Sunday, December 18, 2011

Random Who Report: The Five Doctors (1983)

Five Doctors DVD cover and Amazon link

There's a first time for everything. "The Five Doctors" was the very first Doctor Who story I ever saw, when all I knew about the show was a few passages in sci-fi books, the Peter Cushing film Dr. Who and the Daleks, and faint memories of seeing something really creepy on PBS. "The Five Doctors" was a twentieth-anniversary special that ran as a full 90-minute feature (as opposed to being serialized), and while it's not the best story of its era, it's a good introduction, a pastiche of several familiar faces and story elements into a fun if scattershot story. Oh, and it's not quite five Doctors, but we'll get to that.

The current Doctor- being Peter Davison- is on a brief holiday with his companions Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson), when he suddenly starts feeling pangs of weird cosmic pain. A mysterious force is kidnapping his former incarnations (save the fourth- Tom Baker didn't agree to come back so his Doctor gets trapped in a time eddy) and bringing them to Gallifrey, to a remote and shielded land called the Death Zone. The Death Zone was, in ancient times, the site of a series of cruel and bloody games, and it seems one of the Time Lords is interested in playing the games all over again, and has kidnapped the Doctors, as well as several of their old companions, to run them through it. There are also Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti, and a superfast warrior robot, and just to make things more complicated the Time Lord High Council sends the Master (Anthony Ainley) to try and contact the Doctor and help get to the bottom of this.

The game setup for the story was a good idea on the part of writer Terrance Dicks, because it actually provides a justification for throwing together so many disparate elements of the show's past. It also has the appeal of providing a sense of progression towards a goal, and appeals viscerally to the concept of "play", even if the rules of the game are left vague. The Welsh locations used to represent the Death Zone exteriors are grey, foggy, and intensely atmospheric, and overall the set design does a good job of bringing out the fantasy elements in the script. This may have been part of what drew me in so many, many years ago- this was clearly no ordinary sci-fi show.

Looking back, the pace lags just a little, and it's not entirely clear how the great plan  the story's villain has is supposed to work and why it's necessary to run multiple Doctors through the Death Zone. As long as the quest is moving forward we don't care too much, but since the Doctors and their companions don't particularly know what they're doing the story is a little chaotic. There's a sense that it's relying on charm and the fact that it's an anniversary celebration to get by, but to be fair there is plenty of that.

William Hartnell had shuffled off this mortal coil years before, so while he makes an appearance in a pre-credits clip from "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", the part of the First Doctor is played through the rest of the story by Richard Hurndall. (Tom Baker's contribution is represented by clips from the unfinished story "Shada".) The cast and companions are nicely chosen- we have the Doctor's own granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford), the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), Sarah Jane Smith (Lis Sladen), and of course the Fifth Doctor's current team, as well as a few random cameos. As the Master, Ainley excels at hamming it up without feeling inauthentic, and in the scenes on Gallifrey he's nicely counterbalanced by the low-key Philip Latham as Lord President Borusa and the classy Dinah Sheridan as Chancellor Flavia. (Paul Jerrico as the Castellan is less impressive, but I'm not sure anyone could have pulled off the line "No, not the mind probe!")

On the whole it holds up; in a way the spectacle prefigures the new series' Christmas special blowouts, emphasizing action and fun over in-depth drama. There's a place for that, especially in Doctor Who, and "The Five Doctors", though not entirely accurate title-wise, delivers what you expect from an anniversary celebration. And though I can only speak from personal experience, it may still work as an intro to the classic series, showing off much of what was wild and weird and inexplicably charming about it. Or maybe it just worked for me.

Written by Terrance Dicks
Produced by John Nathan-Turner
Directed by Peter Moffat

Grade: B+

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