Doctor Who: “The Three Doctors”


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.”

Threedoctors_title“We’re the same Time Lord.”

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.

“I have been grievously wronged, Doctor, and now it is time for my vengeance!”

doctor-who-the-three-doctors-omegaThe premise is simple enough – there’s a grave threat to the universe that requires not one but multiple Doctors to address.  In this case, it’s the stellar engineer Omega, who is trapped in a universe of anti-matter after he helped give the Time Lords the power of time travel.    Omega sends his Gel Guards (pretty much as ridiculous as they sound) to Earth to bring the third Doctor to him.  Omega feels that being exiled from the Time Lords will make him and the Doctor somewhat of a kindred spirit.

What Omega doesn’t count on is the Time Lords sending multiple Doctors to take care of the crisis and that he’s long since perished and only his will is keeping his spirit and his anti-matter universe together.

The big issue with Omega is that he’s a lot of bluster and shouting.  If this is a family reunion of sorts, then Omega becomes little more than that crazy uncle over in the corner, shouting out a lot of threats but generally mostly harmless.  Stephen Thorne does some solid work as Omega and chews scenery as well as any other adversary of the era.  But somehow you get the feeling that maybe having the Master somehow involved might have been more satisfying overall.

Another issue the story faces is that Omega’s domain isn’t necessarily that impressive.   It’s pretty much a sand quarry and a palace within that has a lot of corridors for character to run around.  And there is a LOT of corridor running in the third episode of this one.   And despite the production team and director Lennie Mayne’s best attempts to disguise that we’re using the same set over and over again, it still feels like we’re all running up and down the same set.

And let’s face it – if you were Omega and could whip up anything in the universe for your domain, wouldn’t you want to whip up more than a sand quarry and the bubble palace?

“The Three Doctors” not only gives us some hints about the history of the Time Lords, but it also gives us our second look at their home world. At this point, the name Gallifrey hadn’t come up yet (it would be a throw-away line in next year’s “The Time Warrior”) but seeing his the Time Lords react to a crisis, it’s easy to see why writer Robert Holmes would work so hard to debunk them a few years later in “The Deadly Assassin.”

“I am he and he is me.”

Doctor_Who_The_Three_DoctorsLike it or not, “The Three Doctors” gives us the template for all future multi-Doctor stories.

Whether this is a good or a bad thing probably depends on how much you like the multi-Doctor stories.   I’ve got to admit that I enjoy them, but I don’t hold them in quite as high a regard as many fans do.  A lot of this could come from the fact that I didn’t see them when they were initially broadcast and thanks to my local PBS station, I’d already seen multiple stories with each of the Doctors long before I saw them all team up again for an anniversary story.

To me, “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors” are just another story.  But I can also see how if you were a fan during the anniversary year they were shown, you’d be really excited to see the Doctors gathered again on-screen (especially in the UK where repeats of older serials were few and far between at the time) and how there’d be a sense of nostalgia about them.

I also think that a lot of fans’ memories of “The Three Doctors” were heavily influenced by Terrance Dicks’ adaptation of the story rather than the story itself.   I listened to the audio book version a few years ago and was struck by how Dicks’ prose does the story more justice than the actual televised episodes do.  For one thing, freed from the constraints of a television budget, Omega’s domain in the universe of anti-matter is allowed to be far more grand and awe-inspiring than it is on-screen.  On-screen, it’s yet another quarry for our heroes to run around in.

The novel allows Dicks to condense certain scenes to be woven together to make the narrative work better and unfold in a more even manner.

Of course, the novel does lack the power of Stephen Throne shouting and losing his mind when he discovers the only thing holding together the universe of anti-matter is his will.   So maybe the best of both worlds is to read (or in my case listen to) the Target novel and also watch the original episodes themselves.

Multi-Doctor stories operate on the theory that the Doctor doesn’t necessarily get along with his previous selves all that well.   It sort of makes sense since I can’t imagine I’d be thrilled to have to work with my teenage self or the self of my early twenties.  The fact that the Doctors all manage to put this aside and work together just shows the kind of hero the Doctor really is deep down.

And let’s face it – the line about “Oh, so this is my replacement then…a dandy and a clown” is a pure delight no matter how you look at it.

 “Keep it confused. Feed it with useless information. I wonder if I have a television set handy?”

image (1)In the course of the classic series run, the Doctor would cross paths with himself on three separate occasions.   And yet all three of those occasions would have one thing in common – Patrick Troughton stealing the shows. 

Of all the original Doctors, I’d argue that Troughton was the strongest actor to take on the lead role.   (Davison is a close second).  It’s also easy to forget now as we close in on the fiftieth anniversary that without Troughton, there wouldn’t be Doctor Who as we know it today.

And yet, the Troughton Doctor here isn’t necessarily the one we see during his era.  That one was dark, manipulative and clearly three steps ahead of everyone else most of the time.  The Troughton we get here is a bit more of a clown and far more concerned with finding his recorder than he is in saving the universe.  There’s little of the subtle manipulation the second Doctor does in stories like “Tomb of the Cybermen” where he pushes the team into opening the tomb, even though he clearly knows what’s lurking down there.  Or his manipulation of Jamie in “Evil of the Daleks” to give the Daleks the human factor and create a civil war among his greatest and most lethal foes.

Despite all of this, Troughton steals the show from under every once else – and all this despite the fact that the second Doctor isn’t intended to be the star of the show.   The script clearly intends this to be Pertwee – and watching the DVD extras, we learn that Pertwee was concerned about the two previous Doctors stealing his spotlight.    Troughton isn’t necessarily trying to steal the show and while he does, you don’t get the feeling he’s set out to do this or is deliberately doing it.  I think a lot of it comes down to a clash in styles – both on- and off-screen.   Again, if you watch the DVD extras, you learn that Pertwee’s approach to the script and Troughton’s were wildly different.   It all makes the fact that the story works as well as it does that much more remarkable.

“Those who oppose the will of Omega shall not live!”

All in all, “The Three Doctors” is a solid, if not spectacular classic Doctor Who serial.   It does include two watershed moments in the series’ run – the first reunion of previous Doctors and the Time Lords returning the Doctor’s freedom to travel in space and time.

I’ve often wondered if William Hartnell’s health had allowed him to play a larger role in the story, how it would have turned out.  Would it have been better, worse or about the same?

The good news is that if you haven’t seen “The Three Doctors” yet or you want to view it again, it’s available on DVD and is part of the streaming packages on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu Plus.


Filed under Doctor who, review, tv reviews

5 responses to “Doctor Who: “The Three Doctors”

  1. I read the Terrence Dicks novelization of The Three Doctors. Have never seen the tv episodes, I can’t compare the book to the tv show. But I have to agree that the book does Omega’s palace better, exactly because there are no budget restraints. I had a similar experience as you, that it was certainly fun, but not spectacular. But I can see how fans at the time might have loved the episode, three Doctors, all in one serial? I know I’d love to have #9, #10 and #11 all help each other out in a few episodes! even if the story was so-so, I’d be so happy to see them all together than I’d forgive just about anything.

    • The odds of nine coming back are slim, at best. I’d love to see it, though.

      And you must experience this story on screen….but then again I feel that everyone should see all of classic Who. 🙂

  2. I didn’t realise they’d shown several Doctors on screen at once before! I really know very little about Classic Who, I think I’ve only watched the William Hartnell episodes. I’ll note down your recommended episodes for this era, as I need to get round to watching some Classic Who on Netflix.

    It’s true, here in the UK the older series just don’t seem to get repeated all, at least not on ordinary channels.

    • There were three multi-Doctor stories during the classic series run — this one, The Five Doctors and the The Two Doctors. Five Docs was for the 20th anniversary and 2 Docs was just to bring Troughton back…and it threw a monkey-wrench into continuity and is a fairly polarizing story among fans.

      The thing with classic Who is they were meant to be seen only once, maybe twice. And the serials are not necessarily meant to be watched all in one gulp but rather sipped. If you watch stories from the early eras, there is a bit of time in each episode spent recapping what’s come before to bring viewers back up to speed. It’s more noticable if you watch the story in one long haul .

  3. Pingback: Announcement: Sci-Fi Month Schedule |Rinn Reads

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