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The Three Doctors

story 65 | season 10 | serial rrr
Finn Clark

The Three Doctors is a load of old tat, according to conventional wisdom. However some people say the same about The Five Doctors and the entire Pertwee era. Personally I think it's a genuinely strong story. It has great characters and some of Doctor Who's best comedy... in all seriousness, I laughed more at The Three Doctors than I did at City of Death. Gellguards aside, what's not to like? Admittedly it looks silly, but we're Doctor Who fans. We should be able to see past that.

The reason to watch episodes 1-3 is the comedy between the regulars, who are fantastic. Dr Tyler and Sam Whatsit don't add much (although I loved Sam's last line at the end of episode four), but they don't matter. The Three Doctors knows who its stars are and cuts back everything else to maximise their screen time.

Troughton doesn't exactly underplay his role, but that wasn't his specialty in the 1960s either. The always-impressive Nicholas Courtney makes good lines look fantastic... this is famously the Brigadier's "I'm pretty sure that's Cromer" story, but somehow he actually avoids looking like an idiot. He's wrong, but for character-based reasons rather than plain stupidity. Nick Courtney gives us a man who's always found the Doctor trying but is now discovering that Troughton could give even Pertwee lessons in stretching your patience. The Doctors work together wonderfully, of course. Troughton and Pertwee were both masters of comic acting, while there's a freshness to their scenes since their Doctors had never previously had to operate in anything like this kind of relationship.

William Hartnell is okay. Sadly the poor man's condition meant that he had to read his lines off a cue card and only appear on a monitor, which simplified the plot but means that his Doctor has none of the force and power of which Hartnell was perfectly capable. He also looks strange on the TARDIS scanner. He's orange. He gets a good line or two, but as a performance it's pretty sad compared to his usual standards.

Benton makes a good companion, incidentally. Like Jo Grant, the character has an endearing "I may not be very bright but I'm doing my best" earnestness about him. I'm also glad that Richard Franklin took time off to direct a play, because Captain Yates was the one UNIT regular who hadn't met Troughton and he might have diluted the byplay.

The story's other big plus is Omega, who's a wonderful creation. I'm tempted to call him Doctor Who's finest villain, a Shakespearian figure of tragedy and complexity. The Master and often even Davros are simply evil. They appear in better stories than poor Omega, but they're rent-a-baddies who can be inserted into a random script and left to get on with their latest Plan For World Domination. However I wasn't kidding when I called Omega Shakespearian. He's like Prospero's deranged twin, if he'd been stranded on his island for ten million years. We feel his tragedy. He earns our sympathy even when we realise that he's become a ranting monster intent on destroying everything.

Omega's story is the most iconic in Doctor Who's mythology, but he's not just an eye-catching high concept. The character has depth and complexity too. Stephen Thorne manages to fit a surprising amount of naturalism into a performance that's necessarily full of declamation, theatricality and over-the-top ranting. Compare with Season Sixteen's godawful Pirate Captain for instance. You never doubt the power, grandeur and insanity of the man, but at the same time he feels real. His childishness extends beyond those temper tantrums. When he's thwarted, he almost cries! I love the way Stephen Thorne puts a crack in his voice at that point. I now want to rewatch Arc of Infinity, especially Davison's performance as Omega in its final episode, and those aren't words you'll hear too often. He even has a personification of the dark side of his mind! On top of that part four's revelation is a great SF twist, giving Omega yet another black irony.

The obvious comparison with The Three Doctors is The Wizard of Oz (but this time there really isn't a man behind the curtain, ho ho), but I'm going to suggest The Tempest. Both stories are about an exiled king-in-waiting who becomes a wizard and creates a magical storm to summon his usurpers to his island. Both are full of magic, or at least the Doctor Who technobabble equivalent. Both are more interested in character and theatricality than plot.

The Gallifrey scenes are okay. In episode one they're ghastly, pissing away any grandeur the story might have had with horrible technobabbly dialogue and po-faced uncomprehending delivery, but things improve in later episodes when we can see how much trouble they're in. Incidentally two of the three actors credited here as Time Lords had also played such parts previously. Clyde Pollitt was in The War Games and Graham Leaman was in Colony in Space. The better-known example of The Deadly Assassin's Chancellor Goth also being in The War Games was just a coincidence, Bernard Horsfall being one of David Maloney's favourite actors. All four of his Doctor Who roles were in Maloney-directed stories! However it seems clear that here Lennie Mayne was deliberately casting former Time Lords.

We see some minor traditions of multi-Doctor stories.

1 - Bessie will get teleported along with the 3rd Doctor.

2 - One of the Doctors will get trapped on a TV screen, thus freeing up story space for the others.

3 - It's always the latest incarnation who does the actual investigation. He's still the hero. His predecessors are just colourful guest stars.

I adore the Gellguards. The weird multicoloured blob is freaky enough to look effective, but the Gellguards are hilarious. You'd think you were watching a Graham Williams story. For a man who so obviously loves theatricality and impressive costumes, Omega has a mysterious tendency to make goofy monsters. Scarily the Ergon was an improvement! Admittedly the Gellguards look pretty in close-up, with the colours on that bubbly oil slick surface, but in motion... oh my. It's the way they bounce as they wobble forwards.

However on the plus side, the singularity technobabble makes sense! The laws of physics really do go peculiar at the heart of a black hole, so it's not unreasonable for Omega to be exploiting those peculiar properties... especially since those are the exact forces he'd harnessed aeons ago to create the Time Lords.

I also love part one's cliffhanger. The Doctors know what they have to do as soon as Hartnell tells them about the bridge, but they mess around with comedy coin-tossing and we think it's just a bit of fun... until Pertwee walks outside and LETS THE MONSTER EAT HIM.

The Doctor's exile being rescinded is a nice touch, but it would have been more meaningful if by then he hadn't had full control over the TARDIS anyway. Season Seven's production team played fair with the Doctor's exile, but by the time of The Time Monster the TARDIS was seemingly as free as a bird. Had they still been taking that seriously, the production team might have realised that they missed an opportunity in this story. Troughton presumably didn't have Pertwee's memory blocks. They could have had comedy with one Doctor being reliant on the other to fly his own TARDIS, or possibly even stealing back his knowledge of temporal physics through telepathic contact with his previous self.

Like The Five Doctors, this story is underrated. It looks and feels like glittery nonsense, but it has Omega, a great cast and some of Doctor Who's best comedy. Admittedly the story doesn't move quickly, but that was the format under Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts. Even the good Pertwee-era stories can be tortoise-like. Seriously, I was impressed.

Jordan Wilson

When perusing my reviews of “classic” Who, – if you remotely care; I’m just covering myself, here - you may chance to observe a recurring theme: repetitive criticism. Generally, I find 1963-89 serials (1996 aside, for convenience) to be characterized by at least (1) precarious screenwriting, (2) the sacrifice of character over all-consuming plot constraints, (3) a poor performance by the respective supporting casts, and (4) no pay-off – anticlimax. I’ll allow an exception for tremulous cardboard sets, as these can be attributed to oft-alluded budgetary limitations. Ergo, scripting figures particularly largely in my value system – something else that may become explicit and/or implicitly salient given time.

The Three Doctors, alas, adheres to these proposed criteria. Fortunately, it isn’t a prototypical example. Unfortunately, this is one instance where I’ll have to condone the scenery outright – the antagonist’s anti-matter world is just another quarry. Squandered opportunity.

Whilst not a classic, per se, this entry’s fun – a rarity, I’ve sometimes found. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) is abetted by The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), with somewhat handicapped input from The [other] Doctor (William Hartnell). Their mission: to tackle the lamented, but very much ‘alive’ Time Lord Omega (Stephen Thorne) – whose Will inhabits the aforementioned idyllic landscape.

So, let’s review. The script is okay – although I wish characters wouldn’t whisperingly refer to Omega’s ‘blob’ extensions as “organism-things”. *Pedantic gripe over.* Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) is frustratingly treated as an imbecile – refusing to believe Doctor #2’s periodic revelations. Yes, he’s a layperson to The Doctor’s interstellar lifestyle, but by now he should exhibit more faith.

This four-parter may be “fun” due to its falsification of my second criterion. For once, the concept of character is given free rein – mounted on equal footing to plot. The rivalry and repartee between the bickering second and third Doctors is a delight. First inspired idea: have The Doctor meet his past ‘selves’. Second idea: have him fall out with himself. It’s a shame Hartnell was unable to contribute more and in person.

The supporting cast disappoints. The ever-eagle-eyed Katy Manning (Jo Grant), John Levene (Sgt. Benton), Denys Palmer (Cpl. Palmer) et al. can’t act. ‘Nuff said. Thorne is excellent in his role at first, utilizing his voice and behaviour, unlike most villains, who typically and unimaginatively rely on costumed appearance – surely a series landmark? Sadly, he gradually metamorphosizes into a pantomime villain… Dr. Tyler (Rex Robinson) strikes me as an oddity. The Time Lords are sufficiently bland; Clyde Pollit is amiable as the Chancellor, easily outshining stiff-lipped Roy Purcell (President of the Council) and the distractingly-bearded Graham Leaman. Why not portray them as seemingly-omnipotent and mysterious shadowy figures? Laurie Webb exudes a larger-than-life personality and suave charisma as the esteemed Mr. Ollis. His forename is shrouded in secrecy, and only revealed in the final scene by Mrs. Ollis (Patricia Prior). Unfortunately, I can’t remember it just now.

The Final Confrontation isn’t that anticlimactic.

Overall, The Three Doctors is a joy on first viewing. It’s burdened with traditional Who flaws (I could go on and on…), but the impish second Doctor’s return and Omega’s introduction (watch this space) make this entry entertaining and more accessible than most. ***[/5]

Paul Clarke

I'd venture to suggest that 'The Three Doctors' is worse than in its immediate predecessor, except that I might get lynched; certainly, I find 'The Time Monster' easier to sit through. I was going to start by describing what I like about this story, but I couldn't really think of anything. So I'll start with the least negative thing I can think of.

The interaction between the different incarnations of the Doctor is of course the main selling point of 'The Three Doctors'. It is unfortunate that William Hartnell was in such poor health by this time that he has a very minor role, appearing only on the TARDIS scanner. I'm certainly not churlish enough to criticize Hartnell for being terminally ill, and I'm glad that he got the opportunity to play a role in a story celebrating the anniversary of the series the success of which he was instrumental in establishing. Whilst Hartnell's health means that the First Doctor is a mere shadow of his former self, there are brief glimpses of the indomitable old character from his era, and this is probably my favourite aspect of 'The Three Doctors'.

The other two Doctors however, are rather less entertaining than they should be. Troughton seems incapable of putting in a bad performance, so I suspect the problems with his performance here stem from the script, which reduce his Doctor to a caricature. Try and recall the Doctor who appeared in 'The Evil of the Daleks', 'The Tomb of the Cybermen', 'The Seeds of Death', or 'The War Games' and compare him with the Second Doctor here; the Second Doctor's fierce intelligence and palpable sense of urgency during times of danger are played down here so that his clown-like characteristics can be brought to the fore. Possibly Baker and Martin feel the need to pigeonhole him into the description ascribed to him by the First Doctor in their script, but the result is a Second Doctor who is in most ways watered down, and in one or two others grossly exaggerated. His constant prattling about his recorder annoys me just as much as it annoys Omega.

Unfortunately, Pertwee isn't much better here either. As in 'The Time Monster', he seems to be on autopilot, and for the second story in a row this results in a threat to the entire universe being woefully underplayed. A good example is during the Third Doctor's scenes with Omega before his previous incarnation turns up; presumably, the Doctor is both humouring Omega and also suffering slightly from the fact that he is overawed at meeting a legend. Sadly, Pertwee fails to convey this and instead the Doctor just gives the impression that he's wondering when Omega will get around to offering him a cup of tea. As with 'The Time Monster', compare this with the Doctor's sense of urgency in 'The Dæmons', which despite being another story of which I'm none to fond, does demonstrate how well Pertwee can portray urgency and a sense of impending doom. The actual interaction between the Doctors has some merit, but personally I only find it interesting when they are cooperating; the bickering between the Second and Third Doctors seems to give Troughton and Pertwee their cue to start hamming their parts up.

So that's the Doctor's out of the way; let's move onto the villain. Omega is potentially a rather sympathetic villain, who is clearly shown by the script to have been driven insane by millennia of solitude. In practice however, he's an over-the-top pantomime villain, thanks to Stephen Thorne's painfully unsubtle performance. Especially cringe-worthy is his bellowing cry of "Whaaaaaaat?!" when he discovers that the Doctors have escaped. When Omega is in jovial mood, Thorne sounds as though he's reading his lines for the first time and has had time to practice. When he's angry, he just sounds melodramatic without actually being convincing. I noticed on this occasion in particular just how stagy the scenes set in Omega's palace actually are, due partly to the sets (the rather tacky walls contrast unpleasantly with a bare studio floor), and the fact that Thorne gives the impression throughout that he is concentrating very hard on spotting his next cue.

Then we have the Time Lords. There are two ways to demystify the all-powerful Time Lords first seen in 'The War Games'. The first is to present them as a thoroughly corrupt race of politicians as Robert Holmes does later in 'The Deadly Assassin'. The second is to have them portrayed by wooden actors spouting stilted dialogue in a day-glow nightmare of a set. Roy Purcell is especially dire as the President. And there's very little else to say about them.

What of the other regulars? Katy Manning is as good as ever, but Jo is present purely so that the presence of two Doctors can be explained in very laboured fashion. She does very little else here. She also plays a role in another cringe-worthy moment, after the Doctors have conjured up a door in the cell in Omega's palace. Again demonstrating the complete lack of anything approaching dramatic tension in this story, she and Benton are the last to leave after the Doctors and Tyler. Rather than rushing quickly out of their prison, they laugh about the others having all the fun and jog casually through the door. Nice to know they aren't worried about the prospect of universal Armageddon then… Benton is generally OK here, and I'm extremely grateful that with all the rubbish present here we are spared the addition of Mike Yates. However, Benton gets another terrible moment, in the TARDIS in episode one; the Second Doctor appears, the two Doctors start arguing and trying to explain the situation to Jo. Benton remains silent for a couple of minutes and then suddenly exclaims "Doctor! Where did you spring from?", as he greets the Second Doctor. This is again an example of bad scripting and sloppy direction, as it rather makes it appear that he has been waiting for his cue and has missed it because he hasn't been paying attention. And then there's the Brigadier…

By 'The Three Doctors' the Brigadier's character has reached an all time low. The intelligent military leader of Season Seven is long gone and has been replaced by an imbecile. The exaggerated coziness of the "UNIT family" has become so absurd here that Lethbridge-Stewart is reduced to a comic foil. Benton, one of the Brigadier's subordinates, has no problem understanding the events taking place around him, accepting two Doctors and the transportation of UNIT headquarters with ease. The Brigadier on the other hand understands nothing, presumably because Baker and Martin mistakenly think that this makes for a witty time for the viewer. In short, the Brigadier seems far less intelligent than his sergeant, which cheapens his character enormously. He's also lost the considerable air of authority that he once had, now seeming petulant rather than commanding when he orders Benton to search for Tyler for example.

I've mentioned this briefly already, but the script is diabolical. It is almost inconceivable that a story a mere four episodes long and featuring three Doctors could feel padded, and yet this is the case here. In episode four, as the various humans captured by Omega return home, we get a very tedious few minutes as they step one by one into the column of smoke. They could have been transported by a wave of Omega's hand, or stepped into the column as a group, but instead we get unnecessary prevarication in order to pad out the episode. In episode one, the explanation of how there are suddenly two Doctors present is both laboured and strangely over-complicated. This is not a complex issue at its most basic level, and based on the model of time travel adopted by the series; if you could travel in time, you could meet your younger self. Explaining regeneration is perhaps more difficult, but the Brigadier seemed to cope with it well enough in 'Spearhead from Space'. Here, we get a very tiresome and drawn-out interchange as the Doctors try and explain things to Jo, and therefore the viewers. It feels extremely patronizing and contributes to the feeling that 'The Three Doctors' is padded. Episode Two is even more padded, achieving little except to offer a cliffhanger very similar to that of Episode One, but on a slightly larger scale. And speaking of cliffhangers, the fight scene at the end of Episode Three is one of the worst in the series to date.

There are only two supporting characters of note; Ollis and Tyler. Ollis is utterly superfluous beyond the opening scenes of episode one, suggesting that Baker and Martin suddenly realized that they were stuck with him and decided to have him tag along with the Brigadier and the others. Tyler is present simply to ask scientific questions to the Doctors, which results in the Doctor explaining things to the audience through Tyler rather than Jo. The entire story is a self-indulgent mess and a poor excuse for a celebration.