The Three Doctors *****

William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee unite in this landmark story to open Doctor Who's tenth season

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
The Three Doctors *****

Season 10 – Story 65

"It's been so nice to meet me" - the second Doctor

Storyline

A malignant force emanating from a black hole sends a gel organism to Earth in search of the Doctor. It is also draining the power of the Time Lords. They realise the Doctor is their only hope so, to triple his effectiveness, they allow him to meet his two earlier selves. All three Doctors pass into a world of antimatter, created by Omega, a solar engineer from Time Lord legend. He is bent on revenge and needs the Doctor to take his place before he can escape. The Doctors give Omega the only freedom he can ever have - oblivion. In thanks, the Time Lords at last rescind the Doctor's exile on Earth.


First transmissions
Episode 1 - Saturday 30 December 1972
Episode 2 - Saturday 6 January 1973
Episode 3 - Saturday 13 January 1973
Episode 4 - Saturday 20 January 1973

Production
Location filming: November 1972 at Springwell reservoir and quarry, Rickmansworth, Herts; Halings House, Higher Denham, Bucks
Filming: November 1972 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: November 1972 in TC1, December 1972 in TC8

Cast
Doctor Who - Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, William Hartnell
Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart - Nicholas Courtney
Jo Grant - Katy Manning
Sergeant Benton - John Levene
Arthur Ollis - Laurie Webb

Dr Tyler - Rex Robinson

Mrs Ollis - Patricia Pryor
Corporal Palmer - Denys Palmer
President of the Council - Roy Purcell
Chancellor - Clyde Pollitt
Time Lord - Graham Leaman
Omega - Stephen Thorne

Crew
Writers - Bob Baker, Dave Martin
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Roger Liminton
Script editor - Terrance Dicks
Producer - Barry Letts
Director - Lennie Mayne

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Imagine how exciting it would be for viewers today if another Three Doctors could be staged - say, Messrs Eccleston, Tennant and Smith uniting on screen for the 50th anniversary. What a Whohah that would generate for months in advance! Imagine, then, how the teaming of the original three Doctors came completely out of the blue back in 1972. The first that fans knew of this momentous event was when the Christmas Radio Times showed a tantalising preview of its New Year cover.

For me, that single image on The Three Doctors Radio Times cover perfectly captures the charismatic magic of the series' first three leading men. Indeed the RT photo session (in October 1972 at a studio in Battersea, south London) was the very first time they had all come together.

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had long resisted appeals for a multi-Doctor scenario, but they realised this was the ideal recipe to launch the tenth season. Viewers agreed, too, with 11.9 million tuning in for part four - the highest-rated episode for Jon Pertwee and, in fact, for Patrick Troughton.

The Three Doctors was landmark television, even if in truth it unfolds more like The Two and a Bit Doctors. William Hartnell's chronic atherosclerosis meant that the first Doctor's involvement was drastically reduced to a handful of pre-filmed inserts. It's wonderful that he was determined to take part and, fleetingly, he musters a glimmer of that old tetchiness and twinkle, but he's visibly frail. It's a crying shame he wasn't well enough to record at least one scene at TV Centre standing alongside Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee.

On 9 November 1972, he posed for a press call with his successors, and filmed a short clip in a garden in Rickmansworth (for episode one). This was to be Hartnell's final professional engagement. He died in 1975 aged 67.

Happily, Troughton slips back into his scruffy, disreputable persona as though he'd never been away, and provides a hilarious contrast to the suave, precise Pertwee. In rehearsals, the stars' different acting styles led to discomfiture, but on screen their antagonism is a joy to behold. In later years they became chums and replayed the bickering double act born here at fan conventions.

The Three Doctors may not be the greatest story ever told. What I love about it, though - besides the pleasures of Pert meeting his other selves - is that as the third Doctor's exile comes to an end, the dual storytelling arenas of that era finally converge. After nearly five years in the series, the Brigadier and Benton step inside the Tardis and the whole of Unit goes into space.

The cliffhanger when Unit HQ is sucked into a black hole was not only mind-boggling in 1973, it's also the story's clearest nod to The Wizard of Oz. After a tornado has taken Dorothy's farmhouse over the rainbow, she says, "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more," and here we have Nicholas Courtney's ad lib, "I'm pretty sure that's Cromer."

Courtney told me in 2008 that he loved supplying the odd funny line and was only too happy with the mellowing of the Brig. His reunion with the second Doctor and his reaction to the Tardis control room are among my favourite Who moments. "So this is what you've been doing with Unit funds and equipment all this time!" The Tardis interior looks its most impressive yet, completely rebuilt by designer Roger Liminton who consulted Peter Brachaki's original 1963 plans.

Writing duo Bob Baker and Dave Martin freely admitted the debt they owed to Oz, with the "all-powerful", blustering Wizard a clear inspiration for Omega. Stephen Thorne's maniacal ranting does become wearing, although the suspense was killing back in the day as to what disfigured horror might lurk beneath his Grecian mask.

He boasts a lot about the power of his will, but his imagination is evidently lacking. Omega's domain looks like Santa's grotto after a closing down sale, while his "planet" is one of the most blandly filmed quarries in the series' history - even if the sight of a water cooler, a section of lab wall and Bessie (all transported via the black hole) lends a Dalíesque quality.

The antimatter fuzz that Omega sends to kidnap the Doctor is a fair CSO effect for its time. The Gell Guards give new meaning to the term bogeymen; their designer James Acheson once recalled how the crew hooted with derision when the creatures were unloaded on location. But I forgive them, because, despite their ludicrous bobbing and burping, they're the only critters to launch a direct assault on Unit HQ itself. Four years into Pert's era, it's also our first view of the HQ exterior (really in Denham).

Episode one does a decent job of establishing the mystery and finding a vaguely plausible reason for the Doctors to "meet". Later episodes suffer egregious padding (Pert doing conjuring tricks and Dr Tyler's failed bid for freedom - yawn). But I rather like the protracted scene where all the characters must take a leap of faith and step through a puff of smoke to return home. Here again we see the Brig's absolute faith in the Doctors and, charmingly, it's also the only time he calls Jo "Jo", rather than "Miss Grant".

She looks fabulous in fluffy blue jacket and knee-length platform boots. It's easy to overlook how attuned Jo is to her Doctor. When he finally gets back his freedom to roam in time and space, her husky voice sounds even croakier, "I suppose you'll be rushing off then." But he reassures her and she breaks into a wide beam. What an adorable - and now underrated - actress Manning is.

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What Katy did next…
“I did the reading of the novel for BBC audiobooks and I had to play all the Doctors. Quite a tough call because you have to get the right attitude for each of them. But Omega was a doddle – I out-Stephened Stephen Thorne. I have that ability with my voice.”
(Talking to RT, April 2012)


Radio Times archive material

The classic Three Doctors cover

A two-page article featured intriguing insights from the cast and a specially posed photograph.   

Page one   Page two

Previews

RT billings

[Available on BBC DVD]