“Somebody is breaking the first law of time, and you know what that means.”
Not long after I first discovered Doctor Who, during the early to mid 80’s PBS airings of then-outdated Tom Baker serials, there was a rather special event.
Immersed as I (and my father, who joined me as something of a Who obsessive at the time) was in the gothic horror of the Philip Hinchcliffe era, John Nathan Turner’s brand spanking new cross-oceanic 20th anniversary special came as something of a shock.
Who were all these Doctors and companions? And what was with that lame copout where Tom Baker was just rowing around a canal? Wasn’t he The Doctor? How the hell could they do The Five Doctors without him?
Obviously, as we would soon discover, Tom was already a bit of yesterday’s papers across the pond. It wasn’t long before Peter Davison’s run would begin airing here as well, and so it goes.
Nonetheless, we both very much enjoyed this confusing oddity, despite its obvious everything but the kitchen sink approach, missing companions and quickie cameos and suchlike. There were Daleks, Cybermen and even Yeti, not to mention the great twist ending in Rassilon’s tomb (for the sake of those who haven’t yet experienced The Five Doctors, I’ll leave it at that – trust me, it’s pretty cool).
Yeah, Tom opted out and they had to cover for him using clips from the aborted Shada. Sure, Hartnell was long gone, and they had some goofy guy doing a so-so impression of his kid-friendly “doddering old grandfather” aspects, without even a nod to his far more interesting and prominent personal bristliness.
But it was an event. Three Doctors, some companions here and there, and a few well known baddies…what more could a fan ask for?
“What’s so special about the twenty-third of November, 1963?”
Later we discovered the other “big events” – the 10th anniversary Three Doctors, with a fading Hartnell handling his few scenes offsite and seated, but loads of fun and adventure all around.
The what the hell, let’s try it anyway Two Doctors…which was a bit of a lark in retrospect, but quite disappointing on first viewing. Other than getting two of the most mismatched incarnations of The Doctor ever camping it up together onscreen, what was so damn special about some gross comic panto cannibal chefs, even with Servalan (albeit under a different name) and a rather brief appearance from a Sontaran or two?
Aaaand…that was it. Short of the odd early Big Finish effort Sirens of Time, or that little Children in Need thingie with Peter Davison and his son-in-law David Tennant, there’s been little since.
With no less than FIVE Doctors in tow (and for real, this time – as noted earlier, The titular Five Doctors only featured three), Big Finish found itself in a position to deliver a truly special event for the 50th anniversary.
Using a very Five Doctors approach to more or less incorporate the first three Doctors (each of whom have long since left this mortal vale), they matched up the surviving Doctors with their best known (living) companions and even managed to tag in Sara Kingdom.
Well, sort of.
Here’s the breakdown for you.
Tom Baker with Louise (Leela) Jameson.
Peter Davison with Sarah (Nyssa) Sutton.
Colin Baker with Nicola (Peri) Bryant.
Sylvester McCoy with Sophie (Ace) Aldred.
and Paul McGann with India (Charley Pollard) Fisher.
And on top of all that, you get the Geoffrey Beevers version of The Master (i.e. the dessicated corpse from The Deadly Assassin and Keeper of Traken, the latter of which was in fact essayed by Beevers).
With his unshakeably calm, reedy voice, Beevers’ Master positively emanates the sort of malevolence that only a true Decadent can exude – this is nearly a character-defining performance we’re talking about here.
While The Master will always be Roger Delgado (I’m sorry to all the others who’ve essayed the role to date, but that’s that), Beevers is definitely the next best choice, particularly with the Grim Reaperesque visual (which we’re herein reminded of by means of the cover, despite the visage being somewhat cleaned up to reflect Beevers’ own features).
In a perfect world, we all know who’d be at the reins…but then, we’d also have Jon Pertwee facing off against him, not to mention Pat Troughton…and so on…and so on. As it stands, Beevers is an excellent choice, and well suited to the role (certainly moreso than the rather fey and often cowardly Anthony Ainley version who succeeded him throughout the televised run.)
“I don’t recognize this.”
“It’s my version of the Tardis’ control room.”
“Seems a trifle ostentatious…”
“I inherited it.”
“Who from, Jules Verne?”
This time ’round, Davison (who got more or less the lion’s share of the televised Five Doctors, appropriately enough as it was during his tenure) has a lot less to do – Big Finish wisely focuses more on the Doctors who didn’t get to take part in the obvious progenitor “big event” last time around.
That said, it’s really all Tom Baker and Paul McGann’s show, at least for the entire first half of the serial – while Colin and Sly certainly get their licks in, Big Finish impresario Nick Briggs leaves the focus squarely on Tom, Paul, Leela and Charley.
Of course, this reverses entirely in the second half, making sure everyone gets a respectable portion of airtime in the end (though speaking strictly for my part, there’s just never enough Ace…)
A few cleverly chosen dialogue snippets from the teleseries gets around the whole issue of how to include the first three Doctors – no, it’s not perfect, but does anyone really remember Tom and Richard Hurndall amidst all the gushing fanboy chaos that was The Five Doctors, hmm?
“Do I really end up with such a terrible sense of fashion?”
“Says the man in the impractical scarf. It’s all a question of taste, I suppose.”
“Well, I suppose that would explain your Wild Bill Hickok costume.”
“Hmm…most people think it’s something to do with Byron.”
So why are all eight…well, OK, five, really…Doctors face to face, in direct violation of the first law of time? What does the Master have to do with the alien Vess? Who the hell is this guy Bob whose roof the Tardis lands on? And what is the mystery of the little red light that appears in all of the Doctors’ Tardises…and time…or perhaps the Tardis folding in on itself, within a span of 5 minutes, on November 23, 1963?
Boy, is this one convoluted story! The Big Bang, crossing time paths, the Time Lords, dirty deals with alien weaponers and the Master…and it only gets more mathematically algorithmic from there. Seriously, even if I wanted to spoil things by giving away all the plot details, I’d be hard pressed to – Briggs clearly sat up all night diagramming this one out.
“So…are you seriously telling me…all those blokes, old man whitehair, Beatles haircut, frilly shirt, long scarf, big eyes, cricket boy, Joseph and his amazing technicolor dreamcoat and Lord Byron…all of them, they were you?”
When it comes down to brass tacks, your take on the story itself ultimately resides in your personal orientation educationally and whether you view life wholistically and organically, or as an intricately micromanageable, fractally navigable progression of tangenitally interweaving paths. To judge by the pretzel logic moebius strip of a script presented herein, Briggs clearly aligns closely to the latter.
Coming very much from the former school of thought, this is something of an oddity for me – while I can certainly appreciate the effort that went into it, these sort of nitpicking detail information dumps are a bit too extreme of an approach for my tastes.
For my part, I’d have preferred if some of the time crisscrossing and the whole seeming sidestory with the Vess were trimmed back a bit (if not eliminated) – I’d have focused more on the character interplay between the various Doctors and their companions (which is admittedly quite well done when and where it happens) and a whole lot less on building a pyramid out of all the intricacies of plot presented herein.
That said, Big Finish is pretty much Briggs’ baby, and if there’s a guy who should know his stuff, this is the one – he was involved in a number of the Bill Baggs productions of the 90’s as both writer and star and not only serves as the head honcho at Big Finish, but has written, directed and even scored a number of stories over the years for both the main line and Eighth Doctor Adventures.
Hell, he even does a respectable amount of work in relation to the Doctor Who revival series (with Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and now Capaldi), as the voice of the Daleks.
And in that light, perhaps a bit of the “new style” rubbed off, with the whole Grant Morrisonesque “take the menace widescreen” “bigger and more serious than last time” writing style that Russell T. Davies (and later, Stephen Moffatt)’s take on the series relies on weekly.
Will everything The Doctor ever accomplished be undone? Will he indeed have ever existed? It’s a bit comic book in that respect, and modern comics at that.
Jamie Robertson’s score is a bit bombastic if not over the top (check out the John Williams-meets-metal take on the Who theme that starts and ends the two double-length episodes) and again, reminds one more than a bit of the modern iteration of the Doctor Who teleseries.
In the end, this is a great bit of fluff for the longtime fanboys, as one might expect of a big, special 50th anniversary shindig. Bigger, badder, better, savvily incorporating enough history and insight to satisfy the old guard while being as John Williams, Steven Spielberg Hollywood as it apparently takes to get the new kids off.
Sure, I could do without the latter entirely – that practically goes without saying.
But there’s more than enough banter between the respective Bakers, Davison, McCoy and McGann (not to mention Aldred, Fisher and more than a dab of Bryant, Jameson and Sutton) to keep fellow Classic Whovians more than satisfied.
Taken all in all, a damn good job. Recommended.