Star Trek and Star Wars, if not quite as world-renowned; it’s younger than The Twilight Zone, yet more frequent, and frequently successful, in its iterations.
The show owes its laudable longevity to a series of happy accidents, shrewd moves and fortuitous casting decisions in its formative years, not least of which was the radical re-casting of the main character after William Hartnell became too unwell to continue; a bold gambit that could just as easily have soured the audience and sunk the show as cemented its status as a pop culture behemoth. Thankfully – as well we know – the introduction of the concept of Regeneration was the key to Doctor Who’s enduring presence, adaptability and relevance. While William Hartnell wowed a generation of children and their families as the curmudgeonly yet kindly First Doctor, without Patrick Troughton’s affable, vulnerable and very human turn as the Second Doctor, there might not even have been a fifth anniversary, much less the one we’re approaching.
Doctor Who – the world’s longest-running sci-fi show – is now on the cusp of its 60th anniversary, a milestone it will reach in November 2023 with, well… who knows who at the helm. But how should it commemorate its anniversary? What would fans like to see? First, let’s jump in the TARDIS and find out how the show has marked its previous anniversaries.
10th Anniversary: ‘The Three Doctors’ (1973)
‘The Three Doctors’ wasn’t an anniversary celebration in the way we’ve come to understand it now. There was little pomp or spectacle, not by Who standards anyway. It barely even qualified as an anniversary story, sneaking in at the start of 1973, many long months before the show’s actual birthday. Instead, the first multi-Doctor story was a quiet affair, the highlight of which was, naturally, the barbed banter between Troughton‘s bumbling space hobo and Pertwee’s aristocratic martial artist. Of course, Hartnell’s First Doctor featured too, forming the triumvirate promised in the title, although owing to ill health, his appearances were rationed and entirely confined to the TARDIS’ viewing screen, from where he doled out advice and withering put-downs.
In this mildly ho-hum but fun adventure, the Doctors come face to face not only with each other, but also Omega, Gallifrey‘s greatest figure of legend, who in his isolation and rage has become a supremely camp villain, fond of squatting and plotting in pocket-dimensions with only telepathically-controlled blobs of goo for company. I guess it’s true what they say: never meet your heroes.
20th Anniversary: ‘The Five Doctors’ (1983)
By 1983, things had been kicked up a notch. Here we had an ambitious tale that weaved together 20 years’ worth of Doctors, and their friends and enemies. No amorphous blobs or bonkers old Time Lords in ball-gowns here, but Cybermen, Daleks, Yetis, The Master – and newcomer the Raston Warrior Robot, a sort of ninja-dancing death machine in a tight lycra gimp-suit.
As before, the anniversary show’s title was something of a misnomer, though admittedly ‘The Three Doctors, No Doctor and a Sort of Doctor’ probably wouldn’t have been as arresting. Tom Baker declined to participate, necessitating the use of stock footage from the then-incomplete serial ‘Shada’ to represent the Fourth Doctor. William Hartnell had died in 1975, and so The First Doctor was portrayed by Richard Hurndall (who himself died less than a year after transmission of ‘The Five Doctors’). Still, what the feature-length episode lacked in marquee names, it made up for with a state banquet of companions, even bringing back K9. We see the Second Doctor chumming up with the Brigadier and Captain Yates (plus experiencing a vision of Jamie and Zoe), the Third Doctor teaming up with Sarah Jane Smith, and the First Doctor reuniting with his granddaughter, Susan, who seems to have completely forgotten he’d abandoned her in a far-future, war-ravaged earth at the close of ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’.
The story is a nonsensical, confusing, over-the-top mess, nothing more than a rising pyramid of side-quests and fan-service set-pieces all culminating in a damp squib of an ending. But you know what? To quote Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor: it’s fantastic. The best and only approach to ‘The Five Doctors’ is to switch off your critical faculties, sit back, and let warm rivulets of novelty and nostalgia rinse their way over your amygdala. Coo as the First Doctor tricks the Cybermen at electric chess. Cheer as the Second Doctor encounters his old nemesis the Yeti. Laugh your pants off as the Third Doctor uses a tow rope to save Sarah Jane from the perils of a very slight incline. And lament that the whole episode wasn’t just the Doctors trapped in a room together being really, really catty with each other.
25th Anniversary: ‘Silver Nemesis’ (1988)
The show’s 25th anniversary year gave Sylvester McCoy‘s Seventh Doctor his first taste of both the Daleks and the Cybermen. ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ wasn’t just McCoy’s best, it was arguably one of the best of the Classic Who era. The Seventh Doctor brooded, calculated and plotted, a noticeably darker figure to the spoon-playing, spoonerism-addicted, spoonish buffoon we’d been introduced to in Season 24. His vengeful, genocidal actions at the close of the serial pretty much kick-started the Time War. Ace was on fine form, too, dashing around Coal Hill school in 1963 wielding explosives and a baseball bat. ‘Silver Nemesis’ was the actual anniversary episode, and it was by far the weaker of the two commemorative offerings, but still a tremendous amount of silly fun. Nazis, Cybermen, medieval interlopers, an angry statue, the Doctor bopping to jazz. What’s not to like?
30th Anniversary: ‘Dimensions in Time’ (1993)
By the time Doctor Who‘s 30th anniversary came along in 1993, the show had already been cancelled for four years, entering that phase of its history known to fans as The Wilderness Years. The show had become, in deed and in memory, a parody of itself; a forgotten, end-of-the-pier relic. The only thing left of its legacy was a shared perception of how it had been at its campiest and silliest. All of this is painfully apparent in ‘Dimensions in Time’, a horrific charity crossover special somewhere between Doctor Who and BBC soap opera EastEnders. Thankfully, this two-parter isn’t considered canon, though I’m happy to provide the extra ‘n’ to have it shot out of one.
On the one hand, you could say that this was just a diverting little segue to raise money for sick children, and thus shouldn’t be judged too harshly, nor taken too much to heart. On the other hand, this was the only Doctor Who content produced for its anniversary year, so it’s hard not to interpret the existence of ‘Dimensions in Time’ existence as a hard slap in the face from an infinitely rolling multiverse of giant outstretched hands.
While ‘The Five Doctors’ leaned into nostalgia, ‘Dimensions in Time’ is entirely composed of it, chopping and changing Doctor and Companion combos in an orgy of What-If-ness (though admittedly, it was nice to see the Sixth Doctor get his chance to interact with the Brigadier, even if he was just shouting things at him over the noise of a helicopter). The Rani here completes her journey from plausible character with complex motivations to full-blown panto baddy. Tom Baker again sits this one out, opting instead to deliver ASMR from inside a computerised lava lamp. Near the climax of the piece, EastEnders‘ Albert Square falls under attack from a multitude of Who’s most infamous monsters (and some not so), and no-one except the Doctors and their revolving retinue of companions seem to care. It’s hard not to perceive a corollary with how the show itself was regarded by the general public at that time, a state of affairs not helped by audio-visual snot like this. In retrospect, the best 30th anniversary celebration would have been none at all.
40th Anniversary: ‘Scream of the Shalka’ (2003)
‘Scream of the Shalka’ was produced to tie in with Doctor Who‘s fortieth anniversary. It aired as a series of fully-animated webisodes – a forerunner of the animation now routinely used to resurrect lost episodes from Classic Who’s yesteryears. It starred Richard E Grant as a now non-canonical version of Gallifrey’s most famous traveller, and put him toe-to-toe with a race of inter-dimensional, world-conquering, telepathic, super-sonic lava beasts. It was written by Who aficionado Paul Cornell (who would later pen ‘Father’s Day’ and ‘Human Nature/The Family of Blood’). And it was good, very good indeed.
Richard E Grant’s Doctor is tall, gaunt and imposing, with a style of dress somewhere between vampire royalty and ostentatious undertaker. He’s blunt, withering, cantankerous and all-round deliciously alien, much like Peter Capaldi at the beginning of his tenure as the Twelfth. When he orders wine from an English bar, Alice (Sophie Okonedo) his server and companion-to-be, tells him, ‘We only do dry or sweet,’ to which he spits back, ‘And I don’t do sweet.’ There is also a plaintive, desperate loneliness about this Doctor, evident from the presence in his TARDIS of an android containing the consciousness of the Master (Derek Jacobi, who would later play the Master again on TV next to David Tennant’s Tenth) with whom he travels.
All of this would have been interesting to unpack and explore had ‘Scream of the Shalka’ precipitated a full and continuing series, which was the intention at the time, a plan stopped only, of course, by the announcement that the show would be returning to television. This blessed move had not only been inspired by but made possible by work on this project. Now that’s a 40th anniversary present and a half.
And with that, Christopher Eccleston would be the ninth Doctor, not Richard E Grant, and while that was, well, fantastic, it’s impossible not to wonder… what if?
50th Anniversary: ‘Day of the Doctor’ (2013)
By the dawning of its 50th year, the show had been back on screens for eight years and three Doctors. The modern incarnation of the show had re-ignited the nation’s love affair with Doctor Who, adding widespread critical acclaim and global commercial success to its former cult appeal. It was clear this anniversary special had to be its biggest and boldest yet, and so it proved.
Showrunner Steven Moffat brought his best mind-bending, timey-wimey-ness to bear on ‘Day of the Doctor’, a story that brought together UNIT, Zygons, time-travelling paintings, a re-framing of the Time War, the re-emergence and resurrection of Gallifrey, and, of course, the sheer delight of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors having the time of their lives teaming up. Added to the mix, in lieu of the Ninth Doctor (after Christopher Eccleston declined to participate), was John Hurt’s The War Doctor, a grizzled, frazzled veteran of The Time War – The Doctor who came to exist because he was capable of doing things that other Doctors couldn’t or wouldn’t but who, in the end, proved himself more than worthy of Doctor-hood. Not to mention the appearance of the mysterious Curator at the episode’s end, sporting a very familiar yet age-worn face.
2013 was an embarrassment of riches for the show. Not only did we get the exciting and engaging ‘Day of the Doctor’, but ‘An Adventure in Space and Time‘, the touching and contemplative story of William Hartnell’s (here played by future First Doctor, David Bradley) relationship with the show; ‘The Night of the Doctor’, a mini-episode that featured the welcome return of the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann); and, of course, the absolutely wonderful ‘The Five-ish Doctors’, a surrealist, meta, very funny, Curb Your Enthusiasm-style romp that followed the exploits of Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as they tried desperately to insert themselves into the 50th anniversary celebrations.
60th Anniversary: TBA (2023)
So what of the 60th? Traditionally, these kinds of milestones aren’t celebrated with as much intensity and fervour as, say, the 25th or the 50th. However, given that the show appears to be going through a decline in ratings and popularity, perhaps a big barnstormer is just what the Doctor ordered; something to give the show a shot in the arm to see it through the next six decades, rather than risk it tumbling over a cliff and staggering into the desert of its next wilderness years.
A multi-Doctor story seems the sure-fire way to do that. But who, and how many? Though Christopher Eccleston has returned to the Whoniverse in Big Finish form, the jury is still out on whether he’d be willing to participate in a fully-fledged BBC iteration of the show again. While the rest of the modern contingent’s faces are still fresh, though, it would be a joy to see the Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Doctors get together. Perhaps even in tandem with the Eighth Doctor, who surely deserves another crack at the small-screen whip, however brief. It’s more likely, though, that Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor would be the one to join them, contingent upon whether or not she returns in the upcoming 13th season, and how her arc pans out.
How about involving the classic Doctors? Not in a peripheral capacity as a sequel to ‘The Five-ish Doctors’ (although that would be very welcome) but due to the almost infinite possibilities inherent in the premise of the show, it surely wouldn’t be difficult to fashion a story in which Doctors Four to Seven returned togged up in their trademark outfits, along with their contemporary, and very age-worn faces. Perhaps some entity could pluck them from the time-streams and hold them captive, explaining their appearance through some sort of malfeasance or timey-wimey-ness. Big Finish has already given us the supreme delight of the Tenth Doctor teaming up with the Fourth and Fifth Doctors. What a joy it would be to behold the Sixth and Twelfth Doctors trying to out-bicker each other, or the Fourth Doctor passing judgement on the Eleventh’s bow-tie?
Might other, more unexpected Doctors appear? Thanks to the precedent set by The Mandalorian in plucking the character of Ahsoka Tano from the Star Wars’ animated universe, and setting her down in live-action continuity, there’s no reason why the Whoniverse can’t do the same with The Shalka Doctor. ‘But he’s not canon,’ I hear you cry. Perhaps so. But the seismic aftershocks of ‘The Timeless Children’ took canon and crushed it to dust. If we’re going to be stuck with it, might as well extract as many pluses from it as possible before some future showrunner decides to retcon the whole affair. It doesn’t even need to be connected to existing lore. If there are multiple, even infinite, dimensions out there, the Shalka Doctor may very well hail from one of them.
As to monsters? The Daleks and the Cybermen have been rather over-used lately, and their appearance in an anniversary special would be neither special nor especially welcome. It may be time to bring back an old monster or foe, one of supreme power that could give the Doctors a run for their money. Could the Black Guardian again don his crow-hat and return to wreak havoc with time? Or even the mighty Sutekh, who in ‘The Pyramids of Mars’ almost destroyed both the Fourth Doctor and the very world itself?
Whatever happens on Doctor Who’s next big anniversary, let’s just pray to the cosmos that it veers closer in tone to ‘Day of the Doctor’ or ‘The Five Doctors’. Nobody wants to see a cross-over with Coronation Street.
How would you like to see Doctor Who celebrate its 60th anniversary?