The Five Doctors

Written by:
Terrance Dicks
Directed by: Peter Moffatt
Starring: Peter Davison, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Richard Hurndall with William Hartnell (insert) and Tom Baker (inserts)
Year: 1983
Video Availability (Original Edition, NTSC Version): Try Amazon

I've debated long and hard about how to cover this story. Obviously, as it's a single 90-minute special, then I can't do it in an episodic format. I could cover it in one long ramble like I did with The TV Movie, but then what about the significantly different Five Doctors Remastered, released in 1995 with new effects, sound and alternate/restructured takes? To this end I decided It'd be fun to review the original, but stopping every ten minutes to watch the Remastered version and pointing out any noticeable differences. Not an anal, second-by-second guide, you understand, but just a "is it more/less crap" objective. Okay, let's get stuck in…

10 Minutes in: The Five Doctors is another smug anniversary tale (anniversary tales are always smug) but isn't quite as silly as those for the 10th and 25th celebrations. Perhaps where it really goes wrong is that Terrance Dicks has written it (presumably intentionally) as a post-modern send-up of its own history. To this end we get the Doctors as parodies of themselves, with Richard Hurndall managing to say "Goodness me!" multiple times, Pertwee reversing the polarity, Susan twisting her ankle, and, come to think of it, even Peter's "you take my breath away" could be a sly dig at his characterisation. Yet whereas fans of the show might chuckle knowingly, to the general public it just confirms that the show really was just a bit cack, and that Troughton's Doctor wasn't a deep manipulator with a dark side, but just a rather silly old man. Perhaps expectedly, Pertwee's Doctor comes out of it the best, as his Doctor was written in such broad strokes anyway that it largely fails to corrode his character.

It's a fanwank dream, of course, and even though I don't actually like it all that much, I always look forward to seeing it more than The Three Doctors. Jon's Doctor gets to meet the Ainley Master as well as the Cybermen, the Doctor gets to remeet Susan (though this is glossed over) and the Master gets to barter with Cybes, too. Perhaps the only fan dream not realised is the sole Dalek duking it out with a Cybe, though Yetis in colour is surely someone's favourite wish.

It opens with a scene in the all-new, tacky Tardis (the console now powered by BBC micros, it seems) where Tegan laughs at the fact that the Doctor can't open the door without banging it. It's a moment that would have made me laugh heartily, were it not for the fact that it's as funny as having one of your testicles surgically removed with a rusty spoon. To be honest, I don't know what annoys me more - the use of the Who theme in the incidental music less than a minute in, or the boom mike shadow on the back of Tegan's head. Fielding started lousy (Logopolis, Castrovalva…) but rapidly improved. Here though she's back in the gutter, all the inherent staginess of her acting brought out by Peter Moffatt's non-direction.

Turlough, the pawn of the Black Guardian who tried to kill the Doctor, now sits around drawing landscapes. A Machiavellian proto genius who now wants to be Rolf Harris. Next, a gloved hand presses some buttons on a BBC micro (But a BBC micro painted black!) and conjures up a John Fitton model of the first Doctor. Oh God, it's four minutes in and already I want to kick the screen in. "A touch of cosmic angst." For f***'s sake! Next we get to Troughton's first scene, which is okay ("I'm allowed everywhere!") but is so far up its own arse it defies logic. Having The Once-Mighty Trout reference his dialogue from The Three Doctors ("You've had this place redecorated, haven't you? Hmm, don't like it") is not only indulgent, but is akin to having Tom quoting his lines from his voiceover ads for Zanussi. I mean, it's The Three Doctors for goodness' sake. Bury it, don't dredge it back up. To add to the misery, we get the pathetic "quick, run for a couple of feet then stop" scene, and Colonel Crichton. David Savile really gets into the role, and says the noxious "Who?" gag with all the comic panache of a STD clinic specialist telling you you've got syphilis. Next we mercilessly segue into a scene that links K-9 and Company fully into the canon of the series, but - thank Christ! - my first ten minutes are up, and I get a reprieve. Only downside is, I now have to watch the same crap all over again on the Remastered vid.

The blurb on the video talked about how this was an alternate to the story proper, and not intended as a replacement. Rather sadly, when the story was slapped onto DVD for the BBC's first try-out of the format for Who, this was the one they used. Hopefully someday the original will get onto disc, with this as an extended extra, and the reportedly hilarious Davison commentary that was used for the US release.

Anyway, while I believe the original should take precedence on principle, this is better. Hartnell's clip (a keen reminder that Hurndall looks bugger all like him) is tainted back to black and white and the theme remixed into Dolby Surround. Ace! The first few moments are the (crap looking, but it works better) corridors of the citadel, with chattering voices. It creates more tension, and the absence of the twee incidental music on Janet and Peter's first scene is a marked improvement. Couldn't remove that boom mike on her head, though. Some knock the CGI time scoops, but I much prefer them to the old black triangles with unintentional lines. In fact, I think they're pretty good actually. In time terms, then, the Remastered version lags slightly behind, with us only a couple of seconds beyond "Great ballsssssssss of fire!" before it's time to go back…

20 Minutes In: I'm quite up for this, to be honest, so the self-congratulatory and dumb-as-you-please gags ("Beware of the dog") aren't as annoying as they usually are, but it's so tacky-looking. Then we get the biggest problem in the special, something that threatens to undermine the whole thing: Tom's absence. While I wonder how Dicks would have been able to write the complex fourth Doctor as a caricature, by having his input as a clip from the incomplete Shada it makes a mockery of what surrounds it. Shada - what exists of it - is a crap story, sure. Douglas Adams was a genius, but this one was rushed and sloppy. Yet, while the 109 seconds from Shada see the fourth Doctor and Romana essentially talking rambling, pseudo-intellectual crap, it's full of more wit, verve and characterisation than the whole of the 88 minutes that surrounds it. Even Adams's off day is in a different league to Terrance Dicks, and it also makes you realise how little genuine fun is in the new material.

Next, we get the Time Lords in horrific bacofoil hats (back to the tack) and Borusa rendering into two dimensions. Saddening. Thankfully, Anthony Ainley comes on, hamming like a mad bastard, and while normally I'd want to slap the silly sod here his purring and mincing is just what the story needs. It certainly doesn't need some bag of bollocks with Hurndall and Carole Ann Ford facing off a Darlickk. And is it just me or is the Doctor saying "I'm being sucked into a time vortex" more than a little bit silly?

"Good old Bessssssie!" It's back with the 90s update, and the more ominous music used really does create a different vibe. I don't know whether this is good or not, because no one ever filled their pants over The Five Doctors, did they? Still, a worthy experiment. Another notable factor is that only Tom is trapped in the vortex, with his punting gear on. This does make more sense, rather than having him put back with his scarf as he was in the original. A fairly major difference is Borusa's entrance, which seems to be through a garden centre, and is accompanied by music even crapper than any used in the original. It's nice to see genuine alternate footage like this, but in fairness you can see why they dropped it.

35 Minutes In: I've never really been overkeen on Richard Hurndall's crude imitation of the first Doctor (or one dimension of him, at any rate) and not just because he's about a foot taller. Yet some have said that the fact he recreated the first Doctor and didn't get positively slated for it is a testament to how reasonable a job he did. And you know what? They're right. He's not great, but he's not awful, and what other actor would have taken such an impossible job on? More credit to the guy.

As much as I hate to say it, the most irritating Doctor by far in this one is Troughton. As a comedy double act then Pat and Courtney are marginally less appealing than a kick up the crutch. Peter is support in his own series, Tom is a slideshow and Hurndall does the best he can. As I said before, Jon comes out of this by far the best, and it is intriguing to think what mime Sarah would have used if she'd been Troughton's companion. "But you changed, you became -" "A big conk and speech impediment? Well, maybe I did, but I haven't yet."

Totally irrelevant observation: maybe The Rolling Stones's Their Satanic Majesties Request would be a good thematic soundtrack to this story. It occurred to me with all the shots of the tower, reminding me of Citadel, but 10,000 Light Years From Home would also capture the story's mixture of quirky mysticism and tack. Anyway, back to the story, and poor Jon is made to say "deviousssssnessssss" as well as "sssssssink or sssssswim". Don't even mention the poor bugger and Rassilon. I think it's this story that cemented Jon as arguably the most popular Doctor with the general public, if not the fans. His interpretation of the role might be reactionary and staid, but he really does give a good authoritative take here - better than most of his performances in his last three seasons - and is far more magnetic on screen than his peers. I never thought I'd say Jon and Ainley are the two best things in a story, but here they very clearly are. The story is starting to engage at this stage, and I actually got so gripped that I forgot the time experiment and watched fifteen minutes instead of ten.

The Dalek scene is still tacky, but the ray effects are much improved. And did I forget to mention the scene in both versions where the first Doctor fails to see the Tardis despite it being in clear sight? For the remastered version, there's not a lot to say here: the lightning bolts landing near the Master are improved, as are the bits where Davison starts to vanish. But in terms of story then there's really no difference.

50 Minutes In: Realising that doing it in runs of fifteen minutes creates the illusion of it being over quicker (and also helps me to follow the story more closely, even though it's simplistic and I've seen it loads like I imagine you have, too) I've amended my plan halfway through the review. So here we are with the next fifteen minutes instead of ten.

With three Cyber patrols it's somewhat overbiased towards them, and perhaps would have benefited from some other foes (Sontarans, maybe? Ice Warriors?) I also read an interview with Gerry Davis saying how he wished he'd had as good a lawyer as Terry Nation, so he could have stopped them denigrating the Cybermen as they do here. That said, while a step down from Earthshock of just the previous year, they still pack some form of metallic menace, and are a vast improvement over their two returns before the series ended. And while the incidental music is hugely variable, I love their theme in this one.

I once came up with a theory that The Five Doctors was based on Alice Through The Looking Glass. I can't remember what the bloody Hell it was about now, but he does quote it here. And there's a chessboard I suppose. Anyway, I love the Doctor's gentlemanly way of allowing the Master to run first, and also the cool way he Transmats out of the situation.

The juggling of the varied characters and situations is much more skilled than might be expected, and it's the series regulars that suffer worst. Davison gets whole chunks of the story in this segment, and is, along with Jon, the only Doctor not to be portrayed as a f***wit. However, while Fielding tries to am dram up her part, Strickson skulks in the sidelines like a neutered tomcat, knowing that even his finely tuned ham is no match for Ainley's. He got outhammed in The King's Demons and now he's sulking.

You know though, the Raston Warrior Robot might be just some ballet dancer with his nuts in a stocking and a bit of silver foil on his head, but he rocks like a daddy, innit? Jon really conveys the danger well, and the scene where he destroys the Cybermen is - while emasculating the cyborgs - a rare workable action sequence in Who. Although the varying skyline and edit blurs may detract slightly, these sequences are also said to be directed by a filling-in John Nathan-Turner. He's clearly much better as a director than Moffatt ever was, though who's to say Moffatt wouldn't have been a great producer?

The only real difference here is that the Castellan automatically recalls the Transmat device, taking away the Doctor's ingenuity somewhat.

65 Minutes In: Some Yeti cobblers here, and it's amazing to think that the same year Nicholas Courtney gave such a serious recreation of the Brigadier in Mawdryn Undead. Here he and Pat are a couple of bumbling old farts performing Christmas cracker jokes for no one's amusement. "Well, at least that terrible hammering's still stopped," says Susan, referring to Hurndall's acting.

Anyway, here come the camp Cybermen, on a Queen's night out. I dunno about you, but when I see one of them falling over, coughing up white stuff, while the Raston Robot's standing all dominant with a toned spandex backside and crotch I often think I've put on gay porn by mistake.

Jon's action sequences might be thick as you like excursions, but they suit both his Doctor and the story extremely well. Certainly much preferable to Turlough and Susan worrying that the Tardis can be blown up by a bomb. "You have to pay to get in?" "It could cost you your life." Terry Nation could have written better, while I always hate Hurndall standing in front of the Cyberman that 'doesn't see him' for about ten minutes. And as I mentioned in my Earthshock review, Tegan getting on the moral highground with the Master over killing Cybermen is more than a little rich. And why should Pi be a changing variant? Still, it is nice to get cameos from Liz and Mike Yates - and I mean that sincerely.

One of the best things about the Remastered version is that the picture quality has been enhanced. This might be why it was chosen for the DVD release actually, because the picture was already cleaned up. In addition to the general improvement of the image clarity, the restoration team also remove the jumps and flares that made the Raston Robot's transitions so distracting. Here we get the biggest change of continuity between the two versions, with the Cybermen's guns now firing back. They still get laid to waste, but at least they put up a bit of a scrap about it. I also thought that an alternate take of the legendary "mind probe" scene was used here. (Which occurred in the previous segment during the original, the Remastered version's action still running slightly behind) However, it's the same take - for me, at least, the reality doesn't live up to the memory, and it's not that Paul Jerricho delivers the line so badly, more that it's just a really bad line.

85 Minutes In: (85? I got into it and watched 20 minutes by mistake) This starts at the exact point where Liz and Mike turn from welcome reminders of the past and into cringing embarrassments. Well, Liz does at any rate - that "scream" is excruciating, though there's worse to come. And that worse comes in the form of Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury. As much as I love the Troughton era it's served abysmally by this story, and my toes involuntarily curl when I hear their "screams", pure panto. As for the second Doctor remembering events post-War Games, then I believe less in "season 6b", more in changing timelines - a theory which I expanded on in my Three Doctors review.

Pound for pound The Five Doctors perhaps contains more embarrassing moments than any other story. None of them are awful, but put them all together and it does cheapen the overall product somewhat. Davison "playing" the harp is just one such sequence that would be best served by having canned laughter placed over the top of it, and even if it's not quite Sophie Aldred's "Booooooooooom!" scene, it still ranks up there with the best of 'em.

Seeing Jon and Pat sharing the screen is always interesting, even if Pat is an irritant here. You can see Jon's timing is thrown by Pat's more instinctive style of jabbing, and he's missing his shots. Complaining of a torn shoulder ligament, he's forced to lean on the ropes, toning down his dominance and relying on the old standby of Pertwee Mouth Stroke Syndrome. He didn't need to here - this is one bout Jon could have won - but The Trout's battles were often won psychologically before they entered the ring, and so Pertwee practically throws in the acting towel. A shame. And when they do the mindlink, poor old Jon looks like he's doing a shit in his pants. As for Rassilon, words just fail me, they really do. Stephen Thorne? We never knew when we had it good, did we?

Philip Latham well deserves his place as a Borusa, though it's a shame that such a likeable character should meet such a horrific end. Living death as a conscious statue - chilling.

The Remastered version is so far behind that the equivalent timing takes us back to the chess board sequence - though a chess board sequence with greatly improved effects. The disappearance of the phantoms is still troubling, though at least here they have a Sapphire & Steelish vapour effect when they disappear. Sadly, though, there are also some additional shots of the Tower, which are cheap and betray their model origins. Wendy Padbury, though - I dunno what she's wearing but I wouldn't half. Continuity is again changed when Rassilon's harp gets a different tune, while the most notable extended scene (the second Doctor and the Brigadier before they meet Jamie and Zoe) illustrates why the new version is longer, yet keeps the same pace.

100 Minutes (and 34 seconds) In: As a quest to find Rassilon's ring (!) then this hasn't got the greatest of plots, but it works well enough for what it is. With its catch-all of featuring everyone's favourite Doctor (unless you're a Colin, Paul or Slyv fan) then I imagine this is possibly the most-watched Doctor Who story amongst fans. Certainly I know I've watched it many, many times, and did actually used to regard it as a fun classic - much the same as it was intended, I guess. However, repeated viewings reveal the story to be thin at best, and the knowledge that when it comes down to it it's really about bugger all does cause it to pall somewhat. It drags, too. I haven't found the place to slot this in before, but for a action romp then it's painfully slow at times. A co-production with ABC, who stumped up $60,000 dollars, it's strange that such a production should look quite so cheap and feature possibly more boom mike shadows than any other 80s story. Could it be all the finance went on housing Jon's ego?

Anyway, time to say goodbye - the original finished five minutes into this part of the experiment so I had to spend ten minutes looking at a blank screen just for authenticity's sake. Much inter Doctor smuggery and Nick Courtney trotting out his one line here, coupled with a multiple Tardis leaving scene that always looked rubbish, even at the time. "After all, that's the way it all started." Never has a slap on the back been less deserved, though the rejigged end theme tune is cool.

Tom's leaving scene matches his entrance (and suggest that Shada's continuity is restored), the multiple Tardis scene is improved, and, in the most desperate example of trying to polish a turd, Richard Mathews's excrable Rassilon has sound and image distortions laid on thick in a fruitless but commendable attempt to improve the story's worst element.

In terms of storytelling and characterisation, this is the series toned down to its bare roots. Not taken seriously it can be a fun run-around, and Peter and Jon's share of the material is highly watchable. Troughton irritates greatly, though, and the special contains more examples of 80s tacky excess and self-satisfied indulgence than it does credible television. This is a series bloated on itself, and it has some of the worst dialogue ever heard in Doctor Who. That said, while a questionable exercise in celebrating the programme, this is far from the worst example of the series, and does work sufficiently well as a no-brain amusement. Almost mediocre.
* *