Saturday 12 March 2011

The Five Doctors

What? No, not the comfy chair!

This is the first Doctor Who story I ever watched (barring about five minutes of The Curse of Fenric that terrified me). The BBC video was released not long after I had taken an interest in the show and my mother bought it for me. Not having become a fan while the show was still on television I can say that there is no one Doctor that I saw first (hence I feel that the New Adventures Seventh Doctor is "My Doctor"). It is interesting how many other fans watched this story before any others. For those who saw the original broadcast, this is a testimony to the publicity this story generated at the time.

Creating a story to include five Doctors plus six companions, the Master and a bunch of old monsters was a rather ludicrous idea. Unsurprisingly the plot suffers enormously and we are left with characters with little to do, a party-trick scenes and very little of the interaction between the Doctors that made The Three Doctors so enjoyable. It is a testimony to Terrance Dicks' writing skills that he makes it work as well as he does. Terrance Dicks is the disaster management guy of Doctor Who. Need a story writing with little budget and little time? He will always save the day.

There is a real celebratory feeling about The Five Doctors. It is fun and it is goofy. In fact it smacks you in the face with it's goofiness. I am certainly not one of those fans who enjoys watching bad Doctor Who. If a story is absolute garbage, I am not going to waste time watching it again. Yet with the The Five Doctors, I cannot but help enjoying the sillier scenes in this, such as the First Doctor and Tegan hiding from Cybermen who are right in front of them, or Sarah needing to be rescued after rolling down a gentle slope. The Five Doctors challenges you to dislike it and wins every time. One almost feels that the production team are aware of how naff it all is and are sharing the joke with the viewer.

Take the scene in the council chamber where the Master is brought in. It's a dull and heavy expository scene with lots of dialogue. The actors are trying to do Shakespeare, but are ending up with dull Doctor Who and even manage to muddle up that line about the clause in the constitution. Borusa looks a bit embarrassed, Flavia looks incredibly bored, the Castellan finds it rather funny and the Master is hilariously camp. It's hardly well done, but somehow there is a magic to it.

The unavailability of Tom Baker is perhaps not so unfortunate as it seems. It's hard to imagine Tom Baker being happy being slotted into a few scenes and not being given the chance to dominate the whole thing. Terrance Dicks in the commentary, points out a number of ways in which Tom's absence made the writing process simpler. The scene taken from Shada is really nice, in fact, I think it's the only decent scene of Shada that survives. The original broadcast edition of The Five Doctors raises continuity issues in relation to Shada that make it's canonical status problematic. I don't mind if Shada is left out of the canon at all. Fans imagine it would have been the redemption of Season 17, but what is left of it looks like garbage to me.

The absence of William Hartnell is a problem. I find it hard to forgive John Nathan-Turner for choosing to use an impersonation of Hartnell. Can you imagine it being done with an impersonation of Troughton or Pertwee? You can't. Fans would never forgive such an insult. Yet because of the low regard with which Hartnell and his era was held, it was felt that somebody could just pretend to be Hartnell. I get really annoyed when people say that Richard Hurndall is just like Hartnell. Hurndall tries hard and gives a good performance, but he does not capture the original Doctor. This is not just his fault. Terrance Dicks never wrote scripts for the First Doctor and you can tell because he fails to capture his character completely. The First Doctor was not just a bit grumpy and short-tempered. He was full of life, humour and curiosity. There is none of that richness in either the script or in Hurndall's performance. I simply cannot imagine the First Doctor wanting to wait in the TARDIS instead of going straight to the tower to solve the mystery. The Five Doctors also makes the mistake of thinking of the First Doctor as being older and wiser than the others. This is not the case. The First Doctor was actually the least mature and sensible of any of the Doctors, except the Sixth. He was like a teenager in an old man's body. Terrance Dicks simply did not get the First Doctor.
I do enjoy the First Doctor's chemistry with Tegan. The two of them really get on! Never mind Season 6B, I want to see Season 3B/20B where Tegan becomes a companion of the First Doctor! If you think the Sixth and Peri like to argue, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Susan is also handled dreadfully. I know Carole Ann Ford was not a great actress, but there was an ethereal beauty to her performances in season 1. She was never well used by writers then and on her return, Dicks cannot think of anything to do with her other than have her twist her ankle. This looks especially ridiculous because she is wearing flat boots, while Tegan is skipping across the moorland in high heels. As I suggested before, Tegan's ability to do almost anything in high heels was probably the result of cybernetic enhancement. I am not sure about Tegan's first aid skills though. I am a substance misuse worker not a nurse, but I am sure you don't put a bandage on to a stockinged foot. Do you? I am also rather bothered by the fact that none of the Doctors apart from the First acknowledges Susan as their granddaughter. In fact, apart from saying goodbye, they don't interact with her. The special edition includes some extra footage where the Fifth Doctor and Susan smile at each other before being separated by the First Doctor. This was cut, presumably because of the incestuous implications of somebody's grandfather becoming young and sexy. There does seem to be a tendency in post-Hartnell Doctor Who for the Doctor's relationship with Susan to be forgotten and for her to be treated as just another companion. According to Carole Ann Ford, in the original script Susan addresses the Doctor as 'Doctor' which seems pretty shocking in it's disregard for the Hartell material.

Patrick Troughton is sadly given little to do. He does have some wonderful moments. I suspect that this story, more than his original performances, have built up the notion of the Second Doctor as being mysterious and slightly sinister. His angry challenge to the ghosts is rather chilling. He is put with the Brigadier, who is rather less impressive in this story. He whinges and moans and only shows his old strength of character towards the end when he gets to slug the Master from behind.

The Third Doctor is even more arrogant, obnoxious and patronising than he used to be. Terrance Dicks got his 'writer's revenge' on Pertwee for his arrogance during the Letts years by making him obstinately refuse to believe the Master's story. Being an anti-Pertwee fan, I think that's cool. He is paired up with Sarah Jane Smith who, like the Brigadier, does an awful lot of moaning and moping. It must be the bad weather in the Death Zone.

While Troughton's performance is great, it is Peter Davison who is the real star of the show. His performance is full of energy and urgency. The moment I loved best was when he discovers that Borusa is the villain. He asks "What happened to you, Borusa?" While he is horrified at Borusa's corruption, he is full of compassion towards the man he once admired so much. He recognises the tragedy of the way Borusa has fallen into bad ways. That one moment of horror captures the tender heart of the Doctor's conscience. Mark Strickson gives a great performance as Turlough, but he is the character who suffers most from the lack of space in the narrative. In the end, he is just left in the TARDIS worrying.

Anthony Ainley is delightfully camp as the Master. I think this really is one of his best performances. The fruity way in which he greets Chancellor Flavia cracks me up and it's wonderful the way he smiles as Borusa describes the extent of his villainy. You have to feel rather sorry for the Master. He tried to do the right thing and help the Doctors, but ended up being scorned.

The Dalek scene was a singularly pointless and quite unimpressive. The Daleks only work when backed up with a decent story. Just having one Dalek appearing and then destroying itself does them a real disservice. The Cybermen end up looking a bit stupid, but they are dreadfully fun. The Raston robot is a remarkable achievement. It is amazing how the low budget trick of putting a dancer in a spandex suit creates one of the most memorable monster scenes ever. Just watch those Cybermen getting slaughtered!

There is something rather appropriate about Borusa turning out to be the villain behind it all. The Doctor's old schoolteacher turns out to be the Demon Headmaster. It's remarkable how so many of his former pupils turned out to be such renegades and drop-outs- the Doctor, the Master, the Rani, Drax. It would hardly be a surprise if that younger renegade, the Monk, turned out to have been Borusa's last student before he went into politics. I also would not be surprised if it turned out that it was Morbius who first suggested his change of career. In the New Adventure Blood Harvest, Terrance Dicks included a rather tongue in cheek chapter set in the Dark Tower, in which a repentant Borusa is freed from his perpetual imprisonment by Rassilon and goes to some sort of Time Lord heaven.

The Five Doctors was broadcast in between seasons 20 and 21, but it fits the themes of season 21 much better than the previous season. Season 21 is all about the compassionate and morally pure Fifth Doctor discovering just how dark and brutal the universe is, a darkness that overcame him and brought his death and regeneration into an unstable and more morally ambivalent persona. In The Five Doctors, he is placed in a microcosmos filled with terrors and dangers from his past and in the end he comes to find that his past (Borusa) has turned to evil. We knew the Time Lords were a shady bunch, but here it turns out that the Time Lord closest to the Doctor and seemingly the most incorruptible has succumbed to the grim darkness of the cosmos.

Being a New Adventures fan, I love all that stuff about the Dark Times. The history of the Time Lords is presented as dark and mysterious. Questions are raised about the accuracy of the official version. While Rassilon appears to be good when he acts as Deus Ex Machina in the end (in a literal sense), the Second Doctor alluded to rumours and legends about his cruelty. He certainly comes across as a dark and ambiguous figure. He operates the so-called Game of Rassilon. This is clearly distinct from the games in which creatures were forced to fight each other for the entertainment of the Time Lords, as this was banned by Rassilon. The Game of Rassilon is a sort of trap to ensnare dangerous individuals who seek immortality. This is exactly the sort of scheme that the chess-playing Seventh Doctor would set up. If Rassilon is an ancestor of the Doctor, clearly the family likeness came out most in his Seventh incarnation.

The sinister theme of the Gallifreyan past is captured by the design of the Dark Tower, both in it's interior and the model shots. The atmosphere of medieval grimness is enhanced by the hornblast theme in the musical score. The location filming is rather less effective. The fog looks atmospheric, but the Welsh moorland is simply too gentle and picturesque to look like any 'Death Zone.' It's got trees (aren't they scorched by the regular thunderbolts?) and a beautiful lake. It's even got very well paved roads for automobiles. This really does not look the hellish place that is demanded by the script. The Capitol sets are the best that we have seen in the classic series. We only get to see a hallway and two rooms, but they are very well designed. The hallway boasts a lovely ornamental garden feature and the council chamber has a real elegance, with it's harp and painting. There is the sense of a much greater and nobler past.

The 1995 anniversary edition made a number of changes, adding extra scenes, adding CGI effects and altering the score in places. A good deal of these are rather pointless and add little to the story. One very regrettable change is the removal of the Cyberman's expression 'ah!' when spotting the Doctor. It sounded silly, but it was rather funny. The Doctor is given a different tune to play on the harp. I preferred the old one. I was also annoyed by the alteration to Rassilon's voice. Those changes really weren't necessary.

The DVD includes a publicity appearance by Davison, Fielding and Strickson on Saturday Superstore. I found this hilarious because Janet Fielding uses such a wonderfully posh voice! She sounded so refined and precise in her pronunciation! Nothing at all like either Tegan or the much more Australian accent she uses today.

Oh, and before I forget, that line about the mindprobe cracks me up every time!

"Toulouse is to win; and he who wins shall lose."


  1. I really have to disagree about the council scenes with the Master. Those are some of my favorite scenes from The Five Doctors. I like a bit of dialogue and explanations between action. I don't think it's realistic or entertaining for everything to be go, go, go, action, action, action!

    The dialogue was well-written and well delivered by the actors. The Master absolutely shined! To see the Master verbally pawning the High Council of the mighty Time Lords was a wonderful treat! The dry sarcasm and antagonism of the scene made it impossibe for it to be dull.

    I think the Brigadier was done a vast injustice in this article. He most certainly did not whinge! He was slightly acerbic and impatient, as always, but he was also calm, with the dry wit that has kept him a fan favorite. For evidence, I present these lines from The Five Doctor, by Terence Dicks:

    Doctor: We could be playing the Game of Rassilon, as we speak!

    Brigadier (calmly): Your tone doesn't inspire much confidence. I take it we're not expected to win.

    The Five Doctors is flawed, naturally. It did try to do a bit too much. In general, however, it is basically awesome.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. Have you visited before?

    You may be right about the council chamber scene. I agree that you can't have action all the time.

    I do think the Brigadier does come across as miserable old grouch though.

  3. You're welcome! No, I'm new.

    I'll agree with miserable old grouch. He was not happy to find himself in the Death Zone! He's supposed to be retiring, after all. Actually, I think he's always been pretty grouchy, in a laid back, nothing fazes him, sort of way. It seemed like he was only willing to take so much weirdness from the universe in general and the Doctor in particular.

  4. Isn't that pic above the influence for Tom Baker's outfit? I'm sure it was...

  5. Yes, it was. A picture by Toulouse Latrec. Hence my bad pun.

  6. Ya gotta love the Brig's lines:

    'You attract trouble Doctor, you always did!'
    'Where the devil are we?'