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12-11-23 | A few weeks from now Doctor Who returns to our TV screens! And to celebrate its 60th anniversary David Tennant has returned to the role that made him a household name. In that sense the 60th anniversary is, in an odd way, the 50th anniversary of classic Doctors returning from the past to celebrate the show. Since 1973 every anniversary has been marked by a unique adventure featuring one or more familiar faces from the show’s past.

Back in 1963 Doctor Who was not the glamorous sci-fi juggernaut it is today. The black & white episodes of Doctor Who were practically recorded live, with roughly forty episodes featured in each season. Given this gruelling pace and its limited budget, Doctor Who’s success was something of a miracle. This plucky little workhorse of a programme would go from black & white potboiler starring William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton to unmissable full colour adventure show starring Jon Pertwee within the space of just ten years. Reason for celebration, indeed!

The first serial to team-up several incarnations of the Doctor was 1973s The Three Doctors. The idea of having the Doctor meet his previous incarnations had actually been suggested by fans on several occasions, but was never seriously considered. When the time came to mark the programme’s tenth anniversary that changed. Second Doctor Patrick Troughton happily accepted his chance to meet the then current Doctor, Jon Pertwee, but for William Hartnell a return was more challenging. The dementia which forced him to leave Doctor Who in 1966 would severely limited his involvement in The Three Doctors.

The Doctor, exiled on Earth since 1970, is faced with a mysterious force invading his home world. The Time Lords decide the Doctor is the only man capable of saving Gallifrey, though he’ll need help to triumph over his faceless enemy. The Time Lords therefore decide to lift his previous incarnations out of their time stream, so they can join forces in 1973. The bickering Doctors discover that Omega, the architect of time travel technology, is behind the invasion and struggle to foil his evil plan.

Most of The Three Doctors focusses on the comedic friction between the flamboyant Jon Pertwee and the Chaplinesque Patrick Troughton. Their petty quarrels are a joy to behold, making The Three Doctors a must see serial for Whovians old and new. Happily, writers Bob Baker & Dave Martin decided not to turn the 10th anniversary into a nostalgic continuity fest. Instead, The Three Doctors follows the familiar formula of Pertwee’s earlier stories. Despite Hartnell’s limited involvement, this serial is quintessential classic Doctor Who.

The Three Doctors was such a success, that by the time the 20th anniversary loomed another multi-Doctor episode seemed a no-brainer. John Nathan-Turner, Doctor Who’s producer during its third decade, had been planning The Five Doctors since Tom Baker’s departure in 1981. By 1983, however, Baker indicated he wasn’t too keen on reprising the role so soon. William Hartnell had passed on in 1975, leaving Nathan-Turner with only three Doctors: Troughton, Pertwee and the young Peter Davison. The producer decided to create the 90 minute special regardless, with Richard Hurndall playing the Hartnell role and Tom Baker appearing in a brief scene, culled from the unfinished episode Shada.

The special finds four incarnations of the Doctor hurled into the Death Zone, a sinister realm on his home planet of Gallifrey. Reunited with their former travelling companions, the Doctors must discover who has transported them to this forbidden zone. Faced with countless monsters and enemies from their past, the Doctors finally come face to face with their true adversary … and a fabled figure from Time Lord mythology.

Despite being overpopulated with guest stars and classic monsters, The Five Doctors remains an enjoyable slice of melodramatic sci-fi. The capable Terrance Dicks, head writer during the Pertwee era and author of dozens of Doctor Who novels, skilfully kept The Five Doctors from turning into ludicrous fan fiction. This was Doctor Who at the hight of its popularity. The special was a hit, confirming that the Doctor was ready for another twenty years of timeless television adventuring.

Ten years later, Doctor Who lay in ruins. Lead actors Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy had fought valiantly to keep the programme afloat. But by 1989 the video bound Doctor Who could no longer compete with near-cinematic offerings like Star Trek the Next Generation. McCoy’s third season would be Doctor Who’s last for now … and possibly forever. Fans remained optimistic about the Doctor’s return, however. Talk of feature films and animated series kept the spirit of Doctor Who alive. But what of the 30th anniversary?

By 1993 a third reunion special seemed to be in the works. But The Dark Dimension was spectacularly mismanaged by its producers and was never going to work. Actor were approached far too late to be involved, the script was overambitious and the budget non-existent. Instead John Nathan-Turner was approached to arrange for a last minute mini-special to be filmed as part of the 1993 Children in Need charity telethon.

Dimensions in Time features Pertwee through McCoy running away from vintage monsters on the set of popular BBC soap opera Eastenders. A ludicrous concept which was poorly received, but given the special was barely 15 minutes it did not linger in the minds of fans nor the general audience. Unofficial spin-off The Airzone Solution wasn’t much better. This dull low-budget drama teamed-up all of the Doctors except Tom Baker. 1993 could have been the Doctor’s glorious return to form. Instead it turned out to be the end of an era. Classic Doctor Who was finally over. But the TARDIS would return …

Next week, we discuss the Doctor Who specials since 2003, including the Doctor’s glorious 50th anniversary!