Ah, so you’re my replacements. A dandy and a clown.
Certain Doctor Who stories stand out in the series because of their plots, others for their villains or their effects, for good or for ill. Season Ten opener “The Three Doctors” (Story Production Code RRR), by regulars Bob Baker and Dave Martin, remains remarkable due to the casting: all three Doctors to date, in the same place (mostly) at the same time. Beyond the surface conceit, however, “The Three Doctors” also occupies a special place in the series because Baker and Martin deepen the backstory of the Time Lords, giving viewers the clearest insight yet into this heretofore mysterious race of regenerating time travellers. Too, they inadvertently point out that the series requires a single strong lead figure, with companions relegated to an assistant role—too many Doctors spoil the soup.
Earth is once more in danger due to the Doctor’s presence on the planet, this time from exceedingly strong cosmic ray bolts that serve as a conduit from a gigantic black hole, depositing bulbous, shambling creatures with a predilection towards explosions, all of which are programmed to seek out the Doctor. The bolts work both ways, and before long several people (not to mention laboratory equipment and, eventually, a chalet) are scooped up and sent into whatever awaits in the middle of the black hole. OK, it’s a quarry at the other end, but it’s an anti-matter quarry sustained by the will of Omega, a revered hero of the Time Lords.
Once the Time Lords uncovered the secret of time travel, they still needed an energy source to power their actual travel through time. Omega, the foremost solar engineer amongst the ancient Time Lords, provided such power but was thought lost in the resulting supernova. Unbeknownst to the Time Lords, however, Omega instead remained trapped beyond the event horizon of a black hole, and through the sheer force of his will, he harnesses the power of the singularity at the heart of the black hole to create a pocket of matter in a sea of anti-matter. And there he has waited, for countless thousands of years, alone, the desire for revenge growing constantly.
To take his vengeance, Omega begins to drain the power from the Time Lords’ energy source, using the threat of their annihilation (and, coincidentally, that of the universe) as leverage to force the Doctor to take his place. Omega cannot escape unless a sufficiently powerful will remains behind to sustain the conduit. But because the Time Lords, in their desperation, violate the First Law of Time™ and cross the Doctor’s time stream not once, but twice. Omega has three Doctors with whom to contend—as does the Brigadier, who frankly thinks one is enough…
The Second Doctor appears in the TARDIS after the Third Doctor sends an emergency signal to the Time Lords once he realizes he cannot defeat the creatures sent to hunt him. Baker and Martin play up the shock (and horror) that both Doctors feel upon being confronted with their past/future self, and both Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton seem to enjoy the experience, even if the Second Doctor’s character tends to be reduced to the caricature of a recorder-playing wise fool (and, to their credit, Baker and Martin actually make the Second Doctor’s flute play a significant role in the story’s outcome).
Jo, of course, has never met the Second Doctor, and she allows for much of the initial “him/me” interplay that Pertwee and Troughton indulge in:
Jo: “Is he really you?”
Third Doctor: “Yes, yes, I’m afraid so.”
Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Sergeant Benton serve as the audience’s link to the Second Doctor, having dealt with him before during “The Web of Fear” and “The Invasion,” both stories being explicitly referenced. The Brigadier does not initially see both Doctors at once, encountering the Second Doctor after the Third has been whisked away to Omega’s lair, and he shrugs off the Doctor’s seeming reversion, exclaiming, “As long as he does the job, he can wear what face he likes.”
There’s no such linkage for the First Doctor—almost nothing remains of the show that William Hartnell spearheaded some ten years prior, and owing to his health, he only appears on a poorly lit screen in the TARDIS and in the Time Lord control center, rather than with the other actors. Regardless, he puts on a good show, and while he, like Troughton, is written according to the broad strokes of caricature, irascible, impatient, and brooking no foolishness, he reinhabits the character as though not a day has passed. One can sense the respect—perhaps even reverence—that Troughton, Pertwee, and the rest of the cast show to Hartnell, who uses his limited time on the screen to wonderful effect.
With the First Doctor sidelined in an advisory role, it’s up to the Second and Third Doctors to confront Omega. Two heads may be better than one (particularly when they join in telepathic contact), but their styles contrast to such an extent that they get in one another’s way. The Second Doctor bristles at being sidelined in a pseudo-companion role, refusing to be presented as such to UNIT High Command in Geneva and recoiling when the Third Doctor tries to pass him off as just another person swept up by the blobular creatures.
Their interactions make clear that Doctor Who needs a strong central figure—namely, the Doctor—and goes some way to explaining why, for most of the next several years, no one who could challenge the Doctor in a “leading man” role will appear alongside whatever actor is in the part. Though as a fan, it’s a joy to watch Troughton and Pertwee on screen together, as a more objective observer, one is struck by how poorly the plot moves along when trying to give each actor enough of a leading role to satisfy him and his fans.
The story’s resolution hinges not on either character’s personality or willpower or decision; rather, in a flute ex machina, the anti-matter Omega is tricked into annihilating himself by grabbing the Second Doctor’s recorder (conveniently still made of normal matter, somehow, after being stuck in a TARDIS force field). The resulting explosion causes a second supernova with which the Time Lords replenish their drained energy stores.
In a way, this story represents one of the earliest examples of “fan service,” that practice of putting on screen situations that barely cohere, in a narrative sense, but reward attentive viewers for their continued fandom. The Second Doctor’s flute saves the day, and in consequence, that prop of his stands in as shorthand for the Second Doctor up to the present time, even though his use of it during his actual tenure on the series must be said to be marginal at best.
As Doctor Who continues to develop a rich back history, such opportunities for inserting little in-jokes and references, obscure or otherwise, will continue to present a minefield. Too many references and more casual viewers will feel lost; not enough, and more dedicated viewers feel little repayment for their close attention. It’s a balance that the series doesn’t often get right, but here, on their first such outing, old home week feels fresh and fun.
It’s a pleasant enough story with some delightful bon mots, many of which fall to Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier to deliver: “Three of them. I didn’t know when I was well off.” Indeed, of all the series regulars, he gets the best of this script, particularly when he sees the interior of the TARDIS for the first time. One would have thought he (and Benton) would have peeked in at some point over the last year or so the blue box has been parked in his headquarters.
Katy Manning has little at all to do, perhaps because the Second and Third Doctor together take up the space that a companion would usually occupy. Throw in a gratuitous country yokel and a curious yet cowardly scientist, and there’s no room for Jo in this story beyond taking up a seat in ol’ Bessie.
Happily, though, the Time Lords themselves use the term “companion” when referring to Jo, marking the most official use yet of that word:
Time Lord President: “And the other?”
Time Lord Chancellor: “He, together with his companion, has passed into the black hole.”
The development of the Time Lords in “The Three Doctors” will have reverberations into the future of the series, even as they recede somewhat into the background for a while by giving the Third Doctor back his dematerialization circuit and knowledge of the TARDIS’ dematerialization codes. He is now free to roam about at will. It took saving not the universe, but the Time Lords themselves, for the Doctor to be forgiven for having intervened once too many times.
The writers avoid a sombre ending, with the Third Doctor downhearted by the death of Omega, who, despite his ravings, was a hero of his; nor even focusing much on Jo’s fear that the Doctor will leave Earth—and her—behind now that he can go wherever and whenever he pleases. Instead, we conclude with the the Brigadier ordering Benton around and the country yokel, exiled for days in an anti-matter quarry, asking his befuddled wife if supper is ready.
Still, a little hackneyed humor seems a small price to pay to have Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell back, if only for a story.
(Previous Story: The Time Monster)
(Next Story: Carnival of Monsters)
Post 67 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project