Monday, 1 June 2015

Best of Three

I wasn’t going to write a concluding post for my Pertwee watch-a-thon. I thought, if there’s anything I could ever find to say on this era, I must have said it somewhere in the last year or so that I’ve been a-watchin’ and a-bloggin’ about it. But then I thought of this title for this post and I thought, well, a top ten list wouldn’t go amiss, would it?

Also, a nagging part of me remembered writing a farewell to Troughton and apprehensive look ahead. I remembered saying, ‘I’ve never been a very great fan of the Third Doctor,’ that everything about the Third Doctor’s era is ‘basically antithetical’ to my beloved 1960s era. Is he, I asked, truly Doctorish? Was this, I wondered, going to be any fun at all?

I must admit, the major reason I didn’t feel like writing this blog post after I finished Planet of Spiders is that I was weary. I couldn’t face staggering on to Robot et al. Part of me wanted to list all my Who ephemera on eBay and be shot of it. But why?

While Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is ‘Doctorish’, it’s on a very odd point of the spectrum. Sometimes, when he’s fierily, fiercely yet foppishly intelligent, he reminds me more of his First incarnation than any other Doctors do. Yet in other ways he’s unrecognisable. He handles a ray gun, throws people over his shoulder as soon as look at them, and winds up owning a silver version of the Batmobile.  

Most importantly, he casts aside his mystery and his vagabond ways, and with them loses a certain magic. And magic, I think, is a quite specific turn. This Doctor is an avowed scientist, but this sometimes detracts from his Wizardly quality - in an Arthur C. Clarke, 'any sufficiently advanced technology', sort of way. Instead of an uncanny or tricksterish aura, he’s plain-speaking and direct – not one to fool his enemies, or hide behind a clown’s façade. He speaks without irony, in earnest, sometimes with heavy overtones of self-importance.

Sometimes this works brilliantly. In particular, Pertwee makes his enemies and even his alien allies more credible through his serious, sober gaze. Peladon (first time around) is as serious as a Hartnell historical (and therefore hysterically funny at times). This series can go totally wild when it wants to, knowing that its lead actor will always anchor the whole show. But when a story loses power, Pertwee’s straight and faithful line readings do nothing to lift it.

And overall, it’s missing something. We are rarely surprised by Pertwee. Mother Hens don’t tend to surprise us. One of the peculiarities of this era is that as soon as his dematerialisation circuit turns up, there is no dematerialisation – but how could this Doctor turn his back on his family? It’s hard even to picture it happening, the lever on the console falling, the Police Box doors swinging shut, the Brigadier raising his eyebrows in disapproval.

Yet this is the great strength of the series. The Doctor and his work-mates’ relationships are cartoonish, but they work in the context of the show. And while it would be a lie to say they evolve, they are drawn in ever bolder dashes of the pen, ever brighter splashes of colour. Not only that, they all get their big moment. Benton outsmarts the Master (briefly). Jo walks out on the Doctor and sets us all blubbing. Mike Yates goes undercover, then bad, then Buddhist. The audience’s investment in these characters is rewarded in ways that haven’t happened in Doctor Who before.

In my goodbye to the sixties, I looked back to the early years, my favourite era, ‘when we really care about the companions, when the actors are always slightly revelling in being the most mundane sci-fi heroes ever’ as well as ‘a time of rampant invention.’ In retrospect, the early seventies aren’t so different. Our heroes are perhaps less earthly than Barbara Wright, but they’re also distinctly unheroic. They say all the things that Star Trek and Buck Rodgers characters wouldn’t. They didn’t pass their O Levels. They watch the Rugby highlights while they’re on duty. They make jokes about the Clangers. At the end of the day, they go to the pub.


The Doctor himself, no longer a Who, is more of a ‘real’ character than he’s ever been before. He’s the man with two hearts, two worlds, forever torn between the local and the extra-terrestrial. This is a man who represents, not the longing to travel and explore, but simply the freedom of the mind. When the mind is free all sorts of new dangers can arise – but it’s still better than closing yourself off. This idea of transcendentalism – of being bigger on the inside – is spiritual and political at the same time. This is a series made by people who believe science and imagination can liberate, not just the individual but the world.


Perversely, this is when the TARDIS really comes to life. After years of being taken for granted as the vehicle to deliver us to the party and take us away at the end, it’s given its due value as a symbol of escape and liberation. There’s something really exciting in The Time Monster when the Doctor and Jo dash inside and vanish, off to Atlantis (you couldn’t get a more fabulous, impossible destination). This is where it truly becomes a conceptual space (two Tardises capable of landing inside one another), when it is first described as ‘alive’. At times like this, the writers actually seem drunk on the possibilities of these ideas of alien worlds and time travel.


At other times during The Time Monster, they just seem drunk. (Ah, you knew that was coming, didn’t you?)


This is the best of Doctor Number Three, and this is the reason: the producers really care about it. Some writers, actors, designers, it’s just a job, but the production team are invested in it, enthused by it. They make the show into a series, as far as they can. Eventually it runs its course. It’s time to shift away from a ‘setting’ and explore a multiplicity of worlds, to make the Doctor a restless wanderer once more, to bring a tight focus onto just two (or three) lead actors. Time to head into the unknown and unexpected once more.


Yesterday I went online and ordered a DVD of Robot, Tom Baker’s first story. I’m ready for the new.


A quick thank you to two blogs that have helped me illustrate this blog over the past year or so: the gorgeous, inexhaustible Third Doctor Costume blog, which includes an enormous amount of chocolate-wrapper/TV Action ephemera (and the like) - and Not Tonight Dalek, whose scans and images have been invaluable. Both blogs are Giant K-1 Robots to my equivalent Quark-like specimen.

So, My Top Ten Third Doctor Stories


1          Spearhead from Space

2          Doctor Who and the Silurians

3          Inferno

4          The Claws of Axos

5          The Daemons

6          The Curse of Peladon

7          The Time Monster

8          Carnival of Monsters

9          Invasion of the Dinosaurs

10        Planet of the Spiders

1 comment:

  1. Big hugs to you, Nick. That was rather sad – I do hope you get a rest before Tom, but that he cheers you up when he arrives! He’s certainly a more surprising actor (though maybe I know all his tricks too well by now). Robot was my first story, aged three, and I still love it more than is sensible. Thank you for all your Pertwee reviews, even if I suspect at times I enjoyed reading them more than you did writing them.

    You’ve made me think about Pertwee’s Doctor again; your idea that he’s all surface strikes a chord (with a “Hai!”). He looks terribly flamboyant, but he’s also incredibly straight (in the ’60s sense). When I was a boy, I saw lots of amazing photos of his Doctor, and had the fantastic books, so naturally he was my favourite Doctor… Until I actually saw any of his stories on screen. I’m with you on six of your top ten, by the way – but I wonder in which order?

    And I absolutely love your “Perversely, this is when the TARDIS really comes to life… as a symbol of escape and liberation.”

    These days I tend to think he’s all overcompensation, cynical and insecure under the façade and needing to pretend he’s still as capable as ever. Of all the Doctors, he’s the one who most often proclaims himself a scientist and traveller, but least practices it: unable to travel, he’s always grabbing vehicles, or tinkering with pieces of TARDIS technology outside the TARDIS to show them off, or putting down other scientists, or constantly name-dropping , all of which signal, ‘I can’t travel through time right now, but don’t you forget that I have done. I really, really have done. No, believe me, I have. Just because half my brain’s switched off doesn’t in any way mean that I’m not still utterly brilliant, and I’m in no way concerned about it.’ So it’s no wonder that when he finally gets ‘released’, he doesn’t have the self-confidence to do it and has almost come to love Big Brother in his sticking to the Time Lord line. It’s not until he regenerates that he finds himself again.

    I’ve been watching The Dæmons on the Horror Channel over the last few days, because I just can’t help myself whenever it turns up. The Doctor’s family really are all you say. I love the closing scene, and “five rounds rapid,” and the Master being jilted at the black altar. But as you’ve talked about his Science taking away from his Magic, I thought I’d share something I jotted down to myself this morning after enjoying the finale absurdly much: “that rubbish, abrupt bit where Azal suddenly ‘blows a fuse’? From the way he starts talking like a computer clobbered by Captain Kirk, it’s trying to say, ‘Ah ha! This was all science after all!’ but it makes science seem so very dumb, and magic much more cunning and adaptable – in fact, it makes science seem utterly controlled by ritual and unable to react to and cope with observation. Which is very Third Doctor: has immense dogmatic faith in science, but absolutely terrible at understanding and expressing it.”

    I love K1 robots, obviously, because he was my first, but I loved Quarks just from pictures I saw when I was very young, and even made a costume. So don’t do your Quarklife down. It is, as they say, not the size…