Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, people owned far less media, whether it be games, TV shows or movies and had far less choice in terms of what they could watch and how they could watch it. I wrote a pretty extensive article on this back in 2011 and you can read it here.
How this ties in with this review is that there’s probably nothing I’ve seen more times than The Five Doctors.
With less videos at my disposal and fewer options in terms of media in general, I would revisit this Doctor Who story time and time again as a child.
And why wouldn’t I? It’s brilliant.
Indeed, beyond the fact that I’ve seen it more than anything else, it’s probably the single item I have owned the most too. What do I mean by that? Well I had the original VHS, the 1990 re-release (in part because the original one ended up with a twist in the tape at the point where they open up the box containing the Black Scrolls of Rassilon, but I’d probably have bought it again anyway), the 1995 VHS special edition that came with The King’s Demons, the 1999 DVD release and finally the 25th Anniversary DVD edition from 2008. And the chances are I’d probably buy it again if it was released on Blu Ray.
I just find that it’s a wonderful piece of television that celebrates my favourite show in a way that does it absolute justice.
As such, you can probably guess that this will be a rare complimentary review for this era of the show.
Doctor Who – The Five Doctors Review: What’s This One About?
It’s the 20th Anniversary story and all the Doctors are back. Well, almost.
It’s got one Dalek, loads of Cybermen, a Yeti, The Master, Gallifrey and a host of old companions.
A nostalgic dream.
But what’s the story about? Well it almost doesn’t matter, but The Doctor and his former selves have been brought to the Death Zone in Gallifrey by a newly villainous Borusa, who wants them to make their way to the Tomb of Rassilon so he can
join them there and accept Rassilon’s gift of Immortality.
Thoughts – The Story
I almost don’t know where to start.
The Five Doctors is – as I say – all about nostalgia and celebration. The idea was to find a way to bring together all the Doctors and as many companions as possible and they achieve it.
With so many pieces on the board – literally in this case – you’re never going to get the most amazing plot so when it comes to a roller-coaster plot, the Five Doctors is thin on the ground. I mean, all it is for the most part is each of the Doctors making their way to the Dark Tower and then coming together to defeat Borusa.
In that sense, there’s not much to it, and yet because there’s so much going on in terms of the characters and because it retains that level of simplicity it works so well.
You couldn’t imagine the plot working without all the other Doctors because it simply isn’t designed to, and credit must go to Terrance Dicks for that.
He says he was given the job at fairly short notice (and has a great anecdote on the DVD about how Eric Saward phoned him up at a ridiculous time in the morning while in America to ask him to take the job) and is quite self depreciating about the whole thing.
But he shouldn’t be, because it’s one of the most watchable and fun Doctor Who stories ever written. Yes, there are loads of issues you could question, and I’ll get to them in due course, but I would still say it’s a huge success. And it makes you wonder why – in the face of seeing so many crap stories broadcast over the last three years – JNT and Saward didn’t just go back to a reliable writer like him and ask for more.
It just seems bizarre that they could trust him with such an important story, but not want him to write the regular ones.
More than any other Doctor Who story I can think of, this is about the characters, the way they are written and the performances of the actors in question.
Here’s my take on how the major players did.
The Fifth Doctor: I enjoy the writing of the Fifth Doctor in the Five Doctors. In comparison to the others, he’s the calmest and possibly the friendliest. Many Davison stories have him acting with a sort of innocence with a child like frantic
nature, but I find that by this point, he’s grown into the part to be more assured and comfortable. In the face of so many of his predecessors being involved, Peter Davison’s Doctor is written, performed and comes across as the lead. And that’s how it should be. Whether it was written for him or not, the best part of Davison’s performance for me is that while it’s not really written into the script and while Troughton and Pertwee ignore it completely, he acknowledges the fact that Susan is The Doctor’s granddaughter, not The First Doctor’s granddaughter. There’s just something understatedly brilliant in the look of fondness on Peter Davison’s face when he sees her for the first time in what must be – in the Doctor’s own life span – at least a hundred years.
The Third Doctor: I find the writing of the Third Doctor to be quite interesting because in the main he comes across as an aggressive prick. That’s not a bad thing, because if you watch the outtakes and listen to what people have to say about the filming of the story, that does kind of suit Jon Pertwee. And while that’s what The Third Doctor was like, it does come across slightly more like it’s Jon Pertwee playing Jon Pertwee rather than playing the Doctor. He’s got some brilliant lines in it, most notably his “What kept me?!?! Of all the confounded arrogance” retort to the First Doctor on arrival in the Tomb. I also think his introductory scene where he gets picked up by the Time Scoop is epic. It’s straight to the point; he’s driving along, sees the Black Triangle coming after him and he goes straight into “Action Doctor” mode. Other highlights include his bullying of The Master, the way he was the one written to go in through the roof, the way he had to get a kick in when the Brigadier knocked the Master out and – and this is a level of attention to detail that I love – the way he was paired against the Cybermen, since it never happened when he was the lead.
The Second Doctor: Much like in The Three Doctors, Patrick Troughton plays the part of “The Second Doctor” rather than playing the part the way he did when he was the lead. To a man and woman, everyone watches the Five Doctors and thinks Patrick Troughton steals the show, and to an extent, they are right. His performance was one of the most praised in the newspapers after it was first broadcast too. As I’ve said, I’ve watched The Five Doctors so many times – especially as a child – and before I’d seen even two of his stories, I’d made the decision that he was my favourite. There’s just so much to his performance, from his facial expressions, his boyish nature, his interaction with the Brigadier and pretty much everyone else, the way he pushes his other selves away so he can look at the stone symbols and the way he doesn’t see trouble where everyone else does. It’s just superb.
The First Doctor: I think the most underrated performance of the lot though is Richard Hurndall as the First Doctor. Here’s a guy who has never been in Doctor Who before and he’s charged with doing justice to the show’s original lead. To some degree, Hurndall doesn’t look like or play the role like William Hartnell at all, but he manages to make it both authentic to the past and put his own stamp on it as if he himself had always been a major part of Doctor Who. A stranger to the programme, he holds his own better than I think anyone could have dared to hope. As to the character, I think it’s written pretty damn well. When you think about it, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense that the youngest version of the Doctor is the wisest of them all, and yet it also does. The same thing happened in the Three Doctors, but because of Hartnell’s limitations it wasn’t really explored that much. Here, despite Peter Davison being the lead, it’s the First Doctor who saves the day. He’s the wisest and the most respected of the lot. In terms of great lines, Hurndall’s best are against Janet Fielding. His “Kindly refrain from addressing me as Doc” and his delivery and expression when he says “Oh, if you must. Thank you my dear” are both superb.
The Fourth Doctor: He doesn’t appear much, but could it be that that was for the best? The Five Doctors is so loaded with characters that there’s not a moment’s rest as it is. Would adding another Doctor into the mix have spoiled it? Possibly. And with the word on the street being that had he been in it, he’d have been written as the lead, I suspect what we got did more justice to the show as it was at the time. What saves it is that there were scenes from Shada available to be used, so his lack of involvement is – to some degree – hidden.
William Hartnell: The “One Day, I Shall Come Back” scene is a perfect fit and a suitable tribute to start the show off with. Well done to whoever chose that.
The Master: I imagine it won’t come as a surprise considering Terrance Dicks was the script editor during the Pertwee years, but this is by far and away, and let me stress that again, by far and away the best the Master has been written and therefore performed since Roger Delgado’s final appearance in the Frontier in Space. What other writers just didn’t get was that The Master isn’t supposed to be a one dimensional boo-hiss villain, but rather a sort yang to the Doctor’s ying. He’s the bad guy, but to sustain a level of likeability and endurance as a character, he has to have a sympathetic side to him. Here, the Master really is trying to help the Doctors and yet none of them believe him. The Third Doctor steals his the Seal from him and the Fifth Doctor leaves him to the mercy of the Cybermen, so you do end up feeling sorry for him, and empathise with him when he ends up ranting at them all saying that he was actually trying to help but that they can swivel. It’s
Anthony Ainley’s best performance, and it’s one that you really believe that Roger Delgado would thrive in.
The Companions: Nothing much to say about the companions here other than that they all do a good job. Really, they are just there to give each of their associated Doctors someone to speak to, and the fact that they end up frozen at the end is just a convenient way to ensure they don’t play a part in what was really a scene just for the Doctors. I think it’s fair to say that the brief cameos of Mike, Liz, Jamie and Zoe are filler, and in the case of the latter two, only serve to raise a few questions about how it all makes sense. Also, it’s a little unfortunate, but in amongst everyone having so many lines, Turlough is left out a bit.
The Monsters: Well the Dalek was in because it couldn’t be a 20th Anniversary without one, The Cybermen serve little purpose other than to be killed off and the Yeti wasn’t used nearly well enough, what with the poor lighting and odd direction. These are all classic Doctor Who monsters and yet they all get completely overshadowed by a character that everyone loves in the same way as the love Boba Fett from Star Wars- because he’s a badass. Obviously I’m talking about the Raston Warrior Robot. It looks great, it’s a tremendous idea, the way it moves is fresh and original and it’s just as hard as nails. The way it destroys that group of Cybermen is awesome by Doctor Who standards. They didn’t know what hit them, and one of them even threw up! Bring back the Raston Warrior Robot!
The Things That Don’t Make Sense
Ok, there are plenty of little niggles with the Five Doctors. Ultimately we can forgive them, but it’s worth asking the following questions…
- At what point is the Second Doctor supposed to be from if he remembers what happened to Jamie & Zoe at the end of the War Games? Season 6B Conspiracy Theorists, this is your meat and drink!
- At what point is the Brigadier supposed to be from considering he looks older than the younger version of Mawdryn Undead and younger than the older version? He knows Tegan, but that doesn’t necessarily answer the question either.
- What has Pi got to do with crossing that electrified floor, and if it’s so hazardous to get across, how come the Master knows at least three ways to get over and the First Doctor’s strategy was just to walk straight across?
- How did the Cybermen not see the First Doctor and Tegan before they hid?
- Why didn’t the Fifth Doctor say to the Master “Christ, I only saw you yesterday” when their paths crossed?
- Why does Borusa feel the need to change into black clothing when wants to act villainous?
- Why didn’t the Castellan regenerate?
- How come Borusa has regenerated again?! And how come he never regenerates into a young man? This time he’s turned into Jim Robinson.
- How can a Yeti operate in the Death Zone without the Great Intelligence there to transmit a signal to the control sphere?!
- Where’s Kamelion? You don’t need to answer that by the way.
- What happens to Bessie? Does it get left in the Death Zone?
- Who decided to build a road in the Death Zone in the first place?
- Did Borusa make those lovely figurines himself?
- How come Susan refers to all the other Doctors apart from the First as “The Doctor”?
- Why did they not film a scene where Susan gets taken out of time?
- Why was there a Cyberman lying on the ground on the other side of the wall from the Brigadier. That’s the only way it could have grabbed his hand.
- And why didn’t it follow them when they got away from it?
- Finally, how on Earth did the Third Doctor & Sarah manage to zipline over to the tower when the rope was limp and hanging down in the middle. By the laws of physics they’d surely have both stopped half way across?
These are all minor things though, and can easily be forgiven.
Differences Between The Original and Special Edition
Overall, there’s an extra ten minutes of footage added to the Special Edition of the Five Doctors, mostly in the form of added atmosphere shots like the corridor ones to begin, while there are a few other ones like Turlough setting up at the Eye of
Orion and the Castellan sorting out the transmat beam.
On the whole these do add something to it, and it makes it more polished, but there are a few things I wish they’d left as they were.
For example, even though it looks more primitive, I preferred the black triangle as the time scoop rather than the translucent whirly thing from the Special Edition. Similarly, I preferred the way the other TARDISes depart at the end rather than have the time scoop whirly thing take them away. I know the new way makes a little bit more sense, but I think it’s less effective.
The main thing I wish they’d left untouched though was the voice of Rassilon. They’ve made him sound deeper and more booming in the Special Edition, but I thought it worked a lot better when his voice was presented as spoken. He sounded more genuine and his acting came across better that way. But you know the Restoration Team, they know best; or at least that’s how they like to present it.
- The story was written with the intention of keeping the Doctors apart until the end, for fear of a clash of egos (mainly from Pertwee it would seem). As it turned out when they filmed the scene in the tomb together they all got on well and it’s a pity there wasn’t more interaction between them all.
- Everyone mocks the infamous “No, not the Mind Probe” line, but I actually think Paul Jerricho’s delivery is not bad. I mean, how are you supposed to say it? Have a look on the brilliant documentary on the 25th Anniversary DVD and you’ll see an outtake where he says it with more terror. If that had made the cut it would be the most ludicrously delivered line in Doctor Who history.
- If the Second Doctor and the Brigadier hadn’t been taken by the Time Scoop, you’d have to question why he’d bothered stopping in to visit. He appeared to go for a meeting that involved chatting for less than one minute. I’d have been pissed off if I was the Brig.
- When I was young I mistakenly thought that the fried husk of a skeleton in the cape that the Master finds and refers to as one of his predecessors was one of his earlier regenerations. It’s not of course, but if you miss the line about how other members of the High Council had been sent to the Death Zone before him, you’d be forgiven for thinking as much.
- The Incidental Music is far superior here than it has been at any point during the Peter Davison Era. Peter Howell does a terrific job of making it understated and yet of a high standard.
- There are three different DVD commentaries available on the Special Edition DVD set. One with Nicholas Courtney, Mark Strickson, Carol Ann Ford and Liz Sladen, another with David Tennant, Phil Collinson and Helen Raynor and a third from the original DVD with Terrance Dicks and Peter Davison. I can’t say I’ve listened to them all, but I have heard snippets of each and I have to say the first two I bring up annoy me – especially the one with Tennant & Co. To me, a DVD commentary should aim to focus on what’s happening on screen and provide some kind of insight into it. It might be difficult for three people who weren’t involved in the making of it at all to do that, but at the very least you’d like them to discuss what’s happening and say stuff like “Oh, I love this bit coming up” rather than completely ignore the show and bore us with tales of what they had for lunch the day they first watched it.
- Not one of the DVD commentaries pick up on the great “Fancy pants”, “Scarecrow” exchange between Pertwee and Troughton, which is one of the best parts of the whole show. If you’re only going to watch one commentary, make sure it’s the one with Dicks & Davison.
- One thing to note from the Collinson commentary though is that he talks about how he’d love to make the 50th Anniversary in the same way as this. Let’s hope Steven Moffat agrees.
- Compared to his other performances, I felt David Banks was very pedestrian as the Cyber Leader.
- You’ll notice the one scene filmed when mist had fallen upon that area of Wales.
- In terms of the story, having Borusa be the real villain of the piece is a nice twist. After all, as recently as The Arc of Infinity he was known to be a proper good guy and for long term viewers of the show was accepted as the Doctor’s mentor.
- I adore the special version of the end credits theme played for this one. It really adds to the occasion.
- The last line from Peter Davison; “Why not. After all, that’s how it all started” is a very nice line to finish on. Well done Terrance Dicks.
- DWM Mighty 200 Ranking: #38. Scandalously low.
Doctor Who – The Five Doctors Review: Final Thoughts
So I’m writing this in April 2013 at a time when the only past characters confirmed for the 50th Anniversary are David Tennant and Billie Piper.
I’m hoping that will change because something as momentous as the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who needs more returning characters than that.
The Five Doctors is the case for the defence.
This is a superb piece of nostalgia driven TV. It was done at a time when people didn’t have access to old Doctor Whos and therefore at a time when most will have forgotten about or were possibly too young to have watched or remembered the
old Doctors on display.
And that didn’t matter one bit.
Any argument that the likes of Davison, McCoy and the two Bakers are too old or out of touch with fans of ‘New Who’ is irrelevant in my opinion. If anything, it would be good for business to grant more exposure to the show’s past.
And the performance of Richard Hurndall shows that it is possible to recast old Doctors effectively.
To sum up my review of the Five Doctors though, I think it’s clear to you – the reader – that I love it.
I accept the flaws with the story and I accept that by design the plot isn’t the most thrilling, but I don’t think it matters.
It was a love letter to the show which had served the BBC so well for 20 years. It’s a wonderful and fitting tribute to a TV show and it involves all the old guard bringing their ‘A’ game.
Personally one of my favourite pieces of television of all time, let alone Doctor Who and will be highly rated when I come to down my own “Mighty 241″ or whatever it’ll be by that point.