Running with The Doctor
The Third Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Running with the Doctor is an occasional feature in which we will explore each iteration of Doctor Who’s titular Time Lord, the way he approaches the universe, the companions he travels with, and the way the show developed while he was its face.
“Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!”-The Doctor (Jon Pertwee)
The Doctor: The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)
Stories: 24 (128 episodes)
Series: 7-11 (1970-1974)
Companions: Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane Smith
Let’s talk about connection. In previous installments, we have discussed the way that, as a fan of Doctor Who, it is easy to fall in love with whoever is currently headlining the series. Everyone has their favorite Doctor (my Doctor is the Eleventh), and everyone has their favorite era, but every man who has stepped into the role to date has made it his own, and usually, I find myself enamored with whoever occupies the TARDIS in their own way.
But not so much with The Third Doctor. I know that Jon Pertwee has his loyalists (I have read plenty of treatments on the era by people who consider Pertwee the best in the role), but of the six Doctors I have now run with, Pertwee is my least favorite. Some of this will be discussed below when we talk about The Doctor himself, but some of this, I’m sure, has to do with the era in which he was The Doctor.
After generally wearing out the base under siege format during Patrick Troughton’s tenure, Doctor Who was somewhat on the skids, barely avoiding cancellation when Troughton decided to leave the role. As a result, the show decided to do what it does best—reinvent itself nearly entirely. Gone was the travel through space and time, gone the genre-hopping silliness, and in perhaps the most monumental change, the program would now be filmed and broadcast in color. The switch to color meant shorter seasons (the first six seasons of the show had over 40 episodes each, while the Pertwee seasons have roughly 25), but it also allowed the show to switch its tone, to shift from being a high flying show about a science wizard exploring all of time and space to being a taut action-adventure serial in the format of hits like The Avengers.
So The Doctor was stranded on Earth, left to serve as “science advisor” to UNIT (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, basically a group of monster fighters who never believe there are monsters), fending off alien invasions and solving extra-dimensional problems. In theory, this shift was a response to the damning critique forwarded by the Time Lords against The Second Doctor in “The War Games”—The Doctor fights the monsters, sure, but then he runs away, leaving chaos and destruction in his wake while he pops off to have another adventure. The idea of forcing The Doctor to stay, to form relationships and face the consequences, is actually a pretty great one. Sadly, this was mostly ignored in favor of The Doctor having adventures with zero consequences in a narrower setting.
If The Third Doctor’s era had been a compassionate exploration of humanity, showing us a Doctor that learns to care for those he protects, it might have been a masterpiece. Instead, what we got was an imperious elitist at the center of a show that spent most of its time mocking common people, and never got more than skin deep in regards to any issues of modern politics. The era dedicated to compassion and timeliness instead came across constantly as detached and uncaring. It hurt The Doctor. It hurt the show.
As a reminder, there is a lot of great criticism out there surrounding the classic run of Doctor Who (I continue to use Philip Sandifer’s excellent blog as my personal companion through the series), and this isn’t that, not really. Running with The Doctor aims to be something more informal and off the cuff, a short space for me to sound off on each era of the show as I conclude it, to think as I go about the show as a whole, and about how each individual era fits into the larger picture. I want to talk about each Doctor. I want to talk about the era of the show that Doctor represents. I want to talk about the good, the bad, and the weird. And yes, occasionally, I hope to discuss what it all means in a larger sense. Mostly, though, I want this feature to exist as a quick rundown for the curious about what each era of the show is like, and what they can expect to find should they decide to take a run with any particular Doctor. Consider this a primer on each era of the show through my own personal lens, a chance to get a feel for what it was like when each Doctor stood at the TARDIS console and fumbled his way across time and space (or, you know, didn’t).
Below, you will find our standard four sections (as a reminder, they will cover The Doctor himself, his companions, additions to the show’s mythology during this era, and the “essential” stories featuring this Doctor, respectively), an exploration of an era where Doctor Who ran away from itself. This is a show that changes its face every few years, and it is one of the things that makes it as consistently exciting and vital as it is. In the Jon Pertwee era, Doctor Who tried to change its soul. I’d call it a failed experiment (and thank God for that), but the era is still fascinating. For a few years in the early 1970s, the show completely abandoned its premise, and managed to stay alive by doing so. Doctor Who would soar again, but first, it has to find its way on the ground.
The Madman with a Box:
If The Second Doctor was a cosmic hobo who fit in nicely with the social movements of the late ‘60s, The Third Doctor is the old order reasserting itself. This, perhaps, is one of the main reasons Pertwee never fully clicked for me—in a lot of ways, his characterization feels at odds with who The Doctor is at his core. To my mind, The Doctor is a gleeful anarchist, cheerfully dismantling systems and evincing a constant suspicion for authority, for violence, and for any system of discrimination. By contrast, The Third Doctor is every bit the elitist—an authoritative, patronizing name-dropper obsessed with the trappings of the aristocracy (when The First Doctor meets him in “The Three Doctors,” he derides him as a “dandy,” with his frilly shirts and fetish for old-fashioned cars)—he often mentions cozying up to world leaders, seems to respect those in power far more than the average people he comes into contact with, and seems perfectly at ease working with a military organization, even after UNIT flat-out commits genocide in “The Silurians.”
The First Doctor gets a reputation as “the grumpy one,” but I found The Third Doctor far more abrasive and difficult to warm up to. He thinks everyone around him is an idiot (I’m not sure this has ever really changed for The Doctor, but The Third is the cruelest about it), and he completely patronizes his companions (in part due to the producers’ idea that the companions should mostly be around as exposition machines and to get captured by villains, an unfortunate decision that lead to the promising Liz Shaw being shunted aside after only one season). While he does develop a fatherly affection for Jo Grant, and a grudging respect for Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, both of these are unevenly applied, so that the relationships never feel like they are truly progressing; they come across instead as fits of The Doctor’s moods.
If I strain, I can read some of this as The Doctor’s aggravation at being exiled to Earth. I can understand that as a character choice, and it explains much of his distastefulness. Why is The Doctor such a dick? Everything he loves has been taken from him. Why does he cling to status symbols and old ways? Because he is a Time Lord trapped among humans, desperate to reveal his superiority at every turn. Why is he fine with all the lethal force constantly deployed around him? The Doctor is mad. All of this (almost) works, but it is completely imposed, an instance of a modern fan trying to fit a discordant note into the silly symphony that is Doctor Who so it sounds purposeful. I can make this piece of the puzzle fit if I try hard enough, but as it plays, The Third Doctor is just not very fun to be around.
The Third Doctor is much more scientifically oriented than his predecessors, and also, much more a man of action, what with his penchant for Venusian Aikido (for reasons that pass explanation and are never remarked upon, The Third Doctor is obsessed with Venus. I think this mostly comes from lazy writers not ever wanting to come up with actually alien sounding things and just appending “Venusian” to whatever they were bringing up). He loves his car “Bessie,” and creates a hover-craft like vehicle that fans dubbed the Whomobile (it is, if possible, worse than it sounds on paper).
The Third Doctor is, as I’ve said, my least favorite so far, but he hardly ruins the show during his tenure. Like many things about the era, he is different than anything that came before, but the show grows increasingly competent over the course of his run (this doesn’t always make for good television, but it does make for consistent television). Pertwee is at his best in the role in the few bittersweet moments he is allowed to play—the departure of Jo Grant in “The Green Death,” for example, is perhaps his finest moment, and his own swan song in “Planet of the Spiders” gives him a few nice moments of quiet, sad reflection at his own failings. Otherwise, he is a Doctor that never quite clicked with me, a man who held himself above the fray enough that I never felt the opportunity to get close.
Born to Run:
There is something of a debate among fans of Doctor Who as to whether any of the various members of UNIT qualify as companions (the classic definition that a companion is someone who travels in the TARDIS between multiple stories does not apply to any of them, technically), but they play a major role in this era, as the closest things to a supporting cast this show ever really gets. The most prominent of these characters is Brigadier Allistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), the head of UNIT.
The Brigadier is technically The Doctor’s boss, but mostly, he exists to be confused about all of the extraterrestrial goings on, to be a sounding board for The Doctor’s exposition, and to order nameless, faceless soldiers to shoot invariably ineffective bullets at various monsters (the bullets on this show never work. Never.). Courtney is absolutely stupendous in the role, playing up The Brigadier’s officiousness to near the point of parody, and making him a source of ceaseless calm and resolve in a world of swirling chaos. Alongside Sergeant John Benton (John Levene) and Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin), The Brigadier serves as our window into the world of UNIT, this era’s ostensible setting.
Dr. Elizabeth “Liz” Shaw (Caroline John) is The Doctor’s first companion of the era (although she never travels with The Doctor in the TARDIS, her status is never questioned, perhaps because she is unequivocally the co-lead during season seven). Liz enters the show with a potentially fascinating role to play—she is a highly qualified scientist and skeptical of extraterrestrial invasion—basically, she is the Scully to The Doctor’s Mulder. That lasts virtually no time at all, though, and Liz basically becomes just another companion for the remainder of her brief time on the show. Liz only appears in season seven’s four stories and 25 episodes, before being sent to Mandyville with only a throw-away line about her return to Cambridge. Liz Shaw was a brilliant, passionate potential equal for The Doctor, but that proved too much for the show’s producers, and so she was replaced with someone more in the traditional companion mode.
Jo Grant (Katy Manning) becomes the central companion of The Third Doctor’s era, traveling with The Doctor for three of Pertwee’s five seasons. The Doctor and Jo develop a father-daughter type of bond, with Pertwee alternately scolding and praising her. Though Jo was created basically just to serve as a sounding board for exposition and as someone who could get captured a lot, Manning brings a vitality and sense of humor to the role that transcends her fairly narrow mandate. Jo is supposed to be a ditz, but Manning plays her more as a determined and loyal sidekick who is far more capable than anyone gives her credit for. Pertwee’s best moments almost always involve Jo, as Manning managed to sell the idea of this girl being endeared to the abrasive asshole she spent so much time with, and was generally the one to get The Third Doctor to soften up the most.
Finally, there is Sarah Jane Smith, (Elisabeth Sladen) a character who we will talk far more about in the next installment of this feature. In her first season as a companion, Sarah Jane is a feminist, a fact the show chooses to reveal by making everyone around her exra-sexist so that she can tell them all not to be sexist. More than that, though, she is a journalist of some renown whose investigative prowess makes her a fitting companion to The Doctor. More on her next time, I’m sure, but for now, I’ll just comment that Sladen is a lot of fun in the role, even when the show is giving her some pretty awful material to sell.
Time Being Written:
The Third Doctor era is a veritable smorgasbord of new adversaries who eventually take their place as iconic Who monsters. The Third Doctor’s first story, “Spearhead from Space” introduces The Autons, life-sized plastic dummies controlled by the Nestene Consciousness (fans of the new series may recall them as the very first adversaries The Ninth Doctor faced in the new series’ pilot episode “Rose.”). Later in his first season, he meets the Silurians, reptilian creatures from before the dawn of man who rise up hoping to retake (or at least share) the planet that once was theirs (he also later does battle with their amphibious cousins the Sea Devils). Eventually, he also comes face-to-face with a Sontaran who has crash-landed in the Middle Ages, introducing the war obsessed species to the series’ lexicon.
But the most important villain introduced in The Third Doctor’s era is the only adversary to ever give The Daleks a run for their money as The Doctor’s nemesis: The Master. Played here by Roger Delgado, The Master is a renegade Time Lord who wants nothing less than to rule the Universe—but only if he can destroy The Doctor in the process. Though the era leans on Delgado’s gleeful mustache twirling a bit too heavily (he appears in eight of The Third Doctor’s twenty-four stories, including every story in the eighth season, and only didn’t appear in more because of Delgado’s tragic death in a car accident), he is absolutely fantastic in the role, and livens up almost every story he appears in, even if his plans very rarely make any sense.
Finally, there are the Time Lords more globally. Introduced in the final Patrick Troughton story, they appear more regularly here, popping up to give The Doctor advice, manipulating him into going on missions through space and time for them, and calling on him to save them in their hour of greatest need. That crisis provides the other major Time Lord moment of the era—the first multi-Doctor story. For the show’s tenth anniversary, both Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell (who was so ill he could not appear with the others, and spends the episode seated and very clearly reading his lines) return in “The Three Doctors,” and though the episode is ridiculous on many levels, there’s something kinetic about watching the various Doctors interact, even briefly, that carries the whole thing off.
Fantastic! Brilliant! Geronimo!:
If you’re looking to watch the essential stories from this era, I will weigh in on which are worth your time, and why you should watch them. These are not the best episodes (though I will include those in this list as well), and in fact, a few of them are pretty bad. But they are the episodes that are the most interesting, important, and essential from the era:
“Spearhead From Space”—Look, Doctor Who is in color! And there’s a new Doctor! And he works at UNIT now! And he’s got a new companion that is going to be squandered! And a new car that will actually be used more often than her! Welcome to the new era, boys and girls.
“The Silurians”—for basically the first time ever, this story gives The Doctor an adversary who isn’t just mindlessly evil. The Silurians are a complex, multifaceted race, divided amongst themselves about whether to annihilate the humans or try to make peace. Watching The Doctor try to navigate the complex moral quagmire of two species who feel entitled to the Earth on the brink of war is a lot of fun, even if the episode is much too long at seven episodes, and even if it ends with an apparent genocide of the species, a moment that should push The Doctor away from UNIT entirely and yet does nothing of the sort.
“Inferno”—The Doctor is transported to a parallel universe, a fascist England where the bureaucracy makes his efforts to stop an apocalyptic event all the more difficult. This is the classic “everyone plays their evil counterpart” episode (The Brigadier has an eye patch!), and it is a lot of fun for that. But it really sticks out for how relentlessly bleak it is. This is a story where The Doctor faces down the end of all life on Earth, and for long stretches it seems like he may not be able to stop the apocalypse. It’s little wonder the events of this story haunt him for seasons to come. It is gripping stuff, even as it’s a fun exercise in experimental fiction.
“Terror of the Autons”—the Autons are back, but more importantly, there’s a new villain in town—The Master. This story begins a season long arc in which The Doctor and UNIT face off against the renegade Time Lord again and again (and again), and while it isn’t the strongest, it is a good idea to see Roger Delgado working his way into the role he would soon make his own.
“The Claws of Axos”—now that the show was in color, and now that it was heading into the peak of the glam rock era, Doctor Who became a whole different type of trippy. A race of golden men arrive on Earth in desperate need of energy and offer to trade the miracle substance Axonite, which they claim can replicate any substance. All is not as it seems, of course (and The Master is around, because it is season eight), and what results is one of the great visual spectacles of the Pertwee era.
“The Daemons”—The Master tries to summon The Devil in small town England. That is basically the premise of this story, which heavily recalls (while predating, because this is Doctor Who) The Wicker Man in the way it develops the creepiness of this small town setting and the growing sense of dread that accompanies The Master’s dark rituals. It is good old fashioned creepy fun, a solid finale to the season-long arc of The Doctor vs. The Master.
“The Curse of Peladon”—the height of the “Doctor Who as glam rock opus” form of storytelling finds The Doctor and Jo Grant on a mission for the Time Lords to the titular planet, which is angling to become a member of the Galactic Federation (shades of England’s deliberations over joining the EU). When a member of the delegation is murdered, The Doctor and Jo must solve the crime and get to the bottom of the troubles that plague Peladon. This episode’s gothic artifice, lean pacing, alien setting and tight plotting make it one of the absolute best Third Doctor stories.
“The Three Doctors”—all three incarnations come together when the Time Lord who created time travel returns to seek vengeance on the people who left him for dead. The plotting is pretty bonkers, but, then, that’s not why any of us are watching this one. It is for the way Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton bicker ceaselessly, even as they both angle to save the day in their own signature styles. It isn’t a great episode, but it is an incredibly fun one.
“Carnival of Monsters”—The Doctor and Jo’s first trip in the TARDIS after the Time Lords end The Doctor’s exile in “The Three Doctors,” this story finds the two trapped inside a “miniscope,” an alien carnival attraction that purports to showcase the universe’s greatest monsters in their natural habitats, just miniaturized for convenience. In an era full of padded stories and far too often stuck on Earth, “Carnival of Monsters” is a breath of fresh air, a high-flying space adventure of the sort this show used to be about, and soon would be again.
“Planet of the Spiders”—Pertwee’s swan-song is a vaguely Buddhist-inspired parable about the dangers of greed for knowledge…oh, and teleporting, telepathic spiders from space, of course. The show’s efforts to create the final movement of an arc it never put The Doctor on in the first place largely fail, but the episode does function (like “The War Games” before it) as a sort of greatest hits story for the Pertwee era. We spend time with UNIT, watch the Brigadier be quietly flummoxed by everything around him, see The Doctor engage in a chase sequence that spans over much of two episodes, see his Venusian aikido one last time, and finally are drawn to a conclusion that lets Pertwee be bittersweet, even if only briefly. It isn’t a great story, but it is a fitting end for an odd, troubled era of the series with an abrasive lead at its center. The Third Doctor never fully fit into his own universe, and so eventually he left it to the next guy, who by all accounts fits it better than anyone else ever has.
Next time on Running with the Doctor:
We take a journey through Tom Baker's tenure as The Fourth Doctor, the longest run an actor has had in the role, and to many, the high point of the series.