Splendid fellows, all of you.
For a series about time travel, Doctor Who focuses on its own past almost as much as the historical past. From Season Eighteen on, under producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, continuity references, those canonical recollections of various events and dramatis personae, have come to predominate, sometimes to the detriment of the storylines and befuddling more casual viewers who can’t tell an Omega from an Ogron. When faced with a marquee event such as the twentieth anniversary of Doctor Who, then, the danger is that the self-referential aspects will predominate, overwhelming the plot with a long string of cameos and call-backs. Thankfully, veteran Doctor Who hand Terrance Dicks provides “The Five Doctors” (Story Production Code 6K) with a script that neatly balances reverential appreciation of the series’ long tenure with a genuinely well-paced story that creates just as many memorable moments as it summons up from the show’s history.
Airing as a single ninety-minute episode on November 25, 1983, two days past the actual twentieth anniversary of the initial episode of “An Unearthly Child” first appearing on screens throughout the UK, “The Five Doctors” brings all five of the Doctor’s incarnations together in a story that plays to their individual strengths while still respecting the primacy of the current inhabitant of the role, Peter Davison. Well, sort of all five, with Richard Hundall standing in as the First Doctor for William Hartnell, who died some eight years earlier in 1975, and Tom Baker being represented solely through clips from “Shada,” which remained uncompleted and unaired due to industrial action at the end of Season Seventeen. Baker withdrew from active participation after originally agreeing to appear, but as much as it would have been nice to see that curly mop of hair back in action as the Fourth Doctor, his absence gives more room for Hundall, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee to strut their stuff upon the crowded stage.
Dicks’ story breaks very little new ground, being ultimately a rehash of “Arc of Infinity,” with its focus on Gallifreyan politics, and, curiously, the much maligned “Time-Flight” and “Death to the Daleks” in the exploration of an ancient—and lethally guarded—sanctum by the Doctor(s) and companions. His structuring of the story, though, contrives to keep the first three Doctors separate, each having been kidnapped, along with a companion, by a “time scoop” and deposited into a different part of the subtly-named Death Zone on Gallifrey, home of the long-abandoned Game of Rassilon that saw “lesser” beings forced to fight to the death. The Fourth Doctor and Romana (Lalla Ward), meanwhile, are plucked from punting the River Cam and trapped in the Vortex by a failed time scoop, the better to sideline them for the entirety of the story.
The Fifth Doctor painfully suffers the loss of each of his prior selves as they are removed from the time stream, and as he slips in and out of consciousness, he sets the TARDIS to find them. The blue box takes him, Tegan (Janet Fielding), and Turlough (Mark Strickson) to “nowhere, in no time,” in the latter’s words, a fine description of the Death Zone, which itself is a foggy plain of rocks, dominated by the Dark Tower, host to the Tomb of Rassilon. The scene, replete with the Third Doctor’s beloved Bessie driving down dusty slate-lined roads, very much calls to mind the antimatter world from the tenth anniversary story, “The Three Doctors,” and in truth, could any celebration of twenty years of Doctor Who fail to feature a quarry?…
It’s not just the Doctor(s) who are summoned to the Death Zone, with a healthy sampling from the show’s rogues’ gallery making appearances: the Daleks, the Yeti, the Cybermen, and the Master (Anthony Ainley) all ply their villainous trade in “The Five Doctors,” though Dicks takes the renegade Time Lord on an intriguing arc. The High Council of the Time Lords—Councilor Flavia (Dinah Sheridan), the Castellan (Paul Jerricho), and the regenerated Lord President Borusa (Philip Latham)—offer their black sheep a fresh cycle of regenerations if he investigates the dangerous power drain from the Death Zone and helps the Doctor escape. Such a tempting prize sways the swain, and when he muses, “A cosmos without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about,” there’s a hint of the camaraderie that has always pervaded the relationship between these two old chums from the Time Lord Academy.
The three Doctors each move through the Death Zone accompanied by an era-appropriate companion and confronted by equally iconic foes. The First Doctor finds himself in a replica of the angular corridors on Skaro, somehow even more ominous in color than they appeared in black and white twenty years prior. He encounters Susan (Carole Ann Ford), who is shocked to see her grandfather (and who refrains from complaining about being stranded on Earth to live with a boy she just met); their reunion proves short lived as the telltale shadow of a Dalek preceeds the perfidious pepperpot around a corner. Much running through hallways leads them to a dead end, but in an echo of their initial encounter, the two push the Dalek from behind into a dead end, disorienting it and causing it to fire blindly at the conveniently mirrored walls, the ricochets returning home to explode the travel machine and reveal the flailing, goo-covered tentacled slug inside, with a violent flourish that reminds viewers it’s no longer 1963.
Scooped away from UNIT HQ, the Second Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) trundle towards the Dark Tower, urged on their way by a Cyberman who grabs hold of the Brig’s leg through a broken wall. Troughton bundles up in an overlarge fur coat best remembered from “The Abominable Snowmen,” and right on cue, the pair are chased into the tunnels beneath the Tomb of Rassilon by none other than a Yeti. Sadly, director Peter Moffatt—like Dicks, a steady and reliable Doctor Who contributor—gives but glimpses of the fur-festooned beast, never holding the camera steady for more than a handful of frames before the Second Doctor finds a firecracker in his coat of endless pockets with which to drive it off.
Taken by the time scoop separately, the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) meet by happenstance, as the beloved companion is carried off while jumping away from the temporal anomaly on Earth, leading to her tumbling down a cliff when she appears in the Death Zone. Bessie and the Third Doctor pass by at that very moment Sarah Jane arrives, and after a quick rescue and some perfunctory greetings, they encounter the Master. The old foes fail to see eye-to-eye, with the Third Doctor taking away the Seal of the High Council given to the Master as proof of his good intentions and then leaving him behind as the Cybermen begin to attack.
Those same Cybermen save the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane after the path to the rooftop entrance to the Tomb proves to be guarded by the newly invented Raston Warrior Robot (Keith Hodiak). The sleek, shiny silver killing machine moves “like lightning,” according to the Third Doctor, seeming to disappear after jumping into the air like an extra in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical playing at the time on the West End. Preoccupied with dismantling the Cybermen in an extended and fairly gratuitous fight scene, the robot fails to notice the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane slip through the opening it was meant to guard.
In the interim, the First Doctor and Susan find the TARDIS; upon entering, they encounter the recovering Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough. The first of many rounds of startled introductions and awkward greetings ensues. It’s evident from this, and subsequent, scenes that everyone involved has a love, or at least deep respect, for the series and for those who have worked on it. Davison in particular puts much feeling into meeting Carole Ann Ford’s Susan, the Fifth Doctor’s putative granddaughter. It’s a shame the script doesn’t extend the same courtesy, as Ford’s character receives next to no attention throughout, not that the other companions fare much better in this one.
The Fifth Doctor lights out for the Tomb, but he encounters the Master instead. Unlike his predecessor, the Doctor at least entertains the idea that his arch rival intends to help, but the Cybermen pop up and start blasting before their parley makes much headway. The Master is hit by flying rubble, but the Doctor grabs his transmat return device and finds himself back in the High Council chambers, where the political part of the story kicks in.
The Doctor immediately starts asking questions about how the Death Zone and Time Scoop could have been reactivated, and he discovers a homing beacon in the transmat return device which allowed the Cybermen to find the bearer. Given that the Castellan provided the device to the Master, and with a subtle nod to their prior conflict in “Arc of Infinity” that nearly saw the Doctor put to death, suspicion falls on the Castellan, compounded by the discovery of the forbidden Black Scrolls of Rassilon in his room. Protesting his innocence, he tries to escape the guards, who kill him far too tidily for the Doctor’s liking. (As in “Arc of Infinity” with the death of Councilor Hedin, though, one has to wonder why killing someone who can regenerate is considered a useful means of stopping someone from talking…)
The only logical suspect in the reactivation of the Death Zone becomes his long-time friend, Borusa, confirmed when the Doctor returns to the High Council chamber and finds the Lord President hiding in a secret room (entered by playing the right tune on the, ah, Harp of Rassilon) which contains the controls to the Death Zone and time scoops, represented by miniature figures of the participants on a lit geometric surface. Borusa wishes to claim the Ring of Rassilon, buried with its namesake in the Tomb, in order to gain immortality, and he summoned the Doctor (and constituent parts) to brave the dangers needed to retrieve it. (Dicks never quite makes clear if Borusa injects the Yeti, Daleks, Cybermen, and Raston Warrior to fulfill the requirements of the Game of Rassilon that “unlocks” the ring when the conditions or met or if the Death Zone itself, via Rassilon’s restless spirit, materializes them. The Cybermen express consternation that they have been trapped there and need the TARDIS and at least one Time Lord to fly it, even though they later try to blow up the blue box as a bit of narrative padding.)
The on-screen relationship between the Doctor and Borusa stretches through each of the “Gallifreyan” stories, all the way back to “The Deadly Assassin,” where then-Cardinal Borusa never believed the Fourth Doctor to have been the killer. Borusa also, however, showed a willingness in that story to lie in order to preserve the veneer of infallibility that serves the Time Lords almost as powerfully as their ability to travel through time and to regenerate. He further sees no choice but to sacrifice the Doctor to stop Omega in “Arc of Infinity,” a continuing belief in the supremacy of the needs of the Time Lords, at least as he understands them. It’s not much of a reach, then, for Dicks to have Borusa subvert the highest precepts of Time Lord law and custom in order to perpetuate his vision of what the Time Lords should be, with him as President Eternal thanks to the immortality granted by the Ring of Rassilon.
Still, this heel turn serves as perhaps the weakest part of the story just from a standpoint of being far too “in the weeds” of canon and continuity; there’s no character development or explication offered for viewers tuning in to the anniversary special because they heard the Daleks and the guy with the scarf might show up, leaving this nuanced, painstakingly established figure with all the depth of a panto villain for those in the audience without a copy of Peter Haining’s Doctor Who: A Celebration, the sumptuous hardback released two months earlier in conjunction with the anniversary, replete with capsule summaries of all the stories through “The King’s Demons.”
The First, Second, and Third Doctors all finally converge upon the Tomb of Rassilon, companions in tow, with the First Doctor having made the trek alongside Tegan, leaving Susan and Turlough to wait in the TARDIS. Along the way, both the Second and Third Doctors encounter visions of other companions attempting to dissuade them from continuing: Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) confront the Second Doctor, seen for the first time in color, while Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) and Liz Shaw (Caroline John) stand in the Third Doctor’s path, much as Adric appeared before Tegan and Nyssa in “Time-Flight” as phantoms—and also as nice little cameos.
The three Doctors argue agreeably amongst themselves, all in fine fettle and showing off their trademark styles, while Tegan, the Brigadier, and Sarah Jane commiserate about being dragged along and left in the dark while the fate of the universe is decided yet again. Still, when the Master shows up, rather upset that no one believed he had been willing to help, he decides to steal the Ring of Rassilon for himself, regardless of the curious inscription translated by the Third Doctor: “To lose is to win, and he who wins shall lose.” A quick punch to the jaw from the Brigadier puts paid to that plan, and Tegan and Sarah Jane tie up the Master, his part in proceedings brought to an end.
With the Fifth Doctor under the mental control of Borusa thanks to the, sigh, Coronet of Rassilon—and, seriously, one wonders if better stocked medicine cabinets on Gallifrey aren’t filled with the Toothpaste of Rassilon at this rate—the would-be immortal leader of the Time Lords strides through the transmat straight into the Tomb of Rassilon, Doctor in tow, intent on taking the prize for himself. The four Doctors combine their mental energy and resist Borusa’s power, but the effort awakens the spirit of Rassilon (Richard Mathews), whose giant disembodied head announces, “This is the Game of Rassilon.” Borusa claims the ring as his right, but Rassilon asks several times if he truly wishes to possess immortality. The First Doctor understands what is at stake, and he alone avers that Borusa should indeed receive the prize if he so desires. In a twist quite neatly foreshadowed by the busts of former Time Lords beneath Rassilon’s burial plinth, Borusa claims the ring—and an immortal future as a stone head, imprisoned forever. He who wins shall, indeed, lose.
Heartfelt goodbyes then round out the story, and the TARDIS splits into separate entities, one for each of the Doctor and companion duos. Rassilon’s spirit promises the Fourth Doctor will be fine, spirits the Master away, and returns to a long slumber, just as Councilor Flavia appears and informs the Fifth Doctor that he has been appointed Lord President. Our time traveling hero has been there and has done that, so after using his new powers to appoint Flavia his deputy in all things, he, Tegan, and Turlough beat a hasty retreat, but not before Dicks puts a tidy coda on proceedings:
Tegan: You mean you’re deliberately choosing to go on the run from your own people in a rackety old TARDIS?
The Doctor: Why not? After all, that’s how it all started.
That appreciative filigree sums up how to best understand “The Five Doctors”—above all, it celebrates the series, with a mixture of reverence and playfulness. The story itself shows a degree of workmanship on Dicks’ part, always moving forward and modular in structure in order to accommodate the ever-shifting cast roster, which itself proves indicative of the resourceful and and times improvisational nature of the show’s production. Dicks himself only took up the script after Robert Holmes stepped down from the assignment, underlining the speed with which he needed to work. But when was it ever not so for Doctor Who?
Though the plot moves along with a brisk pace, the script isn’t perfect by any means. Dicks invests scrupulous effort to keeping the three Doctors essentially even in stage time, allotting marginally more to Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor as the current title holder, sometimes at a cost to the story as a whole but also suggesting just how important they all were—and are. Still, the four of them step into the characters with ease, Hundall certainly honoring his predecessor with a measured take on the First Doctor’s curmudgeonly behavior. Troughton and Pertwee have a genuine rapport, as earlier demonstrated in “The Three Doctors,” and Davison plays well against all of them in their limited shared screen time.
More care could, and should, have been paid to keep the companions engaged in the story, even though the script is full to bursting as things stand. Elisabeth Sladen in particular has to play Sarah Jane very much against type as someone who complains and is afraid for almost all of her lines; only glimpses of the stalwart companion willing to face her fears shine through here. Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson as Tegan and Turlough make way for the other companions for the most part, though Fielding does get some strong scenes with Hundall, her enlightened modern views conflicting with flinty sparks against the First Doctor’s decidedly old-fashioned attitudes.
Parts of the story don’t really cohere—the entire purpose of the Game of Rassilon remains unexplored; we don’t see Susan taken by the time scoop, leading to a suspicion she might be an imposter, which is only heightened by her lack of lines; and the Castellan’s death at the hands of Gallifreyan security suggests a deeper corruption—but the sum total of the experience leaves viewers delighted, if only because we got to see old friends again.
These old friends matter. This kind of history, this revisiting of familiar faces being put through new paces, feels like the best kind of canon, the most worthwhile kind of continuity. I smile as much as the next fan when reference is made to the giant squid god of Kroll or the outlawed Miniscope, but I wouldn’t want to revisit those stories again. No, Doctor Who‘s real history, the Doctors and companions and friends, and the way they relate to one another—that’s the canon that matters, and “The Five Doctors” honors it in style.
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Post 134 of the Doctor Who Project