“The Five Doctors” is a special adventure between the 20th and the 21st season of “Doctor Who” classic series, which aired on November 25, 1983. It follows “The King’s Demons“, it was written by Terrance Dicks and directed by Peter Moffatt.
The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) is enjoying a little relax along with Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) when he feels ill and realizes that his past is disappearing. The First Doctor (Richard Hurndall) is captured by a force that brings him to Gallifrey, where he finds his grand-daughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford). The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) are also captured by that force and brought to Gallifrey. Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) is captured by the same force and on Gallifrey meets the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee). The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana II (Lalla Ward) get stuck in the time vortex.
Four Doctors are on Gallifrey, in the Dead Zone, a place with a very dark past in which there is the Tomb of Rassilon. The Time Lords don’t understand what’s going on and are forced to turn to the Master (Anthony Ainley) hoping that he can save the Doctor and their planet.
Note. The original edition is called “Special Edition” and in this review I speak of the Region 2 version while the Region 1 version is different. The second edition is called “25th Anniversary Edition”.
The Special Edition contains no extras except the production subtitles and the possibility to listen to the original music only. The 25th Anniversary Edition has plenty of extras including some typical ones such as production subtitles, a gallery of pictures from this adventure and the Radio Times Billings.
There are various comments in the adventure alternative audio track of both editions. In the Special Edition there are comments by protagonist Peter Davison and author Terrance Dicks. In the original version there are comments by actors Elisabeth Sladen, Mark Strickson, Nicholas Courtney, and Carole Ann Ford
Original TV Version. The original versione of this adventure broadcast on TV.
Celebration. A documentary over 50 minutes long on the production of this special adventure.
Trails and Continuity. 1983 BBC announcements and the initial and final full titles four part version.
Special Edition. The version of this adventure partially re-edited and with some new special effects created for a VHS edition.
Isolated Music. The option to watch this adventure with Peter Howell’s soundtrack in an isolated audio track. It’s available for both versions of this adventure.
The Ties that Bind Us. A documentary nearly 26 minutes long on the links between the past and the future of the show contained in this adventure.
Five Doctors, One Studio. A clip of the shooting in studio. It’s a filler.
Out-takes. Various bloopers during filming. Another filler.
(Not So) Special Effects. Some of the problems in the implementation of the special effects of this adventure.
Saturday Superstore. Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson are guests of the show “Saturday Superstore”.
Blue Peter. Peter Davison, Richard Hurndall and some monsters are guests of the show “Blue Peter”.
Nationwide. Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison and Verity Lambert are guests of the show “Nationwide”.
Breakfast Time. Patrick Troughton and Peter Davison are guests of the show “Breakfast Time”.
There are also two “Easter eggs”: one is uninteresting because it’s only the introduction to the Special Edition contained in the VHS but the other is a comment to the original edition of this adventure by David Tennant, Phil Colinson and Helen Raynor.
Producer John Nathan-Turner started planning the celebration of the 20th “Doctor Who” anniversary well in advance. The basic idea was the same as “The Three Doctors“, the meeting of all the Doctors, and this immediately posed a problem because unfortunately William Hartnell, who played the first Doctor, had died in 1975.
Initially, the script was supposed to be written by Robert Holmes, perhaps the best author of the classic “Doctor Who” series. However, Holmes didn’t like to use characters created by other authors and dealing with events of past adventures, exactly what was needed in a celebration adventure. After a few weeks, Holmes told script editor Eric Saward that he couldn’t proceed with the work.
John Nathan-Turner turned to Tarrance Dicks, another very experienced author of the classic series, who started writing the script but was soon forced to juggle with various changes. First of all, Richard Hurndall was cast as the First Doctor. The original idea was that he was an impostor but later it was abandoned. To still have William Hartnell someway, the story begins with a scene from the end of the serial “The Dalek Invasion of Earth“.
A big problem was due to the fact that, after initially showing his availability, Tom Baker announced that he refused to resume his role as the Fourth Doctor. He was still the most popular Doctor and Terrance Dicks had reserved him an important role in the script so he had to change it heavily. It was decided to use scenes from “Shada”, the classic adventure that was never finished due to a strike, to include the Fourth Doctor in the story someway.
After many problems, finally “The Five Doctors” was completed. The world premiere took place in the USA on the anniversary, November 23, 1983, while in the UK it was broadcast two days later. Unlike ordinary classic series adventures, it’s in the format of a TV movie instead of being split into episodes.
The development of the Time Lord mythology started only at the end of the Second Doctor’s era. “The Five Doctors” is set mostly on Gallifrey and, like “The Three Doctors”, the story concerns their origins, in this case in particular Rassilon.
Terrance Dicks got inspired in part by the poem “Child Roland to the Dark Tower came” by Robert Browning, the same that years later inspired Stephen King, to create a quest for the various Doctors and their companions. In this case, the Dark Tower is the tomb of Rassilon, although according to legend he’s not really dead.
The story works thanks to the Doctors, their interactions and those with various companions, although they’re a bit limited due to the large amount of characters. Although the Fourth Doctor and Romana are blocked and therefore don’t participate actively in the plot, the presence of the others, the Time Lords, the Master and various monsters makes the story quite fragmented. The situation is made worse by the many changes needed due to plan changes during its writing.
“The Five Doctors” mentions in various ways past “Doctor Who” adventures and this is its strength and its weakness at the same time. For fans there’s a strong link with the past but the structure of this special is based on the fact that there are people who move from one place to another, a typical way to fill the time in normal adventures. In Susan’s case, the connection is the fact that she twists an ankle, as if to remind us why she wasn’t a character done very well.
The interaction between the Second and the Third Doctor is always spectacular, unfortunately it’s limited, unlike in “The Three Doctors”. Curiously, only the First Doctor seems interested in Susan when we expect the others to be happy to see her again, since for them even centuries have passed from the moment they abandoned her on Earth.
An element that works well is the interaction between the Doctors and the Master, who of course is the first suspect of their kidnapping. None of Doctors believes him when he tries to convince them that he was sent by the High Council of the Time Lords, led by Lord President Borusa, to save them.
In all of that, the theme of immortality is dealt with rather hastyly. The possibility that a Time Lord can get a new cycle of regenerations is mentioned. A true immortality is mentioned in connection with Rassilon but without digging into the concept too deeply.
“The Five Doctors” enjoys high regard among many “Doctor Who” fans but I think that’s mainly due to the presence of various Doctors and companions. Objectively, the story seems rather chaotic though it certainly has its place in the mythology of the saga.
The Special Edition of “The Five Doctors” was created for a VHS edition and then was used for the first “Doctor Who” DVD. For this reason, the first DVD edition is very poor, very different from DVDs of recent years, full of extras. We got used to have DVDs with Special Editions, new special effects and even new edits. In this case the opposite has occurred: the 25th Anniversary Edition is the one that includes the original version broadcast on TV.
I think that in the end “The Five Doctors” is an adventure that should be seen only because there are various Doctors and companions. The 25th Anniversary Edition of the DVD is a good product with many interesting extras that, despite its flaws, make it a must-have double DVD for “Doctor Who” fans.