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Space Doctor

8 July 2018

The Doctor Fails

Space Doctor

by Will Dalrymple

Straight Up Productions at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 7th July, then on tour until 27th August (Edinburgh Preview)

A review by Matthew Grierson.

Last week, a pair of theatregoers were scolded by the cast of Titanic the Musical at the Nottingham Theatre Royal for watching England’s World Cup match against Colombia on their phones and cheering at the Three Lions’ penalty shoot-out win. In order to avoid a similar clash with the national team’s quarter-final encounter with the Swedes, Saturday afternoon’s performance of Space Doctor had an eleventh-hour reschedule to midday.

The enforced time travel is in keeping with the show, both a self-conscious and self-consciously unself-conscious parody of Doctor Who. Among a plethora of gags more miss than hit, the play manages to include an unexpectedly clever time travel sequence; admittedly not as sophisticated as anything Steven Moffatt cooked up, this is still one of the few acknowledgements Space Doctor makes of the modern run of the TV classic.

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The premise of Space Doctor is that the audience has been press-ganged into attending a Space Doctor convention by gun-wielding uberfan Nancy Adric (Gemma Edwards), where her other hostages – sorry, guests – will re-enact the first and only broadcast episode of the show from 1978. These guests are Space Doctor’s fictional creator Rex Whittaker (Tom Whelehan), a man with a Seasick Steve beard, silver lamé shirt and a jacket and accent that are alike indescribable, as well as the far less eccentrically dressed Space Doctor himself (Robert Eyers), who turns out not to be an actor but an actual time-travelling alien, professing to have one-and-a-half hearts and three balls. Half-hearted and a load of b******s? I’m saying nothing.

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This conventional conceit is doubly appropriate. First because, football or not, it’s a sunny day outside and there are as few people in the audience as several (pre-2003) fan gatherings I’ve attended. Second, as a parody, Space Doctor is entirely conventional: Doctor Who has been spoofable from two episodes in, and thus many of the best jokes have already been told – not only by Crackerjack or Victoria Wood but also by the show itself, self-deprecation being one of the many qualities that make it so appealing. Even among the genre of cult TV spoofs you’re competing with Galaxy Quest, which will take some beating.

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So there has to be something distinctive that Space Doctor can offer us, and sadly there is very little in this regard. There are some good one-off jokes – the character of Space Doctor gleefully declares “I done a murder” and “I done a genocide”, a nod to the problematic quality of incidental deaths in a programme whose protagonists pride themselves on non-violence. Elsewhere, the gags not only miss their mark, they also expose the shortcomings of Space Doctor itself. “Are you enjoying it?” we’re asked by the frenetic Nancy waving her prop pistol, and the scant audience grunts its reluctant assent. More tellingly, Space Doctor’s companion Simone (Bibi Lucille) is exhorted not to “ruin the adventure with legitimate questions”. Doctor, if my companion had asked all the questions he’d wanted to ask of this production, we would have ended up missing the football after all.

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I go to see Space Doctor with a lot of goodwill, and by the time the production has squandered it, about halfway in, a story is beginning to emerge in the way one of its performers emerges from under the patchwork quilt of a monster costume (the dubiously named “Face Burglar”). Until this point there is a lack of direction in every sense, and as well as laboured jokes about Doctor Who there are also random pot-shots about GDPR, supermarkets and talent shows. Some of this incidental business can be quite entertaining – the robot dancing the Macarena is a highlight, and there’s a nicely constructed gag that culminates in a cheer at the destruction of the White House. But I could never shed the sense that I was watching a baggy, self-indulgent student revue that had hijacked the Space Doctor’s TARDISN’T (OK, I’ll buy that), disguised as a Portaloo (it’s been done), as a vehicle to connect otherwise unrelated skits. You can’t mount a successful pastiche of something as singular as Doctor Who when you’re pulling in so many different directions at once; this should be a team game.

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But like a bunch of Premiership primadonnas, each of the cast seem to be inhabiting a different world. We’re told former companion Dodo (Ruby Keane) has spent the four decades since Space Doctor appearing in The Archers, but she stomps around the place spouting dialogue from EastEnders in a Mancunian accent, a lazy conflation of very different soap settings. Meanwhile Stan (the show’s writer Will Dalrymple) is introduced as the convention’s sound technician before being revealed a Britain’s Got Talent wannabe and then, when Henry VIII (Mark Bittlestone) makes a guest appearance, has an unlikely fling with the king. As is the way of these things, His Majesty is killed twice and twice brought back to life, occasioning not only an improbably Shakespearean turn of phrase on the behalf of Stan Boleyn (yes, I know) but some surprisingly ill-judged Catholic jokes. And for most of the show, Dalrymple sports a school tie and cap over an England shirt, as though he would rather have been watching the football … again, I’m saying nothing.

At least with Simone there is a rationale for such dramatic changes in character. Possessed by the Face Burglar, she transforms from peppy sidekick to preening villain, and playing her, Lucille capably and convincingly makes the switch between goodie and baddie, as well as hitting the right comedy beats. In comparison, fan-cum-stalker Nancy is a one-note character who is in danger of making her TV namesake Adric look as complex as Hamlet.

Nevertheless, there is an unexpectedly poignant revelation about her character near the end of the play, more in keeping with 21st-century Doctor Who than the original run. This leads to a last-minute twist in which she travels back to 1963 and meets Dalrymple and Bittlestone as a pair of BBC execs in a sketch that manages to be both well written and zippily performed – as the saying goes, it’s about time. Of course, Nancy is armed with all the Space Doctor fan scripts she has written, the names changed to avoid copyright infringement, and she presents these to the pair: lo and behold, she has invented yer actual Doctor Who. Never mind any football, I’d rather be watching that on a Saturday afternoon than Space Doctor.

Matthew Grierson

July 2018

Photography by Bogdan Milošević

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From → Drama, Fringe, Reviews

4 Comments
  1. Hu Mark
    Glad you enjoyed the show. Couple points you might need to focus to make your inherent inbred racism less discernable.

    1. My character, Rex Whittaker, is not Space Doctor’s creator, but his agent. Clearly explained in the dialogue.

    2. My “indiscernable” accent is American, natural, midwest. I know you were looking for a cheap shot but try to make them with some sense of intellect. Perhaps you should get out more. You’ll look less stupid. Racist still; stupid nonetheless.

    • Hello Tom

      Our reviewer, Matthew Grierson attended your production of Space Doctor. As with all our reviewers, he is giving an honest and properly analysed view of the production that he saw. Of course, a critique of any art form has a degree of subjectablity.
      but all of our reviews have considerable knowledge and experience of the art form they review.

      Matthew, as well as being a practising actor, has a PhD in English, and has in fact written a number of academic papers on the BBC’s Dr Who. I would not therefore say that his intellectual competence is in doubt. I would also think that he has a good knowledge of American accents, as his wife is a US citizen, and he spends much time in North America.

      I am a little baffled by some of your remarks. I have re-read Matthew’s article assiduously and cannot find any reference to race in any way (unless of course you regard a space alien as a specific racial type!), neither can I find the word “indiscernible” anywhere in the text.

      Kind regards

      Keith Wait, for Mark Aspen Reviews.

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