Twenty years, six actors and The Five Doctors (1983)

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You can blame The Chase. For many things, obviously, but mainly for my newfound love of listicles. I’m back to tackle another.

This time it’s “The Top Six Doctors in The Five Doctors“.

One

Despite all the anniversary celebrations, this is still a Davison story, so it’s right that we start with one of that era’s trademarks, the sepia flashback sequence. We couldn’t get enough of this stuff back in the day, when access to any vintage Who was rare.

Enter the first Doctor as played by William Hartnell. The real One, to coin a phrase. It’s a lovely sequence from The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and it exists entirely outside the fictional world of The Five Doctors. It’s just to get us in the mood.

There’s an odd little note in the info text for the DVD (original broadcast version, accept no others) at this point, which states that the clip was not particularly relevant to the story. Well, perhaps not literally, but lyrically, it’s steeped in relevance. “One day, I shall come back,” promises the first Doctor, right before he does. And “go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I have not been mistaken in mind,” speaks eloquently to Hartnell’s belief in his shaky, nascent series, which lasted 20 years and beyond.

One (again)

In a parallel universe somewhere, there’s a version of this story where it’s the first Doctor who’s trapped in the time eddy, unable to escape from clips of old stories. But instead, producer John Nathan-Turner decided to recast, and so we get Richard Hurndall who gives a new take on Doctor One. He looks satisfyingly like Hartnell. And he even has a similar name.

Hurndall’s is one of the series’ most memorable performances. He gives us a Doctor sufficiently Hartnellesque for us to recall the original, but creates a new and vital interpretation of his own. I seem to recall a Doctor Who reference book faintly condemning his performance for bearing ‘only a passing resemblance to William Hartnell’. Which I think spectacularly discounts his work here, as a slightly plummier, less erratic first Doctor.

Hurndall’s Doctor, along with Peter Cushing’s version, makes the first Doctor seem more pliable than most. We can have a whole range of faux first Doctors, it seems. And it’s a tradition which continues to this day, with David Bradley giving us a new first Doctor in the recreated sections of An Adventure in Space and Time. Hurndall’s version sparked talk of a new first Doctor story in Season 21. It’s an idea I still haven’t given up on. How great would it be to have a Capaldi/Bradley match up? Moff? Hello?

Two

It seems like Patrick Troughton read the script for The Five Doctors, realised he had all the comic bits and that all he need to do is turn up and steal every scene he’s in. This he does with ease, with deft timing on all the funny lines.

Three

Jon Pertwee on the other hand must have read the script, realised he had all the action bits and that all he needed to do was turn up and steal every scene that he’s in but Troughton’s not. Actually, he pulls focus just as much as Troughton, but he does it simply by being a tall, white bouffanted, tartan cloaked presence in every scene.

The Pert’s sections actually feel the most like his era, perhaps unsurprisingly given writer Terrance Dicks’ pedigree. There’s Bessie and the Master and an unlikely stunt or two. If only they’d parked a few of those Cybermen and shelled out for a few boiler suits and plastic Auton masks, we could really party like it’s 1970s or 80s, depending on the dating protocol. (Ah UNIT’s dating protocol. You get a pretty girl all dolled up for a night on the town… But I digress.)

His Royal Pertness’ pairing with Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith is one of the more authentic combos presented in The Five Doctors. We never actually got a first Doctor/Susan solo show, nor a second Doctor/Brigadier team up before. And though the third Doctor/Sarah were an actually couple, he’s more associated with Jo, and she’s more associated with Tom. Even the fifth Doctor/Tegan/Turlough was a relatively new line up. It all adds to the story’s feeling of slightly unfamiliar friends reunited.

Four

Like The Three Doctors before it, and The Day of the Doctor after it, this anniversary story couldn’t get its full complement of Doctors. This time round the one who won’t come out to play is Tom Baker.

How much he’s missed is debatable. On one hand, it would be foolish to say that a Doctor Who story couldn’t be improved by having more of Tom Baker in it. On the other, it’s hard to imagine him fitting harmoniously into proceedings, getting on nicely with other Doctors.

But his brief appearances courtesy of clips from Shada do make the viewer hunger for more of the great man. It would have been nice if they could have shoehorned more of that footage into The Five Doctors. If for no other reason that those film sequences around Cambridge are beautifully shot. In particular, I can picture that bicycle chase livening up the episode’s mid section, that tumbling black triangle in pursuit of Tom, scarf flying along behind him.

Five

Holding it all together, like a genial dinner party host is Peter Davison. Far from being upstaged by his Doctory guest stars, Davison manages to be both leading man and one of the gang.

But it’s doubtful that back in 1983, he had any idea how often he’d be returning as a guest at other Doctor’s parties: as part of a different five Doctors in Dimensions in Time (where once again Tom Baker would keep his distance from the rest) and bridging the gap between Whos old and new in Time Crash.

And then he writes and directs the off-off-Broadway The Five(ish) Doctors Rebooted, it’s very title acknowledging that persistent difficulty of getting a full set of Doctors. But the story of past Doctors wondering how they fit into a anniversary special, wondering if past glories can really be recaptured… Well, Davison would have seen that first hand. As both party host, and guest.

*****

So The Five Doctors actually includes six Doctors (three genuine, one stand in and two in clips). By rights, it should have claimed The Five(ish) Doctors as a title.

Miscounting and all, I think it’s grand. As someone who remembers exactly where he was watching it on its original broadcast in 1983, I always think this is one of Doctor Who‘s real success stories. Screened in how many countries? Released how many times on how many formats? Remembered by how many casual viewers as the one with all the Doctor Whos in it? Lord only knows what its cumulative audience figures have amounted to over time.

In these days when Doctor Who specials roll around regularly, this one – the original, you might say – really does feel special.

LINK TO The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion: both pay homage to Who‘s past.

NEXT TIME… In the name of peace and sanity… but not in The Name of the Doctor.

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