Given that The Day of the Doctor was massively successful and immediately catapulted to the top of the “best Doctor Who stories ever” list, it is perhaps no small thing that it was not actually the most beloved piece of the fiftieth anniversary. That honor, of course, goes to the spectacle of Steven Moffat visibly wishing he was sitting in the chair from Terror of the Autons during the botched satellite link-up with One Direction during the BBC Three “afterparty.” But second to the single most sublime moment of television that Steven Moffat has ever provided the world was Peter Davison’s The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.
It is worth stating, up front, that this is a genuinely sweet and delightful piece of television. It is routinely hilarious, from the brilliant use of the Shada clip to cover Tom Baker’s lack of involvement to the Peter Jackson/Ian McKellen cameo to Sylvester McCoy’s beautiful delivery of “I’d like to go home now” to Steven Moffat playing with action figures in his office to… I mean, this paragraph could go on for quite a bit, couldn’t it? This is a joyous thing chock full of charming moments.
In some ways, actually, that’s the headline. Colin Baker has said in at least one interview that he genuinely was hurt not to be included in Day of the Doctor, especially given that Tom Baker was. This is an old wound, of course – the same one that flared twenty years earlier over the disparity of emphasis in The Dark Dimension. But it’s honestly difficult to imagine that Davison and McCoy didn’t have similar emotions. Of course they were all jealous of Baker and McGann for getting involvement. Wouldn’t anyone be?
And yet this exists, full of warmth and humor and good feelings. On, to be clear, all sides. Moffat is there to send himself up as a disdainful and cantankerous man who has it in for any part of the series he didn’t create. Because, of course, he’d have loved to do The Thirteen Doctors as much as Colin Baker would have loved to be in it. Nobody didn’t want to see all of the classic series Doctors. And perhaps more to the point, in skewering himself so thoroughly, Moffat is tacitly making it clear that he understands Davison, Baker, and McCoy’s disappointments, and, more to the point, is sympathizing with them.
One might, of course, fairly ask why he didn’t just give them parts in the special then. But the reason for that is straightforward: the special still had to, at the end of the day, work as an episode of television and as a narrative. And the available options for trying to craft a narrative featuring all of the Doctors were all, in their own ways, unappealing. Seventy-five minutes is not nearly enough to handle eight leads with their own plot threads – an ensemble of that size needs far more room to breathe. And a chain of cameo appearances would quickly grow dull. It’s an absolute delight when Tom Baker shows up on screen. But if Tom Baker’s appearance were the first (or last) in a chain that went on through the list, it would swiftly become a tedious exercise in box ticking. The strictly episodic nature of that plot is, frankly, dull – just ask anyone who’s read The Eight Doctors. Or imagine the “Doctor’s reward” segment of The End of Time stretched out for an hour. Either will do.
On top of that, once you start going for completism, the necessary gaps become all the more visible. Suddenly you need to come up with a reason why you’re stopping at Tom Baker. Already The Day of the Doctor tangibly had Eccleston’s absence hanging over it, both in conspicuousness of John Hurt and in the obvious but totally ignored question of why the Moment apparently deemed the Doctor’s next incarnation inadequate for the task of preventing the Doctor from using it. Adding more Doctors just makes the ones who aren’t there more conspicuous, much like Tom Baker’s absence quietly dominates The Five Doctors. And, of course, there’s the passage of time – the fact that casting Davison, Baker, and McCoy as the Fifth through Seventh Doctors in 2013 would look like what it was: old men dressing like they’re thirty years younger than they are. Indeed, the fact that this is what happens if you put Davison, Baker, and McCoy in their Doctor costumes (or at least, in their coats thrown over the souvenir t-shirt versions of their costumes) is one of the central jokes of The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.
Because, of course, the truth is that we didn’t all want the classic Doctors to be cast in the 50th anniversary special. What we wanted was for it to simultaneously be 1988, 1985, 1982, 1976, and for that matter 1973, 1968, and 1964, and to have the Doctors of our youth reborn on screen in all their glory. We wanted the past to still be accessible. We wanted a show about time travel to be capable of it. We wanted an anniversary special that was boundlessly long, and consisted not of cameos but of whole new seasons of all of our favorites. We wanted everything. And instead we live in a world with time, and history, and death.
And the reality is that Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy all know and understand that. They get that Moffat’s job is to create the best Doctor Who he possibly can in 2013, and that at the end of the day he has to go with his creative judgment because he’s the man at the keyboard. They’re all professionals and gentlemen. They understand how art is made, and that the moment you start trying to do something you don’t really believe in is the moment you’re lost. And that’s ultimately what The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot is: everyone involved getting together in a big group hug to show that they understand that this is how it works, and that they’re all still friends.
Which brings us to the most barbed gag in the entire thing – when McCoy stops and asks, why they’re doing this, noting, “I’ve travelled twelve thousand miles to get here, I’m in breach of contract, my film career’s in tatters, and for what,” prompting Baker to ask what the point of this mad folly is. At which point Davison, after a moment’s thought, says, “for the fans,” an answer everyone readily accepts, dismissing all doubt they had about the wisdom of this.
It works on many levels. Part of the joke of the whole piece, after all, is the underlying egotism of their desire to be in the 50th. “For the fans,” then, is used, as it often is, to make a show of altrusim around an altogether more selfish act. This is just as much for the fans as convention appearances and Big Finish audios are, which is to say that the fans are a lovely supplement to a paycheck. Indeed, the fact that what is “for the fans” is more often for the fans’ disposable income goes a long way towards explaining the vast number of stunning misadventures undertaken in the fans’ names. Of course Colin Baker will break into the Roath Lock Studios for the fans. He already did Attack of the Cybermen for them, after all.
But it’s also the case that “the fans” serve as the entire reason The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot exists, and not in an entirely pleasant way. While it is largely about everyone lampooning their own pretensions and ego, the occasion for this lampooning only exists because there are people who are absolutely ludicrously invested in their sense of what The Day of the Doctor should have been. Colin Baker may have admitted to hurt feelings in an interview, but portions of Doctor Who fandom were absolutely seething at the lack of classic Doctors, and were happy to accuse Moffat of egregious disrespect. Just as they were perfectly happy to get angry at him for failing to persuade Eccleston to come back, and, for that matter, perfectly happy to get angry at Eccleston for not understanding that playing the Doctor is actually a life sentence and not, as he might have imagined on the basis of his contract, a nine month gig. The number of genuinely ugly sentiments about this topic that “the fans” have expressed is vast, and while “not all fans” and even “not most fans” are absolutely accurate and solid defenses, the toxic dickheads have their effect.
And yet somehow the inherent ugliness that fuels this doesn’t detract from its fundamental charm. Yes, this exists because of a multi-layered and toxic culture of entitlement and arrogance that, ultimately, absolutely nobody involved with this is actually innocent of participation in, the audience included. And yet it’s fun. It’s a bunch of people from across fifty years of history throwing a party to celebrate both that history and the way in which that history has delivered the present day. And the sheer love of that history and of Doctor Who comes through in every scene and every time that people send up their own pretensions and rough edges. And that’s perhaps the thing that’s worth pointing out. Yes, everybody who does something like this “for the fans” is at the end of the day really doing it for themselves. But then, they’re the fans too, for better and for worse.
But in the case of The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, pretty much entirely for better.