In many ways, every single thing I could possibly say about this story is
encoded thematically within this image. All of which said, whose hand is
on waxwork Tom Baker's shoulder, exactly?
It’s November 23rd, 1983. Lionel Richie is at number one with “All Night Long (All Night),” as for one of only two times in Doctor Who we are forced to use the American charts, as this story actually aired two days earlier in the US than it did in the UK. This fact reflects the way in which Doctor Who, in the 1980s, was increasingly turning into a global export - a massive brand that raked in money for the BBC. This, of course, is not what you expect. In any other context global success would matter tremendously and would justify the show’s continued existence. But the BBC is beholden to different rules, as is appropriate given the nature of its funding. The license payers deserve not to be ignored in favor of Americans. And so far from being a reason to keep the show on the air, Nathan-Turner’s mad quest to chase American cult television fans at the expense of the license payers is, increasingly, a major problem.
Not, however, here - a story that is rightfully and properly delightful when it airs on November 25th, 1983. Billy Joel is at number one with “Uptown Girl,” with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson below him with “Say Say Say.” The Cure are also in the top ten with “The Love Cats.”
In real news, since March sci-fi and the real world have merged uncomfortably with Ronald Reagan announcing the space-based and comically unfeasible Strategic Defense Initiative, derisively nicknamed “Star Wars.” Samantha Smith manages the impressive feat of being used as a cheap propaganda tool by both the USSR and the US. Her resulting celebrity is the only reason she is on the plane whose crash kills her at the age of thirteen two years later.
Margaret Thatcher wins reelection in June in a landslide whereby an outright majority of voters opted for more liberal parties, resulting in Thatcher having a 61% majority in the House of Commons. This massive vote of confidence emboldens Thatcher’s government, and the Thatcherism we all know and loathe really begins here. Pioneer 10 flees the solar system four days later.
The Famicom, known in the US as the Nintendo Entertainment System, launches in Japan. The Global Positioning System is announced to be opened for civilian use. The GNU project is publicly announced. 38 IRA prisoners escape from Maze prison. And US cruise missiles arrive at Greenham Common.
While, of course, on television we have a big one. The Five Doctors.
The problem with occasionally doing what I think of as the gonzo entries is that there is occasionally the sense that I’m expected, for a given “big” story, to provide one. In practice it’s a bit more idiosyncratic than that. What makes a classic story and what makes a story that lends itself to an over the top gonzo entry do not, in fact, completely coincide. What enables a gonzo entry is a story in which there is some excess - in which the story messily signifies more than it quite means to, gesturing, often against its will, at a greater, more mythic order of things.
In this regard it is easiest to compare The Five Doctors with its obvious antecedent, The Three Doctors. The Three Doctors bristled with mythic possibility precisely because what it offered was so troubling within the context of Doctor Who. The story broke rule after rule, at once connecting with a history of the program that the Pertwee era had, at least briefly, gestured at erasing and breaking decisively with that past, opening onto an altogether grander vista. The Three Doctors invoked the past, but it was an unfamiliar and uncertain past that gestured towards a strange and unpredictable future. Blakean visions ensued. The Five Doctors, on the other hand, does little to facilitate such an entry. And this, more than anything, speaks volumes about the fallen state of the program.
It is not, of course, that it is bad. The Five Doctors is pure, unbridled fun. It does all that is required of it, and to ask more of it is churlish. What is telling, though, is that in ten years (or, really, closer to eleven) the nature of what is required of a multi-doctor anniversary story has changed dramatically. In 1973 the history of the program was, oddly, both completely obscured due to the unavailability of documentation and thoroughly present - Hartnell had only been off the air for seven years, and Troughton just over three. By 1983, however, the history of the program had almost completely inverted. It was thoroughly well-documented, with Doctor Who Magazine, the Target line, the Haining book, and a wealth of other sources making information about the program more and more available. But by 1983 it had been almost a decade since Pertwee had been on the screen, and well over one for Troughton and Hartnell. The massive and monolithic wall that was the Baker years stood between the present and the early history. In 1973 we didn’t think we knew what the program had been, but in fact remembered the spirit of it well. By 1983 we thought we knew exactly what the program had been, but couldn’t be more wrong.
As a result, revisiting the past is not, in 1983, a sort of quasi-mystical and ritualistic act of self-definition to gather the whole of what the show was. It’s a trip to the Doctor Who museum - Longleat for all. A butterfly gallery of once-magical creatures chloroformed, catalogued, brought out to flutter weakly for the license-paying audience. Far from gonzo, we have little more than an exhibit catalogue. Program notes for a special exhibit, an eight quid extra ticket on top of your free museum admission.
Exhibit 1.1: William Hartnell (Reconstruction)
The First Doctor, of course, never existed. Hartnell played only the Doctor, a unique character, replaceable only in hindsight. In the Three Doctors Hartnell returned, but too ill to summon the character, his appearance more a painful farewell, a last visit to the hospital. There are flashes of the animating fire that crackle beneath the surface, but merely flashes, the body serving as a living memorial to the spirit it once housed.
This is, in some ways, less ghoulish than that, at least. With only the already fading memory of An Unearthly Child from the Five Faces series to actually base a memory of the character on, Hurndall’s imitation of the character is at least less painful than an obvously ailing Hartnell peering at his cue cards. It is not Hartnell’s Doctor - not even close - but it is a credible First Doctor - the encyclopedia entry set of character traits that defined the first iteration of the character - a cranky old man, all “hm”s and “dear boy”s. The physical resemblance is reasonably impressive - no worse than the obvious shifts in Davros and the Master that took place over the Baker era.
Still, it is telling that both Dicks and the story’s original writer, Robert Holmes, instinctively wanted to sideline the character. In Holmes’s script the First Doctor was to be an impostor diegetically as well as extra-diegetically, whereas in Dicks’s original the Doctors roles were to be recallibrated to include Tom Baker. Baker was to have the Gallifrey portion of the plot, with Davison taking the portion that went to Hurndall, and Hurdnall being stuck in the TARDIS in the non-role given to Turlough and Susan. While perhaps a better handling of Hartnell’s decline and death than was managed in 1973 while he was still alive, there is something terribly inadequate about it, a degree to which it proves the moment when the claim that The Five Doctors engages an authentic history of the show becomes unsustainable.
Exhibit 1.2: William Hartnell (Archive Footage)
An odd claim, advanced by some, is that the choice to include the brief clip of Hartnell before the credits undermines Hurndall’s performance. This, of course, assumes that Hurndall was meant to fool anybody - an odd claim given that his appearance was milked as a trivia question from day one, or that Hartnell’s death was an obscure mystery.
Hurndall’s performance was always presented as a memorial to Hartnell. To say that it is imperfect - to illustrate that Hurndall is not a seamless replacement for Hartnell - is hardly an insult to either. Nobody would be so dismissive as to say that Hartnell was interchangeable with any other actor. The inclusion of a clip of Hartnell himself serves to underline this, to position Hurndall as what he is - a man paying homage to someone else’s character and someone else’s performance. To say that seeing Hartnell spoils the illusion suggests that the illusion could ever be maintained, or that even John Nathan-Turner would be crass enough to try. Of course Hurndall was talked up as being able to duplicate Hartnell. That’s the polite thing to say in this situation. Nobody was meant to be fooled. Nobody was.
Exhibit 1.3: Susan Foreman
Oddly haunting the proceedings, as she must, it is oddly fitting that she is the only companion that we don’t see summoned to the Death Zone, instead simply showing up in the midst of a hallway. There’s tacit acknowledgment that she’s a Time Lord, at least - she recognizes Gallifrey and Gallifreyan history.
But this, in turn, only exacerbates the larger problems of the character. The Problem of Susan has, hazily defined, been a recurring theme of this blog. It is, on the one hand, a placeholder for the more general problem of the companions and the Doctor’s relationship with them. In Susan’s case we first phrased this as the tension between the possibility of her growing up and taking some action on her own behalf and her subservience to the Doctor - a problem, in essence, of budding teenage sexuality.
Since then we have discovered the problem to exist in a more general sense. The transience of all companions when compared with the permanence of the Doctor means that the relationship is always asymmetrical. No companion can ever be unique and irreplaceable to the Doctor because the structure of the story dictates that they all must be replaced. Nobody gets to travel in the TARDIS forever. Not even Romana - the one companion who in theory could have stayed forever - gets to. And so the companions are all interchangeable, simply because they must be interchanged. On the other hand, drama requires that they be essential and not extraneous to proceedings.
The result is that no companion quite makes sense outside of the limited context in which they exist on the show. They are optical illusions, tricks relying on forced perspective. Move the lens an inch onto their lives before or after the TARDIS and the illusion is shattered as we are forced to try to grapple with lives designed for the TARDIS outside that context. This, more than a fascination with mawkish and depressing sentimentality, is why all companion return stories in the professional fanfiction are so bleak. Because these characters cannot and have never been able to sustain anything beyond the window of their lives we see.
Susan, of course, is the first case of this - a character that only makes sense when she is traveling with her grandfather because of the weight of expectations involved in his departure - the endlessly deferred return that we know can never happen. But more than that, she is a character who only makes sense prior to the development of the series’ mythology. It is telling that nobody on Gallifrey ever asks of their other prodigal, their other great renegade. Even when she appears on Gallifrey, in the Death Zone, she is ignored, treated as just another companion to be ignored. The Problem of Susan is, in the end, that nobody who knew how the series would go would ever have written her in. She’s a stranded artifact, at once central to the series mythology and unrevisitable because she no longer makes any sense. (The Virgin books entire Other mythology can, in one sense, be interpreted as a desperate attempt to shoehorn her into the otherwise seemingly family-free structure of Gallifrey.)
And so Susan haunts the narrative, necessary and yet impossible to integrate. Ironically, by ignoring her, treating her with no characterization other than a tendency to hurt herself, and then shoving her in the TARDIS with no plot she becomes the one piece of the series history to be treated with complete authenticity and honesty.
Exhibit 1.4: Dalek
Obligatory, which says more about its involvement than anything else. Dicks has said that his strategy in writing The Five Doctors was to just put everything in and trust that nobody was going to look too hard at the glue. This is, again, essentially correct. The story proceeds not according to narrative logic but according to a paratextual logic. It is driven by a need to shove in every signifier of Doctor Who it can find, and more to the point, its audience knows it. It works not according to plot logic but according to the logic of nostalgia.
The Dalek is the point where this is most blatantly signposted. It appears, gets one scene, and is abandoned, having served its purpose. The audience, upon seeing this, knows exactly what sort of story this is.
But for those who approach the story hoping for a significant story in its own right - a story that is about doing something instead of a live action version of the Peter Haining book - this marks the point in the story where it is obvious that we will be disappointed. As, let’s be fair, would anyone who might have been excited by the prospect of rematching the Daleks with the Doctor, given that they’d not appeared in four years.
Exhibit 2.1: Patrick Troughton
The hardest presence to confine to a museum, of course. Mercury and pigeonholing were never going to be comfortable bedmates. But the matter of encapsulating Troughton in a reunion story is more complex than just that. All of the Doctors suffer from a reunion story simply because they are forced to go from being lead actors to being part of an ensemble - something only Hartnell had to deal with, and him only in his earliest stories.
But Troughton is in some ways uniquely suited to this reversal simply because his character always controlled scenes from the margins. And so relegated to supporting cast he is, in some ways, in his element. (Indeed, in one of the most subtle touches in The Five Doctors, Troughton even gets to peer out of a television monitor at the Fifth Doctor.) On the one hand, quicksilver cannot be pigeonholed. On the other hand, its method of resistance is to be so free-flowing and amorphous that it can adopt any form. Troughton’s Doctor is the one who is most distant from his actual characterization in the reunion stories. But Troughton’s ever-shifting nature in the role means this distance is, in many regards, just another manifestation of the mercury.
This leads, in these stories, to an odd effect. Troughton is, in all three of his returns to the series, the most compelling and likable thing on offer. The underlying mischevious twinkle that animated his Doctor still exists in what Tat Wood memorably describes as his “potty professor” guise. All of his charm is intact. And so watching him, in any of the three stories, they serve as effective first encounters. The three reunion stories were my first three Troughton stories. But they worked marvelously as gateways to his era proper, in which all of the pleasure of the character in these survives along with the myriad of other depths Troughton was able to lend to the role.
Exhibit 2.2: Brigadier
It is impossible not to notice the fact that the companion pairings in The Five Doctors are completely wrong. It is, of course, a logistical problem, as ever, centering on Tom Baker’s late departure and Frazer Hines’s being unavailable due to commitments on Emmerdale Farm. But the result is unfortunate - Troughton is paired with the Brigadier, a character he only met in two stories and has no particular attachment to.
Courtney, of course, is pure class and makes it work, pitching his performance so as to make Troughton and he into a sort of retired buddy cop movie - two old warhorses dragged out of retirement for one last adventure. Unforgiven with Yeti. As it is impossible to train a camera on Nicholas Courtney and Patrick Troughton without something satisfying happening, this works.
But there’s an obvious flaw in the plan. The decision to delay the big meet-up of the Doctors until the very end means that there is no time for a key scene, namely the one in which Courtney and Pertwee reunite. The two exchange two sentences and then Pertwee blows the Brigadier off to go translate an inscription. Again the checkbox nature of this story becomes altogether too clear - the fact that this story is about nothing more than the most abstract form of the past.
Exhibit 2.3: Yeti
It is, of course, inexplicable what this is doing here. Apparently the Great Intelligence is casually animating Yeti on Gallifrey for no reason other than the desire to bring back some classic Second Doctor monster. But the sheer brevity of its nonsensical appearance only highlights the degree to which the zeal to add bits of everything into this story was ill-advised. One of the things that increasingly comes up in Doctor Who as it speeds towards cancellation is its low budget, but when one hits something like this, what, exactly, is one expected to do? They wasted money building a Yeti costume for a two minute sequence instead of giving us more than two lines of dialogue between Pertwee and Courtney? Seriously?
Exhibit 2.4: Jamie and Zoe
Ah, the big continuity error. And it was an accident. It was supposed to be Victoria Watling returning, and the Doctor was supposed to figure out that they were illusions when Victoria misidentified the Brigadier’s rank, as he’d only been a Colonel when they met. Instead, of course, we have Troughton aware of the circumstances of his own regeneration, sparking the whole Season 6B thing.
But what’s really striking is the cruelty of this scene. Here, for one scene, we get a proper reunion - the core cast of the best-preserved season of Troughton - the one that people had gotten to see recently in The Krotons. And it’s just illusions and phantasms - a trick from the mind of Rassilon. The touch of having the phantasms scream as they disappear is particularly bleak.
Exhibit 3.1: Jon Pertwee
The Doctor who ought be most suited to this style of reunion is, puzzlingly, the one least served by the script. The Pertwee era, more than any other era, lends itself to this museum approach given that at times it seems to want to be nothing more than a collection of memes waiting for the Internet. And yet there is no Pertwee death pose, no Venusian aikido, no UNIT. He doesn’t even get his proper costume, unlike Troughton not getting to shed his overcoat once he’s in the studio. (Here I must also cite my choice for the funniest moment in Volume 5 of About Time, the observation that no theory of continuity can possibly account for Jon Pertwee’s hair.) The brief interplay with the Master, the appearance of Bessie, and a quick polarity reversal are the extent to which the Pertwee era is plundered for references.
Pertwee is left to play an inchoate mass of paternalism, and he acquits himself well. But this transition from the action hero of memory to a doting old man who is kidnapped on his Sunday drive captures an interesting aspect of how the two Doctors who are actually brought back return. Both Pertwee and Troughton play their parts as though their characters have retired - as old men coming back for one last adventure. Indeed, the entire past of the program is shown implicitly as “past its prime.”
This, of course, captures the fundamental anxiety at the heart of these proceedings, and, in many ways, of the whole of the program since Earthshock. On the one hand, Nathan-Turner is obsessed with strip-mining the program’s history. On the other, Nathan-Turner remains obsessed with distinguishing himself and glorifying his tenure as producer. And so the program is increasingly obsessed with referencing its past for the sole purpose of trying to show how much better it is than the very past that it sees itself as primarily existing to reference.
The tightrope of ambivalence that I’ve been walking in this entry amounts, in most regards, to an ambivalence of execution and conception. The story does exactly what it has to and is charming. Nothing more was required than this cheery museum catalogue, and in many ways nothing more was wanted. But one cannot embrace this without also embracing the reduction of Doctor Who to a set of trivia answers that has happened over the season. Had this not been the capstone of a museum project that had been running for eighteen months and would continue interminably into the next story it would be one thing. Instead it stands out as the one defensible moment in a sea of misguided self-indulgence, like an unpleasant drunk’s one genuinely funny bit at a party.
Exhibit 3.2: Sarah-Jane Smith
There is no scene that exemplifies the job of playing the companion quite like Lis Sladen gamely throwing herself down a small embankment and screaming in terror. All of which said, seeing her go from prospective leading woman in K-9 and Company back to interchangeable peril monkey is physically painful.
Exhibit 3.3: Bessie
As strange as it is to see the era of the program’s past that can most easily be reduced to a bunch of signifiers largely unmined, it is difficult to argue seriously that, in bringing back Bessie, they picked the most necessary of them. There is perhaps no symbol of the Pertwee era’s wonderful and ludicrous excess as the action hero driving a rickety old car like Bessie.
I never liked the Third Doctor era that much, and by the time I got my license was largely out of love with Doctor Who as well. I still named my first car, a rusting Chevy S-10 pickup truck, Bessie.
Exhibit 3.4: Liz and Mike
Ironically, Richard Franklin turns out to be terribly good at playing a character who is unsettlingly malevolent for reasons you cannot quite put your finger on. But again the shoehorn approach lets the story down. With two “phantasms” sections the appearance of Jamie and Zoe is completely drained of all tension. As grim and cruel as that sequence is, it at least has real impact, or would have if we hadn’t just seen Pertwee solve the exact same mystery a few minutes before. Was anyone so clamoring for the return of Liz Shaw and Mike Yates that this seemed like a good idea?
Exhibit 3.5: Cybermen
There are, in the whole of this story, exactly two interesting ideas of what to do with the past Doctors. One we’ll talk about later, and the other is pairing Pertwee against the Cybermen. This latter one is interesting because, of course, Pertwee is the only classic series Doctor to not have a Cybermen story in his era.
By most standards this is a trivia answer. But here it gets treated as a serious lack - as if Doctor Who had some real flaw in its past because one particular incarnation of the Doctor had never faced one particular monster. Aside from turning a given era of the program into a bucket list (Nicholas Courtney, check, Daleks, check, Cybermen, check, OK, regenerate the bugger) it serves as evidence of that strange breed of thought that thinks that monsters are the most important part of Doctor Who. This strain of thought is unfortunate, having produced exactly one good idea, ever. (Paul Cornell’s idea of the Doctor being what monsters have nightmares about, of course.) And its increasing prevalence in this era is part and parcel of why The Five Doctors had no expectations resting on it beyond checking boxes. The Cybermen, in this vision, are treated as an abstract idea, valued because they appeared on Doctor Who. Why would the series do more than check boxes for its anniversary when a substantial portion of its audience actually gives a damn whether this particular set of tin soldiers faced off with this particular actor?
I’d say that the onscreen results of this obligatory confrontation (again, picked over having Jon Pertwee actually meaningfully interact with his own supporting cast) should be forcibly shown on repeat to anyone who thinks that Doctor Who is mostly about monsters until they repent, but the fact of the matter is that most of them wouldn’t understand the problem in the first place. To quote, or at least paraphrase Gareth Roberts, those people got what they wanted. They got Attack of the Cybermen.
Exhibit 3.6: Terrance Dicks
For all my bitterness surrounding this story - a bitterness that focuses mainly on the fact that now its impossible to do another reunion story with Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee and so I’m forced to look at this as the missed opportunity for the sort of epic and totemic reunion story that I genuinely believe could be done, and, indeed, that was done in 1973 - I ought stress for the umpteenth time that it is utterly delightful and fun. It must, of course, have been far more so at the time, when the home video releases didn’t exist and all of these returns were thrilling and new and, for many, the first time they’d gotten to see Troughton or Pertwee. Now that this has fallen into nostalgia as well it’s indistinguishable from all the other Pertwee or Troughton stories on one’s DVD shelf save for the fact that it’s dodgier. At the time there was real magic to it.
So much of the credit for that magic goes to Terrance Dicks, whose strengths as a writer are played to utterly here. His ability to stitch a ludicrous set of elements together with nothing more than the ability to sketch a high concept idea out efficiently and his knack for plucky adventure yarns is the thing that saves this story from being Arc of Infinity 2. It takes a very, very good writer with a very, very good understanding of how audiences work to grasp that the script doesn’t have to make plot sense if it makes thematic sense. Realizing that he didn’t have to figure out how to make it all sensible, he just had to get it all on screen was a stroke of genius.
Exhibit 4.1: Tom Baker and Lala Ward (Archive Footage)
Several times in comments a bit of a debate over how long the shadow of Tom Baker really hangs over the program. The answer is at least “until Rose,” if not “until David Tennant finally beats him in a most popular Doctor poll.” Here we see it at, perhaps, its clearest.
Baker had, of course, only been out of the role for two years when the story filmed. It is wholly understandable why he did not want to return at this point. It’s harder to credit in the context of his later reluctance to engage with the program, admittedly, but that’s neither here nor there. And if we’re being honest it would have been a challenge to integrate him. In this story Davison’s supposed “blandness” - a trait that really tends to mean his tendency not to recklessly steal scenes from everyone around him - is largely a benefit, simply because it means everyone can be on about the same footing in the big shared scene at the end. Whereas, let’s face it, the scene would have been harmed by inserting a Tom Baker sized ego into it.
Still, his absence is palpable here. I remember being crushed when I put the tape in for the first time, thinking I’d finally get my third Tom Baker story, then being doubly thrilled to see that I was going to get my first Romana story, then finding out that they weren’t really in it and it was just old footage from Shada. Delightful footage, of course, but still, only a fragment.
But again, as with the Five Faces, the real effect of this is the erasure of a significant period of Doctor Who. The way in which the six seasons between Pertwee and Nathan-Turner are so barely referenced in anything that comes after creates an odd effect. For a program so obsessed with its own past the blatant ignoring of the most popular segment of the past is telling, if only inadvertently. Given the lack of respect Nathan-Turner shows to the past he plunders his failure to ever engage in the actual most popular of the period looks like cowardice, regardless of whether or not it was.
Exhibit 4.2: Tom Baker (Reconstruction)
If the moment in which Lis Sladen hurls herself down a small hill in the name of peril monkeying is the moment of Doctor Who that most perfectly embodies the companion, the decision to have a wax dummy of Tom Baker stand in for a photoshoot is the moment that most perfectly embodies John Nathan-Turner.
Exhibit 4.3: Leela (This item on loan to another museum)
While researching this piece, the fact that most staggered me was that Louise Jameson had offered to return for the story and was turned down because they couldn’t find a way to put her in. Let that sink in for a bit, as it serves as one of the more damning pieces of evidence that Nathan-Turner deliberately sidelined the Baker years. Yes, Jameson lacked a Doctor to be paired with.
But on the other hand, the task of integrating her into the story would have been trivial given that she was already on Gallifrey. You know. Where the story is set. Indeed, adding her would have done little more than give Davison someone to play off of in the Gallifrey scenes and, perhaps more importantly, would have meant that the Baker era were represented in more than just passing. Indeed, Leela is in many ways the perfect companion for this, given that she’s the companion that spanned the two main producers of the Baker era - the one who has something resembling a legitimate claim to represent the whole of it.
In many ways it’s her absence that stings the most, then. Because her omission, when she was available and wanted to appear, constitutes a real failure to represent the Baker era in a story that is otherwise preposterously obsessive about shoehorning everything in. And no, Sarah Jane doesn’t cut it. Yes, she’s primarily a Baker-era companion, but she’s explicitly used here as a Pertwee companion. This only heightens the sense that the Baker era is getting actively ignored.
No way to write her in. Feh.
Exhibit 4.4: K-9
Well, and then there’s K-9. Whose cameo status is, at least, wholly understandable - with the bulk of the story being filmed on location in Wales (standing in as the dark secret at the heart of Gallifrey. So that’s funny too.) he was never going to work well, and Dicks specifically asked to be spared dealing with him, which, given that he was stepping in at the last minute because Robert Holmes couldn’t get the scripts to work, was a more than fair request.
K-9 is, in many ways, the last throw of the dice for the Baker era, and reiterating his new pairing with Sarah Jane makes this the one non-Shada scene to evoke the Baker years. But, of course, they only appeared together on Nathan-Turner’s watch. That irritating egoism and tendency of Nathan-Turner to just cut out the bits of Tom Baker he didn’t do persists even here. Even a scene that does encompass virtually the whole of the Tom Baker years - he only appeared in seven stories that didn’t feature one of Sarah Jane or K-9 - somehow is prevented from actually serving to honor his tenure.
Exhibit 5.1: Peter Davison
If ever there was a Doctor one might worry about getting upstaged in this, it would have to be Davison. At Longleat, apparently, he was voted the worst Doctor because he was, apparently, bland - a classic case of why you can’t always trust the audience to tell you what they want. Davison’s Doctor may have his flaws - although I frankly don’t really see them, viewing him as one of the finest actors to have played the part - but blandness isn’t one of them. Bad writing often is, but even in his worst scripts Davison manages to sell the part, making his Doctor a flurry of activity. “We don’t like Davison because he’s bland” is, in reality, little more than an inarticulate way of saying “we still miss Tom Baker.” In practice, Davison is magnificent here, and even if he doesn’t get to be paired with Tom Baker he more than shows that he belongs in the company of his predecessors.
It was Troughton, of course, who encouraged Davison to leave after three years. And in the rehearsals for Castrovalva, apparently, Troughton dropped by to say hello and stood in for Davison in setting up a scene. Troughton, in other words, was always a bit of a mentoring presence for Davison, and that carries over here to how he plays the role. It’s worth watching his scenes with Hurndall, in which he manages at once to defer to Hurndall, recognizing that in this story he’s not the real main attraction, while simultaneously putting his stamp on things. Troughton-like, he flits on the edges of the scene, managing to provide a commentary on his earlier selves without upstaging them.
He is, of course, helped tremendously by Baker’s deciding not to do the special and, accordingly, by his getting the Gallifrey plot instead of being one of the “to the tower” Doctors. This makes him the odd Doctor out - the one who gets a plot that’s unlike the others. Yes, it also means he’s the one who gets cheaply mind controlled, but nobody’s perfect.
Exhibit 5.2: The Master
Amusingly, he works here, if only because the story has no illusions that he works as a character. He is unapologetically played as a bit of a buffoon. His scene storming into the Tower at the end and whining angrily that the Doctors were all terribly mean to him is not only deft characterization, it’s wonderfully spot-on. I’d say that it’s the perfect end for the character’s somewhat superfluous role in proceedings here, but it’s not. The Brigadier decking him is the perfect end, and just about makes up for the appalling three-line scene with Pertwee.
Note also that Dicks quietly fixes Robert Holmes’s in hindsight poor decision to set a definite endpoint for the series by establishing that giving a Time Lord a new cycle of regenerations is not only possible but the sort of thing that gets handed out as casual payment.
Exhibit 5.3: Tegan
The other interesting idea that the story has is pairing Tegan with the First Doctor. Unfortunately, almost nothing about the idea actually works. It’s based on the misapprehension that the First Doctor’s character is defined merely by his crankiness, first of all, and that there’s something strange about pairing him with a loudmouthed or strongwilled person. In practice, of course, Hartnell got paired with strong-willed characters all the time. Tegan has nothing on Barbara. Nothing. (To say nothing of the episodes where Hartnell is paired with Nicholas Courtney’s Brett Vyon)
But on top of that, nothing gets done with it. There’s not actually any hilarious banter between Tegan and the First Doctor. They don’t share any quips. Tegan doesn’t get to put the Doctor in his place. It turns out that what happens when you pair Tegan with the First Doctor is that Tegan looks sullen and grouchy and doesn’t do anything, an outcome that comes perilously close to suggesting that all Tegan really needs is a disciplinarian who will shut her mouth.
Exhibit 5.4: Turlough
Turlough is also in this story, as it happens, though you’d hardly know watching it. Still, at least he gets to appear in all the other stories around this, so, you know, it’s less depressing watching him get pointlessly shoved in the TARDIS than it is to watch Carole Ann Ford get hired just to be wasted in the TARDIS with Turlough.
Exhibit 5.5: Gallifrey
Ah, yes. Gallifrey. This is the last of the four Gallifrey stories, though Trial of a Time Lord flirts with the iconography. Everyone points out that Cardinal Borusa is played by four different actors in the course of four stories, but what’s pointed out less is that there are unmistakably four different Gallifreys here. In The Deadly Assassin the Doctor needs to be told who Rassilon is. Here everybody knows rhymes and stories about Rassilon and his tomb, and Gallifrey manages to find another dark secret in the heart of it all.
Given this it’s actually surprising just how well Rassilon’s appearance works. The moment when the faces on his tomb come to life and begin looking around frantically is one of the great moments of a horrific concept overcoming its technical limitations and managing to be really creepy anyway. Or, at least, I thought so. Watch me discover that they’re the new Plasmatons.
But on the whole Gallifrey suffers the worst from the museum approach, and it’s here that the gulf between 1973 and 1983 becomes most apparent. In The Three Doctors Gallifrey was still treated as a mysterious place of powerful beings we knew little about, with secrets that would be revealed. Here Gallifrey was treated as something we all know everything about, with the Death Zone being just one previously unmentioned detail. The lushness of the Deadly Assassin has given way to excessive glitter and “space” doors that, as is hilariously pointed out by David Tennant in the 25th anniversary commentary track for this story, are just doors with two handles screwed on.
And the mind probe.
All of which said, we here reach the limit of my critical capacity, and that limit is Chancellor Flavia. Nothing about Dinah Sheridan’s performance or the role as written begins to account for her status within fandom. And yet I, without having any real knowledge of that status, similarly took to Chancellor Flavia as being a terribly important character. Part of this was that she was, apparently, the new Lord President of Gallifrey and would thus presumably be important. But this seems insufficient to explain the level of fascination she holds (for instance, Davies and Collinson nicknaming the “Time Lordy” music of the Davies/Tennant era as “Chancellor Flavia’s Theme”). Nor is her potential as a camp icon quite enough.
Exhibit 5.6: Theme Music
While I am not among those who hate the Peter Howell arrangement of the theme music, the moment in the closing credits when the Delia Derbyshire theme gives way to the Howell theme is actively painful. And not just because of the rough key change.
Exhibit 5.7: How it All Started
The story goes out of its way to have its ending supposedly mirror “how it all started,” with Tegan getting in a painfully awkward line about the Doctor “deliberately choosing to go on the run from your own people in a rackety old TARDIS” at the end. But, of course, that’s not how it all started. It started with two people falling out of the world into a strange and mysterious space that didn’t make sense. It didn’t start with Time Lords at all. And it certainly didn’t start following a ninety minute museum tour of the series past.
This is, in many ways, a microcosm of my ambivalence over this story. By returning to an imaginary past and then making an ending that amounts to shouting “twenty more years, just like this!” the series is, in effect, completely abandoning all possibility of what it once was - a series about the strange and the unsettling. Doctor Who has, at long last, given up all prospect of being anything other than populist comfort food. This story isn’t what does it. The Nathan-Turner era has been careening towards it since Bidmead left. It’s implicit, in many ways, in the shift from being a science fiction show at Saturday teatime to a sci-fi soap opera.
And it’s in many ways implicit in the general cultural turn towards franchise/property based science fiction. Doctor Who is first and foremost a brand, and when brands have anniversaries this is the sort of anniversary they have. All of this is just the consequences of 1983 playing out over poor Doctor Who. But it’s very hard to be anything short of dismayed by it. As wonderful as the program can be through the Davison era, and even though it hits wonderful far more often than its given credit for, it’s impossible not to be more than faintly disappointed by what the program is here compared to what it once was.
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