It takes about thirty seconds to figure out what The Sci-Fi Show is about. And when it hits you, you realise you’re in for an enjoyable, galaxy-spanning ride.
‘John B. Stevens’ is a TV showrunner who found fame and fortune by rebooting the long-running sci-fi show Professor Where (have you got it yet?) But after four seasons he wants out. Constant battles with exterminating ‘Garlics’, resorting to the Professor’s standby props like the ‘sonic wrench’, and realising that the Professor’s predilections for invariably 19-year-old ‘companions’ are a bit weird has left John a disillusioned mess. This is the premise for a show that takes us from back-biting BBC production meetings to John travelling with the Professor himself aboard the Space Hopping Interplanetary Temporal Engine (or SHITE).
As an Oxford student myself from 1982 to 1985 I acted in a couple of plays with Russell T. Davies, and we both found ourselves at Granada TV a few years later. After that our careers, ahem, diverged somewhat. But Russell was one of the kindest, brightest and most effervescent individuals I met as an undergraduate, and to see him fictionalised on the very stage where we worked together nearly forty years ago was in itself a time-twisting, brain-spinning experience worthy of The Doctor. I found myself wondering whether I, myself, had been one of those short-lived ‘companions’ on the TARDIS of Russell’s own career, or maybe no more than a low-paid extra in an Ood costume. But I digress.
You’ll be glad to learn that The Sci-Fi Show does not set out to be great art, or even great theatre. It is, in every way, a bit of fun. And nobody, least of all the cast, takes it seriously. At one point, when somebody forgot their lines, they all dissolved in giggles. At another, Stevens angrily threw his notebook away and it accidentally hit someone sitting in the front row, leading to a quick but profuse apology. The set has even more tatty-looking cardboard on it than the real first season of Dr Who. And the acting and singing are all done with the focus firmly on having a go rather than planning a career in The Theatre.
But – like the Doctor himself – this show has two hearts, and both of them are warm and beating. The first is that it’s written with love. Author Cassie Wicks obviously grew up as a true Whovian, and she’s written a piece of fan-theatre that blows a jaunty raspberry at the show, its makers and its watchers. The second is that, towards the end, the humble office trainee Jules gets her Professor Where script approved, and Stevens asks her to work with him on the next season. Out of nowhere it turns into a classic backstage musical. She’s going out there a script assistant, but she’s got to come back a star.
Other highlights include the Professor himself (no programme, so I can’t tell you who the actor was). He was a combination of The Doctor and Rick from Rick and Morty, a lanky nerd who was living the dream. There was a hilarious parody of Chicago with a number called The Ex-Companions Cell Block Tango. And there was even one original song, Stuck in Time, which packed a real emotional punch.
This is not to say The Sci-Fi Show is a great night at the theatre. It is a bit mumbly, it goes on way too long at two hours, and it would probably be better without most of the songs. But it is a joyous and loving kick in the ribs for Dr Who, and with Russell T. Davies about to make a comeback in the forthcoming season, it even has contemporary relevance. Enjoy.