Reviewed: Doctor Who’s 20th Anniversary – At Last, The 1983 Show

During the 1980s, Doctor Who fandom was entering a new phase, a phase of growth and creativity that is still going strong today. In particular, it was the celebrations of the 20th anniversary year, 1983, that started a template for the relationship between Doctor Who and its fans that hasn’t really changed. And arguably this template has been repeated to a lesser or greater degree across other fantasy franchises. We could go as far to say that the 20th anniversary celebrations for a quirky family show on the BBC were the precursor to the fan culture seen at the massively attended San Diego Comic Cons of the 21st Century.

Doctor Who had always had a loyal following (as the existence of this very website attests) and fan clubs had been in existence since the 1960s. By 1976, the BBC, observing the importance of these groups, would recognise the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (DWAS) as the official Doctor Who fan club. Starting with 70 members, by 1982 it had around 1,700 members. Regular newsletters gave fans the opportunity to share memories of the show’s past and the first tentative steps of documenting the show’s history had begun. From 1977, DWAS started hosting regular gatherings with invited guests: the Doctor Who convention was born.

Meanwhile, it was the happenings in the nation’s newsagents that would have the biggest effect on the rise of the dedicated Doctor Who fandom. Marvel’s Doctor Who Weekly had transitioned to monthly publication and with that came an increased number of text features – in particular, detailed articles related to the making of and the history of the show itself. This, alongside the repeat season The Five Faces of Doctor Who in 1981 and the vast range of Target novelisations of old stories in most bookshops, meant that even the most casual of Doctor Who fans had an awareness of the show’s history.

Always one to be acutely aware of giving fans what they want, the then-producer, John Nathan-Turner employed the service of one fan, Ian Levine, as continuity adviser. This lead to easter eggs appearing in the show – such as the flashback clips in 1982’s Earthshock. It was Levine who noticed that each story in the 20th anniversary season featured a returning element from the show’s history, and suggested that they should make a big deal out of this. Levine also suggested Omega be the big reveal in the season’s opener, Arc of Infinity just as he had opened the season 10 years earlier in The Three Doctors.

Across the Atlantic, there was also a burgeoning fan scene. The BBC had sold the broadcast rights to several Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) channels in North America and the show gained many loyal viewers. Conventions started springing up and were doing big business, a step up for the not for profit events DWAS had been routinely doing since 1977.

It was this type of convention that John Nathan-Turner took the head of Exhibitions at BBC Enterprises, Terry Hampson and his deputy, Lorne Martin to when the idea of organising an event to celebrate Doctor Who’s 20th anniversary was first mentioned. The event they attended in Chicago was big with more than 5,000 attendees queuing for autographs, panel interviews, and photo opportunities. Hampson and Martin were really impressed and it was an event on this scale that they hoped to organise in the UK. Open to the general public, not just hardcore fans.

The result was Doctor Who – A Celebration. Held on the Bank Holiday weekend of April 1983 at Longleat House, the home of one of the two permanent Doctor Who exhibitions (the other was in Blackpool) that existed throughout the last three decades of the 20th Century (eventually closing in the early 2000s). The event took up six acres of the site with several marquees hosting many activities. Sets from the forthcoming story, The Five Doctors were displayed alongside visual effect demonstrations. Visitors could enter the make-up tent and get a ‘horror makeover’ (predating the face-painting phenomenon at family events that would emerge about a decade later) or, for a small fee, get a polaroid snap of you driving the Doctor’s little yellow roadster, Bessie. But what set this apart from being just a Doctor Who themed family day out was what the organisers had taken from the American events. One marquee housed a cinema, where old episodes were being shown throughout the day (remember this was before home video was a thing); another housed panel interviews with the invited guests; and there were several autograph sessions in the Orangery summer house. Nathan-Turner had persuaded over 20 guests to attend, including all four surviving Doctors. It’s hardly surprising that, with an event of this scale, it would become an important part of fan folklore. This was probably the single biggest gathering of Doctor Who fans ever and it really did become legendary for good reasons… and some not so good reasons.

You see, no one was quite prepared for how successful it was going to be. By March 30th, about a week before the event, 10,000 tickets had been sold. The gates opened at 10am and the already large queue of ticket holders were allowed in. Meanwhile, local radio stations were starting to report congestion in the surrounding area. It wasn’t just visitors affected: guest, Mark Strickson, who played Fifth Doctor companion Turlough, got stuck in traffic 20 miles from Longleat in the cab the BBC had sent to take him to the event. On arrival (several hours late), he had to be escorted by security (Royal Welsh Fusiliers wearing UNIT badges) to his panel. By 1 o’clock on that first day, the gates were closed, leaving many disappointed families unable to get in.

The venue was packed and everyone was shuffled along from marquee to marquee. Paul Cornell has commented how lifelong friendships were started in those crowds, how fanzines were started, and fan fiction created. Anyone who has been to an event like this will understand how this happens. Everyone is there for the same reason: you don’t need to find a common topic to talk about – the obvious subject is all around you. One can’t help but wonder if it was here that the creativity long associated with Doctor Who fandom was given a helpful nudge by the sheer weight of numbers at Longleat in 1983. Russell T Davies was there; Paul Cornell was there. Would Doctor Who have returned to our screens in 2005 if Doctor Who – A Celebration had not happened?

Overall, around 40,000 are said to have turned up over the two days. A phenomenal number of people, particularly when you compare it to the attendance of the similar event 30 years later. In 2013, for the show’s 50th anniversary, around 24,000 people attended a very similar BBC organised event across 3 days at a proper exhibition centre (the ExCel in East London). The two events are very similar. Attendees got to see exhibits from the show, panels with stars and backstage people, merchandise, autographs, and, of course, queues. It seems that aside from better organisation, conventions haven’t really evolved that much over the years. BBC Radio 2 got involved on both occasions by broadcasting live from each event (Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart in 1983 and Graham ‘surprise cameo in Rose’ Norton 30 years later).

Teased by the sets exhibited, many fans returning from Longleat were now looking forward to the anniversary story itself which was broadcast on Friday 25th November. Looking back, it seems like an odd decision to not broadcast The Five Doctors on the anniversary itself. Particularly when, notoriously, the story became the first to be shown in the US rather than the UK when PBS channels aired it two days earlier on the anniversary day. But then you consider when they did broadcast it. The BBC handed over 90 minutes of their annual charity fundraising telethon Children In Need, which had been broadcast annually since 1980, to an episode of Doctor Who. They saw Who as a major draw and had clearly learnt something from the queues at the Longleat event.

The American broadcast on the 23rd itself was for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Doctor Who was very much cult viewing in the States. Appearing on several local PBS channels, sometimes late at night, it was a show fans sought out so a midweek broadcast was neither here nor there. It was also broadcast in conjunction with the other big convention of 1983, Doctor Who: The Ultimate Celebration in Chicago the weekend of 26th and 27th November.

Over 7,000 delegates descended on Chicago’s Regency Hotel that weekend for what was a huge event. The man behind it was successful Chicago-based lawyer Norman Rubenstein. He was keen to run a convention that was to be “run by a business as a business”. Truly the age of the fan convention being a commercial venture was underway.

Rubenstein wanted to host the biggest Doctor Who convention ever. Accordingly, he treated the invited guests in a lavish manner. He flew them over on First Class flights, put them up in hotel suites, and, rumour has it, paid each Doctor a five figure appearance fee.

Guests that attended what became known as the Spirit Of Light Convention (after Rubenstein’s company) included the four surviving Doctors, other stars such as Carole Ann Ford (Susan), Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), and Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier) as well as directors, Fiona Cummings and Peter Moffat. Extensive advertising on local TV (with a commercial voiced by Jon Pertwee) and in the pages of Doctor Who Monthly meant 5,000 people had pre-registered for the event by the middle of October.

In addition to the Longleat and Chicago celebrations, 1983 also included a whole weekend in October to screening old episodes of the show at the National Film Theatre (NFT) (now known as BFI, the British Film Institute) on London’s South Bank. Set up to help publicise the John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s media studies textbook, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, the weekend featured whole stories from each Doctor’s era as well as selected episodes from other tales and also featured a celebrity panel on the Sunday afternoon. The Sunday panel was notable for it being only the second appearance of Patrick Troughton at a Doctor Who event. After this year, Troughton became a regular at Doctor Who shows until his untimely death in 1987.

Doctor Who being used as the basis of an academic textbook was quite remarkable in 1983, so too was the publication in September of an expensive (£10.95) coffee table book: Doctor Who: A Celebration – Two Decades Through Time and Space.

Peter Haining was the writer tasked with putting the book together. Haining, a journalist who had gone on to become an editor of several anthologies of horror, science fiction, and detective stories, admitted himself that he wasn’t much of a fan of the show, let alone an expert. Despite this, and with a bibliography that included non-fiction books about Dracula, Frankenstein, and Jules Verne, he was seen by publishers WH Allen as the ideal person to create something that would appeal to casual viewers as well as more dedicated fans. The book ended up selling over 10,000 copies resulting in many households owning a lavishly illustrated book that, thanks to Haining’s extensive research, gave a rich insight into the show’s first 20 years. Truly a book worthy of the anniversary year and something again that would open eyes to the rich tapestry of Doctor Who and probably helped create a few more dedicated fans. The success of the book lead to Haining penning another four over the next few years.

Amongst all this, one thing did happen during this anniversary year which could have derailed all the celebrations. Towards the end of July, Peter Davison announced he was to quit the show and that the 1984 series would be his last. The publicity around this was handled well. In the year the show was celebrating its history, Davison used this to his advantage by suggesting that advice given to him by former Doctor Patrick Troughton as the reason for him leaving. A month later, Colin Baker was cast as Doctor Number 6 meaning that by the time of The Five Doctors, the change of actor was yesterday’s news. Proving that history has a habit of repeating itself, the same sequence of events happened during the 50th anniversary. At the beginning of June 2013, Matt Smith announced he was stepping down from the role (albeit after an internal BBC email was leaked) and then two months later, Peter Capaldi was revealed as his replacement.

With a celebration at a stately home, an international convention at a Chicago Hotel, an NFT retrospective, an academic text-book, a coffee table book, a feature-length special (and all the publicity surrounding it), a Radio Times special (not to mention a specially commissioned cover for the regular edition), Doctor Who had never been in the public eye so much. Looking back at this year, it’s interesting to reflect on a similar time 30 years later. 1983 felt like the celebrations lasted all year, while 2013 felt very concentrated on the anniversary itself. From the docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time (broadcast on 21st November) to Doctor Who Live: The After Party (also known as The One Direction Show) the celebrations of 2013 felt very centred around November. And despite the problems with a link-up in The After Party, everything felt better organised. The BBC had learnt a lot from those early, tentative steps of 1983 and it seems they took full advantage of what they had learnt in the interim time between when Doctor Who first ruled the world and the second.

It’s hard to overlook the similarities between the events of 1983 and 2013. Both featured a big BBC organised convention. Both had a special episode broadcast. There were retrospectives at the NFT/BFI on London’s South Bank. And in both years, the lead actor quit. Which got me thinking: How much we should read into this? Now, I don’t want to worry anyone, but six years after Doctor Who was first celebrated in such a huge way it disappeared from our screens. Fortunately, we are promised a new series in 2020, so I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.

NEXT: To days to come.