Aired Dec. 30, 1972 - Jan. 20, 1973
Written by: Bob Baker & Dave Martin
Directed by: Lennie Mayne
While investigating a strange transmission that appears to be traveling faster than light, the Doctor discovers he is being hunted by a strange plasma creature. Trapped in the TARDIS, the Doctor calls on the Time Lords for assistance, but they too are under assault, their energy supplies being drained into a black hole. Unable to directly help, their only option is to muster enough energy to send the Doctor's past incarnations to help him, and hopefully, save the Time Lords as well.
While the Third Doctor is joined by the Second Doctor, the First Doctor is caught in a time eddy and only able to advise his successors over the TARDIS scanner screen. Together they are able to deduce that the transmission, and the creature, is a time bridge. The Third Doctor and Jo are caught by the creature and transported beyond the black hole into an antimatter universe.
Back on Earth, the Second Doctor, Benton and the Brigadier are still trapped inside the TARDIS. The First Doctor advises turning off the force field keeping the creature at bay, and at once the TARDIS, along with the whole UNIT HQ, is transported through the black hole.
On the antimatter world, the Third Doctor has discovered the planet is ruled by Omega, a legendary figure from Time Lord history whose stellar engineering experiment made time travel possible for their society. Thought lost since that experimental mission, Omega has in fact been trapped in the antimatter universe, surviving and creating everything around him through his will alone. He wants to be free of his prison and return to his original universe, but as his will maintains his existence, he cannot leave unless someone replaces him. He hopes that the Doctor will do so, and brought him here to that end.
Now joined by the Second Doctor, the Third Doctor tires to convince Omega to change his mind or accept some other form of help. Things fall apart once Omega discovers that his entire physical form has been consumed by the effects of such a long period in the antimatter universe. There is literally nothing left but his will, which maintains his existence, and therefore no escape for him.
Driven mad by this realization, Omega plans to destroy the positive universe. However, the Second Doctor discovers that his recorder had fallen into the TARDIS force field generator and therefore was not converted to antimatter upon passing through the Black Hole. He and the Third Doctor conspire to have Omega touch the recorder, and the collision of matter and antimatter results in a supernova, which the Doctors and their friends escape in the nick of time.
Once home, the First and Second Doctors are returned to their points in time, and in gratitude for saving the Time Lords, they grant the Third Doctor his freedom, lifting his exile and repairing his TARDIS. The Doctor is free to roam time and space once more…
As the opening story of the 10th anniversary season of Doctor Who, The Three Doctors works best when it puts its energy into its celebratory aspects. The moments where William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee sharing a scene are magical, even if Hartnell's involvement is reduced to pre-recorded footage due to his serious illness. It's wonderful to see him one last time, and even though he's clearly very ill and not entirely present, he still can bring his magnetism to several wonderfully dry lines.
And it's an out and out joy to see Troughton again, bringing his customary wit, charm and anarchic energy back to the role. Whenever he shares a scene with Pertwee, sparks fly, and it's incredible fun to watch them together. Off-screen, their rivalry was almost as intense as on-screen, with Troughton's improvisational and flexible style clashing with Pertwee's script-reliant uber-controlled performance. Eventually the two became extremely close friends, but the rivalry never entirely disappeared, and the result is a huge gift for the viewer.
Katy Manning also has a nice outing as Jo. This 10th season (her final one, as it turns out) is Jo's best, as she completes her character arc and becomes a confident, resourceful and fiercely moral person. Her scenes with Pertwee speak volumes to their close bond and terrific chemistry. John Levene, forced into a larger role when Frazer Hines proved unavailable to return as Jamie, shines here too. He very easily slots in as a Second Doctor companion. It's good that Manning and Levene shine, because this story might be the absolute nadir of the Brigadier. Nicholas Courtney remains as good as ever, but the Brig has never been written to be a more moronic, pompous, blundering fool as in this story. Long gone is the capable, wry, tough and resourceful military commander of Season 7. Instead he seems incapable of grasping even the most basic concepts. The Game Warden who is abducted to Omega's world by accident acclimates to his situation quicker than the Brigadier, commander of UNIT, tasked with dealing the bizarre and unusual. It irritates me every time I watch this story.
Bob Baker & Dave Martin, aka the Bristol Boys, had a remarkable ability to come up with fantastic concepts, but they were never the strongest of plotters, or the best at understanding what the programme could conceivably realize. Terrence Dicks has said more than once that he would have to trim down all of of the far-out ideas to only the most manageable aspects and then directly them to strictly follow his edits in their subsequent drafts. He loved their ambitions, but they often stumbled on execution.
That's exactly the issue here. Omega, the black hole and the antimatter universe are all great ideas. As is the central conflict of Omega wanting to have the Doctor take his place. However, the story never moves beyond the simplest aspects of these ideas. Once we get into Omega's domain, a character that has the power to summon anything he thinks of should have resulted in a grand, imaginative battle. Instead we get our heroes imprisoned in his citadel and then arguing and pleading with him until they trick him into touching a musical instrument. I recognize that of course Doctor Who is limited by budget and time, so I'm not expecting Star Wars, but some sort of complication to the plot is needed.
The direction, which can often elevate or conceal scripting short-comings in the programme, don't rise to the challenge. Lennie Mayne seems to be able to coax solid performances out of the actors, but the action set pieces lack punch or energy. And the design of the story varies between bland and gaudy.
In the final analysis, The Three Doctors work and is enjoyable as a celebration of the series entirely due to the enjoyment generated by our three leads, and that brings considerable charm and fun to the story, almost covering up the unambitious approach to the solid concepts at its core. Not the greatest story ever, but hardly the worst; a decidedly mediocre adventure with enough going for it to be unchallenging viewing for a rainy Saturday.