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Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Three Doctors originally aired in 1973.

Well, Sergeant, aren’t you going to say it that it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Everybody else does.

It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?

– the Doctor and Benton

The Three Doctors never seems entirely sure what it’s supposed to be. It knows what it has to accomplish. This was the first serial of the tenth season of Doctor Who, so it has to feature the three versions of the character to date. It also wants to radically shake-up the status quo of the series and to allow Jon Pertwee’s Doctor to take to the cosmos. Those are really the two primary objectives of The Three Doctors, and writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin accomplish them quite well.

The problem is that the story itself isn’t sure what it wants to be. Pertwee-era script editor Terrance Dicks would be a lot more confident when juggling The Five Doctors, conceding that the whole thing was a gigantic nonsensical spectacle. The Three Doctors seems almost like a regular story with the tenth anniversary grafted on to it – it’s easy enough to imagine a rough outline of this story that could work with only Jon Pertwee and without the end of his exile.

As a result, the two strongest beats in The Three Doctors feel almost like afterthoughts, grafted on to the outline of a generic and somewhat bland Doctor Who adventure.

Why does the Doctor hate himself...?

Why does the Doctor hate himself…?

There is some great stuff here, to be fair. Any excuse to see Patrick Troughton is a good one, and it’s great fun to watch the Second and Third Doctor playing off one another – even if it seems like Troughton’s Second Doctor has already seen a lot of his individuality eroded by popular memory, replaced with more exaggerated character quirks. Here’s he’s very much a cheeky impish Doctor obsessed with his recorder, despite the fact that entire serials would pass without mention of that accessory.

Pertwee and Troughton play well of one another, and there’s a certain joy in seeing two very different iterations of the Doctor interact. The Three Doctors is really the first time that the show acknowledges that each regeneration is an individual. It isn’t that the process of regeneration changed the First Doctor into the Second Doctor into the Third Doctor; instead, the three versions are completely different people rather than one individual character.

Second best?

Second best?

When the pair try to explain what has happened to Jo, the two argue over which iteration of the character is the “real” Doctor. When Jo is worried that the Second Doctor is one of the attackers laying siege to U.N.I.T., the Third Doctor attempts to reassure her. “Well, not so much one of them as one of us. One of me to be precise.” His predecessor takes exception. “You see, he is one of me,” the Second Doctor corrects.

The difference may appear to be academic, with even Jo quoting I Am the Walrus to spoof the disagreement, but there’s a sense that these are two different individuals both claiming to be “the Doctor.” Their claim is mutually exclusive. Either Patrick Troughton is the Doctor, or Jon Pertwee is the Doctor. Both cannot be at the same time. Indeed, when the First Doctor arrives, he admonishes both as his “replacements”, making it quite clear that he sees them as something markedly different than two snapshots of his future self.

We'll be fine so long as everybody keeps their head...

We’ll be fine so long as everybody keeps their head…

It’s worth noting that this is the first time that Doctor Who has done something like this. The show is still laying out the ground rules about the character and the world he inhabits. The process of “regeneration” didn’t exist until the production team needed to replace William Hartnell in The Tenth Planet. Similarly, the Time Lords didn’t exist until the end of The War Games. While The Three Doctors struggles to figure out what exactly a “multi-Doctor” story should be like, it has to be remembered that this is the first time the show has one something like this.

The show has never dwelt on the implications of regeneration before. Sure, the Second Doctor had to convince Ben and Polly that he was still “the Doctor” in The Power of the Daleks, but the process was so hazily defined that there have been long and extended fan debates about whether what happened at the end of The War Games was a regeneration. In the aftermath of a regeneration, the show just keeps pushing forwards, hoping that audiences will be carried across the threshold of the new leading man by sheer narrative momentum.

Tune in next week to see how this ends...

Tune in next week to see how this ends…

The Three Doctors is the first time we’ve really paused to look back and reflect on what the differences are between Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee and William Hartnell. The Three Doctors acknowledges a number of different approaches to the character. The Brigadier, for example, is strictly functional. He doesn’t care what the Doctor looks like, as long as he is still “the Doctor.” So long as the character still fills that basic function, everything else is secondary.

“What about our Doctor, sir?” Benton asks. “Don’t you want him back?” The Brigadier is having none of that. “Enough of that nonsense, Benton. I’ve got him back. As long as he does the job, he can wear what face he likes.” The Brigadier is voicing a particularly traditionalist and logical school of thought. If the character walks like the Doctor, acts like the Doctor and saves the world like the Doctor… then he’s likely the Doctor. In keeping with the Brigadier’s character, this is very emotionless and utilitarian way of looking at things.

A dandy and a clown...

A dandy and a clown…

The serial seems to disagree with the Brigadier’s assessment. While the Brigadier’s approach is logical, the world is not necessarily a logical place. One of the recurring themes of The Three Doctors is the fact that nothing works in a strictly logical sort of way. To people who grew up watching Patrick Troughton, he will always be “the Doctor”, and Jon Pertwee will always be an echo of that. The same is true of virtually every other era. People will always identify with one version above others, as embodying their ideal of the character.

This is the “my Doctor” philosophy, the notion that people will have their own favourite versions of the character, and The Three Doctors seems wryly aware of this phenomenon despite the fact that there’s only a set size of three versions to choose from; maybe four if you count Peter Cushing, but let’s not do that. This is what the Tenth Doctor explicitly acknowledges in Time Crash, with the revelation that even versions the Doctor have their own favourite versions of the character.

Tracking their quarry...

Tracking their quarry…

(This leads to the most abstract of all Doctor Who fan games: which Doctor is which other Doctor’s favourite? It’s a nice pointless way to while away the hours, if you’re ever feeling board. I reckon that the Eleventh Doctor is a big fan of the Second Doctor, while the Ninth Doctor would probably get along quite well with the Third. I suspect the Eighth would be especially fond of the Fourth. I can’t decide whether the Fifth would be more partial to the First or the Second.)

While The Three Doctors doesn’t have the Doctor picking favourites of his own lives, it does acknowledge that various iterations of the character have their own claim to the title – it’s not a name that can ever be scientifically or rationally divided up into whatever number of portions. The Second and Third Doctors are constantly vying for their own claim to the title, even with the universe itself at stake.

Non-face of the enemy...

Non-face of the enemy…

After one failed encounter with Omega, the Third Doctor protests, “I tell you, I practically had him won over then you turned up and he started treating me like an imposter.” The Second Doctor replies, “Well, you are really, aren’t you?” While the pair do manage to put their bickering aside, The Three Doctors does leave the question open. It doesn’t end with the Second Doctor acknowledging that he’s nothing but a set of memories inside his successor. He’s not the guy who was the Doctor, who just popped in to visit the real and legitimate Doctor.

It’s a nice way of tackling the issue, but it’s the most interesting part of the team-up. It feels like The Three Doctors struggles with how a story like this is supposed to work. Baker and Martin seem to be trying to tell a relatively normal story here, just one with a special guest star. Unlike The Five Doctors or The Day of the Doctor, there’s no sense of the show playing with the format here. The Three Doctors was broadcast in four weekly instalments, rather than aired as a television movie or a special or anything as extravagant as that. Even the choice of writers and director seems fairly generic for what should be a big “event” story.

A colourful character...

A colourful character…

The arrival of the Second Doctor isn’t even that big a moment. It’s not treated as a cliffhanger; it doesn’t even close the scene in question. The Second Doctor arrives, the show pauses long enough to explain what is going on, and the story continues. Similarly, the return of the First Doctor in a minor capacity is treated more as a contractual obligation than a rather deft bit of celebration. None of these massive guest stars are given any fanfare on arrival, and their appearances are not treated as “big” moments.

Instead, the story just sort of gets on with what it is doing. A significant portion of The Three Doctors follows a fairly standard Doctor Who formula. The Doctor works to solve a massive world-threatening crisis, while his companion gets dropped into the middle of things to provide another perspective. Except, in this case, the Third Doctor and Jo are both dispatched into a subplot while the Second Doctor does the vaguely scientific stuff, with both meeting up at the end of the serial.

Two of a kind...

Two of a kind…

It’s a strange story structure for a show like this, as it serves to separate the two Doctors for the middle of the four-part adventure. The Five Doctors didn’t have its own lead spending too much time together, but they were all consciously moving towards a big reunion. Here, there’s a reunion scene, the characters are split up, and they reunite again at the story’s climax. It’s very strange structuring, but then Baker and Martin always were fairly conservative writers. There’s a sense that they’re really just falling back on the traditional way of writing Doctor Who.

Still, there is some interesting stuff here, even if The Three Doctors never quite gels. Omega is a character who is far more interesting in concept than he ever became in practice. In a way, Omega is intended to clearly mirror the Doctor. He’s a heroic figure who has helped shape the universe, and made it a much safer place to live, only to be exiled and forgotten about by the Time Lords once he had served his purpose.

I'll see you on the dark side of Omega...

I’ll see you on the dark side of Omega…

In this regard then, it would seem that Baker and Martin (or Dicks as script editor) may concur with Robert Holmes’ “the Second Doctor was always working for the Time Lords” theory. This retroactive reading of the Troughton era suggests that the Second Doctor was always working at the behest and mercy of the Time Lords, as Holmes made explicit in The Two Doctors. While it’s an interesting idea, it isn’t necessarily supported by the episodes that aired. The whole thing has become a bit of a continuity minefield, with some fans even proposing a “secret” missing Troughton season (“season 6B”) between The War Games and Spearhead from Space.

The Three Doctors also seems to foreshadow some other ideas that Holmes would really run with in the years to come. We see the Time Lords yet again in The Three Doctors, and they are markedly different than they appeared in The War Games or Terror of the Autons. Here, the show openly mocks the power of the Time Lords, who had once been able to bring the story crashing down around them.  In The Three Doctors, they are more impotent than omnipotent.

I hate to point it out, but...

I hate to point it out, but…

In a reversal of The War Games, they are forced to call on the Doctor himself for help. The script repeatedly calls attention to their weakness here, particularly in contrast to the version of the Time Lords presented in The War Games. As things go from bad to worse, the Brigadier suggests, “In that case, you’d better consult those all-powerful superiors of yours for their advice.” The Second Doctor responds, “Oh, I don’t think that’d do any good. At the moment they’re far from being all-powerful.” It’s far easier to connect the portrayal of Time Lord society in The Three Doctors to The Deadly Assassin than to The War Games.

Still, the script hints at Omega as a mirror of the Doctor. The weight of the universe rests on his shoulders, and he is trapped in exile on a quarry. “All these things exist because I will them to exist. Without me and the unceasing pressure of my will, the work of thousands of years would collapse into chaos in microseconds. I am, if you like, the Atlas of my world.” Ignoring the rather strange use of a human metaphor from a Time Lord, it makes Omega an almost sympathetic monster, despite the scenery-chewing performance from Stephen Thorne.

The alpha male and the Omega...

The alpha male and the Omega…

Given that The Three Doctors is the story that finally ends the Doctor’s exile on Earth, the use of Omega feels rather pointed. Omega is a Time Lord in exile, abandoned by his people and trapped on some distant world where he can be forgotten about. He lives in a black hole, where the literal weight of the universe seems to bear down on him. All his potential is wasted, and all that he was is slowly being eroded. The Three Doctors makes a compelling case for allowing the Doctor to roam the stars again, to wander free.

The problem is that the script never really develops Omega. These elements are implied and suggested, but they are never outright stated. In fact, the Doctor’s exile on Earth isn’t really brought up or emphasised at all before the final scene. The only real allusion to it occurs when the Third Doctor tries to fly his TARDIS to lure the energy creatures away from U.N.I.T., but it’s never discussed in the context of the episode. Indeed, the end of the Doctor’s exile is a rather low key affair, pretty much only played out in the final scene of the episode, a scene that could have been handily excised if the production team changed their minds at the last minute.

The power of tree...

The power of tree…

So Omega is a very thinly-defined adversary, which is a shame. It’s quite similar to the problems with the character in his return in Arc of Infinity. There, Peter Davison is able to lend the character some small measure of sympathy, but he remains a generic omnicidal maniac. Given the potential of the character as a vehicle to explore the dark side of the Doctor and the Doctor’s troubled relationship with the Time Lords, it’s a shame that he’s not better used over the course of the show. That said, the classic series had trouble with the whole “dark mirror of the Doctor” subcategory of villains, from the Master through to the Valeyard.

Interestingly, Baker and Martin define Omega as a creature of will. Apparently his ability to control the universe doesn’t stem from his skill with science or technology, but from the sheer force of his willpower. “You exist only because your will insists that you exist,” the Third Doctor explains, which is an intriguing central concept. It makes Omega a decidedly metaphysical threat – an enemy who exists not according to any external logic or rules, but through his own willpower.

Talkin' to the men from Gallifrey...

Talkin’ to the men from Gallifrey…

The most fascinating aspect of The Three Doctors is the way that it seems to dismiss completely the idea that Doctor Who works on anything approaching science. There’s a supporting scientist character who exists to try to make sense of everything, only to repeatedly and miserably fail. “E equals MC squared,” he insists. “There’s no doubt about that. But if you equate gravitation with acceleration, I must have travelled faster than the speed of light. That’s impossible. By definition, the light here must be travelling backwards, but I can still see.”

Naturally, it’s all gobbled-gook and nonsense, but it’s an example of what happens when you try to fit authentic scientific concepts with the way that Doctor Who works. The Three Doctors makes it clear that the universe we are watching cannot possibly be following the laws of physics as we know them. “It still doesn’t make sense, Doctor,” Tyler insists. “We are matter, and you say this place is antimatter.” Tyler elaborates, “So, the mere fact of our being here should cause a colossal explosion.”

Mirror images...

Mirror images…

The Doctor dismisses his concerns with a bit of plot logic that avoids the underlying problem. “Yes, well, our bodies have been converted, processed in some ways, so that we can exist here,” he offers. Jo clarifies, “Just as that organism thing could exist in our world?” It makes sense in the context of the episode that the Doctor could exist in the anti-matter universe if the anti-matter creatures can survive in the regular universe; that’s plot logic. But that doesn’t explain Tyler’s underlying problem.

“I just don’t believe it,” Tyler insists. “This is matter. I can see it. Why, I can feel it.” The Doctor responds, playfully, “But things aren’t always as they seem, you know, Doctor Tyler.” The Doctor then does a little magic trick, which neatly summarises the logic of Doctor Who. Tyler protests, “Ah ha, that’s all very well, but that’s just a conjuring trick.” Naturally, that’s entirely the point. “Yes, that’s exactly what this place is, a scientific conjuring trick of a very high order,” the Doctor offers.

What's up, Doc?

What’s up, Doc?

The world of Doctor Who isn’t governed by people like Tyler with their rules and their laws. It’s governed by creatures like the Doctor and Omega, beings capable of “conjuring tricks of a very high order.” If Omega is a creature capable of ensuring his continued existence through sheer force of will, what does the Doctor do? Given that the First Doctor dismisses his successors as “a dandy and a clown”, and the Third Doctor dismisses his predecessor as “incorrigibly frivolous”, it seems the Doctor is more a creature of sheer imagination than raw willpower.

Which is a lovely nugget of an idea, sitting at the heart of a rather bland anniversary special. If Baker and Martin had pushed that idea more to the fore, or if The Three Doctors had committed more forcefully to those underlying metaphysical themes, it could be far more exciting than episode that eventually made it to screen. Instead, these sorts of high concepts and insights get lost in the shuffle of what is a fairly conventional story about a massive threat that only the Doctor can resolve. Only this time, there are three of him.

You might be interested in our reviews of the tenth season of the classic television show:

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