Monday, June 7, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Five Doctors"

The thing about the "grab bag" review format is that it does produce some weird results. I've reviewed one First Doctor story and one Fourth Doctor story and suddenly I've got to review a special, anniversary episode from 1983!

Oh well, I obey the rules of the "bag" and so.....


I have to say that this story had such a long, involved incubation that I could actually write a Master's Thesis length document just on what went wrong (and right) about the genesis of the episode. I will, however, spare whoever is reading this that and try to keep things simple while still giving some idea of the scope involved.

A little background: 1973 marked the 10th anniversary of Doctor Who and the event was commemorated then by gathering the (then) three actors who had played the Doctor into an adventure called "The Three Doctors". The story seemed to "have it all" -- Time Lords, three incarnations of the Doctor, and even a Time Lord villain.... who was NOT the Master.

Even before 1983 rolled around, producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner was planning for the show's 20th anniversary and he wanted it to be bigger and better than the previous one. To that end he set about securing a script writer and lining up casts. He wanted to get every single surviving actor who had played the Doctor (William Hartnell, the First Doctor, having passed away in 1975) and several of the more popular companions who had been associated with the various Doctors.

Almost immediately there were problems. The original writer was having trouble with the story and eventually bowed out. He was replaced by show staple writer Terrance Dicks. Also, a great many of the original proposed cast members ended up either being unable to participate or else were forced to bow out before filming. Almost fatally, there was, apparently, a miscommunication between Nathan-Turner and actor Tom Baker in which Nathan-Turner believed that Baker was a lock for reprising his role as the Fourth Doctor while Baker has claimed that he had initially responded that he wanted time to think it over and eventually decided to opt out. Baker had, after all, only left the role about three years earlier and in those intervening years had found himself typecast.

With the Fourth Doctor out this put a strain on the script. One of the original ideas for the script was that the main villains would be the Cybermen and that they would create an android duplicate of the First Doctor and his granddaughter Susan and this would explain away the changed appearance as they hired a different actor to play Hartnell's role. They also felt that since this First Doctor would, in essence, be an impostor, it would still honor the memory of Hartnell by NOT actually recasting the role. With the Fourth Doctor out, however, the story was now shaping up to be more like "The Three Doctors and the Android Impostor Doctor". Nathan-Turner had discussed matters with Hartnell's widow and, to his surprise and delight, she actually gave permission for him to go ahead and recast the role. As such actor Richard Hurnall was approached to play the First Doctor. As for Tom Baker's part Nathan-Turner was still set on having all five Doctors appear in the story and as such he used a few clips from the unfinished and unaired Fourth Doctor story "Shada" to represent the Fourth Doctor in the story.

Finally, there was the matter of scheduling. With the way Doctor Who seasons were running at that time the previous series ended in March of 1983 with Fifth Doctor Peter Davison filming a sitcom during the off season before coming back to Doctor Who. In order to fit everything in Nathan-Turner received permission to film "The Five Doctors" as a movie-length episode and push back the start of the next season to fit it in. As a final flourish, he decided to have the movie debut during the BBC's annual telethon "Children in Need" -- a telethon to raise money for various children's services and charities.

As time approached for the story to air the episode was heavily advertised. Nathan-Turner planned a series of publicity photographs for the story and wanted all of the Doctors to appear in them. Tom Baker's refusal to participate left something of a noticeable gap so, rather infamously, Nathan-Turner arranged to borrow Baker's wax figure from Madame Tussuad's wax museum in London and the rest of the cast members posed with this.

Five years after the story originally aired the decision was made to "remaster" the story, adding some cut scenes and "improving" some of the special effects. Some fans, however, were not pleased with the "improvements" and as a result a special edition of the DVD was eventually produced which contained BOTH the original 1983 transmission as well as the longer, and improved later version. This review will actually consider both versions.


Well. There is something to be said for the fact that, until the abysmal "Dimensions in Time" special in the 1990's (I'll get to that one later) this was the last multi-Doctor story featuring as many of the Doctors as possible. With the passage of time Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee have joined William Hartnell in the Great Beyond and Tom Baker, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy no longer look so well, nor is their health always so great. I'm NOT saying they're going to pop off the mortal coil anytime soon, I'm just saying they aren't the Doctors they were. There was "Time Crash" but that's another thing I'll get around to later. Let's just leave it at "The Five Doctors" was pretty much the Last Great Multi-Doctor Story.
It does indeed seem to have everything fans could want -- iconic companions like Susan, Sarah Jane, Jamie, Zoe, K-9 and the Brigadier, iconic enemies like the Master, Daleks, Cybermen, and Yeti, and iconic places like Gallifrey and it's culture and history. The story is drenched in nostalgia both old and new -- everything from the Second Doctor's fur coat to the Third Doctor's yellow roadster Bessie, to the Doctor's friend and mentor Borusa -- not seen too long before. Upon the first airing in November 1983 it must have been like a fans' early Christmas and even for subsequent generations there is a magic in the first viewing -- it feels like everything fans love about Doctor Who.
Unfortunately, subsequent viewings over time seem to rub the shine off. Once one gets past all the bright, shiny, fan-y stuff it is too easy to start seeing all the plot holes left in a script that was sadly written and re-written. Things such as the First Doctor referring to his age and implying he is old when he is, in fact, the youngest of them and the Fifth Doctor being called a "young man" by his other selves when they know good and well that he's older than each of them. There is also the fact that we know the Doctors are being taken out of their relative places in the timeline yet the Third Doctor greets the Brigadier as if he hadn't seen him in a long time. This makes no sense since, by the Third Doctor's timeline he had probably seen the Brig not that long ago. And I could go on... but that would get nitpicky. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of things that don't add up. And then the [fill in the blank] of Rassilon gets a little laughable after a while... Black Scrolls of Rassilon, Coronet of Rassilon, Harp of Rassilon for goodness sake! It's all a bit too much.
Also, after "The Deadly Assassin" the show increasingly went to Gallifrey so what was once a mysterious and seemingly cold, hidebound society became something more familiar... and govenmentally bureaucratic. With "The Five Doctors" it feels almost as if all the alienness has been worn off of Time Lord society and the whole thing bears the stamp of modern, human politics.
As for the rest of the story -- most of the performances are delightful. Carol Ann Ford (Susan) is not given very much to do, really, but in her cries of "Grandfather!" viewers can hear the young Time Lady she once was. Although throwing in her twisting her ankle JUST to have her do a ankle twisting scene as a tribute to the past is eye-rollingly bad. Likewise, Mark Strickson, who played the Fifth Doctor's companion Vislor Turlough, gets sidelined throughout most of the story and given some of the most inane and pointless lines of dialog. This is doubly sad since his character had only recently polished off a big character arc. Janet Fielding as Tegan manages to hold her own, Elizabeth Sladen recaptures the different relationship she had with Jon Pertwee's Doctor and it works well and warmly, and Nicholas Courtney is a Brigadier-y as he ever was.
In regards to the Doctors... Richard Hurndall turns in a decent performance but he is simply not William Hartnell and seeing him just seems like a poor copy of the original... something that is a disservice to both Hurndall AND Hartnell. Peter Davison holds his own amongst such a famous and talented bunch of actors and really projects a sense of his version of the Doctor as the 'peacemaker', trying to keep the more fractious among his past selves from starting fires. Too bad he never gets to interact that much with the other Doctors -- it would have been delightful to see him get to do whole scenes with Pertwee and Troughton as he does with Hurndall. Troughton... Troughton just slips back into being the Doctor with the same ease as he slips into the fur coat. He bickers humorously with the Brigadier and with a genuine warmth and ease and yet there is also the dark side to him. It is Troughton's Doctor who admits that Rassilon may not have been the lauded hero Time Lord history has made him out to be... and he implies that he seems inclined to believe these darker tales. Jon Pertwee is ever the man of action and it is fun seeing him face off against the Master... even is it isn't the version of the Master he once knew.
The story also falls down a bit on the villain. It is supposed to be a shocking twist to fans but really it feels more like a sudden and inexplicable heel turn for the character. There is also the fact that viewers are being so obviously led to think this might be the Master that it does the opposite... viewers know it CAN'T be the Master because it's so obvious.
There is also the sequence where the Cybermen are decimated by the Raston Warrior Robot. Okay, so the robot costume hasn't aged well -- it looks like what it is -- a dancer in a silver bodysuit with a zipper up the back. But the robot itself is still a really good idea and the scenes of it slicing through the Cybermen like a hot knife through butter are chilling. It's made even more chilling by the rather graphic violence of it. Cybermen get arms snapped off, heads lopped off, chests blown open... one even actually looks like he vomits before expiring... it's all a bit terribly disturbing even today.
For the story itself, it must really be viewed on two levels. One level, as a fan in which critical thinking flies out the window. The performances are spot-on and it is a delight to see the past Doctors having a romp again. It also puts a smile on your face to see and hear some old familiar favorites such as Bessie and "You've redecorated.... I don't like it." The other level, as a logical, more critical viewer in which it must be admitted that the story is thin and filled with more plot holes than a piece of swiss cheese and in which several characters which deserve to be treated better basically get benched.
I did say as well that I was going to look at BOTH versions... Well, all things considered, the later version doesn't differ all that much from the original transmission. The extended scenes really don't add all that much to the story and, in most cases, the improved special effects are not so great. In the 1983 version each Doctor and companion are pursued by a black, trapezoidal shape and, when captured, their faces appear inside the trapezoid, frozen in expressions of fear and/or panic. It is actually a scary moment because, not only do we not know what is going on, it looks as though the act of taking the Doctors and their friends might actually be painful to them... this is hurting them. The later version replaced these black trapezoids with swirling, spiral cone shapes in which the images can vaguely be seen inside but not with any degree of clarity. On the one hand, they look better but on the other hand they do not convey the menace of the original.
Likewise, the original ending in which all the Doctors and their respective companions seem to enter the same TARDIS to go home only to see TARDISes split off and fly away was sweet even if the special effects for it look a little clunky today. Having the spiral cones take them all back home in the remastered edition does not seem to have the same charm.
The DVD is also absolutely packed with extras. The also interestingly split up the commentary tracks with the actors who played the companions providing an often irreverent commentary on the 1983 edition while Peter Davison and script writer Terrance Dicks provide a more technical commentary on the remastered version. There is also a lovely, lovely Easter Egg (and no, I can't tell you how to find it) of Tenth Doctor David Tennant, new series producer Phil Collinson and
new series script writer Helen Raynor providing commentary on the episode from the viewpoint of having been fans and actually watched the story when it first aired. There are also the other goody bag extras like outtakes, bloopers, a documentary on how the story came about (really interesting stuff there), publicity interviews and much more.
Overall, if you're a real fan then the 25th Anniversary Edition of "The Five Doctors" is a must have. Just make sure you turn off the critical and logical portions of your brain before you sit down to watch it. Put yourself in fan mode and enjoy the ride as this would be the last time we would see some of these actors working together as their wise, weird, and wonderful versions of the Doctor.

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