Doctor Who #611: The Five Doctors

"Oh, I know, I know. Drag you through time and space without so much as a by-your-leave, then leave you out when things get interesting."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD, originally only as the 1995 extended cut with new effects first released on VHS, and more recently as a Special Edition release that features both the transmitted and extended versions. First aired Nov.23 (in the U.S.) and Nov.25 (in the U.K.) 1983.

IN THIS ONE... A bunch of Doctors and companions race to the tomb of Rassilon before an evil Time Lord can claim immortality. And a new, slick console everyone!

REVIEW: The big 20th Anniversary Special! First off, let me just praise Terrence Dicks for finding a way to complete this puzzle, which must not have been easy as the cast list evolved (write Baker out! write Jamie in! and so on). The final result is mostly a collection of set pieces and definitely could have used more interaction between the Doctors, if only to justify Doc5's unkind comments at the end (he only really interacts with Doc1, who isn't played by Hartnell). The fact that it holds together as well as it does and has the celebratory feel they were aiming for is an achievement in and of itself, excusing, I think, several continuity flubs. Doc3 knows what Doc4 looks like? (Unseen adventure?) Doc2 knows Zoe and Jamie's memories were erased? (More evidence of Season 6B?) Sarah Jane regressed to pre-K9 and Co. levels of fear and uselessness? (In fact, I'm not sure she's EVER been this "wet".) Rogue Yeti with no Great Intelligence to animate them? Tegan criticizes the Master's ruthlessness when she's shot Cybermen at point blank range herself? And Doc2's fur coat from The Abominable Snowmen made me think for years that it was his usual costume (but then, everyone's incidentally wearing a coat; it must have been freezing in the Death Zone).

Viewers more casual than I won't even notice such problems, as the joy is really to see all those old familiar faces again (or discover them for the first time to get you wanting to go back). Troughton steals every scene he's in, of course. Breaking the laws of time to visit the Brig long after his own future UNIT era, making comments about the Brig's replacement and his own, calling Doc3 "fancy-pants", it's all quite fun. Doc3 gets to drive Bessie again, and reverse the polarity of the neutron flow. He's also the most arrogant of the Doctors, sure they can't figure anything out without him. He's the most action-oriented too. Doc5 is allowed to be the hero of the piece, which is absolutely right and probably why all the others were sectioned off into their own threads (at least one of those guys is pretty competitive, and the most competitive of all didn't even show up). Davison is at his most centered and confident somehow, smiling his way through danger and intrigue (maybe a break from Tegan is what he needed). As for companions, Sarah Jane may be a bit useless (was her role supposed to be Jo's?), rolling down gently-sloping hills, for example, but getting the last word on the Doctors from the companions' point of view makes up for it (see quote above). I wish we'd gotten a line of dialog from Susan about her life on 22nd-century Earth, but she's mostly there to keep Turlough company (TARDIS babysitters, bless) and twist her ankle (a cruel inside joke). Tegan gets to team up with Doc1 in her stead, and bristles at a sexism that's meant to echo that of the era, though is a little bit Dicks' too if I judge him by his. Where's Polly when you need someone to make tea, eh? And there's the Brig, probably taking over Jamie's role (Hynes was on-again, off-again due to some misunderstanding), but a good choice because he links several Doctors and both Sarah Jane and Tegan into a unified role. Happily, he gets to punch the Master out!

And then there are the inevitable disappointments, since it wasn't possible to get more of the original actors. Richard Hurndall as a recast first Doctor doesn't really imitate Hartnell so much as re-invent the role from the script he was given, but to an audience who likely had seen little or no Hartnell adventures, he was fine. Hartnell still shows up before the opening theme, in a clip from The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and Hurndall suffers from the comparison. Tom Baker's absence is a whole other bag of jelly babies since he could have made himself available. As the most popular Doctor, I'm sure it was a huge disappointment not to have him along. The cheat is pretty inventive though - use a couple scenes from the unaired Shada, throw in that abominable timescoop effect and voilà (for Who theorists, it's the perfect excuse to explain Shada's canonicity problems). Some companions got the short end of the stick too, though their limited participation was of course appreciated. K9 couldn't have rolled through that marsh anyway. Liz, Yates, Jamie, Zoe in a fantastic bubble wrap outfit... Glad you could come. Ian, Barbara, Vicki, Steven, Polly, Ben, Benton, Jo, Leela (and on Gallifrey too!), Romana I, Nyssa, we missed you (yes, I deliberately left some people off the list).
As for the obligatory nostalgic villains, I've already mentioned the dubious appearance of the Yeti. The lone Dalek who shows up in the hall of mirrors gets taken out early, in a scene that features a very good look at the mutant inside, whipping its tentacles in pain. It may be a Doc1 vignette, but the production won't let you forget these are a the big bad 80s. The Cybermen are better served, though that means walking into massacre after massacre. The Master is of course in attendance (groan) and is one of the story's weak points. Not only isn't he behind the evil plot, but he's there to help the Doctor at the High Council's request, and in exchange for 12 more regenerations (just to confuse that issue a bit more). Lines like "A universe without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about" doesn't have much credibility from someone who was trying to kill him in the previous episode (probably a lie meant for this weak-ass Council who can't do anything it seems without the help of the renegades). No, Borusa is the real enemy, now in his lamest regeneration (the actor is more or less sleep-walking through the part), corrupted by forbidden knowledge and seeking immortality (see Theories). I do like his black frock though; it's a direct quote of the original Time Lord costumes. Strangely, the nostalgia breaks with the introduction of the Raston Warrior Robot, but as crazy an ideas as it is, I love that thing. Great movement, great Cyberman massacre at its hands. But really, should have been an Auton. Apparently, it was supposed to be the Quarks. I guess we dodged a bullet.

I suppose the Anniversaryness of it all makes the production want to use Gallifrey and the Time Lords, but we've gone there too often of late, and each appearance has made the Doctor's people look weaker and sillier. The Five Doctors continues that trend, though part of that is the comparison Dicks makes with the Ancient Time Lords. The whole pre-Rassilon Death Zone stuff doesn't connect very well with what we know of Time Lord history, but does add a power and grandeur to a society that has obviously lost something. Rassilon himself is more god than man, a disembodied face hovering over his dead body (likely a hologram patched into the Matrix), able to fly people through time and space and turn Borusa into a living statue (did Omega get off lightly after all?). Thou shalt not get immortality, says the apparently immortal being. The Death Zone and Rassilon's tomb open up a whole can of questions about the Time Lords, but unfortunately, the Black Scrolls of Rassilon had all the answers and they went up in smoke like a Mission Impossible tape reel. As a set of locations, it's obviously the same Welsh countryside as the Eye of Orion, some interestingly twisted trees, but the paved roads belie its Terran origins. I like that they went for variety (a mine, a marsh, mountains, a river) though. The tower scenes are accompanied by interesting musical cues (the music is good throughout though the amalgam of different themes over the end credits is pretty clunky), and the tomb itself looks like a huge space.

One of the interesting things about The Five Doctors is that, just as it was a puzzle for the script writer, it's also full of puzzles for the Doctor to solve. Some don't work at all. The "easy as pi" checkerboard is complete nonsense, just awful. Indecipherable even had it been consistent. It's just the Master playing hopscotch for minutes on end. Doc3's zip line stunt to the top of the tower suffers from the lucky stash of equipment in the Raston robot's cave, but mostly from the effects. The sag in the rope makes it improbable the Doctor and Sarah could have gotten all the way to the tower. But many of the puzzles are quite clever. The musical tune used to open Borusa's secret door is genius, and the nursery rhymes and riddles surrounding the tomb have a nice flavor to them. But don't consider the mystery of the High Council traitor a puzzle, it's pretty easy to figure out. And really guys, time to clean up your government, you're electing a traitor every other week. How the Council can use emergency powers to elect the Doctor without an actual election, I don't know (and by Council, I basically mean Flavia, there's no one else left). It's really just an excuse to have the Doctor run from his responsibilities so he can have that "how it all began" Anniversary line.

THEORIES: What is wrong with Borusa? Since Gallifrey and the Time Lords (even the renegades) seem to be in synchronized, it makes sense that as much time has passed for the Doctor as for Borusa since we first met the latter in The Deadly Assassin. So how can a sedentary bureaucrat have gone through more regenerations than the Doctor who's been living on the edge all the while? Borusa has now been played by four actors, the last of which was, from the Doctor's point of view, alive and well only a season ago (Arc of Infinity), and given how tight that season's been, probably only a matter of weeks. Assassinations would have been mentioned, and in any case, Gallifreyan assassins use techniques that don't let you regenerate (just like the Castellan in this very story). So is there something wrong with him physically? After all, unlike the Doctor, he's never given a youthful body. His youngest-looking was the one we met him in! Thematically, this plays into the stagnation and decay of Time Lord society as proposed by Robert Holmes. In the plot, it justifies his breaking all the rules to acquire immortality, doesn't it?

VERSIONS: The 1995 version manages to squeeze almost 10 minutes into the the proceedings by restoring a few very short scenes, lines of stray dialog and decontracting the editing so that a second before and after many scenes are included. This turgid version doesn't add very much and in exchange, saps the energy right out of it. Its new effects are a mixed bag. The new energy blasts are superior, of course, and I like how the phantoms fade away like smoke. The "black rectangle" timescoop was awful and needed replacement, but the 90s liquid metal tornado is only marginally better. I'm surprised they didn't redo those shots for the most recent DVD release, frankly, and I hate how it now replaces the TARDIS separating in the farewell scene (even though it was nonsense). Adding sound and light distortion on Rassilon doesn't really seem necessary, and there are a number redubs that mystify, like Doc1 suddenly getting pi's value wrong and the change in harp music. The second Shada scene has been removed too, which makes the slim Doc4 thread that much weaker. The better additions include the Castellan's dialog dubbed over the bicycle bell/t-mat remote, Sarah Jane's amusing bit where she throws a rock at Cybermen and misses, and clarifying dialog about why Susan can't pilot the TARDIS straight to the Tower. You can find all the differences on this website, but the word I'd use to describe the "Special Edition" is "needless". As for the Target novelization, Dicks used to add more detail, like Susan's abduction by the timescoop (she lives in New London with her husband and three children), and scenes cut from the transmitted version but found in the special edition. Insanely, it was released two weeks before the broadcast. Spoilers!

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Taken as a fun romp and an excuse to get a lot of old Doctor Who stars and monsters together, it's perfectly fine. More than fine.


Madeley said...

Britishism note! "Bye or leave" in the quote should be "by-your-leave".

CiB said...

The impression I got wasn't so much that Rassilon was immortal, but that after his death he had programmed the final guardian to look and act like him. That is, it's not Rassilon, just a simulation of him that is probably connected to the Matrix in some way. There are implications elsewhere that the power to regenerate is not natural (See "Zagreus") and that Rassilon is responsible for it. Zagreus tells us that Rassilon imposed the 12 regeneration limit because the molecules that allow regeneration decay. Ths would mean that "fresh molecules" (after all, they're artifical, Rassilon invented them- also revealed in Zagreus) could give a new cycle of regenerations. As for why that's not normally done, from what we see here it's feasible that it's just to prevent immortality- Rassilon is clearly against the idea (which makes his return in the End of Time problematic)

However, if the council can give the Master new regenerations, why can't they give Borusa new ones to? Only explanation I can think of is that they probably can but it's this specific incarnation that wants to live forever, and so "more regenerations" isn't a solution for him.

As for Terrence Dicks and sexism- you're entirely right. His attitude basically is that a female companions job is to look pretty, scream for help and ask the Doctor questions. He's not shy about it admitting it either (I think he does so in "30 years in the TARDIS"- the documentary they made in 1993)

Siskoid said...

Madeley: How strange. That's how I spell it too. Stupid cut and paste from online script that I didn't check properly! Bye or leave doesn't even make any sense.

CiB: The Master might also be a special case because he's in a new body, one that hasn't suffered through 12 regeneration cycles yet.

Freddy said...

I think my favorite part of the five doctors only exists in the special edition. The looks between the 5th Doctor and Susan when she and the 1st Doctor arrive at the TARDIS.
The slight smiles and sideways glances at each other, as she gets to see what her Grandfather becomes, and he gets to see his Granddaughter after a very long time. I absolutely adore that scene, it makes me yearn for more, to see them gossip and catch up, for Susan to rejoin the TARDIS for a while.
But maybe I'm just a massive Susan fan, because I'm also very excited to see both Carole-Anne Ford and William Russell appearing in minor roles in An Adventure in Space and Time for the 50th anniversary.

Siskoid said...

If I didn't mention it it's because a lot of people can't look at that scene and not think she quite fancies him, which is really rather creepy. ;-)

I hope I didn't ruin it for you with this bit of ooh la la.

Madeley said...

What's the policy for New Who spoilers? I have something to add from The Name of the Doctor.

Siskoid said...

If it aired in North America (which it sometimes does later), then it's fair game on this blog. If the DVD is available (and it is), you shouldn't feel any qualms at all.

Madeley said...

Magic. Could the Yeti here be explained by the Great Intelligence being present throughout the Doctor's timeline as per Name of the Doctor?

Siskoid said...

I suppose it could. Aren't there actually shots from The Five Doctors in The Name of the Doctor?

Jeff R. said...

You know, I still want to see the Rastan Warrior Robot in it's 'real' context.

Also, it could be the case that even if you can give new lives in sets of 13, there's a second-order limit to how long you can keep doing that (The 507 total lives figure from that Sarah Jane Episode, say), and Borusa want the kind of serious, deep time-based immortality that even that would be insufficient for.

Siskoid said...

The novels contain some Raston information. The Eight Doctors says they were created by a people older than the Time Lords who used to make WMDs but have since disappeared.

Alien Bodies implies this may be mere marketing and shows such robots manufactured by the Raston Hardware Company, who also make lapdance bots.

Toby'c said...

No comment on the, "No, not the mind-probe," bit? Disappointing.

Siskoid said...

In the end, it was something everyone comments on and there's not much that's new to say about it. I'm a couple of episodes later and Turlough almost wants to say it though!

Bill Doughty said...

I always thought the Doctor and Tegan took the Cybermen's appearance rather lightly considering the whole Adric thing. But I have to put that and any other problems aside, because The Five Doctors is one of my all-time favorite Who stories. I was lucky enough that it was among the first few I ever saw, and the one that definitely explained that whole "they're 5 guys but they're all really one guy" thing to me. To this day it's the first episode I recommend to people interested in starting the original series because it's a Whitman's Sampler of Classic Who.

Siskoid said...

To be fair, the Cybermen aren't DIRECTLY responsible for his death. But yeah.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

I feel that the Master-punch in this one is, in many ways, the decade-deferred epilogue to the entire UNIT era; it petered out in Baker's time, but didn't really conclude until this story nicely wrapped it up with that character-climax. :-)

Also, yes, definitely evidence of Season 6B. 6B is real. 6B must exist. The second Doctor deserves more than murder at the hands of his greatest and most evil foes! He should get to live to a grand old age having adventures with Jamie, as it was always meant to be!
*breaks down sobbing*


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