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Simon Pitt | Internet | Sunday 10th October 2010

I will not celebrate meaningless milestones, except in very small subtle ways

I will not celebrate meaningless milestones.
100th Simpsons episode

There's nothing like a row of zeroes at the end of a number to prompt a flurry of celebrations and self-congratulatory nonsense.

This happens on anything that involves changing digits, even when the increase doesn't indicate any sort of improvement. Take, for example, the changing of the date.

A change in year is celebrated, a change in decade is celebrated even more, and a change of millennium even more so. The change from 2009 to 2010 was seen as worthy of more celebration because 2009 features two consecutive zeroes inside it whereas 2010 doesn't.

Of course, in part, it's simply an excuse for the media to reel out a series of lists:
the newspapers gave up publishing anything except lists of the top one million things that happened in the noughties (the award for the best list goes to the Telegraph, which published the 15 best Facebook status updates in 2009).
Lists are a strange phenomenon:
  1. They are low effort
  2. They continue to be popular
  3. They act as link bait and are frequently shared
  4. People never seem to get tired of them
Websites like MSN, the fifth most popular website, virtually live off lists. For example, as of 3rd October 2010, their most viewed pages are Perhaps because of the prevalence of decimal systems, there is a natural human inclination to group things into tens, hundreds, thousands. Consequently, people think of the sixties, or talk about people's twenties. Yet 1961 had more in common with 1959 than it did with 1969.

When it comes to a particular milestone, there is a temptation to do something to mark the event:
The fifteenth anniversary of the programme took place on 23 November 1978, five days after the broadcast of episode four. To commemorate this, Anthony Read asked David Fisher to write a new scene [...] featuring Romana and K-9 surprising the Doctor with a cake celebrating his 751st birthday and a new, identical scarf. However, producer Graham Williams vetoed this idea as being too self-indulgent, and the scene was never shot. Blake had already ordered a cake, and this was eventually eaten by the cast and crew.
Conversely, while The Simpsons had a special 300th episode, they also had "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular", parodying the idea of celebrating things purely because of their consecutive zeroes.

While Graham Williams avoided becoming too self-indulgent, it is an easy trap for film makers to fall into, particularly ones that work on long running popular dramas or comedies. Take Die Another Day, the 20th Bond film, released on the 40th anniversary. This "celebration" of Bond featured copious meta humour (Bond, at one point, picks up the book Birds of the West Indies, which gave Ian Fleming the idea for the name James Bond). While this was perhaps fun at the time, it does not age well.

Indeed, in many ways, this is the problem with celebrating numerical milestones. At the time, the audience are dragged along with the false 'excitement' of seeing the consecutive zeroes in a number, but, in hindsight, when a programme is judged on its own merits, a straight celebration of a number becomes too self-indulgent.

Interestingly, for some things, the celebration continues after 100. For example, when you reach your 100th birthday in England you receive a card from the queen. However, you also receive one on every birthday after your 100th birthday as well, as pointed out by 109 year old Catherine Masters last year, who was bored by getting the same card every year. Interestingly a celebration that starts out as celebrating two consecutive zeroes then turns into something else.

The celebration of milestones is becoming increasingly common. The 10th Bond film (arguably a more significant milestone than 20) contained no celebratory material at all. And similarly, while there was no celebration for 15th anniversary of Doctor Who, for the 40th anniversary they even commissioned a special logo.

The well known TV Programme Doctor 4ho

The 100th Big Finish audio, similarly, was simply named 100:
It's an odd choice for such a numerically momentous occasion. Unlike the first play, The Sirens of Time, or the 40th anniversary play, Zagreus, this is no great gathering of Doctors, no massive continuity-wrangling extravaganza of story-telling.

In fact, it's more of an internal congratulation, a gathering together of Big Finish writers from over the years, including Robert Shearman and Paul Cornell.
This perhaps highlights the two key points. We've seen so many celebrations of numbers now that we come to think of them as "numerically momentous occasions". But they're not at all. Moreover, when there is a celebration based purely on numbers, it's an internal congratulation for the benefit of the production team, not the audience.

In some ways, watching a "milestone episode" or reading a "milestone article" is like going to someone else's birthday party. It's fun, you might get some free stuff, but ultimately, it's their celebration, not yours.

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