Between 2005 and 2017, it become something of an annual tradition for a Doctor Who special to turn up on our screens every Christmas Day; in fact, until Jodie Whittaker took over the lead role and the festive episode shifted to New Year’s Day for the first time, you could be forgiven for thinking it was something which actually went back even further; after all, there’s a long history of TV shows having a special one-off edition made for Christmas viewing.
However, during the show’s original run between 1963 and 1989, there was only ever one episode which was actually shown on Christmas Day, and that was only because one of the transmission dates happened to fall on the day itself, purely by coincidence. So, at 6:35pm on Saturday December 25th 1965, families across the country sat down in front of their television sets to watch the first episode of Doctor Who to be broadcast at Christmas, little knowing it would turn out to be exactly 40 years until it happened again.
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Back in 1965, the UK was still very firmly in the grip of the phenomenon known as ‘Dalekmania’. The previous year, a novelty pop record – ‘I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas With A Dalek’, by the Go-Go’s – was released. In the summer of 1965, a glossy, full colour adaptation of the metal monsters’ first appearance hit cinemas, in the shape of Dr. Who And The Daleks (which proved successful enough to spawn a sequel – Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD – the following year). Shops were full of Dalek-themed merchandise, from soap to slippers, playsuits to pyjamas, and everything else in-between.
Earlier in 1965, the BBC’s Managing Director, Huw Weldon, advised the Doctor Who production team to maximise the use of the Daleks in the show, seemingly at the suggestion of his mother-in-law, who was something a fan of them, with Weldon also seeing her as being representative of the average viewer. The show’s makers duly commissioned a twelve-part epic (the longest single story in Doctor Who history, until 1986’s ‘The Trial Of A Time Lord’, which ran to fourteen episodes), called ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’. This story was prefaced by a one-off prequel episode, ’Mission To The Unknown’, which set up the background to this epic tale.
The storyline of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ revolved around a plot by the Daleks to create a deadly new weapon known as the Time Destructor, which would enable them to have total mastery over time by weaponising it; the Time Destructor allowing them to roll time back or forward at the press of a button. This led to a chase across space and time, as the Doctor sought to thwart the Daleks’ plans by stealing a key component of the device, and the Daleks pursuing them to retrieve it. The stakes were higher than normal, and saw the deaths of two companions (or recurring characters, at least – fans hotly debate their status, due to just how briefly the pair travelled in the TARDIS).
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Amidst all of the plotted chaos and carnage, it was realised that the seventh episode would actually fall on Christmas Day. Thinking that the nation’s audiences wouldn’t want to tune in, as they’d be busy celebrating and spending quality time with their families, it was decided to craft an interlude which would stand alone from the main story, and wouldn’t matter if people missed it (bearing in mind this was all well before the advent of video recorders, or catch-up TV, so if you didn’t see it on transmission, then that would be your only chance, so it was just bad luck).
And so it came to pass that writer – and Dalek creator – Terry Nation would put together a stand-alone episode featuring the series’ regulars, called ‘The Feast Of Steven’ (Doctor Who stories up until 1966 only had individual on-screen episode titles, rather than being called Episode 1, etc.). It’s a curious choice of a title, at first glance, as the episode doesn’t in fact feature a feast of any kind; however, it’s actually a reference to one of the Doctor’s companions, Steven Taylor (played by Peter Purves, who later went on to present Blue Peter and Kick Start), so it’s a play on the Feast Of Stephen as referenced in ‘Good King Wenceslas’.
The episode is split into two halves – the first takes place in and around a Liverpool Police Station at Christmas 1965. The original intention had been to use the set and cast of the popular Police drama Z-Cars (which included a young Brian Blessed), but the producer of Z-Cars felt the lighter, comic script of ‘The Feast Of Steven’ would conflict with the more serious, dramatic tone of that show, so the idea was sadly vetoed, and the roles renamed and recast. The Doctor briefly falls foul of the local constabulary while trying to carry out a repair to the TARDIS, and ends up flummoxing all the Officers after the newly-arrived Police Box vanishes into thin air.
Soon after, the time travellers end up landing in 1920s Hollywood, inadvertently crashing the sets of two movie productions – one being a The Perils Of Pauline-style melodrama, the other being a desert-bound feature very much in the Rudolph Valentino vein. While Steven gets carted off by what appears to be the Keystone Cops, the Doctor’s other companion – Sara Kingdom (played by Jean Marsh, who later co-created Upstairs, Downstairs and The House Of Eliott) – gets mistaken for a harem girl extra. Amongst all this chaos, the Doctor ends up crossing paths with the likes of Charlie Chaplin (M.J. Mathews) and Bing Crosby (Robert Jewell), before escaping back to the safety – and relative sanity – of the TARDIS.
What’s perhaps most notable about this episode is the very end, where the Doctor proposes a toast to celebrate it being Christmas (relatively speaking, at least, based on where – and when – they’d landed in Liverpool at Christmastime at the start of the episode). In a genuinely surprising moment, the Doctor turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly with “Incidentally, a Happy Christmas to all of you at home.”. While it’s not the only time the Doctor would ever look down the camera – Tom Baker did it on several occasions – it’s the only instance that the series directly admits to being a TV programme.
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In fact, the moment has become so notorious that it was recreated for the 2013 docudrama An Adventure In Space And Time, with David Bradley playing William Hartnell as the Doctor greets the viewing public. All sounds like a fun romp, yes? Wondering where you can watch ‘The Feast Of Steven’ for yourselves? Well, the bad news is that you can’t: it no longer exists in the BBC’s archives. With this being a specifically Christmas-themed episode, there were concerns about whether it would be shown by broadcasters around the world, as their airings could be any time of year, so ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ was only sold overseas as an eleven-part story.
Unlike the other episodes, no film recording was made of ‘The Feast Of Steven’ for international sales, so it had the distinction of being the first Doctor Who episode to be irretrievably lost forever – the master tape (and only copy) was ordered for wiping on August 17th 1967. For years, rumours swirled around fandom that a film print had been made, and given to William Hartnell as a memento, which would be screened on every Christmas Day in the Hartnell household; sadly, this proved to be an urban myth, and was debunked years later, but it would have been a lovely touch if this had been true, and a lost episode recovered from the star of the show.
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However, fans of the show are nothing if not diligent, and a number of them made audio recordings of the show, right from the start. As a result, the soundtrack still exists and has been released commercially, most recently earlier this year as part of a seven-LP vinyl release of the whole of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ by Demon Music Group. Actor Robert Jewell also took a number of off-air photos by pointing a camera at the screen during the one-and-only airing of ‘The Feast Of Steven’, in order to have some record of his turn as Bing Crosby.
Some enterprising fans managed to take these few scant images, marry them with the soundtrack, and put together an unofficial recreation of the episode which has been in circulation for a number of years. Not content with just making do with what they had at their disposal, the fans also went as far as repurposing existing images taken from other episodes, as well as utilising Photoshop, CGI and small amounts of animation to bring this – as well as many other missing episodes – back to life. If you furtle around on the Internet, you can find a copy or two knocking around, if you want to get a taste of what the actual episode was like.
With reconstructions of some of the lost episodes turning up on BritBox from this Boxing Day, as well as others – along with animated recreations – appearing on Blu-ray and DVD, perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, we’ll all have the chance to sit down and watch a version of ‘The Feast Of Steven’ officially on Christmas Day, and transport ourselves back to that cold December evening in 1965, through the closest thing we have to time travel.
Incidentally, a Happy Christmas to all of you at home.