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)

One thought on “Review [DW]: “The Five Doctors”

  1. This is a wonderful nostalgia trip, one I loved as a kid and still enjoy now. The Raston warrior is still impressive, and the hill rolling is brilliant. That is proper acting.


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