DVD features (on 2 discs no less) include:
Since learning the proper chronology, I've always considered this story to be the finale of Season Twenty, a role it certainly lives up to since the season itself had been a bit of a nostalgic parade of characters from earlier eras. In looking at its effectiveness, I think it must be noted that the narrative exists first and foremost to facilitate a grand reunion party of Doctor Who characters. I think Terrance Dicks succeeds in making this work where Robert Holmes had failed before him because he accepts this fact and neatly incorporates such motivation right into his plot, while crafting an open-ended, quest-filled arena for his story that could easily assimilate or lose additional characters as actors' contracts were finalized. It also gives us tantalizing advancements of the series mythology, which fans following the series cannot afford to miss. While the finished tale won't quite knock the season's all-time great classics off their pedestal, it is as good as what we got in "Arc of Infinity" (story no. 124) and "Mawdryn Undead" (story no. 126), while having enough celebratory elements and extra interest/hype to squeeze past these closest rivals.
Initiating the ViewerSome say this is a good story to use to initiate new viewers to the world of Doctor Who, but I don't think I agree. Sure, it exposes its viewers to most of the favourite elements of the series, but isn't necessarily showing why those elements are favourites or displaying them at their best. It's designed more to be a nostalgia tour, which is why I think new viewers are better off getting their feet wet elsewhere, then coming here to feel some nostalgia for the returning known elements amongst the discovery of other elements they may not have encountered before. Just how understandable would "The Five Doctors" be as someone's first story anyway?
Viewers have several edits to choose from these days, and the original 1983 movie kicks off with a healthy start and keeps up a good pace. Showcasing the brand new console in the TARDIS for our first shot is a good move. The Doctor and Tegan's dialogue in this first scene is a fun way to emphasize the new console as well - for those who already understand the show. Those who don't may well wonder exactly what the oft-mentioned "TARDIS" is, easily assuming they are referring merely to the console that they've been fussing over.
The newer 1995 edit is a bit better for clarifying the TARDIS for first-time viewers by using the shot of Peter Davison exiting the police box immediately after he leaves the console room. Excellent. It is better to include this shot. However, buggering up the logical flow of ideas during the entire opening sequence isn't called for. In that sense, the 1983 edit works better.
Still, the police box exterior to the TARDIS isn't really given its due in early portions of this story. What's to keep new viewers from thinking that the TARDIS is a hexagonal console inside a crumbling stone building that has a mismatched blue door? This story gives the TARDIS a magnificent opportunity to demonstrate materialization and dematerialization early on, yet skips the opportunity for no apparent good reason. The idea that the main character and his friends can travel through time and space is a bit lost.
And while the Welsh countryside in March turns out to make a good location for the story's main action, it really didn't help to use that same location for the opening Eye of Orion setting. What is needed is as much of a contrast as possible, to show that the Doctor and friends travel. The 1995 edit is perhaps a bit more confusing in that regard. Really, the Eye of Orion should have been as spacey a setting as possible. I don't mind the crumbling stone building so much - it suggests history and ancient civilizations, which Orion certainly has. It's really the vista that needs an overhaul. Nowhere in sight is the relaxing purple haze that the script calls for. Me, I'd call for a nebula against the stars in the sky, and a bizarrely coloured glittering desert sparsely dotted with a mix of ancient statues, pyramids, and supra-modern buildings. But that's me. Sure, it was probably several years before colour tinting and sky-replacement were available to the show, but a good matte painting could have done the trick.
One Man Five Times OverAnother critical piece of information to get across to new viewers, and one that is unique to multi-Doctor stories like this one, is the fact that all these wildly different men called "Doctor" are actually the same character at different periods of his life. Sadly, this never really comes across. The word "regeneration" is thrown about liberally, without the process getting any explanation or demonstration anywhere. Turlough is about the only companion in the adventure who wouldn't have either seen it, done it, or learned about it at school; therefore it is his duty to new audiences to beg for some answers. But apart from a few all-too-vague allusions in the dialogue later on, "The Five Doctors" doesn't really make clear the scenario of one main character meeting himself five-times-over via time travel, and certainly goes nowhere near the idea of each successive Doctor remembering everything that his previous versions have seen or done. Viewing "The Five Doctors" as a first time Doctor Who experience, one could easily come away with the impression that these five are all non-identical clones of each other, continuing to lead separate lives independently.
"Wait a minute! It's a matter of memory!"Memory is an unresolved question in this one, and many of the questions raised in "Mawdryn Undead" (story no. 126) appear to have different answers here. Can we pin those differences on the process of regeneration itself?
Of course, continuity nitpickers can find lots of holes in this story to complain about - usually all based on the thought that there is only one straight line of history, or more accurately, one straight line along which the Doctor's life has progressed, and additional appearances of past Doctors must somehow fit into the finite era of their part of that one life. However, if decisions branch out into parallel universes and an unlimited field of outcomes, and one travels through time regularly, one could easily meet versions (or "doubles") of oneself that have had far different lives, and/or lengths of lives, than what one remembers. Perhaps these are parallel Doctors, instead of, or as well as, past ones. If so, it seems even more likely that it would be impossible to achieve a state where the Doctor could not still be additionally found somewhere out there in time and space (and choice).
The Adventure Party Trumps AllOkay, so "The Five Doctors" doesn't really explain itself properly to new viewers, or in fact have its own characters treat its premise seriously in ways that would be natural for them. Ultimately, it's a case of: Who cares? The premise exists to facilitate a mystery-adventure-quest party, and this is where it succeeds.
Early sections begin intercutting between many, many different story settings and characters, yet this at least remains effective for several reasons. A rhythm is quickly established for how all these separate elements relate to each other and relate to the emerging story. Most newly introduced characters get at least one uninterrupted scene of good length to establish themselves, while some common elements begin to link them all together. For my money, the 1983 edit gets better bang for its buck by sequencing scenes to better show emotional cause and effect. 1983's video effect was also clearer, and reminiscent of one seen in the first and second Superman movies. Cool. The 1995 editing sequence puts each logical trio of scenes in a different order that lacks punch, and features a more complicated effect that lacks the clarity of the original.
What "The Five Doctors" does do so successfully is to craft a story with the right feel packed into nearly every moment. Each previous Doctor and his companions had been tried and tested on television for years during his own era, and now here we intercut between scenes of each of them exploring and setting out on a common quest, facing dangers, solving riddles, and heroically bringing exciting adventures to conclusion. This is the real essence of the main character of this show, and "The Five Doctors" has it in spades. Peter's Doctor has the additional challenge of sorting out the latest intrigue in the political system of his home planet - granted there isn't time to make this too complex amongst everything else that is going on, but it does build nicely on what has gone before with many of the characters involved.
Gallifrey UnboundThe realization of Gallifrey is quite an interesting achievement this time around, though still sporting one of its trademark omissions, and perhaps creating a few new ones as well. This is an adventure blessed with an unusually high percentage of filmed location footage, almost always featuring our main character and/or the more complicated action sequences, giving great value for the higher cost of film. This story also gives us more footage of the Gallifreyan outdoors than any other before or since, which is a good and eye-opening thing. I like the fact that it was filmed in March rather than mid-summer, because the leaflessness of the trees emphasizes their gnarly, twisting qualities - reminiscent of the devious logic of the Gallifreyan mind, while the cold yellowy plains suggest an aged society that is past its prime. I don't mind seeing roads either, suggesting civilization has been there.
Some have said that "The Five Doctors" has a somewhat homemade quality to it, encouraging a warm & fuzzy, cosy feeling in fans towards this show. While I find that most of this story is quite professionally excellent, the parts that still feel "homemade" to me are the ones concerning "mainland" society on Gallifrey, outside of the Death Zone. Once more there are no exterior model shots of the main city or the Capitol building. Bizarre, but then again, excellent model work was done for other parts of the story that quite frankly deserved it more.
But main city Gallifrey is missing other elements that would help it rise above the "homemade" stigma. The audio atmosphere is still wrong, lacking a good background sound effect like the constant quiet hum of the TARDIS interior, or the courtroom "waves" from "The War Games" (story no. 50), and also lacking the echo effects as in the large panopticon cathedrals seen in "The Deadly Assassin" (story no. 88) and "The Invasion of Time" (story no. 97). The sets for mainland Gallifrey, though fairly decent, always manage to provide a sense of being in an obscure back corner of the Capitol, rather than a holy chamber for the inner cabinet of the High Council. Maybe it's just a matter of the corridor leading off to the opposite side of the set than in all of the previous Gallifreyan stories thus far.
Enemy PantheonThe list of returning villains for this story is long and sees most of these great adversaries being underused. For reasons of avoiding spoilers, I'll save that lengthy discussion for the in-depth analysis version of this review. Read that version after you've enjoyed the show and formed your own opinions.
Most of the returning villains work best by feeding off of the audience's memories of them from previous stories. Meanwhile, writer Terrance Dicks spends much of the rest of the time slipping in dialogue scenes with mythological backstory and mystery, engaging the audience in a good story instead. Nicely done.
One of the "obstacle" adversaries in particular is a completely different case. Not having ever appeared on the show before or since, it needs to make all its impact now or never. It succeeds, getting all the proper exposition and demonstration it needs, resulting in one of the better sequences of the story.
Cliff-less CliffhangersIt does show that this story was designed first and foremost as a 90 minute movie, as the cliffhangers that we end up with in the four-part version feel exceedingly arbitrary. We get an excruciating, embarrassing ending to Part One, making one miss the unfilmed sequence that it replaced, while a little creative editing could have built up a classic triple threat cliffhanger instead. Part Two's cliffhanger feels like the most natural of the bunch, while Part Three's is definitely anti-climactic considering what has come before.
Sharing the Final FixThe Doctor gets a number of critical things to do near the conclusion, not least of which is confronting the true villain of the piece and solving the central riddles of the story. Good stuff. This story continues the good trend of emphasizing the power of the mind that began in "Time-Flight" (story no. 123) and ran throughout each and every story of season twenty. Excellent.
Is the Doctor served well enough for a final, climactic, heroic act? It's harder than usual to assess, since he's present at the climax several times over. Give one Doctor a typical good heroic action, and several other Doctors miss out on it. Without spoiling the individual details, I think the ending is decent and fair to all Doctors present. I'll buy it. It may not be the strongest heroic climax the show's ever had, but each Doctor has been fairly well served by the quest nature of the story already, and the finish has enough mythology and surprises to satisfyingly cap off the adventure and make the Doctor, as the complete amalgamated character of all portrayals present, look pretty solidly good. Nice one.
And of course the fun continues with an enjoyable wrap-up and one of the strangest collections of good-byes ever on the show, saving the best one of all for the fifth Doctor. Nice.
Season 20 Rankings:
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