Empire of Glass
The Three Doctors

Episodes 4 The clown, the dandy, and the original (you might say).
Story No# 65
Production Code RRR
Season 10
Dates Dec. 30, 1972 -
Jan. 20, 1973

With Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, William Hartnell,
Katy Manning, Nicolas Courtney, John Levine.
Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin.
Script-edited by Terrance Dicks.
Directed Lennie Mayne. Produced by Barry Letts.

Synopsis: The first three Doctors are reunited to halt an energy drain that threatens the fabric of space and time.


A Review by Keith Bennett 9/4/98

The first of what could be called a sub-genre of Doctor Who has a thought-dead Time Lord legend Omega actually still alive, living in his own world of anti-matter and attempting to revenge his people who left him for dead by means of a Black Hole. The Time Lords want the Doctor to help them, but when they find he too is in trouble, they call back his previous self, and then his self before that, to help him in his battle.

The tenth Anniversary of Doctor Who was the reason for this nostalgia trip, and the chief highlight is the wonderful interplay between Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton, plus the treat of seeing the Brigadier and Sergeant Benton going for a trip in the TARDIS, making up, somewhat, of the unfortunate situation of an unwell William Hartnell having to just be used in a few spare scenes on the scanner.

The story in general is not particularly rivetting stuff, and terribly padded at times, particularly in Episode Two, but fairly entertaining all the same, with Omega making a... reasonable mad villain. The programme's had better, but also worse.

Overall, The Three Doctors is highligted by the fun performances of its leads - and also finishing with The Doctor finally able to head off on his TARDIS travels around the universe after his exile to Earth. 6/10

Safety in Numbers by Paul X 14/7/98

Season 10 opened by celebrating the show's history featuring the first multiple Doctor story. Patrick Troughton returned as well as William Hartnell, in a much smaller role due to declining health. Omega appears for the first time planning to seek revenge on the Time Lords. The story features no real monsters except a blobby thing & a few Gell-guards w/flaming claws. The real conflict arises between the Doctor(s) & Omega. The boys of UNIT are mostly along for the ride.

Patrick Troughton really steals the show away from Pertwee, who was beginning to become a little stale after three years as the Doctor. It is easy to see why Patrick Troughton remains so popular despite the fact that the majority of his stories are missing. As in The Two Doctors, he manages to outshine the incumbent Doctor. Troughton easily slips back into his role as the eccentric-genius complementing the more traditionally-serious Pertwee. Pertwee gives a solid performance but is clearly out shined by his predecessor. Although nicely played out, their bickering wears on the nerves a bit. Hartnell's presence is a nice touch, but the viewer can't help but notice the shaky performance & gaps in dialog because of Hartnell's poor health. Still, it's great fun to see the First Doctor correcting his other two incarnations like schoolboys.

At this point in the third Doctor's reign, UNIT was relegated to a bunch of half-wits rather than a top-secret task force specialized in dealing w/extra-terrestrial phenomena. And despite some nice interaction with the second Doctor, the Brigadier does not have many good moments in this story. His obstinate denial of situations is puzzling. His characterization is way off. After all they've been through, I find the Brigadier's refusal to accept the Doctor's explanations in this story ridiculous. Benton's characterization overall is pretty well handled as he seems to accept the unbelievable situation that has befallen him, like Jamie McCrimmon during the second Doctor's tenure. Yates is absent, but nobody really notices.

Omega is a tragic victim. His anguish & thirst for revenge is believable & executed well by Stephen Thorne's booming voice. The universe he inhabits does not reflect the great power he seems to command. The fortress scenes are rather plain; the gell-guards are not realized well. The battle between the Third Doctor & the dark side of Omega's mind is particularly embarrassing. Pertwee really looks like a fragile old man in these fight sequences. However, the Troughton's manipulative baiting of Omega demonstrates the second Doctor's depth beneath his clownish exterior. The inclusion of the Second Doctor's recorder is a nice light touch, especially Troughton's dismay at its demise.

In conclusion, seeing all three actors together outweighs the negatives of some bad supporting characterizations, special effects, & sets. Because of all the multiple Doctor attention, I wouldn't call it one of Pertwee's best. In fact, I think it's probably the weakest of all the multiple Doctor adventures, which isn't necessarily a negative comment. It is probably best appreciated for it's nostalgic role in the show's history.

A Review by Leo Vance 11/11/98

If ever there was a good idea, it was to have 'all the Doctors together'. It works.

This story is virtually entirely good. At the centre is a superb performance by Patrick Troughton, well supported by Jon Pertwee. The comedy in this story makes it more like Season Eleven than Ten, but this is centrally based on Troughton. The 'dandy and a clown' exchange is truly hilarious, and William Hartnell is inspiringly good. Katy Manning for once overcomes her incompetence, and John Levene simply can't fail given a comedy role. Nor can Nicholas Courtney. His refusal to accept they're not on Earth, and that the Second Doctor has come from the past is hilarious. The byplay between Pertwee and Troughton is marvelous, and the recorder is a wonderful element of the story. The 'organism' is an excellent monster.

On the bad side, the Gallifreyans, while reasonable, fail to measure up to high standard set by the Doctors, and the Gell Guards, while no worse than-say, Arcturus from The Curse of Peladon, are a bit silly.

Generally, I think the decision to write a comedy story in 1972 was the right one. The Pertwee/Troughton interaction would have been great to see once more after 1973, but unfortunately, but for some brief scenes in The Five Doctors, it didn't happen.

All in all, this is a great story. Also, it has the magical it, that lifts it from great to classic for me. 10/10

A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 15/5/99

As a celebratory story, The Three Doctors serves its purpose well. It reunites the Doctors, although William Hartnell is effectively sidelined from the beginning, due to ill health. Patrick Troughton steals the show, a lot of this being due to the comic nature of his Doctor, and the banter with Jon Pertwee works well also.

Stephen Thorne is also worthy of mention here, with his portrayal of Omega as a bitter and vengeful being, largely through voice alone. The fight inside Omega`s mind is also nicely realised, mainly because of the visuals here.

Unfortunately,the depiction of UNIT is terrible, for a start Mike Yates doesn`t feature at all, and secondly The Brigadier is reduced to little more than a charicature. Katy Manning`s Jo Grant doesn`t fare much better either, often being overshadowed by Troughton and Pertwee. The inclusion of Mr Ollis seems unnecessary, and the Gallifreyans also are at odds as to what had been seen previously.

Worst of all, however must be the depiction of the Gel Guards, who seem too cumbersome, and are visually unthreatening to pose any real danger. Another fault also has to the script. The Doctor has been in tighter scrapes than this before and pulled through, so why did it take three incarnations to get him out of this one. Despite all this, it is difficult not to like The Three Doctors, and it is worth watching for the Troughton/Pertwee interplay, and to see the Doctor`s exile lifted.

A Review by Lance McKinley 26/6/00

A classic, this story nevertheless gets slammed a bit for its silly jelly glob bad guys and exceptionally (even for Doctor Who) hokey plot. However, to focus on these aspects is to miss what makes this story a classic, as evidenced by the story's title. The verbal dueling and jabbing between the 2nd and the 3rd Doctors, with the Brig occasionally jumping in to shout his exasperation at the whole thing, is what makes this story so good. I particularly like how the 2nd Doctor seems to take such pleasure in needling the Brig, even more so than the 3rd. It is a pleasure to see the 2nd Doctor in action again. Indeed, Patrick Troughton had a nasty trick of stealing the show whenever invited back, and he doesn't give Pertwee's Doctor a moment's rest in this story. It was unfortunate that William Hartnell could not participate beyond a couple of taped scenes due to his declining health. The 1st Doctor would, of course, have quickly put his later incarnations in their place so much better in person, though he still succeeds even from a video monitor. Anyway, although this is Doctor Who at its cheesiest, it is also Doctor Who at its best, letting the characters play off each other so hilariously rather than worrying about big sets and nice laser effects.

Looking forward, looking back by Andrew Wixon 14/11/01

Is it The Three Doctors already? Dearie me, two months to (re)view the first nine-and-a-bit years of the series, how time flies. But one advantage of doing the quasi-Time Team bit is that you do get a small but palpable nostalgic buzz out of stories like this one. Crucially though, The Three Doctors isn't dependent on continuity and past glories for its own success.

The story works on a number of levels. First of all, it's just a rollicking good yarn, told extremely well. Something interesting is never more than a few minutes away - whether that be a good joke, or an explosion, or a startling plot development. A couple of things mark it out as special - an attack directed at UNIT and the Time Lords themselves, for one, and subtle things like Benton (his best role) and the Brig actually going off on an adventure for another. Solid performances all round don't hurt either - and Stephen Thorne's Omega is several notches up from solid, his howl at discovering his corroded state chilled my spine. So what if Omega's creations (who on Earth decided to call them Gell Guards...?) are a bit rubbish and we're back in the quarry for most of the location shoot, that's what we expect of Doctor Who.

Then, of course, there are the glances back at the heritage of the series. Of course Billy Hartnell's incapacity is a flaw here, but the story is strong enough to overcome this problem (unlike in The Five Doctors, with its' simplistic 'quest' narrative). It sounds silly but I was delighted to see Patrick Troughton back again: he slips the story into a capacious pocket and runs off with it, reminding me why I like him so much more than Pertwee. He manages to be funny and likeable and clearly a formidable opponent at the same time and provides most of the jokes - my favourite probably being Omega's baffled 'Are you sure you and he are of the same intelligence?' There are nearly all the Pertwee standards here too, apart from the Officious Civil Servant - we've got the Army, the Evil Time Lord, the Government Installation, the Scientist Out Of His Depth, and the Yokel.

But The Three Doctors looks ahead, too. The lifting of the exile paves the way for the series to resume its peripatetic format, albeit with the maturity and sophistication instilled into it by Letts and Dicks. The storyline itself reflects the cartoony space opera of much of Pertwee's last two years in the role. And, regrettably, this is the story that irrevocably destroys the Brigadier as a serious character. It also marks the Doctor's first excursion into the realm of 'hideous technicolour velvets' to quote another, wiser reviewer.

But these are mere quibbles. This is an enjoyable celebratory reunion, but also works as a 'proper' DW story - and that makes it the best of its kind, as well as the first. Many happy returns.

The first reunion show by Tim Roll-Pickering 9/4/02

In a nice touch, the story which begins the Doctor's exile to Earth starts off with a poacher discovering a strange object coming to Earth whilst the end of the story which ends the exile sees a gamekeeper coming to Earth! There's thus an interesting symmetry in this story which provides for many contrasts, most notably between Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton's different styles of acting.

The idea of several different incarnations of the Doctor coming together to fight a great menace may now seem like an obvious move that has at times been done to death but this is the very first of the reunions and it's a surprise that it took so many ideas for the idea to finally make it onscreen. Whilst William Hartnell's contribution is extremely limited and thus comes across as an old man at the end of his life (as Hartnell indeed was and also how his Doctor was last seen in The Tenth Planet), Patrick Troughton returns to the part as though he never left it and at times even outshines Jon Pertwee. Unfortunately Jo thus has less to do in the story, whilst UNIT is used for a few action sequences before the headquarters is transported to the anti-matter world. However both the Brigadier and Sergeant Benton get to demonstrate their strengths without the support of their men and so both characters shine strongly, even though the Brigadier's slowness to accept that he has been transported to an entirely different universe is a little hard to accept given the number of extraordinary events he has by now witnessed.

Stephen Thorne brings to Omega an immensely strong presence, making the character seem all the more real when he discovers how he has become truly trapped, whilst the Time Lords come across as powerful enough to make the threat truly all great. Both Laurie Webb (Ollis) and Rex Robinson (Tyler) give good performances showing how even advanced Earth science cannot comprehend what is going on but more simple survival methods work.

However the story is let down heavily by the special effects. The idea of a jelly like entity that can form itself into anything is a good one on paper but just fails to work as either a primitive video effect or as man in a blob suit. The monsters thus look cheap and unconvincing and this is a real letdown for such a strong story. If the story were made today then CGI could easily make the blobs far more realistic whilst still resembling the design of Omega's citadel. As it stands however the story has dated extremely poorly.

Scriptwise, the tale is strong, packing in so much that there is little padding or time for any weaknesses in the plot to be exposed. There's little depth in the story or exploration of the consequences of the three different Doctors all meeting one another but this does not matter what is essentially an almost pantomime reunion of the Doctors, originally broadcast in a post-Christmas period. It is an appropriately upbeat story that ends the Doctor's exile whilst at the same time telling a good tale. 8/10

A Review by Terrence Keenan 3/5/02

This is an odd story to review. I hadn't seen it in ages. Didn't remember much except that it involved Omega and all three TV Doctors.

Notes from the viewing:

  1. UNIT is really played for comedy this time, especially the Brig, which is a shame. Nick Courtney is buffoonish and unbelievable. John Levene, normally the comic relief, actually gets treated better.
  2. Jo is inconsistent and quite annoying in this. Her scream really grates on the nerves.
  3. Stephen Thorne was wise to play Omega very OTT. He's your typical raving maniac. Interesting twist of fate for him.
  4. Troughton was good fun, his bantering with Pertwee is the highlight. However, despite his line reading, I thought that Hartnell quietly stole the show from his fellow Doctors in his limited appearances.
  5. The fight with the Mr Sin prototype was surreal. Is that what a battle of wills is supposed to look like?
  6. I try not to criticize DW special effects, but the antimatter organism was really cheesy. The gel guards weren't much better either, but we won't hold it against the show. The UNIT HQ going down the black hole was a true LOL moment.
  7. The Bessie theme was just bad. The rest of the music was typical Pertwee tuneless synth stuff.
The Verdict?

It's an anniversary, so I'm willing to be more lenient. The Docs are all good, although Jon gets upstaged by both his predecessors. Not bad, but it could have been much better.

"So you're my replacements, a dandy and a clown!" by Joe Ford 8/12/02

There are many great things about The Three Doctors which I must mention. The very idea of bringing the three Doctors together to fight an evil foe is ingenious, and a sure ratings puller. Patrick Troughton is on such form that he steals the rug from everybody else. The story of Omega and his influence on Time Lord society is very interesting and continues the Jon Pertwee era tradition of filling in the blanks to some of the shows roots. And Stephen Thorne is majestic as Omega, a powerful voice holding together a complicated character.

Unforntunately all this good work goes for nought because The Three Doctors is lumbered with possibly the worst production the show has ever had. The mind boggles because this should be the budget breaker of the year but instead we have the excellent production values of Carnival of Monsters and Frontier in Space and a real shoddy leftovers production for this story. Bob Baker and Dave Martin have written a good script that, with the right budget, could have been one of the best. Unfortunately we have flat location work, wobbly sets and FX that wouldn't pass in a children's schools programme!

The Gell gaurds. Ahem. What the hell were they all about? Was the designer on speed? I know they only had a limited time and resources to build these monsters but these really are crap. And why do they make a noise as if they have bad indigestion? Every time they appear I burst out laughing... especially when that wooden UNIT guard exclaims "Holy Moses!" When the Pertwee era gave us delights such as Silurians, Mutants and Sea Devils there is no excuse for such a lapse, especially in the anniversary story.

We've come a stage now where UNIT headquarters is just one room. The Doctor lab... hmm and even that isn't the most sophisticated of sets. The bubbly corridors of Omega's palace are laughable too and even the TARDIS is pretty creaky this time around. And the location work... just another quarry, how marvellous but it's just so featureless and dull and filmed without and sense of excitement.

I'd say the first episode is the worst, it is so bland in a way that only people who know the Pertwee format inside out can experience. The Brigadier is such a half-wit these days so that even Sargeant Benton has more of a head on him! When Troughton finally arrives I was so glad, his acidic comments and breathless action up the ante considerably. The inclusion of Hartnell at this stage was prtobably a mistake because you can tell how obviously slotted into the plot his filmed bits are. It is, of course, lovely to have him back but I would have preferred him to be more in thick of things arguing loads with Troughton but alas, health prevents it.

This is perhaps the ultimate story where its very success is held up by the charisma of the actors involved. How they kept a straight face whilst being marched around by the Gell Gaurds is credit to them all! It is the dramatic third and fourth episodes which impress the most with some more information about the Time Lords' early days and Omega's involvement with the time travel experiements. These scenes with Troughton and Pertwee bouncing off each other with particular relish are superb.

I can't bring myself to dislike The Three Doctors even though the production does try my patience. It has a good heart, the performances are all very well and the script is quite solid. You shouldn't listen to me anyway, Simon watched this with me and loved every second of it. He told me I was on critical overload again. It's a sort of pantomime story (lots of fantastical elements) so rather fittingly it has a pantomime production. Unfortunately it isn't a good pantomime production. And that's a pity.

A Review by Will Berridge 5/3/03

I can recall being positively enraptured at my first opportunity to view this at the tender age of ten. Pertwee was my favourite Doctor, on the basis my mum told me he was the best, and so I mostly bought videos with him in. (He’s gone down four places in the rankings since then.) Seeing him in an anniversary story, which at the time I rather naively assumed were good by definition, along with Troughton, Hartnell and the whole UNIT crew together, was enough to keep me excited throughout four episodes without paying to much attention to the plotline.

Which is just as well, because if you take away Troughton and Pertwee’s magnificent interplay (especially when the recorder comes up) what remains is a pretty shoddy story. In fact the whole first two episodes consist of the many regulars faffing around with some red blobs and the writers trying to take the mickey out of the UNIT characters. A character’s irrelevance to the plot has never been made so painfully evident as when the Brigadier desperately states ‘Yes, but is there anything UNIT can do?’. With nothing constructive for the Brig to achieve, Baker and Martin decide to send him up completely, most notably with his ‘Liberty Hall, Dr Tyler, Liberty Hall!’ remark. He seems to be unable to accept anything that happens in the whole story, trying to substitute explanations that fit the somewhat limited scope of him imagination –‘I’m fairly sure that’s Cromer…’ (It’s not a beach! It’s a QUARRY!),‘so that’s what you’ve been doing with UNIT funds all these years’, and most stubbornly, ‘you’ve been tinkering around with that infernal machine of yours again, that’s what’s caused it’. In reference to the last quote, the Brig seems to view that Doctor and the TARDIS rather as my dad views me and our new television. He doesn’t understand it one bit, so if something goes wrong it’s the result of the person who does ‘tinkering around with it’. Hmmph. It’s not that I don’t mind military figures being caricatured as pompous numbskulls - but so long as it only happens once or twice an episode. And for someone in charge of a taskforce investigating alien intelligences, you might expect the Brig to have a slightly higher credulity threshold.

Benton is treated just as badly in this story, with his eagerness to try and blast a blob of anti-matter to pieces, despite the Doctor’s constant assertion this will achieve precisely nothing, and the fact he has already had recourse to that famous line ‘our weapons our useless’. It’s clear that not being able to shoot anything, all alien races being immune to bullets, is causing the poor bloke to have an identity crisis. In the end he resorts to throwing a piece of chewing gum at it, which causes enough trouble. It’s conceivable that, since the Doctor was getting his freedom to roam time and space again at the end of this adventure, the writers decided the Brig and Benton weren’t going to be used much more and hence their characterisation could go down the tubes, just to demonstrate how keen the Doctor would be to get away from these morons. A pity, because Nick Courtney rose above this stereotyping in many of his later appearances, most notably Battlefield.

Jo Grant again is painful to watch, especially in her ‘Oh no I want to stay with you Doctor’ moments. If these bits were well written or acted, they might work. But they’re not.

Things pick up in Episodes 3 and 4, Omega turning out to be a suitably psychopathic, egotistical and tragic villain brought to life by lots of pained wailing and yelling of ‘I can destroy, therefore I am!’ from Stephen Thorne. But his pet ‘Gell guards’ rank somewhere just above Erato and just below the Ergon in the credibility ratings. And it seems a little curious that the Doctor, and 450 year old Time Lord of supposedly massive intellect, can only describe them as ‘some kind of very powerful organism-thing’. (Well, he did only graduate from Prydon academy with 51% at the second attempt- maybe the first paper was on anti-matter). At least the Brig seems more at home in Episode 3 (‘We’ll take the place by storm. Full scale assault with all the resources available.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘That, Mr Ollis, means you and me.’) but the combined function of all the regulars in the narrative still only seems to be (a) providing light entertainment (b) giving the Doctors someone to rescue. Sadly Episode 3 climaxes in the least convincing ‘mental battle’ scenes in the show’s history, as the Doctor tussles with a peculiarly dressed Hobgoblin, Omega claims he is about to destroy him, and then, after the cliffhanger, changes his mind.

However, the Doctor was always the best thing about the show, so the fact this story has three of him makes up for most of these deficiencies. Even William Hartnell, stuck on a TV monitor and having to turn to his right and squint before every line, is at his crotchety best. His deliver of the line ‘so you’re my replacements! A dandy and a clown!’, and subsequent expression on faces of Pertwee and Troughton, is inspired. Just concentrate on these three and ignore everything else. 7/10.

Three Doctors - just give us the Doctors, and leave the rest please by Steve Cassidy 21/3/04

Why is there something highly amusing about two old men squabbling?

This is the highlight in the pedestrian Three Doctors - the verbal interplay between Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton. The chemistry between the two veteran actors is superb and reinforces the suggestion I have had nagging away at me for years - that the Doctor wouldn't get on with himself. Ditch the Carnaby Street companions, I say, just put Troughton and Pertwee in the TARDIS, and then watch the ratings soar.

The rest of the adventure doesn't quite live up to the pairing of the two entertaining thesps. The UNIT family and their cue cards is very much in evidence here, and we visit yet another Dorset quarry doubling as an alien planet. The plot, that of the Time Lords power being drained by an ancient legend who refused to lie down and die is intriguing but we are just asked to accept so much - the whole of UNIT HQ dragged through a 'timebridge' to an alien planet. Of course as this is a gimmick set of adventures we have to squeeze alot of Dr Who iconography in as well ie 'Bessie', the Brigadier etc. The Brigadier is at his best when he is used sparingly - here we overdose on Lethbridge Stewart introducing him into the TARDIS interior and letting him roam around Omega's day-glo HQ.

And that is another thing about this adventure - it has dated horribly. Omega's palace looks like something out of Selfridge's 'Christmas Grotto' 1972. And the production design all around just looks awful - but I suspect it even looked garish back then. The Gell guards look like something put together by sixformers bored in an art class and the 'dark side' of Omega looks like a midget who escaped from a tatoo parlour.

Perhaps I am being too harsh, but I expected more. I don't really care about Lucasfilm effects - just give me a good script and a scenario that I can believe in. There are some very good points to The Three Doctors. The story isn't bad - an old Time Lord legend trying to drain the powers of Gallifrey because of bitterness and loneliness. In fact I rather liked Omega, he was a power-crazed meglomaniac - but you could understand why. Millions of years trapped on a planet of his own creation has driven him mad. And although Stephen Thorne as Omega has been derided by some but I rather liked the pantomine villain quality of this character. The way he is all swishing robes and mad rantings. I suppose he had to be OTT to hold his own gainst Troughton and Pertwee.

Another plus point is William Hartnell. Thankfully he is used sparingly as he is stuck in a time-loop. When he does appear on the TARDIS monitor his entry is accompanied a twinkling music - like a beatific Uncle Remus. His famous line of "so you are my replacements... a dandy and a clown" gets a big laugh mainly due to the looks of indignation from Pertwee and Troughton. It's a shame it is obvious he is reading from cue cards - but is good to see Bill Hartnell again.

All in all, this is an entertaining interlude but not a great one. It languishes on my video shelf and only occasionally is watched. For me there is too much of the UNIT family and not enough meat on the bone. Where it does work is in the dialogue between two of the most popular Doctors, the impish Troughton and the uptight Jon Pertwee. Personally I would have been happy to just have the pair locked in the TARDIS control room and arguing for four episodes. I don't need elaborate special effects, bomb lobbing cell guards or 'space corridors'.

Just give me two eccentric old men hamming it up to the ceiling and I'll be very happy.

A Review by Rob Matthews 26/3/04

Might be odd for a Letts/Pertwee indifference-monkey like myself, but I must fess up to a certain liking for The Three Doctors.

Well, that's no crime, you may say - who amongst us doesn't enjoy the 'a dandy and a clown' stuff and Pat Troughton saying 'I told you he had no self-control'? Aha, but here's the twist: what I really like about The Three Doctors, even moreso than the bickering of the three Doctors themselves is... gasp!... it's story!!

There's a whole slew of provisos that come with that statement, of course; I'm not about to claim that it's some kind of classic or even a major personal favourite. I mean, it's flabby and lumbered with Petwee era-isms like missing poachers and a buffoonish Brigadier. And frankly I doubt I'd shell out twenty quid to own it on DVD. But on its own terms as the dated TV serial it is, I like what's at the core.

Long story short, attempting for once to be brief, it's Doctor Who's definitive take on the martyr concept.

In that seminal semiotic thickness-fest The Unfolding Text there's a comparison made between the Doctor's 'Could you then kill that child?' speech and a similiar moral poser out of Dostoievsky (or however its spelled): If the price to pay for a perfect world was the torturing to death of a single man, could you really do that to the poor bugger? (I'm paraphrasing).

Well, here it's Omega who takes the role of our nominal poor bugger, sacrificed for the good of his society; and not to torture and death, but to the torture of an eternal living death. Abandoned and presumed dead by his people, who've gone on to become possibly the most powerful civilisation in all the universe, he's lumbered with an eternal existence in a total self-referential world with only himself and the occasional chair or sack of jelly he conjures up for company. They say hell is other people, but I betcha Omega would beg to differ: Hell is himself, and it's left him so hollow in spirit that he is in fact literally hollow - a crazy-looking costume walking around with nothing physically left of him inside. It's a really striking moment when his mask is lifted, my favourite non-bickering-Doctor moment of the story, and as it stands the 'ballad of Omega' is IMO quite a stark expressionistic rendering of sheer solipsistic despair.

Course, it's one thing to talk about expressionsim and philosophical conundra, and quite another to hold back the chuckles when the Gel guards first jiggle across the UNIT car park saying 'wobba-wobba! Wobba-Wobba!'. Were this not a multi-Doctor story with that inbuilt 'Troughtwee' factor there'd probably also be a few yawns to stifle along the way. But here's what I think - The Three Doctors is very much children's Doctor Who. Season 7, as was pointed out by Mike Morris once, was a period of Doctor Who ahead of its time in terms of its more adult and textured approach, and really after that the Perwee years are the 'growing pain' years of Doctor Who, their tone veering from story to story between the outright kids' show of the black-and-white days and the more considered approaches of scribes like Malcolm Hulke and Robert Holmes.

Amidst this, The Three Doctors drops firmly, like a stone in fact, into the kids' show bracket. It's cheerfully childish and pantomime-like in terms of design - you almost suspect there was a failed plan to produce Gel Guard sweeties, so edible do they look; Omega's palace is a sort of Aladdin's cave affair, and the control room set representing the Time Lord world (not yet 'Gallifrey', remember) is all upbeat dayglo colours, a world away from the haunted house look of The Deadly Assassin a few years later.

And yet within that context... well, in it's own way this is the junior Deadly Assassin. Inasmuch as, it's the first sighting a rotten apple in the Time Lord barrel. It's the first inkling we get that the all-powerful all-benevolent wizards of The War Games have had to pay a price for their power. There's certainly still no question that they're the good guys at this point, but Bob Baker and Dave Martin provide the show's first manifestation of doubt as to whether a civilisation that appears above reproach, pain or any mere human concerns (even death itself, it was suggested in The War Games) could actually be so. It's a first inevitable hint of an 'adult' cynicism cracking the children's show ethos, a first movement in the trajectory towards the brilliant irreverent masterstrokes of Robert Holmes and the similiarly conceived - yet much more badly received by fans - 'paranoid downers' of Eric Saward (or 'fat Eric' as a recent reviewer dubbed him, Dorothy Parker-like). Omega's like an Edvard Munch painting rendered in the colour palette of a Mr Men book.

Hmm, so is that what I like about it, then? It's a lot of fun and has childish trimmings but it shows signs of being edgy, inquisitive and suspicious of anyone who'd claim to have created a paradise without attendant pain?

I suppose so. Pessimism or not, that sounds like Doctor Who in a nutshell to me.

A Review of the DVD by Andrew McCaffrey 11/5/04

I like The Three Doctors, flawed though it is. It's overall just rompy escapism, rather than the hard-edged drama we saw during Pertwee's first year, but at this season, that's mostly what we expect. The serial gets a big boost from its cast. Not just the other two Doctors, but Stephen Thorne who puts serious gravitas into his villainous Omega. The Three Doctors isn't quite sure what it wants to be. Omega's story feels almost gothic in substance, while the comic relief portions almost override everything else. Mix that together with all the padding, and you're left with a bit of a mess, albeit a well-meaning, entertaining one.

It's fitting that a story ending with the Doctor regaining his freedom is primarily concerned with a tragic figure attempting to grasp his own. It's a shame Omega doesn't get a good chunk of screen-time until episode three; he's the best thing here. The Time Lords' great power coming at the cost of one man's imprisonment and torment. One man making a sacrifice, to set his people up above the very Gods. That and his Catch-22 dilemma make for enthralling viewing. Thorne plays it perfectly, giving Omega a dark, sad anger -- full of power and menace. It's a pity that all this great storytelling comes in the middle of "...that's Cromer out there..." and the constantly belching Gel Guards.

Troughton easily steals every scene he appears in. ("This is a show Jon Pertwee stole from Pat Troughton. He's stealin' it back.") Between accidentally breaking the Brigadier's radio and subtly probing the limits of Omega's self-control, he shows himself to be the ultimate Doctor -- always entertaining and always in command. Points off for not showing us him briefing the UN Security Council... That would have been a hoot! William Hartnell is charming. Fan of Hartnell's Doctor that I am, it's great to see him back for one final adventure. Sadly, because of his health, it's more nostalgia that I feel rather than genuine enthusiasm, but he's still a lot of fun in his brief appearances.

The script, which seems excited at the epic story of Omega's fall, feels oddly tired at other points. Tedious and awkward are the scenes of the Time Lords watching the proceedings from their distant world. The argument for allowing the Doctor meet his other selves boils down to "I must!" and counter arguments are dissuaded with "On the contrary, blah blah blah, I must!" Not exactly Socrates' Apology. There's also some plot sloppiness. For example, at the end of episode three, the Time Lords suddenly know a lot more then they did before, without explanation as to how.

The science in this serial is, well, at least they tried to make it sound scientific. But I think even the most scientific-illiterate would realize grass doesn't grow underneath buildings and black holes don't go around sucking in and farting out Mr. Holises...

The rest of the script seems to consist of nothing but padding: corridor running (which Tyler even comments on being a waste of time), people being captured, and the never-ending farewell scene, which is undercut when they're reunited moments later (although Nick Courtney's performance in those minutes instantly forgives the mockery his character underwent in the rest of the serial).

"This is a place. Just like any other place," states Pertwee, looking around at a rock quarry, which indeed looks like every other place he visited. For being the tenth anniversary special, outside of the guest stars the serial doesn't look very special. The battle sequences in episode one aren't effectively directed. This is a long way from Ambassadors of Death's fight scenes. The UNIT troops don't even bother taking cover; they just stand right out in the open. Barry Letts rightly criticizes the sets on Omega's world for being too pantomime. The cheaply made sets look exactly like cheaply made sets. If only they could have shot Omega's throne room on location in some run-down castle...

As for the DVD extras, I've not been a huge fan of some of the fluff that gets put on these discs, but I must admit to being tickled this time. The Pebble Mill piece is hilarious. The production notes are great, with a lot of focus on earlier script drafts/ideas ("Deathworld" seems more interesting than what we got). Even the commentary (often the weakest link on these DVDs) sparkles. The best formula seems to be a mix of production crew and actors, and that heuristic is true again. Katy Manning and Nicholas Courtney's anecdotes and clowning are amusing, and Barry Letts' dry comments are always informative. But one thing: couldn't we have had Terrence Dicks on the commentary track too?

Review Extras. Things may which amuse only me, but I'm including anyway:

  1. Omega has great powers. In his domain, everything is possible, because he can make things jump in and out of the frame like he's a student film director.
  2. Omega claims that the Doctors must eventually wear masks such as his. A pity they never did that. Can you imagine Troughton clowning with that big headdress on? Comedy gold!
  3. Despite the fact that the anti-matter thing ate all of Mr. Hollis, only his screaming face appears on the photographic slide; presumably, this was the closest part of him to the cosmic-ray detector device. Lucky for him it wasn't his butt that was closest. They'd still be trying to identify it.
  4. The thought-transference stuff meant switching the camera quickly between shots of Pertwee and Troughton. It goes so fast that it almost looks like subliminal advertising. And I can tell you that after watching these scenes, I was strangely hungry for a giant nose.
  5. In all of Troughton's three post-War Games appearances, he's involved in a plot that has him running around yelping about Time Lords. Given that they weren't even formally introduced until his final episode, this has always struck me as being slightly wrong somehow...

A Haiku by Finn Clark Updated 3/5/20

Genuinely good.
Omega's monumental.
It's also funny!

Celebrating Ten Years in Style by Michael Hickerson 7/7/10

Like it or not, The Three Doctors is the template for all other multi-Doctor stories during the classic series run. The basic plot is we've got some colossal threat to the universe that requires the First Law of Time to be set aside and the Doctor to encounter his various other selves in an attempt to join forces and thwart the foe.

I recently listened to the audio version of the Target novelization for The Three Doctors and I think I finally figured out why a lot of fans loved the story so much back in the day. In the hands of Terrance Dicks, the story becomes a sweeping epic, full of planets with purple skies and UNIT headquarters under attack from jelly blob creatures made of anti-matter. There are sequences where the jelly blob men stalk through the sewers underneath UNIT headquarters, multiplying rapidly and there are others when the universe Omega creates inside the singularity dims, lightens and shakes based on his moods. Dicks is working with the limitless budget of the imagination as well as the ability to not have to pad out certain moments in the story with lots of endless chasing down corridors. It still tells the same basic story, but it tightens it up a good deal and makes it seem like an epic celebration of a decade of Doctor Who.

If only that had carried over to what we get on-screen.

It's not that The Three Doctors is a bad story. But I have to imagine a huge chunk of fans who grew up only on the novelization were sorely disappointed when it was repeated in 1983 and later released on VHS.

The story finds the Time Lords forced to reunite the Doctor with his former selves because a mysterious black hole is draining away the energy of the universe. Due to his failing health, William Hartnell only appears in limited, pre-filmed inserts on the TARDIS scanner, offering advice and encouragement when the second and third Doctor can't stop bickering long enough to do what needs to be done. Both Doctors, along with Jo Grant, the Brigadier and Benton, are transported inside the black hole along with UNIT HQ, Bessie and a few other random stragglers who have the misfortune to cross paths with the blob monsters (who look wholly unconvincing in the upgraded DVD picture).

In the black hole, they meet Omega, the man who gave the Time Lords the power to travel through time. Omega was presumed dead and has lived inside the black hole all these millenia and isn't too happy about it. He targeted the Doctor due to his exile on Earth, thinking his fellow Time Lord would join forces with him to escape and rule the Time Lords.

As an anniversary story, The Three Doctors is full of the greatest hits from the era it was produced as well as the series as a whole. UNIT is in full force, ineffectively taking on the blob monsters with every weapon they can find. Omega's domain is clearly a quarry and there's lots of chasing up and down corridors in Omega's domain. At one point the DVD commentary becomes almost un-listenable as Katy Manning decides she's bored with the sound effects used for the blob men in the serial and decides to insert her own as they run and up and down corridors. It's pretty embarrassing, not just for Manning but also for those of us at home.

It's reported that Pertwee was concerned that by having a reunion of the previous Doctors, the emphasis would shift away from his Doctor. Producer Barry Letts assured him this wouldn't happen and while the third Doctor does have the most lines and is the focus of the story, it's Patrick Troughton who steals the show. He shines in every scene he's in for the entire story, easily slipping back into his Time Lord persona with ease. It's easy to see why so many fans still love Troughton and why he's such an influence on every Doctor who's played the role in the past thirty years, despite a significant number of his stories missing from the BBC archives.

At this point in the Pertwee era, the production team is running like an well-oiled machine and, while that's good, it doesn't necessarily mean they're pushing the envelope like they did in earlier seasons. The slow descent of UNIT from a crack military team to comic relief is painfully evident. (It's not as bad as Planet of the Spiders, but compare the Brigadier here to the one we see in The Silurians and you'll see what I mean).

All that said, it's still a fun story if only to see Patrick Troughton. It's a greatest hits for an era and a show and it's easily the better of the two multi-Doctor anniversary stories.

"Holy Moses!" by Hugh Sturgess 31/8/14

Apparently a lot of people think that The Three Doctors is camp and a bit rubbish. Why? It's great! It's doing something that was, at the time, genuinely new: multiple Doctors! It's celebrating the tenth anniversary not with a Dalek/Cyberman war or the return of the Master, but a threat on a new scale, both bigger than the Time Lords and unusually personal for the Doctor. It has one of the series' best ever villains, and physics that actually makes sense!

And it has the Gel Guards. I love the Gel Guards. If I ran Doctor Who, I'd bring back Omega and give him Gel Guards. (I might give them legs though.) Joe Ford asks in his review whether their designer was on speed. Absolutely! They're visually distinctive: glassy bubbles rising out of oil-slick hides, glowing red cyclops eyes and single clawed arm. Yes, they're not award-winning material, but they're bad in a fun way. They burp and hop as they move. Omega seems to have a penchant for daft-looking hench-things. Why does the Doctor say that the Ergon is one of Omega's "less successful" experiments in psychosynthesis in Arc of Infinity? Did he think the Gel Guards were better?

Fans remember The Three Doctors for the three Doctors and their comic bickering, but what struck me is that the story is actually living up to its job as an anniversary story. The Time Lords are facing a force "equal and opposite" to theirs, that is draining "cosmic energy" from the universe, which will ultimately result in the destruction of reality. The Time Lord scenes in the opening episode horrifyingly echo Arc of Infinity, with lots of Time Lords exchanging technobabble and warning of the dire consequences of the foregoing. "Be it on your own head," the Chancellor declaims of the plan to pair up the Doctors. We never see what's supposedly so dangerous about breaking the First Law of Time, so scenes like that are just dead air. Later, we see how much trouble the Time Lords really are in. "Our fellow Time Lords are as much under siege as we are," the second Doctor says.

The story even has important milestones to celebrate the anniversary, in a way I thought was surprisingly modern. Most obviously, like Day of the Doctor it shifts the series onto a new direction by ending the Doctor's exile. Unfortunately, the Doctor has had full control of the TARDIS for a while now (he flies it in this very story, and tries another time and fails only because of Omega's interference), so this has next to no impact anymore. In fact, this works better if the story is seen in isolation. Less noticeably, it's the first time the Brigadier and Benton see the interior of the TARDIS, which has the same kind of punch as Jackie's first trip in the TARDIS in Army of Ghosts.

Omega, the man behind it all, has a strong claim on being the greatest villain in the series' history. Characters like the Master or Davros stand and fall on their performances, mostly. Stephen Thorne is good as Omega, managing to dominate a story that stars both Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton with that booming voice of his, despite wearing a mask throughout. However, the concept is even stronger, much stronger than the Master or Davros. He is Prometheus (stealing the fire of heaven to create a new race and being imprisoned as a result), Dostoevsky's scapegoat in The Brothers Karamazov (as the second Doctor notes, the price of the Time Lords' freedom was Omega's eternal imprisonment), Prospero (a magician trapped on an island in time snatching up his usurpers in a storm) and Milton's Satan (ruling in Hell rather than serving in Heaven, equal and opposite to the Time Lords). The Three Doctors travel over the rainbow to the centre of a black hole, and for once what they find there lives up to the hype. The infamous exclamation that I've used as the title for my review is very appropriate. Omega is indeed the Time Lords' Moses.

One of the many, many killer flaws in this story's sequel, Arc of Infinity, it that doesn't make an effort to explain why Omega is such a bad guy. The Three Doctors puts that in perspective: he isn't such a bad guy! He's barely a villain. He is introduced raving about his revenge and casually dismissing the destruction of the universe as a nice spectacle, but he's ultimately a lonely old man who just wants to go home. Even when he throws childish tantrums and threatens to destroy everything, he's pathetic rather than evil, and manages to sound hurt when he says "you have angered me!". When he discovers that he can't escape his "paradise", he just wants company. The Doctor feels sorry for him. Moreover, this threat is quite personal for the Doctor. He admits to venerating Omega as a hero, and I wonder whether his wanderlust stems in part from emulating Omega's great historical achievements (Omega says that he had to "find" the star he blew up, which presumably required a lot of travelling).

There's some impressive high-concept science behind Omega too. A stream of light that somehow travels faster than light tracks over the universe like a searchlight, and finds the Doctor on Earth. The Gel Guards and the CSO blob are some kind of matter that has the qualities of both matter and antimatter. Omega's powers come from the singularity at the heart of the black hole, where all the laws of physics break down. (Yes, his "palace" is like a piece of '70s pop art and his planet is a quarry. As to the latter, maybe he's grown bored with maintaining the illusion of a lush world outside. As to the former, I don't understand the hatred for the design at all) For once, antimatter is not treated like some mystical "evil" matter that can destroy the universe. The mechanism by which Omega is draining away the "cosmic energy" that sustains the universe isn't explained, but mostly the story is dramatising real (if exaggerated) science.

With The Five Doctors, The Two Doctors and now Day of the Doctor, we've got used to the idea of multi-Doctor stories as a kind of sub-genre. But The Three Doctors is doing it for the first time, so the format is new. The most striking feature is that Jon Pertwee is the "current" Doctor, and so he's reacting against the interlopers, rather than being one of those interlopers as in The Five Doctors. He's never been in a situation like this one. Moreover, the second and third Doctors are such different characters. True, The Two Doctors pits the loud, brash and cynical sixth Doctor against the quiet, impish and innocent second, but they're both broadly tricksters and eccentrics. The third Doctor is upright, regal, rather authoritarian and impatient with levity - the perfect foil for the lighthearted Troughton. Their scenes are great, feeling fresher than the comparable interplay in 1983, 1985 or 2013, because it isn't aping the material, but inventing it. It isn't the playful mock-insults of those stories. There's a delicious venom behind Pertwee's treatment of his younger self, and Troughton seems to enjoy winding up his future self. Of course, Pertwee gets the majority of the dramatic weight, but Troughton still gets plenty of material, like his interactions with the Brigadier and Benton and trying to provoke Omega.

Putting Hartnell in a time eddy on a TV screen is a good way to involve him without expecting much, making him a kind of oracle or Old Testament prophet, but he's poor. He looks to the side as he speaks - is he looking at the cue cards? He looks bad too, all orange and bloated. Tat Wood points out that Hartnell was never the action hero, so sticking him in a dodgy TV talking is sort of appropriate. There's nothing good about his arteriosclerosis, but I'm perfectly happy with his share of the story here.

After Day of the Doctor, I guess the fan theory that the Doctors do not remember meeting each other (until the oldest iteration, that is, so only Pertwee remembers this story, only Davison remembers The Five Doctors, etc) has been canonised. This has only been invoked to explain multi-Doctor meetings, but maybe it works for humans (and other beings) too. Is there any example from televised Doctor Who of a character meeting a future self and unambiguously remembering it? In Mawdryn Undead, the Brigadier does not remember meeting his older self on Mawdryn's ship even after the Doctor jogs his memory. In A Christmas Carol, the impact on Kazran's personality of meeting his future self only "appears" after it has happened from his older self's perspective. In The Wedding of River Song, two Rivers are at Lake Silencio, and the Doctor tells the younger River that she won't remember shooting him. This puts a new spin on the most famous memory-wipe of all, that of Jamie and Zoe in The War Games. We've always assumed that it was a deliberate Time Lord technique, but the dialogue only passively describes them "forgetting" the Doctor, who doesn't seem angry at the Time Lords for effectively killing his friends. Maybe it's a natural side-effect of time travel. Instead of erasing their memories, are the Time Lords merely returning Jamie and Zoe to the lives they should have had? They remember only their first meeting with the Doctor because they weren't "meant" to have any more adventures.

(Talking of The Day of the Doctor, this story is referenced twice in the 50th anniversary, in Kate's reference to the "Cromer" incident and more subtly by the Time Lord general, who modifies the Brigadier's line, "I didn't know when I was well-off…" It's amazing to think that Nicholas Courtney followed that with "three of them", and the Time Lord general with "all twelve of them".)

This story's "stupid Brig" has come in for a good deal of rightful criticism, but this performance isn't stupid, it's pathological. His paranoid theory about the appearance of the second Doctor, his conviction that the TARDIS interior is an illusion, the famous "Cromer" line - this is funny until you consider that the Brigadier is clearly in the midst of a mental breakdown. Benton even suggests (behind his back) that he's losing it. Instead of degrading the Brigadier, I think this interpretation actually enriches him, and is also in character. He was nearly broken witnessing the Yeti massacre his men in The Web of Fear, and in Mawdryn Undead he will actually have a breakdown and suppress his memories of the Doctor. Is this a sign of what's to come? In that case, his friend is having trouble coping and the Doctor just continues winding him up. Thanks for nothing, Doctor. Nick Courtney is great as always, of course. I found his farewell to the Doctors at the climax, with that final, silent salute, quite moving. It seems to sum up the Brigadier: no matter his incomprehension or exasperation, he is someone on whom the Doctor can totally rely.

There's some wonderful surrealist imagery in this story that reminds you that Doctor Who looks like nothing else on television: the Gel Guards appearing in the UNIT car-park; the transported bits of the Doctor's lab in the middle of Omega's quarry; Bessie in the quarry; UNIT HQ disappearing into the black hole; Omega lifting up his helmet and finding nothing underneath. The fight with the "dark side" of Omega's psyche is weird. It's potentially nightmarish and/or simply freaky, but in reality it's a limp fight sequence in slow motion.

I like the Gel Guards and the rest of the design, but there's a more basic production competence that's lacking. There is a boom mic that haunts the TARDIS scenes, and the Doctor's first meeting with Omega also stars the camera's shadow. Mid-rant, Omega's face plate lifts up and we briefly see Stephen Thorne's chin. The camera even shoots directly into the TARDIS prop, and we can see the Venetian blinds behind it through a hole in the back. Couldn't at least some of these have been reshot?

It goes without saying that The Three Doctors is better than its sequel, Arc of Infinity. It surpasses it in every measure, from acting to plotting to characterisation to imagination. What is less often said is that it is actually a great story in its own right. The multi-Doctors concept is executed perfectly, and its plot is strong enough that it stands without its central gimmick. The Five Doctors and Day of the Doctor are busy stories with multiple elements and plot threads, while there's a pleasing simplicity to The Three Doctors. Those other stories wouldn't survive losing their other Doctors and their continuity links. The Three Doctors would, because it is a strong enough story on its own. It invents its own genre, and its success led to the sequels that followed.

Never A Crowd by Donna Bratley 28/11/19

The first multi-Doctor television story, and still the best. The plot may be flimsy, and the supporting cast tissue-paper staples (Ollis in particular is a condescendingly caricatured "country bumpkin"), yet it never takes itself too seriously and remains a rollicking good watch.

William Hartnell's very visible frailty is sobering, but he still makes his mark in a limited part. I can only imagine the high-jinks had he been well enough to fully engage with his fellow Doctors, but even trapped in a time eddy he provides ample reminder of the original's avuncular steel. Plus, he gets the ultimate earlier-incarnation put-down to his two successors. None will ever better "a dandy and a clown". Likewise, "I don't like it." I appreciate the callbacks, Mr Moffat, but as the song says: nobody does it better. The Troughton take remains supreme.

As others have noted, the Second Doctor materialises as if he'd never been away, effortlessly stealing the show from an elegantly disdainful Pertwee. Mischievously manipulative (testing the limits of Omega's self-control, probing for a weakness whilst concealing his intellectual strength in a trademark piece of supreme tactical nous), he's technically second fiddle to the incumbent, but the credits are deceptive. He's a mercurial genius, and when he's on screen he dominates it, despite the greater physical presences around him. Small wonder so many later incarnations hang on threads found in Patrick Troughton's quicksilver characterisation.

Pertwee holds his own in their magnificent bickering, even as it highlights the Third's less endearing persona, and he's commanding in the action-man side he brought to the role. That's fine when he's giving orders or running around the barren landscape (I love a good quarry) within the black hole, but does lead to one of those moments where the series' imagination outstrips its practical capabilities. I refer, of course, to the fight.

That the dark side of Omega's nature (does he have a light one?) should take the form of a bizarre goblin is one thing - It Takes You Away provides something weirder for Jodie Whittaker - but the slow-mo flailing at the end of episode 3 is painful, for all Pertwee's stony-faced conviction. Thank goodness his only company is his previous self, not the hopeless female who usually squeals at his side.

I invariably struggle with Jo Grant, although she's more bearable (isn't everything?) when being gently led by the hand through the Second Doctor's explanations. Gratingly "winsome", she exists to get into trouble or be patronised like a less-than precocious toddler. She brings out the worst in Pertwee's Doctor, and Katy Manning's performance on occasion is wince-inducing.

Jo does have her moments of usefulness: suggesting the Doctors channel their combined will against Omega's walls is one. Yet I can never watch The Three Doctors without regretting it wasn't Liz Shaw by the Third's side when Omega came calling.

UNIT without her forensic intelligence are in full Dad's Army mode, led by a Brigadier whose principal contribution is "See stick. Grab wrong end." Nicholas Courtney is superb, of course, striding through the wildest of scenarios with no more than a disdainful brow-twitch and a booming refusal to believe his eyes: at the Second Doctor's appearance; and the immortal, wholly implausible "Cromer". It should have me tearing out hair in handfuls given my preference for a viable, if trigger-happy, defensive force but it's the era's norm and, given the serial's tone, endearingly done.

They're not presented, initially, with the greatest of threats. The much-maligned Gel Guards shuffle about being overtaken by the local snails, all the while resembling something Blue Peter might have knocked up out of an old toilet roll, some sticky-backed plastic and a tube of mouldy jelly tots. Their creator's lair is gorgeous, with its gel jewels glinting off (almost) solid black surfaces, but the creatures themselves couldn't catch a paper bag on a windless day.

Even when they're pursuing - does standing on cliffs failing to shoot within ten yards of a target even qualify? - the Brig's escapees, the show doesn't bother treating them as a genuine danger. The (1970s BBC limitations alert) glowing substance oozing through the lab plughole is more threatening and considerably more effective, even given the comic-strip drag of HQ through a black hole. It probably made a great cliffhanger on paper. And at least it zapped bloody Bessie!

Meanwhile, the image of Ollis on the X-ray is a proof that a simple effect can admirably convey a deadly threat. Sometimes it's good to recognise our limitations...

More of a problem than effect is characterisation, particularly that of the Time Lords. They're cardboard pomposities too bland to be either irritating, ominous or convincing as a usually potent race. Their dialogue is sententious, the performances too stiff for the enormity of any peril - to the universe or themselves - to make itself felt. In fact, any tension comes from the performances of the leads.

Luckily, Troughton could sell ice at the North Pole. And Pertwee isn't far behind.

There's nothing stiff about the cause of their problems. Omega is one of those magnificently operatic villains (Ghost Light's springs to mind) I relish. The vengeful Time Lord, sacrificed for the good of his people and nursing his resentment over millennia, is the most malevolent (and interesting) thing about the plot, and the only secondary character to scrape three-dimensional status. The removal of his mask is the sole thoroughly chilling moment in four episodes, and Stephen Thorne's maniacal, despairing wail allows his insane villain just the briefest touch of pathos.

At the last, it's the Second Doctor's beloved recorder that saves the day. Science isn't my thing, so the basic physics of the great escape's irrelevant, but that one small fact makes any implausibility acceptable in my eyes.

And as a reward, the Time Lords restore the Doctor's freedom. The exile on Earth was a budget-friendly change to the format which imposed the one thing Doctor Who should never be saddled with - limitations. Setting the Doctor free is the perfect way to celebrate his - their - tenth year.