I’ve stayed shy of posting on Dr Who as it’s such a giant universe unto itself. But as Christmas grows closer, this is the first of three posts on a particular Whovian manifestation and one with a strongly seasonal flavour – the Dr Who Christmas Omnibuses of the 1970s.
December 1976… on this day, or thereabouts, forty years ago I got a nasty shock.
The Christmas double-issue Radio Times arrived through our letter box that morning with a reassuring thud, an event which, each year, I anticipated with much excitement. I turned straight to the BBC-1 listings for 27th December to check the start time for the omnibus Dr Who: The Seeds of Doom only to find… there was none.
Instead of pods, compost crushers and obscene vegetable matter, the afternoon was dominated, with a camp surrealism, by Walt Disney’s Babes in Toyland and sportsfest Superstars. A quick flick through to 28th and 26th December, just in case, then a scour through the entire magazine showed The Seeds of Doom was nowhere to be found.
To say I felt disappointed or even cheated was an understatement. Gutted would be more accurate.
On the third day of Christmas…
Doctor Who omnibuses had been a fixture of my Christmas since 1971 when I was seven. Always scheduled on the afternoons of 27th or 28th December, this Yuletide treat extended Christmas Day and Boxing Day festivities into a third day.
As an only child, Christmas Day and Boxing Day were spent in entirely adult company with my parents and their friends, Vivien and Earnest. Although this might sound like a hardship to some, I thoroughly enjoyed our Christmases (we played games too!) but it did mean both days were lead by adults whereas 27th December felt like my day.
With the house festooned with decorations and Christmas tree lights deeply glowing as the day darkened, feature-length Dr Who was the perfect afternoon accompaniment to Christmas cake and Yuletide log.
Forty years on, I’m reviving that tradition by revisiting those omnibuses across three posts. Here I’ll look at why the early 70s offered fertile ground for the omnibuses and at their appeal to an avid, young Dr Who fan. Then across two further posts, I’ll review the the stories shown each year and my memories of seeing them.
Box of delights
I got an immense thrill in the days and hours leading up to these feature-length Whos, counting down the minutes to the start. The thrill was no less than the anticipation of a brand new Dr Who episode on a Saturday at 5.15, different, yes, but just as intense, like reliving an exciting experience knowing just how amazing it was going to be, also knowing that the excitement would last four times as long. I couldn’t wait for it to start and when it did, I couldn’t bear for it to end. I’d count down the minutes towards the closing titles too as if in dread anticipation of my disappointment.
A repeat meant marvelling once more at extraordinary sights like the devil appearing in a village church threatening to destroy the world or the Sea Devils rising from beneath the waves.
It also allowed opportunities to spot elements of story or setting which had passed me by the first time as well as checking those bits which didn’t reappear.
And the timing made it feel so incredibly special, the perfect Christmas present delivered by the BBC, every year.
Like so many aspects of childhood, this one felt as if it would go on forever. But it was not to be. I didn’t know it at the time but the Dr Who Christmas Omnibus tradition had ended with Genesis of the Daleks in 1975.
Doctor Who repeats were rare indeed.
In the 60s, Evil of the Daleks was the only complete serial to be shown again in June 1967.
Summer 1971 brought a highly unexpected Friday teatime episodic repeat of Jon Pertwee’s debut, Spearhead from Space, perhaps partly as a schedule-filler, partly as an acknowledgement of the series’ rising profile.
Then came Dr Who and the Dæmons, ‘for the first time a complete adventure’, on Monday 28th December 1971.
What may have prompted this first Christmas repeat in a new format?
A Christmas celebration
Following declining ratings, in 1970 Dr Who was given a chance to prove itself with a new actor, Jon Pertwee, in the title role. The 1970 season was judged an artistic and commercial success so the series’ future, for now, was secured.
By 1971, with a second season of improved ratings and audience appreciation under its belt, Dr Who merited additional exposure as a further boost to its rising profile.
Evidence that the BBC wanted to get behind the series came in the form of the New Year Radio Times covers which graced the start of all five Jon Pertwee seasons. Radio Times was very pro-Doctor Who during Pertwee’s tenure.
Throughout the 60s, Doctor Who was shown almost all year round. But from 1970, seasons were 25 or 26 weeks long only running roughly January-June, meaning the show was off the air throughout the summer and autumn months. So a Christmas repeat of a story from that year’s January-June run would serve as a curtain raiser for the new season.
The story goes that, following original transmission in May, Episode One of The Deamons was discussed by BBC1 controller Paul Fox and Richard Levin, head of television design. Both men commended the quality of the story’s script and production and it was perhaps Paul Fox’s support which producer Barry Letts was then able to leverage to bring about the Christmas omnibus in December 1971.
Could there have been a 1970 omnibus? Obviously, yes, in theory but three out of four Season Seven stories were exceptionally long seven-parters and probably Barry Letts hadn’t been long enough in the job to propose the idea. An Inferno omnibus would have been quite something though.
Which story to tell?
What of the choice of stories across Christmases 1971-75? Each selection surely had to be the story judged ‘best’ from the previous season, whether in terms of ratings, audience appreciation or some other vaguer sense of impact.
An obvious candidate would be the climactic story. A reprise would remind viewers where they had left Dr Who series six months earlier and create momentum into the start of the new season beginning in just a few days time. Three out of five stories chosen over 1971-75 were series finales, the exceptions (quite rightly) being The Sea Devils and Genesis of the Daleks.
Despite the much heard criticism that six part stories are too long, all stories given the omnibus treatment were six-parters (The Dæmons is an honorary six parter) perhaps because they tended to be the more expensive, more expansive, higher profile adventures, resembling the blockbuster feel of a one-off feature film.
Yet the BBC could simply have opted for four parters – The Claws of Axos, Day of the Daleks, The Three Doctors, Destiny of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen – and saved themselves the trouble of making cuts. I’m so glad they didn’t.
Or, worse still, they could have chosen the wrong six-parters – Colony in Space, The Mutants, Frontier in Space, Monster of Peladon. What a post-Christmas comedown that would have been (it is specifically the non-Earth six-parters which are to blame for the genre’s overlong, overpadded reputation).
Happily the stories selected, presumably by Barry Letts, were the right ones every time.
I hope you’ll join me for two more posts in the leadup to Christmas when I’ll look at each of these stories in turn, starting next week with 1971-73: The Dæmons, The Sea Devils and The Green Death.