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Someone is taking the Doctor's past selves out of time and space, placing them in a vast wilderness - a battle arena with a sinister tower at its centre. As the various incarnations of the Doctor join forces, they learn they are in the Death Zone on their home world of Gallifrey, fighting Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti... and a devious Time Lord traitor who is using the Doctor and his companions to discover the ancient secrets of Rassilon, the first and most powerful ruler of Gallifrey...
The fundamental concept is, of course, a perfectly sound one. As Doctor Who fast approached it’s milestone 20th anniversary, what better way to celebrate than with an epic 90-minute special featuring all five Doctors and a sprinkling of classic companions, uniting for one night only to battle a feast of monsters and villains from the show’s illustrious history? Every fan’s wet dream, what could possibly go wrong? And yet the odds were steadily piling up against it right from the start.
The ‘Five Doctors’ bit was always going to be tricky at best, as William Hartnell, the original time-travelling hero, had died some eight years earlier, and a rather odd decision was taken to re-cast his part with somebody who looked a bit like him.
Things get trickier still when, after much deliberation, Tom Baker - arguably the most popular Time Lord of them all, eventually declined to appear, resulting in the fourth Doctor being stuck in a time loop for most of the story, and only surfacing in a couple of clips from 1979’s unfinished Shada that were crowbarred into the story.
The script was always going to be a bit of a problem. With so many leading characters fighting for precious screen time, it was going to take a scriptwriter of the highest calibre to weave the many disparate threads together into a coherent story. Alarm bells start ringing when Robert Holmes, one of the greatest Doctor Who writers of all time, eventually turned down the job on the grounds that it was unworkable.
The mighty Terrance Dicks fearlessly took on the mammoth task, but then found himself continually hampered by an ever-changing list of cast members and a script editor who had an unhealthy obsession with Cybermen, demanding them in every possible scene.
Then there’s the matter of direction. Producer John Nathan-Turner battled in vain to persuade a classic director from the golden age of the show to take on the reins of this celebratory adventure, but eventually had to settle for Peter Moffatt, a disappointingly ‘safe’ choice, known for his reliability rather than his innovation.
So... an embarrassing turkey from start to finish? A sad reminder of what could have been if things had gone right?
Not a bit of it. The Five Doctors is, of course, brilliant. Possibly more by accident than design, it somehow manages to encapsulate nearly everything that is magic about Doctor Who in a mere 90 minutes, and the result is a joyous and entirely fitting celebration of a British Broadcasting legend.
Inevitably, the story itself is a relatively simplistic affair, as Terrance Dicks skilfully juggles a daunting list of ingredients, binding them all together into an epic ‘quest’ adventure. This type of story is a rarity in Who, which adds even more dramatic weight to this feature-length episode. The viewer is constantly aware that they are watching something very special indeed. Your attention is fully engaged right from the start, and the magic never sags for a second.
Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee slip effortlessly back into their roles, whilst Peter Davison does a fine job of holding his own against his legendary predecessors. It’s a huge credit to all three actors that you barely even notice Tom Baker’s absence, and that was surely the biggest obstacle that this production had to overcome.
Richard Hurndall replaces the late William Hartnell as the First Doctor, and naturally, this is the big controversy. In an ideal world, Tom Baker would have agreed to take part, and then Hartnell’s Doctor might have copped for being stuck in the time loop, negating the need to re-cast.
But with Baker’s absence, you can’t blame the production team for coming up with a ‘new’ First Doctor, as two absent Doctors would have been stretching the credibility of a supposed anniversary reunion show.
To his credit, Hurndall copes admirably in what was always going to be an impossible job. He was never going to completely capture Hartnell’s performance and I’m not sure that he even attempted this, but it’s pleasing at least that the first Doctor’s presence is strongly felt throughout the story, and it’s nowhere near the complete disaster it could so easily have been.
The story flies by at a cracking pace, as breathtaking iconic moments are thrown relentlessly at the viewer one after the other. Whilst the second Doctor encounters Yeti in underground tunnels with the Brigadier, the third Doctor comes face to face with the Cybermen for the first time. The fifth Doctor is up to his neck in traitorous drama with The High Council on Gallifrey, whilst the original Doctor is reunited with his granddaughter for a swift Dalek battle, before teaming up with the latest companion for a showdown with the Master. There’s just no other story quite like this, is there?
It’s perhaps surprising that the whole thing works so beautifully, as the production shrugs off any potential flaws and cracks on with the job of bringing you Doctor Who’s greatest adventure, complete with unexpected twists and a hugely satisfying conclusion. A treasured and unique slice of Doctor Who heaven.
This 25th Anniversary Edition brings together the original broadcast version from 1983 (making a long-awaited debut on DVD) with the 1995 Special Edition, an alternative edit with enhanced special effects.
The latter caused some controversy upon first release. The updated effects were more than welcome and gave a nice new polish to the story, but the re-editing of material and use of alternate takes was frowned upon in many quarters, not least by John Nathan-Turner who felt aggrieved that none of the original production team had even been consulted on this re-working of the original material.
To be fair, he probably had a point too, (and I believe that BBC Enterprises were forced to offer a grovelling apology for this oversight) although I personally enjoyed this new take on an old favourite and the result is a technically superior version which makes for an interesting companion piece to the original.
The 1995 Special Edition features an old commentary with Peter Davison and Terrance Dicks, previously only available on the 2001 Region 1 release, and notable for Dicks taking the odd swipe at the reworked material - he clearly was another one not too happy with the new edit and makes his feelings known!
A brand new commentary accompanies the original broadcast version, featuring Elisabeth Sladen, Mark Strickson, Nicholas Courtney and Carole Ann Ford. It’s a lively, if not particularly informative discussion, with Mark Strickson proving to be the most engaging talker, although you feel it may have worked better had he been teamed up with Peter Davison, as they do make a cracking double act.
The centrepiece of the package is Celebration, a 50-minute documentary presented by sixth Doctor Colin Baker, looking back at the glorious 20th anniversary year of Doctor Who, not only examining the conception and production of The Five Doctors, but the anniversary year in general, including footage and memories from the massive celebratory event at Longleat House which turned out to be the Woodstock of Doctor Who fandom, despite the chaotic results when the organizers under-estimated the attendance figures by several thousand.
The documentary offers fresh insight into Robert Holmes’ original abandoned scripts, which featured an evil android duplicate of the first Doctor to fill in the gap left by Hartnell, and an interesting concept in which the Doctor gradually ‘regresses’ back through his bodies so that there was never more than one Doctor on screen at a time, something which Holmes felt could pose a huge problem.
It’s a wonderful documentary featuring a wealth of contributions from cast, crew and fans. The icing on the cake is provided by Janet Fielding (Tegan), who has shied away from fandom for over 20 years but finally seems willing to share her entertaining anecdotes, and it’s a genuine pleasure.
The rest of this 2-disc package is crammed full with extra special features. Eighth Doctor Paul McGann narrates a slightly over-stretched documentary examining the continuity of The Five Doctors.
There’s 18 minutes of fascinating studio footage detailing the only recording session when all the Doctors were on set together, in which we witness a very humble Richard Hurndall, a very nervous Nicholas Courtney, and a slightly intimidating Jon Pertwee.
There’s over six minutes of bloopers and gaffes (I’ll never be able to watch the final scene again without thinking of Peter Davison helplessly sniggering right after the closing line) and numerous interviews and appearances lifted from Blue Peter, Saturday Superstore, Breakfast Time and Nationwide.
It’s worth watching out for all of Patrick Troughton’s enchanting interview appearances as he refuses to take any of it very seriously, and the Saturday Superstore clip is a real gem as Peter Davison has to squirm his way through questions as ridiculous as “Do all the five Doctors get together and talk about Doctor Who?”
This is a wonderfully entertaining package, and takes you right back to the last glorious gasp of Doctor Who’s original success. It would take another 22 years before the show got as big as this again.
The Five Doctors 25th Anniversary Edition is a hugely rewarding dip into nostalgia.
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