In 1983, Doctor Who Season 20 ended in spectacular style with a 90 minute special celebrating 20 years of time and space. Here’s how the classic adventure ‘The Five Doctors’ came to made.
For a start, we should point out (before we get emails) that ‘The Five Doctors’ isn’t technically part of Doctor Who Season 20, given that it was broadcast some months after the season’s last episode. But it doesn’t belong to Season 21 either, and it’s being released on the Doctor Who Season 20 Blu-ray collection. It certainly has close links to the preceding season, which had been chock-full of celebratory references which culminated in this special adventure, with the return of Omega, the Mara, the Black Guardian, the Brigadier, and the Master. So it seems appropriate to package it with Doctor Who Season 20.
Initially, this special adventure was titled ‘The Six Doctors.’ Series stalwart Robert Holmes had written a first draft in which the main villains were the Cybermen, who planned to combine Time Lord DNA with cyber material to produce the ultimate ‘upgrade.’ And over the course of the story, it would have been revealed that one of the Doctors was, in fact, a robot replica, effectively making him the sixth Doctor in the line-up.
But for whatever reason, Robert Holmes ultimately pulled out of the commission, and was replaced by another series legend Terrance Dicks, who had been writing for the show since the late 60s, as well as penning dozens of novelisations for the popular Target range. He hadn’t written a Doctor Who script since 1976’s ‘The Brain of Morbius’ (credited as Robin Bland) so he was a welcome addition to Doctor Who Season 20’s celebratory line-up.
Dicks’ story, though, was altogether different from the one by Robert Holmes, and saw all five incarnations of the Doctor being pulled out of time and space and placed in Gallifrey’s Death Zone – all part of a grander scheme by an unseen villain, who wished to penetrate the fabled Tower of Rassilon and learn the secret to immortality. The Cybermen still featured in Dicks’ script, but they were one of a myriad of baddies who had been placed in the Death Zone along with Yeti, the Master, and a new baddie called the Raston Warrior Robot.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been a Doctor Who anniversary special without the dreaded Daleks, but apparently Dicks had to fight hard to include them in ‘The Five Doctors.’ The reasons for this are unclear, but it may have been a rights issue, as the copyright to the Daleks was shared between the BBC and writer Terry Nation. Or it may have been because, originally, Doctor Who Season 20 was meant to end with an epic Dalek story called ‘The Return’ (later to become ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ in Doctor Who Season 21) and it’s possible the production team didn’t want to feature them again so soon.
Nonetheless, the metal mutants did eventually make an appearance in Gallifrey’s fearsome Death Zone, battling the First Doctor and Susan.
One villain that was cut from this story, though, was the Autons. In one of Dicks’ early drafts, Sarah Jane Smith was to find herself in an illusory version of London, where she would have been attacked by an army of dummies bursting out of shop windows. She would have been rescued by the Third Doctor, whereby she’d have discovered that she was in fact in Gallifrey’s Death Zone.
Ultimately, however, this sequence was replaced with Sarah Jane simply falling down a cliff, with the Third Doctor latching a rope to his car in order to save her, as it was deemed cheaper to film.
And there were more absentees from this Doctor Who Season 20 story. William Hartnell, of course, had passed away in 1975, and for this adventure he was replaced by the actor William Hurndall. Undoubtedly, Hurndall bore a striking resemblance to the First Doctor, although the actor refrained from watching any tapes of Hartnell’s performances as he did not with to mimic his predecessor. As such, his interpretation of the First Doctor was very much his own.
The Fourth Doctor Tom Baker was also failed to put in an appearance. The actor had only departed the role two years previously and, at the time, felt that returning for Doctor Who Season 20 was too soon. Therefore he appeared in ‘The Five Doctors’ via unused footage from the unbroadcast ‘Shada,’ the rationale being that he was trapped in the time vortex after a failed attempt to abduct him. This also meant that he had to be represented by a waxwork dummy for the story’s publicity photos.
But originally, Terrance Dicks had planned for the Fourth Doctor to have a much larger role in the story, and would ultimately have betrayed his other selves, as Dicks felt Baker’s incarnation was the one most likely to do so.
Overall, though, this Doctor Who Season 20 did adventure did see a large number of classic names returning to the Whoniverse, including Carole Anne Ford (Susan), Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon), Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor), and Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier), to name a few. But more actors were approached; John Levene (Benton) initially agreed to appear, but ultimately turned it down when he discovered that his character wouldn’t recognise the Second Doctor, and Levene felt strongly that he would.
William Russell (Ian) also declined to appear, and other actors such as Katy Manning (Jo) Ian Marter (Harry) and Anneke Wills (Polly) were unable to be involved, as they were living abroad at the time.
And speaking of no-shows, the actor Mark Strickson’s appearance was almost heavily curtailed. He played Turlough throughout Doctor Who Season 20, and after filming had wrapped on ‘The Five Doctors’ he went on a well-earned driving holiday, and was unreachable. This proved problematic when it was discovered that his scenes at the Eye of Orion had all been irreperably damaged, and had to be remounted. The BBC therefore had to resort to radio appeals to get hold of Strickson and persuade him to return for the reshoots.
All in all, though, this conclusion to Doctor Who Season 20 was considered a success, and the producer John Nathan-Turner cited it as one of his favourite serials from his time on the programme. The prospect of seeing it again on Blu-ray is an exciting one, as the upcoming Collection will feature no fewer than three versions of ‘The Five Doctors.’ Our boxsets runneth over!
What’s your favourite moment from Doctor Who Season 20? And what do enjoy most about ‘The Five Doctors’? Let us know in the comments below.