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The multi-Doctor question

November 6th, 2009 (12:01 am)

One of those perpetual questions, whenever Doctor Who fans gather, is whether there should be another multi-Doctor story, nowadays usually involving some combination of McGann, Eccleston, Tennant and Smith. My reaction to this suggestion has always been no. This is largely because I view the two 1980s multi-Doctor stories as unsuccessful. In contrast to The Three Doctors, where the interaction between the Doctors is a detail in a story largely driven by the mystery of who or what is behind the Black Hole, in The Five Doctors there is an air of predictability about proceedings, with viewers learning early on that the story is set in the known quantity of Gallifrey (and it's as important that the script treats Gallifrey as a known quantity; there is no mystery to the Death Zone). I remember that most of the general Doctor Who-viewers among the twelve- and thirteen-year-olds in my year group back in 1983 told me they were giving it a miss as it would probably be a retread of The Three Doctors, one of the more widely-read Target novelizations. As the writer has acknowledged, the shopping list of old characters was really too much.

The Two Doctors is also disappointing. Badly-realised Sontaran masks aside, there is a lack of urgency in the performances which becomes the distinguishing mark of Peter Moffat's Doctor Who stories as his directorial career goes on. While there is a lot of merit in the script it's too flabby on screen, and becomes in the final part simply a series of situations in which Patrick Troughton gets to upstage the incumbent lead actor.

My judgement is open to question: perhaps it's that of a jaded old fan who was at a vulnerable age when the 1980s multi-Doctor stories went out, and whose appreciation of The Two Doctors will always be coloured with the memory of a clip of the TARDIS dematerializing appearing on the Six O'Clock News as Sue Lawley intoned "And the Time Lord's time is up. Doctor Who is to end after twenty-two years." So, perhaps I could concede that it might work. The script would need to be right, of course; and I don't think that it could accommodate any companions other than the one accompanying the then-current Doctor; part of the problem with The Five Doctors is that there is no single pole character to whom all the others relate, whereas in The Three Doctors the Pertwee Doctor is very much the central figure, and Troughton's Doctor acts substantially as his proxy even when he is subverting the third Doctor's UNIT lab environment. One could compare this to The Sound of Drums/Journey's End where the supporting characters are defined by their relations with the Doctor, as he is with them. So with a multi-Doctor story I'd want to have the one companion experience these different facets of the Doctor as expressed by the different lead actors.

Some emergent ideas: unlike in The Five Doctors, I'd want the Doctors to spend a good amount of screen time interacting with one another; otherwise there is little point. So the script would have to be very carefully constructed; and the relationships between the Doctors would have to have more to them than audience-pleasing 'schtick'. The Doctor would have to learn something about himself and the companion would have to learn more, perhaps, about the Doctor and the universe in which he travels. The Three Doctors, in a more plot-driven age, marked a dividing line in the separation of the third Doctor from his berth at UNIT; The Five Doctors had the potential to break the cosy relationship between the Doctor and the Time Lords, but it wasn't followed up on for some time.

This is still a dangerous route to take: unless there is a good reason for it there should really just be the Doctor as far as the audience are concerned, not the Doctors. It's not a scenario I'm particularly anxious to see on television. Nonetheless, I can see some potential in it.


Posted by: philmophlegm (philmophlegm)
Posted at: November 6th, 2009 09:15 am (UTC)

Do it without companions, otherwise there are just too many characters. That scene towards the end of Five Doctors where the Doctors discuss the important things while in the background, Tegan, Turlough, the Brigadier, Sarah Jane, Susan etc politely say hello to each other is quite embarrassing to watch.

Would be nice to see Paul McGann's Doctor again though.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: November 6th, 2009 10:07 am (UTC)

Exactly the scene of which I was thinking. The move to a dumb show in the background, and letting the camera dwell on it, was disappointing at the time of broadcast. In terms of The Three Doctors, I'd still like there to be an equivalent to Jo Grant (not that I am saying that Amy Pond and Jo Grant are likely to be the same character though of course they fufil comparable roles) in my putative multi-Doctor story, to offset the differences and similarities between the Doctors and act as the lynch-point for the programme's present in relation to the reimagined past brought into it.

Posted by: helflaed (helflaed)
Posted at: November 6th, 2009 01:14 pm (UTC)

The only real merit would be to see Eccleston, Tennant and Smith trying to make sure that McGann doesn't find out what is giong to happen to the Time Lords- properly done, it could be heartbreaking. It could even involve (possibly- depending on how the series goes) not letting it slip that Jenny exists and is still alive, or even what happens with River Song, not only to McGann, but within the later group.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: November 7th, 2009 01:03 am (UTC)

That's a very good point, which I hadn't thought of. The Three Doctors implied that for the purposes of the story the second and first Doctors have a working relationship with the Time Lords which is at variance with what is established in The War Games, and The Five Doctors suffers from the early 1980s tendency to set up character issues and then forget about them. I don't think they can be evaded so casually nowadays.

Posted by: calliope85 (calliope85)
Posted at: November 6th, 2009 01:55 pm (UTC)
8th doctor - wanderer in the fourth dime

I think I lose all claims to critical faculties when it comes to multiple Doctor stories - I genuinely love Three Doctors, Five Doctors, Two Doctors, Sirens of Time, 100 (which isn't a multiple-Doctor story under the meaning of the act but has Evelyn making Sixth jealous by commenting on how nice Fifth and Eighth seem, which is always good), even, god help me, Zagreus (in which Colin Baker gets to wear black velvet at last and Sophie Aldred is an anamatronic freedom-fighter squirrel.) They just give me an enormous feeling of fuzzy wellbeing.

Possibly it's just because I saw Five Doctors at such a tender age (I have the feeling it was the first story I bought on video, and that I bought it purely because it had more than one Doctor in and was therefore a good way of getting to know him), but I still love the ridiculous numbers of extraneous characters running around the place. I guess one can argue that having so many companions detracts from the Doctor(s), and that both they and the amount of narrative time given to the previous Doctors potentially displaces the focus of the story from the current Doctor (in a way the Three Doctors didn't, really, as you point out - it was always about Third), while also leading to scenes like the one in the tomb of Rassilon mentioned above where the companions have nothing to do but stand around and look pretty. But at the same time, that lack of focus was rather what I loved about it when I was coming to it for the first time, knowing very little about the program and its history, and not having a sense of either a 'current Doctor' (as this was post-1989) or 'my Doctor'. One of its strengths, I feel, is in showing that Doctor Who is a great sprawling universe, full of interesting people that you may not know but you *want* to know, even if they only get five minutes on screen; and that its these networks of relationships, between Doctor and companion, between companion and companion, and between the different incarnations of the Doctor, that are the heart of the programme's universe. I'd certainly not met more than about half of the side characters before, and had never seen any Hartnell or Pertwee, when I watched it; and so in many ways I found the slight lack of narrative focus on any particular Doctor rather pleasant, as it let me see the story as an ensemble piece, an introduction to the world and its inhabitants, rather than as a part of an ongoing series.

Interestingly, the multi-Doctor story which I think comes closest to your idea about having a single companion experience different facets of the Doctor is 'Zagreus' (which isn't exactly a multi-Doctor story, as IIRC the 'Doctors' are plucked from Eighth's mind by the TARDIS, and cast as characters in various historical projections which the TARDIS is using to try to communicate with Charley. Or something like that. It's all a bit weird really.) I feel it can be a risk, as it tends to make the companion central and the Doctor peripheral, something which has been one of my major difficulties with much of RTD!Who; it's something which I enjoy in fanfic or wider fandom (especially when the companion figure is someone like the Brigadier, who in many ways fulfils the role of companion-to-and-commentator-on-multi-Doctors anyway), but am somehow wary of on television. But then, I like Five Doctors, so my critical opinion is invalid :D

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: November 7th, 2009 01:53 am (UTC)
Argue mainly

But then, I like Five Doctors, so my critical opinion is invalid :D

:D Hardly - I think your interpretation is, like mine, shaped by the context in which you saw The Five Doctors, and it's just as valid a background. Its status is detached from the normal run of things anyway: the first freestanding special episode, marketed abroad I think (at least after its movie format premiere) as part of season twenty but broadcast in the UK six weeks before the start of season twenty-one, it's also the first new story broadcast in the UK after the news of Colin Baker's casting as the sixth Doctor had been announced. Furthermore, it's also the first story to have its world premiere outside the UK, as several PBS stations in the US showed it on 23 November; and even more oddly the novelization appeared in the bookshops a few weeks before broadcast, with hordes of people of all ages crowding round the children's shelves weighed down with lots of copies of the silver-foil cover. So more than any other Doctor Who story before it, it was a multi-platform media event at the time as much as it was a narrative. Perhaps purists (perhaps, also, including me) wanted to reclaim the narrative strand for 'the unfolding text', and found it wanting when really they were isolating only one aspect of the entire experience. I'm sure, too, that a multi-platform celebration of Doctor Who's place in British culture which I seem now to be arguing The Five Doctors might have been, could have been done better in 1983 than it was. Still, the Longleat 'celebration' in March that year (part of The Five Doctors experience, but perhaps more than was intended - the sets from the story were on display there, six months before broadcast, because BBC Enterprises wanted a set exhibition and only the sets from the story last produced could be reassembled within the project budget) and the rest of the publicity surrounding the twentieth anniversary as an event straddling fiction and reality helped establish the fan culture and fan economy which sustained Doctor Who between 1989 and 2005, and so RTDWho owes a lot to it.

Zagreus is one of the Big Finish stories I actually own, though I have only listened to it once, I think, and that a long time ago. I enjoyed most of it, as I recall, nd liked the TARDIS-Brigadier particularly.

Edited at 2009-11-07 01:53 am (UTC)

Posted by: Paul Gadzikowski (scarfman)
Posted at: November 6th, 2009 05:12 pm (UTC)

Saw you linked at who_daily.

I don't share all your opinions - The Two Doctors is my favorite Doctor Who story evar despite its flaws - but, having written one, I know how hard a multi-Doctor story is to get right. I agree with several points made by commenters above: It's be nice to see McGann again, and it'd be poignant to have the later Doctor(s) keeping the future from him.

(Actually I've always said that the annual "Doctor-lite" episodes ought to be flashbacks to previous incarnations, and that'd be a great way to get McGann more screentime, but now I'm off your subject.)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: November 7th, 2009 12:15 pm (UTC)

Hello! I think that having flashbacks to previous incarnations is out - the current Doctor has to be the current Doctor, certainly in the UK context, and having a week off for a predecessor to guest could be misinterpreted as a sign of lack of confidence rather than a lack of time and money. Not that I don't think it's an interesting idea with some appeal; and I remember seeing a tagline somewhere for what turned out to be the Big Finish/BBC 7 McGann series, and being split 50/50 between my wild assumption that the BBC had decided Doctor Who was so popular they needed two production units running, with different leads, and that while Tennant stories would run in the spring McGann stories would appear on television in the autumn/winter, and my more level-headed (if pessimistic) side which thought that this was a bad idea.