The Curse of Fatal Death (22 Years Ago Today)

The Wilderness Years were a funny time.

That’s the phrase that many long-term fans use to describe the period from 1989 – 2005, when there was no regular Doctor Who airing on the BBC, or anywhere else.

(Daily Doctor Who #108)

But fandom will do what it needs to do, and so that does not mean there was no new Doctor Who anywhere. Indeed, the Wilderness Years were actually a pretty busy time for the franchise, with an incredible number of books, comics, unlicensed audios, licensed audios, videos, web series, and even television movies and specials being generated. Maybe one of the biggest indicators for how much the fandom thrived during this time was the fact that Doctor Who Magazine continued to be published all the way through this time, offering news and commentary on a TV show…that was no longer on the air.

One of the highlights of these Wilderness Years hit today…March 12, back in 1999, a solid 22 years ago.

The Curse of Fatal Death

This is a pretty unique animal in the world of Doctor Who. It was produced for Comic Relief, so it is a distinctly humorous affair, with a characteristically British blend of high-brow wit and low-brow cheap gags. But it is not a spoof, precisely. Indeed, the writer has stated that the goal was to produce something that was consistent with Doctor Who continuity as it then existed, but just to make it funny. That writer was actually Steven Moffat, over a decade before he became the revived series’ head writer. As a result, this is where a lot of his imaginative ideas find their Doctor Who expression first, including a free and easy approach to time travel and its implications.

The story stars Rowan Atkinson (famous for Mr. Bean, Blackadder, and lots of other things) as the Ninth Doctor, keeping the story in step with the then-recent TV movie that had starred Paul McGann. Julia Sawalha (Price and Prejudice, Lark Rise to Candleford, and lots of other things) is the Doctor’s companion and betrothed, Emma. Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and lots of other things) is the Master, made up and performed in a distinctly Roger Delgado-esque style.

The whole story is a confrontation between the Doctor and the Master in an ancient castle, where each have attempted to anticipate the other’s actions and to prepare for them through time travel. Because the Doctor is generally cleverer, the Master keeps accidentally falling into his own traps, which take him increasing numbers of centuries to crawl out of. The Daleks also get involved.

At the end of the story, the Doctor starts regenerating a whole bunch of times, allowing for four other famous actors to also take the role, albeit just for a few moments each. As a result, we get to see Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley interpret the part. They are all amusing but it’s particularly notable that Richard E. Grant is on that list–he also played another version of the ninth Doctor in a different Wilderness Years project, the animated web-cast Scream of the Shalka. And of course, Joanna Lumley is playing a female Doctor here, years before Jodie Whittaker made headlines for doing the same things.

The Curse of Fatal Death is easily available to anyone who wants to go looking for it on Youtube, and so if you’ve never seen it its worth the 20 minutes or so that it’d take to watch it, where we get to see Steven Moffat’s cleverness and wit on display before he had to worry about what it would all lead to in the future.

As a final note, as I was reading up on the special in preparation for writing this, I saw a piece of trivia which said that the story is often mis-remembered as being called The Curse of the Fatal Death. It actually took me several moments to figure out how this was different from the actual title (it’s the extra “the” in the middle–I’m a bit slow today). When I finally figured out, I was pretty surprised, for I am one of those people who have been calling it be the wrong title all these years.

Whoa! Mind blown (mildly)!

One thought on “The Curse of Fatal Death (22 Years Ago Today)

  1. Knowing Joanna Lumley’s sci-fi mark as a time-involving alien in Sapphire & Steel, she was the most imaginable casting back then for a female Doctor. Thanks, Ben, for your review.

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