Doctor Who: The Five Doctors
(Twentieth Anniversary Special, 1983)
“I am being diminished, whittled away piece by piece. A man is the sum of his memories you know, a Time Lord even more so…”
After a heart-touching introduction by the First Doctor, we find the Fifth Doctor – To save on confusion, I’m going to call them by number right out of the gate – putting the finishing touches on a brand new control console, and I actually kind of like it. The team is relaxing at the Eye of Orion, taking some time away from the rush of their recent adventures. The tranquil atmosphere has something to do with a bombardment of positive ions, and the Doctor agrees with Tegan that they can vacation for a little while.
Elsewhere, a black-gloved hand fiddles with controls and activates a scanner. On the screen is none other than the First Doctor (though not quite the genuine article due to an obvious need for recasting). A black Phantom Zone-like two-dimensional triangle swoops down and scoops up the Time Lord, an act that causes the Fifth Doctor considerable pain. The First Doctor is reduced to an Eaglemoss figurine and placed on a crystalline display.
Next up, we’re taken to UNIT HQ where Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is talking to his replacement, Colonel Crighton, when the Second Doctor arrives. The Time Lord has arrived to attend the Brig’s farewell speech and is unhappy with the renovations at UNIT HQ. He and the Brigadier take a walk, reminiscing over the Yeti, the Cybermen, Omega, and the Terrible Zodin (okay, not so much that one) before they too are swept into the Phantom Zone and turned into toys.
Tegan and Turlough escort the Fifth Doctor to the TARDIS, where he tells them that he must find his older selves to stop whatever is chewing at his soul. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Sarah Jane and K9 puzzle over the danger that the robotic dog detects. Sarah Jane ignores his concerns and heads to the bus for her daily schedule. She’s later consumed by the mysterious triangle.
The Fourth Doctor and Romana are punting down the river at Cambridge, just like they did in Shada. It’s a clever re-use of footage, really. Anyway, they are also taken, which causes the Fifth Doctor to collapse, but not before he sets the coordinates. The Fifth Doctor fades in and out before the TARDIS lands, and the mysterious figure adds models of Tegan, Turlough, and the Fifth Doctor to the display.
On Gallifrey, the Inner Council has convened, comprised of a newly-regenerated President Borusa, High Chancellor Flavia, and the Castellan. Shockingly, they admit the Master for a conference. The Inner Council offer a pardon for his long list of crimes and a whole new regeneration cycle in exchange for one act: He is to rescue the Doctor.
The First Doctor wanders an angular cave of mirrors, joined in a surprise appearance by Susan. (There were cheers from this Whovian. I’ve missed her.) The pair run as a Dalek (we haven’t seen them in a while!) rounds a corner and opens fire. The place is known as the Death Zone, an arena-like place on Gallifrey where beings from across the universe were sent to battle for amusement before the time of Rassilon. The Council sent two representatives who did not return. They attempted to send the Doctor, but all of his incarnations have vanished from the timeline. All of them (except the Fourth because Tom Baker had reasons) have been deposited in the Death Zone. Inside the Zone, the First Doctor and Susan trick the Dalek into a mirrored dead end. It fires and the reflected beam destroys the creature, revealing the mutant within the armored casing. Through a hole in the wall, they see the tower of the Death Zone and decide to investigate.
Elsewhere, the Second Doctor and the Brigadier tangle with Cybermen and the Third Doctor reunites with Sarah Jane as he rescues her from a terrible fall. As the First Doctor and Susan wander, they find the Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS and meet Tegan, Turlough, and the Fifth Doctor. The First Doctor spearheads introductions all around and then tasks Tegan with fetching refreshments. She objects, but the Fifth Doctor asks her to humor the oldest of the Doctors. After all, he used to get a bit tetchy. Meanwhile, the Master is sent into the Zone with the Seal of the High Council (to prove his credentials) and a transmat recall device. He is soon found by the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane, but the reunion is broken up by laser fire. The Master runs one direction while the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane go another, but without the aid of Bessie who took a direct hit to the engine.
The Fifth Doctor sets the TARDIS coordinates for the Dark Tower, a place that supposedly holds the tomb of Rassilon and is the current destination for all of the Doctors and companions. The Fifth Doctor, Susan, and Tegan set out on foot to disable the force field around it so the First Doctor and Turlough can move the TARDIS to its doorstep. Meanwhile, the Second Doctor and the Brigadier go in through the cave system beneath the tower, the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane encounter Cybermen, and the Fifth Doctor’s team encounters the Master. The last event is watched by a squad of Cybermen, who rush the Time Lords and stun the Master. The Fifth Doctor sends Susan (who twists her ankle) and Tegan back to the TARDIS before using the transmat recall to return to the capitol. The First Doctor decides to take up the Fifth Doctor’s task, and Tegan joins him. Amusingly, the First Doctor still has a great deal of resentment at being addressed as “Doc.”
The Fifth Doctor confers with the Inner Council about who has control of the time scoop and the Cybermen. He uncovers a homing beacon inside the recall device, surmising that someone led the Cybermen to the Master to attack the Doctors. Borusa has the Castellan, who originally gave the device to the Master, arrested and his office and quarters searched. Meanwhile, the Master makes an arrangement with the Cybermen, who then converge on the TARDIS.
The Third Doctor and Sarah Jane encounter a Raston Warrior Robot, a perfect killing machine, halting their progress until it passes. Luckily, the Cybermen approach and engage the Raston, providing a diversion for our heroes to escape (with the Raston’s supplies). In the caves, the Second Doctor and the Brig find a Yeti, which they evade before finding a door to the Dark Tower. It is unlocked, so a trap must lie beyond.
In the Citadel, a chest containing Black Scrolls of Rassilon, forbidden knowledge from the Dark Times, is found in the Castellan’s quarters. The Castellan is taken away for interrogation but is shot dead (without regeneration) en route. The Fifth Doctor is forbidden by Borusa from returning to the Death Zone. Flavia is tasked with taking care of the Fifth Doctor, and they discuss the possibility that the Castellan was not the traitor.
At this point, all three entrances to the Dark Tower are in use. The Third Doctor and Sarah Jane zipline across to the upper entrance, the Second Doctor and the Brigadier are in the basement, and the First Doctor and Tegan use a biometric entry coder to open the front door. The Master follows through the main entrance with the Cybermen. Interestingly, the First Doctor does not recognize his former classmate. The Master tricks the Cybermen into a death trap, but the CyberLeader survives until the Master tricks and kills him with a Cyberman blaster. The Master passes the trap, followed by the First Doctor and Tegan who survive by using π. Stay in school, kids… math can save your life.
The Third Doctor and Sarah Jane descend toward the Tomb of Rassilon, but the closer they get, the more psychic energy pushes back on Sarah Jane. The Third Doctor scouts ahead and finds former companions Mike Yates and Liz Shaw. Similarly, the Second Doctor encounters Zoe Heriot and Jaimie McCrimmon, but in both cases, the former companions are only specters designed to impede progress toward the heart of the tower. Once the Doctors understand that the companions are mere illusions, they disappear with chilling screams. The First Doctor is unaffected since, at his age, he has nothing left to fear.
The First, Second, and Third Doctors, along with their current traveling companions, finally arrive at the tomb. After a series of reunions, the Doctors decipher the Old High Gallifreyan language of mathematical symbols to discover that whoever wears Rassilon’s ring shall achieve immortality. The First Doctor is troubled by the last line in the text: “To lose is to win and he who wins shall lose.” The Master arrives shortly afterward and threatens the Doctors, but he is sucker-punched by the Brigadier and tied up by Tegan and Sarah Jane.
The Fifth Doctor goes to confer with Borusa, but the president is nowhere to be found. The Doctor discovers that the Harp of Rassilon is a musical key. The key unlocks a chamber where the figurines (including one of the Master) are being overseen by Borusa, the true mastermind of this scheme. The president is not satisfied with leading Gallifrey for all of his lifetimes, but instead want to be immortal and President Eternal. He plans to use the Doctors to clear the path and traps, leaving the way open for him to claim the prize. When the Fifth Doctor refuses to help, Borusa uses the power of the Coronet of Rassilon to compel his cooperation.
The Third Doctor reverses the polarity of the neutron flow on the control console, and with the forcefields down around the Tomb of Rassilon, the TARDIS engages autopilot and moves to the tomb with Susan and Turlough. The movement is just in time as the Cybermen detonate a bomb to destroy the TARDIS, but they miss. Soon, the Fifth Doctor and Borusa arrive via transmat to claim the prize. The first three Doctors combine their psionic powers to break the telepathic hold, and as the Fifth Doctor is freed, the voice of Rassilon issues a challenge to Borusa. The First Doctor convinces Rassilon to surrender the ring to Borusa, and the president’s desire is granted: The faces that line the plinth come to life, for they are those who have previously sought immortality, and Borusa becomes one of them.
Rassilon offers immortality to the Doctors, but they decline in exchange for the chance to go back to their respective timestreams. The Fourth Doctor is restored to Shada, and the Master is restored with the promise that his sins will find their punishment in due time. As the Doctors says their farewells, the First Doctor (smugly) explains that he convinced Rassilon to give Borusa the ring because he finally understood the riddle: It was a trap set by Rassilon to weed out the more selfish of their people because they were a danger to civilization. Each set of Doctors and companions boards the TARDIS in order and the TARDIS splits through a form of temporal fission to return them their proper homes.
Chancellor Flavia arrives and tells the Doctor that he is due back to the Citadel. Since Borusa has been disqualified, the High Council has decided that the Doctor shall resume his duties as Lord President. He orders Flavia back to the Citadel, telling her that she has full authority until he arrives in his TARDIS. After ushering Tegan and Turlough aboard, he sets a course and dematerializes, stunning his companions by announcing his intention to not take office.
“You mean you’re deliberately choosing to go on the run from your own people, in a rackety old TARDIS?”
“Why not? After all, that’s how it all started.”
All in all, this was a wonderful story to celebrate a significant milestone. I was curious, so I looked at scripted entertainment television across the United States and United Kingdom and came up with a short list of shows to reach twenty years by 1983: Coronation Street, Guiding Light, As the World Turns, General Hospital, The Wonderful World of Disney, Romper Room, Search for Tomorrow, Captain Kangaroo, and The Edge of Night. There were also a couple of semi-scripted children’s shows like Blue Peter and The Sooty Show, but the fact remains that, in a world dominated by soap opera longevity, Doctor Who was the only science-fiction drama reach that mark.
Yeah, they deserved this party.
I was very pleased to see so many of the companions back in action, even if their cameos were short. While I would have loved to see Liz, Zoe, and Jamie get into the mix, the saying holds true that too many cooks spoil the broth. It was clever, however, to subvert nostalgia with the canonical circumstances of The War Games. I appreciate that level of attention to detail.
I did miss having Tom Baker in the mix, which would have drawn The Five Doctors down to four if it hadn’t been for Richard Hurndall. From what I gather in fan circles, his involvement as the First Doctor is sometimes disparaged, but I thought he did a fantastic job. Mixing his performance with the archival footage at the beginning (effectively bringing us two First Doctors) was a nice touch and a beautiful tribute to the beginnings of this franchise.
Finally, that wonderful musical mix over the end credits to tie the eras together: C’est fantastique.
Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”
UP NEXT – Twentieth Series Summary
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.