Aired 23 November 1983
‘The Five Doctors’ represents the culmination of twenty years of Doctor Who, a feature-length special that does its best to bring the five distinct eras of the franchise together with a cavalcade of guest appearances by friends and foes alike. From the outset, it’s clear that writer Terrance Dicks is not striving to offer a meaningful story that explores the depth of the Doctor as a character or that fundamentally changes the core nature of Doctor Who, but ‘The Five Doctors’ is an unequivocal success when taken simply as a nostalgic celebration that focuses more on spectacle than on story.
It’s interesting to note just how much attention is drawn to the questions regarding continuity that allow this adventure to take place, especially as continuity seemed to be pervading the programme more and more at the time. Part of this, naturally, is down to Tom Baker choosing not to reprise his role for the special after so recently departing. While the inclusion of scenes from the unfinished ‘Shada’ do at least allow a cameo of sorts for both Baker and Lalla Ward, it means that some of the resulting pairings of Doctors and companions are a bit off. The Brigadier is an essential part of the Third Doctor era, but he is here paired with the Second Doctor whom he had only briefly met. Likewise, Sarah Jane is an iconic part of the Fourth Doctor era but is here paired with the Third. The pairings do work within the context of the episode, but they miss out on recapturing their true nostalgic potential even as the companions make it known to these past incarnations that they know their future incarnations.
Of course, it is the Second Doctor himself who is at the centre of the continuity debate. Upon confronting a ghostly version of Jamie, he pointedly asks how Jamie could possibly remember him since the Time Lords wiped his memory of his travels with the Doctor upon returning him to Scotland at the end of ‘The War Games.’ This fails to take into account that the Doctor was forced to regenerate at the end of the very same episode, though, and this is unlikely to be a simple oversight since Dicks himself helped write that regeneration story. This scene has given rise to the notion that the Second Doctor had a secret, untelevised series of adventures set between ‘The War Games’ and ‘Spearhead from Space,’ and Dicks later supported this notion with his Second Doctor novel The World Game. It’s hard to say if that was the true intent at the time of broadcast, however, or if the spirit of general fun with the script and parade of cameos was meant to compensate for any plot holes, even one as noticeable as this.
And, really, ‘The Five Doctors’ is all about having fun. There are plenty of opportunities for deep and meaningful explorations of characters and concepts that are bypassed in order to streamline the experience and keep it as accessible to the mainstream public as possible. Thus, the incredibly fascinating Death Zone upon which the story is set is simply described by the Master as the black secret at the heart of Time Lord paradise. It’s efficient and it sets the scene well, but there is undoubtedly much more that could be mined from such a gruesome concept. Similarly, no mention is made about what has happened to Susan since she left the TARDIS; instead, she teams up with the First Doctor again as if it is nothing out of the ordinary. Even the Master himself is introduced with a quick expository scene in which Borusa simply describes him as one of the most corrupt and evil Time Lords their society has ever produced. ‘The Five Doctors’ is nothing if not efficient with both introducing familiar concepts and introducing new concepts.
Dicks is perfectly aware that he is writing the Doctors based as much on nostalgia as on proper characterization as well, meaning that certain aspects of each incarnation have been intensified and brought into focus. Thus, the First Doctor is cranky without his usual cheek and the Second is more impish than calculating, but both of these modifications again work within the context of the story without alienating the earlier incarnations’ personalities completely. After all, with the Death Zone being an arena filled with death traps literally set up to amuse spectators, playing on nostalgia for the heroes is practically a given and provides the perfect premise for why a Dalek, a Yeti, Cybermen, and other creatures would randomly be wandering about in such close proximity to one another. In fact, the Doctors and the Master come perilously close to breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging that they’re in a celebratory story on several occasions along the way, adding knowing winks for the audience while allowing the story to continue unhindered.
‘The Five Doctors’ and its tone also provide the perfect setting for the Master after the character had started becoming more of an ill-defined comic book villain rather than a truly nefarious nemesis. Seeing him mercilessly destroy a squadron of Cybermen as he is forced into an uneasy alliance with the Doctor in a fight for survival is quite effective here and even manages to convey upon him a sense of sympathy. He’s undoubtedly still evil, but casting him as an agent of the Time Lords who is unable to earn the trust of the Doctor is a great notion, and one that has had lasting ramifications for the series.
In the end, ‘The Five Doctors’ admirably accomplishes what it sets out to do as it brings together twenty years of the franchise to the best of its ability while remaining perfectly accessible to fans and newcomers alike. While not a story that will fundamentally alter the trajectory of Doctor Who, it is intriguing to note in retrospect just how important some of the concepts shown here have become, and it’s wholly entertaining throughout.