Our review of Doctor Who: The Five Doctors: 25th Anniversary Edition, published October 6th, 2008, is also available.
"A man is the sum of his memories; a Time Lord even more so."
The long-running British science-fiction show Doctor Who celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1983. At that time, it was decided that a grand story would be done to commemorate this momentous event in television history. (Well, for at least a few Whovians it felt momentous.) What came about is this story called The Five Doctors in which all of the five incarnations of the Doctor (see my review of The Caves of Androzani for a brief history of the show) are brought together to fight an immense foe. You should know that one of the rules of time travel is that a Time Lord should not be able to meet himself (in any incarnation) during his travels.
Nonetheless, a story was developed that found a way for all of the Doctors to meet. It turns out that there were just two small problems in this endeavor: (1) The actor who played the First Doctor was dead; (2) The actor who played the Fourth Doctor (and is considered by many to be their favorite) wanted nothing to do with the show, as he had just finished playing the character after seven years.
In the end, all of the hurdles were worked out and this rather fun and lively story was shown on November 25, 1983. This episode is grand in that it brings together a true sampling of the best of Doctor Who from the previous 20 years. You get all the Doctors, many of his former companions, some of his best villains (and his "best enemy" as the Third Doctor would say), and some new, interesting characters. While certainly not the deepest storyline, it was a fantastic way to pay tribute to the show.
Facts of the Case
For the most part, the Time Lords of Gallifrey are a good lot; that is, with their time-travel technology, they could easily take advantage (and control) of the universe. However, by their own choice, they have temporal "prime directive" that basically states that they will not interfere with anyone at anytime. Of course, the good Doctor—and a few other renegade Time Lords we've met—disregard that policy and do get involved.
But deep in the dark bowels of Gallifreyan history hides the hidden evil of the Time Lords, for soon after Rassilon developed temporal technology, the Time Lords abused it by staging elaborate gladiatorial-type games in The Dead Zone. The Dead Zone is a place that exists out of time and is comprised of various terrains to allow for multiple fields of battle. The Time Lords would use the Time Scoop to bring aliens to the Zone to fight one another to the death. With time and wisdom, the Time Lords abandoned the Scoop and the Zone. However, it would seem that someone has reacquired that knowledge and has begun to use it to bring people back to the Zone.
This individual has decided to pull the Doctor into the Zone. Fortunately, this evil-doer is yanking the Doctor and his companions in chronological order: the First Doctor and his granddaughter Susan, the Second Doctor and Brigadier Stewart, the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane (thank goodness K-9 was stuck behind that gate!), the Fourth Doctor and Romana…
As this story does occur during the tenure of the Fifth Doctor, he is to be the primary Doctor of focus for the story. So, while his previous selves are being stolen from time, he can feel bits of himself being detached and is weakened by this. Fortunately, he is able to pilot his TARDIS (his time-traveling machine), but he too ends up in the Zone.
Meanwhile in the Zone, the Doctors have figured out where they are, have met up with their respective companions (they weren't all transported to the same spot), and have determined to travel to the castle-like Tomb of Rassilon. On the way, each Doctor meets up with a deadly foe: Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti, a Raston Warrior, and the Master (an evil renegade Time Lord and the Doctor's best enemy).
Along the way, the First Doctor meets up with the Fifth Doctor. Together they begin to piece together the puzzle of why they were brought there. They decide to have the Fifth Doctor head towards the Tomb by foot while the older First Doctor stays in the TARDIS. Unfortunately, the Fifth Doctor doesn't make it far, as the Master and Cybermen ambush him. Fortunately, the Master, as an emissary of the High Council of Gallifrey, has a homing beacon to return to Gallifrey. In the battle with the Cybermen, the Master is hurt and the Doctor uses the beacon to return to Gallifrey.
When he arrives, the High Council informs him that they had indeed sent the Master into the Zone to see if could determine what was going on; and he also learns that the Fourth Doctor is trapped in the time continuum and not in the Zone.
As the story continues, each Doctor eventually makes it into the Tomb of Rassilon via a different route and they all find themselves at the actual sarcophagus of Rassilon, the legendary Founder of the Time Lords. So, who is the super villain that has brought all the Doctors together? Why did he do it? Will the Doctors be able to defeat him? Will the Fourth Doctor be trapped in the time continuum forever?
While all of the above may sound somewhat confusing, The Five Doctors is actually very simple for those who have watched the show. This story is replete with historical references and in-jokes, and is a lot of fun to watch. It is great to be able to see the first five Doctors together at one time. To wit, how did they overcome the two obstacles I mentioned earlier? Well, they happened to find an actor who uncannily resembled the First Doctor. And, as you may have figured out, as the actor who played the Fourth Doctor didn't want to be a part of this, they used a piece of unused footage and kept him trapped in the time continuum.
The video transfer to this Special Edition is a pleasant surprise as the disc shows little grain, little dirt, and the colors are rich and accurate—quite an impressive accomplishment as this story was first aired nearly 20 years ago. While notable, this DVD is not perfect. A great deal of The Five Doctors takes place outside, which just so happens to be quite foggy. In some of the fog scenes, artifacting is noticeable. In addition, a small sequence takes place in a cave. During this scene, the blacks are not well defined and it is difficult to tell what is going on.
For this DVD, they remixed the soundtrack to 5.1 Dolby Digital and it is a blast. It was so much fun to hear the intro in surround sound! Unfortunately, the remixed soundtrack is terribly unbalanced. The new music and sound effects overpower the dialogue at most every cue, and that is such a shame. You have to turn up the sound for dialogue and quickly turn it down for everything else. Nonetheless, the new mix does make excellent use of the rear speakers and the subwoofer. And, I know many will cringe to hear this, but the original mono track is not included as an audio option.
As they have decided to call this a Special Edition, what bonus features are there? In all honesty, there isn't all that much. For the DVD, they decided to clean up a few of the special effect shots (some noticeable, others not) and inserted some additional previously unseen footage (mostly corridor shots, believe it or not). There is also 33 minutes of music available, not as an isolated score, but as cues off the main menu. Speaking of the menu, I would like to mention that the menu is also in 5.1 and is nicely animated (much better than the other Doctor's discs). Also to be found is a Who's Who of some of the characters in the story.
However, the main extra is the audio commentary with Peter Davison (the Fifth Doctor) and Terrance Dicks (episode writer). These two have a great rapport on the track and share a wealth of funny and interesting trivia about Doctor Who and the episode in particular. While respectful of the show, the two also somewhat mercilessly point out the show's flaws: silly corridor shots, silly costumed enemies, too many foggy quarries, and bad dialogue ("No. Not the mind probe!"). It's great to hear these two share their memories and it makes the whole disc quite worthwhile.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This story will make little to no sense to someone who hasn't watched the previous 20 years of the show. The sheer number of characters will put them at a loss. And, the story itself truly is pretty flimsy.
The Five Doctors is a must own for any fan of Doctor Who. It may not be the best-written or most inspiring science-fiction story of all time, but it is so much fun to immerse yourself in the history of the story that you easily forgive any shortcomings. Surprisingly, everyone is given ample screen time in the episode and that will make every fan happy. A great episode to have on disc.
While not up to the standards of a true Special Edition, this DVD acquitted of perjury. BBC / Warner Bros. is hereby awarded the gratitude of Whovians everywhere for bringing the Doctor to DVD.
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