The Five Doctors [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

The Five Doctors

Starring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor.
Guest Starring Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor, Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor, and Richard Hurndall as the First Doctor. With Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor and William Hartnell as (also) the First Doctor.
Companions:  Janet Fielding as Tegan, Mark Strickson as Turlough, Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Carole Ann Ford as Susan Foreman.
Featuring: Anthony Ainley as the Master, John Leeson as the voice of K9, Lalla Ward as Romana and Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, Richard Franklin and Caroline John as illusions of Jamie, Zoe, Mike Yates and Liz Shaw.
Written by Terrance Dicks.  Directed by Peter Moffatt. Produced by John-Nathan Turner. Script Edited by Eric Saward.

Format:  1 episode, about 90 minutes long
Originally Aired:  November 1983 (20th anniversary special, airing between Seasons 20 & 21).

In these enlightened times, the idea of Doctor Who airing as “specials” is pretty common. We’ve got Christmas specials, Easter specials, holiday specials, and so on. Indeed, the last two episodes of the show to be broadcast (as of the current writing) were specials, and it seems likely that the next two are going to be as well. But back in the days of Classic-Doctor Who, this was not normal. Indeed, over the shows original 26 season run, there was only one: The Five Doctors–the show’s 20th anniversary special.

Spoilers Ahead!

So you can imagine–back in the day, The Five Doctors was a big deal. I came into the show a bit after this aired, but there was no missing the buzz about this story in the magazines and fan-media that I was exposed to. Back in those days, watching old episode of Doctor Who took a lot of effort. There was no streaming services, and only a small handful of stories were commercially available on any home media. In America, we had to catch old stories as various PBS stations found there was an audience for them. So as a young fan of the show, pretty much any point in its history was a bit of a treasure to discover–and so here in The Five Doctors there was whole bunch of that history crammed into a single adventure.

As such, The Five Doctors is a story which is more broad than deep. There are a lot of elements from the shows 20 year history that are included, but there are only mild efforts to bring any depth to anything. Writing anything like this would be a daunting task, one imagines, especially given the uncertainty about what characters and concepts were to be included (based on many factors beyond what serves the story), but Terrance Dicks manages to make his way through it all reasonably well.

To this end, we get three former Doctors in full guest roles, each with their own returning companion (plus a cameo of another). We get at least three returning monsters–two as cameos (Daleks & Yeti) and one in a major role (the Cybermen). There is also the Master in a major guest role (although not as the main villain), a bunch of Time Lords (including the Doctor’s old teacher Borusa), and brief appearances by UNIT, K9, and illusions of a bunch of other companions. And of course, let us not forget the show’s current Doctor and companions, who still have to be part of things in the midst of all the nostalgia.

I’ve read that Terrance Dicks purposely gave incumbent Doctor Peter Davison all the best lines and story moments, in order to make sure that his presence is highlighted for the audience, who might be tempted to look past him for the spectacle of seeing old favorites returning.

This approach works fairly well–the Fifth Doctor does feel still feel like the star of the story. And he has got a couple of good scenes with the First Doctor and Susan, which feel quite special to see.

Meanwhile though, the Second and Third Doctors are sort of off in their own related adventures for most of the story, until everyone gets together at the end. This has the strange effect of making them feel a little irrelevant to the plot. They have their own obstacles to overcome but for most of the episode, their contribution to the overall story is just that they have to get inside the tower. Thus, all that the Second and Third Doctor have really got going for them is the enjoyment of seeing Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee back in the roles.

But structurally, their inclusion is a bit awkward. It’s odd because they are really the show’s major returning celebrities (since the First Doctor is recast, and the Fourth declined to appear). It might have been nice to make them more central to the plot rather than give the impression that the show was struggling to know how to include them.

Something that might have helped would have been to have those two Doctors join forces earlier in the story. Undoubtedly, Troughton and Pertwee had the best on-screen chemistry of any two Doctors to that point, (and since, really) thanks to the dynamic that came out ten years earlier in The Three Doctors. Why not put them together earlier in the story and amp up the fun of their scenes and give their sequences more weight?

Oh well, it’s easy to look back at The Five Doctors and see it as a series of missed opportunities. All things considered, the production does a good job juggling its various dynamics to deliver something coherent and fun. I have become a much bigger fan of the Second Doctor since I last saw this story, so I was particularly interested to see his sequences. I like seeing a more grown-up and adventuresome Susan (although I am always disappointed when she twists her ankle and is relegated to being in the TARDIS). The Raston Warrior Robot is a nifty concept that could stand to be revisited. And Peter Davison distinguishes himself well in the face of all the performers and characters competing for the audience’s attention.

But it’s also clear that The Five Doctors is not as strong as it could have been. The plot is extremely thin, and some scenes are a bit tedious and slow. The whole “chessboard” trap that the Master, Cybermen and First Doctor encounter is extremely unimpressive–there is nothing clever about it because obviously there is no real-life solution, and for some reason both the Master and the Doctor are shown crossing the board by basically walking straight across it, making the idea that there is some complicated path to be navigated utterly unconvincing.

And of course, in spite of the title, it’s not really a story about “Five Doctors”. The inclusion of the Fourth Doctor via clips from the unfinished story Shada, after actor Tom Baker declined to appear, was fairly ingenious (and now that we have a more complete version of Shada we know that what was used is basically that story’s best scene).

But his absence is keenly felt–Baker’s depiction of the Doctor is so iconic and so indelible (even if he’s not my favorite) that the end result feels palpably incomplete. And obviously there was no easy way to include the First Doctor without recasting him, given that William Hartnell had passed away years earlier (the clip of him which is used to start the story is a nice touch). Richard Hurndall is perfectly fine in the role but obviously not the same–you never really get the impression you are watching the same character from the 1960’s.

This brings up the biggest dynamic with watching The Five Doctors these days, nearly forty years later, which is that the story is now as much a part of the history of Doctor Who as the material it was celebrating. Nowadays, thanks to easy access to streaming services and home media, if I want to relive the joy of seeing Troughton or Pertwee on screen, I’ll just tune into one of their classic stories (like some of my favorites such as The Enemy of the World or The Green Death. If I want to watch classic monsters, I’ll watch The Dalek Invasion of the Earth or Earthshock or the animated re-creation of The Abominable Snowmen (hopefully someday soon!) None of those things make me want to watch The Five Doctors, because this is a story which is nearly entirely about nostalgia, and not about taking the characters or the show into new places (which I think is a big difference between this and the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor).

This is why, I think, the best parts of The Five Doctors tend to be the ones that feature Peter Davison–this is where the plot seems to really matter, like where the Doctor unravels the mystery in the Capital. It’s where the victories are the most thrilling, like when the Doctor escapes from the Cybermen. And it’s also where the nostalgia feels the most meaningful, like where the Doctor meets his original incarnation in the TARDIS. And its where the story does the best job re-establishing its core values, like the genuinely enjoyable sequence at the end, where the Doctor dodges the responsibilities of the presidency and deliberately goes back on the run from his own people in a rackety old TARDIS.

“After all, that’s how it all started.”

One thought on “The Five Doctors [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. The Five Doctors may earn the best nostalgia from Whovians, certainly in reflection of what multi-Doctor stories of today like The Day Of The Doctor and Twice Upon A Time have improved on. The creative avenues for multi-Doctor stories may have finally taken a most dramatic turn now thanks to what Chibnall has given us with the Timeless Child. So The Five Doctors, like The Three Doctors and The Two Doctors, may be most refreshing for taking it all back to the most adventurous basics. Thank you, Ben, for your review.

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