BBC Video // 1983 // 191 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // October 6th, 2008
"Like Alice, I try to believe three impossible things before breakfast." -- The Doctor
To commemorate Doctor Who's 20th anniversary in 1983, the producers crafted a full-length special, with the goal of bringing together all five doctors for an epic tale. Despite a few hitches -- such as the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, deciding not to participate -- the show premiered to wide acclaim. "The Five Doctors" was the first Doctor Who story to be released on DVD, back in 1999. That special edition was an expanded version, with some added scenes as well as some enhanced special effects. Whovians bought the disc in droves, and the purists promptly complained about the changes. Now, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the twentieth anniversary special, BBC Video provides both the original (transmission) and the special edition in a single package.
While the then-current (Fifth) Doctor (Peter Davison) and his companions Tegan and Turlough rest on the Eye of Orion, the Doctor starts feeling as though pieces of him are being stripped away. In a way, he is correct. We watch on as the First Doctor (Richard Hurndall replacing the late William Hartnell), walking in a garden, is whisked away by a flying black triangle -- the TimeScoop. In short order, the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and the Brigadier and the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) are likewise abducted. The Doctors and their companions find themselves in the Death Zone on the Time Lord's home planet of Gallifrey -- a forbidding region where the rulers of ancient Gallifrey used to bring beings from around the universe to fight to the death. The TimeScoop also attempts to abduct the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward), but the two are stuck in a Time Vortex. As each previous Doctor is abducted, the Fifth Doctor gets weaker and weaker. Tegan and Turlough carry him back to the TARDIS, where he manages to set a course for the TARDIS before falling unconscious.
On Gallifrey, Chancellor Flavia (Dinah Sheridan) and President Borusa (Philip Latham) welcome a surprising guest -- a renegade Time Lord who is the Doctor's arch-enemy -- The Master (Anthony Ainley). They explain to him that someone has taken the Doctor's past selves have been taken out of time, and the Master is the only person wily enough to go into the Death Zone and save them/him. They dangle the promise of a new cycle of regenerations -- the Master is on his last regeneration.
The TARDIS, with the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough aboard, materializes in the Death Zone, where they are found by the First Doctor and Susan. All of the Doctors are drawn to the Tower of Rassilon at the center of the Zone. As they make their way separately, encountering various enemies along the way, the Fifth Doctor's parley with the Master is interrupted by a group of Cybermen. In the confusion, the Fifth Doctor uses a recall device given to the Master by the High Council to teleport himself back to the capitol of Gallifrey, where he works with Borusa and Flavia to determine who is manipulating the timestream. As the first three doctors get closer to the Tomb of Rassilon, they realize that someone is using them as catspaws, getting them to deactivate the Tower's defenses so that the Gift of Rassilon -- the gift of immortality -- may be obtained.
This is just a fun story. Each Doctor get a chance to shine -- the First Doctor takes out a Dalek, the Second Doctor defeats a Yeti (to be honest, Patrick Troughton damn near steals every scene he's in), the Third Doctor rides a zip line into the Tower of Rassilon, and the Fifth Doctor discovers the bad guy. The Fourth Doctor just stays stuck in a Time Vortex, but that's Tom Baker's fault for refusing to participate; he now says that decision was a mistake. Because the story was written as a self-contained special, it avoids the pacing problems that plagued the serialized stories.
Acting is somewhat problematic; because there are so many characters, it's hard to get a good bead on any single performance. Pertwee and Troughton slip back into their roles like they were putting on a pair of old shoes. Tom Baker backed out of the show at the last minute; the producers just pulled some footage from a scrapped episode, "Shada," to get him into the story. On the surface, Richard Hurndall does a good job filling in for the late William Hartnell as the First Doctor, but having reviewing a Hartnell episode last week (Doctor Who: The Time Meddler), the court finds that while Hurndall nails the eccentricity and the irascibility, he doesn't quite capture the underlying gentleness of Hartnell's Doctor. There is a lovely scene with the First Doctor and the Fifth Doctor in which Davison is clearly channeling his predecessor's irascibility -- a reminder that they are, in fact, the same person. Philip Latham does a good job with Borusa, particularly since he was the third or fourth actor to play the role -- which is conveniently explained away as a matter of regeneration.
The bulk of the restoration work on Doctor Who episodes has been done by a volunteer group that has dubbed itself The Doctor Who Restoration Team. It's a labor of love for these people, and the results speak for themselves. The extras include several clips from earlier shows. When you compare that unrestored footage with restored material, it is amazing what they have accomplished. There is still a little grain (a lot of grain in exterior shots), and there are some problems with color bleeding -- most prominently with the orange trim on Davison's coat. The audio track for the transmission version is clear; the special edition has a remastered 5.1 track that benefits from having the bulk of the sound effects redone, but there's not much in the episode to really use the expanded sound field.
Any problems anyone might have with the story are swept aside by the breadth and depth of the extras. There are three different commentaries. The one with a group of companions -- Carole Ann Ford (Susan), Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier), Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane), and Mark Strickson (Turlough) -- is great fun, as they talk not only about the special but also reminisce about their times on the show. The track with Peter Davison (the Fifth Doctor) and writer Terrence Dicks is a bit drier, and is more focused on the special (though it does point out the various changes and additions). The third commentary is an Easter egg; once you've started to play the transmission version (Disc One), use your remote to open the audio options menu. There will be four options; select the third option, and you will be treated to a full-length commentary with current Doctor David Tennant, producer Phil Collinson, and script editor Helen Raynor. They were all kids when the special first aired, and they spend a fair amount of time talking about the experience of seeing the special when it originally aired. An onscreen text information option provides a lot of background and production information. "The Ties that Bind" is a 30-minute featurette that addresses the way that continuity was worked into the special. There are also a collection of different talk show spots promoting the special. Between the various spots, you get a good collection of clips from the show, allowing you to get a better sense of the various Doctor's personalities.
Dear lord, the plot holes. Let's face it, given the temporally diverse nature of the Doctor, any story involving multiple doctors is going to get a little weird. What would happen, for instance, if one of the first four Doctors had died during the story? Would he regenerate into the next Doctor or into a new Doctor all together? And since the First Doctor was present, should all of the other Doctors already understand what is going on? As Chief O'Brien famously said in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "I hate temporal mechanics." There are also some additional holes here and there; however, between the fast pace, the delight in seeing all of the old friends again, and the fact that Doctor Who stories were rarely perfect to begin with, the plot holes don't interfere with your enjoyment of the story.
For Doctor Who fans, this one's a no-brainer. Even if you have the previous edition, the upgrade is worth it for the extras alone. If you are not a Who fan and have not seen any of the earlier episodes, I would suggest watching one or two episodes of each Doctor before seeing this one; you'll appreciate the character interactions much better that way.
I think it best to give the Doctor the last word. The Five Doctors is prefaced by a brief clip of the late William Hartnell saying goodbye to his granddaughter Susan at the end of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth"; it has rightfully become one of the more famous speeches in the long history of Doctor Who:
"One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine."
Review content copyright © 2008 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, Special Edition)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English, Broadcast Edition)
Running Time: 191 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Companions Commentary
* Easter Egg Commentary Track
* Celebration: Doctor Who's 20th Anniversary
* Photo Gallery
* On-screen Text Information
* Isolated Music Track
* Commentary with Peter Davidson and writer Terence Dicks
* The Ties that Bind Us
* Five Doctors, One Studio
* (Not So) Special Effects
* Publicity Clips
* Isolated Music Track
* Doctor Who Restoration Team
* Wikipedia: The Five Doctors
* Outpost Gallifrey