Friday 5 November 2021

The Five Faces of Doctor Who at 40

40 years ago, The Five Faces of Doctor Who began on a chilly November night! Coincidentally, mum and dad bought our first-ever Panasonic VCR, which I promptly set up to record the fabled retrospective season.

This was only a few months after the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), my Doctor, had regenerated into the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), ruining Saturday teatime forever.


With the 6-part Doctor Who: Flux currently on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and BBC America, Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, looks back to a time before BritBox when my parents spent a small fortune on a VHS recorder and tapes.

Guest post by Nick Smith

Life was different in the early ‘80s. There were no blogs or vlogs. No lamb and mint-flavoured crisps. No Prom Night approbation for sci-fi telly. And worst of all, no official videos of old Doctor Who stories.

Thanks to a battered copy of The Making of Doctor Who and some cherished Target novelisations, I had an inkling of the show’s past. But as far the general public was concerned, Tom Baker was the Doctor. He had been for a record-setting seven years - an eternity in TV terms. His face was on annuals, jigsaw puzzles, comics and toys.

Though it’s hard to fathom now, since the Doctor’s had more incarnations than you could comfortably fit in a phone booth, 40 years ago Tom had made such an indelible mark on the role that he was indelibly knit with the witty time-flitter.

When Peter Davison was announced as the Fifth Doctor, he was best known as another fictional character, Tristan Farnon. A frisky, baby-faced troublemaker, Tristan was my favourite character in All Creatures Great and Small and I presumed Davison would bring the same personality to the TARDIS.

He was heralded as the youngest actor thus far to play the Doctor, strengthening his relatability with young viewers like myself. Yet it did not escape my attention that older, some would say wiser, heads were fixated on Four.

To take away the impending ache of being Bakerless, we needed a reminder of a pre-Tom TARDIS. It came in the form of The Five Faces of Doctor Who, a season of reruns commencing in November 1981. Then-producer John Nathan-Turner (aka JNT) chose a fantastic selection of stories, some obvious, others inspired.

The resulting sample of classic and new Who served as a powerful introduction to the show’s early years, instrumental in making me the fan I am today. It was a televisual mixtape borne of a passion for a program that was still in its teens, looking forward to its 20th anniversary celebrations.

The season opened with An Unearthly Child, a mysterious, atmospheric story that introduced the First Doctor (William Hartnell) and his granddaughter, Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford). The misty black and white opening titles and the eerie theme tune hooked me immediately.

Beyond the introductory episode, there was so much to enjoy in 100,000 BC: the captivating cavemen with their distinct way of seeing the world, brought to vivid life by writer Anthony Coburn; the bleak landscape; and the sense of vulnerability, with the elderly Doctor getting kidnapped, the travellers trapped in a cave of skulls, and the brutal fight between Za and Kal.

More monochrome magic followed with a simpler, cosier, but equally entertaining story, The Krotons. I instantly loved Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor because he had the perfect balance of light-hearted curiosity and concern about the dangerous situations he found himself in. Part One’s cliffhanger, where a serpentine probe waggles at him threateningly, managed to be both tense and comedic. While clunky, the Krotons were succinctly alien, with unusual voices and an iron grip on the Gonds. I’ve had a soft spot for those metal dorks ever since.

Another big chunk of this story’s charm came from its all-time-great TARDIS team. The Doctor was funny and fallible, Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury) was a know-it-all and Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) was a pragmatic foil for them both. Philip Madoc was excellent and scriptwriter Robert Holmes got his foot in the door of the Whoniverse with a traditional story that served as the foundation for his classics to come.

The season burst into colour with The Three Doctors. Two brought the banter as he met his successor; the mystery element at the beginning of the story had the appeal of an ITC adventure story; Time Lord lore was developed and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) took the TARDIS’ transcendental dimensions in his stride. The Doctors, Jo Grant (Katy Manning) and Sergeant Benton (John Levene) all gave endearing performances that made this tale a joy to watch, balanced with the dark tragedy of Stephen Thorne’s sympathetic bully, Omega.

While The Three Doctors captured the ethos of the UNIT family, Carnival of Monsters showed Jon Pertwee’s protagonist going out on an interstellar limb. It began with another mystery with an imaginative resolution, making use of set period pieces the Beeb does so well and space tech stuff too.

Robert Holmes had come a long way since The Krotons, writing effective dialogue for the Third Doctor and Jo, building aliens worlds that were brash on a budget, and introducing us to not one but two of his treasured double acts (Vorg and Shirna, Kalik and Orum). With all that, a villain hoist by his own petard, and Drashigs too, this was a story to cherish.

Logopolis existed in my recent memory and I’d really enjoyed the story first time around, with its inventive imagery. There was the enigmatic Watcher, standing in the distance; the Doctor and the Master shaking hands; the horrific shrinking of Aunt Vanessa and an occupied TARDIS. All this played out in an epic sweep of locations ranging from everyday England to the cerebellar streets of Logopolis and the towering Pharos Project. Best of all, the story hinged on mind-expanding ideas from Christopher Bidmead’s mighty mind.

Logopolis was a jewel in the 18th season’s crown. Anthony Ainsley’s Master was new and fresh, an energetic enemy for the Doctor, before the villain became a pale pantomime phantom of his former self in later years. Tom Baker received a satisfying send-off and we glimpsed the genial new face for the Doctor.

And that was the end - but the moment had been prepared for. Castrovalva would follow soon after, heralding a shiny new era for the show. The Five Faces of Doctor Who held us over, the finest season JNT never produced.

The first four Doctors were re-established with their wit and charm and confidence on display, and I couldn’t wait to see Peter Davison kick-start the character in his intro Escher adventure. He embodied a youthful optimism for the future, not just of the show but of the decade and my life to come. The possibilities were endless. Timeless.

Perhaps the success of The Five Faces of Doctor Who, a sporadic celebration of Who’s past, and recurring references to its history, was part of its downfall. The show would get caught in its own recursive occlusion of chases, escapes and self-referential nods to prior adventures. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1981, the past was a fantastic prologue to Davison’s neon-logoed, brand new bright-as-cricket-white wanderings.

Would the conceit work today? Absolutely! A similar, lengthier season would encourage new fans to get hooked on classic Doctor Who and it would warm the cockles of veterans like me. With the Sixtieth anniversary approaching, it’s time for The Thirteen Faces of Doctor Who.

Which stories would you choose? Let me know in the comments below.

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