The new approach, in the short term, is nostalgia: not “like Doctor Who used to be” as such, but rather incorporating lots of kisses to the past. The 20th anniversary can just about get away with this, but much of the challenge with this year is that it feels like it’s marking time. Through so many of this year’s stories there’s a wearying sense of the burden and the boredom of history and the curse of immortality: from Omega’s desperate need for a mortal existence, Mawdryn’s quest for death, the echoing void the Eternals try to fill with their games, and Rassilon’s reminder that “to win is to lose, and he who loses wins.” It’s not an inappropriate idea to explore for a show in its 20th year, but it is a curiously melancholy one. Immortality suggests stasis: unchanging, unending sameness: horribly illustrated by the petrified Time Lords around Rassilon’s tomb. As such, The Five Doctors, for all that it takes this era’s nostalgia to its natural climax, shows that change and renewal are preferable. It’s strange that the story that takes this nostalgia to its natural conclusion is the one keenest to shake it off, and get onto the next thing.
Bookending the anniversary with two Gallifrey stories makes a kind of sense, although it doesn’t help that Arc of Infinity is structurally a mess. There are two perfectly acceptable stories there, but the links between them are as botched as Omega’s bond with the Doctor. Tegan investigating the kidnap of her cousin and revealing an alien plot is one. The resurrection of Omega is another. In the previous decade, this might have been a two-plus-four parter – like The Invasion of Time. Here, we just get a mush of story which plays out without ever troubling itself to really articulate to the audience what’s at stake.
Boredom, as a theme, continues in the remarkable Snakedance – a story which, unlike its predecessor, is a lesson in how to structure. The Doctor fills in the Mara’s continuity at the same time as Ambril downloads the new history of the Sumaran Empire and the legend of the return. The story has the two on an inevitable collision course because the Doctor knows the Mara but not the culture it sprang from, and Ambril knows everything academically but has no insight into the truth. This is made clear in the “Six Faces of Delusion” – Ambril sees it only as an artefact that disproves the legend of the return until the Doctor interprets its real meaning. The Doctor is a true hero – even more so than any of his predecessors. When he says, “I must save Tegan, it was my fault” there are portents of his ultimate self-sacrifice on Androzani. Perhaps Adric’s death has affected him more than Time-Flight implied.
The very next episode introduces Turlough, and while the Black Guardian trilogy is partly the story of his redemption, it’s also the story of the Doctor’s. The end of Mawdryn Undead implicitly references Adric’s death in Earthshock: another race back to a ship about to explode in Earth’s orbit, to rescue a young male companion as the Doctor is urged on by Nyssa and Tegan – but this time with a positive conclusion. And the Doctor seems to view Turlough as his amends for Adric, hence his eagerness to take the untrustworthy boy on board the ship. In that context, what comes next has a real emotional resonance. Turlough’s role as “the new Adric” is made explicit at the beginning of Terminus with a scene in which he inherits his dead predecessor’s room and promptly decides to bin half of Adric’s stuff. And the trilogy ends in Enlightenment: a story that is ultimately about making the right choice and finding salvation, and is overflowing with beautiful ideas and images (the TARDIS being hidden inside the Doctor’s mind; the Black Guardian’s wistful yearning for chaos, the White Guardian’s reference to the echoing void of eternity, and “Enlightenment wasn’t the crystal. It was the choice”). The Doctor’s studied insouciance as he encounters the two most powerful beings in the cosmos is a transcendental moment, and it finishes on a glorious, redemptive note as Turlough, reconciled to the light at last, asks to go home. This would have been the perfect moment to end this season.
Sadly, The King’s Demons prolongs things for another week, and it’s another eight months before the main event: The Five Doctors. Its past Doctors are caricatures, of course – the first Doctor is grumpy but insightful, the second an anarchic tramp, the third a man of action and the fifth an incorruptible hero – but that just proves that the Doctor’s wisdom and ability comes from having been all of these things, rather than frozen in one state. Against him, the villains all have only one default setting. Hence we get the most Daleky ever Dalek, chanting “Exterminate!” and shooting indiscriminately, Cybermen mindlessly blowing the nearest things up, the Master reverting to petty villainy and the Time Lords succumbing to the corruption of power. I used to moan that this story was just a panto, spectacularly missing the point that the potted Doctors are exactly what the general viewers needed. And I must have overlooked that the final scene is the perfect way to end this story, this season, and even the last 20 years of the show. After showing us the limits of nostalgia, Terrance Dicks leads us to the natural conclusion that the series should be renewing itself again.
And it does – but perhaps not in the way anybody was expecting.