While the Radio Times itself might no longer be produced by the BBC, the current owners rightly recognised that Doctor Who would be a huge draw at their inaugural festival, cognisant of a relationship that spans the show’s 52-year run.
Pitched opposite Henry VIII’s former residence at Hampton Court, the festival runs for an evening and three full days. The Festival line-up might boast big hitters like Andrew Marr, David Attenborough and Bruce Forsyth, but the popular through line on Friday was three sessions with a Doctor Who bias – Russell T Davies, The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who and Doctor Who.
As show runner and lead writer for Doctor Who’s first four seasons in its 21st century regeneration, Russell T Davies needs no introduction. Interviewed by Radio Times TV editor Alison Graham, a straw poll was taken at the beginning to determine the mix of fans – skewed to Doctor Who but with a good showing for Queer as Folk and Cucumber. Davies appeared immediately at ease with his audience, chuckling away just as we remember him from his Doctor Who Confidential days. Asked about his tenure on the show he regrets not enjoying it as much as he might have at the time due to the sheer size of the workload (Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures also occupied his waking hours).
He’s currently working on a new adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Cardiff, an ambition he’s held for 30 years. He’s thrilled that the BBC plan to show it at prime time – as reflected by the stellar cast. This is a man with an acute understanding of TV, and he laments that the battle to preserve the BBC may already be lost.
Witty, self-deprecating and brutally honest, he stayed behind to sign DVD sleeves (and old copies of the Radio Times – natch) and pose for photos. As The Five-ish Doctors showed us, he is Russell THE Davies. Definitely the definite article.
The Science of Doctor Who was presented by Simon Guerrier and Dr Marek Kukula, authors of the book of the same name, and what a great combo they were. The ultimate tag team of Doctor Who enthusiast and astronomer, no single question thrown at them by the audience was replied to in an incomplete manner. These guys know their stuff, and no number of teasers from the predominantly young quizmasters broke their stride.
Accompanied by clips from Spearhead from Space, Revelation of the Daleks, Kill the Moon, Genesis of the Daleks and The Magician’s Apprentice, the show’s conceits and devices were put under the science microscope. General consensus was that sometimes the science stands up to less scrutiny than it might and that ultimately we can all decide what works for us. And who knew that Terry Nation’s icecanoes in Planet of the Dalek would actually be ahead of their time? I’m still waiting for the Moon to actually be proven to be a giant egg…
And onto the main event in the festival’s big top – a panel with Peter Capaldi, executive producer Brian Minchin and show runner Steven Moffat, hosted by Orient Express train driver Perkins – Frank Skinner. Except that someone was missing. Davros and the Daleks couldn’t stop the Doctor, but Friday rush hour traffic on the M4 did! With the promise that we’d still get our full hour with The Doctor the session began 20 minutes late and without the main main – as happens with most doctors! Frank Skinner is a self-confessed Doctor Who fan and a chat show host. This probably makes him the most suitable person to hold court and he didn’t disappoint.
Starting with a charm offensive he still managed to make Moffat squirm around the topic of whether we’re getting a full season in 2016 (nothing was given away) and whether a new companion has been chosen yet (the answer was no). The comedian is a natural raconteur and the best compliment I can give the session is that it felt like a polished Friday night TV chat show.
When Peter finally appeared the crowd’s applause was probably that little bit louder, fuelled by relief that he was finally here. Topics ranged from action figures, to his wild hair, to his ever-changing wardrobe. He recalls a lunchtime conversation with Julian Bleach (Davros) about corned beef; you probably had to be there, but Capaldi is still giddy about playing the role of a lifetime. He’s happy that he probably still hasn’t nailed the role and if he’s typecast from now on as The Doctor then that’s something he’d happily live with. Could more episodes be produced each year? Only if quality dropped – and mindful that it already takes nine months to produce 12 episodes and a Christmas special.
Verdict: A great mix of old and new, science fact and science fiction, the Doctor Who strand at the Radio Times Festival was well judged, with each session flying by. If the Festival returns I have no doubt that a strong presence by the BBC’s ongoing monster hit will be wanted. 8/10