The Case Against “The Feast of Steven”

For those of you who may not know, “The Feast of Steven” was the first-ever Doctor Who Christmas Special. It was broadcast on Christmas day 1965 and starred William Hartnell as the Doctor, Peter Purves as Steven, and Jean Marsh as Sara.

If you’ve heard anything about it, chances are it had something to do either with how Hartnell broke the fourth wall during it to wish everyone a Merry Christmas or how awful it is (though it does have its supporters). We might think of it as the 1960s “Dimensions in Time.”

In the past, fans of Doctor Who have raised the question of whether “The Feast of Steven,” because of its poor quality, should be considered canon. I’m not one of those who believes that episodes of the show should be dropped from Doctor Who mythology simply because they are bad, though it admittedly is tempting. Moreover, canon is determined by the makers of the show, not the fans. Nevertheless, I believe there are several reasons for believing that “The Feast of Steven” was never intended by the showmakers to be part of the Doctor Who story.

1. Although it was aired during The Daleks’ Master Plan, the narrative of that story is not advanced in “The Feast of Steven.”┬áIn the middle of the episode, the Doctor and crew take a moment to give the audience a recap of The Daleks’ Master Plan up until that point, but the story is not continued in any way during this episode. It simply is set aside, so that the TARDIS team can go on an entirely unrelated romp. No Time Destructor, no Daleks, no Mavic Chen, nothing at all from The Daleks’ Master Plan. Said Story Editor Donald Tosh: “We realised that we were going to go out on Christmas Day at a time when everyone would be full of food and drink and not interested in trying to pick up the threads of a long-running story, so we had to make that a sort-of one-off episode” (TARDIS, vol. 3, no 3).

2. Other than Hartnell, Purves, and Marsh, the cast is entirely different. Take a look at the credits. You won’t see Kevin Stoney, Roy Evans, or any of the cast from The Daleks’ Master Plan. You won’t even hear Peter Hawkins or David Graham doing a Dalek voice. We have a whole different cast, and they will appear only in this episode.

3. Elements in the story suggest it is not to be taken seriously. There is a spoof of Z-Cars in the episode, which was an idea that Donald Tosh suggested to writer Dennis Spooner (Doctor Who Magazine #191, 12). The Doctor and crew take part in an actual silent movie with their spontaneous dialogue in subtitles. There is considerable hyperbole, such as in the beginning, when the Doctor says there is a dangerously polluted atmosphere outside, and it turns out to be present-day London. But perhaps the best evidence that the episode is not to be taken seriously is when the Doctor breaks the fourth wall to wish the audience a happy Christmas. Although Donald Tosh years later recalled this as being an ad-lib by Hartnell, the scene was, in fact, scripted and rehearsed that way. A true Doctor Who episode would not have done this, and in the Doctor Who universe this cannot have occurred.

4. When The Daleks’ Master Plan was licensed to other countries and sold on film, “The Feast of Steven” was not included. Why would BBC Worldwide sell The Daleks’ Master Plan without including “The Feast of Steven”? (Richard Molesworth, Wiped!, pp. 136, 170). I suppose you could argue that they thought no one would want a Christmas episode. But if “The Feast of Steven” were a vital episode in The Daleks’ Master Plan, they couldn’t tell the story without it. And yet they could. The obvious reason they left it out is because it did not belong.

Bottom line: I think we should reconsider the place of “The Feast of Steven” in the Doctor Who TV canon. If a copy is ever found, let’s place it alongside “Dimensions in Time” on our “alternative universe” shelf and keep Z-Cars and EastEnders in their own dimensions.