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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Doctor Who (Classic): “The Five Doctors”

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who (Classic): “The Five Doctors”

“The Five Doctors” (season 20, episode 23. Originally broadcast Nov. 23, 1983.)

Doctor Who fans all over the world join together today in celebration of a landmark anniversary in television history: “The Five Doctors,” broadcast on this date 30 years ago.

Well, OK. Nobody is celebrating that one today, except possibly me. But today is a good day to look at “The Five Doctors,” a 90-minute special that celebrated the 20th anniversary of Doctor Who by bringing back a whole panoply of characters from the show’s history—all five Doctors plus plenty of old friends and enemies. Because it has a message for us today. And that message is: Today's nostalgia is nothing like the nostalgia they had in the old days.

I’m not being glib. Well, I am, but I’m not just being glib. To explain what I mean, let’s consider that other Doctor Who anniversary story, the one none of us have seen yet. What I hope for from “The Day Of The Doctor” is that it’ll be a fun story that features the rare chance to see elements from different eras of the show collide with each other. And also offers some resolution of longstanding mysteries like what happened during the Time War. And also makes some stab at summing up what Doctor Who is all about, some grand statement that encapsulates half a century of storytelling. Maybe we won’t get that, but I think it’s not an unreasonable expectation for whatever Steven Moffat and company have cooked up. I would bet most of you reading this agree. Certainly “Night Of The Doctor” kicked that off in style, with the Eighth Doctor’s previously unseen final moments leading directly into the modern series. (Seriously, how great was that? More Paul McGann, please.)

“The Five Doctors” was nowhere near as ambitious as that. It’s simplistic, even a bit childish, if that’s not too harsh a word, in terms of its structure. There isn’t so much a plot as a series of dangers and puzzles to be solved, all of which are the sort of thing a clever middle-school student might have come up with to fill out a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I don’t mean that as a criticism, but just as a straight-up description: Terrance Dicks was quite good at writing kids’ adventure stories, and he aimed squarely at that target for “The Five Doctors” and hit it pretty close to a bullseye. In doing so he ignored the other available targets within range, the ones that we will all be disappointed if Moffat doesn’t shoot at.

But given the circumstances in which he had to write that script, it seems like it would have been difficult if not impossible to do anything else, and it’s hard to fault him for choosing a target he knew he could hit. Sure, the story is kind of a mess, the character relationships are perfunctory, and the sheer number of continuity problems created by sloppiness or kludgy solutions to behind-the-scenes problems is practically a thing of beauty in itself. “The Five Doctors” can’t really be taken seriously as anything more than a moving museum diorama, A Who’s Who Of Doctor Who crossed with Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets. But—and this is an important caveat—it’s pretty fun and entertaining on that level.


The plot, in a nutshell, is this. A mysterious and unseen villain dressed like an evil wizard begins to kidnap each incarnation of the Doctor, along with a handful of his old companions, and strands them in the Death Zone, a legendary and dangerous place on his home planet of Gallifrey where the Time Lords once held bloodsports pitting aliens they kidnapped from across time and space against each other. One by one they are taken out of their own time periods, except for the Fourth, who is seen only in clips from the unfinished story “Shada” because Tom Baker didn’t feel like coming back. Each kidnapping weakens the current Doctor, Peter Davison’s Fifth, who gets some idea of what’s wrong and travels to the Zone himself to find out more. They all begin to  converge on the tower in the center of the Zone, called the Tower of Rassilon for the mythic ancient Gallifreyan who first discovered time travel, and who may or may not have been behind the death games as well. (Either way, he was behind naming all kinds of things after himself, because the story features not only the Tower of Rassilon, but the Tomb of Rassilon, the Game of Rassilon, the Coronet of Rassilon, the Ring of Rassilon, the Seal of Rassilon, the Black Scrolls of Rassilon, the Mind of Rassilon, the Domain of Rassilon, the Harp of Rassilon, and the Voice of Rassilon. I imagine sharing an office with him would be tiresome, because he’d always be saying things like “Where hast thou misplaced the Stapler of Rassilon?” and “Drink not from that vessel! For that is the Coffee Cup of Rassilon!”) Anyway: Traveling separately, the Doctors encounter various killer traps and old enemies, including a Dalek, a Yeti, a troop of Cybermen, and the Master. The Fifth takes a detour to Gallifrey’s capitol, where he discovers that the Mysterious Evil Wizard is his old mentor Borusa, first seen in “The Deadly Assassin” and now the leader of the Time Lords. Borusa seeks immortality and has figured out that Rassilon is not only still alive in the apparently misnamed Tomb of Rassilon, but that he’s handing out immortality to anyone who comes to visit. The elaborate scheme of kidnapping all the Doctors was just a way to get  five guys who would trigger or disarm the traps for him, like clearing a minefield. Borusa wakes Rassilon and discovers that the immortality offer was a final trap—the Final Trap of Rassilon, intended to weed out the most power-hungry of the Time Lords so they couldn’t become tyrants. Borusa gets to live forever, but as a stone carving in the side of Rassilon’s tomb. The Doctors and companions each go home, and when the Fifth is offered the “reward” of taking Borusa’s place as Lord President, he legs it, hightailing it to the TARDIS and running away from his own people, just the way he did at the beginning.

Dicks was not only a longtime writer for the show, but had been script editor for all five years of the Third Doctor era, so he knew the Doctor Who mythology better than almost anyone. But he was was actually the second choice to write the anniversary story, and the reason why the first guy dropped out explains a lot about why “The Five Doctors” takes the shape it does. Robert Holmes, himself an equally credentialled former Doctor Who editor, and a more ambitious if less prolific writer, took a first crack at a 20th anniversary tale, then called “The Six Doctors.” His story would have featured a First Doctor who was actually an impostor—riffing on the fact that, of course, the First Doctor would have to be an impostor, since William Hartnell had died eight years earlier and couldn’t reprise the role. But the nature of the project meant that Holmes had to write the script at the same time that Doctor Who’s producers were negotiating with past actors to come back and reprise their old characters, and at various points it wasn’t clear whether the Second, Third, or Fourth Doctors would appear, let alone any of their co-stars. It’s awfully hard to write a script when you can’t be sure of who your characters are, and Holmes eventually grew frustrated and gave up. (To make it up to him, they let him write “The Caves Of Androzani” instead, so there’s a silver lining.)


But if Holmes probably would have come up with a more brilliant concept, Dicks was probably the best possible choice to get this particular job done. The challenges involved played to his strengths as a writer—not bombast and brilliance, but basics. Holmes’ best work, like David Whitaker’s, challenged and critiqued Doctor Who at the same time that it told a good story. Terrance Dicks’ best work was first and foremost about coming up with a ripping good yarn, nothing less and often not much more. But if you needed someone who could make something out of the chaotic and overstuffed laundry list of “must-appear” characters that “The Five Doctors” required, this was the guy you wanted.

The beauty of the puzzle-quest storyline that Dicks chose was that it allowed for all kinds of reshuffling of characters even late in the game, as actors dropped out and in. That’s because in a way, it doesn’t matter who, for example, solves the chessboard puzzle as long as somebody does it. The weakness, of course, is the story can hardly explore any themes or insights deeper than the chessboard puzzle, for exactly the same reason: It doesn’t matter who solves the chessboard puzzle.


The short clip of Hartnell that opens the story—taken from the final episode of season two’s “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth”—is an indicator of how we have to approach the rest of it. For what it is intended to do, it works: It’s a nice-sounding quote that makes a light, nostalgic reference to the past, and also (rightly and properly) gives Hartnell himself a way to appear. “Someday I shall come back,” says Hartnell. And look, there he is! He’s back! Telling us that he’ll be back someday.

But if you try to connect that clip’s appearance in this story with what it meant in its original context, you’re in for a headache. Because the person he says it to is his granddaughter Susan, as part of a goodbye speech to her. But it’s not as nice as it sounds: He says it to Susan, his only known relative, while he’s locking her out of the TARDIS and abandoning her on a post-apocalyptic planet because she met a boy she liked. To me, that would merit a Very Serious Conversation with Lots Of Shouting and perhaps Throwing Breakable Things if I ever saw the guy again. So, given that Susan shows up in “The Five Doctors” for the first time since that parting scene 18 and a half seasons ago, you’d think that there might be some fireworks. Or, even if she’s forgiven him, at least a “How have you been? I’ve missed you” scene. But no, not really. The two of them meet up, and are glad to see each other, but there’s no gravity to the scene. Used here, the “someday I shall come back” line has no deeper meaning at all. It just sounds nice. And over and over, “The Five Doctors” trots out the show’s old cast members, and puts them in a scene full of peril and action but pretty much zero acknowledgement that these are all people who once mattered a great deal to each other and now haven’t seen each other in a long time. The scenes in “School Reunion” and “The Eleventh Hour” where the Doctor’s companions lay into him for abandoning them ought to be here too, but that’s just not what “The Five Doctors” is about. It’s about recreating a hazy, cozy remembrance of the old series, familiar and comfortable, not anything new or challenging or thought-provoking.


In 2013, that kind of approach comes across as woefully inadequate. First, we’ve come to expect a greater focus on character relationships as they change across the life of a series, not only on Doctor Who but on television in general. That just wasn’t how TV worked, for the most part, in 1983. And second, TV’s relationship with its own past was completely different than it is today, because in 1983, the past was largely unavailable as anything but memory. VCRs and home taping was just beginning to usher in a new age of pop-culture archiving, but in large part, if an old series wasn’t actively on in reruns, it was simply gone. When people talk about today being a golden age of television, usually they mean the high standards of writing and production on new series. But it’s also a golden age because the past is way, way more accessible than ever before. The idea of streaming shows online in 1983 was impossibly futuristic. And of course, Doctor Who had an even bigger problem, since so many of the early episodes were missing even from the BBC archives—even more than today.

That meant that if you were doing an anniversary show like this one, and you wanted to show off some of the old stuff that people remembered and loved, you could get away with essentially just putting it up on screen and saying “here it is!” The brief cameos of the Yeti and the Dalek were all the more thrilling because they hadn’t been seen on the show for years (15 and four, respectively), and “The Five Doctors” might be your only chance to see them at all. These days, we have the old stories, and we can watch Daleks any old time. Steven Moffat knows this, which is a big reason why he’s so terribly concerned with how clever and mindbending his version of Doctor Who should be.


And on the whole he’s right, but there’s something to be said for the Terrance Dicks method too. “The Five Doctors” is not at all thematically ambitious or concerned with what it might mean that Doctor Who is 20. But it’s Terrance Dicks, so it’s breezy, well-constructed light entertainment that throws some old friends back into the kind of situations they used to face so we can see them do it again. It’s about moments, not grand meanings. And plenty of those moments deliver exactly what Dicks and company hoped to. The First Doctor and Susan are chased by a Dalek through winding, gray corridors that deliberately and effectively evoke the black-and-white alien city where the pepperpots were first seen back in 1963. The Brigadier and Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor encounter the Yeti in spooky black tunnels very much like the ones where they first saw the Yeti in the London Underground. (It might even be the same Yeti; that particular costume had been in storage since “The Web Of Fear” in 1968.)  And Jon Pertwee, whose time as the Third Doctor was chock full of elaborate action sequences, gets a car chase, a daring cliffside rescue of Sarah Jane, and the chance to slide down a wire from a mountaintop to the tallest window of the tower at the center of the Death Zone. The Death Zone itself, where creatures are brought from all over the universe to fight each other, is meant to evoke the similar battle arena from “The War Games,” and the sinister, unseen black-gloved villain behind the whole thing was an homage to the Master’s behavior in “The Deadly Assassin.” All that stuff is basically perfect in capturing the old spirit, and the enthusiasm of the returning cast is a joy to watch, particularly  Pertwee, Troughton, Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen. Not surprisingly, Troughton steals almost every scene he’s in—I love the way he hides behind Pertwee when Rassilon threatens to give the Doctors immortality.

I could complain, of course. There’s plenty that flops here. The scenes in the Gallifreyan capitol are beige and dull. Borusa, our Mystery Evil Wizard Villain, is beige and dull. Paul Jerricho’s delivery of “No, not the mind probe” is perhaps the least convincing declaration of terror uttered by an actor in the 20th century.  The Cybermen take forever to set up an easily defeated trap just so two marginalized characters can have some lines. The Second Doctor remembers things that happened only after he regenerated into the Third. The Third knows what the Fourth Doctor will look like. The Brigadier barely gets to talk with the Third, though he’s much more part of his era than Troughton’s. Gallifrey’s political process apparently includes jail time for people who don’t want jobs they’re elected to. The Fifth Doctor’s companion Kamilion is completely missing here, with no explanation given. I could go on. I could go on for quite some time.


But that would be missing the point of “The Five Doctors,” which is simply this: Someday, they shall come back. And here they are.

Stray observations
• “Fancypants!” “Scarecrow!”
• “Not allowed? Me? I’m allowed everywhere!”


• Even before “Five Doctors,” Doctor Who  had been celebrating its past all year: All Season 20 stories featured the return of a previous villain or companion, with both the Brigadier and the Master making their second appearances here that season.

• Tom Baker’s semi-absence was only the most major of the hurried shufflings and rejiggerings that Dicks had to account for. The next biggest problem was Frazer Hines—Second Doctor companion Jamie—who had to drop out after he couldn’t get out of obligations to his job as one of the stars of soap opera Emmerdale Farm. (He did get one day off, which accounts for his very short cameo here.) That meant he couldn’t be Troughton’s sidekick, which caused a cascade of character shuffles. The Brigadier, who would have been paired with the Third Doctor, instead jumped over to the Second. And Sarah Jane Smith, slated for the Fourth Doctor (who had dropped out anyway), met up instead with the Third. This is one of those compromise decisions that kind-of-sort-of solved one problem while screwing up something else, because although the Brigadier’s first two encounters with the Doctor were with Troughton, he had much, much closer ties to Jon Pertwee’s version. And so we get the odd dialogue where the two of them reminisce about the times they met the Yeti, the Cybermen, and Omega—but none of the other, far more numerous times when one of them was taller and wore a ruffled collar instead of a Beatle wig. And which would be awkward to bring up, because to the Second Doctor, they hadn’t happened yet.


• As some of you already noticed and have been discussing in comments for a while now, TV Club Classic coverage in general has been scaled back somewhat recently. But I’m sticking around to talk about the first 26 years or Doctor Who for the foreseeable future, and those of you who’ve been asking to see writeups on the first few seasons of the revived series will be happy that Alasdair Wilkins has started in on the Ninth Doctor era.

• Regarding the 50th-anniversary episode: It seems fair to declare the comment section for this article to be a spoiler-free zone for “The Day Of The Doctor.” I’m hoping to drop back in here with some thoughts on that show, though, once I’ve had a chance to see it. (Which may be as late as Monday night, in which case I might just punt and talk about it during my “Terror Of The Zygons” writeup next time). Alasdair will have the official TV Club take on “The Day Of The Doctor” over on that part of the A.V. Club at some point soon after it airs. (They’re not screening it early for any critics, so we’d all appreciate it if someone could lend us a time machine.)


• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central):
• Dec. 7: The Fourth Doctor goes to Scotland’s Loch Ness in “Terror Of The Zygons.”
• Dec. 21: A look at a Doctor Who that might have been, with 2003’s animated “Scream Of The Shalka,” starring Richard E. Grant as the “Alternative Ninth” Doctor.
• Jan. 4: The First Doctor meets the Cybermen—and becomes the Second Doctor—in “The Tenth Planet.”
• Future reviews should include something from season 15 (“The Horror Of Fang Rock”?) and season 23 (“The Mysterious Planet.”)