The Five Doctors
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
he Five Doctors” is a flawed highpoint in “Doctor Who” mythology, but it has such a hard-on to celebrate the series that it becomes easy to forgive its weaknesses, and never moreso than through this DVD release.
In short, there are two big problems with “The Five Doctors,” which – as you may have guessed from the title – teams for the first time five actors who have played Doctor Who over the years, each of them playing their own version of the Doctor. The first problem is the distinct lack of the series’ definitive Doctor, Tom Baker, who appears in but only two scenes, both of which were recycled from the unfinished story “Shada.” (The drama behind his absence is explained in the extras.) Its other big problem is that is has zero plot. It’s an excuse to cram as many elements as possible from the series’ long history into a 90-minute time frame, and the story reflects that singular objective. The various Doctors, numerous companions, and even some classic enemies are plucked from time and space and plopped down into an area of the Time Lord planet Gallifrey called the Death Zone. But why is this happening and who is doing it? The Doctors and their companions must travel to the Dark Tower to find out. By the time the mystery is solved and all the icons are together in one room, it almost doesn’t matter. Why? As Clark Griswold once said, “Because getting there’s half the fun.”
The best reason to buy the 25th Anniversary Edition of “The Five Doctors” is for the hidden commentary track featuring David Tennant, Phil Collinson (producer of the new series) and Helen Raynor (writer for the new series). They kick back, drink champagne, bask in nostalgia, and crack wise right and left. I’ve had big issues with “The Five Doctors” for years and so do Tennant and Collinson. Yet they admire the story for the anniversary celebration it set out to be, while lovingly pointing out its many shortcomings. Their misgivings are the same as mine, but they’re warmer and fuzzier about them than I have been over the years. It’s a great commentary because they’re watching it as fans, not as people involved in the making of it. They reminisce about the buildup to the special in 1983 and share their unique memories of seeing it for the first time. As I listened to them, I grew to see the story from a fresh perspective, and to simply appreciate it for the celebration it is. (Raynor provides a much different viewpoint, as she admits that by the time “The Five Doctors” aired, she was old enough to have lost interest in sci-fi, and that the opposite sex was far more of a concern for a girl her age.) So David and Phil, I thank you immensely for your contribution to this disc. It gave me a new slant on a subject I thought I’d concretely defined.
At one point in the commentary, Tennant proclaims, “It’s not really ‘The Five Doctors,’ it’s ‘The Three and a Half Doctors and a Bloke in a White Wig.’” I laughed along with him, because it’s so true. Tom Baker is the “half,” due to his brief appearance, and the bloke is Richard Hurndall, who was hired to replace the late William Hartnell. So that leaves three real Doctors – Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Peter Davison – to do the best they can given that the script doesn’t call for anyone to do much more than show up and be in character. A big plus for the story is all the location work in Wales, and the atmosphere is often moody, to say the least. It’s a shame the interior, studio-bound segments weren’t shot on film as well, but that’s just not how the show was made back in the day – not even for a special like this. “The Five Doctors” is also noteworthy from a script standpoint because it was the first time a 90-minute tale was crafted without the episodic breaks. As such, the pacing is a bit more leisurely, and yet not as repetitive as most classic stories. There are countless other tales in the classic “Who” repertoire that surpass this, but few hang their heart on their sleeve so slavishly.
The real reason to buy this disc is for all the extras. This is the second time “The Five Doctors” has been released on DVD. The previous disc was one of the first “Who” stories to hit DVD, and it featured only the 1995 special edition version, consisting of improved effects work, extra scenes, and a remastered Dolby Surround soundtrack. There were only two extras: a commentary track with Davison and writer Terrance Dicks, and an isolated music score.
The 25th Anniversary Edition is a mack-daddy double-dip spread out over two discs. Disc One features the original transmission version from 1983, while Disc Two offers up the special edition. The ‘95 version is probably superior, although it really amounts to polishing a turd. (I hate saying it that way, but it gets the point across.) There’s only so much that can be done with the material, because the joy of watching it is all about seeing the many actors playing off one another. While no amount of rejiggered effects and soundwork can enhance that magic, it’s still nice to have the original version for posterity’s sake. Indeed, for the hardcore fan, there’s something almost ideal about the untainted original if you grew up accustomed to it.
But the two versions are the tip of the iceberg. Aside from the hidden commentary, the Davison/Dicks commentary is carried over from the previous release, and there’s a third commentary track with Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane), Carole Ann Ford (Susan), Nicholas Courtney (The Brigadier) and Mark Strickson (Turlough) on Disc One – all the primary companions from the story except for Janet Fielding (Tegan). Why wasn’t she included since she’s been prominent on so many other Davison-era commentaries? The cynic in me wonders if it’s because the DVD producers knew she would’ve brought things down with her typical negativity; the optimist in me believes something similar. It’s a sweet little track, with words from Sladen about why she played Sarah Jane as she did in the story, and much insight from Strickson, which is welcome since he’s never been on a commentary before this one.
“Celebration” is a blandly titled doc hosted by Colin Baker that’s anything but stale. It runs 52 minutes and covers every aspect of “The Five Doctors” (and then some) and never fails to entertain and inform. “The Ties That Bind Us” is a brief featurette narrated by Paul McGann showing the many links the story has to the show’s past. “Five Doctors, One Studio” is an 18-minute outtake piece recorded on set. Six minutes of bloopers and a piece on the effects are also present. A collection of news segments from ‘83 adding up to 29 minutes absolutely rock; seeing Troughton out of character is always a treat, as probably no other actor to play the Doctor was so different in real life. There are also all the usual bells and whistles like subtitle options, Radio Times listings, and isolated music scores that round out the set. If you own the previous release, then you don’t really own “The Five Doctors” on DVD. Retire it and invest in this.
Lastly, how do you find the hidden commentary track? Well, the easy way is to hit the audio button on your remote while playing the 1983 version on Disc One. The complicated way is to go to the “Audio Options” menu, scroll down to the “Companions Commentary” option and hit the right arrow button. A green “Doctor Who” icon will light up. Press enter and enjoy.