Folks, join me in considering the near complete pointlessness of Mr Ollis (Laurie Webb). He exists to be accidentally transported to a distant world and thus to kick start the events of anniversary shindig, The Three Doctors. His face screams out of an X-ray giving the Doctor (dandyish Jon Pertwee) a clue as to what’s happening and a way into the story. Then, his usefulness is at an end.
Nevertheless, he’s hangs around. Ollis turns up on the barren world to carry a rifle, look unfazed by events and follow everyone else around until he’s returned home at the end of the story. By rights, the trip through the heavens to the world within the black hole should have killed him. But as it didn’t, he just kind of hangs around for the rest of the story.
Noticing Ollis and his superfluousness is a dangerous thread to pull at. Suddenly you realise that none of the supporting characters are needed. Certainly not Dr Tyler (Rex Robinson), once his plot function to bring Ollis’s disappearance to the attention of UNIT is achieved. He too is transported to this neverworld, and once there, he also has nothing to do but splutter bewildered statements and make conversation with the Doctor and Jo (ever devoted Katy Manning). But when you think about it, Jo has no significant contribution to make either. Nor do UNIT men the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney, at prime pompousness) and Sergeant Benton (John Levene, at prime gormlessness).
That’s all of this story’s supporting cast – save for a nagging wife and a flummoxed corporal – accounted for. And none of them are really necessary. They’re there simply to keep our leading men company – to pass the silicon rods and tell them how brilliantly infuriating they are. Which is understandable, because the main event is the Doctor meeting his former incarnations. A situation we’re used to after years of such match ups, but which at the time of The Three Doctors, must have felt a giddyingly exciting treat.
Who is the hero of this story? It’s a contentious point.
Patrick Troughton is on hand to steal the show away from Pertwee. Many tales have been told of the initial tension between them, generated by their contrasting approaches to the part; one serious and methodical, the other playful and instinctive. If Troughton was trepidatious about returning to the role, there’s no sign of it here. Instead he seems re-energized by the role and more than happy to let Pertwee carry the plot and think he’s the star. Troughton is content to be a constantly distracting presence, reminding the audience that the Doctor can be funny and naughty and whimsical. But this time in colour.
Pertwee sends four episodes trying not to notice. He’s behaving as if Troughton’s another supporting artist in his show, in an attempt to counteract Troughton’s pulling focus. But to no avail. Troughton’s presence pulls the show out of shape. Look, for instance, at his effect on the Brigadier. With Troughton around, the Brigadier becomes slightly unhinged, failing to believe the evidence of his own eyes and making post hoc rationalisations about Cromer. This is really the first story that turns him into a figure of fun, with comedy double takes and wry one liners. Because suddenly we have a Doctor cracking jokes again and he needs a straight man.
Then there’s poor William Hartnell. Hardly old at 64, but clearly very ill, so he needs to be confined to a space infirmary. He’s a shadow of his former Doctory self, his voice uncertain and unfamiliarly light. It’s not just difficult to watch, but also difficult to see – the combination of that strange pyramidal frame he’s perched in, plus the replaying of his footage onto the glarey TARDIS monitor screen. In all, there’s no tangible sense of the first Doctor being present, not just because he only appears in pre filmed segments, but because Hartnell has changed so much since he gave up the role. Given the dubious decision to put such a sick man onscreen in the first place, you have to ask if it was really worth it.
Then there’s Omega (Stephen Thorne), a kind of lonely god, sitting in a world incompatible with our own. With that booming voice and his platform boots, he clearly thinks he’s the story’s hero and these Doctors mere distractions.
Around this time Doctor Who built stories around a number of these demigod like super beings: your Azal, your Kronos, your Queen Spider and Omega form a little pantheon that stretches back to the Toymaker and forward to Sutekh. In each case, these beings are so powerful the Doctor cannot hope to defeat them with might. He must use some guile or trickery to defeat them. In this sense, the two Doctors’ approaches to fighting Omega are telling. The Third Doctor tries to mentally battle Omega (which means wrestling with Stuart Fell in a dream sequence) to no avail. The Second prefers a psychological approach; he needles away at Omega with trivialities to test his self control. It’s this method that eventually works.
It makes sense because as the story reveals, Omega has no physical presence; he exists only through force of his own will. He’s pure thought, so it’s fitting that he’s defeated by not being able to see through a trick designed to exploit his emotional instability. No mistake then that his Greek theatre style mask is shaped into a permanent wail of despair.
That mask, apart from being a great piece of design, is significant. It gives The Three Doctors its most effective moment, when the Doctors remove Omega’s mask to reveal that nothing but air fringed by a yellow CSO halo lies beneath. Masks are a common feature of Doctor Who, and usually a signal of villainy at the highest level. They hide a character’s true nature, often, disappointingly, the deformed features of a monster. In Omega’s case, though, it hides a man who’s not there, eaten away by the world which has kept him alive. It’s poetic, but it does suffer a bit from Guy Crawford syndrome, characterised by never thinking to look in a mirror.
Still, it turns Omega into that rarest of things in old Who, a villain who is also a figure of sympathy. The Doctor is remorseful at story’s end that he couldn’t save his people’s mythic hero, not even when multiplied by three. Though as later events will prove, it’s pretty hard to kill someone who exists only as a kind of robed stubbornness, so he needn’t have worried.
And how does this momentous story end? With multiple Doctors and Time Lord gods or the renewed TARDIS flying triumphantly off into the vortex?
No, of course not. It ends with inconsequential old Mr Ollis! He returns home to his long suffering wife who understandably wants to know where he’s been. And here’s the most amazing thing of all, he can’t be bothered telling her! That’s because he knows he’s actually the hero of this story! And from his point of view… not much really happened.
LINK TO: Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. Both feature not-quite-as-we-remember-them first Doctors.
NEXT TIME: We meet The Husbands of River Song. I hear they automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.