An unknown enemy attempts to use a time scoop to transport five Doctors to the Death Zone on Gallifrey. The First Doctor (played by Richard Hurndall because William Hartnell had died), the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee), and the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) are all captured. The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) is trapped in a Time Vortex along with his companion Romana (Lalla Ward). Accompanying the other Doctors are Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen), Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson). They meet some of their most implacable enemies in the Death Zone: Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti, and a Raston Warrior Robot that we have never seen before. The various Doctors lead their companions toward the Tower at the Tomb of Rassilon.
At the Citadel on Gallifrey, the High Council of the Time-Lords has detected this power at work and Lord President Borusa (Philp Latham) summons the Master (Anthony Ainley) to help, offering him new regenerations and a pardon if he succeeds. The Master agrees and is given a recall device by the Castellan (Paul Jerricho) and a copy of the High Council Seal for bona fides. The Master encounters the Third Doctor in the Death Zone, who dismisses him and takes the seal, believing it a forgery, and then the Fifth, as they are surrounded by Cybermen. The Master is knocked unconscious by the Cybermen and the Doctor finds the recall device. When the Master awakes, he makes a pact with the Cybermen, claiming to lead them to the Tower if they spare his life, but tricks them into one of the Death Zone traps.
As the other Doctors converge on the Tower, the Fifth Doctor works with the Council when he discovers that the recall device summons the Cybermen, showing that there is foul play at work in Gallifrey. The Castellan is found with the forbidden Black Scrolls of Rassilon, and he dies trying to escape a mind-probe. The Doctor discovers that Borusa is missing and finds him in a secret room with the time-scoop. Borusa confesses that he wants to be the President Eternal of Gallifrey and hoped the Doctors would disable the force-field over Rassilon’s Tomb so he could get his hands on Rassilon’s Ring and rule forever. He uses his Coronet of Rassilon to compel the Doctor to do his bidding. Meanwhile, the Master meets the First Doctor and Tegan and rids himself of the Cybermen.
The other Three Doctors and their companions have gotten to the Tomb Chamber, after bypassing the Yeti and the Raston Warrior Robot, as well as the phantoms of former companions Jamie (Fraser Hines), Zoe (Wendy Padbury), Liz Shaw (Caroline John), and Mike Yates (Richard Franklin). They find on the tomb: “To lose is to win and he who wins shall lose.” The Master arrives, but the companions tie him up and the Brigadier knocks him out. The Doctors disable the force-field to summon the TARDIS (reversing the polarity of the neutron flow) but this allows Borusa and the Fifth Doctor to arrive by Transmat. Borusa uses the Coronet to prevent the companions from interfering while he speaks to Rassilon. The image of Rassilon (Richard Matthews) appears and offers his ring to Borusa. The other Doctors try to stop him, but the First Doctor tells them to refrain. Borusa puts on the ring and turns to stone.
Rassilon frees the Fourth Doctor and Romana from the time-vortex and returns the Master to his own time. The Doctors refuse his offer of immortality. The First, Second, and Third Doctors, with their companions, return to their own times, leaving the Fifth Doctor, with Tegan and Turlough behind. Chancellor Flavia (Dinah Sheridan) arrives by Transmat with her guards and learns of Borusa’s end. She declares the Fifth Doctor Lord President. Legally, he cannot refuse the offer. As soon as Flavia returns to the Citadel, he buggers off with his companions in the TARDIS. Tegan asks him if he’s going to run from his people all his life in an old spaceship. He says: Why Not? That’s how he started out in the first place. This story has its flaws—it’s not exactly fast-paced--but it’s a hoot and a treasure-trove of fan-service. It appeared in a four-part serial version and a ninety-minute movie version. It was broadcast in the US first, on the precise 20th Anniversary of the show, but two days later in the UK for a charity night. The Death Zone dates back to the days when the Gallifreyans kidnapped aliens for sport. The more I hear about them the less I like them. You see a dying Dalek inside its destroyed life-support machine, Sarah Jane Smith is warned by K9 Mark III not to leave the house that day, but she ignores his advice, and there is a brand spanking new TARDIS console room. Carole Ann Ford almost didn’t appear as Susan, the First Doctor’s granddaughter, because the studio didn’t want to remind the audience that the Doctor had had sex. She screamed with hysterical laughter and refused to appear, but they quickly backed down. She’s my hero.
But Tom Baker behaved a little less heroically, in my opinion. It was the 20th Anniversary of the show that had made him a beloved figure all over the world and every other Doctor still alive showed up, but he didn’t want to be part of it. I’m sure the writers would have been happy to create a scene for him that, with his out-sized personality, would have been the brightest gem in the necklace—I can see him turning up at the last minute with a wry grin and saving the day to the cheers of the fans—but it wasn’t enough for him. Publicity photos even featured a Madame Tussaud’s wax figure of Tom Baker propped up among the other Doctors because he failed to show up at the photo shoot, just as the producer expected. He and Lalla Ward appeared in out-takes from the unfinished Shada story as he was trapped ignominiously in the time vortex, literally a footnote and sadly conspicuous by his absence.