The Curse Of Fatal Death at 20: revisiting a Comic Relief Doctor Who special

How did The Curse Of Fatal Death, a Red Nose Day sketch, foreshadow Steven Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who?

Remember that one Red Nose Day when Rowan Atkinson, Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, and Joanna Lumley all played the Doctor in the same story? While Steven Moffat went on to write great Doctor Who episodes under Russell T. Davies and during his own era as showrunner, his first BBC-produced Who script was the extended Comic Relief sketch The Curse Of Fatal Death.

The Red Nose Day telecast always brings the odd pop culture sketch, with tonight’s offerings including a 25th anniversary sequel to Richard Curtis’ Four Weddings And A Funeral and French and Saunders parodying Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again after their popular parody of the first film aired 10 years ago.

When The Curse Of Fatal Death was broadcast in 1999, the most recent Who was the 1996 TV movie, which had seen Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor regenerate into Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor around half an hour into the running time. The series proper had been off-air for ten years when Curtis enlisted Moffat, then best known for sitcoms Press Gang, Joking Apart, and Chalk, to write a short sketch.

Originally intended to run for 10 minutes, The Curse Of Fatal Death was expanded to a full 20 minutes and presented in four parts (complete with classic cliffhangers) throughout the Red Nose Day telecast on 12th March 1999. It’s not canonical, but like any good parody of a format, it puts up a solid if short impression of a Doctor Who serial.

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Starring Atkinson as the Doctor (for most of the story anyway), Julia Sawalha as his companion Emma, and Jonathan Pryce as the Master, the story goes from the stinky terrain of the planet Tersurus to the control room of a Dalek spaceship, where the metal gits are attempting to harness deadly Zektronic energy beams. With lashings of potty humour and some good-natured ribbing of the classic series, it’s a star-studded spoof that has become far more interesting upon reflection.

More than just running through the tropes like the Doctor runs through corridors and gravel quarries, it’s written from the perspective of someone who clearly grew up wanting to write this show. It’s witty, it’s bawdy, it’s highly timey-wimey, and whether intentionally or not, it’s practically the blueprint for Steven Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who as a whole.

I bribed the architect first

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say at this point that The Curse Of Fatal Death was my first glimpse of Doctor Who in any medium. The TV movie had passed me by and the new series was barely a glint in RTD’s eye at this point. As a fan of Mr. Bean and Blackadder and a general Red Nose Day watcher, I was very much oblivious to Daleks, Time Lords, and regeneration. I was so captivated by these things that I promptly forgot about them until 2005.

It’s no Rose, but as a first exposure to the programme, it’s fairly accessible. It’s also funny and quite fast paced, and these are all qualities that the new series would strive for. It’s utterly daft on top of that, but Moffat still writes this like somebody who doesn’t think they’re ever going to get the chance to write it for real.

Inevitably, that means some stuff that would carry over into his era shows up for the first time here, including the idea of a married Doctor. Emma doesn’t directly prefigure River Song, playing more like what a 1990s version of the companion role would be while also being lovey-dovey with a Time Lord who’s angling for retirement, having saved every single planet in the universe “a minimum of 27 times”.

It starts to look even more like one of Moffat’s scripts when he starts doing the “time can be rewritten” thing, locking Atkinson’s charming Doctor and Pryce’s bitter, jealous Master in a game of hilarious one-upmanship, going back in time further and further back to alternately bribe the architect of the castle where they’ve arranged their showdown.

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“Say hello to the spikes of doom”, Pryce bellows, pushing the Doctor and Emma into a hidden chamber, only for the wall to revolve back around and reveal them relaxing on a settee. “Say hello to the sofa of reasonable comfort”, Atkinson retorts.

With the benefit of hindsight, it feels like textbook Moffat. Time travel rarely ever figures into Doctor Who‘s storytelling as much as it does during his era, where it’s not only a means of getting from one adventure to the next but a source of both problems and solutions galore.

Long before he was handed the keys to the kingdom, this shows the benefit of his background in sitcoms in his take on Doctor Who, from the jokes to the building of set-ups and pay-offs (and not always necessarily in chronological order).

I’ll explain later

Even within a short running time, The Curse Of Fatal Death covers quite a lot of ground. As in most of Moffat’s later two-parters, the second half is distinctive from the first in both setting and tone, with the arrival of the Daleks giving us both a mid-point cliffhanger and a shift to another location. More than just a detached parody of the programme, it evolves into a big geeky smorgasbord of in-jokes, references, and yes, new Doctors.

By the same token, there are some invented bits of shorthand. Later in the story, various characters start telling Emma that they’ll explain later when she asks very good questions about the plot. This is a fairly broad generalisation about the programme’s attitude to waving away any potential plot holes, to the point where your dad might assert “Oh, Doctor Who always used to say that” in the way that we now do about, for instance, “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey”.

Despite the stellar cast, it’s recognisably an officially licensed fan film, right down to the way in which it was made. Filmed at Pinewood Studios, the production makes good use of existing bits and bobs, ranging from six Dalek props used in the classic series to a fan-built TARDIS console room set loaned from a fan production.

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Elsewhere, there’s a CG vortex shot borrowed from the TV Movie and the score comprises reused music from the classic series, including an iconic cue from Logopolis that grows funnier through repetition over each regeneration in the final instalment.

This kind of background detail is what makes The Curse Of Fatal Death such an interesting artefact for fans. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and unexpectedly, this represents the format just as well to either a kid who enjoys Mr. Bean and fart jokes, or a fan watching it with full knowledge of what came before and after.

The miracle of the Time Lords

At a point when the tabloids were suggesting that Doctor Who might return with Ainsley Harriot or Paul Daniels in the lead role, there’s some enviable Doctor casting at work here, even before it turns into a regeneration-palooza.

Atkinson was the first choice to play the Doctor, and according to an interview with producer Sue Vertue for the BBC website’s Cult section, the actor was genuinely interested in developing the look and personality of his incarnation before filming began.

Overall, the way that the cast truly get stuck into it is the cherry on top. Even if it’s all in good fun and everyone basically turns up to do their bit for Comic Relief, they didn’t cast anyone you wouldn’t quite like to see play the Doctor properly.

While promoting his post-Who project A Very English Scandal in 2018, Davies revealed that he offered the role to Hugh Grant in 2005, having greatly enjoyed his brief turn as the Doctor. “I was offered the role of the Doctor a few years back and was highly flattered,” Grant reflected. “It’s only when you see it on screen that you think, ‘Damn, that was good, why did I say no?’”

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The other Grant, Richard E, obviously enjoyed himself too, because he had a go at playing another non-canonical Doctor in the BBC’s animated production Scream Of The Shalka in 2004. He would later appear in several Moffat-scripted episodes as the Great Intelligence.

In terms of foreshadowing the new series, it’s an eerie coincidence that the “lick-the-mirror handsome” Tenth Doctor shares David Tennant’s general oral fixation, the Eleventh is quite awkward around people, and the Thirteenth Doctor is the first female incarnation. Stranger still, Moffat was only involved in creating one of those canonical Doctors.

Elsewhere, Sawalha was one of the names in contention to play the Seventh Doctor’s next companion at the time that the classic series was put on a permanent hiatus in 1989 and she makes a great show of a more modern “assistant”. In another nice touch, classic series stalwart Roy Skelton gives his final performance as the voice of the Daleks.

Meanwhile, Pryce absolutely steals the show, fully embracing a Master who is endlessly shown up by his own unintended campiness. He’d be marvellous if he ever played the part for real, but here he’s irresistible, as he swears a “deadly vengeance of deadly revenge” and wears bizarre Dalek augmentations like a plunger hand and breast-like bumps.

Look after the universe for me

Re-edited into a two-part format and accompanied by a making-of feature, the story was released on VHS as part of the BBC’s official range, with proceeds going to Comic Relief. Although this version is also available on both the Doctor Who and Red Nose Day YouTube accounts, there’s never been a DVD release and it now seems unlikely there ever will be. For starters, can you imagine anything with that joke about Joanna Lumley exploring her sonic screwdriver’s settings coming to shelves under the current branding?

Still, through a combination of its scripting and its home-based production and cast, The Curse Of Fatal Death serves as more of a waypoint between the classic and the new series than the American-produced TV Movie it followed. Even if it’s not remotely connected to the long-running continuity of the show, this often cheesy, quite sentimental story deserves pride of place somewhere adjacent to the canon.

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Beyond its myriad connections to both the past and future of the show, (Curtis wrote Vincent And The Doctor after working with the future showrunner on this) Moffat’s emerging style of writing Who is really interesting to look at in hindsight.

We’re not trying to paint this as his grand thesis statement on Doctor Who. In essence, it’s just a silly, affectionate parody. Most of the choices here were made because they’re funny, rather than because he’s trying to revive or reinvent the show, but it’s uncanny how much of his later perspective on the show comes through early on, even within a purely comedic endeavour.

But at the same time, compare this to series nine’s opening story, comprising The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar, and tell us they’re not both stories about Daleks trying to harness a dangerous energy, some endless traipsing through sewers, and an incarnation of the Master who has taken to having breasts.

Heck, he even reuses the joke about Daleks not needing chairs except when they have prisoners round, which is fair enough, because it’s a good joke. But the fact that Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor repeats the final words of another Twelfth Doctor – “Look after the universe for me, I’ve put a lot of work into it” – means that it’s got to be intentional.

But most importantly, Moffat’s irreverence and cleverness with the programme would come back in his full Doctor Who scripts later on, simultaneously taking his stewardship seriously while having tonnes of fun with it. You might even say that what he suggested in this first effort, he explained later.

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