The Three Doctors

Written by:
Bob Baker and Dave Martin
Directed by: Lennie Mayne
Starring: Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell
Year: 1972/3
Video Availability (NTSC version only): Try

I first saw this story in the very early 80s when it was repeated as part of a "Five Faces of Doctor Who" season. It was everything a boy could want. It was dark, imposing and gothic, with three elder Doctors who had a much more magical, alien air than even Tom Baker. It was ghostly and scary, and all three had to work together to combat the greatest threat the Doctor had ever faced. It was steeped in atmosphere, it was eerie, and it was exciting. Doctor Who had never been like this, and a warm glow of "it's a lot better than it is today" settled over the screen. This was classic Doctor Who, a high point it could now only aspire to.

Seven years passed, which isn't that long, but saw my transition from a boy to a sort-of man. I met a new friend who told me that he had all the Doctor Who episodes on tape, and I could watch any one I wanted. Maybe I should pick out one of the black and white ones I'd never seen? Or one of the gothic Tom Baker tales? There was such a choice! Yet my beady eyes soon settled on the tape marked "The Three Doctors" and wouldn't let go. He put it in the machine while I excitedly fidgeted in my seat, awaiting this mastery of British television to play out once more before me.

Well, the silly sod had put the wrong tape in, hadn't he? Instead of The Three Doctors, he'd put on a tape of badly-scripted, atrociously made and horrendously acted tacky cack. What's that? This is The Three Doctors? My memory has cheated? Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!

So smug it could have been made by one of the Smugerons from the planet Smugarius in the constellation of Smugdromeda, if this travesty of tat was only a fraction as funny as it believes it is, then it would be a laugh riot. Sadly, as a celebration of ten years of Doctor Who you can just see it doing up its flies as it pees all over it. A celebration? More like a condemnation, as a cavalcade of ineptitude fills the screen like so much cathode ray diarrhoea. I actually received a mail from the son of Roy Purcell, who plays the lead Time Lord in this one, informing me that his dad left acting and became a solicitor, and citing the fact that I called his acting "chronic" on my site. Concerned I was about to be sued, I mailed him back, only for him to say his Dad would see the funny side and find it amusing. The solicitor bit was just incidental detail to let me know how his dad was getting on in life. Phew! He's still crap though. "Are you telling me we're up against an adversary, a force, equal to our own?" "Equal and opposite to our own." "A force which inhabits a universe, where by definition even we cannot exist?" "Yes." Joy to the exposition! Nice to see Gallifrey made by a cardboard version of IKEA, too. Stylish.

One thing that people can't complain about here is the production - in fact, it's rumoured that Barry Letts personally farted on the sellotape that holds the picture together during the Troughton split screen. Yet as unremittingly awful as this story is, fans insist that The Three Doctors is a classic because… well, it's… you know… got three Doctors, innit? Such a Pavlovian reaction overlooks the fact that, Ali-style, Hartnell is a ravaged husk of his former self. One fan once accused me of being tasteless by criticising Hartnell in this story (admittedly, I did use the less than sensitive term of "nearly dead") but that's not an attack on Billy, far from it. Rather, it's sadness at the depleted and seriously ill sight that he became. The Three Doctors in many respects is Doctor Who's Utopia. And by Utopia I mean aka Atoll K, aka Robinsoncrusoeland, Laurel and Hardy's soul-shattering final movie. Where there you're confronted with the sincerely upsetting sight of two beloved comedians in dire ill health and a decade past being funny, The Three Doctors sees Billy reduced to reading his lines off a cue card and Patrick sending his role up for a cartoon caricature. The fact that Jon Pertwee delivers the best acting performance should have sent alarm bells ringing somewhere, but to no avail.

This episode starts off well enough, and in fact for the first three minutes I was entertained. It gives us some location filming (I always like a bit of location filming!) meaning that over 12% of the episode actually isn't total garbage. Yet it's weird, but the whole thing looks so wrong. No matter where the camera is positioned in the opening UNIT scene, you always feel as if it should be somewhere else. And when the Brigadier's being openly humiliated (even by Jo!), Professor Tyler is a caricature and Jon clearly isn't bothered, then it hardly feels celebratory at all. Next thing you know, we've got some Home Counties stereotypes to patronise and a special effect of a radioactive blob. That's special effect without the word "special", obviously. Maybe the fact that the majority of the scenes where it appears are shot on film and the effect is clearly shot on video makes it even more jarring, but then who am I to judge?

As for the Gel Guards, I'm not saying they're crap, but even The Tomorrow People would have rejected them. The worst monsters ever in Who, bar none. Pathetic Mr. Blobby crap, the bit where the wooden soldier says "Holy Moses!" is a clip they show whenever Clive James wants to take the piss out of the series. Make no mistake - in almost every way, this is the worst Doctor Who story at date of transmission, and no preceding story had been close. Sure, The Web Planet has dated badly, but has an internal integrity, and, while some of the season six stories might not be high points, they're still comparatively well made. The Three Doctors sees the whole thing reduced to a panto kid's show, full of paper mache walls and shuffling orange blobs. Puerile.

The one gem in all of this mess is The Mighty Trout himself. While I recalled this as being his weakest performance (and it still might be, this is only the first episode, after all) he's a Hell of a lot better than I remembered here. The depth has been shunted in favour of OTT send-up, but it's a wonderful clash of acting (or in Jon's case, non-acting) styles that strikes sparks. You can see on Jon's face that he hates every second of being upstaged, as even on an off day (and this is very much an off day) TMT can out act him in his sleep. And while he's ad-libbing like a loon, the best old Big Nose can manage is two instances of PMS. It's this upturn in interest late in the episode that actually gains it an extra star:
* * ½

Roy Purcell talks about how the Doctor meeting himself transgresses the laws of time here, despite the fact that he knew about it last week. We also get the same guff about "equal and opposite to our own", with all the plot served up on a plate with salad, trimming and a side order of chips. "The second Doctor is assisting UNIT with matters on Earth" … didn't Purcell know that already?

Thankfully Troughton, while still playing a second Doctor lite, is much, much better in this than I remembered. Pertwee's comatose in the anniversary year, but The Mighty Trout is still able to ad-lib about television sets being full of useless information. (Which is a bit hypocritical considering he's starring in slop like The Three Doctors).

"It's quite like old times, isn't it, Sergeant?" Not really, no. With Dudley's breezy, jingly jangly score this is the show as ultimate cosy family entertainment. While John Levene isn't the most trained actor in the world, he always brings an earnest charm and personality to his Sgt. Benton. However, he seems (understandably) bored here, and no one's even noticed Yates is absent.

I will concede though, that, as terrible as it is, The Three Doctors isn't, so far, as bad as I remembered it. It's Doctor Who for the under 5s, with a bunch of fourth-rate actors saying fifth-rate lines, but it really isn't so bad, largely thanks to TMT. His belief that Jo and the third Doctor are having a "very interesting time" does seem a dig at his getting the shitty end of the stick, plot-wise however.

Actually, I take that all back. Fifteen minutes in and we're introduced to Omega, played with bellowing charm by the ever-abysmal Stephen Thorne. He says he's built his lair around his mind. So what's in his mind, Santo's grotto down Woolies? Jo suggests it looks like Alladin's Cave, while Jon suggests it's the entrance to some form of palace. I once watched this with someone who told me it was the tackiest set ever seen on British television. It wouldn't have been so bad, but it was Stevie Wonder.

Sadly, Hartnell appears for just thirty-five seconds of this episode, while, as oft mentioned, the Brigadier is a buffoon. The episode concludes with a - frankly, shit - matchbox model of UNIT HQ vanishing into a cardboard black hole. Tripe.
* *

"Most impressive, I'll admit that" says Jon over Omega's lair. Come off it, Big Nose, it looks like it was made with crayon. Meanwhile, Doctor Tyler becomes infected with CSO and Jo loses half of her head in one of the series' more inept effect sequences. Yet people still slate the CSO of Underworld while praising this one as a classic. Classic bilge, maybe.

"Oh my Giddy Aunt!" as wobbling Gel Guards jog around a cardboard UNIT HQ… "I'm fairly sure that's Croma" … thunder sound effects as Omega loses his temper… Jo asking for the plot "in simple answers, please" … this is really getting on my nerves now. A once-great series is reduced to the level of effluence.

I used to think the "contact" moments between Doctors were mysterious and enigmatic. The reality is that it's close-ups of them edited rapidly together and a silly sound effect placed over the top. The fact that poor old Billy only makes 27 seconds of this instalment is further reason why it should have been called "The Two-And-A-Bit Doctors", while TMT's question of "let's toss, shall we?" is the only laugh you're going to get here. Omega makes a pun about "mind over anti-matter". I always think that all's well with the world when the villain gets to make a cheap pun. How much better it would have been if they'd edited it so Jon made the joke to goad him. Though script-editing is something that seems anathema here.

The much-vaunted singularity is a bit of a smoke, while TMT ends the episode standing around like a spare dildo as Jon's stunt double fights the dark side of Omega's mind. Garbage.
* ½

I've never been anorakky enough to think of this before, but where in the second Doctor's life does he come from? We've seen him talk of the events of The Invasion, so it must be after that. And, as this story now sees him and the first Doctor taken out of their streams by The Time Lords, it also means that previous stories have been altered - the events of The War Games would be different, for example.

Apparently that year's BAFTAS were called off as they knew Stephen Thorne would clean up. And just how does the Second Doctor know what Bessie is, anyway? Almost like rubbing vinegar into the eyes of kittens, Nicholas Courtney and John Levene add yet more unjustified misery by suddenly thinking they're the world's funniest double act. "Sir, excuse me sir, but if anything is missing, where do we say it's gone?" "Come along, Benton," Yeah, whatever, Nick - just say your lines and f*** off! And don't bang the door on your way out. Also irritating in the extreme is the painfully sloooooooooooooooooooooooow and dragged out way they all step into the singularity. Yes, okay, the episode's underrunning and they need to space it out a bit - but just get the f*** in there already, and stop banging on about it. "Goodbye, Doctor… Doctors." Yeah, yeah, yeah - whatever! It's only the start of the season, we know they won't buy it yet. Just get in there, you're doing my bloody head in! Christ in a blender, this really is the most ineffable shite I've ever had the misfortune to sit through. Some panto shouter who makes Colin Baker look subtle booms his way through a script written by two year olds, while some poncy Time Lords cough up plot exposition like their woodenly acted lives depend on it. "Wonderful chap… both of him." I've told you three times now, Nick - f*** off! I can't take any more of your crap!

I dunno why they're always surprised by Hartnell's appearances, either - surely the tinkly music gives the game away? Most heartbreaking is his extremely truncated final scene. The story, including titles, lasts for 98 and a half minutes. William Hartnell features in just 3 minutes, 14 seconds of them. And watching his aged, infirm performance - which still contains more magic than Pertwee's - you can see his degeneration into Richard Hurndall.

The story concludes with the Doctor getting his right to travel in space and time back, though as Jon never worked in space - The Curse of Peladon and the following story excepted - then this isn't much of a blessing. An unfunny coda with a fisherman sees this travesty of cack thankfully conclude. Awful, awful, awful.
* ½

Easily the weakest Doctor Who story of both Jon's era and the first eleven years, this is awful, awful television. Patronising, terribly made and badly written, with a lame central performance and woeful back-up. The attempts by the secondary cast to amuse fall flat, and the dialogue is inept and childish throughout. A complete turkey, almost on the verge of a single star, this scores above only by virtue of its central concept alone - the same concept that means it ultimately disappoints.
PMS: 5
* *


Watching the DVD eight months after writing the above review I worried that I'd get so annoyed I'd give myself an aneurysm. However, the BBC have done well, making even toss like this seem almost dignified with a stylish purple box and card inlay (trust me, it's better than it sounds) and a cute little Dinky Toy of Bessie. Bless! And as this pack was a limited edition then I'm going to put mine in the attic and then sell it to some poor sap for £150 in 2012. To those who just got the DVD itself, then it still looks very nice indeed. The information text present is both interesting and a nice climb-down from what was starting to become out of control silliness on recent releases. To this end there's also no silly specially-created extras (or even Easter Eggs for that matter).

However, what really saves this release as a DVD package from a panning is the commentary. The thought of Katy Manning, Nicholas Courtney and Barry Letts backslapping each other over this quite tawdry example of television production filled me with an utter dread. Thankfully they embark on a new style of commentary - saying the story's actually a bit crap. While Barry recants a little at the end, and they don't exactly say the DVD is a waste of money, it is a genuinely refreshing tack. Also of note is Barry (who described Jon, while loveable, as "egocentric" on UK Gold for the 40th anniversary) revealing how the cover of the Radio Times had to be carefully worked around Jon's ego, and he also flags up the PMS on show.

On the negative side then the colour film stock is washed-out even on DVD, Nick still thinks his Cromer line is funny, and Katy Manning's constant "baby voice" gets tiresome very quickly. In fact, it was annoying me even before I'd ever heard it - that's how f***in' irritating it is. Keep a look out for the second cliffhanger - there's an authoring (not restoration) error - the close-up on the soldier happens twice. I mean, once was bloody bad enough!

There's over 86 minutes of extras and they have come in for a bit of flack as they're more of a trawl through the archives rather than anything strictly relating to the content on the disc. Okay, you do get a Five Faces of Doctor Who Trail (4'10m) and a BBC1 Trail (0'48m), but some of the other features, such as Blue Peter (13'39m) are a nice view, but tenuous in relation to The Three Doctors. A Photo Gallery (3'55m) of grouped photos has even more annoying sound effects than usual, while BSB Highlights (10'14m) has someone in a studio pretending that a prerecorded insert from Jon is a live interview. Alternately the dullest and the most interesting is Pebble Mill At One (20'44m), which showcases appalling sound and lifeless, mind-numbing interviews with Bernard Wilkie and Matthew Jones (don't ask). However, this gives way to an interview with The Mighty Trout, who comes over as completely bonkers. Great stuff, for 6 ½ minutes, anyway, then it's back to Boring Bernie and the studio shambles. While this is a major case in point as to why the DVD doesn't quite come off, it's not all the fault of the production team - the infamous interview with Jon (specifically about this story), where Pat upstaged him by impersonating a Dalek no longer exists. And for a TV show 30 years old then we're lucky to get anything, yet you can't help feeling a little disappointed.

Also filling up the disc is the 40th Anniversary Celebration (02'59m) which is growing on me, and PanoptiCon '93 (29'44m), with Jon, Katy and Nick in a convention panel. Watching this at times I thought "Ah, bless the old sod", but then others I had to adjust my TV to widescreen so I could fit all the egos in. Really what the extras on this disc - including the commentary - go to show is that there can't really be such a thing as satisfying Pertwee extras as the era has so little depth to sustain them. It's just a bit of mindless "fun", slapped on a disc, and if you want extras where the writers debate their ideas of sociological infrastructure, or the director talks about referencing Japanese cinema then…. buy something else.

* * *