Sunday, 18 October 2009

Doctor Who: The Five Doctors

“Wonderful chap. All of them.”

It’s great to see Hartnell again, even if only for a brief yet well-chosen clip. I like these pre-title sequence teasers- perhaps they should be brought in permanently at some point? 

Meanwhile, there’s a new, very 80s-looking, considerably less battered TARDIS console which the Doctor has knocked up very quickly in the short time since The King’s Demons. Tegan’s changed her clothes again and Kamelion is presumably off playing the lute somewhere off-screen.

Our heroes are visiting the Eye of Orion, in North Wales, the most tranquil place in the universe. And for once, nothing bad is going to happen, oh no.

We cut to the First Doctor, played by Richard Hurndall, walking about in a garden and getting taken away in a black triangle. This black triangle thing may well be simple but it actually works very well. And Hurndall at least looks the part. Also interestingly, he’s observed on screen by a mysterious gloved figure who seems to be moderately talented in painting miniatures.

Meanwhile, a newly re-moustachioed Brig is chatting with Lieutenant Carstairs from The War Games either before or after a big UNIT reunion. Along comes Patrick Troughton, and it’s such a joy to see him again. Interestingly, he says of the Brig’s replacement that “Mine was pretty unpromising too”, indicating he remembers the events of The Three Doctors, and that opens a whole can of worms.

Their conversation is a key example of a great awkwardness that pervades this story though; these are two old friends who haven’t seen each other for ages, and yet the words they’re given to say acknowledge this in only the most perfunctory way, as there can be no deviation from the plot in a ninety minute story containing as many elements as this. It’s an inevitable consequence of the very nature of this story, but that doesn’t make it feel any less awkward. The characters, most of whom are fondly-remembered figures from the past, are just treated as pawns there to serve the plot and given little opportunity to display the qualities we loved about them in the first place. And this tendency will get more and more awkward as the story progresses.

At least the scene with an obviously older Pertwee getting kidnapped by the black triangle thing driving around in Bessie doesn’t display these faults, even if only because there are no other characters for him to interact with. Unlike Troughton, this is his first ever return to the show, and it’s a particular delight to see him again. And it’s obvious from the very start that Terrance Dicks gets a particular kick out of writing his dialogue (“Great balls of fire!”)

The pattern’s established by now as we get a quick scene with Sarah and K9 and a clip from Shada, and then the focus moves to Gallifrey. Sadly, the familiar tropes of the Gallifreyan ruling caste have become completely formulaic by now, but at least in a story where they’re no more than a minor element this is less irritating than it could be. Still, it’s hardly encouraging that the annoying Castellan from Arc of Infinity is back again, or plausible that Borusa has regenerated yet again. Still, their desperate employment of the Master is a damn good idea, clearly showing just how desperate the situation is, and Ainley is wonderful here. Interestingly, he’s offered an entirely new regeneration sequence. This has huge implications. Equally as interestingly, he states that “A cosmos without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about”, which arguable gives a bit of credence to some of the more intriguing theories about his motivations…

Hurndall, appropriately, has been transported to an area very reminiscent of the Dalek city on Skaro. He meets Susan, of course, and again we have the awkwardness of there being little time for dialogue which does not advance the plot. Surely these two would have something to say to each other, particularly given the circumstances of their parting? Still, the Dalek looks fantastic, and the mutant inside the shell is extremely impressive. This scene is where we learn all this is happening in the Death Zone, North Wales, Gallifrey. Although hearing Susan saying the word “Gallifrey” doesn’t feel quite right.

There’s some unintended hilarity as Pertwee ostentatiously rescues Sarah from falling down a very slight slope, and then more unintended hilarity as Sarah’s intended line that the Doctor changed to become “all teeth and curls” is nabbed by Pertwee, thus ensuring it makes no sense whatsoever. Still, it’s great to see the two of them together again and their chemistry is great.

The first and fifth Doctors meet at last, but again the necessity of there being no time for dialogue which doesn’t advance the plot has awkward consequences. Surely the fifth Doctor and Susan must have things to say to one another? Again, though, this sort of awkwardness is inevitable given the number of elements to be fit inside ninety minutes.

Possibly the highlight of the whole thing is Pertwee’s arrogant dismissal of the Master’s claims that he wants to help. The sheer rudeness on display is magnificent, and I’m willing to bet that this is the part Terrance most enjoyed writing. Pertwee is splendid here too, of course. Oh, and the bit with those bolts aimed at the Master, setting bits of the undergrowth on fire, is my first definite memory from watching Doctor Who on original transmission (I was six) although I’d been watching it for a season or two by this point.

Sadly, Hurndall isn’t particularly good. It isn’t that he’s so unlike Hartnell- he was quite right to try and interpret the character himself- but that he overdoes the abrasiveness so much as to be unlikeable. A lot of the time he delivers his lines in a way which is actually sinister, the worst offender being “Well, well, well, so two of them made it. I wonder what happened to the other?”

On the other hand, the Cybermen deliver their lines in a way which is most entertaining- my personal favourite is “Ah!” closely followed by “I have found the ones from the TARDIS.” They also get bonus points for causing Susan to sprain her ankle.

This is all zooming past- the Raston Warrior Robot, “No, not the mind probe!”, a sadly hard to see Yeti- betraying a masterful skill at plotting from Terrance Dicks who, for all the problems inherent in such an artificially fast pace, has managed to work all these disparate elements into a coherent plot while giving everyone enough screen time. It’s an admirable achievement, even if the result nevertheless suffers under the weight of all the elements which needed to be included. Particularly admirable is the way that Davison, the incumbent Doctor, is allowed the starring role in being the one teleported to the Capitol to investigate who’s really behind it all.

The whole chessboard trap, in which a second group of Cybermen are dramatically killed, is good fun, however much the stuff about pi is extremely silly and the Master seems to just walk straight across the first time. It’s just a shame that Hurndall is again so unlikeable.

It’s good to see Liz and Yates again, even if they are illusions, and even better to see Jamie and Zoe, even though continuity is shattered into a thousand pieces by the fact that the Doctor remembers that their memories were wiped. Apparently in between this and his enforced regeneration he was able to nip to the UNIT farewell party to chat with the Brig. Perhaps, at a stretch, the Time Lords offered him a last request off-screen and he’s being allowed the one short trip before being brought back and summarily regenerated. Or, er, perhaps not. But I say again: Season 6b? Pah!

Hurndall, Pertwee and Troughton all get to meet up briefly for the climax while a load of companions mill about at the back. Their interactions are great, if disappointingly brief. And it’s odd to see the Brig greeting Sarah with “Miss Smith, isn’t it?” even though he’s got to know her quite well, particularly during Planet of the Spiders.

Borusa’s revelation as the villain, his eventual fate, and the appearance of Rassilon himself are all brilliantly done, and the final scene of the Doctor once again running away from his own people in a rackety old TARDIS is utter genius. And so is the story. It may be too fast-paced for the characters to really interact in the way fans would have dreamed about, the direction may be dodgy at times, but what’s not to love about this? 4/5.

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