Actually, it’s only four Doctors, and one of them is a substitute for the late William Hartnell, who had passed on several years before Doctor Who‘s 20th anniversary, when this 90-minute special episode was made.
Not only does this story involve getting all the Doctors together; the show’s creators seem bent on getting anybody who was involved in it during its run to date and was available to appear in it somewhere. There’s a lot activity being juggled between different groups of characters. I’m going to break my review up into sections.
But first, a short history of me and Doctor Who. In the early 1970s, our local PBS station began to air all the episodes of a given story on Sunday mornings. My little brother watched them, and was a much more keen viewer than I was.
The first episode I ever saw was of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. I haven’t been able to identify which story that was; I believe the Doctor’s companion was Liz Shaw, and what I would later know to be UNIT was fighting off an alien invasion. Aside from that, I don’t recall much except that it was the first time I’d ever heard a British telephone ring. While I rather liked the Doctor’s sense of style, I didn’t take much interest in the story and only saw bits and pieces of subsequent stories until The Three Doctors. I started watching regularly during Tom Baker’s era and through Peter Davison’s, and those are the stories I still have the greatest affection for. (It helps that I’ve had a crush on Peter Davison since I was 17… going on 40 years now.)
This 20th anniversary show is one I remember watching when it first aired in 1983. We usually saw episodes of Doctor Who a year or two after they were shown in Britain, but this one actually aired in some parts of the US before its UK debut.
Since The Three Doctors, I’d been interested in the idea of Doctors meeting Doctors, the contrast of personalities even though they were the same person. It’s an idea I’m still partial to.
To include something of William Hartnell, the show begins with a clip of the First Doctor’s farewell speech to his granddaughter Susan, in which he promises that he’ll come back and they will see each other again.
The story proper opens with the current Doctor (Peter Davison, or Dr 5) and his two companions Turlough and Tegan* having a bit of a holiday in northern Wales, not far from Portmeirion. Dr 5 calls it the Eye of Orion and says it’s the most tranquil place in the universe.
This tranquility is not to last long. It wouldn’t be much of a show if it did.
A figure with black-gloved hands is shown working at a panel in a small control room. One by one, he locates the previous four Doctors on a viewscreen and extracts them from their own respective times:
- Dr 1 (Richard Hurndall, in place of Hartnell) is walking in a lovely garden, also in northern Wales, when an early computer-graphic triangle descends upon him.
- Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart has been holding his retirement party at UNIT Headquarters and hopes that his old friend the Doctor will show up. “Wonderful chap… All of them.” Dr 2 (Patrick Troughton) naughtily bends the laws of time to drop in for the occasion. The two go out walking in the garden to reminisce about the Yeti, the Cybermen, and Omega, when they see another triangle heading for them. They run, but it captures them both.
- Dr 3 (Jon Pertwee) is driving Bessie around the countryside when he sees the triangle coming for him. He wheels the car around and tries to outrace it, to no avail.
- Dr 4 (Tom Baker, who opted out of appearing in this anniversary show) and Romana are punting on the Cam in a scene taken from Shada. The triangle gets them just as the Doctor is in danger of falling into the river while passing under a bridge.
- Sarah Jane Smith is leaving her home, in spite of dire but unspecified warnings of “Danger, Mistress!” from K9. She’s waiting at a bus stop when a triangle descends on her.
When each of these people is captured, we briefly see an image of their horrified faces on the surface on the triangle. Action figures representing each person appears on the console. Collect them all!
Well, not Dr 4 and Romana; something went wrong with their transfer. Their faces appear in wavy and distorted form on the console’s viewscreen.
As for the others, Black Gloves picks the figures up and places them in separate sections within a bowl-shaped model of a rocky landscape with a tower at the center.
Each time one of his previous selves is captured, Dr 5 clutches his hearts. “I’m being diminished,” he tells Tegan and Turlough, “whittled away piece by piece… Great chunks of my past detaching themselves like melting icebergs.” He insists to his worried companions that he’s all right, right before he faints. They convey him into the Tardis.
The Doctor has to find his other selves to be whole again. He just has time to set the Tardis to go… somewhere, then he collapses on the floor and starts to fade in and out of visibility.
These events haven’t gone unnoticed on Gallifrey, where the Time Lords’ Inner Council has assembled to discuss the emergency. There are only three members: President Borusa (Philip Latham, whom I know best as the rigidly upright Plantagenet Palliser from The Pallisers), Chancellor Flavia (Dinah Sheridan), and Castellan (Paul Jerricho, although he might as well be played by Chris Barry, since he definitely has a snotty and officious, Arnold Rimmer of the Time Lords vibe).
Borusa has summoned the Master (Anthony Ainley, last seen on these pages as the naturalist vicar in Blood on Satan’s Claw). This incarnation of the Master was the one I grew up with, and he’s most noteworthy for his open enjoyment of his own evilness. Borusa tells him:
“You are one of the most evil and corrupt beings this Time Lord race has ever produced. Your crimes are without number and your villainy without end.”
The Master smiles and nods as if to say, “How kind of you to notice!”
In spite of his unrelenting heinousness, however, Boruda is willing to offer him a pardon, plus new regenerations, if he provides a service to Gallifrey that only a person of his ruthlessness and cunning can: Rescue the Doctor.
The explanation of the mission they’re sending the Master on also tells us what’s been happening.
A long time ago, Time Lords used to hold war games on Gallifrey in a place with the cheerful name of the Death Zone. People and creatures from other planets were kidnapped using an instrument called the “time scoop.” That greatest and most powerful of Time Lords, the legendary Rassilon, shut down the Death Zone and sealed it off. Use of the time scoop was abolished, although the mechanism wasn’t actually destroyed.
The Zone has been reactivated and the Inner Council needs to know what’s going on in there. They’ve already sent two people to have a look–people who haven’t come back. They’ve also tried to contact the Doctor, but he no longer exists in any of his incarnations.
“He’s been taken out of time,” Borusa tells the Master in ominous tones.
The theory is that somebody is using the forbidden time scoop to kidnap the various Doctors and a few friends and has placed them in the Death Zone–apart from Dr 4, who is “trapped in the vortex” and can’t be freed until the other Doctors are found and restored. If this isn’t done, there may be no Doctor–a concept which even the Master states “scarcely bears thinking about.”
The Master accepts this mission, and they give him the Seal of the High Council as a sign to the Doctor(s) that he’s acting on their behalf and a hand-held transmat device so he can signal to be beamed back to the Council Chamber when he has information. They beam him out to the Death Zone.
So what have all the Doctors been up to?
Dr 1 finds himself in a sort of maze of kilter-angled walls, some with mirrored surfaces like a funhouse. He runs into his granddaughter Susan, but there’s no time for a happy reunion, since a gratuitous Dalek is also trapped there. I suppose the show’s producers thought they had to get a Dalek into the story somewhere but, like K9, the Daleks wouldn’t be able to handle the Zone’s rough terrain (they don’t know how to hover yet).
Dr 1 and Susan flee until they find themselves in a dead end. The Doctor traps the Dalek there; when it fires its weapons, the beams are reflected in the mirrors around it and it zaps itself to a gruesome death. Its beams also break through the wall. Through a jagged gap, we can see the rugged country landscape outside. A tower with two curved-horn shapes at the top is visible in the distance. The Doctor recognizes the Dark Tower, and he and Susan realize that they are on Gallifrey. They climb outside through the gap.
Dr 2 and the Brigadier are wandering another part of the zone which looks a lot like a quarry; they have a brief encounter with a Cyberman or two, but manage to get away from them easily. Dr 2 points out the tower as Rassilon’s.
“His home, is it?” asks the Brigadier.
“No,” the Doctor answers. “It’s his tomb.”
There’s a dirt road behind them that seems to lead straight to it, and they head that way.
Given the Dark Tower’s resemblance to Sauron’s, their scenes on this hike feel as if they’re playing Frodo and Sam in Mordor.
Along the way, Dr 2 drops a hint or two about Rassilon to the effect that maybe he wasn’t the heroic figure that most of the Time Lord legends portray him to be. Other legends tell of how his fellow Time Lords locked him up in that tower. Dr 2 wonders if Rassilon was the one who brought them there. Sure, he’s dead, but who knows the extent of his powers? He could be watching them right now. They could be playing Rassilon’s game.
Dr 3 is driving Bessie. Of course there’s a road, paved in this case. He sees someone walking ahead of him in the heavy mists. It’s Sarah Jane, who is having a very bad day.
Embarrassingly, she falls over when she steps off the road at the sound of the oncoming car and rolls down into the grassy ditch. They use tilted camera angles to try and make it look like she’s on a steep cliff and can’t simply get up and walk back up the gentle slope by herself. But this doesn’t really work. The poor woman has to flop about in the grass and make sounds of distress until the Doctor ties a rope to Bessie’s bumper and uses it to haul her up.
Perhaps because she feels humiliated after having to be rescured from such a ridiculous situation, Sarah is a bit snappish with the Doctor once she’s standing back up on the road, even though not of this is his fault. She does note that he’s the Doctor as she first met him, and asks him about his transformation, with appropriate gestures around her head to indicate Dr 4’s general appearance.
“Teeth and curls?” says Dr 3, even though he hasn’t seen his next regeneration.
They both get into Bessie and also drive in the direction of the tower. Again, rather reminiscent of Frodo’s and Sam’s journey if they’d had a colorful jalopy.
Dr 1 and Susan are hiking in what looks like a more pleasant part of the Death Zone. It would be lovely countryside on a sunny day, but right now it’s chilly with heavy mists. They are surprised when they suddenly come upon the Tardis, and more surprised when they go inside to find that the control room’s been refurbished since they last saw it and there are three strangers already there.
Turlough and Tegan have been tending the sometimes invisible Dr 5, but he immediately begins to feel better once he’s reunited with his first self.
Introductions all around. Dr 1 tries to introduce Susan to Dr 5, but of course she’s his granddaughter too and he knows who she is. (The way she smiles and looks him over suggests that she appreciates Grandpa’s latest incarnation.)
There’s an awkward moment when Dr 1 orders Tegan to “make yourself useful” and make them some tea.
Since she’s no longer a stewardess and not the Doctor’s maid, Tegan takes issue with this. “Hang on a minute…”
Dr 5 hastens to placate her and asks that she humor his previous self. “I used to be quite tetchy. Fortunately, one mellows with age.”
He requests that Turlough and Tegan both go for refreshments, while he catches up with his family. This scene will be echoed much, much later on when the Dr 1 scolds the 13th Doctor’s companion Bill for not keeping the Tardis well dusted the way Polly used to.
Dr 3 and Sarah Jane, meanwhile, are driving along when they stop for a rather ominous looking hitchhiker. Sarah has no idea who the Master is, but Dr 3 recognizes “my best enemy” in spite of the recent regeneration.
Not unreasonably, the Doctor jumps to the conclusion that the kidnapping of Sarah Jane and himself is the Master’s doing. He doesn’t believe the Master’s explanation, even though we know that for once Mr. Evil is telling the truth about what he’s doing here.
When the Master produces the Seal of the High Council, Dr 3 says that it must be stolen and confiscates it. He’ll still have it much, much later.
The argument might have gone on for some time, but it’s interrupted when one of the squads of Cybermen that are wandering around the Death Zone starts shooting at them.
The Master runs like hell for cover. One of the bolts zaps Bessie, so Dr 3 and Sarah Jane are now forced to abandon the car and walk the rest of the way to the Dark Tower.
To be continued…
*My brother was going to name his kids Turlough and Tegan. He ended up only having one child, who is named after the Jedi instead.