Doctor Who Project: Jon Pertwee Retrospective

In more ways than one, Jon Pertwee brought a touch of color to Doctor Who.

Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor

Beyond the obvious switch to color broadcasting (or, perhaps more properly for the source material, colour broadcasting) in his inaugural season, Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor stands as a bright figure, sartorially resplendent in velour overcoats and equally as boisterous in manner, whether under the spotlights of Television Centre or floodlit on location in some quarry. He commands attention, always seeking (and usually claiming) the camera’s eye, earning him a well-deserved reputation as a bit of a ham.

Indeed, once we saw Pertwee wrestle with a tentacle in his very first story, we knew that more had changed than just the black and white filming. This willingness to indulge in the over-the-top, from the wardrobe to the acting to the plots themselves, announces a signal shift in the series, with a more “modern” sensibility.

The first of many gurns

Yet, unlike the rather jarring tonal change from William Hartnell’s bristly First Doctor to Patrick Troughton’s impish Second Doctor, the Third Doctor amalgamates the two prior incarnations seamlessly—he is at once given to brooding and moralizing while still quick with a Venusian karate chop and a cutting bon mot, often simultaneously. He is an old soul in a new-ish body.

As a result, long-time viewers see that the Third Doctor comes directly from this lineage; the character makes sense as a scion, so to speak, of this illustrious Gallifreyan family, even as all else seems to change around him on Doctor Who. So where the shift from Hartnell to Troughton required transitional figures (Polly and Ben) to shepherd the audience into the strange, new regeneration, the Third Doctor arrives alone.

Well, not quite alone. Though new viewers are able to start without any real prerequisite knowledge of the series’ lore, one familiar face returns. Along with color broadcasting and a new Doctor came a budgetary decision to restrict the series to the mundanities of Earth-bound settings (read: country towns and castles). The production team chose UNIT, in the Troughton years a vaguely-defined stand-in for real military forces, as the framing device for the revamped series. So back comes Nicolas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart, newly promoted to Brigadier. One could be forgiven for thinking the show’s title had changed to Doctor Who and UNIT after Pertwee’s first season (Season Seven), so frequently do Lethbridge-Stewart, Captain Yeats, and Sergeant Benton feature in the early going.

A bemused Brigadier

Even the Third Doctor’s first two companions, Liz Shaw (Caroline John) and Jo Grant (Katy Manning), have ties to UNIT, both being either directly or indirectly in the organization’s employ. They, like UNIT itself, are essentially foisted upon the Doctor, whose early ambitions focus on undoing the Time Lords’ sabotage of his TARDIS, saving the Earth from its weekly invader being but a secondary concern. The Third Doctor’s initial hesitancy to embrace his Earthly sojourn leads to moments where he falls out of the audience’s sympathy. Shades, indeed, of the First Doctor, who initially evinced a bit of cowardliness and self-serving motivation; but where Hartnell had a full cast of co-equals (Susan, Barbara, and Ian) on screen with him during his most crotchety period, here Pertwee carries the weight of the audience’s gaze by himself. For better or worse, the Third Doctor firmly takes in the lead, with his lone companion in trail a few steps behind, assisting but seldom advising or acting with initiative.

The Third Doctor never quite fits in, never quite feels at home. This otherness from human and Earthly concerns pays dividends, though, in one of the finest stories of Pertwee’s era, the awkwardly titled “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” where the Third Doctor attempts, as he does frequently, to play intercessor between humans and the “monster” that has arrived/appeared/been summoned. While both factions have hot-headed members who act hastily, the Doctor manages to reach accord with the Silurians, and just as he prepares to begin reviving them from their eons-long slumber, the Brigadier destroys their underground lair.

A dark deed

It is, the Doctor says, “murder,” and one sees the disgust in his face. This notion of the “real” monster repeats throughout Pertwee’s run, and while not always successful, it nevertheless shows an attempt a moral nuance that was broadly absent from the Second Doctor’s stories. Even in the strongest story of the First Doctor’s era, “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” the story ended on a humorous note; here, the tone is one of resounding defeat.

The Pertwee stories begin to provide extensive detail about the Doctor’s history, with more reverence for the series’ continuity and backstory. The Time Lords come into clearer focus as a far-from-infallible group of temporal busy-bodies with a morally ambiguous history (Omega being trapped inside the singularity that powers the Time Lords, for instance). The greater emphasis on their history does not, however, prevent them from being a convenient deus ex machina whenever the plot demands, and the middle part of Pertwee’s era sees the Time Lords guiding the TARDIS to key places and moments they wish to have investigated, safeguarded or just plain meddled with. Perhaps the Second Doctor’s lecture about the immorality of non-intervention, immediately prior to his exile, sank in.

More felicitously, the Time Lords also provide the Third Doctor his greatest foe: The Master.

A thoroughly complicated man.

If William Hartnell had the Daleks, and Patrick Troughton the Cybermen, then Jon Pertwee certainly had Roger Delgado’s impeccably put-together renegade Time Lord. He was the only person in all of Pertwee’s run who could take the camera off of the Third Doctor, with a string of bravura performances that, often as not, ended in ignominy. For as surely as the Master conjured up an elaborate plan, so too did it end in spectacular failure—he was forever getting caught in his own metaphorical (and occasionally literal) explosions.

The Master’s appeal stems greatly from his essential moral ambiguity. He’s not necessarily evil, or at least not for its own sake; he’s not driven by a techno-biological imperative to conquer, exterminate or assimilate, and as such, he can’t be dismissed as easily as the Daleks or Cybermen. Like the Doctor, he’s smart and driven and willing to enact cleverly risky plans for a greater cause—it’s just that the Master’s only cause is himself. This conflict between the Doctor and the Master reveals something of the Doctor as well, to such an extent that the initial concept for the end of Pertwee’s run would have seen them revealed as halves of a single individual (per Tat Wood’s invaluable About Time Volume 3). The Master is the Doctor, or at least what the Doctor could become if bereft of morality. Sadly, Roger Delgado’s untimely passing took this delightful foil off the stage far too soon.

A passel of pepperpots

As for the Third Doctor’s encounters with the iconic pepperpots, the less said, the better. Terry Nation’s creations return for three Dalek stories, none of which carry any gravity or weight. The Daleks, at least at this stage, brook no ambiguity, and while Nation does imbue them with a bit of existential pathos in “Planet of the Daleks,” they remain heavy narrative weights around the show’s shoulders.

The Cybermen, by contrast, do not appear at all, though their doppelgängers in the Autons take a welcome turn on the stage, bringing a touch of menace in their silent advance (and being responsible for one of the series’ most iconic moments, the crash through the high street shopping windows). As the mindless puppets of the Nestene Consciousness, the Autons are also easier for the Doctor to attack and destroy, being neither sentient nor alive.

A killer commute

Which is not to say that this iteration of the Doctor shirks from violence. Lost amid his constant non-lethal application of Venusian Akido is the moment where the Doctor is first shown to actually kill when not imminently threatened. The victim, one of the Daleks’ Ogron mercenaries, advances menacingly, to be sure, but the Doctor takes a careful shot from range and downs it. The shame here rests in the story’s lack of comment upon the killing, even as much as in the act itself; the Doctor’s pacifism, once a staple of the series, has become subject to the vagaries of plot.

Doc shot first.

The Third Doctor only ever has one companion at a time, the better to keep the focus on Pertwee’s performance. Where William Hartnell’s stories employed multiple companions to fill out the narrative beats (Ian and Steven as action heroes; Susan, Barbara, and Vicki as moral compasses) and Patrick Troughton’s stories cast companions as his children, after a fashion (Jamie, Victoria, and Zoe all being quite young and requiring much expository erudition), the Pertwee stories give the Third Doctor what can only be termed helpmeets, in the full meaning of the phrase. Even though Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) bring their own talents and personalities to bear, they linger in the Doctor’s shadow, seldom driving events themselves.

Caroline John, Katy Manning, and Elisabeth Sladen

The Third Doctor does not cover himself in glory when it comes to gender relations. No matter the writer, the Doctor’s initial interactions with his three companions see him behave dismissively towards them, expecting coffee, silence, and behavior, usually in that order. (By all accounts, this is the Doctor’s behavior; Jon Pertwee appears to have had genuinely positive relationships with his co-stars.) One can feebly make the case that the Doctor bristles at the idea of needing assistance and so puts down anyone who would dare offer it, male or female, but his tone and attitude towards his companions carries an unmistakably gendered attitude.

Of the three companions, Jo Grant has been the most unfairly overlooked. Katy Manning’s performance grew over time, and given a writer with even an inkling of sympathy towards the character, she was able to produce some touching and effectively acted moments. Her turn in “The Curse of Peladon” as Princess Josephine of TARDIS provided Manning with a fully rounded character to inhabit, and she did so with grace and verve. Even the Master came to admire Jo, her ability to resist his mental powers bemusing him to no end.

King Peladon and Jo

Jon Pertwee and the Third Doctor firmly overlap in their shared motormania—indeed, Pertwee’s obsession with cars and vehicles of all kinds was written into the series, with the introduction of the “Whomobile” done as an explicit favor to him, as he owned the prototype vehicle in real life. From Bessie to hovercraft to gyrocopters and more, motorized conveyances and chases therewith mark the Third Doctor’s era. Sometimes this leads to rather nonsensical moments that add little to the plot, but given the preponderance of six episode stories, the filler didn’t go unappreciated by the production team.

Behold the Whomobile

Along with the vehicles, the Third Doctor’s era saw an increasing use of color screen overlay (or “green screen”) technology to put characters into fantastical situations. For the time, and for the time they had to put it all together, the results work well enough. It’s to their credit that they didn’t shy away from trying, and for every wonky dinosaur or poorly matted scene, you get a moment of wonder. The title credits in particular stand out as the best the series has ever aired, even to the present day.

Third Doctor Title Credits

In every way, Jon Pertwee and the Third Doctor move the series forward, into color, into nuance, into action. The show at this point contains multitudes, with vaudeville bits side by side with introspection right out of a Pinter play. Jon Pertwee was up to all of it, and while he may well have preferred the gurning and leaping, he more than held his own with the melancholy. This is a Doctor who knows loss. More than anything, the Third Doctor experiences defeat, defeat that the writers wisely refrain from diluting with saccharine. Heady stuff for a kids’ series.

A lonely drive.

The Third Doctor passes from the stage not so much by choice as by necessity. He faces his fears, knowing that the end will come—it is, perhaps, the only kind of heroism he would recognize.

Post 77 of the Doctor Who Project

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