“The Three Doctors” (season 10, episodes 1-4; originally aired 12/30/1972-1/20/1973)
On paper, “The Three Doctors” seems like it should be a lot better than it is. Kicking off the show’s 10th season, it celebrated Doctor Who’s anniversary by bringing together all three of the actors who’d played the mysterious traveler up to that point, and set them loose in an adventure together for the first time—one that lifted the veil on the history of his people, the Time Lords. It also advanced one of the series’ longest-running plot points when, in thanks for saving their bacon, the Time Lords lifted the last vestiges of his criminal conviction from season six’s “The War Games,” allowing him to travel freely through time and space on his own for the first time since the program had still been filmed in black-and-white.
And I did enjoy it when I first saw it as a kid in the 1980s more than I do now, so it’s good to remember that what works for an audience in one age range might misfire for an older one—but the best of Doctor Who, I think, works for all its fans across the board. “The Three Doctors” has its good points, but on the whole it’s a disappointment, with a lackluster story and unimaginative production values that are merely adequate even by the forgiving standards by which classic-era Doctor Who must be judged. Sure, it’s not an embarrassing train wreck like “The Twin Dilemma,” which sinks so low because it’s weighed down with such a stunning array of bad ideas. But that just highlights the major problem with “The Three Doctors” again: It has some good ideas in it, but they’re treated with such an unambitious lack of imagination that there’s not enough actually happening here for the story to be offensively bad—just boring.
As is usually the case, the problem begins with the scriptwriting, which was done in this case by the team of Bob Baker and Dave Martin, one of the series’ most prolific creative forces but who never delivered anything better than adequacy. (Their high point was probably season eight’s “The Claws Of Axos.”) Not the guys I’d have chosen for such a high-profile assignment as this. And true to form, their script is workmanlike and by-the-numbers, delivering the basic elements of Doctor Who—monsters, a ranting villain, some sci-fi thrills and a lot of running back and forth in corridors and quarries—but which has next to no depth.
It begins promisingly enough, with an opening segment that deliberately homages the Third Doctor’s introduction in “Spearhead From Space,” as a rural English yokel is zapped into nothingness by an extraterrestrial object that’s crash-landed on Earth. The object is actually a cosmic-ray detector belonging to the stuffy scientist Dr. Tyler, who immediately realizes something wrong and calls in UNIT. Soon enough, the detector’s in the Doctor’s lab at UNIT HQ, where it also zaps Tyler before the Doctor uncovers a disturbing clue about what’s happening—the yokel’s face on an X-ray plate, showing he’s been captured by a faster-than-light energy beam directed at Earth from an unimaginably distant black hole. And it turns out that bringing it to the Doctor may have been the worst thing they could have done, because the energy—now moving blob-like through the grounds and eating up various pieces of equipment including the Doctor’s roadster Bessie—is actually after the Doctor. (Not that it would have had much trouble getting into the building, I think: Despite the Brigadier’s protestation that it’s a top-secret military installation, UNIT HQ doesn’t seem to have any guards posted and even has a helpful sign right out front so you know what’s going on inside. If only Area 51 had that, we’d have that whole Roswell thing out in the open by now.)
The energy being is joined by a small army of bubble-like creatures, unnamed onscreen but known as Gel Guards. (Baker and Martin deserve credit for a good idea here—their concept was that these would be amorphous, tentacled, oozing blobs like Lovecraft’s shoggoths. That could have worked pretty well if the production design had matched the intention, but in practice they’re one of the least believable, most ridiculous monsters in series history, like a reject from some show by Sid and Marty Krofft.) The Doctor is soon trapped in the TARDIS and unable to escape. Desperate, he calls for help from the Time Lords—but they’re under siege by the same unknown force, which is draining their power to the point here they can barely hold the line. They don’t know what it is either, except that it’s made of antimatter, doesn’t come from this universe, and has a power equal or greater to their own. Only someone from outside can help the Doctor, and the only person they can think of to do that is… the Doctor. Breaking their own highest law due to the emergency, the Time Lords send the Doctor’s two previous incarnations to help his current one manage the crisis.
This is where the fun begins. By far the most enjoyable part of “The Three Doctors” is the comic squabbling between Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton’s Doctors, beginning with the Second Doctor’s marvelously catty first line to the Third: “Oh, I can see you’ve been doing the TARDIS up a bit. I don’t like it,” he sniffs. It makes perfect sense somehow that even though they’re different aspects of the same person, they can’t get along with each other—maybe that’s because they’re different aspects of the same person. It’s somewhere between sibling rivalry and self-loathing.
Soon enough the First Doctor shows up as well, but William Hartnell’s role here is far more limited, for understandable reasons: Elderly and very ill, he was too frail to participate in any significant sense, and so was confined to pre-filming a few lines that could be added into the plot later by keeping the First Doctor essentially trapped inside a TV screen, and only able to advise his other selves. It’s clear from even that diminished role that he could barely get through his lines, in what would be his final appearance as the Doctor. He does get perhaps the best line of the story, though, dismissing his successors with a contemptuous “So you’re my replacements—a dandy and a clown!” It’s a sad way for him to go out, but it’s good that he was able to appear at all. (I suspect that Baker and Martin swapped in Dr. Tyler, a similarly cantankerous and difficult character, for most of the scenes they’d intended for the First Doctor, which would explain why such a marginal character gets so much screen time. It’s definitely the case that Sergeant Benton wound up taking over most of the space originally intended for the Second Doctor’s companion Jamie when Frazier Hines was unable to reprise his role.)
Hartnell’s age and infirmity probably also explains why the First Doctor is portrayed here as the venerable voice of reason who can get his younger selves on the right track. Anything else might have seemed disrespectful to Hartnell, even though it’s not entirely in character considering that the First Doctor is, of course, younger than the others even if he looks older, and was just as prone to eccentricity and recklessness as any of them. How great would it have been if Hartnell had been well enough to play the First Doctor as the untrustworthy rapscallion of his first season? That might have been pure comedy gold. The rivalry and squabbling between all three Doctors would have been exponentially more fractious than just between the other two, and poor Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s head would probably have exploded out of sheer frustration. I’d have liked to see that.
Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier, of course, is another of the saving graces of the story, giving an object lesson in how to get laughs out of a humorless straight-man character as he tries to stay calm in the face of escalating strangeness, like his scientific adviser suddenly changing faces again and his headquarters suddenly moving to a desert. The Brig isn’t frightened or freaked out by any of this, he’s just annoyed that the laws of physics are behaving in such a silly an unprofessional way. Not to mention that after enduring the Third Doctor’s condescension for three years, he now finds that the Second Doctor’s deliberate buffoonery even more of a trial on his patience. His reaction to seeing the inside of the TARDIS for the first time is classic: “So this is what you’ve been doing with UNIT funds and equipment all this time!”
Meanwhile, the Third Doctor and his companion Jo have crossed over to the antimatter universe to confront the still-unknown Big Bad, where they also find various stray pieces of UNIT equipment that got zapped over as well. One of these is a water cooler, which I like to think was actually stolen by the Gel Guards on purpose so they’d have something around which they could exchange workplace gossip and talk about whether the Yankees will win the World Series this year. Also, the Brigadier’s computer, which must have been the 1970s equivalent of a laptop considering that it’s small enough to be carted around with only a two-wheeled hand cart instead of a forklift.
Like the story as a whole, the villain of “The Three Doctors” sounds more interesting in concept than he actually is on screen. The mysterious being who controls the black hole and the forces of antimatter is Omega, a figure from ancient Time Lord history who died—so everyone thought—in harnessing the singularity that powers their ability to travel through time. What he did is the foundation of everything Time Lord society is based on, but none of them know what torment it actually caused him: Instead of dying, he’s been stuck in the antimatter universe for millennia, literally carving out a place to live by sheer force of will. He dreams of escape, and of revenge on the Time Lords for all their imagined wrongs—but he can’t do it because, like Atlas of Greek myth, he is the only thing holding up his world. Which is why he’s captured the Doctor: He needs someone to shoulder his burden so he can make his getaway. There are the seeds of a truly iconic, Shakespearian-tragic antihero here—the man whose sacrifice allowed his people to ascend into near-godhood and was condemned to a tormented eternal exile for it. There’s a desperate loneliness underlying Omega that could have given him real pathos, but it barely comes across on screen. Once he’s done telling his story, Omega is given nothing to do but rant about his desire for revenge, and actor Stephen Thorne plays him as a one-dimensional bully. Given that he’s saddled with an expressionless mask that completely covers his face, it’s probably the worst possible acting choice to stick entirely to bombastic shouting when his voice is the only thing Thorne has to work with to make Omega the noble antihero the script alleges he is. It’s hard to buy the Third Doctor’s claim that Omega is too intelligent to be cruel when every syllable he’s spoken so far oozes hostility.
There’s also a parallel to be drawn with the Doctor’s own situation, since he’s also a prisoner of the Time Lords who resents them for his loss of freedom, but it’s one you’d have to draw yourself, because it’s not brought up in the story itself. Which is a wasted opportunity, considering that he finally regains his freedom here after three seasons of being mostly Earthbound. Since this is the story where the Doctor’s exile is lifted, it’s too bad there’s nothing in here about why that decision was made: Do the Time Lords think he’s reformed now? Or did he change their minds, showing them the value of becoming involved in the outside world? That might have helped make “The Three Doctors” a little more ambitious than just getting the three faces together.
It’s not like there wasn’t plenty of room to beef up that part of the story, considering that “The Three Doctors” pads the plot with scene after scene designed to do nothing but run out the clock. Dr. Tyler argues with the Third Doctor about trying to escape, makes a break for it, gets lost in the corridors, and runs into the Third Doctor again. The Brigadier plans an attack on Omega’s base, gets one foot in the door and retreats back to UNIT HQ, where he almost immediately is taken right back to Omega’s lair. Two and a half minutes are wasted as every side character, including the rural yokel, is given a chance to wave goodbye before they teleport back to Earth. Hartnell’s inability to participate probably had something to do with this; I could believe that an eleventh-hour rewrite to accommodate the actor’s infirmity might have required cutting more than Baker and Martin could replace, given the production schedule.
- Jo, after seeing the First Doctor: “Who was that?” The other Doctors, simultaneously: “Me.” Then indignantly, to each other: “Me!”
- The Second Doctor’s strategy for handling a sentient blob of antimatter: “Keep it confused. Feed it with useless information. I wonder if I have a television set handy.”
- One of those continuity things I probably shouldn’t even think about: Why weren’t either the First or Second Doctor at all agitated that the Time Lords have dragooned them into helping the Third? After all, both of them were running away from the Time Lords, desperate not to be caught. The answer is most probably “nobody really though the idea through, so they created a plot hole.” But for the Second Doctor, there’s suggestions elsewhere in the series that he didn’t actually regenerate right away after his conviction in “The War Games,” but spent some time going on missions specifically for the Time Lords, and this would certainly qualify. As for the First Doctor, that’s harder to square. Maybe the one we see here is actually from a time before he stole the TARDIS in the first place? That way, the Time Lords would know where he is—on Gallifrey, thinking about committing a crime in the near future.
- The Brigadier gets a bit misty-eyed when he thinks the Doctor’s dead: “Wonderful chap… Both of him.” The feeling doesn’t last more than a minute into his reappearance, though: “As far as I’m concerned, Doctor, one of you is enough. More than enough.”
Oct. 28: “The Deadly Assassin”
Nov. 11: “Warrior’s Gate”