The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

The Nature of Reality

Back in 2009, the following article was printed in Doctor Who Magazine issue 405 as Reality TV. Note: this is the article as submitted – it may contain slight differences to the article as printed. In retrospect, I'm also mildly annoyed that my list of people who appeared as themselves doesn't include the newsreaders from the 1996 Paul McGann TV movie.


A third of the world’s population has taken to the rooftops and is threatening to jump. The face of an alien life form has been broadcast live across the globe. The British Prime Minister has appeared on national television pleading for help. A sonic wave has smashed every window in London. And a vast craggy spaceship is now hovering in the skies directly over the Houses of Parliament.

This is it. The final irrefutable proof we are not alone in the universe.

Nothing will ever be the same again.

It’s a fantastic moment. Doctor Who at its best. But it also creates a problem.

What makes that moment so extraordinary and thrilling is that it’s about passing a point of no return. At last we have an alien invasion which can’t be hushed up. It’s a moment so epic, so jaw-droppingly huge, it would change the whole world. It’s the equivalent of the assassination of President Kennedy or Jemini coming last in the Eurovision Song Contest.

The problem is, once you’ve told the story which establishes that nothing will ever be the same again, you can’t go back to telling stories set in a world where nothing has changed. Once you’ve established that everyone on the planet is aware of the existence of aliens, you can’t really tell any stories where the existence of aliens comes as a surprise.

Except that’s what Doctor Who has always done. Ever since the Great Intelligence ensnared London in The Web Of Fear there have been numerous extra-terrestrial incursions which have been... conveniently forgotten. This is for one simple reason; it’s much more exciting to tell alien invasion stories set on a version of Earth which doesn’t get invaded by aliens all the time. A version of Earth very much like our own.

On the one hand, you want to be able to tell big, dramatic stories with spaceships crashing into Big Ben; on the other, you want your stories to take place in a reality recognisable to the viewer, because that’s what makes those moments so big and dramatic. But the more spaceships you have crashing into Big Ben, the less based in reality you become.

So how do you maintain the show’s ‘fictional universe’, where alien invasions are commonplace, whilst keeping it grounded in our reality, where they’re conspicuously absent? How do you solve the twin dilemma of keeping the show internally consistent and keeping it real? Can you have your Slitheen spaceship cake and eat it?

Why’s it important to achieve both at once? Well, imagine for an instance that Doctor Who didn’t attempt to maintain its own fictional universe, where the events of each story, no matter how momentous, were ignored the next week.

That’s pretty much the approach the show took during its early years. One month there’d be Yeti in the underground, the next there’d be Cybermen in the sewers, the next there’d be shop window dummies gunning down innocent bystanders. On each occasion, at least as far as the innocent bystanders were concerned, this would be the first time anything like this had ever happened. Hence their look of surprise.

This approach wasn’t unique to Doctor Who. Watch similar shows from the 1960’s, such as The Prisoner or Star Trek, and you’ll find an equally laissez-faire attitude to continuity. After all, the episodes wouldn’t necessarily be shown in a particular order and, in the days before repeats and DVDs, the audience wouldn’t be expected to recall the events of earlier stories. It was a convention of the time that every episode would commence with a clean slate and conclude with the status quo being re-set.

The problem for a ‘continuous developing narrative’ like Doctor Who is that the more you play the ‘what happened last week doesn’t matter’ card, the more you test the audience’s goodwill; it becomes increasingly difficult to care about what happens in a universe where nothing has any lasting consequences. And while you might have got away with it in 1960’s, you couldn’t get away with it now. These days, Doctor Who has an ever-present past, which means nothing - nothing - can ever be forgotten.

Continuity has a bad reputation amongst some Doctor Who fans. Say the word and immediately some people will think you’re advocating bringing back the Bandrils and having stories explaining why the Cybermen looked different in The Tenth Planet. Which, to be fair, has been the approach taken by some of the spin-off media, as well as that lamentable episode of Star Trek: Enterprise which felt the need to explain why the Klingons’ foreheads weren’t as bumpy in the original series as they are now.

But continuity is not about including fan-pleasing back-references. It’s about making sure a fictional universe is consistent. It means making sure that ‘facts’ which have been established are not then contradicted; in particular it means that characters within the fiction should behave in a plausible and rational manner based upon what they’ve experienced. It doesn’t mean that things can’t develop but that developments should be logical. Most of all, it means that what happens in every episode matters.

The internal consistency of a fictional universe is central to its appeal. Think of the detailed world-building of the Harry Potter novels, or soap operas like EastEnders or Coronation Street. The reason why people care about the characters so much, why they invest so much of their time in the events of a fictional universe, is because the characters and the universes in which they live are so meticulously sustained.

With Doctor Who, continuity is even more important, because a significant portion of its audience consists of people who take the show very seriously indeed and who desperately want it all to make sense. I’m not talking about the fans. I’m talking about children.

When I say ‘continuity’, I don’t just mean events on Earth. You want the histories of the alien worlds and races to make sense as well; you want the science-fiction rules of time-travel to be consistently applied. The recent seasons of Doctor Who have largely got the continuity right - aside from some trivial errors about Rose’s age and how many sugars the Doctor takes in his tea - though I can’t be the only one to be irritated that it’s impossible to watch Dalek now without wondering why it is that Van Statten doesn’t know what a Dalek is after the events of Journey’s End.

That’s the other snag with depicting world-changing events; you end up contradicting all the stories which were set in a future where those world-changing events hadn’t taken place. This is in contrast to those stories set in the past, which - with one notable and recent exception - have always been careful not to stretch credibility by including anything which might affect future events or contradict how ‘proper’ history is remembered. Adventures are either so small-scale and behind-closed-doors there would be no trace of them in the history books - Tooth & Claw - or are resolved in such a manner that they would’ve been subsequently forgotten because everyone involved is either dead, convinced they’ve been suffering from hallucinations, or will be taking the secret of what really happened that fateful night with them to the grave.

It’s why you couldn’t, for instance, tell a story where Vesuvius erupted and everyone in Pompeii survived, because we know that’s not what happened. It would make the story feel glib, clumsy and irrelevant. ‘Non-intervention’ has always been the rule with Doctor Who stories set in the past, but not with those set in the present or the future.

The one notable and recent exception being The Next Doctor. Which, just as The Christmas Invasion breaks all the rules about adventures set in the present day, The Next Doctor breaks all the rules about adventures set in the past. The CyberKing’s attack on Victorian London is quite emphatically not small-scale or behind-closed-doors. As Jackson Lake points out; ‘The events of today will be history, spoken of for centuries to come.’ To which the Doctor guiltily replies, ‘Yeah... funny that.’

It’s possible, if not remotely plausible, that the events of The Next Doctor could have been covered up or forgotten - Russell T Davies jokes on the podcast commentary that Torchwood are responsible, in their capacity as Doctor Who plot sticking plaster - but wouldn’t that be undercutting the story? The CyberKing’s attack is so thrilling because it is so ground-shaking (literally), so conspicuous, and affects so many lives. But it does so at the expense of the show’s internal consistency; watching the story, viewers can’t help but wonder why its events weren’t remembered in the Doctor Who universe; and it does so at the expense of the show’s realism, because viewers know that there wasn’t an immense Transformer stomping around London on Christmas Eve 1851, because if there had been, it would’ve been recorded in the history books.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism of The Next Doctor. Breaking the rules is part of what Doctor Who is, and the notion that ‘you can’t go there because it creates problems for continuity’ is an anathema to bold, creative storytelling. But you don’t want to end up in a situation where the lack of internal continuity starts to drive the viewers away.

For example. The series 24 has, for the most part, depicted the gritty adventures of secret agent Jack Bauer defending Los Angeles from the forces of terror. Okay, so nobody eats, sleeps or goes to the toilet, but apart from that, it’s realistic. But in the latest season - ‘Day 7’ - at the end of the fourth episode, a nuclear bomb exploded in Los Angeles. What’s the problem with that? The problem is, three or four episodes later - and as many hours later in terms of story time - people are driving around the city, going to work and acting as though nothing untoward has happened. Because the show’s producers can’t figure out a way of following-through on their apocalyptic set-piece, the whole internal credibility of the fictional universe falls apart. As a result, the audience can no longer ‘willingly suspend their disbelief’ because the people on screen aren’t behaving as people would realistically behave in that situation.

And when a show’s producers stop taking its continuity as seriously as its viewers, that’s the cue for the viewers to switch off, because a lack of internal continuity demonstrates a lack of respect for the audience’s intelligence.

But what if continuity was the only priority? Well, the danger then is that a show ends up accumulating so much baggage that it begins to lose its link with reality. One example of this is Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The series begins as a show about vampire-slaying in a typical American high-school in a typical American town, where nobody believes in vampires, where Buffy is desperate to keep her slaying a secret from her peers. Seven series later, it’s a show about vampire-slaying in an American town where everyone who lives there knows about the vampires and that it’s Buffy who slays them. It becomes a show about characters who live in Buffy The Vampire Slayer-land. But for audiences to care about what happens in a television series, it needs to appear realistic and relevant - it needs verisimilitude. Audiences don’t care about what happens to people who live in parallel universes of the imagination; they only care about people who live in universes which closely resemble their own.

This is, arguably, what happened to Doctor Who during the 1980s, where an obsession with continuity had become so all-consuming that you had stories like Attack of the Cybermen. Never mind the fact that it contains dull drawn-out scenes with characters standing around discussing how it fitted in with all the previous Cyber-adventures; the real problem with this story is that it attempts to reconcile the Doctor Who version of the 1980’s, with its Cyber-invasions and peripatetic planets, with the 1980’s as they actually took place. And the more it tries to make them fit together, the more it draws attention to the fact that they really, really, really don’t.

Over the past four years, we’ve seen Doctor Who embarking down that road again. Ever since The Christmas Invasion the show has been set in a fictional universe where people, increasingly, treat alien incursions as a fact of life. After all, they’ve not only seen a Sycorax spaceship over the Houses of Parliament; they’ve seen Autons and Cybermen, and Daleks over Canary Wharf; they’ve seen a killer Christmas webstar and a disappearing hospital; they’ve seen the Prime Minister order the death of the US President on live television and they’ve seen Buckingham Palace narrowly avoid being flattened by a flying ocean-liner; Earth’s atmosphere has been set alight and the whole planet has been shifted to another corner of the universe and back again. And on top of that, the city of Cardiff has almost been wiped off the face of the planet more times than anyone cares to remember. (But then again, it is only Cardiff.)

The danger is that if the show becomes about life in a world which bears no similarity to our own, it will not only lose the verisimilitude, it means that writers can no longer tell stories about ordinary people encountering aliens for the first time, because their stories will be taking place in a world where everyone remembers the time when the ghost of Uncle Bernie turned out to be a killer cyborg from a parallel dimension.

This was a problem in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, where, for the purposes of the plot, Clyde’s dad had to be sceptical about the existence of aliens. Which is fine, except he’s lived through Journey’s End, so he knows about Daleks and shouldn’t be sceptical about the existence of aliens at all. Which meant an awkward juxtaposition of the story taking place in ‘Doctor Who-land’ and somewhere resembling the real world. Even as the story attempted to address the inconsistency, by having Clyde’s dad mention the Daleks, it drew attention to the inconsistency. Clyde’s dad knows about Daleks - but is still sceptical about the existence of aliens...

The interposition of the fantastical into the mundane is a fundamental part of the show’s appeal - Jon Pertwee famously describing an encounter with a Yeti in the loo of Tooting Bec station, possibly one of his less reliable anecdotes - and it’s where the most compelling drama is to be found. It’s why moments like the Slitheen ship hitting Big Ben or the Cybermen outside St Paul’s are so iconic; it’s not Doctor Who taking place off in outer-space or the pages of history; it’s not even Doctor Who taking place in Doctor Who-land; it’s Doctor Who taking place in the real world where you live.

You don’t want to lose the ability to tell those sort of stories. Russell T Davies seems to have recognised that this is a problem; you only have to look at the character of Donna to see that. For her to function as an audience-identification figure, she had to be someone who’d react as somebody from our world would - which is why she’s the only person on the planet to have missed out on The Christmas Invasion and Army of Ghosts, due to a hangover and scuba-diving holiday. It’s a contrivance, one that Russell excuses with a joke (see later) but a necessary one for the character to work.

Another example is given in The Writer’s Tale, where Russell debates whether to include a scene in The Stolen Earth featuring the destruction of New York.

‘But destroying New York has its problems: it leaves heavy repercussions for the rest of Doctor Who history, because there’s no reset button. I worry about that. Series Five is bound to have episodes set on modern-day Earth - and that might be hard to establish, because it’d be a very wounded world.’

It’s interesting to note that Russell feels that destroying New York might be a step too far - when it could be argued that having the Earth moved to another galaxy and invaded by a Dalek battle fleet would have equally weighty repercussions. Is there really that much difference between the two? Why would it take the obliteration of an entire city to stretch the viewers’ credulity to breaking point?

(The answer seems to be that you stand a better chance of getting away with it if you don’t go overboard with the CGI. The audience might buy a slightly wounded world returning to normal overnight, but they certainly wouldn’t buy a very wounded world returning to normal overnight.)

But what this illustrates is that the situation is becoming untenable. The more alien invasions you have, the more removed the show becomes from reality, the more you test the audience’s goodwill by setting the show in a world where world-changing events don’t make a difference. The danger is that, just as in the 1980’s, you end up with a show which is so lost in its own mythology it ceases to feel realistic or relevant.

Because too much continuity is a bad thing. It’s fashionable nowadays to have shows with intricate ongoing storylines, like Heroes, Lost and Battlestar Galactica. They’re all about rewarding the loyalty of the dedicated viewer; the fan who sets their Sky + to record every episode and buys the DVD box sets. Which is fine, except it means there’s no way in for viewers who haven’t been watching the show since day one. These shows are all about attracting the largest-possible audience for the opening night and finding ways to keep them hooked; they’re not about building audiences as they go along. So when the viewing figures start to go down - as inevitably they must - there’s no way of making them go up again. Which is why it would be a mistake for Doctor Who to emulate this approach; Doctor Who’s great strength is that it’s a show people can follow without prior knowledge, where viewers can tune in having missed an episode without feeling they have fallen behind, where every story is an opening night. Continuity is vital in terms of retaining existing viewers, but take it too far and you risk making a show which is inaccessible. Doctor Who can’t survive if it’s just a private party; it needs to be a party which is constantly welcoming new people in.

 So what’s the solution? Well, this problem has always existed for Doctor Who - indeed, for all fiction. How do you make a story feel like it’s set in the real world... while at the same time maintaining its own fictional universe?

In the 19th century, you’d have novelists setting their stories in fictional towns, such as Cloisterham, Casterbridge, Cranford - someplace beginning with a C. They’d exist in their bubbles of pseudo-reality, affected by the real world but never impacting upon it; the conceit being that even if they’re not real, they feel real. This tradition continues with the convention of setting soap operas in their own fictional boroughs, villages, streets or estates - Walfords and Wetherfields and so forth - though nowadays most shows don’t feel the need to fabricate whole towns.

(The one exception being Casualty, and the makers of that series must rue the day they decided to set it in the fictional city of Holby every time there’s a shot of the Clifton Suspension Bridge or a road sign saying ‘Welcome to Bristol’.)

As I mentioned earlier, during the show’s early years, the approach seems to have been ‘if we ignore the problem, maybe it’ll go away’. That said, it wasn’t so much a case of denial as ‘don’t go there’. Until the 1970’s, Doctor Who rarely had stories set on present-day Earth, only two of which featured ‘overt’ alien invasions. This was also the approach taken during the Tom Baker era and the 1980’s, where any alien invasions tended to be covert and set in isolated villages or manor houses; not until Silver Nemesis would there be another alien invasion which took place in public view.

During the UNIT era, though, there were numerous ‘overt’ alien invasions, but the world in which they took place seems to have been deliberately one step removed from reality; Doctor Who’s equivalent of Holby City. This is why dating those stories has been the source of so much controversy; they seem to be set both in the present day and a point in the near future, so Sarah-Jane Smith can declare she’s from 1980 in The Pyramids of Mars while dressing like she’s from 1975. They’re set in a version of the UK with a female Prime Minister (according to The Green Death), where the Cold War has ended (according to Invasion of the Dinosaurs), but where they still show The Clangers on TV and play King Crimson on the radio. It’s a world with a British space programme and a third BBC channel - which, unlike our own, is capable of showing something other than Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps.

It’s never explicitly explained how all these invasions can have happened without anyone noticing, although the implication is that everything has been hushed-up by the government. As the Brigadier says in Terror of the Zygons:

The Cabinet's accepted my report and the whole affair is now completely closed. ... A fifty-foot monster can't swim up the Thames and attack a large building without some people noticing, but you know what politicians are like.

(Which seems to be confirmed by a passing comment in Remembrance of the Daleks, where the Doctor mentions ‘the Zygon gambit’ as an example of an alien invasion which has been expunged from the public consciousness.)

What’s remarkable about the Brigadier’s line is that it’s a joke which works two ways. Firstly, it’s a joke about the ability of politicians to talk themselves out of tight corners, no matter how overwhelming the evidence to the contrary. But it’s also a joke at the expense of the show’s storytelling conventions, pointing out how ridiculous it would be that such an event could really go un-noticed.

It’s this approach which Russell T Davies has adopted with the recent series. It’s a technique known as ‘hanging a lantern’; you deal with a glitch in plot logic not by ignoring the problem or by deflecting attention away from it, but by drawing the viewer’s attention to the problem. That way, the viewer will feel they are in safe hands, because the show’s producers are prepared to admit the problem exists even if they’re unable to solve it. It flatters the audience’s intelligence and goodwill; people are more willing to play along with a nod-and-a-wink-style gag than to sit through a long and unwieldy rationalisation of every plot hole. It’s way of saying ‘yes, we know it’s silly, you know it’s silly, but never mind, let’s get on with the story.’

As an example: the characters of Elton and Wilf are both used to ‘hang a lantern’ on the ‘alien invasion’ problem; Elton can’t leave the house without getting caught up in one, while Wilf points out that they have an odd habit of happening at Christmas... It’s one of Russell’s favourite devices for getting around bits of plotting which are clunky or over-convenient; think of Elton’s speech about how difficult it would be to locate Rose in the whole of London only to bump into her good friend Bella Emberg; or think of the scene in The Age Of Steel where Mickey is searching for the transmitter controls - only to come across a box with ‘transmitter controls’ written on the front. Or think of Doctor’s ‘Yeah... funny that’ line in The Next Doctor.

Of particular interest is a cut scene from Partners In Crime. In it, Russell attempts to ‘hang a lantern’ on matters arising from The Last of the Time Lords:

Although, when it comes to the government, you have just lost a Prime Minister who vanished shortly after assassinating the President of the United States.

Yeah, what was that all about?

We may never know.

I’m guessing these lines were cut for time, but they also illustrate a drawback in using ‘lantern hanging’. That is, even if you’re pointing out a bit that doesn’t make sense in order to excuse it with a gag, you’re still pointing out that it doesn’t make sense; in fact, by reminding the audience of the flaw, you might even be making things worse.

The main way, though, for Doctor Who to achieve verisimilitude is in how the stories are told; where they take place, what the characters are like, and how events unfold.

Location is important in creating a sense of immediacy. Throughout much of Doctor Who during the 1970’s and 1980’s, even when stories were set on Earth, they were set in generic locations; sleepy villages, scientific complexes, disused warehouses, the back-streets of Acton. But the moments which really stand out are those which take place in locations which are readily identifiable; the Daleks on Westminster bridge, the Silurian plague outbreak at Marylebone station, the Doctor and Romana dodging traffic on the streets of Paris, even the Autons emerging from their shop window on Ealing Broadway. Those are the scenes with frisson because the settings in which they take place are so much more familiar and real-world than usual.

(It may be worth mentioning that the books and comic strips have also utilised real-world locations to great effect; The Flood graphic novel brilliantly realises Camden Lock, while my own Doctor Who novel The Tomorrow Windows, now sadly out of print, featured the destruction of the Tate Modern.)

The recent series has taken this approach to a whole new level. At times, it almost seems as though Russell is working from a souvenir tea-towel of London landmarks, because he’s certainly done most of them; Trafalgar Square, the London Eye, Big Ben, Downing Street, the Tower of London, Battersea Power Station, Alexandra Palace, the Thames Barrier, Canary Wharf, the Globe, 30 St Mary Axe and Buckingham Palace. Plus Southwark Cathedral, sort-of, in The Lazarus Experiment, St Thomas’s Hospital, sort-of, in Smith and Jones, and the top of Primrose Hill, sort-of, in The Sontaran Stratagem. The only London landmarks which haven’t been used are St Paul’s (so nearly the setting of The Lazarus Experiment), the Natural History Museum (so nearly used for a season four story by Mark Gatiss), the ‘O2’ Millennium Dome and the zebra crossing outside Abbey Road Studios. Plus, travelling abroad, we’ve seen the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal. We’ve even visited the nice bit of Cardiff.

Even more important has been the way the recent series has utilised everyday locations. It was unusual for the show, during its first 30 years, to be set anywhere as domestic and familiar as the Powell Estate or the comprehensive from School Reunion. It’s a peculiar fact that the two stories of the original run which were set in the most true-to-life locations were the first and last; An Unearthly Child and Survival.

Verisimilitude is also a matter of the characters. Again, for its first 30 years, the old show steered clear of what one might call ‘ordinary people’; with a few notable exceptions, such as Ben, Polly, Samantha Briggs and Sarah-Jane Smith, most of the characters we met were scientists, soldiers, politicians or bumpkins who cycled into duck ponds. There weren’t a lot of shop assistants or temporary secretaries, except as cannon fodder whenever the shop window dummies came to life.

Russell T Davies changed all that. He made Doctor Who about people with girlfriends and sort-of boyfriends and crap jobs, people who go to launderettes and chip shops and pubs. People who watch soap operas and listen to Il Divo. People with everyday, trivial, audience-identifiable hopes and fears. People who are light years away from the two-dimensional tight-arsed stereotypes who usually populate science fiction.

One of my favourite scenes of The Aliens of London is the scene where the Doctor is trying to watch the news amidst the chaos of the Tyler household. It’s hilarious and utterly authentic and precisely the sort of thing Doctor Who hadn’t really done before. Because what would any of us do if aliens invaded? We’d watch it on the television.

Which is the third way the series achieves verisimilitude; all those scenes where real people appear as themselves. What’s important about those appearances is that they’re not celebrity cameos for their own sake (unlike the droids in Bad Wolf); they’re there because nowadays big events unfold on television; not just in the news, but on chat shows, in soap operas. Television is how we experience the outside world, so it feels disconcertingly close-to-home (and is a great piece of dramatic short-hand) for stories to be told in terms of how they’re reported on television, using the same people who would report on such events if they genuinely took place.

The best example is in Russell T Davies’ The Second Coming, where Christ’s return is reported by Channel 4 News’ Krishnan Guru-Murphy and discussed on This Morning with Richard and Judy. It’s all about blurring the divide between fiction and reality (it wouldn’t be as effective with fictional newsreaders or daytime presenters).

Television has been doing this for years, ever since BBC announcer Mary Malcolm appeared as herself in The Quatermass Experiment, but only recently has it become the norm; Spooks makes a point of using real newsreaders; Alistair Stewart reported on Bonkers, John Humphreys on The Amazing Mrs Pritchard; and Shaun of the Dead featured newsreaders too numerous to mention, along with Trisha Goddard and vacuous game show loon Vernon Kay.

(Again, it may be worth mentioning that real-life cameos have also occurred in Doctor Who books and audios; Angela Rippon turns up in the comic strip The Star Beast, while my novel The Tomorrow Windows - still sadly out of print - featured an appearance from the London Mayor as-was, Ken Livingstone, with his consent.) 

The question is, though, where does the show go from here? There seem to be four options open to Steven Moffat: Continue, Ignore, Avoid or Reboot.

He can continue to tell stories where the Earth gets invaded by aliens and maintain the current continuity; the result being that the show’s version of present-day Earth bears increasingly little resemblance to our own.

He can ignore the problem and keep telling stories about world-changing events which don’t have any permanent repercussions; the result being that the show’s internal continuity increasingly becomes a nonsense.

He can avoid the problem and only tell stories set in the past, the future, or elsewhere, making sure that any invasions which do occur in the present day are unobtrusively clandestine and small-scale. Which would be a terrible shame.

Or he can reboot the show’s continuity. Which is, I think, beginning to look like the only available option. I don’t think Russell is right when he says there is no ‘reset button’; it’s just that it’s a button you really don’t want to press if you don’t have to.

A reboot would return the fictional universe to the state it was in when Rose was first broadcast; a point where the show was, to all intents and purposes, set in the real world; a world where no-one had encountered aliens, where UNIT didn’t have a flying aircraft carrier, where every London landmark wasn’t used as a secret organisation’s headquarters and where there hadn’t been four different British Prime Ministers in the space of four years. Only then could Doctor Who do what it does best; telling stories about extraordinary things happening in the most everyday places to ordinary people.

Of course, anyone who watched Bobby Ewing emerging from the shower of Dallas, or who threw a sock at their television set in indignation at the denouement of The Last of the Timelords knows that reboots can sometimes be painful things. Get it wrong and it looks like you’re throwing the past away, over-writing it, sending out the message that ‘everything that just happened doesn’t matter anymore’.

But there has to be a way of avoiding that; of returning Doctor Who to where it was in 2005 without discarding anything that has happened since. I’m not advocating a re-boot because I want the last four years erased from the continuity; quite the opposite. I’m suggesting it may be necessary to find a way of bringing Doctor Who back to reality whilst preserving everything that’s gone before. I don’t know how it might be done, but think if anyone is clever enough to think of a way, it’s Steven Moffat. 

And appearing as themselves...

1. Kenneth Kendall – The War Machines

One of the first-ever BBC TV newsreaders, Kendall would’ve been a familiar face to viewers back in 1966 (though at the time this story was made, he was freelancing for ITN). Nowadays he’s probably more famous for tracking the whereabouts of Anneka Rice’s bottom in Channel 4’s Treasure Hunt.

2. Alex Macintosh – Day of the Daleks

When Macintosh wasn’t reporting on peace conferences at Auderly House, he was a newsreader, continuity announcer and presenter of Come Dancing. He made similar reality-bending appearances as a TV news reporter in The Troubleshooters, Trial, R3 and The Master.

3. Courtney Pine – Silver Nemesis

As the story begins, the Doctor and Ace can be found enjoying his ‘wicked’ jazz stylings. Ace gets the saxophonist to autograph one of his tapes, which later proves to be quite literally instrumental in frustrating the Cybermen’s plans. Because Cybermen don’t get jazz.

4. Andrew Marr – The Aliens of London

BBC politics pundit and Dobby the House Elf lookalike Marr described his cameo as ‘like being asked to carry a spear in the first performance of a lost Shakespeare play’. As such, his appearance lends the episode some much-needed gravitas and credibility.

also featuring: Blue Peter’s Matt Baker and his amazing spaceship cake.

5. Queen Elisabeth II – The Idiot’s Lantern

Afforded only a brief cameo role in Silver Nemesis, Her Royal Highness finally took centre-stage in this tale-of-tilted-camera-angles courtesy of some archive footage of the Coronation. Her appearance proved such a hit with viewers the show’s producers brought her back for the Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned.

6. Huw Edwards – Fear Her

It’s reassuring to know that in the year 2012 this smoothly-spoken Welshman will still be one of the BBC’s pre-eminent broadcasters. It’s less reassuring to know that in the year 2012 he will undergo some sort of mental breakdown and start talking a load of sentimental codswallop about the Olympic flame.

7. Trisha Goddard – Army Of Ghosts

In this week’s edition of Trisha Goddard a woman is in love with an incorporeal grey blob. So one of the more straightforward episodes, then. It’s just a pity we never get to see the moment where the grey blob transforms into a Cyberman and proceeds to ‘delete’ Goddard and her studio audience.

also featuring: spirit-botherer Derek Acorah, Cash In The Attic’s Alistair Appleton.

8. Ann Widdecombe – The Sound Of Drums

Loveable Conservative crackpot Widdecombe has backed several Prime Ministerial candidates in her time – Michael Ancram, Kenneth Clarke, Liam Fox, David Davis. Possibly it’s this unerring ability to pick a winner which led her to throw her weight behind the most evil man in the universe.

also featuring: X-Factor ex-mentor Sharon Osbourne, tousle-haired boyband McFly.

9. Kirsty Wark – The Poison Sky

It was down to Scottish Newsnight temptress Wark to bring us the news that the government had declared a state of emergency following the Sontaran stratagem. ‘And later on in tonight’s programme, we discuss the imminent collapse of human civilisation with journalist and critic Paul Morley’.

10. Richard Dawkins – The Stolen Earth

Controversial DWM interviewee Dawkins managed to go for a whole twelve seconds without mentioning that God doesn’t exist during his cameo as a TV science pundit. ‘Just look at the stars. We’re in a completely different region of space. We’ve travelled... Oh, and by the way, God doesn’t exist.’

also featuring: chat show king Paul O’Grady, BBC Wales Today’s Jason Mohammad.

Plus... the Beatles, courtesy of a Top Of The Pops clip included in The Chase, BBC newsreader Carrie Gracie in Torchwood: End of Days, Blue Peter’s Gethin Jones and Konnie Huq in Sarah Jane Adventures: Invasion of the Bane, DJ Tony Blackburn in the Big Finish audio The Rapture and audio clips of John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Charles De Gaulle in the opening moments of Remembrance of the Daleks

‘Your species has an amazing capacity for self-deception...’

Ten unforgettable moments everybody seems to have forgotten...

1. Cybermen invade London – The Next Doctor

Christmas Eve 1851, and a vast CyberKing emerges from the Thames and proceeds to crush hordes of screaming cockneys underfoot. All that stands in its way is one man in a Tethered Air Release Developed In Style...

Explanation: None given. Maybe everyone was so drunk they forgot all about it the next morning? After all, it was Christmas.

2. Yeti invade London – The Web of Fear

‘Londoners flee’ as the city is smothered in fog and a strange fungus spreads through the Underground. Reporter Harold Chorley makes detailed notes on everything that occurs... 

Explanation: None given. Maybe a bigger story came along and Harold was pushed off the front page?

3. Cybermen invade London (again) – The Invasion

It’s easy to explain why no-one remembers this Cybermen invasion – everybody on the planet had fallen asleep, thanks to Tobias Vaughan’s micro-monolithic circuits. What’s harder to explain is why no-one remembers everybody on the planet falling asleep (which would, after all, have included pilots who were knocked out mid-flight).

Explanation: None given. Maybe everyone just woke up the next day and carried on as normal? (Apart from the unlucky ones who’d been killed in plane crashes.)

4. Autons invade London – Spearhead From Space

Shop window dummies stalk the streets, attacking policemen, chubby ladies, gormless cyclists and people queuing at bus stops.

Explanation: None given. Students?

5. Aliens appear on live television – The Ambassadors of Death

Determined to perform his ‘moral duty’, General Carrington hi-jacks the world’s TV satellites to unmask a captured alien – whereupon two more aliens stroll in and stop him.

Explanation: None given. There was something better on the other side?

6. Dinosaurs invade London – Invasion of the Dinosaurs

Once again, eight million Londoners have been evacuated from the capital, this time as a result of dinosaurs materializing out of nowhere to savage visiting Glaswegian football fans.

Explanation: None given. Maybe it was blamed on visiting Glaswegian football fans?

7. Loch Ness Monster invades London – Terror of the Zygons

A fifty-foot eye-rolling sea monster emerges from the Thames (albeit to the apparent indifference of passing motorists) to attack the building hosting the first International Energy Conference.

Explanation: Covered up by the government.

8. Cybermen invade Geneva - The Tenth Planet

In 1986, an upside-down version of Earth appears in the skies and there are mass landings of Cybermen at the International Space Headquarters in Switzerland and throughout the globe.

Explanation: None given. Maybe everyone was busy watching Prince Andrew marry Sarah Ferguson?

9. Cybermen invade... Windsor – Silver Nemesis

‘Meteor approaches England’ declares the front page story of the Daily Mirror. And sure enough, it crash-lands somewhere in the vicinity of Windsor Castle, hotly pursued by Cybermen, Nazis and a 17th-century sorceress.

Explanation: None given. But based on the evidence of this story, the people of Windsor are congenitally unobservant, so maybe that’s it.

10. The US President is assassinated on live television – The Sound of Drums

And not just assassinated. Assassinated by the British Prime Minister! Using the alien Toclafane! As the whole world watches!

Explanation: None given. Time is reversed, but only to a point after this took place. So... er... maybe the Archangel network made everyone forget, somehow? Russell?

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