January 18th, 2013
The twentieth anniversary of Doctor Who was obviously a special event, and who better to write it than the man most associated with Doctor Who, Terrance Dicks?
Terrance Dicks is a figure we haven’t touched on much in these essays so far, and when we have it’s been mostly for his association with Malcolm Hulke. But the fact is that despite his sparse credits on the programme itself (The Five Doctors is only his fourth solo script for the programme, and the only one for a Doctor other than Tom Baker, though he was the programme’s longest-serving script editor, keeping the job for nearly six years), Terrance Dicks has become the writer most associated with the show, thanks to his script-editing role, his work on the novel range (writing over sixty Doctor Who novels and novelisations), his two Doctor Who plays, and in general being the person who could be turned to in order to deliver something quickly and competently, to order.
And The Five Doctors is exactly the kind of thing that a writer like Dicks is perfect for. The brief for the story was so ridiculously complex (it had to include every past Doctor, and a companion for each of them, and the Daleks, and the Cybermen, and the Time Lords, in at least cameo roles) that Robert Holmes had already given up in disgust before Dicks was brought on board.
The purely practical aspects made for additional difficulties, too. The show had to feature all five Doctors, but William Hartnell had been dead for nearly a decade at the time, so it was decided, at the suggestion of Ian Levine, to use Richard Hurndall, an actor Levine believed looked and sounded remarkably like Hartnell. (In truth, he had little or no resemblance to Hartnell, and what little resemblance there was was not helped by the decision to include Hartnell in the programme by opening it with vintage footage, making the difference all too obvious).
Tom Baker, on the other hand, was very much alive, but wanted nothing to do with the show at this point, though he kept changing his mind on whether he would appear or not. The eventual decision made was to use a scene from the then-unreleased Shada (so the story has some uncredited writing from Douglas Adams) and have the fourth Doctor trapped in a time scoop for the rest of the story.
So The Five Doctors should probably be more accurately described as The Three Doctors And One Kind-of Doctor, but it was still exciting enough at the time that it is the first Doctor Who story I have a conscious memory of as a story (it was broadcast when I was five years old. I remember watching Doctor Who before this, but I don’t remember the individual stories). All the Doctors! Working together to fight the most fearsome threat yet!
Looked at with any kind of critical eye at all, The Five Doctors manages to sum up pretty much everything that was going wrong with Doctor Who at this point. It came as the climax of the twentieth series, one in which, as the production team excitedly made clear, “every story has a reference to something from an old story!”. And this was composed of almost nothing but references to other stories. Daleks, Yeti and K-9 appear for no other reason than because they are the kind of thing that should appear in a story like this, the plot makes no sense and it’s revealed at the end that the villain is a long-standing recurring character. The direction is utterly appaling — the accepted nadir of the episode is when Sarah Jane Smith falls down the gentlest slope in the world, screaming, but between bad line readings (“not the mind probe!”), scene blocking that pays no attention to the script (the “easy as pi” scene), and general errors of the kind that make it seem like the director just isn’t trying (the jeans visible on the Cyberman who attacks the Second Doctor and Brigadier) it becomes hard to choose a worst bit.
And yet… and yet…
This is a celebration, and just as one would not want to live off birthday cake, but it’s fun to have on a special occasion, there is really no criticism one can make of this story that doesn’t end up being just mean-spiritedness. None of the Doctors is especially well-characterised, but Troughton remains so watchable that you don’t care that his Doctor never behaved anything like this when he was in the show. The Dalek has no plot reason for being in the story, and is killed ludicrously easily, but the first Doctor needs to be pitted against his only recurring monster one final time. Anthony Ainley gets to ham up the part of the Master without, as in the stories from the previous year, being hamstrung by twelfth-rate dialogue and incomprehensible motivations, and proves that he could have been great in the role had the writing on his episodes been up to the task.
In short, it’s exactly the kind of thing one needs for a twentieth anniversary celebration — a reminder to everyone, just at a point when the programme was beginning to feel a little stale to some, of why Doctor Who existed, and what everyone loved about it. In this particular context, referencing old stories, and lines that had been forgotten by all but the most dedicated of fans, not only made sense but was precisely the right thing to do. And the fact that it still worked well enough that five-year-old me was riveted rather than bored rigid says volumes about how much there is to love about the programme at all.
If the programme had ended here, it would have gone out on a high that would have made it infinitely more fondly remembered than it was in later years. And if it had used the ending of this episode, with the implications of a fresh start, to draw a line under the continuity-fetishism of series twenty and bring in more fresh ideas, then it would possibly have been able to go on to even greater heights of success. As it is, it did neither, and the next few years, while they had their good points, were eventually to cause the show’s cancellation.