Monday, July 08, 2013

Doctor Who: 1983

Episode 602: The Five Doctors
First broadcast: 10.30 pm on Wednesday 23 November 1983 (US); 7.20 pm on Friday 25 November 1983 (UK)
<< back to 1982

The Raston warrior robot decapitates a Cyberman -
for Doctor Who's birthday.
The Five Doctors
A lot of our response to Doctor Who is informed as much by how we first see it - who we're with at the time, the mood we (and they) are in, the stuff going on in our lives - as the programme itself. A wise chum told me he'd realised this about a recent season: his least favourite episodes were all the ones he'd watched on his own.

So a lot of the warm, cosy love I have for The Five Doctors is personal and from context. That first evening it was shown was a big event. I was allowed to stay up late to watch it with my siblings, and they drew the curtains and turned off the lights to make the experience more like a cinema. It was the last Doctor Who story we all watched together as it went out.

When I watch it again now, I still feel a thrill of memory for that long-ago evening, that particular, personal circumstance. But it's not just that. As I've grown up, become a writer and tried typing my own Doctor Who stories, I am ever more in awe of the script.

First, consider the brief given to the poor writer. Imagine you're the one that script editor Eric Saward came to.

You have to write a 90-minute TV movie extravaganza, with five leading actors all playing the main hero - so they get 18 minutes each. They all need to drive the plot, be heroic and have the best lines, and you'll need to consider the potential clash of egos on set. Oh, and the fact that one of those actors is dead.

In addition, the story should feature lots of old monsters and companions. The production team can't confirm availability of some of those companions until very late in the day, but each Doctor will need pairing up with a companion from their time on the show. And lastly, it needs to thrill a broad, general audience tuning in for the special event, as well attempting to satisfy fans. (PS the script editor especially likes the Cybermen.)

Bloody hell, that's a lot to cram in - once you've assembled the cast there's hardly room for a story. In fact, it seems to have defeated Robert Holmes, generally regarded as one of Doctor Who's best writers - if not the best. "The brief was too heavy," Saward later admitted of Holmes' involvement. "He didn't think it would work."

Saward is speaking on Terrance Dicks: Fact & Fiction, a 2005 DVD extra on Horror of Fang Rock. The documentary covers Terrance's time on Doctor Who but especially his ability to step in when things went wrong. When two stories collapsed in 1969, he co-wrote the 10-episode The War Games and saw the Second Doctor off in grand style. He then script-edited the next five years of the show - all the Third Doctor's adventures - taking a series facing cancellation and returning it to rude health. In 1977, when the BBC objected to his Doctor-Who-meets-vampires story (because it would look like it was mocking their big adaptation of Count Dracula), he quickly knocked out one of my favourite stories, Horror of Fang Rock. Basically, he's a good man in a crisis.

Terrance himself is modest about his contribution. He says on the Fact & Fiction documentary that he's often asked:
"'Were you aware you were making classic television?' Our main plan was not to have have to show the test card."
He's rightly proud of this unshowy professionalism and recalls a moment from his time as script-editor. A director called from the rehearsal hall to say there was some problem with the scripts. Terrance called back and spoke to the director's PA.
"I said, 'Tell him to ring me when he's free. And tell him not to worry because whatever it is I will fix it.' ... That just came out and I thought that sounds bloody conceited. But I thought after five years, having hit most of the problems on Doctor Who, I'm fairly confident that I can fix it."
When given the brief for The Five Doctors, Terrance's solution was simple, effective and brilliant. He treats the problem as a sort of game, and makes that game the plot. Just as he has to gather Doctors, companions and old enemies, so does the villain in the story.

I've been discussing this with my chum Jim Smith, who says that "Terrance talked once about a game where you have to take objects out of box and extemporise a story around them. The story does that, with all ingredients brought out like the prestige in a magic trick. He also (perhaps unconsciously) works that image into the story, with Borusa's gloved hands pulling the figurines of the characters out of the box and putting them on the board."

But - without disagreeing with Jim - it's far more clever than that simple game supposes. The Doctors all have their own plots to follow and don't meet up until the final scenes (and a single day's filming) which provides a neat structure for the story but also avoided potential spats between the leading men. There are even separate entrances to the Dark Tower so the Doctors don't bump into one another early.

More from Jim: "I love how the Third Doctor recounts an establishment view of Rassilon, the Dark Times and so on ('old Rassilon put a stop to it') while the Second, a more anarchic and less establishment figure, regales the Brigadier with conspiracy theories of how Rassilon invented and played the game before he banned it and how he may still be alive inside his own Tomb. At least some of which turn out to be true."

The Five Doctors is packed with brilliant moments: the Doctors being chased by black triangles; the fizzing insides of a Dalek; the Doctor running away from his own people at the end. There are nice continuity fixes, too: the fact that a Time Lord can be given a new regenerative cycle when his first one is used up; the Third Doctor meeting the Cybermen (the only Doctor at that point not to have done so). And so much of the dialogue sparkles: I particularly love “I am the Master – and your loyal servant”.

Jim says: "I love that the Master takes his mission seriously. When he rages at the end that 'I came here to help you Doctor, a little unwillingly but I came. My offers were scorned! My help refused!' he's actually telling the truth and no one - not even the audience - believes him."

"Then," Jim goes on, "there's Terrance's use of imagery from Browning's Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came - see from versus XXXI. This seems like a stretch until you remember Fang Rock's indebtedness to The Ballad of Flannen Isle."

Terrance dodges round one of the Doctors being dead by having an actor stand in for William Hartnell - but also, tastefully, starts the story with a perfectly chosen clip of the man himself. Midway into the story, the replacement First Doctor is paired up with the current Doctor which again works structurally as well as practically (there's less of a potential clash with a for-one-night-only Doctor). All the Doctors have great moments of wit, intelligence and courage and get some brilliant lines.

Then, after a draft of the script had been completed, one of the Doctors decided not to be involved. That should have spelt disaster but Terrance fixes things deftly, again using archive footage to fill the gap and also reworking the other Doctors' roles. Watching it that first time, I wished Tom Baker had been in it more but never suspected he'd not been there at all.

If the Doctors get the best bits, the companions are less well served, just tagging along in his wake, asking questions that prod the plot along. I wonder how much that's due to them still being swapped round at the last minute, or to the constraints of squeezing in so many people.

There's an effort to mark out their characters but it's all a bit sketched in and glib. Susan sprains her ankle as if that's something she always did (it isn't; she did it once in The Dalek Invasion of Earth). Jim: "Which was, of course, one of only two First Doctor stories Dicks had novelised. Did he flick through it for research? Or just remember novelising that moment?"

Poor old Turlough fares worst, getting very little to do: he draws a picture, worries in the TARDIS then has to stand still not talking. Jim: "I like his 'Die, it seems' gag. And 'Big, isn't it?' about the bomb. Black humour is key to Turlough, I think. So we get that if nothing else."

There's no mention at all of Kamelion, the robot companion introduced in the previous story.

Other things niggle. It's a shame that the Eye of Orion is clearly the same location as the Death Zone (though that's not an issue with the script). A thrilling scene where the Third Doctor rescued Sarah from the Autons was changed to a cheaper one where she falls down a steep slope; a good fix on paper but the way its shot doesn't make it look very perilous (and again not an issue with the script).

Jim drew my attention to one odd script thing in the scene at UNIT HQ: the sergeant doesn't know who the Doctor is and won't let him in, whereas Colonel Crichton tried to have the Doctor invited to the reunion and failed. So he certainly knows of the Doctor. When the Doctor gets into the office, the colonel dismisses the sergeant and lets the Doctor stay because either he knows who this Doctor is by sight (they've never met, but he may have seen pictures or whatever) or he accepts Lethbridge-Stewart's recognition of him as reason enough. Then at the end of the scene the colonel says:
What the blazers is going on? Who was that strange little man?

The Doctor?

Which, as Jim said, completely reverses their positions/knowledge. On the DVD commentary at this point, Terrance says the joke wasn't his but Saward's. And it's not in Terrance's novelisation of the story, either.

Whatever the case in that scene, Saward clearly helped improve the story overall. He suggested that it was too obvious if the villain turned out to be the Master. He also thought the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane needed to face one more obstacle before reaching the Dark Tower. To answer that, Terrance came up with the one new monster in the story, in a scene that typifies what makes The Five Doctors so brilliant.

The Raston warrior robot is a budget-conscious creation - a non-speaking actor in a simple costume. Its sensors are primed to detect any movement, on which it fires arrows and bladed discs. Again, it's making a game of the problem: the Doctor and Sarah Jane end up playing Blind Man's Bluff.
Freeze, Sarah Jane. If you move, we're dead.
And then a troop of Cybermen arrive...

Cor. No wonder this scene was most often used to promote the story. Simple, cheap and thrilling, it is perfect Doctor Who.

Next episode: 1984


Mike said...

Thanks for this. Though "The Five Doctors" has often been written off as too non-serious for anybody to give much thought toward, I'll always love it and I think this piece explains why (though I'll never love it -- or anything --- as much as I did when I was 12)

Has anything ever been written how each of the Doctor's entry to the tower is a tribute to their respective era too?

(Maybe this was obvious to everybody but me but I recognized it for the first time - drunkenly probably - a couple of years ago after having watched it a hundred times and thought it was genius.)

2nd: Claustrophobic monster mash through underground/caves

3rd: "Flies in" using MacGyver gadgetry plus an Action man scene that is well above the possibility of what the budget can pull off -- but they try it anyway, with the Master looking on

1st: Just walks on in by opening the door -- but then also has a 'puzzle' type' education lesson having to do with pi... which, of course, like much Doctor Who science, is complete rubbish (Meanwhile, Susan is off screen in completely separate scenes that could obviously have been filmed while she was on vacation.)

0tralala said...

Thanks Mike! I'd not considered that...