Doctor Who – The Five Doctors

Doctor Who Story 129 – The Five Doctors

Written by

Terrance Dicks

What’s It About?

Someone has reactivated the Time Scoop, an ancient Gallifreyan device which pulls creatures out of time and deposits them in the Death Zone, where they fight for the amusement of the Time Lords. The targets of the Time Scoop are the Doctor’s previous incarnations. The goal: to play the Game of Rassilon.

No! Not the mind probe!

Art from the Five Doctors DVD coverDoctor Who is just weeks away from its 50th anniversary. In the meantime, I’m celebrating the 20th anniversary with “The Five Doctors.” More so than “The Three Doctors,” which celebrated the 10th anniversary, “The Five Doctors” is the general model for how Doctor Who anniversary stories tend to go. They feature the return of Doctors and companions. Much of the beginning sets up how the Doctors and companions are brought out of their own continuity or time stream and placed in this new story. They face a challenge that can only be overcome by combining their efforts. As a result, anniversary stories have a tendency to drag in the “getting the team together” act because there are only so many ways you can make this act interesting from a storytelling perspective. Instead, act one becomes more of a reunion, driven by the return of previous Doctors. Thus, this act succeeds or fails based on the actors and the excitement created in the viewer by reconnecting with old favorites. Anniversary stories, then, can be difficult for fans who are not familiar with previous Doctors or who (shudder) do not like previous Doctors.

But while “The Three Doctors” began the multi-Doctor story, “The Five Doctors” became the model, which is interesting because “Five” is really a conglomeration of Doctor Who tropes, many of which were defined directly or indirectly by Terrance Dicks. There is a “Death to the Daleks” style dungeon crawl. The entire premise of the Death Zone is a reproduction of the premise of “The War Games.” And the Time Lords are very . . . well, they deserve their own paragraph.

In his analysis of “State of Decay,” Philip Sandifer brings up the idea that in the classic series the Time Lords had three distinct portrayals: the Terrance Dicks version (“The War Games” – Pertwee era), the Robert Holmes’ version (“Genesis of the Daleks” – “The Deadly Assassin”) and the Andrew Cartmel version (the McCoy era). I’ll briefly focus on the first two since I haven’t made it to the McCoy era yet. The Terrance Dicks Time Lords are somewhat godlike, but the godlike qualities are based in elevated technology. They possess the technology that is indistinguishable from magic. They are separate from the lower races like a deist god, but at one time they were more active and that activity led to legend, hence Omega vs. Rassilon, the vampires, and the Game of Rassilon. However, they are not gods, they are godlike (Cartmel will weigh in on this with his third view). The Robert Holmes version of the Time Lords is far more cynical, and it turns the Time Lords into bureaucrats. These Time Lords are not gods, nor are they godlike. They are merely an advanced civilization, but they are a dying civilization. They are dying because the no longer truly remember who they are; they do not understand themselves. But because they are so far advanced, they do not look like they are on the decline.

With “The Five Doctors,” Dicks straddles these views. President Borusa, a character created by Robert Holmes, is representative of the bureaucrat Time Lords. He is, then, a stand in for the Holmes version. Dicks subjects Borusa to the Time Lords of legend, and Borusa is defeated. Symbolically, it seems Terrance Dicks is suppressing the Robert Holmes version of the Time Lords; he is weighing it and showing it to be wanting. (This analysis is even more interesting, I think, when you learn that Robert Holmes was originally commissioned to write “The Five Doctors.” He gave it a shot, gave up, and Terrance Dicks was hired.) Looked at another way, Borusa represents political secularization and Rassilon represents myth (or magic or religion). Borusa is allowed to live forever, although in the way many heads of state live forever—in sculpture. But the Brand of Rassilon will outlive Borusa because myth is better at branding since it captures the imagination. It provides narrative.

This idea of immortality derived from winning the Game of Rassilon is fascinating because in a pre-“Deadly Assassin” mythos it would be meaningless. “The Deadly Assassin” asserted a regeneration limit (thus symbolically assassinating Doctor Who, according to Sandifer) thus condemning Time Lords to mortality on a different scale. The JNT era has reinforced this in dialogue more than once. Doctor Who has offered multiple ways around this Holmes-imposed limit, but none of them have stuck. “The Five Doctors” can only work with this regeneration limit. The Doctor himself is offered immortality, and he refuses, stating immortality is a curse (which, again, The Black Guardian trilogy reinforced). In a story celebrating 20 years of the show and knowing there are only six season left for the classic series, I almost wonder if this can be read as a recognition the even Doctor Who as a show has a shelf life. Or perhaps, instead, Doctor Who needs periods where it is away from our screens so it can renew itself in other ways. Being on continually, year after year, may cause too strong a bond of continuity and pressure to do more of the same. Certainly the Fifth Doctor era has waffled between looking forward and looking backward, the former view creating some fascinating stories, the latter creating a mixed bag. But by being off the air for a time, it can allow new writers and producers to come up with a new approach, one that could be controversial to fans of what came before but appeal to people who join this new approach. In its current Cymru incarnation, Doctor Who has yet to grow stale, so the new series hasn’t reached that point yet. (I say this despite occasionally being really annoyed with what Steven Moffat does with the show, but credit where it is due, it is still moving forward with unprecedented quality. It works for many new fans, just not always for this old, curmudgeonly fan.)

Ultimately, though, “The Five Doctors” really isn’t a new or groundbreaking story. It is Terrance Dicks by the numbers, but Terrance Dicks by the numbers can still be fun. And truly, that’s what “The Five Doctors” is—fun. It is great to see Troughton and Pertwee again. It is great to see Sarah Jane and Susan again. I’d say it was good to see the Brigadier again, but that is a given; besides, his appearance is somewhat undermined by having seen him recently in “Mawdryn Undead.” But in all, “The Five Doctors” is a fun nostalgia fest, but divorced from the nostalgia, I’m not sure it is very effective.

My Rating

3.5/5; for the Peter Davison/Terrance Dicks commentary, however 4/5

The Pertwee Era in Review

The UNIT Family. Barry Letts. Terrance Dicks. Bessie. Benton. Yates. The Brigadier. Liz Shaw. Jo Grant. Sarah Jane Smith. Autons. The Master! The Silurians. Peladon. Exile. Color. The Three Doctors. These are all associated with the Pertwee Era. Doctor Who was practically a new show. The Doctor was exiled to Earth for half the era. He worked with UNIT, often reluctantly, but in the end, as he stumbled from the TARDIS—dying from exposure to the crystal web—he whispered that the TARDIS had brought him home. Where before, Earth was a place to visit, now it is home. We have come a long way from that junkyard.

I mentioned in my previous post that I mourned The First Doctor; I mourned The Second Doctor. I don’t know that I will mourn The Third Doctor. For some reason, despite liking Jon Pertwee, I never fell in love with the era like I did with the Hartnell and Troughton eras. I think Jo Grant was the first companion that I actually disliked, which is odd given the lack of characterization of Dodo Chaplet in the Hartnell era. For me, Jo’s high point was her final story, due in part to the character development in that story. It was necessary and it was late. Similarly, I didn’t like the changes to The Brigadier. I loved The Brigadier and UNIT in season seven, but season eight saw him significantly dumbed down. He started out as a successful military leader, one who had to balance keeping his men safe with encountering a new species in The Silurians. He ended up as a slightly thick but lovable comic relief character. The Doctor went from butting heads with him to patronizing him.

So I didn’t like all of the changes. Regardless, there were some great stories along the way. Season seven will stand out as one of my favorite seasons of Doctor Who. Season eleven, so long as I can excise The Monster of Peladon, is also great. And it is only now that I realize that these are the two seasons that didn’t have Jo Grant, which is probably somewhat telling.

It is hard to give a top five because so much time has passed while viewing this era. Rather than put them in a particular order, I’ll just list a handful of favorites and a handful of least favorites.

Favorite Stories

  • The Silurians – Moral dilemmas permeate this story. The Doctor wants to negotiate peace with a new race. The Brigadier has the government and the safety of his men to consider. Malcolm Hulke did an amazing job of making all sides sympathetic and believable in this story.
  • Inferno – This story throws you through a loop. It starts out as a story of scientific hubris, and suddenly becomes a story of survival as The Doctor finds himself in an alternate, fascist version of England. The performances are amazing.
  • The Green Death – I love The X-Files and Fringe. In some ways, The Green Death is the blueprint for both shows. The pace is great, the story is dark, the monsters are absurd (but look good until they metamorphose), and Jo Grant finally gets some good material to work with. This story made me a fan of Robert Sloman.
  • The Invasion of the Dinosaurs – I like this story for many of the same reasons I like The Green Death: it is slightly absurd but a lot of fun. The theme, however, is somewhat dark. And Mike Yates is the one who gets good material. I think this story is unfairly judged by its special effects.

Least Favorite Stories

  • The Curse of Peladon – There were some good turns in this story: The Ice Warriors were not the villains and Aggedor was interesting. But ultimately, this story bored me. This story, combined with its sequel, was the first story that I have considered not buying when completing my Doctor Who collection.
  • The Monster of Peladon – See above. The death of Aggedor was sad, though. And I really liked Eckersley. He was a good villain.
  • Terror of the Autons – I think I rank this one so low because I watched it after The Inferno, which was a great story. The Master was good, and I like the Autons. But Jo Grant was a poor replacement for Liz Shaw. The Brigadier was disappointing in this story because he seemed to have been turned into an imbecile. I didn’t immediately warm to Mike Yates (although he got better). The Master is the best thing about this story.

Thus ends the Pertwee Era. Time for the Tom Baker era, which is the only era of classic Doctor Who I have already seen in its entirety. I wonder how it will hold up now that I have greater context.

Doctor Who – Planet of the Spiders

Doctor Who Story 074 – Planet of the Spiders

The Doctor faces The Great One
The Doctor faces The Great One. (Source: Tardis Index File. Copyright 1974 by BBC.)

Written By: Robert Sloman

What’s It About: Mike Yates has joined a Buddhist retreat in an attempt to come to terms with his betrayal of UNIT. While there, he discovers a group of men who have allied themselves with beings from another planet who want the crystal The Doctor took from Metebelis Three.

What constitutes a good finale for a Doctor? While I wasn’t a fan of The End of Time, where we saw David Tennant’s departure from the show, I think it did a good job of bringing themes from the Tenth Doctor’s era to the forefront. The dominant theme: The Doctor is the last of his race, and he is haunted by this fact. The End of Time made manifest that angst. Thematically, this makes sense and is incredibly satisfying. Storywise . . . well, we’ll get to my thoughts on that in a year or so.

Sadly, Planet of the Spiders doesn’t really seem to capitalize on any particular long-running themes of the Pertwee era. Roger Delgado had died in a car accident, so The Master couldn’t return. His absence from this final story is conspicuous. UNIT has only a small role to play. Their involvement is almost incidental. So as an ending, Planet of the Spiders doesn’t quite work to wrap up the era.

As a story, however, it does quite well. There is some clever foreshadowing that sets up the regeneration (Cho-je’s line about the old man dying so the new man may be born). The discovery of a Time Lord at the retreat lends a good deal of gravitas to this story (much as the appearance of the Time Lords in The War Games changed the tone of that story). Planet of the Spiders has a good pace to it, and it is surprisingly epic and metaphysical. Buddhist philosophy permeates this story (attributed to Barry Letts who had become a Buddhist at this point), and it doesn’t really feel out of place. It works as a redemption for Mike Yates and gives the character some good development. It works to shine a little more light on the Time Lord culture, with a fellow Time Lord rejecting his people, but pursuing a route more peaceful than The Master and less chaotic than The Doctor.

Before this year, I had never watched a story by Robert Sloman. I have enjoyed his stories a great deal. They have been some of my favorites of the Pertwee era. This story is no different. As much as I love Robert Holmes, for me, the top write of the Pertwee era is Sloman. I’m glad he wrote this final story.

With Hartnell and Troughton, I was very aware that their final story was the finale; I was constantly aware that this would be the last time I saw them (anniversary episodes aside). With Pertwee, I never quite felt it until the last episode. There was gravity to the story, but not as much. I think there were fewer stories from this era that I enjoyed, so the departure of the Third Doctor may not have been as big of a deal to me. Perhaps anticipation for Tom Baker was too great. After Hartnell and Troughton, I felt the need to mourn afterward, but I don’t with Pertwee. But I will say that Planet of the Spiders is a great ending to a really good season. Pertwee’s era began strong, and I think it ended strong.

My Rating: 4/5

Up next: Pertwee Era in Review.

Doctor Who – The Monster of Peladon

Doctor Who Story 073 – The Monster of Peladon

screen capture from The Monster of Peladon
Source: Wikipedia. Copyright 1974 by BBC.

Written By: Brian Hayles

What’s It About: Because everyone was itching to see it, The Doctor returns to Peladon, with Sarah in tow. They find a planet on the verge of revolt as miners are convinced that the ghost of Aggedor is stalking the mines and killing workers.

I didn’t care for the first Peladon story. I don’t think this one is much better, although I will give the Hayles credit for trying to be topical, and the production gets credit for recreating Peladon. It looks and feels like the same planet. But this also works against the story because it doesn’t seem to add much. We have a plotting Chancellor, we have dealings with the Federation, and we have Alpha Centauri squealing. Apart from the Ice Warriors being the villains and the mining plot, this would seem to be the same story. I just can’t really bring myself to care. Maybe I could have enjoyed this as a three part story, but anything more—especially six parts—is just too much. And I was enjoying this season so much. Peladon is certainly the low point of the season for me. I have no desire to revisit either Peladon stories if I ever watch the show all the way through again.

Sadly, writing about it only seems to prolong the irritation.

My Rating: 1/5

Doctor Who – Dungeon Crawl of the Daleks

Doctor Who Story 072 – Death to the Daleks

Gypsy gets ready to beat down a Dalek. (Source: screen capture. Copyright 1974 by BBC.)
Gypsy gets ready to beat down a Dalek. (Source: screen capture. Copyright 1974 by BBC.)

Who Wrote It: Terry Nation

What’s It About:

I’ve become a Role Playing Public Radio Actual Play junkie.

Role Playing Public Radio is a podcast devoted to pen and paper role playing games. They have a second podcast that is devoted to actual play, which means they record gaming sessions. When I first found out about it, I wondered how anyone could find an actual play interesting. A few months ago I was sick, so I had to stay in bed for a couple of days. Having nothing else to do but listen to podcasts, I finally check out one of RPPR’s actual plays and was instantly hooked. Honestly, it got me interested in pen and paper RPGs. I’ve always enjoyed PC or console RPG video games, but I never gave the original incarnation much to a try. Since getting hooked, I’ve run a couple of sessions with a friend and my wife as players. I’m hoping to find a few more people to add to our gaming sessions. My goal is to do some Doctor Who RPG sessions. As such, I’ve started analyzing the episodes I’ve been watching from a game plot perspective.

Death to the Daleks works extremely well as a dungeon crawl. A dungeon crawl is when a group of players (typically Dungeons and Dragons, but other fantasy-based games work just as well) explore a dungeon. They must fight monsters and disarm traps. The ultimate goal is to find treasure and gain experience points. Survival is probably a distant third, where goals are concerned. In episode three of Death to the Daleks, the story becomes a dungeon crawl. First, The Doctor and Sarah escape The Daleks and the city-worshiping Exillons, they enter a cave that has a monster. They must find a way to avoid the monster, with the help of the exiled Exillons. Later, The Doctor and Bellal enter the ancient Exillon city, which consists of room after room of traps. They must get through the city before The Daleks catch them. Sounds like a dungeon crawl to me.

Apart from the RPG elements, Death to the Daleks is your typical Terry Nation b-movie silliness. It is good fun and has some directorial flourishes in the first episode (and I particularly like the idea of Daleks using projectile weapons), but it recycles elements from previous Dalek stories and the plot never quite achieves any depth. Great design (the caverns, the Exillons) goes side-by-side with poor design (the “root,” the interior of the city, the logic puzzles). Honestly, I enjoyed the story, but at just four episodes, I never felt like I was wasting my time. If it had been longer, it would have been dreadful. And, visual effects aside, it is more along the lines of what I would expect from a mediocre episode of new Who.

My Rating: 3/5

Doctor Who – Invasion of the Dinosaurs

Doctor Who Story 071 – Invasion of the Dinosaurs

dinosaur
Source: Screen capture. Copyright 1974 by BBC.

Who Wrote It: Malcolm Hulke

What’s It About: The Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith return to London to find it evacuated. The city is full of military, looters, and dinosaurs!

I’ll start with the most obvious flaw of this story: the special effects. I almost wonder why anyone on the production team thought they could pull off dinosaurs. I will say, however, that I watched Sid and Marty Krofft’s Land of the Lost as a child. While the dinosaurs on Land of the Lost were somewhat more maneuverable (somewhat), they are not that far removed from the dinosaurs in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. And even with the disappointing realization of the monsters in this story, I think this is a good, well-paced story.

The scenes of abandoned London are truly atmospheric and creepy. The deceit and menace and paranoia are extremely well played in this story. I even find the ultimate plot, about a group of elites wanting to reset the world to a golden age where they are the only humans left, somewhat plausible. I only have to remember this year’s Presidential election and extrapolate the rhetoric a bit.

The Doctor and Sarah work quite well together. The scene where they have their mug shots taken is amusing and done with very little dialogue. Mike Yates gets some darker material in this story, and even Sgt. Benton gets to be the loyal hero. I think it is a shame that so many people allow the dinosaur effects to mar this story. I think it is great.

My Rating: 4/5

Doctor Who – The Time Warrior

Doctor Who Story 070 – The Time Warrior

The Time Warrior DVD cover
(Source: Amazon.com. Copyright 2012 by BBC.)

Who Wrote It: Robert Holmes

What’s It About: UNIT is called in when scientists are mysteriously vanishing. The Doctor, along with stowaway reporter Sarah Jane Smith, discovers that they are being abducted by a Sontaran who has become stranded in the Middle Ages. In return for help repairing his ship, the Sontaran has made an agreement with a local lord to provide anachronistic weaponry.

I couldn’t help smiling through the entire first episode of this story. Sarah Jane Smith was the companion I had watched when I was young, and it was great to finally see her first story—and in a Robert Holmes story, no less.

After a difficult (for me) season ten, The Time Warrior ushers in a new, and final, season for The Third Doctor. There is a new title sequence, which I really like; there is a new companion, who is not anywhere near as annoying as the previous one. I’m excited to see where this season takes me.

As is typical with a Robert Holmes script, the secondary characters are a lot of fun. I was happy to see Professor Rubeish survive. Irongron was a wonderfully stereotypical, violent Middle Age lord. Linx the Sontaran was a wonderful creation. The dialogue was wonderful. And while the historical details may be inaccurate (Terrance Dicks makes a joke that, when Holmes complained about not knowing anything about the Middle Ages, he advise Holmes to read a children’s book on castle), the story is a lot of fun.

My Rating: 4/5