The Three Doctors is one of those rare Doctor Who stories that sound better on paper than they do on television. These sorts of stories don't happen very often but every now and again, one will crop up that was so obviously fraught with issues that you wonder why it was ever made. Kicking off the tenth series of the show and celebrating the tenth anniversary of the show it brought together the first three incarnations of the Doctor for the special event. The story also served to wrap up one of the longest running plot threads of that time with the Time Lords lifting the Doctor's exile and once again allowing him to travel throughout the universe.
The Three Doctors is a story which I enjoyed when I first watched it when I was a few years younger. Looking at it now, there is something about it which appeals to the younger members of the audience rather than the older rendering it a bit boring for the older viewers. Doctor Who is always at its best when it appeals and entertains its audience no matter what age the viewer is and unfortunately this story doesn't do that. Don't get me wrong, The Three Doctors isn't bad, it is just a story which is let down by the unimaginative way its brilliant ideas are handled. And it is a story which is let down by the lack of money the show had at the time. It fits in perfectly with the old Doctor Who stereotype, quarries, unconvincing monsters, sticking a companion in a mini-skirt and dumping her in a cold quarry and cheap effects. Most of these things is because of the budgeting problem which plagued the show through those early years...
It is unfortunate that most of the problems with these stories come from the script. This is surprising as it came from the minds of Bob Baker and Dave Martin, both of whom would go on to have stellar careers. But they aren't the people I would have selected to write an anniversary episode like this. And sure to form, they follow the old Who tropes almost by the book but the whole thing has no depth to it whatsoever.
What is also a shame is that the story gets off to a fairly decent start. It was nice that it opened with a direct homage to the first Jon Pertwee adventure, Spearhead from Space as a rural yokel is zapped by something falling from space. What actually lands is made by human hands and belongs to a slightly pompous Dr. Tyler who immediately begins to notice that things are wrong. Tyler quickly takes his concerns to UNIT and the Doctor and is in the middle of developing the x-rays that came from the machine when he too is zapped away. But the Doctor gets his first clue from the developed X-Ray as it shows the face of the yokel traveling down a faster-than-light energy beam that had been specifically aimed at Earth by an unknown force. It quickly turns out that bringing his concerns to the Doctor could have been the worst thing to do as the energy force quickly turns into a blobby substance that begins to zap anything that belongs to the Time Lord including his car, Bessie.
The blob quickly gets joined by a group of creatures which, while unnamed on screen, are known to fans a Gel Guards. They are quite possibly the most unconvincing and ridiculous monsters that the show has ever created. The Doctor is quickly trapped inside the UNIT building with no way out for himself, the UNIT personal or his companion, Jo Grant. Desperate for help he tries to contact the Time Lords not knowing that their power sources are being drained by the mysterious energy coming from a newly formed black hole. They manage to muster up enough energy to send the Second Doctor to Earth but only enough to hold the First Doctor in place for the occasional piece of advice.
Easily the best thing about this story is the bickering that goes on between the Third and Second Doctors. Given that this was the first time the show had ever done something like this, it was a risky move the bring all the actors together like this and ask them to share the screen. Patrick Troughton wonderfully delivers the line, "Ah, I can see you've been doing the TARDIS up a bit. Um. I don't like it!" And manages to make himself sound wonderfully catty. It makes perfect sense that, although they are the same person just different aspects of the character, that the two Doctors shouldn't get along too well. And maybe that is because they are different aspects of the same character, it could almost be considered the personification of self loathing and a demonstration of sibling rivalry to some extent.
It doesn't take William Hartnell long to turn up but in a more limited capacity. There were reasons for this as Hartnell was elderly and very ill. His Doctor is trapped to the TARDIS television screen and one can see that Hartnell was only just able to get through his lines even though he had someone holding a piece of cardboard with them on just off screen. It is very sad as this would be his final appearance as the Doctor before he passed away. He does however get the best line where he dismisses the Second and Third Doctor with a bat of the hand and says, "So your my replacements - a dandy and a clown." It is that line that is perfectly suited to the First Doctor and is the final authentic sounding line he gets to deliver. It is obvious that the character of Dr. Tyler was originally intended for the First Doctor. A marginal character like that wouldn't get that much material until he was replacing someone. The same can go for Sergeant Benton who replaced the Second Doctor's companion, Jamie after actor, Frazer Hines couldn't make the filming dates.
Actor Nicolas Courtney as the Brigadier is another of the saving graces of this story as he nearly goes insane by having to deal with two Doctors after initial trouble getting his head round the fact that there are two of them. His stepping inside the TARDIS for the first time is hiliarious as it is funny to see such a stiff upper lip like character nearly have a breakdown by the fact that the ship is bigger on the inside.
A lot of story time is devoted to the Third Doctor and Jo who get transported to a strange new world made entirely of anti-matter and have to confront the unknown big bad of the story. But like the story as a whole, the villain is one who sounded better on paper than he is on screen. The baddie behind the black hole and everything involved with it is Omega, a mysterious Time Lord who died centuries ago to allow his race to achieve time travel. Rather than being given some real power to threaten the entirety of creation with, Omega is little more than a raving mad man who strides about his throne room delivering massive monologues of exposition and rarely demonstrates the full extent of his power to make himself a particularly powerful guy. What is interesting about the character Omega is that there is something of a tragic Shakespeare anti-hero about him given that he gave his life to allow his fellow race to rise. The desperate loneliness could have given him some real pathos had it been executed right in the first place. Given the slightly shoddy writing, actor Stephen Thorne can play him as nothing more than a ranting bully. But the mask that he wears is expressionless and covers his face making him have to shout every line. And it is hard to believe that the Third Doctor believes that Omega is too intelligent to be evil given that everything that has come out of his mouth has oozed insidious intent!
But there are parallels to be drawn between the Third Doctor and Omega with both characters having been trapped somewhere by members of their own race. Omega is an interesting look into how the Doctor could have chosen to become when the Time Lords exiled him and for that aspect alone, he is an interesting villain who gets muddled slightly somewhere along the way of his creation.
The Three Doctors could be a story which might have been perfect. It certainly did the job of celebrating the show's tenth anniversary in 1973 but there is something about it nowadays which makes it quite boring to watch and there is little to get excited about. What makes the show though is the chemistry between Jon Pertwee and Patrick Trougton as their bickering gradually evolves into respect for each other. Hartnell does a good job despite the understandable lack of material he is given and the performances from everyone is top notch across the board. But the story is a little muddled mainly because it features some interesting ideas and concepts that are unimaginatively dealt with which comes across feeling like the writers had simply lost interest...