Doctor Who: The Five Doctors - Review

The 23rd of November is a special day for many fans of Doctor Who. It is the day it was first broadcast in 1963 and in 2013 - we celebrated the 50th year of the television show. But up until then, there hadn't been a really big celebration apart from The Five Doctors. We had The Three Doctors and The Two Doctors, but those were out and out celebrations as much as they were different incarnations of the Doctor meeting and joining forces to fight an almost unstoppable enemy. The Day of the Doctor had a huge build up, lots of little mini episodes, documentaries and repeats to get us excited.

But The Five Doctors was never that ambitious, it is simplistic, even a little childish, not to make it sound harsh, in terms of its structure. There isn't really a plot so much a series of puzzles for the Doctors and various companions to solve. It is the sort of thing a teenage fan of Dungeons and Dragons might have come up with. And that isn't a criticism - more as a description. Terrence Dicks is brilliant at writing stories aimed at children and that is who the intended viewers were at the time and he its the bullseye. But in doing so, he let down the other viewers of the show, something that just wouldn't have done had Stephen Moffat done the same thing.

Really though, one has to understand the circumstances he wrote the story under. It would have been very difficult if not impossible, to do anything else, so really, it is hard to fault him for choosing the target he knew he could hit. Alright, the story is kind of a big mess, the relationships between the characters are perfunctory and the number of continuity problems was a beautiful creature in itself. The Five Doctors can't and shouldn't be, taken seriously. But it is fun and entertaining.

The plot is about a mysterious and unseen villain, dressed like an evil wizard, begins to systematically kidnap each incarnation of the Doctor, along with a handful of his companions and places them in the Death Zone - a wasteland-like area on Gallifrey. Each character is taken out of their own time period - all except for the Fourth Doctor and Romana, who are only seen in clips from Shada because Tom Baker didn't want to return. With each kidnapping, the then current Doctor, the Fifth, gets weaker and weaker, who does get an idea about what is going on and heads to the Death Zone. All the characters converge on the Dark Tower, which houses the Tomb of Rassilon, a legendary Time Lord president, who came back in the David Tennant story, The End of Time and the Peter Capaldi story, Hell Bent. All travelling separately, the Doctors begin to encounter various traps and old enemies including, Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti and the Master. The Fifth Doctor heads to Gallifrey's capitol, where he encounters Borusa, the man behind it all, who was once the Doctor's teacher. Borusa seeks immortality and has figured out that Rassilon is not only still alive, but is handing out immortality to anyone who wants it. His elaborate scheme of getting all the Doctors into the same place was just so they could disable the traps for him, like clearing a minefield. Borusa eventually wakes Rassilon and soon discovers that immortality was a trap in itself, laid out by Rassilon to weed out greedy Time Lords who would become tyrants. Borusa does get to live forever, turned into stone and placed under Rassilon's tomb alongside those who have gone before him. The Doctors and his companions get to go home which the Fifth Doctor is offered his reward, taking the role of President. Of course, he legs it, running to the TARDIS and away from his own people, just like he had done in the beginning.

Terrance Dicks wasn't only just a script writer for the series but also served as script editor for several years, serving first with the end of the Second Doctor era and all the way through Jon Pertwee's time on the show. He knew the mythology of the show better than anyone else but he was actually the second choice to write this serial. Robert Holmes, equally just as good of a writer as Dicks, had been approached first and he submitted a story called The Six Doctors. This story would have featured a robotic First Doctor, playing on the fact that anyone as the First Doctor would have to have been an imposter given that William Hartnell had died eight years prior. But the nature of a project like this was a difficult one and at one point, it was possible that the Second, Third and Fourth Doctors would be able to appear at all. Naturally, this was frustrating for Holmes who didn't know who his characters were going to be. Eventually he gave up but returned for Peter Davison's final adventure, The Caves of Androzani, a story that the production office had given him as an apology for their treatment of him during The Five Doctors.

But where Holmes came up with the better idea, Dicks would have been the better writer for it. The challenges involved here play better to his strengths rather than Holmes'. Holmes' best work, like David Whittaker's before him, challenged and critiqued Doctor Who at the same time as telling a good story. Dick's best work was about coming up with a ripping good yarn, nothing more, nothing less. But if you needed someone who could make the best out the chaos of The Five Doctors, this was the required guy.

However, the beauty of his style of writing meant that Dicks could reshuffle the characters, even late in the game as actors dropped in and out of the production. This is because it doesn't matter who is a piece of the chess board but as long as someone is a piece of it. But the weakness of it means that it can't explore any of the themes or deeper insights beyond the chessboard puzzle for the exact same reason, it doesn't matter who solves the chessboard puzzles.

And the short clip of William Hartnell at the beginning, taken from the final moments of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, works as an indicator of what is to come. And it works well. It is nice to hear this nostalgic quote and also gives William Hartnell a chance to appear. "Some day, I shall come back," Hartnell says. And there he is!

But if you are one those fans who will try and connect this quote to the larger context of this episode, you'll get a headache. This is because this quote comes from his speech to Susan when she leaves at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It isn't as nice as it sounds however, he had locked her out of the TARDIS and abandoning her on a post-apocalyptic planet Earth because she met a guy she liked. For me, this would warrant lots of shouting and throwing things if I ever met the guy again! But given that Susan returns here for the first time in god-knows-how-long, then one might expect fireworks. Even if she has really forgiven him you would expect her to ask him how he's been or say she's missed him. But we don't get either, the pair meet, are delighted to see each other but it doesn't go any further than that. The First Doctor's speech here as no deeper meaning other than it sounds nice. Throughout its runtime, The Five Doctors pairs these different characters up with no explanation of who they are and why they mattered in the first place. Scenes where the companions tell the Doctor how abandoned they felt when they left or he left them should have been included but aren't. The Five Doctors seems happy to be about bringing forth cosy memories in its viewers and seems to be a little scared to challenge that.

Of course, in 2017, this kind of approach comes across an inadequate. We've come to expect a greater focus on character relationships as they change across the series, not exclusively in Doctor Who but other television shows in general. This was just how television worked in 1983. And lets not forget that television's relationship with its own past is different now than it was back then. Video recording had just come onto the scene and the idea of archiving television shows was still a new thing.
(Yes, I am old enough to remember VHS tapes!)
In 1983, when a show went off the air, it was gone, there was no video releases, DVD's or reruns. When people speak of today being the golden age of television, they are referring to the writing and the high standards of production we can enjoy now. But television is also in its golden age now because it is more accessible than ever before. The very idea of streaming entire series' was impossibly futuristic in 1983. And Doctor Who was also going to be at a disadvantage given that many of its early episodes had been destroyed by the BBC.

This just meant that they could get away with putting things on the screen that people did remember and just shout "Hey, here it is!". The brief cameos of the Yeti and the Dalek were even more thrilling because they hadn't been seen for many, many years. In those days, The Five Doctors might have been your only chance to see them. These days, we have the old stories on DVD to enjoy and we can see the Yeti or the Daleks any time we want. But in those days, you just couldn't.

Surely this was something that Stephen Moffat must have known when writing Day of the Doctor because he seems so concerned about how mind bending his series is. And on the whole, he is right but so is Terrance Dicks' approach. The Five Doctors isn't thematically ambitious or as concerned about what it means for Doctor Who to have been twenty. Coming from someone like Dicks, the story is light but a breezy and well constructed piece of entertainment that throws some old friends and foes into its proceedings they used to face so we can see them do it again. It is a story about its small moments, not a grand meaning. And plenty of those meanings deliver exactly what Dicks and the production team wanted them to do. Seeing the First Doctor and Susan being chased by a Dalek down grey and dull corridors evokes memories in those who remember seeing them in The Daleks in 1963. The Second Doctor and The Brigadier facing the Yeti helps us to remember The Web of Fear, The Third Doctor and Sarah Jane facing off against the Raston Robot and gliding down a zipwire to the Dark Tower gives us a chance to see Jon Pertwee back in his element as an elegant action man. Even the Death Zone itself, a place where many beings are brought together to fight one another is taken straight from The War Games. All this stuff manages to capture the fun of the series and shows us the enthusiasm of the original cast, particularly, Pertwee, Troughton, Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen. And not surprisingly, Troughton manages to steal every scene he is in and I really love the way he hides behind Pertwee when Rassilon offers them all immortality.

This review could have been one full of complaints as this story does have an awful lot of flops. The scenes that take place in the Gallifreyian Capitol are dull and boring and as a villain, Borusa is dull and boring. Paul Jerico's delivery of the line, "No! Not the mind probe!" is perhaps the worst acting in terror the world has ever seen and the Cybermen are lined up forever only to then do absolutely nothing. Then we have the Second Doctor remembering things that happened after he regenerated and the Third Doctor seems to somehow know what the Fourth Doctor will look like. The Brigadier never gets to talk to the Third Doctor despite him being more of a companion to him than the Second Doctor. And the Fifth Doctor's companion Kamelion is nowhere to be seen with no explanation given. I could just go on and on.

But to do so would be to miss the point of The Five Doctors because it is a really fun story. It takes pride in everything it is supposed to be celebrating and gives us one really important note. One day the Doctor's will come back. And here they are...