After the success of Doctor Who’s tenth anniversary story, The Three Doctors, it was time for another anniversary story in 1983. Tom Baker had played the Fourth Doctor for a record seven years and regenerated into Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor in 1981. Unfortunately, he chose to not return for the anniversary special. The only footage of the Fourth Doctor in the episode is from an unused, incomplete story. William Hartnell, whose health was failing during The Three Doctors, passed away before the twentieth anniversary story. The role of the First Doctor was recast with Richard Hurndall.
The Fifth Doctor and his companions, Turlough and Tegan, are taking a much deserved break at the Eye of Orion. However, unbeknownst to the Doctor, someone is going through his timeline and collecting his earlier regenerations. The Fifth Doctor feels “a twinge of cosmic angst” as the First Doctor is collected. He claims he’s fine, waving off his companions’ concerns. But the pain increases with each Doctor’s disappearance and the situation becomes more dire.
Tegan and Turlough manage to get the Doctor to the TARDIS though they have no idea what’s going on. Despite the confusion, they land on Gallifrey, where The First Doctor and Susan enter the TARDIS without noticing it’s the Fifth Doctor’s. The two Doctors realize they have been brought to the Death Zone of Gallifrey, a shameful relic from Gallifrey’s past when the Time Lords would snatch people up and force them to play a deadly game for entertainment. In order to get to the bottom of the mystery they decide to go to the Tower of Rassilon, which houses the tomb for the founder of modern Time Lord society.
Meanwhile at the Capital on Gallifrey, the Time Lords are facing another power drain. But unlike in The Three Doctors they know the source of the problem is coming from the Death Zone. When they looked for the Doctor to help, they were unable to locate any of his regenerations, so they ask the Master to rescue him. They offer him a full pardon of his many crimes and a new set regenerations. He agrees, and takes the Seal of the High Council as proof of his good intentions. (That’s where the Eleventh Doctor got the Seal from in “Time of the Doctor”)
Of course when the Doctors meet the Master in the Death Zone, they don’t believe him. They’ve run into him too many times not to think that he is the source of their troubles. The Fifth Doctor takes the transmat device and the Seal of the High Council from the Master and returns to the Capital. There the High Council is able to explain that they sent the Master to rescue him. The Doctor discovers a homing beacon inside the transmat device, which suggests an inside job.
When the dust settles, the Doctor uncovers a plot by the Time Lord President to achieve immortality. The President was behind capturing the Doctor’s regenerations to force them to find the Tomb of Rassilon. Thankfully the Fifth Doctor, together with his earlier incarnations, discover the plot and are able to defeat the President.
The Five Doctors is definitely worth checking out, but I think it’s more spectacle than story, especially compared to The Three Doctors. Even without the Fourth Doctor, the plot is perilously held together. It feels like there are too many moving parts between the multiple villains, Time Lords and companions. If you can get a hold of the 2008 DVD, there’s a commentary track with David Tennant and a couple of the modern series producers.
Author’s Note: Sadly this story isn’t on Hulu Plus or Netflix. But it’s still worth checking out.