Since yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of Jon Pertwee’s death, it seemed rather fitting to watch one of his Doctor Who stories as a small tribute. But which one? After a few moments deliberation I plumped for The Three Doctors. It may not be the best Third Doctor story, nor is it the strongest showcase for Pertwee’s talents, but it’s undeniably good fun. And after a hectic week, it was the ideal way to welcome the arrival of the weekend …..
Pertwee’s Doctor was a curious mix of arrogance and charm. His arrogance is at its height in his early seasons, where the Doctor is clearly still more than a little miffed that the Time Lords have exiled him to Earth and decides to take it out on just about every human he meets. Not even poor Jo escapes his snappy nature and thoughtlessness (the sandwiches scene in The Sea Devils is presumably designed to be humorous but it just makes the Doctor appear self-centered and insensitive).
By The Three Doctors he was clearly mellowing, although he can’t resist aiming a few jibes at the Brigadier. But the most interesting example of the Doctor’s regal nature occurs in episode one, when he and Jo return to UNIT HQ after investigating the mysterious disappearance of Mr Ollis. As the Doctor enters the lab, he shrugs off his cloak without a backward glance – no doubt fully confident that Jo (as she was) would be there to take it off him and hang it up. It’s the briefest of non-verbal moments, but it’s something that speaks volumes about the relationship between the Doctor and Jo. It’s hard to imagine some of the Doctor’s later companions being quite so pliant and biddable!
But somehow Katy Manning manages to make it all work. Jo could easily have turned out to be nothing more than a doormat, but Katy’s humour (and undeniable sexiness) help to prevent Jo from being the cardboard cipher she otherwise could have been. However, whilst Jo’s in pretty good form in this one, what’s happened to the Brigadier? The Time Monster was the first example of the dumbing down of the Brig and it’s a process continued here.
Luckily it’s only a short-term thing and he’s back to his normal self by The Green Death, but the Brig’s sadly at his most pompous and blinkered in this story. When it works (his sublime double-take as he spots Troughton’s Doctor for the first time or his reaction to the inside of the TARDIS) it’s brilliant, but there are times when the script seems to treating him as little more than a figure of fun, which is a far cry from the efficient soldier of season seven.
There’s something which has always bugged me about the first episode. When the Doctor and the others find themselves under attack from the jelly organism they take refuge in the TARDIS. The Doctor attempts to take off, but tells Jo that he can’t because the organism is preventing him. What?! He’s been exiled to Earth for three years and during all that time the TARDIS, unless it’s been under the control of the Time Lords or another outside force (such as Axos), has been immobile. A sloppy piece of scripting, fire the script editor I say!
The Gell Guards are highly amusing but also not in the least threatening and the brief battle between them and the UNIT soldiers (“holy moses”) isn’t exactly one of UNIT’s finest moments. But the always reliable Pat Gorman is lurking about, so that’s some small consolation.
With the Doctor and the Time Lords facing the same crisis (an energy drain from a mysterious black hole) there’s little the Time Lords can do to help the stricken Doctor. But wait, there’s just enough energy to lift the second Doctor from his timestream. Hurrah! The return of Troughton’s Doctor is a joyful moment and even if his Doctor has deliberately been written down at times to make the Pertwee Doctor the dominant force (“what’s a bridge for?”) then he’s still a highly entertaining force of nature.
He’s possibly at his best in episode two, after the Third Doctor and Jo have crossed over to the black hole. This leaves the Second Doctor back at UNIT HQ with the Brig and Benton for company. To be honest, this entire episode is little more than padding for all three of them (the Doctor achieves nothing in his fight against the organism, so they all could have travelled into the black hole at the start, rather than the end, of the episode). But the run-around nature of this instalment isn’t really an issue, because it’s all such fun.
There’s the Brig’s shock at seeing the old Doctor back, but even better is the working relationship between the Doctor and Benton. Originally it seems that Jamie was also scripted to appear, so no doubt he would have performed Benton’s role here. But luckily for John Levene that didn’t happen, enabling Benton to get a decent share of the action. Mind you, Levene does seem to be on the verge of corpsing several times and has to pull the most extraordinary faces in order to prevent this.
The brief appearances of the First Doctor is the icing on the cake, even if it’s tempered by how frail William Hartnell looked. Although he wasn’t that old at the time, illness had taken a heavy toll, leaving him unable to learn even the simplest of lines. His balance wasn’t terribly good either, so several stage-hands had to prop him up into the capsule – to prevent him from toppling out. But with the aid of cue-cards held off camera he still managed to capture the authoritative spirit of the original Doctor and, ill as he was, there’s a little touch of magic about these scenes.
If you wanted loud, then you booked Stephen Thorne. He was loud as Azal in The Daemons and he was even louder in his (mercifully brief) appearance as Eldrad in The Hand of Fear. As Omega, he starts fairly quietly but then works himself up into a frenzy by episode four. No doubt we’re supposed to feel sorrow for the tragic Omega, but by the end, as I’m reaching for the remote control to turn him down, I just wish he’d tone it down a little. Thorne can also do subtle (he’s a gifted audiobook reader and doesn’t tend to rant and rave on those) so it’s a pity he wasn’t encouraged to be a little more restrained here.
Once everybody makes the trip to Omega’s domain the story becomes something of a runaround – highlighted by Dr Tyler’s (Rex Robinson) totally pointless attempt to escape. But Pertwee’s Doctor does have a decent fight scene – battling the demons from Omega’s mind in a slow-motion dreamscape – and the bickering between the Second and Third Doctors never fails to raise a smile.
So it’s not perfect, but there’s no doubt that The Three Doctors is a very pleasant way to while away 100 minutes.