When you’ve been around as long as Doctor Who has—it turns 60 on November 23—you go through a lot of milestones, and ways to mark those milestones. As the series prepares for what might just be its biggest celebration ever with a trio of specials, a new Doctor at Christmas, and a new digital home, we’re using our TARDIS to flip back through the show’s special celebrations from anniversaries past.
Doctor Who’s first major milestone was marked with an unprecedented moment—one that would be enshrined in future generations of anniversary celebrations. Broadcasting across four episodes from late 1972 and into early 1973, “The Three Doctors” united William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee’s Doctors on screen for the first time.
“The Three Doctors” was not only Hartnell’s final appearance as the Doctor—the actor passed away two years later—it’s also notable for the first time anyone has described the TARDIS by using the phrase “being bigger on the inside” than it is out, and culminated the ongoing arc of the Third Doctor’s exile on Earth after the events of “The War Games,” allowing him to travel in time and space once more.
The 15th anniversary celebration was not quite as splashy, but it was celebrated nonetheless—or it was at least planned to. Coinciding with the broadcast of the 100th Doctor Who story, “The Stones of Blood,” to mark the occasion, a scene was pitched to be added into the story where Romana conjures up a birthday cake for the Fourth Doctor in the TARDIS, to mark his 151st birthday. However, Doctor Who’s producer at the time, Graham Williams, nixed the idea.
Another major milestone meant the return of a tradition—and this time, with even more Doctors. Well, exactly one more. “The Five Doctors” united current Doctor Peter Davison with Troughton, Pertwee, and Richard Hurndall replacing William Hartnell as the First Doctor, as they battled the Master on Gallifrey alongside a bevy of old companions. Tom Baker declined to return for the special, leading to the Fourth Doctor’s sole contribution being via unused footage from the scrapped story “Shada.”
The 25th anniversary was ostensibly marked by all of Doctor Who’s 25th season, which kicked off with “Remembrance of the Daleks,” which saw the Seventh Doctor and Ace return to 1963 and Coal Hill School—where the First Doctor met his companions Barbara and Susan—to battle the Daleks and their creator, Davros.
The actual 25th anniversary story kicked off on Doctor Who’s 25th anniversary, “Silver Nemesis,” and starred the return of the Cybermen.
The first anniversary Doctor Who celebrated without actually being on air is, suitably, perhaps its weirdest. The infamous “Dimensions in Time” was a charity special broadcast for Children in Need—further cementing Doctor Who’s relationship with the appeal foundation after “The Five Doctors,” a relationship that would flourish even further upon its return in 2005.
Teaming the Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors, “Dimensions in Time” put them and their companions up against the Rani in her most dastardly of schemes: trapping Doctor Who’s stars in Albert Square, the world of longrunning soap opera Eastenders. It’s exactly as camp as you’d expect.
With Doctor Who now well and truly off air, the 35th anniversary celebrations were a much smaller affair: The Infinity Doctors, a novel by Lance Parkin starring a nebulous incarnation of the Doctor facing a threat that could exterminate Gallifrey itself.
Another peculiar but notable addition to the proceedings: the launch of the very first official Doctor Who website, which would become very important five years later…
… Because the 40th Anniversary was marked in several ways, but most notably “Scream of the Shalka,” an all-new animated webcast featuring a brand new incarnation of the Doctor: the Ninth Doctor, played by Richard E. Grant.
Elsewhere, audio publisher Big Finish released a series of special stories—a trio of classic villain tales featuring Omega, Davros, and the Master, who all had connections to past anniversary specials, and Zagreus, a multi-Doctor special starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann.
A couple of months before the anniversary, there was another gift: the September 2003 announcement that Doctor Who would be returning to TV full time for a new series. Wonder whatever happened to that?
The 45th anniversary, despite being Doctor Who’s first on-air celebration since 1988, was a subdued affair—the revived fourth season, which climaxed with a return of multiple companions from across the series in the two-part story “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End” had come to an end in the summer. Aside from that, the only real specific addition to the proceedings was Forty-Five, a Big Finish audio anthology with the Seventh Doctor.
The BBC made up for it however with the 50th anniversary—although we’ve heard plenty of nightmare tales about how it nearly fell apart in the years since, Doctor Who united David Tennant and Matt Smith’s Tenth and Eleventh Doctors with a new incarnation, the War Doctor, played by John Hurt in “The Day of the Doctor.” Featuring appearances by every Doctor through archival footage, and even a teasing glimpse of Peter Capaldi’s incoming Twelfth, the special marked the climax of an ongoing plot point in the revived era of the show: the destruction of Gallifrey during the Time War, with the Doctors working together to save their people for good.
Well, for a few years at least.
Elsewhere, the 50th was marked with a mini-episode called “The Night of the Doctor,” marking Paul McGann’s return to on-screen Doctor Who for the first time since the 1996 TV movie, and “An Adventure in Space and Time,” a docudrama retelling of the creation of Doctor Who.
A once again quiet affair, the 55th anniversary—coming during the broadcast of Jodie Whittaker’s debut season of Doctor Who—was ostensibly marked by the broadcast of episode eight of the season, “The Witchfinders.” In actuality, on the day itself the BBC released a special educational program for BBC Teach starring Whittaker as the Doctor, teaching children about the properties of light.
And here we are in the future! Although Doctor Who has been off screen for much of its 60th anniversary year, this month it will return in a big way: November 25 will see the broadcast of the first of three weekly special episodes celebrating the anniversary, penned by returning showrunner Russell T. Davies, and starring returning lead David Tennant, this time as a new, Fourteenth incarnation of the Doctor, alongside Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble.
It’s not all, either—a few weeks after those episodes conclude, on Christmas Day, Ncuti Gatwa’s debut as the Fifteenth Doctor will begin with “The Church on Ruby Road,” Doctor Who’s first Christmas special in six years. This anniversary was also marked with the launch of Whoniverse in the UK and Ireland, the BBC’s streaming home to over 800 episodes of Doctor Who, spinoffs, and ancillary material, as well as an exclusive new miniseries starring past Doctors and companions, Tales of the TARDIS.