Welcome to the thirty-ninth instalment of Who Review, my ongoing quest to review all available episodes of TV’s longest running SF series, Doctor Who. This week, the Doctor celebrates his 10th anniversary by teaming up with his past selves in The Three Doctors.
The Three Doctors
30 December1972 – 20 January1973 (4 episodes)
From a black hole on the edge of space, a superluminal signal is broadcast to Earth, carrying with it a strange object housing an unusual energy creature that makes objects and people seemingly disappear. The object is retrieved by Doctor Tyler, a scientist with ties to UNIT, who brings it to UNIT HQ for examination. Investigating, the Doctor determines that the energy creature is actually trying to capture him, and it’s other victims just happen to be in the way.
Light years away, the planet of the Time Lords is under siege, its energy being absorbed into the black hole. Desperate and with little time remaining to save themselves, they violate their own laws of time travel, drawing the two previous incarnations of The Doctor from the past and despatching them to aid the current Doctor.
The second Doctor arrives in the present, bickering with his current counterpart as they try to battle the energy creature. They end up trapped in the TARDIS, where they receive communications from the first Doctor. Unfortunately, the first Doctor has become trapped in a time eddy due to the diminished power of the Time Lords and can only advise, not participate.
The first Doctor determines that the black hole is actually a bridge between universes, and the third Doctor and Jo cross over. They arrive in an antimatter universe created by a legendary Time Lord known as Omega. Omega was a solar engineer who created the supernova that powers the Time Lords planet. He is considered a hero amongst his people and is spoken of with great reverence.
Unfortunately, he was seemingly killed in the explosion that created the supernova. The Doctor learns, however, that he was actually transported into the antimatter universe, where his willpower and intellect shaped the formless matter into physicality. However, he was trapped, as his willpower is the only thing maintaining reality in the antimatter world. Driven insane by his experience, he has vowed revenge on the Time Lords.
Omega further imparts that he has sought out another Time Lord, one whose will could maintain the antimatter universe while the insane villain escapes. He attempts to enlist the third Doctor’s aid.
Soon, The second Doctor, Benton, and the Brigadier find themselves transported into the antimatter universe and slowly make their way to Omega’s base. Confronted by two Time Lords, and deducing that they are two versions of the same person, Omega attempts to recruit them both to his cause.
The Doctors soon deduce that years of exposure to the corrosive effects of the black hole’s singularity have disintegrated Omega’s physical form, and that he must remain forever in the antimatter universe. Despairing, the villain attempts to convince the Doctors to share his exile.
The Doctors offer a counter proposal. If he agrees to send that others back to the positive matter universe, the Doctor will grant Omega his freedom. He agrees, and they provide him with a force field generator. Contained within the force field is the second Doctor’s recorder, which is still composed of positive matter while contained within the field.
The third Doctor demands Omega take the generator. The villain, angered by the Doctor’s presumption, lashes out in a fit of rage and knocks the force field generator over. When the recorder falls out and comes into contact with the antimatter universe, it causes an explosion that annihilates everything. The explosion hurls the TARDIS back into positive space.
With the threat to the Time Lords ended, the first and second Doctors return to their own time periods. As a reward for his efforts, the Time Lords award the third Doctor with a new dematerialisation unit and restore his knowledge of time travel, thus ending his exile on Earth.
The idea of bringing all three Doctors together to celebrate the series’ tenth anniversary is an excellent one,an idea that would be repeated for the 20th anniversary (and now, a similar story is being planned for this year’s 50th anniversary, with David Tennant returning to the role alongside Matt Smith).
Unfortunately, the execution is lacklustre and a little dull. The story is heavy on exposition, especially from the villain Omega, a ranting, rather one-dimensional villain. Omega spends two episodes simply talking and explaining his plans.
On a positive note, there is a genuine attempt made by script writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin to introduce hard science to the storyline, especially in relation to the black hole and the antimatter universe. The problem is that this hard science approach then requires more exposition to explain some of the more complex scientific theories present in the story.
There are two real highlights in The Three Doctors. The first is the Brigadier’s reaction to proceedings and his inability to deal with two Doctors existing simultaneously. Actor Nicholas Courtney’s deadpan approach to the Brigadier makes for some genuinely funny and entertaining moments.
The second and more important highlight is the interaction between Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton. Their interplay carries the story, often overcoming the shortcomings of the plot and bringing some much-needed entertainment to an otherwise dull storyline.
Overall, The Three Doctors is a wasted opportunity. What should have been an epic and imaginative tale is held together instead by the charismatic and entertaining banter of its two leads.
Of course, it’s difficult for me to really gauge the impact this story had on audiences at the time, given that I’m watching it decades later, and having experienced other Doctor team-ups (most notably The Five Doctors). So I thought I’d ask friend of Who Review Melthoid for his recollections. Melthoid actually remembers watching The Three Doctors when it was first broadcast in Australia. Here’s what he had to say:
I first saw The Three Doctors whilst in my pre- teens during the seventies. Like many from my generation, we began watching Dr Who with the introduction of colour television in 1975. The one problem with all television stations once colour television was established was getting them to play shows that they only had in black and white. The ABC was more pig-headed than most in this area. They would frequently show the first series of F-Troop in black and white at 6pm on a weeknight but only show colour episodes of Dr Who (usually on a Sunday afternoon at around 5.30pm before Countdown). This meant that all the episodes from the first two Doctors would not be shown again for two decades (around the 1990s when during a rerun stint they showed several Troughton episodes including the Krotons, and the Mind Robber).
The Three Doctors episode, therefore, had a huge effect on me at the time, as it was the only access to Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell that I’d had to that stage. I always felt it unfair that the first two Doctors always ended up at the bottom of the most popular Doctors lists at conventions and in the Dr Who magazine when very few of us still watching the show had ever seen any of their episodes.
These dilemmas combined to make any accurate review of the Three Doctors at the time nigh impossible. It riveted me from start to finish. Any ridicule that could have been aimed at the dreadful Omega guards (which looked more like Lost in Space rejects, even at the time) was extinguished by the comedic banter and brilliant chemistry between Troughton and Pertwee. It was unfortunate that Hartnell was not in it more but fully appreciated him just being available. Omega was an extremely popular enemy and at the time rivaling the Master as the Doctor’s greatest singular nemesis. We looked forward to further regular encounters with him. We had no idea how long we’d have to wait! For decades the Three Doctors was in my Top 5 Pertwee episodes, which considering its gaping flaws, suggests that the novelty far outweighed the logic in that choice.
It also inspired me to construct a petition to send to the ABC to show all Doctor Who episodes from the beginning of the Hartnell era. My original concept was for ten thousand signatures but was so desperate to see them that I sent it in after collecting one thousand. A polite reply was sent apologising, saying that unfortunately most of the episodes didn’t exist anymore in the archives…blah blah blah…I didn’t believe a word of it of course. Thankfully Target books in England were about to print the novels en masse!
It’s a genuine joy to see Patrick Troughton return as the Doctor. With only a small number of Troughton stories still in existence, it’s always good to see more of his version of the Doctor. According to script editor Terrance Dicks, there was a friendly rivalry between Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton on set, and this rivalry translates brilliantly onto the screen.
Unfortunately, William Hartnell was very ill at the time of shooting (he would pass away two years later) and his appearance in the story is limited. He makes the most of what little time he has, and delivers the absolute best line in The Three Doctors. When confronted by his future selves, he remarks that his replacements are “a dandy and a clown.”
The Time Lords explicitly state that there were no incarnations of the Doctor prior to the William Hartnell version of the character. They describe him as “the earliest Doctor.”
Originally, the plan for The Three Doctors included the return of Jamie McCrimmon as a companion for the second Doctor. Unfortunately, actor Frazer Hines was unavailable at the time due to commitments to the soap opera Emmadale Farm. It’s a shame as I’d loved to have seen the return of Jamie, arguably the best Who companion to date.
Omega is a villain with a great deal of potential; a Time Lord driven mad by loneliness and isolation who seeks revenge on his fellow Time Lords lends itself to a truly epic storyline. He even has a fantastic design, one of the most visually appealing villains to appear in the series to date.
Unfortunately, this potential just isn’t realised in The Three Doctors. As stated above, Omega spends most of his time ranting about his plans and dishing out monologue after monologue of exposition. As far as villainous Time Lords go, he is a far cry from The Master.
So much potential to create a genuinely great first encounter between Doctors is instead wasted. Only the interplay between Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton and the potential of Omega make this storyline stand out.
The Doctor and Jo find themselves trapped inside a bizarre and unique prison in Carnival of Monsters