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Thursday, June 10, 2010
Retro TV Round-Up: Doctor Who
"The Three Doctors"

Like it or not, "The Three Doctors" is the template for all other multi-Doctor stories during the classic series run. The basic plot is we've got some colossal threat to the universe that requires the First Law of Time to be set aside and the Doctor to encounter his various other selves in an attempt to join forces and thwart the foe.

I recently listened to the audio version of the Target novelization for "The Three Doctors" and I think I finally figured out why a lot of fans loved the story so much back in the day. In the hands of Terrance Dicks, the story becomes a sweeping epic, full of planets with purple skies and UNIT headquarters under attack from jelly blob creatures made of anti-matter. There are sequences where the jelly blob men stalk through the sewers underneath UNIT headquarters, multiplying rapidly and there are others when the universe Omega creates inside the singularity dims, lightens and shakes based on his moods. Dicks is working with the limitless budget of the imagination as well as the ability to not have to pad out certain moments in the story with lots of endless chasing down corridors. It still tells the same basic story, but it tightens it up a good deal and makes it seem like an epic celebration of a decade of "Doctor Who."

If only that had carried over to what we get on-screen.

It's not that "The Three Doctors" is a bad story. But I have to imagine a huge chunk of fans who grew up only on the novelization were sorely disappointed when it was repeated in 1983 and later released on VHS.

The story finds the Time Lords forced to reunite the Doctor with his former selves because a mysterious black hole is draining away the energy of the universe. Due to his failing health, William Hartnell only appears in limited, pre-filmed inserts on the TARDIS scanner, offering advice and encouragement when the second and third Doctor can't stop bickering long enough to do what needs to be done. Both Doctors, along with Jo Grant, the Brigadier and Benton, are transported inside the black hole along with UNIT HQ, Bessie and a few other random stragglers who have the misfortune to cross paths with the blob monsters (who look wholly unconvincing in the upgraded DVD picture).

In the black hole, they meet Omega, the man who gave the Time Lords the power to travel through time. Omega was presumed dead and has lived inside the black hole all these millenia and isn't too happy about it. He targeted the Doctor due to his exile on Earth, thinking his fellow Time Lord would join forces with him to escape and rule the Time Lords.

As an anniversary story, "The Three Doctors" is full of the greatest hits from the era it was produced as well as the series as a whole. UNIT is in full force, ineffectively taking on the blob monsters with every weapon they can find. Omega's domain is clearly a quarry and there's lots of chasing up and down corridors in Omega's domain. At one point the DVD commentary becomes almost un-listenable as Katy Manning decides she's bored with the sound effects used for the blob men in the serial and decides to insert her own as they run and up and down corridors. It's pretty embarrassing, not just for Manning but also for those of us at home.

It's reported that Pertwee was concerned that by having a reunion of the previous Doctors, the emphasis would shift away from his Doctor. Producer Barry Letts assured him this wouldn't happen and while the third Doctor does have the most lines and is the focus of the story, it's Patrick Troughton who steals the show. He shines in every scene he's in for the entire story, easily slipping back into his Time Lord persona with ease. It's easy to see why so many fans still love Troughton and why he's such an influence on every Doctor whose played the role in the past thirty years, despite a significant number of his stories missing from the BBC archives.

At this point in the Pertwee era, the production team is running like an well oiled machine and while that's good, it doesn't necessarily mean they're pushing the envelope like they did in earlier season. The slow descent of UNIT from a crack military team to comic relief is painfully evident. (It's not as bad as "Planet of the Spiders," but compare the Brigadier here to the one we see in "The Silurians" and you'll see what I mean).

All that said, it's still a fun story if only to see Patrick Troughton. It's a greatest hits for an era and a show and it's easily the better of the two multi-Doctor anniversary stories.

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 6/10/2010 12:01:00 AM | |
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