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Two Decades of Deadly Doom

In 1999, the charity Comic Relief provided future showrunner Steven Moffat with an opportunity to write a version of Doctor Who for television. It also gave us the first female Doctor…
Rowan Atkinson as the Doctor in The Curse of Fatal Death (1999).

Twenty years ago, Doctor Who returned to television. Not as a new series, unfortunately, but in a no less triumphant incarnation – as a miniadventure during the BBC’s Comic Relief night, with the Doctor, played by Rowan Atkinson among others, accompanied by his companion and fiancée Emma (Julia Sawalha) and facing the deadly vengeance of the Master (Jonathan Pryce). It helped raise millions of pounds, reached an audience of 9.8 million viewers and, who knows, it may have even helped pave the way for the series’ full-scale return in 2005.

In previous years, Comic Relief had included its own versions of Casualty and Oliver Twist, and the Doctor Who adventure was intended to work in a similar vein – to generate interest by filling a familiar show with as many famous faces as possible. It came about at the suggestion of Sue Vertue, one of the producers of the 1999 Comic Relief show, who also had the perfect writer in mind: her husband, the sitcom specialist and devoted Doctor Who fan Steven Moff at. Also, the executive producer of Comic Relief, Richard Curtis, knew that the popular comic actor Rowan Atkinson had always harboured an ambition to play the Doctor, and thought that this would be an ideal way to involve him in that year’s charity telethon.

At the time, Steven joked that Sue had only asked him to write the story to get Doctor Who out of his system. Did it work? “About as well as promising Sue I’d only write one story for the revived show,” says Steven, looking back on the project. “I’ve stopped writing Doctor Who now, though, so there you go. Sometimes you just have to wait 20 years.”

What was originally envisaged as a two-minute sketch became, thanks to Atkinson’s involvement, a much larger project.

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About Doctor Who Magazine

As eagerly awaited episodes of Doctor Who arrive on television, this Special Edition reflects on the production of Series 12 with contributions from the show’s stars – Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill – as well as executive producers Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens. Other highlights include features celebrating the 20th anniversary of Big Finish, tributes to the much-missed Terrance Dicks and articles going behind the scenes on the creation of the latest Blu-ray box sets. Packed with exclusive interviews and all-new material, this is the essential guide to the last 12 months of Doctor Who.