Doctor Who Project: The Five Doctors

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.

Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, and Peter Davison as Tegan, Turlough, and the Fifth Doctor

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.

Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, and Richard Hundall as the Third, Second, and First Doctors

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.

Tom Baker and Lalla Ward as the Fourth Doctor and Romana, trapped in a broken time scoop

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?…

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Doctor Who Project: The Three Doctors

Ah, so you’re my replacements. A dandy and a clown.

Certain Doctor Who stories stand out in the series because of their plots, others for their villains or their effects, for good or for ill. Season Ten opener “The Three Doctors” (Story Production Code RRR), by regulars Bob Baker and Dave Martin, remains remarkable due to the casting: all three Doctors to date, in the same place (mostly) at the same time. Beyond the surface conceit, however, “The Three Doctors” also occupies a special place in the series because Baker and Martin deepen the backstory of the Time Lords, giving viewers the clearest insight yet into this heretofore mysterious race of regenerating time travellers. Too, they inadvertently point out that the series requires a single strong lead figure, with companions relegated to an assistant role—too many Doctors spoil the soup.

Attack of the Blob Things

Earth is once more in danger due to the Doctor’s presence on the planet, this time from exceedingly strong cosmic ray bolts that serve as a conduit from a gigantic black hole, depositing bulbous, shambling creatures with a predilection towards explosions, all of which are programmed to seek out the Doctor. The bolts work both ways, and before long several people (not to mention laboratory equipment and, eventually, a chalet) are scooped up and sent into whatever awaits in the middle of the black hole. OK, it’s a quarry at the other end, but it’s an anti-matter quarry sustained by the will of Omega, a revered hero of the Time Lords.

Once the Time Lords uncovered the secret of time travel, they still needed an energy source to power their actual travel through time. Omega, the foremost solar engineer amongst the ancient Time Lords, provided such power but was thought lost in the resulting supernova. Unbeknownst to the Time Lords, however, Omega instead remained trapped beyond the event horizon of a black hole, and through the sheer force of his will, he harnesses the power of the singularity at the heart of the black hole to create a pocket of matter in a sea of anti-matter. And there he has waited, for countless thousands of years, alone, the desire for revenge growing constantly.

Omega, Solar Engineer Extraordinaire

To take his vengeance, Omega begins to drain the power from the Time Lords’ energy source, using the threat of their annihilation (and, coincidentally, that of the universe) as leverage to force the Doctor to take his place. Omega cannot escape unless a sufficiently powerful will remains behind to sustain the conduit. But because the Time Lords, in their desperation, violate the First Law of Time™ and cross the Doctor’s time stream not once, but twice. Omega has three Doctors with whom to contend—as does the Brigadier, who frankly thinks one is enough…

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Capaldi Calls It Quits: Twelfth Doctor to Regenerate

It took the original run of Doctor Who eighteen seasons to reach its Fifth Doctor. The new series has reached that milestone in ten seasons, as the BBC has announced that Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor (fourth of the current run) will be leaving the series at the end of Series Ten, due to start April 15th of this year:

The decision seems to be on the part of Peter Capaldi rather than the BBC, which I imagine would have liked to have a familiar face on screen as new showrunner Chris Chibnall takes over for Series Eleven. Not that I can blame Capaldi, since the series has seemed an afterthought on the part of the BBC for some time, with extended hiatuses the norm.

The Twelfth Doctor

I must confess that I never quite warmed to this iteration of the Doctor. Though I greatly appreciated the return to the more mature and irascible sort of Gallifreyan as depicted by William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, Capaldi’s Doctor never seemed to have scripts with sufficient depth of character to allow him to really shine. His portrayal might have fared better in the original run; I can see him performing quite well in some of Troughton’s stories, and Capaldi has always appeared to have a love of the show and the character that matches Hartnell’s similar appreciation for the role.

The timing of the announcement seems a bit odd, as an entire series of Capaldi’s era, plus a Christmas special, remains to be aired. Ostensibly, there’s no way to keep this news silent once the decision is made, but I wonder if the inevitable speculation frenzy over the next Doctor will overshadow the stories to come. And will the BBC choose (and announce) a new Doctor a good year before we can expect a Series Eleven? Only time (which Time Lords seem to have in spades) will tell…

Doctor Who Project: Patrick Troughton Retrospective

Doctor Who Project: Patrick Troughton Retrospective

In many ways, Patrick Troughton is both the “missing” Doctor and the most important Doctor of them all.

A bemused Second Doctor

When Patrick Troughton took over the role from William Hartnell in the famous dissolve shot at the end of “The Tenth Planet,” he proved that Doctor Who as a concept could last beyond the tenure of a single Doctor. A failure of the audience to embrace this change in actors—indeed, this change in the very nature of the character itself, from wizened curmudgeon to puckish raconteur—would have ended the series for all time. It is to Troughton’s credit that he succeeded quite resoundingly, becoming the Second Doctor, not the Final Doctor.

And yet, he’s nearly unknown to modern viewers of Doctor Who, perhaps remembered for his pipe flute and iconic showdown with the Cybermen on Telos but not recognized as the Doctor who fully advocated aggressive intervention when necessary to fight evil in all its guises, who allowed people to underestimate him (to their own chagrin and, often, peril), who managed to combine slapstick with seriousness. He’s merely that “other” black-and-white era Doctor, the one without the scarf or the car or the celery stick. It’s a status worth changing.

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Doctor Who Project: The War Games

Doctor Who Project: The War Games

I had every right to leave.

Doctor Who begins here. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Doctor begins here.

Where he stops, no one knows

If “The Tomb of the Cybermen” provides the essential formula for what has come to be understood as a “proper” Doctor Who story, then Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke’s ten episode opus, “The War Games,” (Story Production Code ZZ) establishes the character of the Doctor for all time to come. For here, we learn that the Doctor is a Time Lord, and a renegade at that, on the run in a stolen TARDIS.

The Doctor’s people had been hinted at, if not named, back in Dennis Spooner’s “The Time Meddler,” with the Meddling Monk possessing a TARDIS of his own, and a sense of their prevailing ethos of non-interference comes through via the Monk’s counter-example. The Doctor expresses utter shock, on a moral level, not merely at the intended effects of the Monk’s mucking about with history but even more so at the very thought of any direct, intentional interference at all. “The War Games” explains why the Doctor feels that way, even as he is hoist upon his own interfering petard in the end.

The notion of the Doctor being called to task for his own interference could have been a story all its own; instead, Dicks and Hulke brilliantly weave the Doctor’s growing sense of dread at re-encountering the Time Lords throughout another story about the human propensity for war, with the Time Lords only appearing in the very final episode of the story and the season. It’s a reveal more powerful than any Dalek surfacing from the Thames or Cyberman punching through plastic, because this time, we don’t know if the Doctor will win.

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Doctor Who Project: The Space Pirates

Doctor Who Project: The Space Pirates

Jumping galactic gobstoppers!

It’s sadly fitting that the last of Doctor Who‘s “missing episodes” stories happens to be one of its most visually ambitious to date. Robert Holmes’s “The Space Pirates” (Story Production Code YY) features extensive model work, with three well-differentiated types of spaceships on display both inside and out, not to mention an underground mining complex and a series of exploding space beacons. And of its six episodes, only one is known to exist.

Space Beacon Alpha One

That one episode, Episode Two, features nine model-centric telecine inserts according to the shooting script, quite on the high side, and it’s just as well we have all these shots of spaceship models drifting against a starless, all-black background, because the story itself, much like Holmes’ debut story, “The Krotons,” lacks the same degree of ambition. It’s not a bad story per se, but it doesn’t feel very much like a Doctor Who story, because, as has been the case for much of this season, the Doctor and his companions are not the most important characters.

Oh, the Doctor saves the day, of course, and it’s likely that many lives would have been lost had the TARDIS not materialized at random inside Space Beacon Alpha Four just when the eponymous pirates arrived to plunder it for its valuable argonite ore, but we don’t even see our time travelling heroes until more than ten minutes have elapsed, by which time the viewer has met a good half-dozen speaking characters, all of whom are engaged in prodigious info dumps on a scale not seen since “The Daleks’ Master Plan.” Even the Doctor’s coat of many objects cannot save Patrick Troughton from playing second fiddle to the only actor in the show to have ever challenged William Hartnell for fluffing lines: Gordon Gostelow as Milo Clancey. Think erratic Forty-niner miner with a muddled Wild West accent who somehow owns a decrepit interstellar ore freighter and you’re on the right track.

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