I am no great student of numerology, but there is no doubt in my mind that certain numbers have a special significance, and that is entirely as a result of the weight of history and their particular characteristics. Foremost among these is the number 3. For 2000 years Christians have been taught about the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and then there are the three attributes of God (superpowers, if you like): omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence. Utilised in The Curse of Fenric, there is also this, from the book of Corinthians: “So these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
But the significance of the number from a religious point of view goes back a lot further. In Ancient Egypt, the sun god Ra was named three times after the dawn, noon and sunset, and that is just one of many examples. Gods tended to come in triads, such as Horus, Osiris and Isis. But the thrice-named Ra representing three stages of the sun is a good illustration of an important way the number 3 also works in fiction, because it gives us a beginning, a middle and an end. So as a number it’s pretty satisfying and useful, and is so ingrained in us that things somehow seem to work better in threes. So if you get a list of things, there will often be three of them, where to stop at two would jar. Take this famous speech from The Trial of a Time Lord:
The oldest civilisation, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Ha! Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, they’re still in the nursery compared to us.
So there we have two good examples in one short quote: “decadent, degenerate, rotten” as the three attributes assigned to the Time Lords by the Doctor, and the naming of three old foes, “Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen”. And Doctor Who is peppered with these. He’s like “fire and ice and rage”, his enemies the Daleks want to “exterminate, annihilate, destroy”, and the TARDIS itself is Time and Relative Dimension in Space, which has a neat A and B in C pattern.
In The Creature from the Pit, Organon describes his abilities as “the future foretold, the past explained, the present apologised for.” And those are the three types of story Doctor Who does almost all the time: past, present or future. Almost every companion since 2005 has been introduced by doing one of each of those first before anything else. The Classic series starts off with our three companions, Ian, Barbara and Susan, but of course three plus the Doctor makes four, and one has to be missed out to achieve our gathering of “courage, loyalty and wit”, as Richard the Lionheart observes in The Crusade. I don’t want to go too far down a blind alley of looking at companion lineups here, but it is worth just noting that three plus Doctor tends to be troublesome for the series and is a rarity, whereas three including the Doctor is much more the norm, and tends to work extremely well:
- Doctor, Steven, Vicki (or Dodo)
- Doctor, Jamie, Victoria (or Zoe)
- Doctor, Sarah, Harry
- Doctor, Leela (or Romana), K9
- Doctor, Rose, Jack
- Doctor, Amy, Rory
- Doctor, Bill, Nardole
They are all iconic groupings, and of course three is the minimum number you need in a group in order for somebody to feel left out, or be the gooseberry, and that kind of vibe has been explored frequently since 2005 in particular, with pseudo-love-triangles: Doctor/Rose/Mickey, Doctor/Rose/Jack, Doctor/Amy/Rory, Doctor/Clara/Danny. The grouping of three leads is used frequently in television and film, and often when there is a larger ensemble you get a core of three “important ones”: Buffy, Willow and Xander for example. Sometimes this allows for a lead character with two individual influences or links to different aspects of his or her life. To take a very random example, The Secret World of Alex Mack (who remembers that?) had Ray and Annie doing exactly this. Or to take an example that people have actually heard about, Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter books.
But I want to take a step up from number spotting and drill down into why I think Doctor Who is actually about the number 3. So here’s what Doctor Who is:
- A series of stories with a beginning, a middle and an end.
- The Doctor, his TARDIS, and his companion(s).
- The past, the present and the future.
What is Who? The number 3.
…until the next article in this series, in which I will try to illustrate why it is actually something else altogether. RP