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Dungeons and Doctors:

‘The Five Doctors’ and metafiction of the game

Andrew O’Day 

I’ve been thinking more about Robert Holmes’ ‘Carnival of Monsters’ (1973) as a metafiction of Doctor Who’s playful nature, aptly situated in the programme’s tenth anniversary season, immediately after the season opener ‘The Three Doctors’ (1972-73), which called attention to the fact that the Doctor is a ‘role’ which had at that point been ‘played’ by three different actors: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee. If we fast-forward to Doctor Who’s twentieth anniversary in 1983 we find Terrance Dicks’ 90 minute special ‘The Five Doctors’, adding Tom Baker (partly) and then-Doctor Peter Davison to the mix, with Richard Hurndall recast as the first Doctor. And it seems to me that this special is also quite suitably metafictional and postmodern. It was produced at a time when Doctor Who had become largely intratextual and postmodern. Whereas John Nathan-Turner’s producership had begun with Christopher H. Bidmead as script-editor (1980-81), who had fought against too many ‘monster of the week’ scenarios, Eric Saward quickly took over as script-editor and notably pastiched elements of previous monster narratives in his own written narratives in what Frederic Jameson (1997) would call a play with historical allusion (though not always complacently). ‘Earthshock’ (1982), for instance, takes elements of ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ (1975) (see Stevens and Moore), as well as having elements of ‘The Tenth Planet’ (1966) (see Chapman 2006: 147-8) and ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ (1967) such as when Cybermen are activated and burst out of containers; ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ (1984) literally resurrects Davros, referring to events of ‘Destiny of the Daleks’ (1979), as well as featuring the Thames side warehouse of ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ (1964), with the presence of slaves revolting at the start of episode one recalling both these narratives (see Stevens, undated); and ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ (1985) takes elements from many Cybermen (and non-Cybermen) narratives, including ‘Earthshock’ at the end of episode one and through the same incidental music by Malcolm Clarke. Indeed, it would seem that while ideas of bursting out of tombs and resurrections were a staple of the gothic genre in which Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes worked in the mid 1970s, here it is emblematic of the postmodernist approach adopted by Saward of bringing back the past; so the title ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ alludes to this as much as it fits in with the Biblical theme present in many of the Dalek narrative titles. And Saward brought back old villains and monsters in the series as a whole (see, for instance, not only the 20th anniversary season but also the 1985 22nd season). The location of the crypt, a place of the dead, where Omega, seeking new existence, lands in ‘Arc of Infinity’ (1983) and the idea of Sea Devils awakening from hibernation in ‘Warriors of the Deep’ (1984) are also key motifs of this postmodernist approach. James Chapman (2006) sees this period of the programme’s history as made up of a combination of originality (new writers and directors) and resurrections of the past. Chapman writes that ‘The recycling of ideas…inevitably affects long-running drama series’ (2006: 146), and, more recently, in an article on televisual memory, Amy Holdsworth has noted that ‘memories of television are written into serial narratives through practices of self-citation and self-referentiality’ which ‘often occur in anniversary episodes’ (2010: 141). Chapman reads such an anniversary special ‘The Five Doctors’, which has a pre-credit sequence of a clip of William Hartnell as the Doctor, and then, following the title sequence, begins with a shot of a newly designed TARDIS console, as a narrative looking to the future yet evoking memory of the past by actually bringing back characters. This makes it like ‘Mawdryn Undead’ (1983) which revolved around the notion of memory, and it not only sees the figurative emergence of Rassilon from his tomb but also the emergence of old Doctors and companions who, though they do not seek immortality in the plot, are both brought back from the past, and immortalised as fictional characters through the media of television. For, as Alec Charles (2007) suggests, television is characterised by ‘liveness’, and by being of the moment, and of having an archived quality, and indeed freezes time.  

      However, as Jim Leach (2009) has argued, Dicks’ ‘The Five Doctors’ is connected to role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons (1974), where the Doctors perform according to their roles. While Leach’s discussion is highly original and intriguing, this article will take his points further by looking at how ‘The Five Doctors’, as a game, is metafictional. It draws attention to its construction as a game in a postmodern sense and raises issues about the construction of the wider series. As Leach notes, the game motif also gave writer Terrance Dicks a clear structure on which to hang elements from the programme’s past (2009: 60). ‘The Five Doctors’ is also postmodern, then, highlighting, through the game motif, through the fact that this is a fiction, and through the notion of showing off monsters, the programme as a site of play. The article will conclude by looking at how the programme has generated merchandise of toys, miniatures, and role-playing games, and so sparks off play in those ways.  

      Leach’s aim, somewhat like Kim Newman’s (2005) before him, is to ‘illuminate the factors involved in the success of a particular phenomenon’ (in this case Doctor Who) ‘and more broadly in what makes popular culture popular’ (2009: 2). Leach’s approach is innovative and he has more time for post-1979 Who than did Newman. In Leach’s introduction he explains ‘I have…chosen to devote one section to each of the seven Doctors from the original series, with each section focusing on one key issue, which will be discussed in relation to the entire series but examined in detail through a close examination of a single story featuring the Doctor in question…I have opted for stories that suit the topic at hand’ (2009: 6). While Leach could have given a very different account of Who by choosing different narratives, his fifth section focuses on regeneration with the narrative chosen for analysis being ‘The Five Doctors’.  

      To give a bare-bones summary of the plot of ‘The Five Doctors’, a mysterious figure (who later is revealed to be Lord President Borusa) picks up the various Doctors and companions by a ‘time scoop’ and brings them to the Death Zone on the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey, where they must fight old enemies, such as the Daleks and Cybermen, and solve puzzles, in order to penetrate the Tower of Rassilon so that Borusa (as it transpires at the end) can claim the gift of immortality.  

      Leach’s discussion of ‘The Five Doctors’ is groundbreaking where he argues that writer Terrance Dicks ‘managed to impose structure on it by drawing on the emergent “game culture” that was itself indebted to Doctor Who’ (2009: 60). Leach notes that ‘The interaction between game culture and the series was already apparent in the development of Time Lord mythology in fourth Doctor stories such as The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time’ with ‘the Time Lords as rather pompous and fallible beings, practicing elaborate ceremonies and jostling for power’ and that ‘the show’s audience certainly included many who were attracted to the role playing games that had become extremely popular since the introduction of Dungeons and Dragons in 1974’ (2009: 60). As Leach rightly points out, ‘The game connection is made explicit in The Five Doctors’ (2009: 61). In the DVD Special Edition commentary, Dicks noted that the motif of a chess game with chess pieces fell into place, but Leach’s discussion highlights the importance of also seeing a connection with role-playing games, though there are differences. 

      The motif of the playing board can be seen as the mysterious figure (later revealed to be Lord President Borusa) places figures of the Doctor and his companions on a table-top board of the Death Zone as he removes them from their normal environments and where the characters find themselves in the Zone. The scene when the fifth Doctor realises that he is being attacked is an important one to consider in relation to this notion. The fifth Doctor tells his companions Tegan and Turlough that he is being whittled away ‘piece by piece’. While he is referring to the fact that the other parts of his being, his other selves, are being attacked, the phrase ‘piece by piece’ is an important one since it has a double meaning and fits in with the game motif of the different pieces being taken out of time and placed on a ‘playing board’. There are panning shots of this board at a couple of stages in the narrative. 

      In the commentary to the televised version of the narrative, actor Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier) refers to the beautifully painted figures of the Doctor and his companions placed on this board as chess pieces, and we can here think of ‘chess variants’ and ‘themed chess’ like ‘Lord of the Rings chess’. These pieces may remind one now of Susan Moore’s 1983 resin Doctor Whofigures (each seen standing on a base like in ‘The Five Doctors’ in Howe and Blumberg 2003: 363-64, and seen in colour in unnamed 1984: 11). Moore was indeed commissioned to produce the play figures for ‘The Five Doctors’. The painted pieces have an artificial quality and they appear to be like figures of fictional characters of the type used in games. Here we can make a comparison between Lord President Borusa putting these figures on the board and playing a game using ‘real’ Doctors and author Terrance Dicks playing a game using the ‘fictional’ characters of the multiple Doctors and his companions. The narrative is to an extent then illusion-breaking, as in Patricia Waugh’s (1984) and Mark Currie’s (1995) discussions of metafiction, while still treating characters as ‘real’, such as when, for instance, towards the end of the narrative the fifth Doctor himself looks over these ‘game figures’. But while critics such as Currie write about surrogate authors and readers within narratives, they do not point to how a device such as there being game figures of characters within a narrative can be metafictional. When toys and game figures related to television programmes are usually discussed, they are seen as part of a postmodern culture of collecting, but in ‘The Five Doctors’ are postmodern in the sense that they are placed within the diegetic world of the narrative and reflect on the fictional status of the characters. Although these pieces resemble ‘chess variant’ pieces, there were also more metal-likeDungeons and Dragons miniatures, and indeed after ‘The Five Doctors’ Doctor Who miniatures, and it is best to see these figures as miniatures in a general sense pointing to the fictional construction of the narrative, and ‘The Five Doctors’ bears some resemblances to role-playing games. 

      Considering the topic of Doctor Who being a series where an authorial figure plays with ‘characters’, we may wonder who is in control of the game in ‘The Five Doctors’? Is it Lord President Borusa who, although not competing with other ‘players’, puts the Doctors on a playing board, and manipulates them so that he can get to Rassilon’s tomb and claim the prize of immortality? Is it Rassilon? Or is it indeed, as suggested above, writer Terrance Dicks, who is moving all these characters, who are, on one level, like ‘game figures’, around as it suits him? Is Lord President Borusa therefore representative of the real ‘author’? There is the oft-cited narrative of how writer Robert Holmes was originally approached to write the anniversary special, of how he set to work on it, but abandoned the project since he found it too difficult to incorporate the many elements into one adventure (see, for example, Howe and Walker 1998: 440). Lord President Borusa can therefore be seen very much as eventual writer Terrance Dicks’ double who brings all the diverse elements, the different pieces, onto a game-board (the Death Zone on Gallifrey) through the use of a time-scoop. This is similar to the Doctors being brought together by the Time Lords in ‘The Three Doctors’ (Howe and Walker 1998: 442), but there the idea of the game was not present.  

      As in role-playing games, the motif of the quest is prevalent in ‘The Five Doctors’ where the ‘real’ author figure Terrance Dicks sends his characters, who on one level are like ‘game figures’, on a voyage with Lord President Borusa putting the Doctors in the position where they are able to undertake this. Therefore, as in role-playing games, there is an end goal. In role-playing games, the quest is often to find a particular item of treasure and here Lord President Borusa, as outlined by Dicks, seeks immortality, promised by Rassilon. While Dicks reveals in the DVD commentary to the Special Edition that the idea of the Dark Tower came from Robert Browning’s poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ (1855), in which Roland seeks the Tower and must face various hardships along the way, but where what he finds at the Tower is never revealed, the notion of the quest in ‘The Five Doctors’ can still profitably be compared to role-playing games since the overall motif is of a playing-board. In ‘The Five Doctors’, ‘real’ author Terrance Dicks navigates the Doctors past obstacles such as monsters from the past.  

      Dicks brings the Doctors past obstacles on this quest based on the characterization of the various Doctors and their abilities. In role-playing games, participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization and their particular abilities. Characters, for instance, have ‘attributes’ (abilities common to all characters) and ‘skills’ (abilities specific to certain characters), which are known as ‘statistics’. These are often ranked on a numerical scale, and a dice is rolled to determine whether characters actions are successful (Mackay 2001: 7). It has, however, become more common for rulebooks to encourage gamemasters and players to exercise interpretive control during the game sessions (Mackay 2001: 7-8).  

      This raises the issue of roles. Does the device of regeneration, of having different actors playing their original part as the Doctor, underline that these are all quite literally roles? All drama, whether for the theatre or for film or television, involves actors cast in a part and performing these parts based on having learnt lines in a script, but the bringing together of different actors to have played the character of the Doctor at different times in the programme’s history underlines this. Furthermore, Leach notes, in keeping with above, that ‘As pawns in an unknown game, the Doctors perform in accordance with their different personas, underlining the way in which the device of regeneration’ is like ‘the shifting pleasures of role-playing within game culture’ (2009: 61). Indeed, as Leach further notes, ‘Each Doctor approaches the tower [of Rassilon] in an appropriate fashion: the forthright first Doctor goes through the front door, the more devious second Doctor uses an underground passage, while the athletic third Doctor uses a rope to reach the top’ (2009: 61). The mannerisms of the Doctors are also accurate: the first Doctor continually calls Tegan ‘child’, and addresses the fifth Doctor as ‘my boy’; and the third Doctor uses the phrase ‘I’ve reversed the polarity of the neutron flow’ from ‘The Sea Devils’ (1972) (Pixley 2002: 30) and addresses the Brigadier as ‘Lethbridge-Stewart’ and the fifth Doctor as ‘dear chap’. ‘The Five Doctors’, then, is intratextual, referring back to the roles of the different Doctors established in previous eras of the programme, just as indeed do the ‘roles’ of the companions (Susan typically twists her ankle in a helpless female role as in ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ episode one).  

      Interestingly enough, the presence of the Master also highlights the notion of roles strongly. The Master, dressed in black, fits the role of the stereotypical villain in the Doctor Whouniverse, in every sense, and is an evil renegade from Time Lord society. However, in ‘The Five Doctors’, the Master is sent for by the Time Lords to go to the Death Zone to ‘rescue the Doctor’. Therefore, his role is reversed, so much so that even he is astonished when he learns what the Time Lords wish him to do. The Master’s constructed role is so established that the third Doctor recognises this man dressed in black even though his facial appearance is different (Roger Delgado’s Master of the early 1970s has been replaced by Anthony Ainley’s) and both the third and fifth Doctors refuse to believe that the Master has come to help. As the fifth Doctor puts it, ‘Like Alice, I try to believe five impossible things before breakfast’. However, although the Master is not put on the playing board in his usual role as stereotypical villain, even he ultimately reverts to form. 

      This notion of roles ties in with role-playing games, to an extent, since, as Daniel Mackay (2001: 6) notes, role playing games are a performance art, sometimes played on a tabletop where only the spoken component is acted, and sometimes live-action where players perform their characters physical actions and interact with one another in character, with either minimal or elaborate production values. Mackay writes: 

    …in the role-playing game the rules are but a framework that facilitates the performance of the players…Rules and game mechanics may make the arbitration of a session either satisfyingly graceful or frustratingly confusing, but it is the performance of the session that brings the game to life (2001: 2)  

As Mackay makes clear, ‘players’ pretend to be the characters they have chosen. However, rather than seeing role-playing games as like scripted theatre plays with a ‘tight, verbal narrative’, it is best to see them as like types of improvisational theatre made up as the players go along and communal (Mackay 2001: 49). Although in ‘The Five Doctors’ Borusa as ‘player’ does not act out the roles of the Doctor himself, since the Doctors are treated as ‘real’ in the context of the narrative, it is tempting to see Terrance Dicks as ‘player’ (though not competing with others) giving the fictional character of the Doctors, companions, and ultimately the Master, words and actions in keeping with their roles. But while the Doctor will, as he puts it to Sarah Jane, do what he always does, ‘improvise’, a carefully shaped script, in television as in theatre, has been written. 

      The idea raised here of ‘roles’ is often to be found in discussions of, what has become known as, ‘metatheatre’ or ‘metadrama’ (for the first use of the term ‘metatheatre’ see Abel 1963). As Mark Ringer has noted, initially metadramatic criticism was linked with Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists and with twentieth-century drama (1998: 11), and the term ‘”Metatheater” or “Metadrama” means drama within drama as well as drama about drama’ (1998: 7). While Anne Righter (1962) and James Calderwood set the tone for the metatheatrical approach to Shakespeare, looking, for example, at his use of theatrical metaphors and the way in which theatrical self-consciousness blurred the distinction between play and reality (see Ringer 1998: 12-13), it is Richard Hornby’s (1986) classification of six types of metatheatre that is most useful here. For Hornby, metatheatre where ‘the subject of a play turns out to be, in some sense, drama itself’ (Ringer 1998: 13) involves not only direct self-reference and literary and real-life reference but also drama that makes perception its theme (here we may think ofDoctor Who narratives such as ‘Carnival of Monsters’ and ‘Castrovalva’ (1982) as television equivalents), the play-within-the-play, ceremonies within the play, and crucially role-playing-within-the-role. Ringer explains that such ‘role-playing-within-the role’ is where ‘a character becomes an “internal actor”, a doubly theatrical figure enacting a deceptive role as part of the “actual” role’ (1998: 8). For Ringer ‘Characters who play roles within their roles can be interpreted as commenting upon the phenomenon of all role playing within the theater’, just as the play-within-the-play device, seen in Shakespearean drama like Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, comprises ‘playwright/directors-within-the-play’, and where ‘“internal audiences” or audiences within-the-play’ gets ‘the theatre audience to view the play’s actions through their eyes’ (as was also often the case with the chorus in Greek drama and as noted by fans can be seen in aDoctor Who narrative like ‘Vengeance on Varos’ (1985)) (1998: 8-9). Bruce Wilshire (1982) sees theatre as ‘primarily concerned with the process of “standing in”’ and ‘casts light upon the metatheatrical themes of role-playing, recognition, and masking’ (Ringer 1998: 14). Such role-playing, argues Ringer, can also be found in Ancient Greek Drama where self-references are more oblique but where there are also ruptures of the dramatic illusion including addresses to the audience (1998: 15-16). However, Hornby’s and Ringer’s idea of ‘role-playing-within-the-role’ is more what we find in a Doctor Who narrative like ‘Castrovalva’ where the Master literally takes on the role of the character of Portreeve in a fictional world within the narrative. By contrast, in ‘The Five Doctors’ there are no explicit references to the fact that the Doctors and other characters are roles, and characters do not role-play within their usual roles in the way suggested by Hornby and Ringer. Rather, the illusion is broken by the fact that, as noted above, on one level, this is like a game as there are ‘game figures’ of the fictional characters of the Doctors and the companions and of the Master. Moving from that image to seeing a connection between ‘The Five Doctors’ and role-playing games in some ways (even if not in all ways) is useful since this points to the construction of roles in the programme. 

      Moreover, towards the end of ‘The Five Doctors’, Lord President Borusa in his games room, dressed in a black robe with a coronet on his head, seems like a dark role-player. When Borusa arrives with the fifth Doctor in the Tomb of Rassilon, there is again the idea of Borusa as ‘player’, and Dicks’ surrogate, and the Doctors and their companions as figures in this game. Borusa orders the companions not to speak or move and they become frozen-like. As Dicks reveals in the DVD Special Edition commentary, this was a convenient way of not having to write dialogue for all the companions at this point, but it also fits in with the game motif. 

      But at the same time as becoming identified with Lord President Borusa, does real author Terrance Dicks not become identified with Rassilon at the end of the narrative who has set up this challenge as a type of ‘gamemaster’? Earlier Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor states ‘Oh dear. We could be playing the game of Rassilon at this very moment’. And later the voice of Rassilon is heard in the Dark Tower stating ‘This is the game of Rassilon’. When Rassilon appears, his presence is indicated simply by a face and voice, but over his face, partly set against a black background, red, green, and blue lights shine. This has the effect both of making Rassilon appear ghostly (see Pixley 2002: 30) and like a supernatural being. Although we do not know this at first, it is Rassilon who has set up the scenario where one must overcome obstacles and penetrate the Tomb in order to claim immortality. There is a twist on the ending to role-playing games since in this case, we see that ‘to lose is to win and he who wins shall lose’ since immortality turns out not to be a blessing but a curse, and, after the First Doctor deciphers the meaning of this proverb and tells Rassilon that Lord President Borusa should be given the immortality he seeks, Borusa’s face is incorporated into a frieze around Rassilon’s tomb. Therefore, as in all Doctor Who narratives, the ‘real’ author becomes identified with the side of good and with the Doctor. 

      For in considering the connections between ‘The Five Doctors’ and role-playing games, one might note, for instance, that, in Dungeons and Dragons, the Dragon Master, or, in other role playing games, the Gamemaster often determines the overall original ‘story’ of the game, though in some cases the gamemaster may use an already published script which comes with maps and history. The gamesmaster typically describes a vivid setting and acts as arbiter in addition to voicing the non-player roles (Mackay 2001: 6). Mackay (2001: 5-6) cites Edward S. Bolme’s description of the gamemaster as follows: 

    The gamemaster’s job is akin to that of a director. The gamemaster takes care of the scenes, coordinates the movements of the villains and extras, and manages the plot line of the story…The players are entirely dependent on the gamemaster for their knowledge of their situation. It’s the gamemaster’s job to provide them with the data they need to build a picture of where their characters are. 

Mackay states that ‘The characters live within a fictional world that the gamemaster creates’ (2001: 5) and sums up: ‘The gamemaster is akin to a play’s director, a novel’s author…a legend’s storyteller…a sporting event’s referee’ (2001: 6). Certainly in ‘The Five Doctors’, Terrance Dicks, through Rassilon, provides Borusa as ‘player’ with his plotline, and his reason for moving the character of the Doctors into the Death Zone. For Doctor Who is similarly a fictional narrative form where an author carefully structures his material. And, if Terrance Dicks, as gamesmaster, is following any rule book, it is the rule book of the overall series Doctor Who which determines what is possible. 

      The connection between ‘The Five Doctors’ and role-playing games is also important at the level of genre. Dungeons and Dragons involved what we would traditionally think of as fantasy adventures. Mackay traces the history of  role-playing games as originating from nineteenth-century war gaming, which led in the late 1960s to Dave Wesely being interested in multi-player games and one of his players Dave Arneson being interested in medieval wargaming where players controlled individual characters rather than armies, ‘Set in a world of knights, cavaliers, castles, and feuding kings’ (2001: 13-14). A fantastic element was added to this medieval setting, influenced by J.R.R. Tolkein’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1954) (Mackay 2001: 14-15). In the 1980s the role-playing community was drawn from war gamers and science fiction/fantasy fans, which had their own subculture of conventions (Mackay 2001: 16). Indeed, role-playing games had contributed to films like Star Wars (1977) and the fantasy films that emerged in the early 1980s (Mackay 2001: 21-22). In his original 1960s outline for what became Doctor Who, C.E. Webber states that the danger with Doctor Who is in ‘science fiction or fairy tale labelling’ since the programme could be both (Gillatt 1998: 12). In ‘The Five Doctors’, the Doctors and their companions are brought to the Death Zone on Gallifrey by a time-scoop (an element of science fiction), and must face science fiction monsters. However, the quest to the Dark Tower, the prize of immortality, the presence of a mythological super-being from the dark times (Rassilon), and symbols such as the Coronet of Rassilon, and the Ring of Rassilon, which one puts on to gain immortality, are elements associated with what we would traditionally call fantasy.   

      Although most Doctor Who narratives do not make the idea of a game explicit, this reading of ‘The Five Doctors’ illuminates some of the notions that make the programme work, meaning that the metafiction reflects on the overall series. In all Doctor Who narratives, writers play with fictional characters. Doctor Who is a series of serials which concerns the alien Doctor travelling in his time and space machine, the TARDIS (an acronym for Time And Relative Dimension In Space) and therefore the rules of narratives see him brought by a ‘real’ authorial figure into a time and space with each new serial. This was slightly complicated during a lot of the Jon Pertwee era of the early 1970s where the Doctor was exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, only being sent by them to different planets occasionally, against his will, to ‘fix’ situations.  But present day Earth was still a time and space utilised by writers. Therefore, Lord President Borusa’s bringing the Doctors into a time and space (the Death Zone on Gallifrey) reflects on this aspect of the programme. So Dicks is doing what the ‘real’ authors of many Doctor Who narratives do, moving fictional characters into new environments. Moreover, writers in the programme generally determine the actions of the Doctors based on the characterization of the various Doctors and their abilities, so treat this as a role, as indeed they do with companions and the Master. Furthermore, the motif of the quest was present in other Doctor Who serials, most explicitly in the 1978 ‘Key to Time’ season, produced by Graham Williams. Composed of six narratives, the super-being, the White Guardian, sent the Doctor on a quest for the six pieces of the Key to Time, which would restore balance to the universe, with each piece being found in each of the six narratives. The Doctor therefore had an end goal but had to overcome obstacles. An intratextual example of an ‘obstacle’ that the Doctor must overcome in ‘The Five Doctors’ is indeed when the First Doctor finds that the chess board located at the entrance to the Tomb of Rassilon is a death-trap by throwing coins onto the different squares and where the Cybermen are subsequently electrocuted. This echoes the third Doctor’s quest through the City of the Exxilons in ‘Death to the Daleks’ (1974) where the Daleks are similarly destroyed (Pixley 2002: 30). But the idea that is most evident through the game motif in ‘The Five Doctors’ is exactly that: that whether a role-playing game or a game in a more general sense, Doctor Who is largely a programme of play. 

      The game motif in ‘The Five Doctors’ was most important in giving writer Terrance Dicks a structure for introducing the Doctors and their companions and a selection of old monsters. This also had to be a structure which would enable him to pair different Doctors and companions as some actors and actresses proved unavailable or dropped out (Howe and Walker 1998: 442). So ‘The Five Doctors’ shows all these elements from the past interacting, with there being many intratextual references, while telling a mystery narrative of who controls the game. These elements from the past, as we have seen, can be thought of as fictional elements, since there are figures of fictional characters of the type found in games placed on the playing board. Not only that but, although dead, the fact that ‘The Five Doctors’ opens with a pre-credit sequence of William Hartnell from ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ has the effect of being on show. Likewise, when fourth Doctor Tom Baker declined to appear in the special, the use of clips showing his Doctor and Romana from the untransmitted narrative ‘Shada’ (1979) has this effect. On top of that, although K9 serves no plot function, his appearance with Sarah Jane near the start of the narrative has this effect. And the presence of Caroline John (Liz Shaw), Richard Franklin (Mike Yates), Frazer Hines (Jamie) and Wendy Padbury (Zoe) in cameos is important for the same reasons. Rather than being ghosts, these companions are phantoms, illusions of the mind, but, like ghosts, they are echoes of the past. 

      The monsters in ‘The Five Doctors’ are also on display, here mainly without any deep motivation, much as was the dinosaur which rose from the sea in ‘Carnival of Monsters’, showing the importance of the monster as a figure of play. The first monster that is encountered is a Dalek which pursues the first Doctor and Susan through a corridor, much like the metallic city in the first Dalek narrative ‘The Daleks’ (1964). Not only do we see distorted reflections of the Doctor and Susan on the walls, but we also see shadows of the Dalek on another wall, much like in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (1975). Moreover, when the Dalek destroys itself by firing its energy weapon at the wall causing the beam to bounce back, the inside of the Dalek is partially revealed. The Dalek is on visual display throughout and has no motivation but to exterminate the Doctor and Susan. What we are therefore provided with is a stereotypical Doctor Who ‘corridor scene’, accompanied by lively music, without any of the plot of regular Who narratives. We are not even given any bearings as to where this ‘corridor’ is in relation to the rest of the landscape of the Death Zone; it is just present as a set-piece from which one can see the Dark Tower. Indeed, as the DVD Production Notes reveal, originally the Autons from ‘Spearhead from Space’ (1970) and ‘Terror of the Autons’ (1971) were also to have appeared attacking Sarah Jane before her being rescued by the third Doctor, an idea dropped for budgetary reasons, but that would have raised the question of what shop windows had been doing in the Death Zone and have been another set piece just to show-off a monster. In the final televised version, troops of Cybermen also feature heavily and once again are on display, as they are, for instance, massacred one by one by a Raston Warrior Robot, who, for example, graphically disembodies one of their heads, with accompanying music, and are later slaughtered by laser beams as they traverse a chess board. Furthermore, we are told that the Yeti which menaces the second Doctor and the Brigadier ‘must have been left over from the games’. Certainly, there is no suggestion that it is being controlled by the Great Intelligence of the Patrick Troughton narratives ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ (1967) and ‘The Web of Fear’ (1968), so it could just as well have been any wild animal. But the second Doctor’s cry ‘It’s a Yeti!’ creates nostalgia in the television viewer. While ‘The Five Doctors’ largely puts monsters on display without their having the scheme found in many of the programme’s narratives, it still reflects in a postmodern sense upon the play associated with them in other narratives. 

      The programme has also generated toys (often of monsters), miniatures, and role-playing games showing how it leads to play. Jonathan Bignell (2007), for example, has already discussed the way in which children, who used to play at being Daleks, played with Dalek toys which were released as part of ‘Dalek-mania’ (an extensive list of these toys from the 1960s to the early 2000s is provided by Howe and Blumberg 2003: 474-96). Following John Panton (2006) and Lincoln Geraghty (2006) who discuss the social meanings of playing with Star Wars merchandise, Bignell (2007) has commented on the social meanings of children playing with Daleks. Bignell, for example, notes that children may identify with the Daleks’ ‘otherness’ while desiring the Doctor’s rationality and control, and also that possessing a toy Dalek may tame the bleak outlook of television narratives. What is important here are the connections between play in television such as Doctor Who and play around the programme by children. The connection between television fictions and children’s games has, for instance, been drawn out by Stephen Kline who (quoted in Panton 2006: 199) writes: 

    The linguistic and cognitive skills involved in constructing narrative in play are precisely those that children need to understand television and to transfer its tales to their play. In one sense, there is evidence of a potential new complexity in play: the child is the playwright devising a script, a director staging the dramatic event, and the actor making appropriate voices, gestures and noises – all at the same time (1993: 339)   

      We have seen how the pieces in ‘The Five Doctors’ are like chess variant pieces and indeed a Doctor Who Chess Set was released in 1992 (Howe and Blumberg 2003: 274-75). But, as was also the case with Star Trek, the Doctor Who programme triggered off its own role-playing game (The Doctor Who Role Playing Game, 1985) (Howe and Blumberg 2003: 294). Published by FASA in three editions, the game saw the player take on roles, either like the Doctor and his companions or as agents of the Celestial Intervention Agency, to prevent the threats posed by variousDoctor Who enemies. Contained within the different versions of the game box were supplements for the game which provided details about the Daleks (The Daleks and The Dalek Problem), the Cybermen (The Cybermen and Cyber Files: CIA Special Report) and the Master (The Master and The Master: CIA File Extracts), as well separately published adventures (The Iytean Menace, The Lords of Destiny, Countdown, The Hartlewick Horror, The Legions of Death, City of Gold, The Warrior’s Code) (Howe and Blumberg 2003: 295-97). There was additionally a set of three rule books and a pamphlet for players and one for game masters (Howe and Blumberg 2003: 294).  

      In the mid-1980s Citadel Miniatures, a subsidiary of Games Workshop, created a series of miniatures, co-branded with FASA, to be sold in conjunction with this Doctor Who Role Playing Game (can be seen in Howe and Blumberg 2003: 326). The Citadel range and the FASA range included a set of miniatures of the first five Doctors, of companions, including the Brigadier, Sarah Jane and Turlough, and enemies such as the Master, as well as Daleks and Cybermen, Ice Warriors and Sea Devils, and figures such as Time Lords and UNIT troopers (Howe and Blumberg 2003: 326-30).  

      Harlequin Miniatures released the table-top game Invasion Earth in the late 1990s where the player would lead Daleks, Cybermen, humans, Doctors and companions into battle ( ). Accompanying this game were many metal miniatures ( produced by Harlequin Miniatures (see Howe and Blumberg 2003: 337). There were also earlier miniatures in the mid-1980s by Fine Art Castings, which Christopher Clough of BBC Merchandising stated in 1984 would as ‘white metal figures’ be ‘like those Dungeons and Dragons ones’ (unnamed 1984: 10; also see Johnson 2004: 23). There have also been miniatures and larger models by Media Collectables, Alector UK, Dapol, Product Enterprises, Sevans Models, and Comet Miniatures (Howe and Blumberg 2003: 279-81, 359-66). 

      The Doctor Who Miniatures Game, meanwhile, is an unofficial non-profit making game, played on a tabletop, contains a rule-book, scenarios ranging from the frozen Antarctic to the far future Earth, and stats for different models that one plays with ( These models include the Doctor and his companions, UNIT, Time Lords, and villains and monsters, including The Master (  

      This article, then, has drawn out the similarities between ‘The Five Doctors’ and games, including role-playing ones, where the metafictional aspect of the narrative is highlighted where Dicks moves his characters around on an obstacle-filled quest, and where Doctors, for instance, perform in accordance with their roles. Like other metafictional Doctor Who narratives such as ‘Carnival of Monsters’, ‘The Five Doctors’ mixes the fictional and the real. The notion of a game highlights the programme’s fictional nature. Indeed, the image of the miniatures of Doctor Whocharacters on Borusa’s ‘playing board’ bears similarities with the image of the miniature TARDIS, taken from the mini-Scope, at the beginning of the second episode of ‘Carnival of Monsters’. Both draw attention to the programme’s fictional status. But in keeping with the programme’s rules, just as in ‘Carnival of Monsters’ characters such as the Doctor and his companion were treated as ‘real’ within the narrative, in ‘The Five Doctors’ too, the Doctors and companions, though put in position by Borusa, are treated as ‘real’ figures with free-will who are aware that they are being manipulated in a game and who uncover the truth. ‘The Five Doctors’ is postmodern and we can see various ideas which work across the series as a whole. But most importantly through the game motif, we see reflection on the nature of play in the programme as a whole, where in another postmodern sense the Doctors and companions (presented on one level as ‘game figures’) and monsters, are put on show. Also the programme leads to play as seen by the Doctor Who role-playing games and toys. Were we to take this notion further and bring it up-to-date, we could consider the downloadable interactive games associated with the new BBC Wales series of Doctor Who. But one thing is certain: in reflecting on the playful nature of the programme, ’The Five Doctors’, like ‘Carnival of Monsters’, illustrates John Corner’s (1999), Graeme Burton’s (2000), Bernadette Casey et al’s (2002), and Bignell’s (2003) assertions that television is largely a source of pleasure. 


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Text © Andrew O'Day and used with his kind permission. This page was compiled by Tim Harris.

This page was first published to the internet Sunday 21st November 2010.