The Three Doctors
As a story designed to celebrate the series' tenth anniversary, The Three Doctors serves its purpose very well. The views expressed by Keith Miller in DWFC Monthly Number 13, dated February 1973 are not far wide of the mark: 'A brilliant start to what I'm sure is going to be one of the best series in the history of the programme. The story, acting, sets [and] music were all fantastic, the best I've seen and heard for a long time. It showed how much the Doctor has changed in the ten years he has been in our homes.'
With William Hartnell effectively sidelined due to ill health, the limelight is shared between just the current lead, Jon Pertwee, and his immediate predecessor, Patrick Troughton, and they are afforded sufficient scope to carry the plot along in their own inimitable ways - an opportunity of which they take full advantage.
Omega provides a suitably awe-inspiring threat for such an auspicious occasion and constitutes a superb addition to the ranks of megalomaniacal crazies that have appeared over the years. Stephen Thorne gives a bravura performance in the role, and almost steals the show. This is all the more impressive considering that his head is totally encased in a mask and he has to convey everything through just his voice and body movement.
An obstacle rather less within his ability to overcome, however, is that - as in all areas of the production - the story's limited budget is sadly inadequate to do full justice to the grandeur of the scripted concepts. 'The Doctor's opponent... deserves better than he gets,' wrote Marc Platt in Shada: A Special, dated December 1983. 'As controller of singularity, Omega has a one-track mind, but surely the world he has created from his own intellect should be more imaginative than yet another quarry? He boasts that for him everything is possible, and to prove it he produces... a chair! Omega may be having a hard time keeping up appearances (particularly his own!) but his accommodation and lifestyle betray a lack of funds and a frugality of imagination on the director's behalf. (Tilting the camera angles does not make a fantasy world.)'
The story starts well enough, and soon the Doctor and Jo are being threatened by a pulsating lump of crackling goo that emerges from a drain. The use of video effects to create this menacing blob was a good move, as in the later scenes when it transforms into a horde of rampaging Gel Guards things do become a little silly. The costumes for the Gel Guards look like nothing more than mobile blobs of coloured cellophane; and the inclusion of a large illuminated claw that can fire blasts of energy, although a nice idea in principle, is distinctly unthreatening in practice.
'The Gel Guards I thought were rather comical, although of course they weren't meant to be,' commented Miller. 'Nevertheless, they did look funny hobbling around making that burping sound.' To be fair, the creatures do seem rather more menacing in the scenes set inside Omega's castle, where the walls are of a matching design and the doorways are just the right size to accommodate them, but attacking en masse outside UNIT HQ they look somewhat pathetic.
One must always remember, though, that this is primarily a celebratory reunion tale, and on that basis it works. As Julian Knott commented in A Voyage Through 25 Years of Doctor Who, dated December 1988, 'It is in the finest tradition of the Christmas pantomime - and The Wizard of Oz - that the story progresses, with a villain in the mould of the Wizard himself - Omega.'
The Three Doctors stands as a milestone in Doctor Who's history, both because it marked the end of the Doctor's period of exile on Earth and thereby started a process that would eventually lead to the phasing out of UNIT as a regular presence, and also because it was the first story actively to celebrate the series' own past - an approach that, in later years, would arguably be taken to extremes.