The Five Doctors

22 Jul

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2008.

This my first DVD review for DWM. I was very nervous and I think my lack of confidence shows. But I still like the description of the Raston Robot.

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The plot of Doctor Who‘s special 20th birthday bunfight – endearing in its simplicity – sees five versions of the our hero, and a gaggle of companions, dragged to Gallifrey, where a mystery foe uses them to reveal a key secret from Time Lord history. They are brought together in the desolate Death Zone – where the Doctor’s people used to set monsters fighting each other for laughs. This must have been like some high-end version of the Battles In Time trading card game. “I have a Navarino,” booms Omega. “Agility 4400”. “Ha-ha!” scoffs Rassilon. “A Voord! Agility 5200! I conquer your slate quarry!”

Ultimately, this uncomplicated story is merely a mechanism to drag guests to the birthday party. And what a party! While – is essentially critic-proof – it would be churlish to pick holes in something so entirely well-meaning – the truth remains that the episode is a rock solid success. The cast are clearly having a ball, and that enthusiasm proves infectious. This is 90 minutes of unalloyed delight.

While Patrick Troughton undoubtedly steals the show – his scenes with Nick Courtney’s Brigadier have an effortless charm – the two other shining stars of the story are more frequently damned for who they are not than praised for who they are. Richard Hurndall’s performance is no mere imitation of William Hartnell. In a few short scenes he creates a new, bone fide incarnation of the Doctor, who more then holds his own against his more established counterparts. You feel he could easily carry a whole new series of adventures on his own – it’s a magnificent achievement. Similarly, Anthony Ainley’s Master is just as much fun to be around as the Roger Delgado model version ever was. His fruity, pouting delivery makes you want to repeat all his lines straight back at him. (Note: for your best Ainley impression, remember to speak with both teeth and buttocks clenched at all times). He’s the star of the early scenes in the Time Lords’ special dining room – with only President Borusa’s preposterous hat offering serious competition.

Doctors and Master aside, it’s the monsters that give The Five Doctors its more impressive moments – and provide some of the most striking images from 80s Doctor Who. The lone Dalek may explode with the dull crack of splintering chipboard, but the chittering, dribbling creature revealed within is genuinely grotesque, and creepier in its way than the chatty starfish that inhabit their modern day cousins. It is odd, however, that the Doctor claims the Cybermen and the Daleks were never previously invited to the Death Zone, because “they played the games too well”. Not on this evidence, they don’t. The Cybermen repeatedly shamble to their own slaughter, most notably at the hands of the Raston Robot pert-bottomed master of the grand jeté and the mini-frisbee. The justly famous ‘Cyber massacre’ sequence holds up well today aside perhaps from the comic moment when five Cybermen turn to camera in a neat row, like Westlife readying for a key change. Any sensible child will especially love the lone trooper who, in the face of this onslaught, chucks up his lunch. Monsters were forever puking in the 80s, but you don’t see so much of that these days. Perhaps such striking, adult imagery is best reserved for Torchwood.

As this double DVD serves up both 1983 broadcast edition of The Five Doctors and the 1995 Special Edition – which incorporates 12 minutes of additional material into a new edit, with souped-up special effects – it’s proof that you can have too much of a good thing. The original version remains the best – as the longer scenes in the re-cut only serve to slow down the action.

Finally, this birthday romp also serves as a timely reminder that Doctor Who celebrates its 45th anniversary this year – and sets one dreaming of a The Ten Doctors special. Just picture it… Tennant and the rest – plus three old blokes in wigs and a waxwork of Christopher Eccleston – chased across Snowdonia by the Graske, two Slitheen and Kate O’Mara. TV gold!

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EXTRAS

“1983 was a compelling compendium of a year,” alliterates host Colin Baker in his introduction to the principal documentary on these discs. “Full of creatures, consoles and crowds” Oh yes, you couldn’t move for consoles in 1983 – everywhere, they were. Colin then adds: “It was vintage year for roundels, you might say.” Indeed you might… but I’d rather you didn’t, on account of the statement being entirely meaningless.

This curiously meandering programme, Celebration, looks back at the hype and hoopla of Doctor Who‘s 20th birthday, offers a potted history of the development of The Five Doctors, and remembers the Longleat event of Easter 1983, when over 15 million people (approx) attended a Doctor Who exhibition and meet-and-greet in Wiltshire, queuing for hours in sucking mud for a chance to look at the Ergon. Writer Paul Cornell describes the event as “Doctor Who fandom’s Woodstock” – which, according to the memory of this attendee, glamorises things a little. It was enormous fun, of course, but more like Southport Flower Show than Woodstock, albeit with added creatures, crowds… and a console.

Either of these subjects could happily support a documentary of its own, as the misty-eyed “you had to be there” fan reminiscence seems rather trivial alongside the details of the production team’s battle to stage The Five Doctors at all. Both viewpoints are of interest, of course, but neither is well served by being hitched to the other.

Frankly, the biggest question raised by the celebrity interviews here is: “How the hell does Elisabeth Sladen still look so young?” Never mind Rassilon’s ring – it’s here Borusa should be looking for the secret of immortality.

Lis is the undoubted star of the Companions Commentary on the original Five Doctors, on which she’s joined by Carole Ann Ford (Susan), Nick Courtney (the Brig) and Mark Strickson (Turlough). Now fully adapted to the fast pace modern TV production, you can almost hear Lis’ teeth grinding with impatience during slow-moving scenes. “Cut it now! Go on! Cut!” she shouts as Philip Latham lazily fondles his harp, before quietly reminding herself to find something nice to say. Happily, her resolve crumbles within seconds.

This is just one of three commentaries available here. The Special Edition comes with a rather subdued Peter Davison and Terrance Dicks conversation recorded in 2001 for the US release of the story. Completing the set is a novelty ‘easter egg’ commentary featuring Cardiff-era producer Phil Collinson, script writer Helen Raynor and David Tennant himself. This trio, Doctor Who devotees of long standing, are charmingly enthusiastic but professionally polite. However, while it’s fun to watch an old episode in the company of the show’s current star, you find yourself yearning for some brutally honest criticism – “That Paul Jerricho. He’s rubbish, isn’t he?” – but none is forthcoming. And these people call themselves fans? Tsk.

Contemporary Doctor Who items from Saturday Superstore, and Blue Peter are welcome additions to this set – the latter for the fun of presenter Peter Duncan stumbling his way through an unnecessarily detailed plot summary of The Android Invasion. Features from Breakfast Time and Nationwide offer rare interviews with the adorable Patrick Troughton, where the old rogue enjoys a jolly good flirt with Sue Lawley and Selina Scott.

However, the highlight of this entire set of extras is, without doubt, the fascinating 20 minutes of raw studio footage from the recording of the Tomb of Rassilon scenes, showing shots being lined up, actors gently bickering and Pertwee’s bouffant being re-fluffed every 30 seconds. Star of the show is bossy-boots production manager Jeremy Silberston, an 80s superman in tight denims and ‘Man At C&A’ sweater. Jeremy went on to help co-create Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, fact fans, and once stole John Nathan-Turner’s girlfriend. There’s few men in this world who can claim that.

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One Response to “The Five Doctors”

  1. William Muirhead June 17, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    An excellent review as always, though I’m a little late to it! One observation though:

    “Colin then adds: “It was vintage year for roundels, you might say.” Indeed you might… but I’d rather you didn’t, on account of the statement being entirely meaningless.”

    Surely a willfully obscure and therefore delightful-though-it-shouldn’t-be play on the title of Adam Adamant’s first episode, “A Vintage Year for Scoundrels”?

    The justification for such a piece of punnery might be a stretch – that Lambert bird’s involvement and the fact that Adamant and classic Doctor Who are both considered “cult TV”, innit? – but it is there, and for my money just tortured enough to enter the so-bad-it’s-good category of VAM wordplay.

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