In the hearts of the “not-we”, Tom Baker and David Tennant are Doctor Who. They were the Doctor when the show was at the peak of popularity in the mid to late 70s and mid to late 00s. So it was rather exciting to hear that Big Finish was pairing up both Doctors for Out of Time – a fast, funny and occasionally quite moving story that should prove to be a strong hook to entice some new Big Finish listeners.
It would be easy to be cynical about Out of Time, to trot out some ill-informed reductive reasoning for the play’s existence – David Tennant’s only doing it because the theatres are closed and film and television production has stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic, Big Finish are only doing it because David Tennant and Tom Baker sell, multi-Doctor stories should only be used for special occasions etcetera etcetera. And yet, within the opening couple of minutes, any cynicism or apprehension very quickly fades, giving way to childlike glee as two Doctors interact with each other. And not any two Doctors – Tom Baker and David Tennant.
David Tennant himself puts it best when talking about how multi-Doctor stories can elicit this mixture of apprehension and elation: “…five Doctors didn’t really get together in the end but three Doctors and a man in a wig and some clips of Tom Baker all got together, and that was exciting enough.” He’s not wrong, and it’s something that’s not exclusive to The Five Doctors. William Hartnell isn’t really talking to Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton in The Three Doctors due to his own ill health. In The Two Doctors, Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton spend less than an episode’s worth of screen time together. And in The Day of the Doctor Christopher Eccleston is replaced by John Hurt playing a completely new incarnation, although that one really did work out rather nicely. Especially for Big Finish.
True to form, and due to a global pandemic, David Tennant and Tom Baker sadly didn’t share a studio for the recording of this particular multi-Doctor adventure. Not that you’d know it from the finished result, which is an audio so evocatively written and performed that if you close your eyes you can see the 4th and 10th Doctors running around, dodging Dalek weapon fire and arguing over who has or hasn’t the right. The story, slight though it is, finds both Doctors thrown together to repel an invasion of the Cathedral of Contemplation. Offering a safe space to the universe, it can open its doors anywhere across all of space and time, offering sanctuary to anyone who needs them. Of course, such technology is irresistible to a Dalek faction in the middle of a war (not that one, for once). Business as usual then.
Given such a tried and tested Doctor Who plot, the Cathedral, the Daleks and the supporting cast are merely set-dressing for the Tenth and Fourth Doctors to trade barbs, show off, and eventually mutually appreciate each other. At the end of the day, this is the story’s main selling point and it would be churlish to judge it too harshly for letting trifling matters such as plot get in the way of these two megastars. Writer Matt Fitton absolutely nails down the mannerisms of each Doctor and neither incarnation feels short-changed or revered over the other. There’s a pleasing push and pull to their relationship that feels like a proper insight into the character of the Doctor whilst the bickering and the jokes (none of which I’ll spoil here) playfully tease the actors as much as their characters whilst gleefully tiptoeing along a precipice of self-indulgence.
Where the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor settled into the roles of bickering brothers of similar ages – one hip and trendy, the other awkward and nerdy – the Tenth and Fourth Doctor relationship is a little harder to pin down. There’s the fond nostalgia of Time Crash, as the later Doctor watches his younger self leap into action. There’s also the concern from the younger self over where his eventual successor is heading, alongside a touch of intellectual existentialist horror which feels very Fourth Doctor.
At the end of the day, one Doctor, a pilot, a soldier and an Abbot in waiting could probably have repelled the Dalek invasion of the Cathedral of Contemplation quite easily. Adding another Doctor, however, allows us to confront the differing approaches of both the “classic” and “new” series Doctors head-on. Crucially though, Out of Time wouldn’t be as much fun with just one Doctor. This is the thing we sometimes forget when we worry about the ubiquity of multi-Doctor stories in spin-off media. When they’re done right, they’re so much fun. The Three Doctors is like a lovely, cosy evening spent with your favourite people. The Five Doctors is a big, messy party which you can’t quite piece together in your memories on the morning after. The Two Doctors isn’t much fun at all, so for metaphor’s sake let’s ignore that. The Day of the Doctor looks like it’s going to be a pretty miserable party after all no one wants to celebrate their darkest day, do they? And then, everyone shows up and things aren’t so dark after all and it’s exhilarating and celebratory and punch-the-air brilliant.
I’m not saying they should happen every week, or even every year and I do agree that they should be saved for special occasions. But listen, David Tennant and Tom Baker fighting Daleks together? That’s special enough for me.