Thursday, March 06, 2008

Doctor Who - The Five Doctors

And now for my old reviews of the latest Doctor Who stories released on DVD from the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.

It's yet another bumper one this time, as the latest release is The Five Doctors in both its original and Special edition forms. First off the original version:

A wonderful anniversary present

In the days before virtually every existing episode and clip was available on video the series' twentieth anniversary came along. This could have been merely marked quietly perhaps with a documentary or even maybe with a special 'episode' that featured the-then current regulars talking to provide in-character links for a series of clips. But instead it was decided to create a special anniversary story featuring as many elements from the past as possible, whilst at the same time telling a new story. This was perhaps the best anniversary present the series could get and it was worth it.

Many commentators bemoan the absence of Tom Baker from The Five Doctors and criticise Richard Hurndall's performance as the original Doctor. But it would be difficult if not impossible to accurately recreate Hartnell's performance and so Hurndall instead wisely develops the performance to give his own take on it. The result may not please the purists but it works well enough. Tom Baker's absence was more unfortunate but there are at least a couple of clips of him in it. Whilst the two scenes seem a little strange and disconnected, they are successful in allowing the viewer to see Tom Baker for a bit. Furthermore Baker's absence prevents the production from becoming over-heavy and thus allows all four of the other Doctors to play a substantial role in the story.

The title itself is reminiscent of the earlier The Three Doctors and there are some similar elements shared by the two tales such as the various Doctors and companions being transported off to another strange dimension where they encounter one of the key figures from Time Lord history. Even the location for UNIT HQ is the same. But The Five Doctors is no mere imitation of its predecessor. The plot may be a relatively straightforward affair that allows for the available cast to be mixed and matched but at the same time we get to see many homages paid to the series' history. This story is a celebration of twenty years and is in no way ashamed of it.

In a clear throwback to the traditions of the Hartnell years, the first scene of the story is set in the TARDIS console room, showing the Doctor and his companion discussing things before the adventure begins rather than with a scene establishing the setting for the story. Along the way there are many other such scenes that remind the viewer of times past, such as Jon Pertwee's Doctor driving Bessie and taking an action role, Patrick Troughton's Doctor showing a complete disrespect for authority or the Master ruthlessly exploiting events for his own advantage. Even the scene where Susan trips and twists her ankle is entirely appropriate for this story since it reminds us of the way female companions were used in the show's earlier years. Then there's the scene with the booby trapped board that is very similar to a scene from Death to the Daleks. There's a good plot as well and whilst it may involve yet another member of the High Council of the Time Lords turning traitor for their own ends, there is at least an attempt to keep the viewer guessing through hints that either the Master or Rassilon may be behind the scheme. The story's resolution may be a bit deus ex machina but it shows how the original Doctor was always one step ahead of the rest and how defeat and victory often go hand in hand, as is the norm for many stories in the Davison era. The story begins with a brief clip of one of William Hartnell's finest scenes as he promises 'One day I shall come back' and then ends with the Davison Doctor once more fleeing Gallifrey and reminding us that this is how it all began. Thus ends one of the best stories in the programme's history.

There's loads of continuity in this story and I spotted: the William Hartnell/Richard Hurndall Doctor, the Brigadier, UNIT & its HQ, the Patrick Troughton Doctor, the Jon Pertwee Doctor, Bessie, Sarah Jane, K9, the Tom Baker Doctor, the Lalla Ward Romana, Borusa, the Castellan from Arc of Infinity, Gallifrey, the Master, Susan, a Dalek, Cybermen, the Cyberleader, a Yeti and Rassilon all competing for attention. But it all works and many of the cast slip effortlessly back into their old roles with Patrick Troughton giving perhaps the finest performance of all. There's also some new ideas in the story as well, most obviously the Raston Warrior Robot, and the result is a story that is milking the past shamelessly but also finding new ideas as well and so doesn't feel at all dated in any way.

Productionwise The Five Doctors features some good location filming for the Death Zone scenes, whilst the studio sets are either nostalgic reminders of Gallifrey or good at enhancing a downbeat setting for the Dark Tower. There are many action scenes in the story such as the various massacres of the Cybermen and these scenes give plenty of action. Indeed it is hard to find much in this story to disagree with since it casts such a good mood. This story set out to summarise the series' history and gave it a truly fine celebration in the process.
And now The Five Doctors Special Edition:

How good an alternative?

The original version of The Five Doctors is one of the strongest stories in the entire history of the series so an alternative version is a very dangerous move as it runs the risk of alienating the fans of the original whilst at the same time not satisfying those who found the original disappointing. Fortunately this is not the case with The Five Doctors Special Edition. The extended scenes, alternate order and occasional trims do significantly alter the tone at times - for instance the original opens with a TARDIS scene like many a Hartnell adventure but the new version now has a 'tease' of what lies ahead by starting with the Dark Tower. Throughout the story these additional little touches surprise and delight, offering an alternative take on events. It's clear that someone involved has read the novelisation for ideas - for example when the scene showing that Tom Baker's Doctor has been released is a return to the river Cam as in the novelisation rather than a scene of the Doctor lying by the TARDIS as in the original. It's been some years since I read the novelisation and haven't got it to hand so I can't tell if the scenes involving the various Doctors being timescooped, the Player putting pieces on the board and the Peter Davison Doctor reacting are now in the same order as in the book but this new order generally works better since we wonder what has happened to the earlier incarnations and then how long the current Doctor will survive before cutting to the next Doctor being captured. The extensions to scenes rarely feel like they are in any way dragging out the story or giving away key moments. Of special note is the shot of Peter Davison's Doctor smiling at Susan before Richard Hurndall's Doctor disapprovingly interrupts. It is easy to see how this shot has generated much speculation.

Peter Howell returns to the story to enhance the music and somehow manages to improve upon what was an already impressive score. The flute theme for Patrick Troughton's Doctor as he moves through the wilderness is especially memorable, whilst the extension of the music to accommodate extensions to scenes, such as the one where the Doctor uses the Master's transmat recall to escape the Cybermen, makes it seem as though the music was always written like that. The stereo version of the theme music is highly memorable, whilst the use of a piece of the opening music reversed to accompany the Special Edition credits is a clever move and creates a highly effective sound.

The story's video effects have also been updated, with the result that the thunderbolts and lightning on the chessboard now look a lot more realistic than the BBC Micro Computer efforts of the original. The new timescoop is especially effective, although why the original has been included at the start of the UK VHS release where the BBC logo is timescooped is beyond me. There are even some little additions such as the Cybermen firing their weapons in battle against the Raston Warrior Robot. Unfortunately there are a few lapses towards the end. It does indeed make sense for Rassilon to use the timescoop to send everyone home, so why the Master just fades away is a mystery. Also the recorded material of the various Doctors and companions trooping into the TARDIS makes little sense now that the timescoop is being used to get everyone home. And just what is the Doctor's line about 'temporal fission' supposed to mean?

Although there are a few points where the changes are questionable in general this updating works because it enhances the story no end and makes it highly viable for watching again and again. The more subtle work that has gone into improving the quality of the original film and videotape is generally unnoticeable - a sign of how effective it has been - and the result is a strong special that was a good choice to launch the DVD releases. 10/10
Doctor Who - The Five Doctors can be purchased from

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