Doctor Who

The Five Doctors (25th Anniversary Edition)

by Evan Sawdey

1 December 2008

This stands more as a giddy popcorn thriller than an entertaining philosophical meditation on existence -- which, as it turns out, proves to be rather fitting.

When you finish watching Doctor Who: The Five Doctors, you are likely to think the following: “shouldn’t it be called The Four Doctors?”

Celebrating its two decades in existence, The Five Doctors serves as the show’s congratulations to itself, and as such, producers figured that the best way to achieve that goal was to bring its past and its present together for one gigantic adventure that touched on every important cultural touchstone that Who had created.  Yet, as the wonderful 52-minute “Celebration” documentary on this DVD release shows, two very crucial problems faced the show’s creative staff: the actor who played the First Doctor (William Hartnell) was dead, and the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) refused to be in it. 

cover art

Doctor Who: The Five Doctors (25th Anniversary Edition)

US DVD: 5 Aug 2008

For the Hartnell problem, the producers eventually cast Richard Hurndall in the role of the First Doctor, and—as many of the cast members note—what Hurdnall does is nothing short of incredible: he doesn’t imitate Hartnell’s performance, he actually embodies the role of the First Doctor, which, in turn, makes his performance eerily accurate, and casual fans would be hard-pressed to find much of a difference between the two actors in full get-up (Hartnell does appear, however, in an archival clip that appears in the first minute, serving as a surprisingly-touching tribute to the late actor). 

Baker, however, had just come off of his long tenure as the Doctor, and was understandably exhausted with the prospect of entering the TARDIS one more time.  Though he initially expressed hesitant interest in reprising his role to the show’s creative team, the gradual back and forth of letters between Baker and the show eventually lead to stalemate and Baker flat-out refusing to come back.  Writer Terrance Dicks, already several drafts into the Five Doctors script, then just asked the show’s archivists for a place to kidnap the Fourth Doctor, a place to drop him off, and, really, that’s it. 

The producers were in fact able to provide those non-transmitted clips, and even though it’s called The Five Doctors, Baker is on screen for roughly two minutes (ten seconds of which shows him as a wavy freeze-frame).  Even if the show was only able to nab four of the five then-current Doctors (with Peter Davison—the Fifth Doctor—being relegated as the “current” one), The Five Doctors stands more as a giddy popcorn thriller than an entertaining philosophical meditation on existence—which, as it turns out, proves to be rather fitting.

For this 90-minute epic, the plot is surprisingly simple: a mysterious figure is kidnapping the Doctor from his various regenerations and placing these incarnations on the Death Zone on Gallifrey (the Doctor’s home planet).  Even more mysterious is how old companions like Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), Susan Foreman (Carol Ann Ford), and the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) are plucked out of space and time as well, making for quite an unusual (and jam-packed) adventure.  Seeing what’s going on, the Time Lord High Council—spearheaded by Lord President Borusa (Philip Latham)—realizes that in dealing with a force powerful enough to kidnap all the incarnations of the Doctor, the only person that the Council can trust is, in fact, the Doctor’s greatest enemy: the Master (Anthony Ainley, relishing every scene).

Trapped on the Death Zone, each Doctor must deal with devious creatures from previous Who seasons (genuinely making this feel like a Doctor Who Greatest Hits mix-tape).  The First Doctor and Susan tackle a renegade Dalek, the Second (Patrick Troughton) and the Brigadier have to outmaneuver a Yeti, the Third (Jon Pertwee) and Sarah Jane deal with a Raston Warrior Robot, and the Fifth and Tegan (Janet Fielding) must take on a herd of Cybermen.  It’s surprisingly fun viewing, but all the Doctors are actually working towards the same goal: reaching the Tomb of Rassilon, which—incidentally—is located in the Death Zone.

Yet the closer that the Doctors get, the deeper the mystery draws.  Inside Rassilon’s tomb, there exists some great treasure that has been rumored for generations, but translating the complex inscriptions within the Tomb would require at least one Doctor—if not more.  The show’s final scenes—including the reveal of who is masterminding the entire operation—are quite surprising, resulting in a climax that, though riddled with cliché, still manages to be wholly satisfying. 

The only disappointing aspect of The Five Doctors is just how hesitant it is to tackle deeper issues.  Though the notion of what it means to be immortal (or, at least, virtually immortal) comes up, it is only given a passing glance in the show’s climactic moments.  Same goes for the scene in which the Master—facing death from a fleet of Cybermen—negotiates with them, offering up the entire Time Lord race for destruction in hopes that he will be spared. 

Though not explicitly mentioned, what the Master is proposing is nothing short of genocide against his own kind—a move that isn’t indicative of a warped world view as much as it is a display of just how manipulative the Master is, promising the world to a stranger only to wind up using them in the end.  It’s just a shame, then, that the Master is painfully underutilized in the show’s closing moments.

This two-disc Anniversary edition of The Five Doctors is jam-packed with bonus features: some good, some rather insufferable.  First off, there are two versions of the special: the original 1983 broadcast version and the 1995 “special edition”.  Truth be told, there’s very little difference between these versions, the most notable change being that in the original, the mysterious thing that kidnaps the Doctor’s incarnations is a horribly-animated spinning black triangle; in the updated one, it’s a spinning sheet (which, as writer Dicks notes in the commentary track, resembles Casper the Friendly Ghost just a bit too much). 

The outtakes are worth missing (well, save for the moment when the Dalek voice operator cries out “Bugger! I lost them!”), as is the mostly-pointless “(Not So) Special Effects” featurette.  “The Ties That Bind Us”, meanwhile, is a very through documentary that shows just how many references Dicks packed into his Five Doctors script, linking these parallels with clips from the show’s past and future (including all the way up the third Series of Russell T. Davies’ Who reboot).  Coupled with the aforementioned “Celebration” doc, the extras on this set are quite meaty and entertaining.

In the end, The Five Doctors may not go down as the greatest, deepest, or most meaningful outing for the Doctor, but it is far and away one of the most entertaining jaunts that the show has ever had.  For fans, there’s much to eat up, but even for casual viewers, it still remains a wonderful piece of television history, tying together 20 years of low-budget, high-quality science fiction programming in a concise 90 minutes.  Even without Baker, it’s almost impossible to watch without a grin on your face.

Doctor Who: The Five Doctors (25th Anniversary Edition)


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