It has been said before, but having The Doctor regenerate was a stroke of genius. In the beginning of the fourth season of Doctor Who, it was clear that William Hartnell, who played the First Doctor, would not be able to continue. His declining health and inability to remember his lines was proving too much for the actor and for the series as a whole. The show was still quite popular, had become a cultural phenomenon in fact, and so the producers had a choice: discontinue the series, or put another actor into the role of the Doctor. Replacing an actor in a role is nothing new in television, but the genius of Doctor Who is that they retconned it into the character. He is an alien after all, so why shouldn’t he be able to change bodies periodically?
Enter Patrick Troughton, who performed in the role through Season Six, upon which time he left and Jon Pertwee began his reign as The Doctor. With three actors who had played the role, fans had started clamoring for a special story in which all three could be on screen at once, but initially the writers/producers balked at this idea. But with the 10th anniversary looming in in 1972, they decided that might be fun and so The Three Doctors was greenlit. Quickly, all three actors – Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee – agreed to participate and a script was written. Soon enough, they realized that Hartnell really was in no shape to perform. His health had deteriorated further from when he quit the show six years earlier. He was not in physical shape to perform and his memory was so poor that there was no way he’d be able to recite the lines written for him.
They therefore reduced his role substantially. He read cue cards while sitting in a chair. The script was altered to accommodate this – he gets stuck in a “Time Eddy” and can only be seen through a monitor. I’ve never seen it officially stated but it seems clear from watching The Three Doctors that they didn’t have much time to change the script to reflect Hartnell’s reduced role. Other characters get a lot of plot descriptive dialogue that seem more likely to have originally been planned for Hartnell and there is more than enough filler. The story, then, is a bit of a mess.
A giant beam emanating from a black hole flies across the universe and lands on Earth. With it come numerous blob creatures (or men in bubble suits, if you prefer) and a fuzzy block of light, which keeps zapping things associated with the Third Doctor (part of UNIT’s lab; a professor he was just talking to; and Bessie, the Doctor’s roadster) to an antimatter universe. The Third Doctor calls for reinforcements from the other Timelords but they are busy dealing with that same beam which is draining all the energy from Gallifrey. Things are so serious, they decide to break their own cardinal rule and allow previous incarnations of the Doctor to help him. Together, perhaps, they can figure out what’s going on.
The Third Doctor allows himself to get zapped to the alternate universe where he finds Omega (Stephen Throne), a Time Lord who helped create the Eye of Harmony (which helps power Gallifrey and is the key to their time-traveling ability). He was thought to have died in the supernova that created the Eye of Harmony but in fact he was transported to this antimatter universe which he rules and keeps alive through sheer willpower. He desperately wants to get back to the real universe (and desperately wants to get his revenge on the rest of the Time Lords as he believes they abandoned him) but it is your classic Catch-22 type situation. In order to leave, he must temporarily drop his will and stop creating this universe, but if he stops creating the universe, it, along with him, will stop existing. Which is why he created a beam to bring a Time Lord to him so that one of them can keep the universe going while he escapes.
There are some pretty cool ideas in that basic story, but it never quite gets fleshed out. Omega has the makings of a great tragic character. He is a hero, he helped create the very thing that makes Time Lords Time Lords but he has been doomed to live in this alternate universe by himself for eons. Yet all he seems to do is scream and shout about revenge. It doesn’t help that the actor is clad in a large, clunky, albeit kind of cool-looking, helmet that doesn’t allow for any type of facial expression. The result is yet another screaming villain without much nuance.
It is also a bit strange that neither the Second Doctor nor the First Doctor seem to mind the Third Doctor working so closely to the Time Lord Council. They have spent most of their lives running away from Gallifrey and all it stands for, after all. I guess we can chalk that up to writers not really paying attention to their own history.
What does make this story worth watching is the chemistry between Troughton and Pertwee. It is pure joy watching those two work off one another as the same character in two separate incarnations. The two argue and bicker with one another before finally settling in on working together. Pertwee’s man of action is battled by Troughton’s more whimsical “Cosmic Hobo” version of the Doctor who is more at ease playing his beloved recorder. It is all great fun. Watching all of this with a look of confusion and bewilderment is Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) who knew both the second and third incarnations of the Doctor but seeing them both together seems to be more than he can handle.
The Three Doctors isn’t a great Doctor Who story. It has some good ideas that are poorly executed. But the reason anyone comes to watch it – seeing these three actors play the iconic character – is more than fulfilled. It is a shame that Hartnell was in such poor shape to do much more than briefly appear with a few words of wisdom and one hilarious retort (upon seeing the other two he says, “So you’re my replacements – a dandy and a clown!”) But Troughton and Pertwee more than make up for his absence.
This DVD release is actually just a re-release of the previous set. It contains no new extras and remains in standard definition. Luckily the old extras are numerous including an audio commentary, a trivia track, a making-of feature, an archival interview, and TV spots plus trailers and photo galleries. Its’ a bit odd that they are releasing this now as presumably they will be releasing it along with the entire Tenth Season on Blu-ray. But as that season has not been announced, I suppose if you are needing this particular itch to be scratched then you have that choice.