Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Fifth Doctor

The hallmark of each and every regeneration is that Doctor Who got a makeover—a different Doctor, often different companions, a change in tone, and a change in the type of stories told. This was certainly the case from the Fourth Doctor to the Fifth Doctor. Where Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor was bohemian, brooding, and alien, yet also whimsical and charming, the Fifth Doctor was empathetic, trusting—often too trusting, and possessed a vulnerability not seen in the Doctor before. The choice of casting was a marked difference too. Where Tom Baker had been a relative unknown, Peter Davison was a household name, having played the role of Tristan Farnon in the popular television version of James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small, which bought a lot of new fans to Doctor Who. Whilst the Fifth Doctor inherited most of his companions from the Fourth Doctor, he actually traveled with a greater number of them, typically three at any one time. More time was given to the companions too, their stories driving the show rather than the Doctor’s, though this was not always popular as one or two of the companions were not liked. Lastly, where the Fourth Doctor’s adventure had involved humour, horror, and pastiches such as The Brain of Morbius and The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the adventures of the Fifth Doctor were primarily Science Fiction stories, many of which involved returning villains.

Thus is set the stage for The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook, the fifth entry in Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of the series’ fiftieth anniversary for the Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game. Where The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook had understandedably been the largest in the series to date, having had to cover some forty stories, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook only has to cover half that number, so is a shorter book by far, much like the earlier sourcebooks for the Second Doctor and Third Doctor.

Yet from the very start, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook seems somewhat lacking… The very subject matter of the first chapter, ‘Playing in the Fifth Doctor’s Era’ merits two pages. Given the radical switch in tone and type of story in the Fifth Doctor's period, this seems barely adequate. Instead, bulk of the chapter is devoted to the Doctor, his TARDIS, and his companions. The latter of course does make sense—the Fifth Doctor inherited three of his companions from the Fourth Doctor and there was not really sufficient room to detail them in The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook, so it is understandable that they are here given, solid write-ups. Including their character sheets, all of them are given a page each and deservedly so given how much the companions drive the narrative during this period.

Where previous supplements in the series have looked at particular rules suited to running a campaign during their respective periods, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook forgoes this except for a mechanical means of handling the Black Guardian. Using this the players have free access to a pile of Story Points, but when a player uses one, he also acquires a Black Guardian point and when appropriate the GM as the Black Guardian can collect them to take control of the effect of the player’s die rolls. It is a simple, suitably double-edged mechanic. To be fair, beyond this, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook really does not need anything more in the way of mechanics, so unlike previous books in the series, there are no new Traits.

Perhaps the oddest omission from The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook is any discussion of recurring villains. After all, the Master returned again and again in the Fifth Doctor’s adventures, as did both the Black Guardian and the White Guardian. Plus, old foes such as the Cybermen, the Daleks, Sea Devils, and Silurians all returned. So where is the guide to these recurring monsters and villains? Certainly the Master, who appeared in four of the Fifth Doctor’s adventures deserves an entry in the index, let alone a page or two of his own?

All of this is done in just eleven pages, just over five percent of the book. So what of the remaining ninety or so percent? Well, it is devoted to detailing each and every one of the Fifth Doctor’s stories, from Castrovalva to The Caves of Androzani. Of course, it begins with the former, Castrovalva, a direct sequel to the Fourth Doctor’s last story, Logopolis. The Fifth Doctor spends much of the story ill, recovering from his regeneration and oft times seems ineffectual, and to be honest, this sort of sets the tone for the stories to come. Now in most of the stories—there being two very notable exceptions—the Doctor does triumph, he does overcome adversity, he does deal with the threat, and so on. Yet everything seems more difficult for him, perhaps because he has to contend not only problems from without, but also problems from within. For throughout much of the Fifth Doctor’s era, the TARDIS was not home to a happy family—in other words, the Doctor’s companions were against him. The unpopular Adric was a stroppy teenager who wanted to be with the Doctor, Tegan was a stroppy Australian who did not want to be with the Doctor, and Turlough ‘wanted’ to kill the Doctor. So the Doctor had his problems and he was not always good at dealing with them.

Much of this is reflected in the stories, like Adric being difficult in Earthshock, Tegan’s efforts to get back to Earth in Timeflight, and Turlough in just about every story he was in. Which made for some dramatic stories, such as Earthshock and some less memorable stories such as Timeflight or The King’s Demons. Now this is beginning to read as if a judgement is being made on the Fifth Doctor’s stories when it should be a review of The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook. The problem is that the sourcebook should be a reflection of the stories it is telling and so it is. Yet The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook exacerbates this reflection of the stories in their retelling, often their over-telling. The write-ups of the twenty stories of the Fifth Doctor’s era vary widely in length, from the two or so pages of The Awakening and Frontios to the almost seven pages of 
Enlightenment! The majority of them are some four to six pages in length.

There can be no doubt that these write-ups are too long, but the treatment of the supporting material—the notes on Continuity, Running the Adventure, Further Adventures, and stats for major devices and NPCs—feels out of proportion with the length of the write-ups. So The Awakening and Frontios are both given a two-page write-up, but three pages of supporting material; The Five Doctors is given a three-page write-up, but five pages of supporting material; Mawdryn Undead is given a six-page write-up, but two pages of supporting material; and Enlightenment is given all but a seven-page write-up, but two pages of supporting material. Of course the supporting material is always going to vary from one story to another; after all, it has to do with the needs of the GM and the RPG. Yet there are too many long write-ups accompanied by too short a section of supporting material. The supporting material itself is decent enough, it is the write-ups that are the problem.

Physically, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook is well presented. On a purely writing basis, the book needs a further slight edit, but in terms of the content it needs a longer edit. Too many of the story write-ups are unnecessarily long and unnecessarily detailed, when there could have more supporting material given in the first chapter, ‘Playing in the Fifth Doctor’s Era’. What actual supporting material there is, either in the first chapter or given for each story, is decent enough, but ultimately, this information cannot save The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook from feeling flaccid in places and underwhelming overall.