Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Three Doctors

Let's reflect for a moment on just how insane this story is: three different incarnations of the same character working together for a single story.  Think of how crazy it would be to watch a Bond movie, except with Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Timothy Dalton all playing different Bonds working together.  Or a Sherlock Holmes movie with Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Robert Downey Jr.  Or Batman with Adam West, Michael Keaton, and Christian Bale.  It's a crazy notion of metafiction, forcing together three things that are the same, and yet totally incompatible.  It's fun to mess around with that sort of thing, but the fact is that it just doesn't work on a literal level.  It's just not possible within those stories for multiple ones to exist together.  Plus, the clash of styles would be in many ways incompatible.

So it's worth noting just how crazy this show is that putting three Doctors together in the same story not only works, but seems absolutely natural and normal.

One more reason to love this show.

The Three Doctors has many imperfections, but the two most important things - satisfying use of multiple Doctors and a story worthy of them - are totally successful.

Far and away the best thing about The Three Doctors is the interplay between Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton.  Pertwee is always at his best when he has someone to undercut his dashing, larger-than-life, and often rather pompous heroism, and Troughton does it brilliantly.  He doesn't go through the motions for his guest spot; he pours himself completely back into the role, and is an absolutely delight.  And despite his impishness, he matches Pertwee for every bit of his presence.  Pertwee, pushed to the limit, rises to the challenge and gives one of his best performances as the Doctor.

And it works the other way, too; whenever Troughton starts to get too goofy and distracted, the Pertwee cuts him off and gets to the point.  They really bring out the best in each other, even when arguing too much to accomplish anything.  Their dialogue is an absolute blast to listen to.

William Hartnell was too ill to be in the full story, but he's given an important scene in each episode, and even restricted to a television screen, Hartnell easily walks off with every scene he has.  He truly loves the role, and his brief appearances are just as welcome as Troughton's.  He's still got all the presence and humor he always had in the role; it's a wonderful send-off for a wonderful actor.  It's great to see him come in and sort out his two other selves so effortlessly.

"Oh, use your intelligence!"

Bob Baker and Dave Martin were terrific choices for this episode because the one thing true about almost all their stories remains true here: they don't come up with one idea for a story, they come up with about a dozen, and pack them all in so that the story never runs out of new stuff to do.  They don't just throw several Doctors on the screen and sit back; they put some real effort into it.  The first episode is totally intriguing even in its opening fifteen minutes without Troughton, full of mysteries and monsters (about which more later). 
Also, Benton enters the TARDIS; his reaction is great.  Benton's fun throughout the story in general (which is just generally true thanks to John Levene's charm and ability to mix comic timing with credible militariness), even though he doesn't really have much to do.

Then the Time Lords show up, and it becomes obvious right away that this is much, much bigger than a couple missing people and trippy bubble monsters.  Baker and Martin write the Time Lords nicely, giving them the same immense power they showed in The War Games and then having the unseen threat drain all that power away.  They don't reveal too much about them, and they stay nicely mysterious, but they still give the few that show up in their brief scenes some sense of individuality and personality.

"But the first law of time must be obeyed!"
"It will be obeyed.  Later."

But it's also a crucial scene to making the story work: this problem isn't just another Earth invasion, it's something so powerful even the Time Lords can't do anything about it.  It's a problem worthy of more than one Doctor.

Still, it's when Troughton shows up in the last third of the first episode the story really comes to life, enhanced by Hartnell's appearance.  The increased excitement and energy builds to a brilliant crescendo in the closing moments, building a thrilling cliffhanger.

Episode 2 continues the cool ideas by taking place in an antimatter universe contained inside the singularity of a black hole.  With a water cooler sitting in the middle of it.

"Hey, surely that's the water cooler from outside the lab!"
"What's this?"
"That's the Brigadier's computer.  And look!  This is the lab door!"

Orphaned wall and lab door.  In the middle of an anti-matter universe inside the singularity of a black hole.  Consider that for a moment.  I'll wait while you collect the exploded pieces of your brain.

Yet another reason this show is so wonderful.

Unfortunately, actually looking at it, there is a problem.  This stunning idea of an antimatter universe is shown onscreen as... a gravel quarry.  Of course, Doctor Who uses gravel quarries for other planets all the time (still today, even), but somehow this seems insufficient here.  It's made worse when we find out that all this antimatter universe was created by an all-powerful, stunningly intelligent force... who lives in a cave.

Look, I get that gravel quarries are great generic otherworldly places.  They also allow for cool stuff like explosions.

But surely somewhere in England there's something a little weirder-looking, more unique that could be used as a location.  Or at least a cool model for Omega's dwelling place.  Director Lennie Mayne has a great touch when it comes to framing and lighting, but he doesn't show a whole lot of imagination.  This isn't an issue in any of his other episodes; in fact, his serial from the previous season, Curse of Peladon, had a wonderful sense of world-building.  So it's probably a lack of time and money, more than anything.  Usually, it's easy to shrug this off, but it's a little harder in a story that demands imagination.

Still, production values aside, it's a fun episode, cutting effectively between Three and Jo exploring the world and Two, Benton, and the Brigadier trying to get to them.  Speaking of which, the Brigadier gets inside the TARDIS, and Nicholas Courtney's reaction is one of the best in the entire show.

That is the look of the most unflappable of unflappable men, finally defeated by the insanity of the maddest of mad worlds.

Of course, he pulls himself together, and his discussion with the Doctor about his magic box is a gem thanks to Courtney's genius, but the dialogue is pretty great, too.  "So this is what you've been doing with UNIT equipment and funds all this time."

The Brigadier's subborn refusal to believe most of what the Doctor says in explanation is understandable, if you think about it, and it fulfills his function well - as the one sane man in a world of insanity.  Still, it drifts really close to him just being an idiot, which, unfortunately, he eventually becomes.  But I love how, when the second Doctor explains that the Time Lords have left him alone and "It's just me, and me, and me," the Brig, despite his general disbelief in the scenes, totally comprehends the power of that line.

Overall, though, the Brigadier is reduced to a comic baffoon in this, worlds away from the veteran commander of Season 7.  His increasing idiocy throughout the story is incredibly annoying.  But all the points in the multiverse to the genius of Nicholas Courtney for making it hilarious, charming, and look and sound infinitely more in character than it actually is.  And he does have some good moments, such as his recruiting of the unfortunate Ollis for a two-man assault on the fortress and some of his interplay with the Doctor.

DOCTOR: What's it like out there?
BRIGADIER: There's... well, there's sand everywhere!
DOCTOR: Oh, splendid!  Who's for a swim?

But this episode is the beginning of the end for UNIT, and it's unfortunate that this episodes trends towards making them comic idiots - something that, to be fair, has been a long way coming - continues through most of their remaining appearances.  The UNIT family, for the most part, goes out with a whimper, and that whimper starts here.

... anyway, back in the actual story, Three and Jo are brought to the villain's lair, which looks...  Man, they're trying really, really hard, to live up to the insanity of the script, and just not pulling it off,  unfortunately; it looks cheap and garish.  The same goes for the monsters, who look too comical to be particularly threatening.  Although, to be fair, even in a big budget movie of this era, I have a hard time imagining anyone short of a visual visionary like John Boorman pulling off the kinds of visuals this script is asking for.  Although, actually, considering what his '70s sci-fi movie looked like, I should probably take that back.

But you know, if I could have any Doctor Who story somehow magically directed by Stanley Kubrick on a multi-million dollar budget, this would probably be the one.

Let me not over-criticize the sets - they're cramped and cheap, but they still basically work to tell the story and develop the character of the villain.

And he is a magnificent villain.

OMEGA (I can't possibly write his name in anything less than all-caps), created by a booming Stephen Thorne voice, magnificent helmet, and an excellent concept, and a worthy villain for facing multiple Doctors.  And for all that, somehow, he's just a little off in the execution - Baker and Martin make him just a little too much a ranty megalomaniac, which, combined with Thorne's thunderous performance, sometimes gets just a little too over-the-top.  But Omega is a great villain regardless, both powerful and complex.  This is a Time Lord who survived a flight into a black hole through sheer FORCE OF WILL.  Epic stuff - an appropriately mythic villain for our Doctors.  He's earned a little monologuing.

And he's particularly perfect for Pertwee.  I love Pertwee's larger-than-life action hero version of the Doctor, but again, he gives his best performances when his presence is somehow undercut.  Where Katy Manning and Nicholas Courtney do this subtly, and Troughton does it by stealing scenes, Omega does it pretty much by just existing.  Because back when he was a Time Lord - in many ways the first Gallifreyan to become a Time Lord - he was an extraordinary scientist and personality.  He was, and still is, one of the Doctor's heroes.  

And Pertwee is really good.  There's a look in his eyes as if he's almost powerless against Omega, not so much because he can't defeat him - though it'll certainly challenge him to his limits - but because he doesn't want to have to defeat him.  Pertwee is simply sublime.

Of course, he still gets a fight scene, as Omega plunges him into a world of darkness so he can fight his dark side.  Which makes for an interesting fight scene.  Not entirely successful, to be honest, but Mayne certainly shoots it well.

In episode four, Omega has the two Doctors together unmask him so one of them can take his place and he can return to rule the Time Lords.  Though they have no intention of following him, they still raise the mask.

Omega unmasks himself in front of a mirror.  The moment is a stunner - one of many genuinely classic moments in the story.

It's then followed by a villainous rant so over-the-top, so crazed, that nobody short of Brian Blessed could have delivered it convincingly, though Thorne very nearly pulls it off.  Again, though, his occasional scenery chewing incinerating doesn't really tarnish what a fantastic character he is.

When the Three Doctors, working together, do finally come up with a plan to defeat him at the end of the story, it's a thoughtful, considered plan.  They agree to stay and share what turns out to be an eternal imprisonment with him so long as all the others brought to the universe with them are sent back.

These supporting characters in general aren't really successful in The Three Doctors.  The Brigadier, again, is largely a shadow of his former self.  Benton is fun, but basically has no function in the story.  Ollis is pretty one-dimensional, albeit one dimension that works pretty well.  Dr. Tyler fails completely, being not only completely unnecessary but only existing to ask the Doctor questions that he refuses to answer.  Even Jo doesn't have much to do except stand around and be adorable.

Though Katy Manning does it brilliantly.
Still, in the farewell scene, as the Doctors send everyone back through to their own world before enacting their plan, the characters work well enough.  The Brigadier's salute is genuinely touching, and makes his inclusion in the story ever more welcome, even if he isn't at his best most of the way.

And Jo really works in this scene.  The warmth and affection between Three and Jo (coming directly from the warmth and affection between Pertwee and Manning), and Jo's reluctance to leave him (a recurring theme throughout the story) and her eventual acceptance is moving.

So, finally, the Doctors unveil a simple and devilishly clever plan, brilliantly utilizing the recorder the Second Doctor has been fretting over the whole time.  It's a satisfying victory, but not an entirely happy one; the Third Doctor's sad monologue about Omega's end is a wonderful cap to the story.

In the end, The Three Doctors is certainly a highly imperfect serial.  The production values, the mixed bag of supporting characters, the silly monsters, the many little things that don't work.  But the gathering of the Doctors and their adversary works wonderfully, and Troughton and Pertwee give some of their finest work.  And the central premise is staggeringly original, and the exuction delivers that - the important part - brilliantly.


* * * ½


  • ... the Doctor offers the Brigadier a jellybaby.  The Second Doctor offers the Brigadier a jellybaby.   When I first watched this, I hadn't seen anything of the fourth Doctor, so this moment completely passed me by originally, but rewatching it for this review, my brain exploded.

  • While the monsters themselves don't really work, some of the low-budget visual effects do.  The video-created monster, the explosions sending everyone to the antimatter-verse, and the black hole effects, while certain cheap, actually work pretty well in context.
  • Time Lord eloquence: "Theoretically?  They're dead!"
  • "I think we're dealing with a creature of great intelligence.  And superior intelligence and senseless cruelty just do not go together."  ... Three, what have you been smoking?  Didn't you run into the Master the last story?
  • For the sake of acknowledging them, there are some real continuity problems.  Not major "the entire '60s don't make sense now" continuity problems of The Two Doctors, but still, you'd think Hartnell and Troughton, who spent their entire runs on the show as fugitives, would be a little more worried that their race finally caught up with them... and that they did it so easily.  Also, the Second Doctor says of the First, "I've always had a great respect for his advice."  I mean, to a viewer, it sounds fine, since the First Doctor was so grandfatherly at times, but given that the Second Doctor is the older of the two, it's sort of like a high school senior talking about how much he admired his advice from when he was in middle school.
  • Dudley Simpson's music for Doctor Who, which spans more than a decade, is a very, very mixed bag, but it's really good in this one.
  • Finally, this is the first time we see the newest TARDIS interior.  It's a bit bland, but at least it's not the Time Monster dinner plate design.
Yes, this happened.


  1. I'm not sure if you've heard of this nowadays, but when you made this review I guess you hadn't heard about the now-accepted Season 6B? It doesn't explain the First Doctor's presence (maybe this happens before he left Gallifrey) but it works out the snarls in Two's appearances here and later. To wit:



    (If you poke around that first website, by the way, you'll find the texts of at least two DW books divided up into season- and episode-guides. Have fun!)

  2. I've heard of it - and had heard of it when I wrote this - but, to be honest, I always thought Season 6B was a dumb idea. It takes away from the power of The War Games - my favorite Who serial - for the sake of resolving some barely relevant continuity errors with The Two Doctors, which is a pretty long way from one of my favorites. And even if I was one of its fans, I wouldn't care to resolve the issues if it meant harming another superior story. If anything in Season 6B was compelling in its own right, I might be willing to reconsider, but I've never found a better story than Troughton's defeat moving immediately to Pertwee's introduction.

    At any rate, it's not a theory that was even needed when The Three Doctors existed. As you said, it doesn't explain why Hartnell isn't more worried, and it doesn't really bother me that Troughton isn't. And nothing explains the internal logic of the 2nd and 3rd Doctors treating their younger self as a wise old sage. It's TV audience logic, not internal story logic. Which, if we're being honest, is the more important kind.

    They're a minor nitpicks because nitpicking is fun, not because it's an actual flaw in the enjoyment of the story. Whereas Season 6B damages one of the classic serials for the sake of nitpicking continuity errors from episodes almost two decades apart from each other.

    That said, thanks for your comment - at the very least, 6b is a fun sidenote to argue about.