Doctor Who: The Wilderness Years - THE CURSE OF FATAL DEATH

Dan Luisi says hello to the sofa of reasonable comfort...

Originally broadcast as part of Comic Relief on March 12th 1999, The Curse of Fatal Death came at a time when Doctor Who was in the middle of its wilderness years. A true 30th Anniversary Special had failed to go into production (and we were left with the afterthought that was Dimensions In Time), a series of cinematic movies had gone the same way, and the Paul McGann TV Movie hadn't proved successful so no new series followed. Which meant that by 1999 it seemed as if Doctor Who was never to return to the screen.

There had been parodies produced before (and, with the growth of the internet and youTube, countless produced since), but none of them we're created with as much love, care and attention as The Curse of Fatal Death. The story is split into four episodes, so it is structured very much like a classic Doctor Who serial (albeit each episode is about 5 minutes here) complete with cliffhangers. The titles utilise the Fourth Doctor's time tunnel effect, and even the in-story music was recycled from many old episodes. We also have two of the Doctor's greatest nemesis', the Master and the Daleks (with Roy Skelton returning to voice the characters for the final time, alongside long term visual effects supervisor Dave Chapman). It's all very much produced as a continuation of the classic series.

All the main characters are realised with superb attention to detail. Rowan Atkinson is not just playing the "Doctor", but the Ninth Doctor, and he proves how good a Doctor he could've been by playing the character straight, and surprisingly not primarily for laughs but letting the script provide the humour instead. Jonathan Pryce brings just the right level of over-the-top to the Master, channeling his inner Anthony Ainley as he turns it up to 11 in a performance that is further enhanced by his wonderful voice. As Emma, Julia Sawalha plays the role of the companion better than some of the actual ones had managed to. Here she never looks stupid when asking the Doctor to explain the situation, which was the primary function of most classic Who companions.

The excellent script sends up Doctor Who, but in a very loving way, featuring themes that every fan of the show would be aware of. There's a section focusing on time paradoxes when the two Time Lords take turns to go back in time and bribe the architect of the building to install traps for each other, the Doctor trapping the Master in a sewer and ageing him by centuries, and the show's limited budget is bought up with the line "These corridors all look the same!". The last episode features regenerations, and stays true to the original idea that a Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times. The Doctor burns through his remaining 4 incarnations in the space of five minutes, and we're treated to the most star-studded cast Doctor Who has ever had - Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley.

So if Doctor Who was never to return to our screens after this 1999 broadcast, the series had been wrapped up quite nicely, and I suspect today people would be arguing over the status of this adventure as canon or not (clearly it isn't and was never meant to be, but the fact that it was produced in a way that it could actually be is what makes it so special). Of course it did return to our screens, bigger and bolder than ever, and looking back on The Curse of Fatal Death now it is made even better with knowledge of the show's future.

To start with it's written by Steven Moffat, this being his first on-screen venture into the world of Doctor Who. Then, when the Doctor first regenerates his Tenth incarnation is played by Richard E. Grant, who would, somewhat paradoxically, play the original official Ninth Doctor in Scream Of The Shalka before that animated story was made non-canon (and more recently Grant has played The Great Intelligence).

The Twelfth Doctor is portrayed by Hugh Grant, the man Russell T Davies approached in 2004 to play the Ninth Doctor, and then the Doctor's final incarnation brings in for the first time a rather hot topic amongst fandom - regeneration can change the Doctor's gender.

Of course Steven Moffat recently swapped the gender of the Master in Doctor Who series 8, he sort of does this here too, with the Pryce-Master gaining an impressive pair of "Dalek Bumps".

Then there's the setting of the story, the planet Tersurus, home of a now-extinct race of supremely-enlightened beings shunned by all because they used flatulence as their means of communication. An excuse to get a few fart gags in for sure, but then didn't RTD create the Slitheen to do the exact same thing?

There was never any suggestion of a Doctor and companion romantically linked in classic Who, and when the Eighth Doctor kissed Grace Holloway in the TV Movie it caused quite a storm, yet the plot of The Curse of Fatal Death sees the Doctor and companion Emma having fallen in love and planning to wed. A companion falling for the Ninth Doctor? And then fancying a later incarnation even more? Sound familiar to you?

Finally, one of the best things about The Curse of Fatal Death is the way it gets around plot-holes. Fans spend hours and hours creating their own theories and explanations for how 'x' happened, or how 'y' managed to defeat 'z', but here we have a great way to get out of going into detail. What is it you ask? Well...

...I'll Explain Later!

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