The Three Doctors [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

The Three Doctors

Starring Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor.
Guest Starring Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor and William Hartnell as the First Doctor.
Companion:  Katy Manning as Jo Grant.
Recurring Characters: Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and John Levene as Sgt. Benton.
Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin.  Directed by Lennie Mayne.

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  December 1972 – January 1973  (Episodes 1-4 of Season 10)

The Three Doctors is historically significant in the world of Doctor Who for a variety of reasons. It’s considered to be the tenth anniversary special for the series, although in truth aired closer to the ninth anniversary of the series (although at the start of the show’s tenth season). It’s the first time any past Doctors returned to the show, it’s the last time William Hartnell played the character, and it’s the very first “multi-Doctor” story, in which the Time Lord is shown interacting with his prior incarnations.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Three Doctors has all the typical strengths and weaknesses of typical stories of the era. Doctor Who had been filmed in color in a primarily modern-day setting for three seasons now. Though these were exciting qualities, they also revealed the limitations of the production more bluntly then black and white, alien settings did. There is just something starkly ridiculous about seeing the big blobbly gel-monsters roaming around the UNIT headquarters lawn, and Omega’s anti-matter realm is very clearly an average looking quarry.

But these are small prices to pay for the benefit of seeing the real strength of the serial, which is the return of Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor. Troughton’s performance is everything we could want it to be, with his child-like twinkle and disarming (apparent) foolishness on full display. Troughton and Jon Pertwee create an immediate rapport, playing off of each other to a great humorous effect, and in a way that gives both actors a chance to shine.

Sadly, we don’t get to see the same sort of return to form for William Hartnell, whose ill-health made it impossible for him to fully participate in the story. The compromise was to have Hartnell film a few scenes from his home, and to write the story in a way that left the First Doctor as a figure on a screen, trapped in some sort of vessel. The actor and the production team gave it their best shot, though and we get a few glimpses in his dialogue of the sort of interaction he might have had if he’d been able to be fully present. If only, if only.

The Three Doctors delves into the Time Lords as a people more than any story since they were introduced in The War Games. Having Omega be a figure from their own mythology and history was the perfect move for this tenth anniversary special, helping to set the character apart from the garden variety maniac. Stephen Thorne starts off playing the character a bit blandly, but ends up delivering quite a strong performance as the increasingly despairing Time Lord. The scene where the Doctors realize that Omega has lost all his physical form is quite chilling.

In spite of the extra Doctors, The Three Doctors still makes decent use of the regular supporting cast, with the Brigadier and Jo Grant having solid roles, and with Sergeant Benton having one of his best parts. The Brigadier and Benton take their first trips in the TARDIS, and Benton’s visit is even accompanied by the Doctor pointing out for the first time in the series that it’s “bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.”

I also enjoyed Laurie Webb as the understated Mr. Ollis–he had some fun interaction with the Brigadier. Less successful is the character of Professor Tyler, who after his early appearances seems to be there only to waste our time, especially when we already have the Brigadier and Benton around. It’s particularly annoying to watch him be protective of the more experienced Jo Grant–that feels to be a product of the era the show is from, as if Jo had to have someone hold her hand while they were running around just because she’s a girl.

I also was slightly confused by the ending. I like the whole thing with the recorder accidentally not being converted to anti-matter…but was there any reason the Doctors had to wait for Omega to hit it before they exposed it to the rest of the anti-matter world? Could the Doctors not just have thrown it to the ground immediately?

Oh well, it’s a small matter. The story has both bigger weaknesses and bigger strengths. For the opportunity to revisit Patrick Troughton, and to farewell William Hartnell, it’s worth a watch.

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