With the multi-Doctor 50th anniversary celebrations of last weekend still reverberating in our heads, it seemed appropriate to extend the festivities with a little nostalgia by looking back to the very first time that multiple Doctors shared the screen together – all the way back in 1972.
You’d expect “The Three Doctors” to have been an anniversary special as well, but in fact the BBC wasn’t so big on such things back then and the serial appeared almost a full year before the official tenth anniversary of Doctor Who as something of a Christmas/New Year special instead. Someone simply had the idea to bring together the three actors who had played the Time Lord into one story, and off it went. But it set a precedent for these sorts of occasions that inspired the 20th anniversary “The Five Doctors” special and which meant that by the time we got to the 50th, a single-Doctor approach to a big anniversary was just not on – although with showrunner Steven Moffat being the man he is, the formula had to be ‘tweaked’ for “The Day of the Doctor” by including a brand new former Doctor we didn’t even know we’d missed!
Even so, whichever way you look at it “The Three Doctors” is an important precedent in the life of Doctor Who. It is the first time that the show directly acknowledged its own past as a TV show and set up the Doctor’s different incarnations as distinct people with their own personalities as a usable plot idea, rather than as just some handwaving by the production team to get around a casting change. (You wouldn’t expect to see all the actors who have played a soap role like Ben Mitchell in EastEnders all show up in an episode for a reunion, now would you?) The episode also includes the Time Lords and only the second glimpse of their (unnamed) home world after “The War Games”, and starts to establish some key elements of the show’s mythos such as how they draw the source of power for time travel from a collapsing black hole.
Given all this, you’d expect “The Three Doctors” to be epic, wouldn’t you? Sadly the truth is anything but, and despite its revered place in Doctor Who history this is a rather threadbare and humdrum outing. But it does have its bright spots, and the highlight is without a doubt watching the interactions between then-current Doctor Jon Pertwee and his immediate predecessor Patrick Troughton. The two apparently did not get along – or rather, Pertwee didn’t like the idea of being upstaged on his own show – but happily this friction had an upside when it was allowed to feed into the on-screen chemistry in the form of some delightful comedy bickering between the pair. Unfortunately, the downside was that Pertwee wanted as few scenes as possible with Troughton and so their shared on-screen time together is sadly limited, especially compared with how much time Matt Smith and David Tennant spent palling up in the most recent show.
And also, despite his presence in the title, the third of our Doctors – or rather the First Doctor, William Hartnell – is largely missing in action. In plot terms he’s “stuck in a time eddy” but in reality the actor was by this stage in such a poor state of health that all his scenes were shot separately on a darkened set at Ealing where he read lines off cue cards, with the recording later relayed via TV monitor for the other actors to interact with during the main studio sessions. It’s a bittersweet farewell for Hartnell: on the one hand it’s lovely to see him back one last time in the role that he made iconic; but on the other he’s almost unrecognisable, looking much diminished and his portrayal lacking the fiery indomitable spark that marked his time in the role. Still, the First Doctor does get to deliver some delightful putdowns (“So you’re my replacements: a dandy and a clown!” being the most rightly famous of them) and simply to have all three on screen together for the first and only time is a true joy for any long-time fan of the Classic show.
It’s just a shame that the rest of the story is so weak around this major event. The villain of the piece is an ancient Time Lord called Omega who apparently perished in the creation of the black hole that gave his people their mastery of time travel; in fact he was transported to an anti-matter realm where he has gone mad from isolation and now seeks revenge. For reasons too contrived to go into, the only solution is for the Time Lords to send all the available incarnations of Doctor in to the black hole even though such timeline-crossing contravenes the First Law of Time. (The Second Law of Time is, don’t talk about the laws of time?)
There’s enough plot for maybe 20 minutes of NuWho and maybe two episodes of the classic serial, which is a shame as it’s actually a four-parter. As a result it all feels interminably dragged out, with long sequences of the characters crossing first one way and then another over a featureless wasteland (the show’s trademark quarry location setting) until finally even the Doctors have enough of it and resort to jumping the Tardis closer to their destination in perhaps the first short-range skip the police box ever successfully pulled off.
For all the hard work of actor Stephen Thorne (a Who icon in his own right), Omega is just a bloke in a mask and cape strutting around and not doing anything interesting. His henchmen are Gel Guards which initially look rather good until they’re called upon to move, at which point they wobble and waddle around with unintentionally comedy effect. The ‘gel’ design is also used on the walls of Omega’s castle, which would be fine if it wasn’t limited to just adorning the edges of what are clearly some plywood panels erected in the manner of a children’s playground funhouse. Even the Time Lords don’t escape from the lack of the production’s ambition: where once they were a mighty imperious race, here all we get are a couple of bickering civil servant-types pushing buttons on a 70s-era computer console as they’re reduced to watching things develop on TV like the rest of us.
It could still have worked much better if only writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin had concentrated on some of the existing supporting characters: Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and Sergeant Benton’s (John Levine) first experience of the inside of the Tardis is a delight, as is their reunion with Troughton. Unfortunately they are then sidelined in order to accommodate two entirely superfluous characters, Dr Tyler and gamekeeper Ollis who have been transported to Omega’s realm by accident but who serve absolutely no purpose once there. It’s also clear that Baker and Martin have no idea whatsoever about anything to do with anti-matter and black holes, which as far as scripting a story about a universe made from such concepts goes is rather a problem.
As it is, you really do have to pick and choose the parts of “The Three Doctors” that are worth watching very carefully. The vast majority is entirely disposable, but then any scenes with more than one Doctor or anything with the Brigadier and Benton are pure gold. The show therefore delivers a hint and a promise of what can be done with the concept, while not actually delivering on it itself; “The Five Doctors” made a much better fist of the idea, but in truth it simply underlines how difficult this sort of thing is and how it can take 50 years before you finally get it right and hit a home run with the concept – as Moffat and co. finally genuinely did in 2013.
The Three Doctors was originally released on DVD in 2003. While that version is out of print it is still available, but generally costs more than the Revisitations 3 boxset which contains a two-disc “special edition” version with additional extras and much improved picture quality together with two other (and frankly much better) stories in The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Robots of Death, so really there is only one sensible choice if seeking to buy the story new.