On this day, the 23rd of November, in 1963, the longest-running and most successful science-fiction television series ever, Doctor Who, first aired on BBC One in the United Kingdom. Since then, the rogue Time Lord has gone through numerous incarnations, travelled throughout the entirety of the past, present, and the future, and is widely celebrated as one of the most iconic and recognisable mainstream cultural icons in the world.
Air Date: 30 December 1972 to 20 January 1973
UK Network: BBC One
Stars: Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, Stephen Thorne, Katy Manning, Nicholas Courtney, and William Hartnell
In 1963, the Head of Drama at the BBC, Sydney Newman, commissioned a show to fill a gap in the BBC’s schedule that would appeal to both children and adults alike. After writer Cecil Webber created a brief outline for Dr. Who, a collaborative effort saw the concept refined into the debut episode, An Unearthly Child (Hussein, 1963), and Doctor Who captivated audiences with the following episode, which introduced the long-running and iconic antagonists, the Daleks. Doctor Who attracted strong ratings during its first season but, by 1996, star William Hartnell’s health was becoming an increasing concern, so story editor Gerry Davis came up with a genius idea to allow the actor to step away from the role while continuing the show. Davis conjured the idea of “regeneration”, a process all Time Lords would undergo when mortally injured or at the end of their lives and which would allow them to take on a new face and altered persona up to thirteen times. Patrick Troughton took over the role, eventually becoming one of the most beloved incarnations of the Doctor despite a great number of his episodes being lost. Fearing being typecast, and fatigued by the gruelling shooting schedule, Troughton left the role three years later and my first, favourite Doctor, John Pertwee, was brought on for the show’s big debut in full-colour and became one of the character’s most popular incarnations. In 1972, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the series, Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks decided to bring together the three actors responsible for the show’s success in the first of many multi-Doctor crossovers. Sadly, Hartnell’s poor health kept him from participating as heavily as was originally intended, but the four-episode serial drew strong ratings and decent reviews, despite some criticisms of the script and characterisation of the main villain.
Omega (Thorne), the solar engineer responsible for the Time Lords’ ability to travel in time, seeks revenge on the Time Lords after they left for dead in a universe made of antimatter. Desperate for aid, the Time Lords bend their laws to recruit three incarnations of the Doctor (Pertwee, Troughton, and Hartnell) for aid when Omega drains their civilisation’s power and threatens their destruction.
I’ve always enjoyed the spectacle of multi-Doctor stories; Doctor Who is one of the few television shows or science-fiction properties where you can easily have an in-built excuse to have previous actors meeting up and going on a little adventure together, and something about seeing the past incarnations of the Doctor interact has always been appealing to me. I think a lot of it stems from the fact that Doctor Who wasn’t on television when I was a kid; they didn’t even air reruns of the show, so watching it was extremely difficult, but I grew up reading the novelisations by Terrance Dicks and had always tried to consume as much of the early days of the show as I could (within reason; a lot of it is unavailable of hasn’t aged too well). The top of my list, alongside the various Dalek adventures, were the multi-Doctor stories, and I’d always had a particular fascination for The Three Doctors (Mayne, 1972 to 1973). This is probably because it was the first of such crossovers but, either way, these types of stories have always been a favourite of mine, even if they’re not always actually that good.
The Three Doctors is a four-part adventure set during John Pertwee’s tenure as the Third Doctor; after being captured and tried by the Time Lords at the conclusion of his second incarnation (and, apparently, as a cost saving measure) the Doctor was forced to regenerate into his third incarnation and left stranded on Earth, where he worked as a scientific advisor alongside the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) and continually tried, in vain, to repair his disabled time machine, the Time And Relative Dimension In Space (TARDIS). Accordingly, The Three Doctors begins in much the same way as many of the Doctor’s adventures during this time (and beyond): on Earth. While investigating cosmic rays, Doctor Tyler (Rex Robinson) comes across a series of unexplained, faster-than-light signals that leave him, and especially UNIT’s commanding officer, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Courtney), stumped. Intrigued by the signal, which appears to defy all known laws of physics, the Doctor takes Jo Grant (Manning) with him to investigate, unaware that the mysterious signal is causing those that tune into it to be abducted by a flash of light and bringing with it a strange, amorphous blob. This bizarre piece of camera trickery is intent on abducting the Doctor (with the others being taken purely by chance) but, rather than go out searching for the creature, the Doctor insists that they simply stay put and wait for it to find them, which results in a number of UNIT solders being killed when a number of aggressive, seemingly indestructible gelatinous aliens storm the UNIT base. Taking refuge in the TARDIS, but unable to flee, the Doctor begrudgingly sends a call for help to the Time Lords, who find themselves equally under siege from an energy-draining beam emitted from the void of a black hole. Although they cannot spare the energy and manpower (such as it is) to directly assist the Doctor, the Time Lord President (Roy Purcell) violates the First Law of Time by having the Second Doctor materialise in the Third Doctor’s TARDIS to help.
Unimpressed with his successor’s redesign of the TARDIS, the two Doctors immediately struggle to get along; both claim to be the real deal, both want to take charge of the situation, and both believe that they are more than up to the task without the other. Even after bringing the Second Doctor up to date with the situation via an awkward telepathic conference, the two Doctors continue to bicker, primarily because the Second Doctor continually gets distracted by his recorder and interfering with the TARDIS. In order to ensure that the two are more effectively able to pool their resources, the President bends time and space ever further by drafting the First Doctor to keep them in order. Though unable to physically materialise due to the Time Lord’s failing power, the First Doctor advises from the TARDIS viewscreen and is unimpressed with both of his replacements, whom he views as “a dandy and a clown”, and their inability to co-operate, but still able to identify the blob as a “time breach” that is intended for crossing through time and space. Much to the shock of Sergeant Benton (John Levene), who stays behind as the Second Doctor’s makeshift assistant, the Third Doctor allows himself to be taken by the time breach, but accidentally takes Jo with him. The two materialise in an antimatter universe full of the objects and people taken by the blob, and the same alien creatures attacking UNIT, where they reunite with Dr. Tyler, who agrees on the impossibility of their situation, all while being completely unaware that they’re being monitored by a mysterious, armoured individual who commands the blob-like creatures. Despite Dr. Tyler’s insistence they should try to escape and his scepticism regarding the antimatter universe, the Third Doctor’s wish to meet their host is granted and he is awestruck to come face-to-face with the legendary Time Lord, Omega. An enigmatic former scientist trapped in a regal armour, Omega is determined to avenge himself on his fellow Time Lords, whom he feels abandoned him to the antimatter universe after discovering the secret of time travel.
On the advice of the First Doctor, the Second Doctor disables the TARDIS’s forcefield and allows the entirety of UNIT headquarters to be transported to the antimatter universe, much to the Brigadier’s chagrin, and the Second Doctor and Sgt. Benton are captured and brought to Omega almost immediately. Omega is as angered at the Second Doctor’s attempts to deceive him as he is by the Third Doctor’s insistence that Omega is revered and honoured as a hero, by both himself and the other Time Lords. Omega cannot let go of his hatred and affront at his brethren and, apparently having been driven half-mad by his exile, desires to become a God. With completely mastery over his antimatter universe, Omega is freely able to conjure objects out of thin air and reveals that he survived his dangerous and deadly excursion into the black hole through sheer force of will. However, when the two Doctors stand opposed to Omega’s destructive intentions, the exiled Time Lord engages the Third Doctor in a telepathic battle against the “dark side of [his] mind” in an awkward slow-motion fight sequence that sees even the Doctor’s Venusian aikido overwhelmed. The timely intervention of the Second Doctor spares the Third Doctor’s life and convinces both of Omega’s unconquerable power; as powerful as Omega is, however, he requires the Doctor’s assistance to be free of his antimatter prison since he is forever bound to that world (the moment he tries to will himself to escape, he will ensure his destruction, and he only continues to exist because of his world). Wishing for the Doctor to take his place and allow him to escape, Omega has the two remove his mask, which they will require to keep the antimatter universe intact. However, Omega is enraged to discover that he has become a being of pure will, with no physical form, and is therefore unable to ever be free from his prison.
Pushed to the edge of his sanity, Omega resolves to destroy everything in a fit of rage, driving the Doctors and their companions back into the TARDIS, where the First Doctor leads another telepathic conference that directs them towards the TARDIS’s forcefield generator, which they hope to use to bargain for their freedom, and with it the very key to defeating Omega. All throughout the serial, the Second Doctor has been banging on about his recorder, having lost it early into the story; it turns out that it fell into the forcefield generator, and as a result was not converted from matter to antimatter. Initially, the Doctors planned to offer to use the forcefield generator to free Omega, but by this point the insane Time Lord has become content to live out his exile alongside his fellow Time Lords and thus spare their universe and friends from his reprisals. Infuriated at the Doctors’ attempts to placate him with “trinkets”, Omega casts the forcefield generator aside, thereby destroying himself and his antimatter universe when the unconverted recorder falls to the floor. The two Doctors are returned to Earth triumphant, though the Third Doctor laments that he/they couldn’t offer Omega any freedom other than death and the Second Doctor bemoans the loss of his recorder. After bidding farewell to the First Doctor, and an amicable parting between the Third and Second Doctors, Third Doctor is elated to find that the Time Lords have restored his knowledge of how to travel through time and space, and provided the TARDIS with a new dematerialisation circuit, thus ending his exile on Earth and restoring his freedom at long last.
When watching early Doctor Who episodes, it’s best to do so without a massively critical mindset. If you go into it expecting groundbreaking special effects and production design then you’re obviously going to be a little disappointed, and The Three Doctors is no different. The weird, blob-like entity that captures the Doctor is pretty laughable now, being a mere trick of light spliced into every scene its in, and is surpassed only by Omega’s odd gel creatures that shamble all over the place looking ridiculous. Omega’s antimatter throne room is pretty impressive though, and certainly far more visually interesting than the Time Lords’ control centre, and I won’t begrudge the serial for being hampered by the budget and technology of the time. Furthermore, I’ve always been impressed and amused by the ingenuity and adaptability of early Doctor Who; back then, with little money and some spray-painted Styrofoam, the showrunners would have the Doctor visit all kinds of strange, alien worlds or creature ridiculous alien lifeforms but, these days, it seems like the Doctor is constantly anchored to Earth. To be fair, the Third Doctor was similarly handicapped, but just one episode of modern Doctor Who probably has more money behind it than the entire first series of the Third Doctor’s adventures so you’d think that the showrunners could have him/her stray away from London every once in a while.
What makes the serial work, and what has always made Doctor Who work, is the fantastic use of characters, such as the Brigadier, whose stiff-upperlipedness always lends itself to some amusing moments as he would be frequently bamboozled by the Doctor’s technobabble and the increasingly bizarre events happening around him, and finding the return of (from his point of view) the first Doctor only perplexes him further. This serial also marks the first time that the Brigadier enters the TARDIS, which is an interesting statistic, and much of the comedy comes from his frustration with the Second Doctor’s easily distracted nature and inability to understand all of the complex time travel mumbo-jumbo happening around him. In comparison, Sgt. Benton is far more adaptable and willing to take the Second Doctor’s lead, though his trigger-happy nature clashes with the Doctor’s more pacifistic approach to matters. Although she’s not a scientist, Jo is probably one of the Doctor’s more capable assistants from around this time; she makes up for her lack of scientific knowledge with a boundless enthusiasm, does a good job of translating the Doctor’s technobabble, and catches on to the serial’s bizarre events far quicker than the Brigadier. In an interesting twist, the Time Lords find themselves in an unusual position where they have no choice but to break their own laws; though their energy is being drained and their civilisation and very way of life is threatened, the Chancellor (Clyde Pollitt) vehemently objects to the President’s actions, despite there apparently being no other option available to them. Although the Doctor has no love for the Time Lords or their stringent rules, he’s directly opposed to Omega’s plot to eradicate Gallifrey since the Doctor is all about the preservation of life. Those who are only familiar with modern-day Doctor Who may be surprised to see other Time Lords in this serial, particularly a Time Lord antagonist who isn’t the Master (Various), and I would love for the show to bring back some of the other antagonistic Time Lords as it really does help flesh out the universe beyond it always being the Doctor and the Master over and over again. Omega makes for a bombastic and intriguing villain composed entirely of antimatter and fuelled only by rage; he resents being left in exile and is so consumed by his lust for power and vengeance that he refuses to listen to the Third Doctor’s pleads that he (as in Omega) hasn’t been forgotten and brings about his own end simply because his rage and solitude have left him unable to control his emotions.
Of course, like all multi-Doctor stories, the main appeal of The Three Doctors is seeing the Doctor interact with his other incarnations. While it’s disappointing that the First Doctor was unable to take a more active role in the serial, making this more like The Two-and-a-Half Doctors, it’s interesting seeing his characterisation here; although the oldest actor of the three, the First Doctor is technically the youngest and least experienced of the Doctor’s incarnations, something which comes up in subsequent stories, so it’s somewhat amusing that he’s the more mature and rational of the three. While the Second and Third Doctors constantly bicker and get on each other’s nerves, the First Doctor remains impassive and logical, deducing solutions and offering insight that his successors have missed due to their more flamboyant natures. The Second Doctor is annoyed when the Brigadier describes him as the Third Doctor’s “assistant” and the Third Doctor finds the presence of his predecessor an unnecessary and dangerous event, at best, and an insult at worst. It is only when they and their companions are captured by Omega that the two Doctors finally set aside their grievances and agree to work together and, encouraged by Jo, are able to manipulate Omega’s antimatter universe in their favour. It’s great seeing the how different, and yet similar, all three incarnations of the Doctor are; each are extremely intelligent, proud, and stubborn Time Lords with their own aristocratic flair, and the more mischievous nature of the Second Doctor riles up not only his successor but both the Brigadier and Omega as well. While the Third Doctor is much more in control of his emotions, he frequently lets his predecessor’s playful ways get under his skin, and only the wise council of the First Doctor can help keep the three focused on the greater task at hand.
What did you think to The Three Doctors? Are you a fan of multi-Doctor adventures or do you find that they’re confusing and lacklustre affairs? Which of the first three Doctors was your favourite and what did you think to their interactions with each other? Were you disappointed that William Hartnell was unable to properly participate in the adventure, and what did you think to Omega? Would you like to see Omega and other antagonistic Time Lords return to the series or do you prefer the Doctor to be from a near-extinct race? How are you celebrating Doctor Who Day today? Let me know your thoughts on Doctor Who and its first multi-Doctor adventure down in the comments by signing up, or leave a reply on my social media.