“Great chunks of my past, detaching themselves like melting icebergs.” – The Fifth Doctor
The Five Doctors does very well as a bit of nostalgia. It’s not a very sophisticated story but you tend to give a pass to an anniversary story because it’s supposed to be more about bringing back memories and honoring the past. This is does well by bringing back several of the former Doctors, old companions, and historic enemies from the show. (Of course, you have to watch and suspend a bit of disbelief—the actors are obviously much older and some not even the original.) Still, I think this is usually remembered as a fairly successful anniversary celebration for the program.
Terrance Dicks is good at straightforward and simple plots with lots of breezy and fun dialogue, and this is pretty much what we get out of the story. The idea of multiple incarnations of the Doctor having to work from different angles to struggle through the Death Zone to get to the tower and where they come together to face a larger enemy sounds good. Of course, the budget didn’t allow for anything quite so grand so the deadly traps that generations couldn’t pass are exceedingly simplistic (or don’t even make any on-screen sense) so you have to kind of ignore those and imagine that the Doctors and companions have struggled through much more harrowing events in their quest. Of course, a lot of the originally planned story didn’t come together as originally planned with Tom Baker refused to participate, but they did a pretty good job of finding their way around that.
These kinds of stories also have to gloss over continuity quite a bit too. As with any multi-Doctor story, you have to ignore what we know about what the character would have understood and just presume that somehow his knowledge is updated. After all, the First and Second Doctor should both be horrified to be on Gallifrey as they were on the run from their people throughout their tenure and had no way to know their future selves would be reconciled. (The Second Doctor’s appearance and knowledge here is such an anomaly that it is the start of the infamous Season 6B idea that he was somehow taken out of time for unremembered adventures just prior to his forced regeneration.) The history of Rassilon and his standing in Time Lord lore gets very muddled. It also stretches believability that yet another old Gallifrey friend of the Doctor turns evil and betrays him.
But there are some nice moments too like starting off with a great Hartnell scene which not only sets a tone for the story but allows the late actor to be included as part of the special. Pairing mouthy Tegan with the crotchety old First Doctor is kind of fun, and the Brigadier’s camaraderie with the Doctor always shines through. The breezy Second Doctor showing up spouting about having caught about the UNIT reunion in “tomorrow’s Times” is just great. It’s nice how they make the arrival of the Master a surprise by talking about “him” arriving just after we see the Doctor arrive so it’s a shock when it turns out they’ve brought the Master. The slick killer android stood out to me as a child too. (I always associated it with the cyborgs we see in Earthshock and I think they miss a trick not making it explicitly so.) While most of the story is rather straightforward, the Fifth Doctor gets some nice lines a times: “I am being diminished. Whittled away, piece by piece. A man is the sum of his memories, you know. A Time Lord even more so.”
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
By far the most captivating part of the story comes at the climax when we realize that Borusa, impetuously seeking immortality from Rassilon, is being turned into a living stone for eternity. As the other stone figures come to life, others who did the same now moaning in their eternal torment of existence, it’s quite frightening.
One wonders how the story would have turned out if Tom Baker had been more conciliatory and taken part. I’ve heard he would have been paired with Sarah Jane instead and the Third Doctor would have had either Jo Grant or more of Liz Shaw. (I definitely regret we get to see so little of her.)