Setting the Standard

Review of The Five Doctors (#129)
DVD Release Date: 05 Aug 08
Original Air Date: 25 Nov 1983
Doctors/Companions: Five, One, Two, Three, Four (cameo), Tegan, Turlough, Susan, the Brigadier, Sarah Jane, Romana II (cameo)
Stars: Peter Davison, Richard Hurndall, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, (Tom Baker), Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, Carole Ann Ford, Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen, (Lalla Ward)
Preceding Story: The King's Demons (Five, Tegan, Turlough, Kamelion)
Succeeding Story: Warriors of the Deep (Five, Tegan, Turlough)

With tomorrow's anniversary of the show's beginnings, I felt now would be an appropriate time to look back at a different celebration of its history. Though this year we mark fifty-four years since the show's inception, 1983 was merely twenty, and the Powers That Beeb decided they couldn't let such a large, round number go unnoticed.

Here in the post-fiftieth-anniversary era, we think of that celebration as having pulled out all the stops, but really, it was The Five Doctors that set the standard. And while, like Moffat, JNT didn't get everyone he wanted to participate, he nonetheless pulled together a remarkable cast, including—in a way—all five incarnations of the Doctor who had appeared up to that point.

While First Doctor William Hartnell had (just barely) managed perform a part in the tenth anniversary story The Three Doctors, he was already eight years dead by the time this next milestone rolled around. Rather than exclude his Doctor entirely, though, JNT simply recast Richard Hurndall in the role, much like David Bradley has taken over the same in the modern era. But much like Eccleston for the fiftieth, Tom Baker could not be convinced to reprise his own Fourth Doctor (reportedly because he thought it was too soon).

Undeterred, JNT simply used footage from the unaired story Shada (new release pending in January '18—watch this space for a review), and trapped Four and Companion Romana II in the time vortex, preventing them from joining the others in the adventure proper, without excluding them outright.

The remainder of the cast is also impressive. Not only did all three other original Doctors (Troughton, Pertwee, and then-current incarnation Davison) participate, but there were also four Doctors' worth of Companions (and then some!). One is joined by granddaughter Susan, Two by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (who is himself a veteran of a multi-Doctor scenario), Three by Sarah Jane Smith (who simply would go out, despite K-9's warning of danger), and Five by Companions-of-the-day Tegan Jovanka and Vislor Turlough.

Further, at points later in the narrative, Terrance Dicks managed to write in brief cameos for Capt. Mike Yates, Dr. Liz Shaw, Jamie McCrimmon, and Zoë Heriot. It's an all-star gathering akin to an 80s version of Journey's End, except without the teeth-grindingly awful plotting that had the TARDIS pulling the Earth across the universe with no ill effects.

Which brings us to the plot of this story. For such a complex concatenation of characters, it stands up remarkably well. Beginning with a time scoop slurping Doctors and Companions up from all over the timeline, the story sees a mysterious antagonist bringing our many heroes into the notorious Death Zone on Gallifrey. There, one or more groups come across a Dalek, Cybermen, a Yeti, a new threat known as a Raston Warrior Robot, and even—with the help of the Time Lord Inner Council itself—the Master.

There is intrigue at the Capitol as all the Doctors' parties converge on the Dark Tower, the tomb of Rassilon himself. Eventually everything comes to a head there by the sarcophagus of the legendary Time Lord, and the Doctors have to work together to save the day.

While there is one element that seems like a big plot hole to me (it's suddenly very easy to transmat right into that final room in the Tower), everything else works well enough to make that easy to overlook, especially as the character interactions are so delightful. The highlights for me all revolve around Troughton's Two, starting with the way he bounces off the Brigadier in typical, unintentionally snarky fashion.

He also continues his traditional antagonistic relationship with Three, Pertwee giving as good as he gets, and establishes a new rivalry with Five. (Two: So, you're the latest model, hmm? / Five: Yes, and the most agreeable. / Two: Certainly the most impudent.)

All in all, The Five Doctors holds up remarkably well more than thirty years on, and remains an episode I'm happy to recommend to anyone, though it's especially delightful for those who know the Doctors and Companions who appear. It both revels in what has come before and turns a hopeful eye to the future—about as close to perfection as it gets.

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Comments

Played by McCrimmon Hines?

By bingly (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Dammit! My silly brain did a Diana Gabaldon and combined them! XD

Sorry—no, this isn't Outlander. I've corrected it. (Thanks!)

By mrfranklin

Given that Robert Holmes had tried and gave up writing a 20th anniversary story (allegedly called The Six Doctors) with elements being reused in The Two Doctors, it's great credit to Terrance Dicks that he wrote a story that was as coherent as it was.

I headcannonned the transmat at the end as working as a result of 3 reversing the polarity of the neutron flow thus freeing up access into the Dark Tower.

My memories of watching this when it debuted in the UK on Friday 25th November (I kid you not) were as follows:
1. My dad messing around with the remote control at the beginning flipping channels so that I was unaware that there was a clip of Hartnell until the story was repeated as a four part story either in the summer of 84 or 85
2. The reason it was shown on the 25th was that the BBC made it a showpiece of the 1983 Children in Need appeal - their annual telethon. I have a recollection of banners going across the bottom of the screen with phone numbers to dial and plege on but I am not sure if that is a real memory
3. 5 doing a scene after the programme with Children in Need host Terry Wogan where he indicated that at that actual moment he was on a plane off to a convention in the states and he donated his celery free beige morning coat for auction.

Did you know that the programme was broadcast in NZ prior to its UK broadcast?

By Wholahoop
mrfranklin's picture

Oh, you may be right—Three did something by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, and I was too busy enjoying the line to latch onto what he was supposed to have fixed.

Excellent trivia, btw. I'm often unaware of such details. :)

By mrfranklin

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