In middle school my friend Ben and I would pool our money to buy snack cakes at the corner store. A box of Little Debbie Swiss Rolls was a dollar and some change, but most of our money went to comics, so funds were scarce. Sometimes Ben’s mom would pick up the tab, and we’d take the cakes home, eat the one package each we were allowed, then go back to watching TV and trading comics.
Once, on an independently funded trip to the store, we devoured an entire box, eating three packages each, our teeth coated in waxy chocolate. We hid the evidence as best we could, but somehow we were found out. “How many did you have?” Ben’s mom asked.
“Three,” Ben said.
“Three? You never have three!” I was sent home, my sugar buzz killed, and Ben stayed to suffer the indignity of a salad. Having three crossed a threshold into impossibility, uncharted territory. Three was something more than gluttonous. It was unwieldy, unwise, unnecessary, but it was so good.
The Three Doctors is a little of all these. In 1973 Doctor Who turned ten, and in celebration the three men who’d played the Doctor on television—first William Hartnell, then Patrick Troughton, then Jon Pertwee—were gathered together for a story in which a grave threat causes the Time Lords allow the Third Doctor (Pertwee) permission to seek assistance from his former selves.
When a machine measuring cosmic rays is brought to UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) a strange energy being is released and attacks the Doctor. It’s discovered that the energy source is a distant black hole, and soon the Doctor, Jo Grant (Katy Manning) and the entire UNIT headquarters are teleported beyond the event horizon. The Time Lords, whose power is being drained by the mysterious force within the black hole, are brought in for some expository dialogue: “Are you telling me we’re up against…a force equal to our own? A force which inhabits a universe whereby definition even we cannot exist?” the President (Roy Purcell) says.
“Yes, a force in the universe of antimatter,” says the Chancellor (Clyde Pollit). The Time Lords agree that the only way the Doctor can stop the energy drain is to break the First Law of Time and receive visitors from other timelines, namely, himself.
In the making-of feature “Happy Birthday to Who”, producer Barry Letts and scrip editor Terrance Dicks offer that this crossover between the Doctor and his previous incarnations was something fans had been requesting for a long time, but no one at the network wanted to do it because they thought it was “dumb”. There’s a degree of novelty to the idea, but a key part of the show’s longevity is the Doctor’s regeneration every few years. Even when there was only three people who’d played the part the differences were striking.
Second Doctor Patrick Troughton appears on the TARDIS, immediately sending the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), who’d worked with him in the past, into fits of confusion. The Second Doctor, sensing the Third’s trepidation, says, “Your effectiveness is now doubled.” “More like halved,” says the Third Doctor. This tension between the two plays out wonderfully through the remainder of the story. The Third Doctor, despite the ruffled shirt and velvet jacket, is serious and intense, while the Second is a ham, constantly playing a tune on his recorder.
The First Doctor was originally supposed to play a larger role, but actor William Hartnell was ill at the time and unable to meet the demands of the story. His role is reduced to a prerecorded cameo on the TARDIS view screen, and it lacks the sharpness he always brought to the role. Despite his reduced screen time, Hartnell still delivers one of the best lines of the story. Upon seeing the Second and Third Doctors he quips, “So these are my replacements—a dandy and a clown.”
In the antimatter universe the Doctors meet Omega (Stephen Thorne), a legendary Time Lord, long believed dead, whose discoveries gave his people the power of time travel. In his isolation he’s taken to wearing an enormous helmet and creating a world from the sheer power of his will, and now he seeks revenge against the Time Lords, whom he believes abandoned him.
The story begins slowly, with lots of meaningful stares between characters as they go about turning knobs and testing machines. By the time the Second Doctor arrives things are moving at a good pace, and there are playful winks to stories of the past. The best feature of bringing the Doctors together is their ability to share information with one another without speaking. They create a psychic link by standing next to one another, closing their eyes, and shouting “Contact!” Then the screen goes wild, with a manic flashing back and forth between their faces. It’s the visual equivalent of a CD skipping, the kind of seizure-inducing effect one might see projected on screen behind a psychedelic band. It’s fantastic.
This visual strength is carried over to the character and set design as well. Scab-like creatures attack the UNIT complex, and though they’re obviously just some goop-encrusted tarps flung over unsuspecting day players, they evoke human bodies turned inside out. This motif is echoed by Omega’s strange palace inside the black hole. The classic Doctor Who hallways are in place, but they’re covered in the same material as the creatures, giving the entire place a feel that is at once grand and gross.
This two-disc set, like many other recent Doctor Who collections, features various interviews and TV appearances of the actors and crew of the show. There’s an extended segment from a 1973 Blue Peter in which Jon Pertwee shows off his tricked rocket car, as well as an awkward interview with visual effects coordinator Bernard Wilkie from Pebble Mill at One. This is the kind of ephemera hardcore fans would’ve traded or sold through fan clubs over the years, and it’s great to see it collected in one place.
“The Three Doctors” isn’t gluttonous or even unnecessary, but neither is it great. The are wonderful moments and some superb visual effects, but it’s simply a good story created under extraordinary circumstances. So many institutions are built around the number two: marriage, procreation, sex. Adding a third party can be difficult, if not scandalous. Still, like the songs says, three is a magic number. Having three of anything gives one more than just a sense of its numerical value, there’s a sense of something lasting, that you’ve not only got a spare but room to grow, and Doctor Who is clearly proof of that.