Doctor Who complete reviews: The Five Doctors
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Quintuple quandaries in this enjoyable anniversary outing...
In 1983, no other sci-fi show had managed to reach the 20-year landmark and still be running. Come to think of it, not many other TV programmes full stop had achieved such longevity. The only other contender was - and still is - the Seventh Doctor's albatross, Coronation Street, a programme that's recently celebrated its 50th anniversary by killing off characters in a great big inferno.
So not a big party to mark the occasion then.
Doctor Who will probably mark its 50th anniversary with an ensemble adventure of past Doctors and companions. Sylvester McCoy has already expressed an interest, and it's a fair bet that Peter Davison, Colin Baker and David Tennant may come on board. This sort of story is common practice in Doctor Who-land. The Three Doctors reunited Pertwee with Troughton and Hartnell to overpower the shoutiness of Omega. And then in 1983, the pattern was repeated with the largely successful Five Doctors.
The Five Doctors is a bit of a misnomer though. Technically what you get is The Three Doctors, Nebrox and Big Tom In A Time Eddy Because He Didn't Want To Appear. But that wouldn't have fitted onto the TV screen. So the problems were mounting already. Hartnell had sadly passed away in 1975, so the production team decided to opt for the next best thing - a doppelganger. Luckily, Richard Hurndall had played a Hartnell-like character in an episode of Blake's 7 two years previous as an old git called Nebrox who got killed by an am-dram bimbo called Cancer and her pet crab. Hurndall proves to be an inspired choice though, because he plays the First Doctor his way - he adopts some of the mannerisms such as the pompous lapel-tugging, but Hurndall wisely doesn't opt for a lame impersonation. It's a very good performance, with the right mix of knowledge and crabbiness - although when he speculates on the whereabouts of the other Doctors, he looks like he's going to sprout fangs.
Tom's absence is more of a problem, especially since he was and is still the definitive Doctor in most people's eyes. The inclusion of the abandoned Shada footage just about overcomes the problem, if not the disappointment. And who better to put this all together than Terrance Dicks? He may keep harping on about Pertwee's growing bouffant and the 'Impervious To Bullets' line from Robot on his DVD commentaries, but no one knows Doctor Who inside-out like Uncle Terrance. Hardly a surprise, given that he was script editor for five years and the most prolific Doctor Who novelist in the 1970s and early 1980s. So even with the many problems against him, Dicks managed to turn in a script that was both hugely entertaining and a good old nostalgia trip for the faithful.
The basic plot concerns some mysterious hooded figure taking all The Doctors out of time and then plonking them in The Death Zone on Gallifrey. That's a great move already - the whodunnit, especially since that's one of my favourite genres. It's made even more mysterious by the iconic black obelisk of doom (or the upside down Mr Whippy ice cream, if you want) and the fact that whenever a Doctor is captured, he's turned into a lifelike clay model and put on a novelty Bullseye dartboard table. In addition, four out of the five Doctors get both friends and foes to help and hinder in equal measure, and so the stage is set for a rollicking good yarn with enough surprises to propel the action along.
So what of The Doctors? Well, the most successful are Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee, and it's as if they'd never been away. Both slip right into the scruffy and shiny shoes with consummate ease, even if Troughton's bowlcut looks a little odd. Troughton's Doctor is at his best - luckily, he's not the bumbling fool of The Three Doctors, instead tempering the mix of the clownish and the serious in equal measures. There's a typically 'Second Doctor' moment when he empties his pockets to find a firework with which to frighten off an angry Yeti - but on the other hand, he reacts with genuine sorrow after meeting the phantom Jamie and Zoe ("It's very sad," he says quietly after the screaming ghosts have faded away).
"Jon Pertwee brings his usual warmth and gravitas to the role, and it's amusing to see him face off against the Ainley Master"
On this occasion, Troughton's Doctor is paired up with The Brig, a somewhat unusual combo, although again, this is a consequence of behind-the-scenes issues. The original plan, I think, was to bring back Frazer Hines as Jamie, but Emmerdale Farm wouldn't release him for the filming dates, so he was relegated to an unusually creepy cameo with Wendy Padbury. The Brig still works well with the Second Doctor, and Nicholas Courtney delivers his usual excellent performance full of good humour and old-school charm.
Jon Pertwee also triumphs, and it's great to have a Doctor who's actually in charge of the situation for once. Pertwee brings his usual warmth and gravitas to the role, and it's amusing to see him face off against the Ainley Master. He treats him as a complete fool who can't be trusted (which, given his latest run of stories, is no real surprise). It's a shame that Katy Manning's Jo couldn't have been brought back, but Elisabeth Sladen works well as Sarah Jane, and their season eleven mix of anatagonism/respect is brought back into the fold. Again, Sladen totally captures the part of Sarah very easily, something that she'd manage again 10 years later for the audio adventures and then 23 years later for School Reunion. That said, her nagging DVD commentary for the story is a real pain in the backside. Yeah, Moffatt, cut it there! Even though you didn't have state-of-the-art editing facilities back in 1983.
And even the current main man Peter Davison is on good form, despite doing his usual angsty Fifth Doctor schtick in the first half-hour of the story. When his Doctor is back to full health, he's back to doing what he does best, and investigating the mystery, on the hunt for clues and solutions to the problem. Davison has established himself well as the Fifth Doctor, despite the limitations of his character, and it's a shame that he's offski so soon after this.
The other returning friends and foes are hit and miss. Susan is still being called a child, despite being in her mid-forties. At least nothing's changed with Susan: she's still falling over, whining and doing nothing in equal measures. The creepy ghost companion cameos are more effective - it's refreshing to see Liz, Mike, Jamie and Zoe act as threatening figures against The Doctor. These make for some of the most effective scenes of the story, whether it's The Second Doctor's pain at reliving his trial again or the unearthly "Stoooooop heeeeeem!!" screech that Caroline John gives as Liz fades away into the ether.
The problem is though, that the returning foes generally get a raw deal. The lone Dalek is easily overpowered like a malfunctioning Dodgem Car in the corner of a fairground ride, the Yeti's done and dusted in seconds flat, and as for the Cybermen... well, they're just brainless cannon fodder - easily duped by The Master and blasted to piles of spare parts by the most successful baddie of the show - the Raston Robot.
"The key to the Raston Robot's success is its simplicity"
The Raston Robot's great - a silver, blank-faced being that can disappear and reappear in the blink of an eye. If you get in its way, you're a goner, as it dishes out javelin after javelin like a psychotic athlete. The key to the Raston Robot's success is its simplicity. There're no flashy special effects, no outlandish costume, just an alien being achieved with the most moderate of resources and very effective jump-cut edits. Fantastic.
Mind you, it's amusing to see The Master blunder about as an unwilling helper of The Doctor. With the promise of Immmmortality by the Time Lords, The Master's transported to The Death Zone to try and convince his nemesis that he's on the side of good for about five minutes. Inevitably, all these good intentions go to pot faster than a Raston Robot's javelin, as he tries to claim Immmmortality for himself (he fails, of course). Anthony Ainley's performance is an improvement on his last two appearances (even if he's evidently been told to ham it up by the producer - check out the ridiculously OTT scenes when he's chinwagging with Borusa and the others), and it's a dead cert that he'll be back very soon.
In the end though, it's Borusa who's the bad guy. The reveal of this is a bit too casual for my liking - Peter Moffatt slips off the boil here with an undistinguished long shot. It's a neat move to have a former friend of The Doctor's go bad (something hinted at in Arc Of Infinity) and as Uncle Terrance has said, Borusa's always been a bit of a maverick anyway. Look at how he manipulated the facts of The Master's invasion of Gallifrey or how he was so quick to dispose of The Doctor in order to banish Omega once and for all. It's a logical move, and evidently all that pent-up megalomania has gone to Borusa's big head. Especially when he frames the moaning Castellan and subjects him to the dreaded Mind Probe, resulting in one of the worst deliveries outside of a misanthropic postman.
That said, I never get why baddies want immortality in the first place. It's an old story cliché - another example being Donovan in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade - but I just don't get it. Living forever just seems a bit pointless - the same thing every year, so that means the unending New Year's Eves; Christmases; bad weather - yes, on Gallifrey, their weather seems to be as shit as in Britain. Philip Latham's rather eccentric reading of Borusa isn't quite in the same league as his predecessors either, although he does have that gaunt, scary face to pull the role off, I guess.
"Altogether, The Five Doctors achieves its function of being an enjoyable anniversary story. There's something for everyone here, even if you're a dedicated fan of Tom Baker"
But as the old proverb goes, To lose is to win, and he who wins shall lose. So having made it to the bitter end, Borusa's aim of immmmmortality (the actors keep saying it this way, so blame them) looks like terrifying reality. Except that when he summons the ghost of Rassilon (basically a camp disembodied head of Old King Cole at The Hacienda nightclub), this all backfires on him big time, and he's turned to stone in one of the most memorable sequences of the story (it's those creepy moving eyes, you see). It's a well-directed sequence by Peter Moffatt, and well-assisted by Peter Howell, who produces another excellent score. Altogether, Moffatt does a very good job with the story. He brings out the nostalgia in Uncle Terrance's script, adds a rather creepy atmosphere to the scenes in the Citadel, and keeps the action going at full steam.
Altogether, The Five Doctors achieves its function of being an enjoyable anniversary story. There's something for everyone here, even if you're a dedicated fan of Tom Baker. The plot is immaculately worked out with excellent characterisation and lines; the acting's generally of the highest standard, and most of the fan boxes are ticked when it comes to the old favourites.
And then there's that rather charming last line, as Turlough and Teabag wonder why The Doctor's choosing to go on the run in a rickety old Police Box. "Why not?" beams The Doctor. "After all, that's how it all started!" Given the turbulent times ahead for the show, it's the end of an era in some ways, and all the more sad for that. But hey, this is as good a celebration as you'll ever get in Doctor Who, so raise your glasses - Viva The Five Doctors!
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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