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The RiffTrax Guys Discuss Tackling a DOCTOR WHO Classic

The RiffTrax Guys Discuss Tackling a DOCTOR WHO Classic

I still remember getting into Doctor Who (with Eccleston, catching up during the Tennant era) and making that fateful decision to dip my toe into the classic series, which seemed unbelievably daunting. Which DVD to buy? Which one would give me the best chance of enjoyment and understanding? I ultimately chose a special edition release of the 1983, 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors.” It’s such a glorious–and gloriously silly–celebration of all things Doctor Who that I couldn’t help but be taken with it. That kind of winking yet earnest silliness that makes it the perfect special for RiffTrax.

Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett are poised to bring their live riffing experience to cinema screens on August 17, with an encore presentation on August 24, and “The Five Doctors” is just the special to bridge RiffTrax fans with Whovians. According to the fellas, it was something they’d wanted to do for awhile, but it wasn’t as easy as it might have been.

The BBC were slightly guarded at first, Nelson explained, because the idea of people ostensibly making fun of their crown jewel program wasn’t necessarily something they wanted to sign off on. “But then they saw what we did,” he said, “and they said, ‘Oh, I see, it’s in a good spirit, not mean-spirited. And this is only going to enhance the product for fans in the U.S.’ So they quickly got rid of their nervousness.”

Of the three riffers, Corbett was the biggest Doctor Who fan, and that, he told us, was mainly a function of his daughter. “My wife was sort of a fan, and now my daughter who’s 12 is a big fan,” he explained, “so most of my knowledge comes through her really getting into [it] from David Tennant here on. The cutie pie David Tennant fan base was kind of my entry to it.” Corbett also told me he’s become a big, big fan of the Twelfth Doctor, whose run on the series has just ended with a pretty interesting season. “I love Peter Capaldi. That’s sort of what got me interested in the show myself, because I love him so much from The Thick of It and In the Loop. I just love that guy.”

All three of the guys, though, remember PBS in the ’80s showing the Tom Baker years on repeat. “I worked at a bar in Madison, WI,” said Murphy, “and so you’d come home late and it would be on, it would be the only thing on at night at PBS so it was like their version of a creature feature show or a science fiction show.” Apparently, he was initially thrown off by the way it looked–16mm film when they were outside, video when they were inside–but that didn’t last too long. “It kind of ended up being endearing because Tom Baker was unlike any hard-boiled science fiction character you’d see in the States,” Murphy remembered. “So he was more like your hippie uncle. It was more fun in that way and it was just so frigging English. It was charming and that’s why I was endeared to it.”

But none of them were prepared for the initial strangeness of “The Five Doctors.” “‘Who’s this guy and why is she saying that she knows this guy, but it was played by a different guy before?'” Nelson recalled of his first viewing. “There’s a lot of different inside jokes, so it took a bit to get up to speed. We have a marvelous consultant in the UK–a guy who does RiffTrax and has done them for years–who’s an expert on it, Matthew Elliott; so he was able to fill us in and give us some of the backgrounds. But we’ve watched it enough now where I get all the stuff even though I don’t know all the context. Clues have popped into place and I’ve done enough Wiki reading to go, ‘Ah, I see what that’s all about.'”

Corbett said the good storytelling of the episode made him far less lost than he expected to be. “If it’s one thing Doctor Who does well, it’s take care of its fans,” he said. “And they know that a lot of the people who are into the current version are fans of the old stuff, as well. So you do see the same kinds of characters–sometimes literally the same characters. Like the Cybermen are there, looking pretty much the same. The Daleks, of course. They allude to the old show so much on the new version. The tradition going all the way back to the first guy.”

While they didn’t want to give away too much of where their riffing focuses, they did have characters that stood out to them. “The Daleks are uniquely annoying to my ear,” Murphy admitted. “Well not unique; I think everybody gets a little bit annoyed, but they’re so damn popular and I’ve never really been able to suss that out. Why are those guys are so popular? They would overtake you with their voices if they could.”

Though admitting to this opinion as possible blasphemy, Nelson found Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor to be particularly silly. “The Doctor with the Moe Howard haircut and who seems kind of a jerk to everyone, he’s a rough taste. He’s hard to get a handle on. It’s a terrible costume choice, I’ll just say that.”

One thing Corbett enjoyed was “the cantankerousness of all these guys, and the fact that they don’t even seem to like each other. Like, they seem to have thorough contempt for the other Doctors, it just seems very funny.” He also expressed a fair amount of sympathy for “the unfortunate British actors who have to play the Gallifrey High Council, in just the most embarrassing costumes. They’re probably really decent Shakespearean actors, and this is a paycheck gig Who can blame them? But they’re all thinking, ‘God, I played Iago once in Stratford, and now I have a weird beanie on my head.'”

But the big one for everyone–and friends, if you haven’t seen “The Five Doctors,” get ready–was the evil and dangerous Raston Warrior Robot. “It’s supposed to be ‘the most perfect killing machine ever devised,'” Nelson explained, “and it’s just a guy in a silver leotard leaping around… and he’s easily defeated, that’s the other thing. So that was kind of a gift.”

To see Mike, Bill, and Kevin jump in their own TARDIS of laughter, be sure to get your tickets to RiffTrax Live: Doctor Who – The Five Doctors, visit Fathom Events’ website. And for more live riffing, see if the Mystery Science Theater 3000 tour is heading your way (and if mot, you can of course just rewatch the spectacular new season).

For a discussion about what MST3K episodes will probably never get released on DVD, click here; and a brief history of Doctor Who‘s Time Ladies, click here.

Images: RiffTrax/BBC

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!

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