Aired 30 December 1972 – 20 January 1973
The first serial of Doctor Who’s tenth series does something the franchise has never attempted before, namely bringing together all three televised versions of the titular Time Lord for one adventure. Also the story which sees the Third Doctor’s exile on Earth end, ‘The Three Doctors’ is an incredibly important part of Doctor Who mythology that both redefines the character of the Doctor and once more reinvigorates the sense of freedom for his travels and adventures that was so important in the first two Doctors’ eras.
Strangely, or perhaps purposefully, ‘The Three Doctors’ does nothing to act like a tenth anniversary special. The serial still airs in four weekly installments and little pomp is given to the arrival of the First and Second Doctors, the story only momentarily pausing to explain their identities and reasons for their presence. Even if the story does somewhat feel like the anniversary elements were inserted into a more standard episode at a later time, there’s no denying the joy that arises from seeing both William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton reprise their roles. The entire concept of regeneration and what it actually means to the Doctor was still very much unexplored at this time, and it’s a bold choice for the programme to admit that all of the versions still exist out there somewhere in time and space and that vastly different acting approaches can be taken for the same character, at the same time proving that there are plenty of untold stories for each incarnation.
Indeed, the bickering and arguing between the Second Doctor and Third Doctor about who is the ‘real’ Doctor is a wonderful series of meta moments that speaks to the audience’s undoubted identification with one version over the others, a sentiment buoyed by the First Doctor later calling them both replacements. On the other hand, the Brigadier is happy enough to have the Doctor around to help regardless of his appearance, speaking to another school of thought in which the Doctor is simply the Doctor no matter the face and personality.
The actual story of ‘The Three Doctors’ follows a fairly typical format and plays things somewhat conservatively given the spectacle, even going so far as to separate the Third Doctor and Jo from the Second Doctor for a significant portion of the tale. The villain, Omega, though, is altogether a more successful concept even if his realization is a bit lacking. A darker mirror of sorts for the Doctor as a Time Lord who helped shape the universe before being exiled, Omega becomes a rather sympathetic figure despite Stephen Thorne’s occasional bombastic overacting, one who must use all of his willpower to ensure the continued existence of both himself and the world around him. It’s also quite fitting that a story featuring the effects of exile on a one-time hero should be the one in which the Third Doctor finally regains his freedom.
Intriguingly, ‘The Three Doctors’ also brazenly mocks the overall power of the Time Lords, casting them in a very different light to those seen in ‘The War Games,’ while also raising the question of just why they would call a renegade in the form of the First and Second Doctors to help an exiled prisoner in the Third Doctor. In fact, the concept of the Doctor’s exile is never really addressed until the final moments of the story and again feels like an extra portion that was added on to an already-existing script. This is a plotline that could have helped flesh out the metaphysical Omega much more substantially than he is otherwise while adding more dramatic weight to the story, and its omission seems like quite a missed opportunity.
Still, with its blatant admission that Doctor Who exists in a world of pseudo-science, ‘The Three Doctors’ is nonetheless an engaging affair from beginning to end. Surprisingly muted regarding the importance of bringing back the first two Doctors and perhaps playing on exaggerated eccentricities of the Second Doctor a bit too much, ‘The Three Doctors’ undoubtedly benefits from the appearances of both Hartnell and Troughton to elevate its story, and Troughton’s interactions with Pertwee do so even more. Not so much a classic anniversary tale compared to those that would follow, ‘The Three Doctors’ very much adheres to the show’s typical format while at the same time completely changing preconceptions and the future of the titular character and franchise as a whole.