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22 September 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 630: The Five Doctors

Dear diary,

Confession time: I love The Five Doctors. It’s the episode of Doctor Who I’ve watched the most times, and I’d say that it’s the only episode that I’ve ever been able to watch over and over and over. When the Anniversary Edition of the DVD came out, I watched it several times in one day, just to do all of the commentary tracks (and once I’ve finished writing this entry, I’m going to curl up and watch it again with the David Tennant commentary turned on, because I’ve not heard it in years. I love it because it’s a party. It dispenses with the idea of trying to tell any particular story, and just gets on with bringing back all the old favourites, shoving them all in to an adventure together, and letting them do their greatest party tricks. As such, we get to watch Susan fall and twist her ankle (something I was surprised happened so few times on screen, but it feels like it happened a lot), Sarah gets to be a bit put out by being dragged into danger again, The Doctors get to turn up (mostly) and rattle off some of their more famous quirks… Someone once described The Five Doctors as ‘a Doctor Who convention on screen’, and I think that’s probably quite a fair description in many ways.

It’s because I’m so familiar with this episode (I spent most of it quoting the script as I watched - a habit that irritates me in other people, but I simply couldn’t help myself), I decided to watch today’s episode with Emma in tow. I didn’t tell her that we were watching the 20th anniversary episode (though she did get suspicious when I suggested getting a cake in), just that it was an important one. She sat down with me, ready to watch… and then bailed a little over halfway through. Frankly, she was bored by it, and that’s not something she’s encountered with any of Doctor Who before.

After this, I was watching the episode through slightly new eyes and realised that it actually is a little bit dull. I love it simply because we get to see all these party pieces - all the old Doctors turn up (even if two are in archive footage), there’s a selection of companions you know and love, there’s a Dalek, and a Yeti, and the Cybermen, and the Master, and a Time Lord Turned Bad… it really is just taking all those elements that you’d expect there to be in the story and throwing them at the screen. As a fan, I can find this great, because it’s all my old favourites (and watching it as part of the marathon, it is nice to see some of these elements again), but to a more casual viewer, it simply isn’t enough.

During the build up to the 50th anniversary last year, there were lots of calls for The Day of the Doctor to be a modern-day version of this tale, and I really don’t know if that would work for me. The closest that we’ve come to it is in The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End, in which we get all of the Doctor’s old companions back together for a jolly send off at the end of the Tenth Doctor’s final season. There’s just a bit too much going on here for any room to be given over to telling a story. I think that’s where the episode has failed the most for me. There’s something just wrong about the fact that the Fifth Doctor sees Susan - his grand-daughter - nineteen years after leaving her behind in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, but that because of the constraints of the story (and the fact that they’re trying not to get too bogged-down in continuity, I’d suppose), he only really gets to say two lines to her in the entire piece. One is simply to confirm that he remembers who she is, and the other is to say goodbye to her! Even when she’s paired off with him to trek across the Death Zone, any comments he makes are directed at Susan and Tegan, as opposed to really connecting with his granddaughter. I suppose what I really want is a scene like the one we get in The Sarah Jane Adventures story The Death of the Doctor, where he gets the chance to sit down with Jo Grant and have a real catch up after so many years. Once again, it’s the kind of moment that you don’t get a lot of at this point in the programme’s history, but having a few less characters included would perhaps free up a little more space for such conversations.

That’s why I’m so keen on the ‘phantoms’ in the tower: I think they’re a great way of getting a few more cameos in, and despite complaining above about there being too many characters wedged in already… I wish we had a few more like this! I think it helps that some of the cameos are such obscure choices - Liz and Mike aren’t exactly the first companions you think of when going for the Third Doctor’s era, though at least Jamie and Zoe are a more sound proposition!

Oh, but I’m just being cynical. Of course I’m still going to be giving the episode a good score, because I’m not supposed to be watching it with quite the same eyes that I use for the other episodes of this marathon. This is a celebration of Doctor Who reaching 20 years, a chance to revisit some old friends in the days before home video releases and with very few repeats, and in that sense it’s a real success. For all my complaining about there being so many characters thrown at the screen… did we really want anything else? It’s really fantastic to have them all back again, and everyone is clearly having a fantastic time.

I’m not going to delve into commenting on everyone’s performances, because the party atmosphere of this episode really doesn’t need to be analysed in any great detail, but I will take a moment to talk about one particular individual - because this is the only chance I’ll get to do so. Over the years, Richard Hurndall’s portrayal of the First Doctor has been through various stages of popularity, and it’s a particularly hot topic at the moment, with Big Finish recasting some of the earlier companions for recent releases. I have to say that for me, he absolutely works. People talk about the fact that he’s not quite the First Doctor that William Hartnell played… but I’d argue that Partick Troughton in this story isn’t playing quite the Second Doctor that he played in the sixties, and William Hartnell isn’t playing quite the Doctor that he did in the early 1970s, either. They’re all playing versions of the Doctors we remember, and Hurndall is a good enough First Doctor for me. That we get the real William Hartnell showing up at the beginning of the tale is wonderful, too, and it means that no one is left out of this celebration.

And let’s be honest, Richard Hurndall’s casting is worth it for the appearance he made on Blue Peter alone, in which Peter Davison clearly wants the floor of Television Centre to open up and swallow him. 

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