After a hiatus of about eight years, I re-upped our Netflix subscription so that we can borrow all of the classic Doctor Who episodes they have. The idea is that we can watch all of them, and choose to buy any of them that we like. I’m hoping to eventually own every episode of the classic series, but it’s prohibitively expensive to do that quickly, so I’m hoping to buy the good ones first at a rate of about once per month. That’ll put me on track to own all of them by, oh, 2023 or so.
Last night’s viewing was “The Five Doctors.” It was the 20th anniversary special, aired in 1983, during the tenure of the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison. It brought back the First Doctor (played by Richard Hurndall, as William Hartnell had passed away eight years earlier), the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), and the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) for a combined storyline that also featured the Master (Anthony Ainsley) and a whole slew of companions, including Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), as well as the Fifth Doctor’s current companions (Mark Strickson’s Vislor Turlough and Janet Fielding’s Tegan Jovanka). The show itself was a single episode, ninety minutes long.
“The Five Doctors” was remarkably fun. Technically, it wasn’t a great episode – the plot suffered a bit from having to shoehorn in so many characters. Basically, a mysterious figure kidnaps the four Doctors and their companions (the Fourth Doctor was also kidnapped with Romana II but got stuck in the time vortex; plot-wise and title-wise, all of the Doctors needed to be kidnapped, but Tom Baker chose not to return to the show, so they used footage from the unfinished episode “Shada” and got him lost in the vortex) and drops them into the Death Zone on Gallifrey. They all individually decide that they must get to the tower in the center, and the show bops back and forth between the four different groups, showing their progress. They eventually figure out who the mysterious figure is and defeat him, and then bid farewell and return to their own timestreams.
The great part of the episode was seeing all of the old Doctors and companions. Mr. Troughton and Mr. Pertwee played their old roles extremely well, and the dialogue was spot-on. Amazingly, Mr. Hurndall not only looked like the First Doctor, but played the old, grumpy curmudgeon perfectly. In general, it was like watching bits of episodes of the old Doctors, spliced together into one big episode, and really, that’s all it needed to be. I found myself smiling and happy at the end, and definitely willing to buy the episode for myself.
That said, there was one thing that they could have done better, to make it an even more immersive experience: they failed to show that the Fifth Doctor would know and recognize the companions and be extremely happy to see them. In the most important example, the First Doctor, accompanied by Susan, walks into the TARDIS (the Fifth Doctor’s) in like he owns the place and demands to know why these strangers, Turlough, Tegan, and an unconscious young man on the floor, are in “my TARDIS.” Turlough and Tegan point out that it’s the TARDIS of the Doctor on the floor. This was a great scene, as the First Doctor finally realizes that he’s been pulled out of time and is looking at his own, previously unknown, future incarnation. However, the Fifth Doctor revives shortly afterwards, and the First Doctor introduces Susan. The introduction is necessary, as Turlough and Tegan don’t know her, but he’s addressing the Fifth Doctor. The Fifth Doctor says, “Yes, I know.”
And that’s it – no special greeting or love for the granddaughter that he abandoned 350 years earlier. Perhaps they thought it would be really weird to have the Fifth Doctor treat Susan as a cherished, long-lost granddaughter when Ms. Ford was 12 years older than Mr. Davison, but it was completely in-character: the First Doctor had not wanted to leave Susan and missed her dearly. In the comic book The Forgotten, the Tenth Doctor underscores this when he specifically asks to see Susan one last time, so that he could apologize to her. A short bit of dialogue showing this in “The Five Doctors” would have reminded the audience that yes, the Doctor has a family and a history that is complicated by his regenerations, and given Susan more of a spotlight, which she definitely deserved.
Except for this one issue, “The Five Doctors” is worth the watch. It’s not deep or emotional or mind-blowing – it’s just a lot of fun.