My sabbatical from blogging has lasted rather longer than the initial month I had forecast! To that end, I am going to get back into reviews – and so I am turning to those Doctor Who serials that did not get an honorable mention in my countdown – my favourite topic, the infamous missing episodes of Doctor Who! And I kick off with a story I’d held off buying in audio form for many months, not least when rumours began circulating that the serial was set for release on DVD – The Wheel in Space.
And so we come to number one! My absolute favourite story from the whole classic series of Doctor Who. Along the way we have reviewed some sensational adventures that are deservedly mentioned in the same breath, and others that require slightly more effort to love. Some adventures were genuinely difficult to place; even now I find myself looking at the list and wondering if one should be higher than another. For all of my pondering however, there was never any doubt which story would come first … the earliest adventure from the Patrick Troughton era to survive in its entirety; The Tomb of the Cybermen.
As covered in last week’s blog, Doctor Who was headed towards an uncertain future in 1969. The show’s popularity had been waning over time, and lead actor Patrick Troughton was giving firm indications that he had little desire to stay on board for a fourth season as the Doctor. Into this mix, the decision was taken to trial a style of adventure that was to shape the next five seasons of Doctor Who; an adventure set not in the far reaches of space, the past, or the future, but on contemporary earth.
I must begin this review with a frank admission. My original list of classic Doctor Who episodes did not contain either The Web of Fear nor The Enemy of the World, which in the summer of 2013 were still (officially) missing, presumed lost forever. To my very great shame, I concede that not only was The Enemy of the World not high on the list of stories I wanted recovered, I was distinctly underwhelmed when it was announced as one of two lost adventures recovered by Philip Morris in Nigeria. It had simply never registered on my radar.
A confession dear readers. When I first compiled my classic Doctor Who countdown list, The Web of Fear was not even on it. It was the summer of 2013, I had almost finished collecting the entire Doctor Who DVD collection, and I ranked only those stories that had I had watched on VHS or DVD (hence The Invasion and The Tenth Planet were included, but The Moonbase was not). That all got knocked for six in October of that year, when we got what was probably the best present to the fans of all in the 50th anniversary year: the return and release of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear. Even then, I confess I restrained myself for a while – rumours abounded that the still missing episode 3 of Web had been recovered and would be released with the DVD. We have of course now learned that episode 3 was originally found with the other episodes and taken, but long before then I decided there was no sense in depriving myself of a mostly complete adventure.
Back in 1973, a bright spark at the BBC suddenly realised that Doctor Who had reached a significant milestone – its tenth season. To mark the occasion, the producers took the bold step to write a story featuring every one of the Doctor’s incarnations, and the resulting story was entitled exactly what it was: The Three Doctors.
Of all the ‘multi-doctor’ stories, I believe that this one is the best. Unlike The Five Doctors it is not overly self-referential, instead telling quite a good story; unlike The Two Doctors it is clear and cohesive, and reasonably well told! It has to be said that, in my view, it is the participation of the Doctor’s first three incarnations in one story that makes what might have been a quite ordinary U.N.I.T. adventure into a truly great one, and one that is a pleasure to enjoy.
At the beginning of this story the Doctor is still trapped on earth; but having found a variety of different ways to circumvent the BBC’s restriction (or rather, dressing up in different ways sending the Doctor off on missions for the Timelords) the BBC finally gave up and decided it was time to let the Doctor off his leash. The narrative device to restore the Doctor’s freedom was for Gallifrey itself to come under attack from an unknown source, requiring the help of the Doctor to overcome it. When it transpires he requires the assistance of another Timelord, the High Council decide there is only one other person they can spare – the Doctor’s past self!
The villain of the piece is one of the original Timelords – a chap called Omega who harnessed the power of a star near Gallifrey, creating the conditions in which the Timelords would be able to travel in time. He himself was thought lost in the resultant supernova, but had in fact been sucked into a parallel anti-matter universe. The force of his will enables the world to exist, but he cannot escape it without someone else willing it to exist. He is therefore seized of two purposes – to destroy the Timelords (who he felt abandoned him) and to bring to himself another Timelord to take his place and enable him to return to the matter universe.
The Three Doctors does require you to shrug your shoulders and go along for the ride – but it is an extremely enjoyable ride! The scenes between Pertwee and Troughton are genuinely funny rather than forced, leaving it only a pity that Hartnell was so unwell that he could not participate as fully as one otherwise would have hoped, appearing instead in pre-recorded scenes from the TARDIS monitor. It also feels like the beginning of the end for the U.N.I.T. family – at the end of this story the Doctor is given his freedom by the Timelords in gratitude for defeating Omega. As The Brigadier and Benton depart to ‘mop things up’ while the Doctor prepares the TARDIS for take-off, one rather senses that the dismemberment of the U.N.I.T. family, which would start in the season finale The Green Death was already taking place.
The Three Doctors is by no means the most complicated Doctor Who you will ever watch – but it is good fun, easy to follow, and features some extremely enjoyable acting – not least from the three leading men. As the Brigadier famously remarks: “Wonderful chaps. All of them.”
Next time: A savage introduction to a new companion, facing against a schizophrenic computer
As long term readers of the blog will recall, Power was one of the three stories I was most keen to see recovered, for the reasons I set out in this blog post. Indeed, so curious was I to sample Patrick Troughton’s sadly missing first adventure that I eventually gave in and watched the Loose Cannon recon – and it only increased my excitement for the animated release when BBC Store confirmed the animation project.