Top or Flop – Is The Five Doctors a Good Introduction to Classic Doctor Who?


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Image Description: Thomas and Peter standing at podiums

“Splendid fellows… all of you.”

(The Brigadier, 1973/1983)

The Five Doctors is a story that has a little bit of everything. It was a story that brought back not just one, but four previous Doctors to battle evil, doubling the previous record held by The Three Doctors. They were joined by a wide selection of new companions, ranging from the original, Susan, all the way through to the contemporary TARDIS team of Tegan and Turlough. There were old monsters, including Daleks and Cybermen, as well as the debut of, the frankly underappreciated, Raston Warrior Robot. Terrance Dicks, sadly absent from Doctor Who on screen since State of Decay, was back, returning to his old Doctor Who stomping ground – the world of Gallifrey, and the society of Time Lords he had helped to define. His script crackles and entertains with equal measure, leading to unbeatable performances of classic prose like “No, not the mind probe!”

Of course, it wasn’t really every Doctor making a reappearance – in some ways, it is just The Three Doctors 2. It wasn’t even the largest multi-Doctor special – as we now know, The Brain of Morbius featured many more Doctors than The Five Doctors could muster. Meanwhile, many of the returning companions aren’t even real – just projections of the tower. As for the monsters, the Daleks don’t do a lot, while the Cybermen are killed off quite quickly. Meanwhile, there are the tragic missed opportunities where Waris Hussein and then Douglas Camfield were both unable to direct the special. 

Despite this, I think The Five Doctors remains a bona fide classic. So, in a change from Top or Flop’s regular arguments, the debate is not whether the episode is good, but rather, whether all the aforementioned trivia matters. Is this trivia a way of slowly getting fans who’ve only ever seen NuWho hooked on the original series, or something that puts a barrier in their way? In an effort to resolve this dilemma, two Oxford fans take turns on the podium as they argue if The Five Doctors is a good introduction to Classic Who.

For the Prosecution: Peter Lewin-Jones

Peter is a Masters student at Mansfield College, reading Mathematical and Theoretical Physics. He has held the positions of President and Treasurer of the Oxford Doctor Who Society, and enjoys introducing classic Doctor Who to new fans. 

For the Defence: Thomas Barker

Thomas is a lifelong Doctor Who fan and is currently studying for a BA in History and English at Regent’s Park College. From 2005 onwards, he has eagerly delved down the Who rabbit hole and continues to watch, read, and listen to the Doctor’s adventures whenever he can.

The Five Doctors is a good introduction to Classic Who

Thomas Barker

I owe much to The Five Doctors. Without a chance viewing, it is unlikely that I would have fallen down the rabbit hole that is classic era Doctor Who, along with the various spin-off material that springs from it. I doubt I would have engaged so much in the universe of a television show which, at the time, was something I immediately associated with a yearly series of thirteen episodes, plus a festive special. Some readers may remember the great Doctor Who DVD Files (2009-2014), a partwork magazine series which, along with its print encyclopaedic coverage of Who knowledge, offered subscribers vanilla DVD releases of Classic Doctor Who episodes, along with some NuWho for good measure. I encountered The Five Doctors through a subscriber bonus release with Issue Four and the rest, thankfully, is a happy history of further Who viewing, sparked by my interest ignited by this story. But what exactly qualifies The Five Doctors, a Who-celebratory anniversary special from 1983, as a good introduction to the wider vortex of twentieth-century Doctor Who?

The Five Doctors is a well-realised story which both emphasises the charms of Classic Who, with its idiosyncrasies, plotting, and characterisation, and provides a suitable jumping-on point for newcomers, like younger me, to find avenues for further adventures. It may be tempting to regard anniversary specials as episodes which merely ‘look back’ rather than forward. Yet, as with The Day of the Doctor, this special celebrates not just the then-heritage of the programme but also reaffirms its achievements thus far, as well as its core values. It is a serial which, to me, balances potentially alienating ‘DEEP LORE’ with a narratively accessible and aesthetically charming story which has no barrier of entry, despite its purpose as an anniversary special. By featuring Rassilon, the Time Lords, and other canonical elements, it may also be tempting to brand the story as playing to a familiar audience, one familiar with the iconography it figuratively (and literally) transports to feature alongside the then-current Fifth Doctor. The story itself is not particularly lore-affecting, however, in contrast to the recent Timeless Child revelations. As such, it doesn’t necessarily require prior, or future, investment, especially given that the status-quo is relatively upheld,the viewer is free to peruse the repertoire of adventures at their will. The Doctor continues to run from his people, rejecting the offer of the Time Lord presidency, and overall, allows the celebration of the spirit of Doctor Who, of adventure and justice, without bogging itself down in past exploits. How, then, is this apparent?

The story has a clear telos: to reach the Dark Tower and uncover who is behind the timescooping of the Doctors, their friends and their foes. As is pointed out in the online BBC Classic Doctor Who episode entry for the serial, there are similarities to Alice in Wonderland (which the Fifth Doctor himself references in dialogue with the Master). The ‘journey’ to the Tower acts to juxtapose the political exploits on Gallifrey, which by comparison do not feel too alienating or overtly expositional given the framing of the Castellan and the role of the Master in proceedings. In showcasing the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane, or the Second Doctor and the Brigadier, for example, the pairings are in service of reaching the Tower, with each having their own obstacles and moments of heroism, whether it be gliding to the Tower or fighting off a Yeti in the caves. Each approach is a great, if potentially exaggerated, showcase of the characteristics of former Doctors, allowing for them to mingle with the then-present Fifth Doctor and mirroring the role of the Eleventh Doctor in The Day of the Doctor. With the Third Doctor heroically, and perhaps unnecessarily, rescuing Sarah from the clutches of a rocky slope, the Second Doctor bickering with the Brigadier, and the First Doctor cantankerously contributing with (great) sass, I can understand why I felt so enticed to discover more about these pairings. As each pairing approaches the Tower differently, encountering different challenges, it reveals their methodologies, from the Third Doctor’s Bondesque heroism to the Second Doctor’s whimsical energy. It is a shame that Tom Baker declined to reprise his role, but the clip from Shada was, at the time of my viewing, another reminder of the Doctor’s scientific and cultural knowledge, the likes of which are just as prevalent in NuWho. Each Doctor has something rich to offer.

It is only when the travailing Doctors gather to decipher the inscription in the Tomb, however, that the solution is revealed. The plot requires the “sum of his memories” to defeat Borusa, even if on another day the TARDIS would be capable of translating Old High Gallifreyan. The collective strength of the Doctors is, nevertheless, the key to defeating their former mentor, though it is a shame the companions, being frozen, perhaps appear comparatively passive. One valid criticism may be that such depictions, especially of the companions, lack the emotional depths and familiar characters beats which a well-acquainted viewer of Classic Who may expect, as with Susan’s departure on a future Earth and Sarah Jane’s departure in Aberdeen (See ‘Time and the Avon’ in Tides 40 – Eds.). The Doctors themselves are slightly exaggerated, with it possible to reduce the participating past incarnations to the ‘grumpy’ Doctor, the ‘comic’ Doctor, and the ‘action hero’ Doctor. However,  their appearances here may exist as potential indicators of their character traits, ones which may resonate with first-time viewers looking to discern one Doctor or companion from another, however potentially reductive. I recall from memory that Troughton certainly caught my younger self’s attention, even if later I discovered that it was his successor who worked more frequently with UNIT! Even further cameos from Jamie, Zoe, Liz Shaw, and Yates are not overtly encumbering or confusing to a first-time viewer, given their dismissal as “phantoms of the past.” Having said that, it is lovely to see them, with their friendships clearly established and used as potential obstacles to the progress of their respective Doctors. If the Doctors are required to combine their efforts to defeat Borusa, it is perhaps welcoming that the first-time viewer is easily introduced to a precis of their characteristics and personas, the likes of which may, as they did for me, encourage further interest.

Concerning enemies, on a superficial level for a fan who was then more readily acquainted with NuWho, I remember the excitement associated with seeing recognisable ‘Doctor Who iconography’. Seeing (and hearing) a Dalek, however brief, was fantastic, as was seeing the Cybermen, Time Lords, battles, explosions, and a very different kind of Master, whose attempt to ‘ally’ with the Cybermen is something we are much more familiar with today! It superficially reminded me that Doctor Who always had a great monsters gallery, and to see the Doctors interact with them was a reminder that this was the same show, as if I needed to be reminded, of course. It also illustrated that Doctor Who always carried some moral message: Borusa is punished for avarice and overextension; cooperation and friendship are favoured; and the Doctor, of course, continues to run from his aristocratic people, following the tradition that his first incarnation inaugurated, as is noted in the closing moments of the story. The key components of Doctor Who are on show: as Borusa notes, the Doctors have companions to help him and old enemies to fight. The essential ingredients of the programme are evident and were welcome to a Classic Who newbie like myself way back when.

The Five Doctors remains one of my favourite Doctor Who stories. Rewatching it with members of the Oxford Doctor Who Society in 2020’s Hilary Term was a delight because, as has been pointed out to me, it has some great potential for humour and, in a viral age, for memes. Without detracting from the story itself, there’s everything from the infamous delivery of the Mind Probe line, Richard Hurndall and the pineapple, Susan’s unfortunate ankle, and the hilarity of the jumping Raston Warrior Robot to demonstrate the comedic charm of Classic Who. Perhaps more crucially, however, unlike the Doctor, the viewer does not have to part, just as they were “getting to know” the Doctors. Moreover, with the advent of Britbox and home video releases, it is very easy to revisit the “old man”, “scarecrow”, “fancy pants”, or “teeth and curls” Doctors in their own adventures, with this anniversary special providing just a small taste of their respective eras, alongside a solid story in its own right. For those perhaps unsure of Classic Who, The Five Doctors might just be the best place to kick off a lifelong obsession.

The Five Doctors is a poor introduction to Classic Who

Peter Lewin-Jones

The Five Doctors is a story often used to introduce classic Doctor Who to fans of the new series, and before the reboot to new fans in general – in 1999 it was the first classic story to be released on DVD. When it was suggested for our termcard for Hilary term 2019, several members of the society confirmed it was the first they’d seen, and there was a general feeling in the meeting that the story fitted in this role. However, I think this is a mistake, and not only are there much better stories to introduce classic Who with, there are several reasons why The Five Doctors itself is much better if you have seen a reasonable number of other stories first.

While I will discuss later reasons that apply to any anniversary story, my first argument relates specifically to the plot of The Five Doctors. It is the fourth of the TV stories set on a version of Gallifrey much changed from that seen in The War Games and The Three Doctors. There are dopey bureaucratic timelords, the Matrix and endless artefacts of Rassilon. Across the stories the Doctor repeatedly ends up as president. Most important for this discussion, however, is the character of Borusa. In The Deadly Assassin he is a stately and academic but manipulative spin-doctor, who manipulates the story to place all blame on the Master and hide the guilt of Chancellor Goth. In The Invasion of Time and Arc of Infinity he works his way up, having become president by the events of Arc. His regeneration prior to The Five Doctors has produced ambition beyond even this. The scenes between the Fifth Doctor and Borusa are some of the most interesting in The Five Doctors, very different from the action sequences in the rest of the  middle of the story. Though it is possible to watch these scenes perfectly well in isolation, a viewer who has seen even some of the aforementioned stories will find the scenes much stronger. The Five Doctors makes no mention of Borusa’s tutorship of the Doctor, but knowing this makes Borusa’s request for the Fifth Doctor to remain in the Capitol to offer help and advice make more sense. As a ploy, it heightens the betrayal that Borusa has committed in his plan to reach the Dark Tower and the tomb of Rassilon. On the other hand, viewers of The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time  may already suspect Borusa after seeing his previous scheming, and so perhaps seeing these first make his guilt in the end more predictable. Overall, I would recommend watching both of these great stories first so you can approach The Five Doctors with Borusa as an established character. Completionists can also watch Arc of Infinity as well, but I wouldn’t recommend it, because unfortunately, it’s not very good. 

Another reason The Five Doctors is recommended as a good start is because, of course, it’s  a multi-Doctor story. Perhaps, therefore, the appeal to new viewers is the chance to see five Doctors at once, giving the best Doctor to price ratio of a classic era story! However, I find that there are several problems with this. Firstly, there aren’t five Doctors at all! There is no new appearance from Tom Baker, who merely appears through Shada footage which, with the recent re-animation, is no longer even exclusive! But that pales into insignificance compared to the other elephant in the room. Or should I say, Doctor? Richard Hurndall, unfortunately, should not be anyone’s introduction to the First Doctor. While his performance is fine for a one-off special, it is much better for a new fan to first see The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Quite apart from having William Hartnell as its lead, seeing this will increase the impact of the opening “One day I will come back” speech, and the subsequent reunion of the First Doctor with Susan. In particular, this gives an added emphasis on the latter, who is otherwise badly underused in The Five Doctors, with no mention of her life after leaving the TARDIS. That said, there is an interesting moment to ponder in how Susan doesn’t know the Master. Does this mean the Master was out of the Doctor’s life on Gallifrey before she was born (or Loomed!).

Familiarity with the Second Doctor’s era also adds another dimension to the experience of watching The Five Doctors. Upon seeing the phantoms of Jamie and Zoe, the Second Doctor realises that they aren’t real because they can still remember him. Expanded universe aside, this leaves open the question: How can he know that Jamie and Zoe lose their memories, when he is shown to regenerate soon after? The conclusion? He must have had further adventures after The War Games! This is known as the season 6b theory, which suggests that the Doctor and Jamie were recruited by the Celestial Intervention Agency for further adventures, including the events of The Three, Five and Two Doctors. I hope that some fans new to classic Who will continue to question this revelation, and It would be great if some fans are able to come to this intriguing theory themselves. However, that will also require seeing The War Games first, and while it is a fantastic story, its length means it does not often appear on lists of classic serials for new fans to watch.  

Though the arguments for having seen Third Doctor stories before aren’t as strong, they still add some weight to his scenes. In particular, knowing his relationships with the Brigadier, Mike Yates and the Master add impact to those scenes, as would knowing that Sarah saw him regenerate. On a less serious note, seeing K9 with Sarah canonises K9 and Company, while  having seen Earthshock before adds the fun of hearing the Cyberleader say “Excellent!” three more times.

While I do think there is a lot to like about The Five Doctors, much of that stems from the ways it is different to most of classic Who, and that isn’t ideal for a new viewer. Its format means it lacks the cliffhangers characteristic of classic Who,  and all of the companions have little to contribute.  The adventures in reaching the tower for the First, Second and Third Doctors aren’t particularly deep, and are the part that would otherwise reflect a normal story. In particular, the First Doctor’s encounter with the Master and the Cybermen, a new combo at that time, is baffling with no effort to make the path across the chessboard look like a particular sequence of steps, and the solution – pi – does not make any sense. For a viewer familiar with classic Who, however, this doesn’t matter as the focus is the returning characters, and revelations, about Borusa and Rassilon. 

Overall, in my opinion, an anniversary story full of returning characters, references and cameos is better appreciated once you actually know the stories it is referencing. All of this also means that the actual plot of the story isn’t particularly unique or complex, because there is too much going on for a normal Doctor Who story to take place. It is much better for new fans to watch the best standalone stories from each classic Doctor, perhaps those with the monsters they know from post 2005 WhoGenesis of the Daleks would be my first suggestion –  and save The Five Doctors until you know the era it celebrates.

The double issue of Tides 45/46 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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