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?…