The Five Doctors

Eventually, once Veronica and I have watched our way through all of Doctor Who, there will be a variety of lists to go up, much like we did with Star Trek.  It’ll take quite a while. We were on Season 10 when I did a very small bit on it back in March of 2013.  The other day we finished Season 20.  That leaves us six more seasons and the movie before we finally get the lists up.  Quite probably the trickiest will be the list where we rank all the Doctors.

That subject came up the other day when watching “The Five Doctors”, the season finale to Season 20 (although it’s really more comparable to the specials that came between Series 7 and 8).  We’ve been getting through Peter Davison and we rather like him.  Veronica was discussing the difficulty we’ll have ranking him on the lists and I compared him to Pierce Brosnan.  Davison has essentially the same two problems that Brosnan had when ranking him as Bond: that there were the great Bonds that ranked above him and so ranking him fourth out of six wasn’t a criticism of Brosnan as Bond and that Brosnan’s films were so much weaker than the films of Craig, Dalton and Connery.  That wasn’t Brosnan’s fault, but it helped to weigh him down as Bond.

Which brings me back to Peter Davison.  I like him a lot.  I didn’t watch him as the Doctor when I was younger (my first Doctor was Tom Baker, watching him on WGBH when I was a Freshman at Brandeis), so my first experience with him as the Doctor was actually in the short “Time Crash” when he interacts with David Tennant’s doctor.  Tennant summed him up rather perfectly: “you mostly went hands-free, didn’t you? Like ‘Hey, I’m the Doctor! I can save the universe with a kettle and some string and look at me! I’m wearing a vegetable!'”  But then we started watching the actual Davison episodes and we started to really like him.  We just didn’t so much like the episodes themselves.

Let’s start with Davison.  He’s young and charming and his outfit is entertaining (“Brave choice, celery. But fair play to you, not a lot of men can carry off a decorative vegetable.” as the Tenth Doctor puts it to him).  He’s got great style as the Doctor.  But he has basically no chance at making it near the top of my list because of Troughton, Tennant and Baker.  Veronica is unlikely to place him ahead of Smith or Troughton.  There’s just too much quality competition (Capaldi, who is also a great Doctor, will have the same problem).

But then there is the other problem.  After the great years with Baker, after the fun adventures when Douglas Adams was in charge, after the high quality of companions that we had during Baker’s run (Sarah Jane, Leela, the two Romanas), we are suddenly running aground for reasons that aren’t Davison’s fault.

Most of the blame has to lay at the feet of John Nathan-Turner, the executive producer at the time.  He decided that the Doctor needed a question mark on his outfit.  He banished the sonic screwdriver.  He brought in the horrid incidental music and the synthesizers that made the opening theme almost unlistenable.  He brought in the rash of just terrible companions.  There’s Tegan, who is pretty useless in her first season and a half, then suddenly gets much more useful (if not less whiney) at the same time that her outfit and hair go to pot and she looks ridiculous in almost every episode.  There is Nyssa, who should be useful, but rarely is and eventually leaves so that the Doctor can have companions who aren’t remotely smart enough to keep up with him.  There is Adric, and the less said about him the better, but if you really want to hate him or understand why people hate him, you can read this.  Adric dies off, but before too long is replaced by Turlough, who starts out as a villain and then just becomes a pretty useless companion, mostly standing around and doing nothing.

The first two seasons of Davison’s Doctor range from mediocre to almost unwatchable.  Yet, none of that is his fault.  He’s a very good doctor, even when asked to do ridiculous things, like bounce a cricket ball off a spaceship to create enough force to move him towards the TARDIS.

If this make you laugh like crazy then congrats, you're a Whovian.

If this make you laugh like crazy then congrats, you’re a Whovian.

But, then we get to “The Five Doctors”.  This was the 20th Anniversary special that brought back all the previous doctors.  Sort of.  First of all, the First Doctor, William Hartnell, was dead, so they needed to replace him (which, in Richard Hurndall, they did).  Second, Tom Baker, who had been the Doctor for a long time and hadn’t been away from the role for very long, refused to do it.  So they used unaired footage from “Shada” and then threw him into a time warp.  But those are things you can find out from anywhere.  The question was going to be how good it was.  The 10th Anniversary Special had been “The Three Doctors” which is one of my favorite serials from The Third Doctor, but that’s because it brought back Troughton and his interactions with Sergeant Benton and the Brigadier were fantastic.  It was bogged down by a weak villain, an annoying companion and a storyline that kind of went all over the place.

“The Five Doctors” doesn’t have that problem.  Yes, it had the weak current companions, but it mostly relegated them to standing around and not doing much.  It had a much stronger storyline, it had much better villains (a little bit of Daleks and Cybermen, a really cool terrifying robot as well as the Master, with none of them actually being the primary villain) and best of all, it has Troughton and it has the Brigadier.

I can’t describe how much I love Patrick Troughton’s doctor.  He is clever and bizarre and you never knew when he would break out a recorder and start playing.  He had great companions (namely Jamie and Zoe) and he provided a lot of playfulness where the original Doctor played by William Hartnell had simply been brooding, distant and mysterious.  It’s a tragedy that Troughton’s time as the Doctor was as short as it was and it’s made worse by the fact that several of his serials are still lost (though some have been recovered).  In “The Five Doctors”, he is given the Brigadier as a companion and it’s a great choice.  Neither Frazier Hines nor Wendy Padbury (Jamie and Zoe) were available for the episode (though they would both have cameos) so the Brig was the next logical choice.  It’s great to see their time together.  When Troughton shows up in “The Three Doctors” you can see the relief on the Brig’s face at dealing with the first man he knew.  It seems like the notion that “You Never Forget Your First Doctor” is perfectly embodied in the Brig.  Not only that, but when the Master gets the drop on all the Doctors, it’s the Brig who delivers a right hook to take him out.

But this episode wouldn’t be as good as it is if it were just left to Troughton and Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier) to carry the load.  It has a solid performance from Richard Hurndall as the First Doctor, a typical haughty performance from Jon Pertwee, whose Third Doctor is my least favorite and it brings back Sarah Jane, one of the best companions ever, even if she is given little enough to do and has one of the most embarrassing scenes in Doctor Who history when she falls down a small hill and has to be rescued.  There is also the palpable menace all around them (everyone has been gathered on Gallifrey in the Death Zone which gives you an idea of the danger) and the scene where the dangerous ninja like robot takes out all the Cybermen is really damn cool.

But it takes the primary doctor to really come through and that’s where Peter Davison really steps to the plate.  He doesn’t get a lot to do early on because he’s weakened by his previous selves being kidnapped but he faces off against the Master and the Cybermen quite nicely, disappearing with a smile and some charm: “Sorry!  Must dash.”  Then, once on Gallifrey, he’s able to figure out the mystery.  Best of all, he is the key to an ending that is not only the best moment in the episode, but one of the great shining moments in Doctor Who history.  Confronted with his responsibilities on his home planet, he heads off back to time and space with his companions.  “You mean you’re deliberately choosing to go on the run from your own people in a rackety old TARDIS?” Tegan asks him.  And then comes Davison’s magnificent smile before the ending line: “Why not?  After all, that’s how it all started.”

The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot

Once you’ve seen “The Five Doctors”, it’s a good time to amuse the hell out of yourself by watching “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot”.  V and I have known about it since it first came about but we had waited to watch it since we hadn’t seen any of the stars (Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy) as The Doctor yet.  Our friend Deborah said that a good time to watch it was after actually watching “The Five Doctors” so that’s what we did.  There are a couple of references to “The Five Doctors”, namely Davison once again saying “Sorry!  Must dash.” and an explanation for Tom Baker not being in it that comes straight from the original (and because, of course, Baker was in the 50th Anniversary Special).

This is a very funny short film made in conjunction with “The Day of the Doctor”, the magnificent 50th Anniversary Special that starred David Tennant and Matt Smith but left most of the previous doctors unused.  If you’re not a big fan of Doctor Who this is still funny because of the way it plays on actor’s ego and neediness, like how Sylvester McCoy constantly reminds people he is in The Hobbit and how Colin Baker locks his family in the house so that they are forced to watch one of his episodes as the Sixth Doctor.  If you are a Whovian, it is hilarious, as it plays a lot on the history in the show and a lot of the personalities involved in making it.  If you know about their private lives then it gets even funnier, with bits about John Barrowman’s “secret family” and how Peter Davison goes on about his secret contact and Colin Baker replies “This ‘contact’ wouldn’t have a Scottish accent and be married to your daughter, would he?”

But aside from all the humor (and for Whovians like us, it is really damn funny), it has some considerable warmth as well.  I like how the editor keeps the secret from Stephen Moffat at the conclusion.  I love that all these people in the industry get along well enough that they would put this together across different continents and time schedules.  I like that they found a way to use the sons of two of the three doctors who are no longer with us.  Most of all, I love the idea that Peter Davison really does sit around on Christmas and watch the new Doctor Who Christmas Special with his young sons.

<p><a href=”″>Doctor.Who.The.Five.ish.Doctors.Reboot</a&gt; from <a href=”″>Bob Barnett</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>