When I first discovered Outpost Gallifrey’s reviews, I was honestly surprised to find negative opinions of “The Three Doctors”. I can understand fans having issues with “The Web Planet” or “The Underwater Menace” for example, both stories I happen to like but which admittedly have genuine problems. But how can anyone dislike a story as entertaining as this one? There are times when you have to simply get off the high horse and enjoy what you’re watching. Unlike some current Doctor Who stories (*coughArmyofGhostscough*) the problems in “The Three Doctors” don’t render the story unwatchable or unworkable. They are irritants, which don’t detract too much from an otherwise wonderful anniversary story.
Does the story have some downsides? Yes, and I’ll get those out of the way early on. My major gripe is the portrayal of the Time Lords. They are indeed poorly acted for the most part. “The War Games” made them almost frightening in their power. “Terror of the Autons” damages that reputation somewhat, but the lone Time Lord is gone rather quickly and doesn’t have time to do much harm. “Colony in Space” gives us a brief glimpse of them once again as shadowy manipulators, and establishes the premise used so often later on that they employ the Doctor from time to time to do some work for them. But then we come to “The Three Doctors”, and the Time Lords are very plain, very ordinary, and very quarrelsome and impotent people in long robes. There’s no subtlety or imagination in their presentation. It’s very straightforward, and very disappointing. However, it’s cool to see some familiar faces in the form of Clyde Pollit (The War Games) and Graham Leaman (Colony in Space), making for some unobtrusive continuity with past serials. Clyde Pollit’s character has presumably been in charge of the Doctor’s exile since “The War Games”, which is a nice touch since the exile ends in this story.
My only other major gripe is the incredibly stubborn refusal to believe what’s happening that is exhibited by the Brigadier, when even Sergeant Benton works it out rather quickly. This was seen just last story as well, when the Brigadier doesn’t understand the explanation for TOMTIT, but Benton does. But then again, as I understand it, much of Benton’s part was originally written for Jamie, who would have been used to the craziness that follows the Doctor around after spending so much time in his company, and it’s a pity Frazer Hines wasn’t in the story. Even with that, there’s no denying Lethbridge-Stewart’s lack of intelligence during portions of the story, particularly during the “that’s a beach out there!” argument he has with Sgt. Benton. This has to be the character’s lowest ebb, after which he begins to climb back towards respectibility. However, he still exhibits some fine qualities during the course of the story and I’ll detail those later on.
Apart from those nitpicks, I love this story. It’s the sort of grand, “universe in danger” tale that only Doctor Who really attempts, and for the most part it’s conveyed fairly well. It ties into the history of the Time Lords, and really builds some Doctor Who mythology. And it allows the viewer to look back fondly by bringing together all of the actors who have played the Doctor up to this point.
The interaction between the different incarnations of the Doctor is inspired. I certainly didn’t expect them to start arguing when I first saw this story. I expected the Doctor to nobly cooperate with himself to solve the problem, but of course, that doesn’t happen. And the story is far better for it. Watching Pertwee and Troughton go at each other is some of the funniest stuff the show has attempted. And it makes perfect sense really. The Doctor always seems to prefer his current persona to past ones with those irritating character traits. How many of us would like it if we were surrounded by friends and co-workers, and our teenage self popped into existence beside us? I imagine it would be quite embarassing. How much more so for the Doctor? To come face to face with one of those past personas would be an unwelcome reminder of what he used to be. In any case, I can’t get enough of watching it. The only downside is that, no matter how much I like Pertwee, seeing Troughton’s Doctor again reminds me just how much more I liked his version of the character.
Those feelings are compounded when William Hartnell puts in his appearance. I’ve become a huge Hartnell fan, and while Troughton gets a good portion of screen time, Hartnell does not, for obvious reasons. His appearance in the show is touching, and wonderful, and sad all at the same time because there’s so little of it. I’d love for the first Doctor to have participated far more than he did, and the few brief moments where he’s on the screen really do make me look back with nostalgia. Thank goodness for DVD. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to watch this on transmission, be reminded of past stories, and then be unable to watch them again. It’s good that Hartnell was able to participate, and it’s good to see his version of the character again, however briefly. His almost scathing dismissal of his “replacements” is hilarious, and his final goodbye always brings a warm smile to my face. “I can’t imagine what you’ll do without me.”
I can’t dislike this story. I have too much fondness for the lead characters. Having the first three together and interacting makes up for a lot of shortcomings, perceived or otherwise.
Omega is introduced in this story. He’s the first of the founding Time Lords to appear in the series, though he’s since been surpassed in importance by Rassilon. Trapped and alone for thousands of years, it’s little wonder that he’s gone insane. I think Stephen Thorne’s portrayal is perfect for the part. Omega is a larger than life figure, very emotional and ultimately, very tragic. Thorne may be loud and bombastic, but that’s far preferable to flat and boring. And it’s appropriate for someone who’s been alone for a long time, and has had no need to conform his emotions to societal norms in consideration of others. Omega expresses himself in whatever way he wants. Thorne brings Omega and his mood swings to life vividly, and perhaps more crucially, he keeps the character from being lost when playing the villain opposite two Doctors, which was surely not an easy task.
Moving on to the plot, it’s reasonably sound and certainly broad in scope. At its heart it’s a story about revenge and freedom, both sound motivations for action. It takes one of their legendary founders to actually threaten the Time Lords, but under threat they are. So much so that they feel the need to break their own laws to get out of the predicament. One wonders what would have happened if they still didn’t know where the Doctor was and had to solve the problem themselves.
Overall, I really enjoy “The Three Doctors”. It’s not necessarily deep or thoughtful, but the plot is sound, and it is great to see Hartnell and Troughton again. I think I prefer this to the other two multi-Doctor stories, as much as I like both. It’s well worth seeing, and tremendously enjoyable.