Love for the Third Doctor Who
I love the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who - here's why.
Recently, I have been watching a lot of Doctor Who. Starting out as a way to get through the pandemic, I was watching a large number of random classic series stories during the first UK lockdown; then, during the second lockdown, I picked two seasons from the 1980's. However, when the third lockdown was announced, I fancied doing something a little more ambitious, and a little more structured. And then, I hit upon a bit of a brainwave: why not marathon a whole Doctor's era, one episode each day? After all, it was a natural step after the previous marathons, and it was something I had never done before. But would I be able to keep it up? I am notorious for starting things, and then just abandoning them when they start to get old, or in the way of new projects. But I was determined that this would be different: that I would see this through to the end. And so, I decided to do it. And the Doctor I picked was Jon Pertwee. Originally the Doctor between 1970 and 1974, this is a well-respected and well-loved era of the show, by me especially, and I knew that it would be a lot of fun. What I didn't anticipate was quite how much fun it would be, how I would gain a whole new appreciation of it, and, ultimately, how much support it would be during the tough times ahead.
One thing that becomes apparent when you watch the Third Doctor's era back-to-back, as it were, is how much of a complete entity it is. Unlike the vast majority of Doctor's tenures on the programme, Jon Pertwee's time on the show has one strong through-line right from the beginning. In fact, only the Seventh Doctor's and, perhaps, the Tenth Doctor's eras have anywhere close to the same narrative cohesion as Pertwee's time on the show. Showrunners Barry Letts (producer for all but Pertwee's first story) and Terrance Dicks (script editor) have a clear vision for the show, which is stamped out right from the beginning, and carries through to the end. The stories of the Third Doctor are defined by being Earth-based, but, even those that aren't are grounded in contemporary issues: the new-found technology of plastics, fears about immigration, energy issues, Britain joining the EEC, miner's strikes, the Cold War, pollution, enviro-fascism, apartheid and the greed of big corporations all feature across the Pertwee era. This is, alongside the politically anarchic, post-punk stories of the late 1980's, Doctor Who's most politically charged period. The Doctor's greatest enemies of this era aren't just Daleks, Nestenes, Ice Warriors, Draconians and the Master, but burocratic civil servants and profit-hungry corporates; blinkered, close-minded scientists and fanatical, glory-hunting despots. There's something innately compelling about Doctor Who's human villains, and the Pertwee era is littered with them: Captain Dent ("Colony in Space"), Chinn ("The Claws of Axos"), Galloway ("Death to the Daleks"), Stahlmann ("Inferno"), Stevens ("The Green Death"), General Williams ("Frontier in Space"), The Marshal ("The Mutants"), General Carrington ("The Ambassadors of Death") and Charles Grover ("Invasion of the Dinosaurs") to name a few.
But, while the Third Doctor era is littered with terrible men who will do anything for power, money or self-aggrandisement, there are those who will do the right thing, even if it may be the difficult thing. People like Bernard Kay's Caldwell from "Colony in Space", who won't just stand by and let IMC walk all over the colonists. People like Stewart Bevan's Cliff Jones, who has dedicated his life to saving the planet from the harm of pollution. People like Arnold Yarrow's Bellal, who is unwavering in his beliefs, despite being persecuted for them. Others, like Greg Sutton and Sir Keith Gold ("Inferno"), Dr Summers ("The Mind of Evil"), Ashe ("Colony in Space"), Miss Hawthorne ("The Daemons"), the Controller ("Day of the Daleks"), King Peladon ("The Curse of Peladon"), Ky, Stubbs and Cotton ("The Mutants"), Queen Galliah ("The Time Monster"), Tarron, Rebec, Latep and Codel ("Planet of the Daleks"), Elgin ("The Green Death"), Adam and Mark ("Invasion of the Dinosaurs"), Queen Thalia and Gebek ("The Monster of Peladon") and Tommy, Arak and Kan'po ("Planet of the Spiders") are all seen as, fundamentally, good people; whether it's that they start out as good, or, through the Doctor, Liz, Jo and Sarah's influence, become good and right past failings. People are seen as fallible, but, even in the list above, there is hope and redemption for everyone. This theme carries throughout the Pertwee era, and is, for me, a fundamental part of the appeal of Doctor Who. And, of course, in the morally virtuous figure of the Third Doctor himself, we have someone who can guide us through the worlds of time and space, with the moral assuredness of someone who believes in truth and justice. Even he isn't perfect (this is essentially the main theme of Pertwee's final story, "Planet of the Spiders"), but, in this era more than any other, you never see the Doctor be cruel or cowardly; he never gives up and he never gives in.
What helps all these themes come across are really engaging and gripping stories that might qualify as some of the best writing in Doctor Who's nearly 60 year history. The stories start with a very definite sense of place: often, that is helped by being set on Earth, but even those on other planets create a complete world that is interesting to spend time on. Setting and place are key to this era, and each story takes its time to flesh out its setting, before launching us into the plot for the next four, five, six or seven episodes. A common criticism of the Pertwee era is that it can occasionally get quite repetitive, with its formula of capture/escape across six parts, but, honestly, I've never really found that point of critique especially valid. Yes, there's a lot of capturing and escaping in Pertwee era Doctor Who, but that's a common element of the whole series, even in the hyper paced 21st century version of the show. Sure, it might be a little more noticeable than in other eras of the show, but, often, its because it being used either to impart some vital plot information (the first episode of "The Mutants" springs to mind), or to build character moments of depth (both "The Time Monster" and "Frontier in Space" are supremely good at that). Other eras have the Doctor locked up in order to reach an arbitrary episode quota. The level of world building is immense in this era, and only gets better the more of the era you watch and enjoy.
Of course, the key thing that holds this era together, and is what makes watching it back to back such a joy, are the regular cast members. These characters are the ones we love (or love to hate, in the case of the Master!), they are the ones we come back to week in, week out, and they are the ones who carry us through the stories and adventures we go on. This era does a great job of taking these characters on a journey, from beginning to end, and allowing us to experience all the joy, heartbreak and excitement a life in the TARDIS provides. Liz, Jo and Sarah Jane are all well-developed characters with personality traits beyond 'asking questions' and 'getting captured' (something some of the earlier companions didn't really get, and even some of the later ones), and they grow over the course of their adventures with the Doctor. Jo, especially, gets the chance to go from a slightly absent-minded young girl, to a mature, analytical and intelligent woman, while retaining all the charm and heart that endeared her to the Doctor, and the audience, in the first place. Without Jo, there would be no modern companion character, quite honestly. There, I've said it, and I stand by it. The secondary characters go on journeys too: from Sergeant Benton's growth from standard officer, to the Brigadier's firm and dependable right hand man, to the Brigadier's change from duty-bound official of the state, to a man who will go against the rules and face a court-marshal to protect the Doctor, his assistants, the men under his command and the whole world from alien and human threats. The most written about journey is, undoubtedly, Mike Yates', who's visible change from stoic officer to misguided traitor has to be one of the series' best, and most underrated, shockers. "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" is a phenomenal story for many reasons, but Mike Yates' turn from friend to foe has to be one of the best. After spending the best part of three months with the character, that betrayal hurt. It is nice, though, that Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks redeemed the character in "Planet of the Spiders", but, even so, it's a horrible moment when he's holding a gun to his friends. And then there's the Master. Many thousands of words have been written about Roger Delgado's seminal portrayal of the Master, so I shan't go into it much more than to say he's great, he's charming and villainous in the same breath, and he lay the template for all the actors who have followed him, be they Beevers, Ainley, Gomez or Dhawan.
But, of course, the thing that binds this era together, and is the reason why it is such a success, is the Third Doctor himself. Jon Pertwee brings such a vitality and passion to the part of the Doctor that has become a key part of the character's enduring appeal, and the velvet jackets, frilly shirts and Inverness capes that made up his costume marked this Doctor as very different from his predecessors, or even his successors (although Peter Capaldi's Doctor shares similarities). This Doctor can be moody and downbeat, especially during the period during which he was exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, but he was also never far from a smile. He might rail against UNIT and the Brigadier, but ultimately he will help them defend the Earth, because he knows its the right thing to do. This Doctor has to be one of the most noble and moral incarnations of the Doctor: never does he act selfishly or cowardly, except perhaps regarding the Metebelis crystal. And that moment becomes his downfall: the moment his Doctor acts unvirtuous is the moment he must sacrifice himself. And Pertwee was absolutely the right choice for a Doctor like this. He embodies the virtuous hero perfectly, and his relationship with each of his leading ladies, the Brigadier and the men of UNIT, the Master, the guest characters and even the audience at home demonstrates that perfectly. Pertwee took Doctor Who from a fun children's programme to essential family viewing, and, while Doctor Who owes most of its modern success to Hartnell, Troughton and especially Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee is an important step in Doctor Who's rise to worldwide dominance. He was helped by the writers, directors, production team and guest actors of course, but Pertwee was the one who spearheaded the brand, he was the face of the programme and he was the one who would go on to be beloved by millions of children. And even 25 years after his passing, his Doctor still garners legions of new fans every year, as more and more people who grew up with modern Doctor Who find themselves going back and watching Pertwee's glorious five years in the TARDIS. Now, that is a legacy!
The Third Doctor era remains one of the most highly apprised in the show's history. And, by watching it back to back, I have been reminded just how significant a run it is. It's a run of stories that fundamentally influenced and shaped the show to come, and it moved Doctor Who from mostly pulp sci-fi into some deeper, more thoughtful and more complex territory. It allowed the show to be more allegorical, as well as broadening the range of settings and characters the show had access to. While being a product of its time, it also manages to remain timeless and consistently relevant, thanks to fantastic writing and acting. It remains my favourite era of any Doctor in total, as, across the run, there isn't a single bad story (even "The Time Monster" isn't really bad - it's just so bad it's good!), and each one has some great idea or performance or even production element to keep you interested. I love the Jon Pertwee era - and I hope, after reading this, you will as well.