To celebrate fifty years of Doctor Who, I’m taking a look back at how the series celebrated its anniversary in the past. First up is the four part opening to season ten, “The Three Doctors.”
During the Jon Pertwee era, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks felt that each season of Doctor Who should get off to a raising and easy-to-publicize start. This was easy to do in the first year of Pertwee’s tenure since a new Doctor was coming on board and the show was being made in color for the first time. The next two years saw the introduction of a new adversary for the good Doctor and then the long-awaited return of the Daleks (after a multi-year absence from screens).
For the tenth anniversary season, Letts and Dicks decided to kick things off with a story that saw the Doctor joining forces with his previous selves. In the DVD extras, Letts claims that fans had been asking for a multi-Doctor story since he took the reigns as producer in season seven. After three seasons of punting on a multi-Doctor story, Letts and Dicks finally decided it was time to pull the trigger and bring everyone back for a celebration of ten years of the Doctor.
And so it was that “The Three Doctors” was born.
Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, “The Three Doctors” is less a celebration of the show’s first decade and more of a fairly standard Pertwee era story with the first two Doctors thrown in as glorified sidekicks. It helps that one of those sidekicks is Patrick Troughton, who (as he does in all multi-Doctor stories) steals the show right out from under Jon Pertwee and the rest of the regular cast. William Harntell’s role is even more limited, largely due to his decline in health. Hartnell was in a stage of his life that he had good days and bad days. It was on a good day that Letts spoke to him and the actor agreed to reprise the role. His failing health led to large portions of the script having to be hastily rewritten (there had already been a publicity photo shoot with all three actors that was hanging over the heads of the creative team…so you couldn’t cut Hartnell out completely). Instead, the actor appeared in pre-filmed shots that could be looped into the studio on the TARDIS viewing screen.
Overall, the story isn’t one of the greatest of the third Doctor era, nor is it necessarily one of the worst. In my mind, the Pertwee years breaks down into two distinct halves. The first twelve stories of the era are more hit than miss with a lot of the stories hitting the mark of being a classic or near classic status. There are some standout stories like “Inferno,” “Mind of Evil” and “The Daemons” in there and the duds (“Claws of Axos” and “Colony in Space”) still have enough to recommend about them to make them worth visiting again. It’s once you get past “The Sea Devils” that things take a turn and you get more duds thrown into the mix.
“The Three Doctors” isn’t necessarily a dud, but it’s not necessarily a classic era. It’s a more middle of the road story from the anniversary season.