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A look back at ‘Doctor Who’ anniversary specials

The 60th anniversary of “Doctor Who” is fast approaching, so I feel like this is the right moment to take a look back at “Doctor Who’s” previous anniversary specials. Anniversary specials (which generally mark each decade of the show or thereabouts) have three main traits. They are full of fanservice, their plots are coming apart at the seams, and there will usually be multiple Doctors. After that, pretty much anything goes. I think they’re all worth watching, but this article will give a brief overview of each anniversary special and give you a sense of which ones are good and which ones are, well, less good.

“The Three Doctors” (1973)

The very first “Doctor Who” anniversary special was “The Three Doctors,” which marked the show’s 10th anniversary. It also served as the Season 10 opener. At the time, Jon Pertwee was starring as the Third Doctor, with Jo Grant as his companion. This is also during the period of the show when the Doctor is stranded on Earth working for UNIT. Not for long, though! The Time Lords, recognizing a massive threat to the universe, decide to recruit (re: force) multiple Doctors to solve the problem. As a result, Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor makes an appearance, teleporting into the TARDIS, playing the recorder and bickering with the Third Doctor. The goal was to also have William Hartnell’s First Doctor play a large role in the story, but, unfortunately, Hartnell’s health was too poor for him to take part in that way. Instead, the First Doctor gets trapped in transit and instead delivers some sage wisdom from a video monitor. Now, “The Three Doctors” is just a ton of fun. Pertwee and Troughton have marvelous chemistry, we get some lovely Jo moments and there’s lots of lovely fan service. The plot, involving the ancient rogue Time Lord Omega (who wears a big helmet and shouts a lot) as well as UNIT fighting a horde of Mr. Blobbys (don’t ask) is disposable, but it’s all worth it for the brilliant banter.

“The Five Doctors” (1983)

The 20th anniversary of “Doctor Who” was marked with a special episode, “The Five Doctors.” It was an extra long episode rather than a typical Classic Who serial, and it featured four Doctors plus a Tom Baker cameo. Baker, ever the diva, didn’t want to return to the show, so the production team used some unseen footage of him and Lalla Ward as Romana, then quickly wrote him out of the story, breaking the hearts of children everywhere (for many, Tom Baker was and would always be the only Doctor). The story does give us One (now played by Richard Hurndall since Hartnell had passed away), Two, Three and Five making their way through the Death Zone of Gallifrey to find the Tomb of Rassilon. Yes, it is as dumb as it sounds, but THAT’S NOT THE POINT. The point is to see all your favorite characters interacting. We also get lots of returning companions, including Susan, the Brigadier and Sarah Jane. The Master and the Cyermen and the Daleks also show up. It’s wild. The highlights are probably Two in a giant furry coat, the Brigadier bitch-slapping the Master and the utterly insane conclusion to the story.

“Remembrance of the Daleks” (1988)

“Remembrance of the Daleks” is a brilliant story. It is very much not like the other anniversary specials, partially because it is the 25th anniversary special and therefore its anniversary-ness came second to the need for it to be a strong season opener. So we don’t have multiple Doctors or anything like that. What we do have is a 1963 setting, and we get to see Coal Hill School where Ian and Barbara taught. We also get the classic moment where Ace sees a TV that is announcing the airing of “new science fiction show doc-” before quickly cutting away. Anyway, this is a great story. Ace beats up a Dalek with a baseball bat, we get Dalek-on-Dalek violence and a searing criticism of the British alt-right. Plus there is a creepy little girl and Ace blows up a vehicle. It’s excellent.

“Dimensions in Time” (1993)

By 1993, the show had been cancelled, but that didn’t stop BBC’s Children in Need from airing a two-part 30th anniversary special that may be the best-worst thing “Doctor Who” has ever produced. The basic plot is that the Rani has shown up to cause huge amounts of trouble, and she has managed to scramble all the Doctor and companion pairs. Since Hartnell and Troughton had both passed away at this point, they are edited in as CGI heads (yes that is as horrifying as it sounds). And literally everyone else is in this, even characters you might have forgotten like Victoria and characters you wish you forgot like Mel. Plus Doctors Three through Seven. Plus we’re time jumping between 1973, 1993 and 2013. Plus there’s a crossover with “EastEnders.” It’s utterly insane and objectively a horrible story, but it’s also so much fun.

The 50th Anniversary Bonanza (2013)

Buckle up because we’ve got a lot to get through. This was the first decennial for the revived series, and it was the 50th anniversary at that. So the show really went all out. To start off, we had “Night of the Doctor,” a mini-episode starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. Then it was time for the main event, “The Day of the Doctor.” This episode sees the Eleventh Doctor team up with the Tenth Doctor and the War Doctor (played by John Hurt) to restore Gallifrey. It also has the honor of being the first multi-Doctor story with a good and coherent plot. Plus there are Zygons and Quen Elizabeth I shows up. Billie Piper also appears, but she plays the Moment rather than the first new series companion Rose Tyler. At the end, there is a glorious sequence where all the Doctors (including the newly-cast Peter Capaldi) come together to save Gallifrey by zapping it into its own bubble universe. Now, this special often comes under fire for only celebrating the new series and barely giving lip service to the classic series. The solution to this problem was to create “The Five-ish Doctors.” The title is a reference to “The Five Doctors,” and like “The Five Doctors,” Tom Baker does not appear. That’s because he got a cameo in “Day of the Doctor,” healing the childhood pain of Gen X Whovians everywhere. “The Five-ish Doctors” sees Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy do their utmost to appear in the 50th anniversary special. It’s adorable, full of fan service and there are several cameos from Classic Who stars. The last piece of the 50th anniversary puzzle was the film “An Adventure in Space and Time.” This dramatized the creation of “Doctor Who,” showing Verity Lambert, Sydney Newman, and Waris Hussein coming together to create the show, as well as William Hartnell’s journey as its star. The film is utterly heartwrenching and also features cameos from original companion actors Carole Ann Ford and William Russell. You will cry at the end. That’s all.

Well, that’s that for anniversary specials. Until Nov. 25, of course, when the 60th anniversary specials will start airing. So stay tuned for more, as this list of anniversary specials is about to get longer.

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