Doctor Who: The Five Doctors - 25th Anniversary Edition Review

The idea of teaming up Doctors was first tried in the Tenth Anniversary story The Three Doctors, a Bob Baker and Dave Martin story which benefited from some delightful interplay between Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton. The popularity of this story – despite production values best described as gaudy – meant that it was fairly inevitable that the Twentieth Anniversary story would feature a similar meeting of Time Lords. Given that, by 1983, there were five Doctors to incorporate somehow – one of whom, William Hartnell, was now deceased – the task was considerably more difficult than it had been ten years earlier. The onus of writing what would undoubtedly be a major event first fell upon Robert Holmes, who hadn’t written for the series since the rather disastrous The Power of Kroll. He had a number of ideas but eventually found himself unable to bring them to completion and the mantle subsequently passed on to the equally venerable Terrence Dicks, one-time script editor and prolific author of Who adaptations for Target Books.

Terrence Dicks has his faults as a writer but he’s a master of construction and it’s this skill which was most needed for The Five Doctors, as the anniversary special was ultimately called. The solution to the problem of what to do with five Time Lords and added companions was solved by making it a quest story which allowed him to split up the Doctors and have them come together for a big climactic scene. However, he was hidebound by the fluctuating availability of actors, in particular Tom Baker who kept changing his mind about whether or not he was willing to take part before eventually declining. Given such problems, The Five Doctors has to be counted as something of a feat of hope over adversity. The two problem Doctors were accounted for with some ingenuity. William Hartnell’s place was taken by the veteran character actor Richard Hurndall while Tom Baker appeared through the use of some footage from the abandoned seventeenth season story Shada.

Considering how well Dicks solved some of the problems he was set, it seems churlish to nit-pick – especially since the overall atmosphere of the story is so genial and celebratory. But the episodic nature of The Five Doctors is somewhat irritating with the four active Doctors seemingly taking part in different stories for much of the time. There’s obviously a need to cram in as many popular elements of Who as possible but this means digressions to fit in K-9 and the Daleks which simply serve to slow up what minimal narrative momentum is created. There’s also the obvious sense that some companions are being given little more than token appearances, particularly the ‘ghosts’ towards the end and, out of the then-current Tardis crew, Turlough who does little except glower. It’s also a little sad to see such a spartan portrayal of the Capitol on Gallifrey, reduced to three Time Lords and a couple of guards – not to mention the fact that the charming Dinah Sheridan as Chancellor Flavia has nothing to do.

But there are so many pleasures to the story that one’s cavils are soon forgotten. Principal among these are the performances from a wide range of Who’s finest. Favourites such as Nicholas Courtney’s starchy, slightly Blimpish Brigadier and Lis Sladen’s plucky Sarah Jane are on corking form and there are some nice bits from Janet Fielding – at her best when bristling at the First Doctor’s decidedly pre-feminist opinions. The Doctors are all on fine form, though Peter Davison takes a while to warm up after spending half the episode incapacitated in a manner by now familiar from stories such as Castrovalva and Arc Of Infinity. Jon Pertwee copes well with some appalling dialogue – “Great balls of fire!!” – and has an obvious affection for Lis Sladen, although it would naturally have been more appropriate to see him with Katy Manning. Best of all is Patrick Troughton who seems to be able to tune into an eccentric world in his head and develops a delightfully amusing chemistry with Nicholas Courtney. In this distinguished company, newcomer Richard Hurndall copes fairly well and creates a reasonable simulacrum of the First Doctor, although his resemblance in face and manner to William Hartnell is little more than superficial.

As for the monsters, some are used better than others. As noted above, the Daleks get no more than a very perfunctory appearance, possibly because the production team were anticipating their return to the programme proper in 1984. The main baddies are the Cybermen and they are suitably menacing although, on this evidence, most of them couldn’t hit an office block at twenty paces. It is, however, nice to be able to say that Dicks has, in this most backward-looking of stories, added something valuably new to the programme’s mythology in the form of the Raston Warrior Robot, whose ruthless dispatch of a squad of Cybermen is one of the highlights of the show. Sadly, he can’t do much with Anthony Ainley’s panto villain version of the Master but very few writers could.

Viewed with an indulgent eye, The Five Doctors is highly entertaining as a one-off and those with fond memories of its first UK showing on November 25th 1983 will probably revel in nostalgia. New viewers may question some of the production decisions – the décor is sometimes notably cheap and Rasillon’s kitschy tomb is particularly disappointing - and find the narrative disconcertingly episodic. But despite the flaws - “No! Not the mind probe!” - The Five Doctors is an appropriate celebration of a very special programme.

The Disc

The Five Doctors was first shown in 1983 and some footage was cut to enable it to fit into a 90 minute scheduling slot during Children in Need. Consequently, in 1995, it was discovered that there was enough new footage extant to produce a Special Edition of the show, complete with revised special effects and an enhanced soundtrack. This was a success and, incidentally, one of the building blocks on the road to the Doctor Who restorations that we now enjoy on DVD. It was this Special Edition which was released on Region 2 DVD in 1999 as the first of the releases from the series. As a relatively barebones affair, especially in comparison to the extras-laden DVDs we have come to expect, it was in need of revision and the 25th Anniversary release is even better than could have been hoped for.

Both versions of The Five Doctors are included on this 2-disc release. The Special Edition runs slightly more than ten minutes longer than the original version and includes numerous examples of additional dialogue, some previously omitted scenes (or more usually parts of scenes) and changes to the music score. Occasionally, alternate takes have been used – for example, the scene where Borusa receives the Black Scrolls. In addition, the special effects have been changed and, generally speaking, improved – the obvious example being the Timescoop effect. The soundtrack has also been beefed up with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround options.

In preparing this new DVD of The Five Doctors, the redoubtable Doctor Who Restoration Team have given both versions of the show a thorough clean-up and the results are staggeringly good. The Special Edition looked acceptable on its DVD debut in 1999 but not particularly great. Now, it looks newly minted and the transmission version is equally good. Colours are particularly beautiful and there has been a general clean-up of digital noise and excess grain. The location film sequences benefit more than the studio scenes but the whole thing is a pleasure to watch.

The soundtracks demonstrate equal attention to detail. The mono track on disc one, which contains the original version of the story, is a pristine recreation of the original. The second disc contains the two surround tracks and both come across very well. The Dolby Surround track, first heard on the VHS release, is an effective recreation of the audio but the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is marvellously atmospheric and involving. The music and sound effects benefit from being able to stretch out over the channels and dialogue sounds natural and is always crystal clear. The use of the sub to enhance the effects is especially notable. Also included on both discs is an isolated music track, showcasing Peter Howell’s work on the show.

The package of bonus materials is divided up over the two discs.

Disc One


This is a group effort featuring a variety of companions; Lis Sladen, Nicholas Courtney, Mark Strickson and Carole Ann Ford. It’s all very genial and sometimes enlightening but it lacks focus and there’s a fair bit of dead weight.

The centrepiece documentary of the set, this is an 52 minute look at the celebration of the programme’s twentieth anniversary and the making of The Five Doctors. It’s directed by Steve Broster and is typically solid, although I would have liked more footage of the 1983 Longleat Celebration, preferably some with me on it! The interviews in this feature range from the highly entertaining – Terrence Dicks, Peter Moffat – to the irksomely fanboyish – Gareth Roberts, Andrew Beech. Some of the archive footage is a treat and the time passes so quickly that you wish it were longer.

Trails and Continuity
A generous selection of trailers and continuities from the 1983 showing, and the repeat from August 1984. The main interest here is the inclusion of the ‘cliffhangers’ from the 1984 four-part transmission, none of which are remotely cliffhanging– the Master walking down some steps is not particularly terrifying, nor is Sarah Jane rolling down a gentle incline.

Photo Gallery
Loads and loads of photos both from the making of the story and the publicity which surrounded its announcement – including the infamous photos which include Tom Baker’s waxwork from Madame Tussaud’s.

Disc Two


This is the commentary track recorded in 2001 for the American release of the Special Edition and features Terrence Dicks and Peter Davison. I found it very entertaining indeed, mostly for Terrence’s indiscretions and Peter Davison’s natural charm. They play off each other well although there are some periods of silence.
The Ties That Bind Us
This study of the links to the programme’s past contained within The Five Doctors contains vast swathes of footage and is riveting viewing for that reason alone. It’s also nicely narrated by, of all people, Doctor Number Eight, Paul McGann.

Five Doctors, One Studio
These extracts from the studio recording of the final scenes are fascinating for what they reveal about the interaction between some enormous egos and for a demonstration of the good humour of the supporting cast.

The usual collection of mistakes from the production of the story. Mildly amusing, nothing more.

(Not So) Special Effects
An enjoyably affectionate look at the days before CGI when a combination of skill, ingenuity and improvisation was vital for the programme’s success.

Archive Interviews
The archives have been thoroughly trawled and we get pieces from Saturday Superstore, Nationwide, Blue Peter and Breakfast Time.

Both discs contain production subtitles and isolated music tracks. Disc One also contains Radio Times extracts in PDF format. There is also a Coming Soon trailer for The Invasion of Time.

Finally, the first disc contains an audio-based Easter Egg which is well worth discovering.

Subtitles are available for the two versions of the show and all special features except the commentary tracks.

7 out of 10
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out of 10

Last updated: 01/07/2018 20:19:56

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