Review [DW]: “The Five Doctors”

20×7. The Five Doctors
Writer: Terrance Dicks
Director: Peter Moffatt
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor’s past selves, along with several companions and enemies, are captured with the “Time Scoop” and brought to the Death Zone on Gallifrey, where President Borusa hopes to force them to play the Game of Rassilon and unlock the secret of immortality.

Review: Let’s just get this out of the way – the actual plot of “The Five Doctors” is relatively weak, and the potential for a reunion of Doctors and companions is underrealized. In particular, it seems questionable for Borusa to have brought Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti, and the Master into the Death Zone if his objective was to manipulate the Doctors into solving the mystery of immortality – what if one or more Doctors had been killed along the way? The only possible explanation supplied by the script is that perhaps some element of danger was necessary for the Doctors’ travails to meet the requirements of Rassilon’s “game,” and that’s me doing guesswork rather than anything that the episiode itself makes clear. (The real explanation may simply be that this was the 20th anniversary special and therefore the creative team wanted to bring back some of the more popular villains as well as former Doctors and companions.) And while it was nice to have the familiar faces on-hand, the Fifth Doctor doesn’t have any particularly strong reaction to seeing Sarah Jane Smith, the Brigadier, or even his own granddaughter again.

And yet, I can’t help but like it anyway. Maybe it’s partly nostalgia value – I’m pretty sure that it was the first installment of Doctor Who that I ever saw even in part, and it was also all I knew of Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee for a period of time before my PBS station picked up the pre-Tom Baker serials. And whatever its lapses in logic, the script does have an effective pace and a sense of adventure that will keep most Who fans’ interest. The Doctor/companion pairings aren’t all the most natural – I suspect that the Brigadier was put with Troughton and Sarah Jane with Pertwee after it became clear that Tom Baker would not be participating – but they work well enough for the obligatory expositional dialogue. The use of the scene from “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” as a pre-credits teaser was an appropriate way to incorporate the late William Hartnell (whose version of the Doctor is otherwise well-captured by the recast Richard Hurndall) into the proceedings, and Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee ably assume the personas that we know and love. Peter Davison, who is often at his best when the Doctor is staring off in contemplation of some mysterious happening, gets plenty of opportunity to do that here, ably reflecting the character’s unusual wisdom and intellect. Perhaps the best moment of “The Five Doctors” is its last, when Tegan asks him if he’s really going “on the run…in a rackety old TARDIS,” and he responds, with a youthful breeziness that I’m not sure any of his precedessors could have managed, “Why not? After all, that’s how it all started.”

Once again, Gallifrey is portrayed as a somewhat corrupt and declining society – the fact that anyone (even the President) is able to access and abuse the time scoop and cause widespread energy drains across the planet does not speak well for their leadership structure, and the other Time Lords appear unable to do much to bring the situation under control. Neither do they question Borusa’s decision to recruit the Master to try to rescue the Doctor, even though they all know him to be a man of evil and deception. A less generous interpretation, of course, would be that this is simply the script’s excuse for bringing the Master into the story, but the grudging acceptance of the Chancellor and Castellan might reflect a certain desperation on their part. Rassilon himself is spoken of with trepidation, and he projects a somewhat sinister presence even before we learn the fate he has in store for Borusa. It’s not hard to see why the Doctor eventually chose a life of independent exploration over what might have been a comfortable but stifling life among his own kind, and I can certainly understand why he wants as little to do with Time Lord politics as possible.

This brings me to the one thing that doesn’t quite fit about this explanation: the comparatively aloof (and sometimes selfish) First Doctor is the one that I sometimes *could* imagine being relatively content on Gallifrey, or at least less inclined to rebel out of disappointment at the Time Lords’ refusal to use their powers to help other species. The First Doctor’s personality is also key to one of the more unsettling (and underplayed) elements in the script here. Namely, I don’t think that Borusa – corrupt though he may be – truly deserved his eventual fate of obtaining “immortality” by being trapped in stone in Rassilon’s tomb. The other Doctors seem caught off-guard when the First Doctor manipulates him into this by urging Rassilon to grant Borusa what he wants, but none of them exactly take issue with it, even though Borusa had been a teacher and mentor to the Doctor on Gallifrey. The Master also desired immortality and gets let off relatively easily by comparison (the Brigadier knocks him out before he can obtain an audience with Rassilon), and he’s probably caused considerably more suffering and death than Borusa ever has. In all, I’m not sure whether the script intends for this to be controversial or if the question arises more by accident.

Still, none of that prevents “The Five Doctors” from succeeding as an entertaining, nostalgic romp that brings many of the program’s most beloved elements together for a distinctly Whovian adventure. While it doesn’t live up to all of its potential, it’s successful enough for me to enjoy it for what it is rather than lamenting what it could have been.

Other notes:

– The Second Doctor realizes that the illusions of Jamie and Zoe aren’t real because their memories were erased back in “The War Games” – but first of all, they did retain the memories of their initial encounters with him, and second of all, this happened shortly before the Time Lords forced him to regenerate, so how would he be out and about visiting the Brigadier when captured by the Time Scoop? Unless I’m missing something, the chronology here doesn’t really add up.

– In the Special Edition DVD, Terrance Dicks is amusingly forthright about his dislike of certain elements of the story. When Sarah Jane falls down a not-at-all-steep hill, he exclaims, “It’s just a gentle declivity!” He also is apparently none too fond of the Cybermen, calling them “stupid silver lummoxes” and attributing their prominence to the influence of Script Editor Eric Saward.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “The King’s Demons”

20×6. The King’s Demons
Writer: Terence Dudley
Director: Tony Virgo
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The TARDIS arrives in 13th century England, where the crew are initially mistaken as demons and the Master is using a robot named Kamelion to impersonate King John and prevent the signature of the Magna Carta, so as to undermine the future of British democracy and further his plans for universal domination.

Review: Perhaps the most telling statement about “The King’s Demons” is that I can barely think of anything to say about it as a reviewer. About the only points worth comment, I’d say, are that (1) Turlough’s somewhat contrary nature is reinforced by the fact that he still dislikes Earth and is less than pleased to end up there again; (2) the crew get mistaken as demons because they appear to possess supernatural powers to a 13th century mind; and (3) the Fifth Doctor continues to be fallible when it comes to keeping his companions safe (in this case it’s Turlough who spends a while locked up before the Doctor and Tegan find an opportunity to do anything about it). Past that…well, it’s not exactly bad, but it’s hardly anything we haven’t seen before: once again, we have the standard-issue BBC medieval period piece (of which I’ve never been a fan), once again one of the TARDIS crew is captured and ¬†endangered, and once again the Master is trying to take over the universe. (And, as others have pointed out, surely undermining British democracy – to which the Magna Carta was not that important in the first place – could be but a tiny sliver of what he’d have to do if that’s really his goal.) The addition of Kamelion to the TARDIS crew has potential, but sadly it would end up largely wasted.

While the new Doctor Who series has found success with shorter stories, the two-parters in the original series have yet to produce anything close to a classic, and I think the problem is that they stick to the slower pace and style typical of the longer serials. The result is not so much a more efficient brand of storytelling as simply a slighter one, with the script managing to do little beyond check off the necessary boxes to get to the end.

Rating: ** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Enlightenment”

20×5. Enlightenment
Writer: Barbara Clegg
Director: Fiona Cumming
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The White Guardian warns the Doctor of a strange race taking place between several groups of “Eternals” seeking a prize known as the Enlightenment, while the Black Guardian continues to pressure Turlough and plot to kill the Doctor.

Review: Most of the Davison era has been either in the average-to-pretty-good range or has fallen under the umbrella of “creative but flawed.” Unfortunately, “Enlightenment” proves to be the latest example of the latter. In theory, the concept of the Eternals has some promise: they are powerful immortal beings who sense something empty about their existence, they seem to welcome danger if only to break up the monotony (since they don’t actually die but are just “transferred”), and they find themselves drawn to mortals (or “Ephemerals,” as they put it) despite being unable to understand us. But only the Edwardian crew come across with the right air of aloofness and the appropriately detached reactions to the TARDIS crew and the humans on board their ship. Their main rival, Captain Wrack, is a Cackling Villain stereotype who really doesn’t belong here.

The first two episodes, before Wrack becomes more central to the proceedings, are strong enough, with what seems like an effective mystery for first-time viewers – at first, the Doctor and his companions seem to be on Earth, with the reason for the human crew’s lapses in memory left unclear, building to the revelation that they are actually in space. Turlough also continues to add an element of unpredictability through a more amoral character than we’re used to seeing from companions. Although the story charts his increasing resistance to the Black Guardian, culminating in his refusal to kill the Doctor at the end, he is in fact willing to betray the human crew by revealing their discontent to the Eternals. It’s less clear whether his attempt to ingratiate himself to Wrack by claiming that he simply wants to be on the winning side is entirely an act or if he is in fact trying to keep his options open, and the script probably should have made this clearer.

As for the Guardians, it’s perhaps for the best that they did not, to the best of my memory, make another appearance in the original series after this. They were acceptable enough as background plot devices for the Key to Time trilogy, and introducing a companion who’s initially been strong-armed into the role of would-be assassin was clever. But they tend to come across as slightly hokey in this installment, and between them and the inconsistent portrayal of the Eternals, this is not a high point for portrayal of alien superbeings on Doctor Who.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Terminus”

20×4. Terminus
Writer: Steve Gallagher
Director: Mary Ridge
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: Turlough’s attempted sabotage at the Black Guardian’s behest results in the TARDIS materializing on a shuttle bound for Terminus, a spacecraft where victims of Lazar’s disease are watched over by slave laborers with little apparent hope for a cure. Meanwhile, a malfunction on Terminus could result in a catastrophic explosion if the Doctor doesn’t find a way to stop it.

Review: “Terminus” plays like some sort of Mad-Lib that got mistaken for a screenwriting assignment – “Compose a 90-minute television serial using the following: potentially interesting ideas, half-baked development of said ideas, drawn-out scenes of people wandering around and chasing each other on a spaceship, and a threat to the entire universe.”

If there’s one thing that distinguishes “Terminus,” it’s perhaps the rather grim situation that the Doctor and his companions are forced to confront. Neither the Lazar victims (who suffer from a disease that resembles leprosy) nor the enslaved caretakers left at the mercy of a greedy corporation seem to have much hope of anything changing for the better. The Lazar victims are mostly just waiting to die, placing little faith in the promise of a cure, and the slaves don’t supply them with any real reason to think otherwise and are dependent on hydromel supplies from the company for their own survival. The cure itself is administered by the Garm, a strange creature that initially seems as though it may be a threat, but in fact has been doing its best to cure the plague victims and is perfectly capable of communicating with the other characters. Even at the end of the serial, it’s not as if everything is resolved perfectly. In fact, the reason Nyssa decides to stay behind is that she correctly perceives that it will take a lot of work to get Terminus running as well as it could and should, and she wants to be a part of that effort.

This is somewhat darker material than typical Doctor Who fare, and while it makes for a more challenging setup, it leaves some pretty glaring questions unanswered. In general, I found it hard to understand how this situation arose in the first place. Where did the Garm come from and who put it in charge of administering the cure? If the cure actually works more often than not, why does one of the slaves tell Nyssa that nobody ever comes back from meeting the Garm – has it been secretly arranging to transport them off the ship? Then there’s the issue of the entire universe being threatened. Apparently Terminus used to be a time-ship, and the pilot time-jumped the ship forward just after dumping fuel that resulted in a massive explosion, with the explosion itself becoming the Big Bang – and now a similar explosion is impending if the Doctor can’t stop it, causing another Big Bang and wiping out the current universe. I won’t bother quibbling with the science here, but this is presented in an oddly perfunctory manner. If you’re not only going to reveal the origin of the universe but threaten its complete destruction within the space of 90 minutes, you ought to build up to it convincingly, not relegate it to a subplot in between scenes of people running around and hiding in air vents.

The beginnings of a good story are present in “Terminus,” but too many aspects of the premise are left unexplained, and none of the guest characters emerge as particularly interesting or compelling. As has been the case in a number of serials since the show adopted a new style under John Nathan-Turner in Season 18, it feels like the script is taking on too many things at once and ultimately doing justice to none of them.

Other notes:

– Tegan and Turlough do in fact spend the majority of the serial running around and hiding in air vents, to the point that the Doctor doesn’t even realize until close to the end that they’d left the TARDIS at all.

– That said, their conflict at the beginning – where Turlough proves himself capable of lying and manipulating to cover his tracks – is one of the more interesting scenes. Although Turlough clearly doesn’t want to go through with killing the Doctor, he’s definitely more self-centered and less moral than your typical companion. While this obviously makes him less likeable, it does introduce an effective element of unpredictability into the series.

– I commented in my review of “Mawdryn Undead” that it was unclear whether the other characters realized that Turlough is an alien, but it’s evident from the dialogue that they’re aware of it at this point.

Rating: ** (out of four)