Following on from the 20th season is this remarkable anniversary special, originally broadcast to celebrate the show’s 20th year on the air. To replicate the original experience, I would have preferred to have seen the originally broadcast version, but circumstances led me unwittingly to the special edition released much later, with some of the visual and audio effects updated, so I can only comment on this version.
Much like The Three Doctors, the story is little more than an excuse to get the previous incarnations of the Doctor together, plucked out of time and placed inside an elaborate ancient war game. It’s a shame that Tom Baker decided to opt out and that William Hartnell was no longer alive, as this special really ought to be called “The three and a Half Doctors (plus friends)”, but that’s not as catchy. Nevertheless, it’s a delight to see Patrick Troughton (does that man not age?!), and Jon Pertwee back again, while Richard Hurndall takes over as the first Doctor, and some previously unseen footage from Shada is used to explain the fourth Doctor’s absence. Clever!
Despite the absentees, The Five Doctors is a glorious celebration of the show’s history, using every available cast member, reference and villain it can reasonably squeeze into its 100 minute runtime. I genuinely had no idea that a 20-year older Carole Ann Ford would return to play Susan, nor the cameos by Jamie, Zoe, Liz and Yates. And that’s on top of a bright yellow Bessie, Lethbridge-Stewart, The Master, Yetis, Cybermen and a Dalek all running around the battlefield (there’s even time to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!). It’s a smorgasbord of nostalgia, a who’s who of Who, and it’s quite amazing that it all works so well.
Essentially, the story splits and jumps back and forth to follow each Doctor and a companion as they each take a different route up to the tower of Rassilon. This allows them some breathing space (as well as time to reminisce with old friends), but it does make the story a little scattershot, never settling in one place for very long, until a satisfying culmination towards the end. The lack of arbitrarily dramatic cliffhangers is a blessing; this is just one epic feature without cuts.
The fifth Doctor is the anchoring point, but he spends much of the story on Gallifrey, outside of the Death Zone, where he uncovers the President’s secret plans for immortality. Yes, sadly, there is corruption on Gallifrey yet again. This is becoming an embarrassing cliché and I can’t blame the Doctor for not wanting to stick around as President. He does get a brief moment to meet his past selves, which is nicely done. You can get a good sense of how the different versions of the Doctor vary. Davison is definitely the least eccentric of the bunch, a normal and level-headed type by comparison. Pertwee and Troughton play their roles much as they ever did, despite the years in between, and Richard Hurndall does a reasonable job of approximating some of Hartnell’s performance, although it would have been more authentic if he’d fluffed his lines a few times and ended all his sentences with “hmm?”.
The Five Doctors is hardly a masterpiece of imagination, then, but it’s nevertheless well made and a lovely tribute to the history of the show. The sort of silly-but-fun “why the hell not” exercise I can easily get behind. As it’s a one-off special, the budget would appear to have allowed for better production and visuals. One scene in particular is genuinely great, as a robot ninja busts up a legion of cybermen, teleporting around and lobbing arrows at them, causing them to explode and fall to pieces, arms and heads everywhere. Earlier, a rogue Dalek shoots itself in a hall of mirrors and within its exploded remains is its rarely-sighted grotesque embryo. Marvelous!
Sometimes logic has to fly out of the window, though. For instance, the second Doctor tricks the illusion of Jamie and Zoe by recalling that they shouldn’t know who he is, since their memories were wiped when they were returned to their time zones. But by the same reasoning, how would the Doctor have remembered that, as it happened almost immediately prior to his regeneration and exile on Earth. He would have had to have been pulled from the past moments before this, but there’s no indication this is the case when he turns up to visit the Brigadier. Similarly, why exactly is K-9 with Sarah Jane? Mk.I was left on Gallifrey with Leela and Mk.II was left with Romana (in a black-and-white photograph). I suppose it doesn’t matter, really; some questions are best left unanswered for the sake of a bit of fun, and this was a lot of fun. Job done.