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The Five Doctors

story 130 | season 20 | serial 6k
Daniel Pugh

My interest in Doctor Who began after viewing the new series featuring Christopher Eccleston - and enjoying it I decided to look into the Classic Series and find out what the fuss was about - a year later and I'm a fan and have started collecting the BBC Worldwide DVD series, beginning with 'The Five Doctors' which I think - showing you Time Lord history, a look a the characters of the first five Doctors and many of the companions, as well as Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti and the Master - is possibly THE single best way to introduce a sprouting youngling Who fan to the world of classic Doctor Who - of course, like any Who story, it has flaws - but I think it works very well, as I will now demonstrate...

Like 'The Eight Doctors' Novel by Terrance Dicks, 'The Five Doctors' is a celebration of the years gone by, and you immediately sense that that is what you're about to be given when, before the titles roll, one of William Hartnell's most famous lines is given - 'One day I shall come back. Yes - I shall come back. Until then there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties - just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mind'...WEEEEWW-DIDDLY DUM, DIDDLE DUM...

First a look at the present TARDIS crew - the Fifth Doctor is my secondary favourite Doctor (Sylvester McCoy topping all others) and I was at first slightly sceptical of his boyish nature, and sometimes I even felt as though he sounded slightly camp, but as the story progressed I grew to admire him, until by the end I vowed to make sure that I would give him a fairly bulky slot in my Who DVD Collection (at the present he has the highest percentage). As companions go it was rather shaky - for some reason, try as I might, I can't seem to come to like Tegan at all, her loud mouth attitude putting me off from the word go. Turlough is a lot more calm and relaxed (maybe it was due to the Eye of Orion's positive bombardments, I don't know) and carried an air of respectability around with him.

The basic plot is very straightforward - a sinister looking figure made up of black gloves and arms which waves over Eighties futuristic equipment is using a shimmering triangle to carry the Doctor's incarnations and place them in the middle of a sinsiter arena known as the Death Zone on the Time Lord planet Gallifrey - in the heart is the legendary Dark Tower, tomb of Rassillon - "the greatest single figure in Time Lord history"[The Second Doctor]. Also the villain has placed many of the Doctor's past companions in there too, which leads me to something that has always got under my skin when it comes to the Five Doctors - the scene when Sarah Jane falls down a ledge and the Third Doctor rescues her by pulling her up with a rope and Bessie - can it be called a ledge? Ah yes, Pertwee rescued Sladen valiantly from the horizontal slope! Not only does she obviously force herself to role down the hill, but surely she could have climbed back up on foot without needing any help from a rope-pull! To be honest Sarah Jane has never been my favourite companion and I fail to see what the fans see in her so much. Anyway, a look at the past Doctors...

The First Doctor was a real let down. According to the inner leaflet of the DVD it states that Hurndall's interpretation of Hartnell's character is excellent - to be honset this grumpy old pensioner had cleanly cemented his place in 'my worst Doctor so far' category. But then I hear great praise of William Hartnell, and watch clips of his era, and find him to be a very likeable Doctor and he is slowly climbing up the ranks. The Second Doctor made a highly entertaining debut into my experience of him. Although he is, I have heard, very different in the multi-doctor stories to his own era, I still find him to be a very fun and amusing little man - particularly when he is reciting an old Gallifreyan poem to himself, [Brigadier] "Are you in pain, Doctor?" [Second Doctor] "Age has not mellowed you has it, Brigadier?" In fact the whole way through, the endless humour exchanged between both the Doctor and the Brigadier is priceless. Moving on to the Third Doctor, I've never been a fan of Pertwee to this day. Being one of the all-time great Doctors, I was very let down by his overall character. There's very little in the way of humour, so from my earliest memories of watching clips from the Pertwee era he didn't seem to lighten the mood and I always found his stories to be particularly chilling. However, 'The Five Doctors' is very much the three Doctors, with the Fifth Doctor working behind the scenes in the Capitol, because, expecting an epic with five Doctors all together in one big adventure, the Fourth Doctor merely gets a sluggish rowing scene with Romana in a boat and that's it - wasn't impressed.

As regards to the villains - the Dalek's appearance was far too short for my liking and didn't create the slightest feeling of tension of fear at all, as was the case with the Yeti. The Cybermen had a lot more to do, but even they didn't seem at all powerful or fearful although the scene with the Raston Warrior Robot [obviously a man in a suit] slaughtering them all was particularly good. Finally, the Master's little story here works well - for most of the story I was led to believe that he was the evil traitor, and his constant failings to be accepted by the Doctors brings him in the end to turn on them and try and gain immortality for himself.

But the highlight of 'The Five Doctors' for me is when that panel opens up revelaing the dark room. The Fifth Doctor steps through, and after an adventure of Daleks, Cybermen and Doctors, you get reminded of that weird room with all those models of the Doctor and that eery music kicks in once again - brilliant.

Overall, I find 'The Five Doctors' to be an excellent celebration and introduction for Doctor Who and works very well.

Dave Ward

So, 'The Five Doctors' is simple, slightly flawed Sunday evening fun. This would be the problem some people have the tendancy to make it out to be if simple, slightly flawed sunday evening fun Dr. Who stories weren't in the majority throughout its long run.

I admit, I was a quite the young whippersnapper when I first saw 'The Five Doctors' and when I saw it again, years later, it didn't hold up to my memories. However, it still holds up well, with the story and links all holding together despite all the different threads, due to so many characters, that are flapping foot loose and fancy free in the wind.

All involved give good performances, particulary Jon Pertwee, who slips back into his role with complete ease. As ever, I enjoyed Anthony Ainley as the Master, me being one who has never understood criticism of him or the Master character.

Richard Hurdnall never fails to amaze me with his performance as the First Doctor. OK, so he's missing a few of the characteristics William Hartnell brought to the role, but trying to act the same character in the same way another actor did is difficult at the best of times, let alone such a known role that Hartnell had made very much his own.

It's my opinion that if you like Who in general, you'll like this. Perhaps more could have been done with the premise, but they did only have 90 minutes rather than several episodes. I think it's a very high-ranking piece of Who glory.

Paul Clarke

There is a school of thought that preaches tolerance of 'The Five Doctors' and is prepared to indulge its failings on the grounds that it is an anniversary story. This school of thought is presumably the same one that will excuse any old crap song reaching number one in the singles charts provided that it is for charity. Which always gives me the impression that artists then think "It's for charity, so I don't have to make an effort because anybody who complains will seem churlish". As it happens, I don't actually think 'The Five Doctors' is quite that bad, I am prepared to make a few allowances for the anniversary, and I think that Terrance Dicks made a considerable effort; considering that 'The Five Doctors' features not only five Doctors, but also five bona fide companions, K9 Mark III, four hallucinatory companions, a Dalek, some Cybermen, a Yeti, the Master, a new monster (Raston Warrior Robot), Borusa and the Castellan from 'Arc of Infinity', it is a miracle that it even hangs together at all.

I'll start with the plot. The idea of time scooping the Doctor's past incarnations into the Death Zone on Gallifrey is an effective contrivance for getting them all together for the anniversary, as well as allowing the inclusion of old friends and enemies. The problem is, the rationale behind it doesn't make sense. The reason for the presence of the Doctors in the Death Zone is that Borusa wants them to reach the Dark Tower and switch off the force field so that he can transmat to the Tomb of Rassilon and gain immortality. So why does he fill the Death Zone with Cybermen? Why does he use all five of the Doctors? It doesn't improve the chances of success, because logically, if one of the first four Doctors is killed any subsequent incarnations will cease to exist. You could argue that the very existence of the Fifth Doctor proves that his earlier incarnations cannot have died in the Death Zone, except that the script implies near the start that the effect on the Fifth Doctor of his past selves being Time Scooped is not an established part of his existing time line, since it shouldn't make him so ill if it was. Borusa's entire plan is flawed anyway; as has been noted elsewhere, including The Discontinuity Guide, Borusa is risking rather a lot considering that the High Council apparently have the technology to offer a new regenerative cycle to the Master.

And this is typical of the problem I have with Borusa; the wily and cunning politician of 'The Deadly Assassin' and 'The Invasion of Time' is transformed into a stock megalomaniac with a stupid and inconsistent plan. It is a waste of an established an interesting character, and it is a waste of Philip Latham who is very good in the role. The annoying thing about Borusa's sudden transformation into a nutter is that Dicks' decided on it because he though having the Master in control of the Game of Rassilon would have been too obvious. But in a story with so many different elements to juggle, was this twist really necessary? For one thing it (probably unintentionally) plagiarizes 'Arc of Infinity' by having a traitor on the High Council. For another, it would have suited the Master perfectly, because unlike Borusa I could well believe that he's mad enough to drag five Doctors to the Death Zone and put obstacles in their way, despite the fact that this would have endangered his plan. The Master as principle villain might have been obvious, but in a story with so many ingredients vying for attention, Dicks' desire for a twist actually works against the story.

Moving on to the Doctors themselves, the lack of participation from Tom Baker is hugely disappointing, but is probably a blessing in disguise, since it effectively means that Dicks has only four incarnations to cope with. In addition, the use of the 'Shada' footage is an inspired way of including the Fourth Doctor and means that at least he puts in a token appearance for the anniversary story. How the story would have worked with yet another Doctor is a question that must remain unanswered, but as it stands, the other four Doctors are used rather well, each getting plenty to do. I find that there is something of a paradox surrounding the First Doctor; Richard Hurndall doesn't look, sound or act like William Hartnell. He captures something of the First Doctor's irascibility, but lacks the charm that Hartnell brought to the role, except during the farewell scene at the end, and the pre-credits clip of Hartnell from 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' merely serves to highlight this fact. Hurndall's interpretation is merely grumpy, and his strangely sinister performance when he ponders the fate of his Fourth incarnation in the TARDIS is decidedly odd. But despite this, every time I watch 'The Five Doctors' I find that by the end of the story I have come to accept Hurndall's performance and I can't honestly explain why. Perhaps it is because the script makes good use of the First Doctor; it is appropriate that the Doctor least able to really on physically activity (for example running down tunnels or gliding across massive drops on a wire) gets to deal with the problem of the chess board and realises just what "To lose is to win and he who wins shall lose" means. Furthermore, the decision to team up the often-crotchety First Doctor with the often-obstreperous Tegan works rather well too, since he's far less inclined to humour her than the Fifth Doctor is; their acerbic relationship is very entertaining.

As the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton puts in a much better performance than in 'The Three Doctors', but the character is still portrayed as something of a caricature. His initial scene, in which he visits a post-UNIT era Brigadier, is simply dire; having decided that the Second Doctor was a bit anarchic, Dicks makes him both rude and obnoxious. Furthermore, the awful "Doctor" "Who?" joke is painful; it doesn't work, since Crichton was discussing the Doctor with the Brigadier moments before, and is the kind of self-indulgent twaddle that has rendered most of Dicks' Doctor Who novels unreadable. Once the Second Doctor and the Brigadier find themselves on Gallifrey however, things improve considerably; whilst Troughton never quite recaptures his performance of old, he does at least combine some of the fierce intelligence and whimsical nature that made him so successful in the role. Sadly, once reunited with his other incarnations, the Second Doctor reverts to the same caricature that was seen during his first appearance in the story, and which harkens back to the 'The Three Doctors'; nevertheless, for a little while as he and the Brigadier dodge Cybermen and run from the Yeti, Troughton's old magic returns. Teaming him up with the Brigadier works especially well, as the banter between the pair remains entertaining throughout. Indeed, Courtney is once more superb, returning to his role with tremendous ease, and drawing on the quiet dignity that he demonstrated in 'Mawdryn Undead'. Mention of the Second Doctor and the Brigadier brings me to two of the phantom companions in the shape of Jamie and Zoe; it's a nice way of allowing two more old companions to feature in the anniversary story without further overcrowding, and it is nice to see them both put in an appearance even if Wendy Padbury is inexplicably dressed in bubble wrap. Famously, it also buggers up continuity, but since I like the "Season Six B" theory anyway I can't pretend to really care.

As the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee is much better, possibly reflecting Dicks' association with that incarnation as script-editor of his era. Whilst this Doctor could often be bad tempered and pompous, he could also be gallant and charming, and Dicks captures that in the script. Pertwee falls back into his role with ease, and remains true to his past performance; his lack of tolerance for the Master, who is trying to get him to trust him, and his willingness to abandon him to the thunderbolts raining down on the Death Zone is an excellent evocation of the relationship between the Third Doctor and the Master. The Doctor's tendency to reject the Master with utter contempt and the Master's fury at this rejection (for example in 'Colony in Space') is recaptured very well here. In addition, the Third Doctor gets to show off his more action-oriented tendencies, by approaching the Dark Tower from above and rather perilously crossing a wire to get to it, which seems very appropriate to this incarnation. Teaming up the Third Doctor with Sarah works very well too, since their on screen relationship during Pertwee's era is often overlooked in favour of his time with Jo. Liz Sladen can play Sarah in her sleep now, and she returns to the role as easily as she did in 'K9 and Company - A Girl's Best Friend'. Given my fondness for the character, I'm pleased that she was able to appear in the anniversary story, even if she does end up dressed in a truly hideous outfit. She also gets an awful moment in which she falls down a very gentle slope, and promptly acts as though she's hanging off a cliff. Terrance Dicks' novelisation sensibly changes this to a fall down a steep crevasse, thus making sense of Pertwee's towrope antics, but sadly it remains embarrassing on screen. The Third Doctor also meets two phantom companions, in this case Liz Shaw and Captain Yates. Making a special effort for the anniversary, Richard Franklin manages to deliver his finest performance ever in the role of Yates, mainly because he only has a handful of lines.

Comfortable in the midst of his own time in the role, Peter Davison is his usual good self throughout 'The Five Doctors', and given that it is "his" era, I find it quite fitting that he gets to be the Doctor who travels to the Capitol and uncovers Borusa's plan. Davison's performance when the Doctor confronts his old friend in the game control room is superb, combining sadness with anger at Borusa's crimes. He also gets a great moment with Hurndall in the TARDIS, as both the First and Fifth Doctors snap irritably at Tegan and Turlough. The opening scenes on the Eye of Orion are also worthy of mention; this is the only time we get to see this TARDIS crew relax, and after the Black Guardian trilogy and being locked up in 'The King's Demons' it is rather nice to see Turlough in particular looking happy. Turlough spends most of the rest of the story stuck in the TARDIS with Susan, but given the number of story elements to be juggled here this seems fair enough to me. It is perhaps more of a shame that Susan is so sidelined; having got Carole Ann Ford to return to the role after so long, it is unfortunate that Susan does so little, and having her sprain her ankle to provide a reason for keeping her stuck in the TARDIS smells to me of the work of a hack. Still, 'The Five Doctors' is a work of some desperation, so once more I'm prepared to forgive Dicks!

So what of the villains then? Well the Master is used far better than in 'The King's Demons'; Anthony Ainley hams it up during his first scene as the Master sits and smiles like a Cheshire cat, accepting Borusa's unflattering description of him as a complement. I also take issue with the Castellan's willingness to make use of a man who previously tried to destroy Gallifrey by nicking the Eye of Harmony, simply to rescue the Doctor. I'll generously assume that they don't know about 'Logopolis', but since we are discussing a gratuitous ninety-minute continuity fest, I'd like to point out that Morbius probably got executed for far less… I also find the Third Doctor's description of the Master as his "best enemy" immensely irritating, serving as a reminder of just how much of a pantomime villain he's become. Nevertheless, although Ainley hams up the role at times, he also plays it with restraint at times, and when he does it works very well. As I noted above, the Master's genuine anger at the Third Doctor not trusting him is interesting, speaking volumes about his real opinion of the Doctor, as does his comment that "a cosmos without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about". I also like the fact that the Brigadier gets to defeat his old enemy with a sharp punch to the jaw at the end, whilst shouting "Nice to see you again!".

The presence of a Dalek in 'The Five Doctors' is purely gratuitous, but this is the anniversary and given that the Daleks were crucial to the early success of the programme, it is genuinely understandably rather than just another element thrown in from the past at random. Besides if I'm honest, that image of a Dalek chasing the Doctor and Susan through gleaming corridors stuck with me when I first saw 'The Five Doctors' at the age of six, and I've had a soft spot for it ever since. In addition, the Dalek's destruction is quite impressive, showing as it does a writhing Dalek mutant oozing various fluids as it expires. The cameo by K9 Mark III is equally gratuitous, but probably appealed to the younger members of the audience and anyone who hadn't had to sit through 'K9 and Company - A Girl's Best Friend'. The Yeti too is a gratuitous link to the past, but is well used even if it does raise questions about how it is possible to Time Scoop part of the Great Intelligence, and it provides a suitable obstacle for the Second Doctor and the Brigadier. On the subject of obstacles for the Doctors, the sole new "monster" to appear in 'The Five Doctors' looks quite effective. The well-endowed Raston Warrior Robot looks surprisingly alien considering that it is obviously a man in a spandex suit, this success being largely down to its weird means of moving about. Unfortunately, mention of the Raston Warrior Robot brings me to my main criticism of 'The Five Doctors' and one that seriously compromises my enjoyment of it.

Having revamped the Cybermen for 'Earthshock' and made them memorably scary once more, John Nathan-Turner here allows them to start their final down turn during the series' history, beginning the slow degeneration that will plague their remaining on screen appearances. The Cybermen here are little more than cannon fodder, slaughtered on mass first by the Raston Warrior Robot and then by the Master's treachery with the chessboard trap. They blunder about in the Death Zone achieving little and making a mockery of the Doctor's claim that they, like the Daleks, play the Game of Rassilon too well. As in 'Earthshock', David Banks' slightly too emotional but strangely charismatic performance as the Cyber Leader is rather captivating, but the scheming and formidable tactician of 'Earthshock' is absent here. The Cybermen look great, and they make for a distinctive sight as they march about the countryside of the Death Zone, but they have become a joke, from the Cyberman's exclamation of "Ooh!" on spotting the Doctor, to a ghastly scene sadly reinstated for the Special Edition in which the Cyber Lieutenant tells his squad "Your orders are to move back!" prompting them to shuffle around in a homage to Dad's Army.

Gallifrey at least benefits a little from the story; the new Rassilon mythology provides interesting new layers to Time Lord history, hinting at a dark and barbaric past that is worthy of Robert Holmes' work on 'The Deadly Assassin'. Furthermore, Gallifrey looks better than in 'Arc of Infinity' due to much better set design although the pot plants visible in the extra scenes in the Special Edition unfortunately recapture the office complex feel given to the Capitol in that story. Indeed, the production of the 'The Five Doctors' is very good; the location work is superb, the sets are generally very well designed (although I find it annoying that Borusa's game board just happens to have five sides…), and Peter Howell's incidental score is very good. Peter Moffatt, one of Doctor Who's more pedestrian directors, keeps things ticking along adequately, if unremarkably. The special effects are probably worth mentioning too; the black obelisk of the Time Scoop is highly distinctive and very effective, and far better than the glass ice cream cone used for the Special Edition. On the other hand, the Special Edition does get bonus points from me for replacing the crap green rays that destroy the Cybermen on the chessboard with far more dynamic lightening bolts. This is purely cosmetic however, and although 'The Five Doctors' is flawed, any unsatisfactory effects are merely a limitation of the time and budget.

By the end of 'The Five Doctors' I'm always left with a feeling of having watched something that is, perhaps inevitably, far less than the sum of its parts. The final scenes are horribly twee, simply to allow a crass nod in the direction of the series' origins. The idea that Chancellor Flavia would offer the highest position in Time Lord society to anyone as erratic as the Doctor is absurd; whatever his many attributes may be, he is clearly not suited to the role of President. By writing this feeble development into the end of the story, Dicks' thus allows the Doctor to go on the run from his own people in a stolen TARDIS again. It is perhaps a fitting ending for the anniversary story, but its also clumsy and contrived. And that perhaps is the best way to sum up 'The Five Doctors'; it's a fun romp, it works in a sort of shallow congratulatory way, and Dicks does very well to achieve even that considering the number of elements he was required to factor in. But five Doctors and assorted companions and villains do not a classic make and 'The Five Doctors' is ultimately little more than a self-indulgent oddity.

Craig Byrne

I'm a relative newcomer to the world of Doctor Who, and unlike many people who saw "The Five Doctors" when it first came around, the episodes that came before it were in my recent memory for the most part. I knew what to expect from Doctors 1-4, and I was in the midst of really enjoying the Peter Davison era.

The night I watched the episode with a friend, we had just seen "The King's Demons" and I was impressed as always by Anthony Ainley's Master and that delightfully evil badness of his. The Black Guardian Trilogy was also recent on the mind, and it reminded me of what the Doctor Who writing staff at this time was capable of.

...which is why, when viewed as a high-concept Doctor Who episode, "The Five Doctors" would fail. But, as an anniversary special, it does cram as much into it as possible for your viewing pleasure.

And yes, there are high moments, as "The Five Doctors" really is a story all about moments. Do we really care about our bad guy's scheme? (Name withheld to protect the unspoiled) Do we know that Sarah fell in a small ditch, not a steep canyon? Don't you think those Cybermen are a little slow? Of course we know all of those things, but that's not what makes "The Five Doctors" fun.

The fun stuff is Patrick Troughton, repeating his line of "I don't like it" when he sees changes made to another former stomping ground of his. It's great to see the Second Doctor again, as it is to see the Brigadier, but even more, I would have loved to have seen Jamie tagging along. The fun stuff includes The Master's big grin as the Time Lords come to him for help. It's fun to see Tegan teaming up with the faux First Doctor, or seeing the Three Doctors team up for their Care Bear Stare or whatever it is that finally breaks Fifth Doctor out of his spell. High concept? No. Fun? Definitely.

It was sad that William Hartnell didn't live long enough to participate. Richard Hurndall kind of looked the part, but I thought he was lacking some of the best mannerisms of the Hartnell Doctor. I was a bit disappointed with that, but at least we had a First Doctor in it!

Tom Baker's absence was sorely felt, and one can only imagine how much better the episode would be if he had been there. To many he is The Doctor, and his being there might have afforded Peter Davison more time to interact with the others.

There also were the remaining questions: If the bad guy wanted the Doctor to get to the tomb of Rassilon, then why did he put the Doctors through so much trouble to get there? Why were the Cybermen, a Dalek, etc. scooped up, and more importantly, what was the purpose in bringing Sarah and Susan there? (The Brig I understand, as he was with Second Doctor at the time) And on that note, why doesn't anyone ask Susan what she's been up to? She's obviously not a teenager anymore, yet no one seems that surprised to see her. Then there were the ghosts that, while it was great to see the cameo appearances, I'd like to think there may have been a better way to incorporate them into the story.

The other thing that didn't go over too well with me for "The Five Doctors," and then I'll get off my soapbox, is that two of my favorite characters of the series didn't seem to be served very well. I'm referring of course to the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith. "Great balls of fire?!?" Right. But more than that, the Third Doctor didn't get much good stuff to do, besides saying "I'll explain later" a lot, and, of course, repeating his "reverse the polarity" line which would have been funny if Peter Davison hadn't said it himself two or three episodes earlier.

And then there's Sarah. Sarah Jane Smith in the Tom Baker episodes seemed to be having a lot of fun. This Sarah, in "The Five Doctors," was written more like a Jo Grant. Again, a great actress (Lis Sladen) not used to her full potential.

Still.... if viewed in the way it was intended (as an anniversary story meant just to be fun), "The Five Doctors" is great. But when you consider the potential of a story where you have several Doctors, you'd think that you could do a story with a concept as great as some of the episodes surrounding it in the Davison era.