Friday, August 21, 2015

The Third Doctor Era: A Summary

The Radio Times cover announcing
Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor (1970)
When I began this journey through all of Doctor Who in order, I tried to jettison any preconceived notions or accepted fan-wisdom and approached the series with as open a mind as possible. Still, I couldn't help but hang on to a few ideas and opinions. I thought that I knew which eras would be favourites and which would be ones I would enjoy less, maybe even have to suffer through. 

To be honest, Season Seven aside, I had never been a huge fan of the Third Doctor's era. I thought it was too simplistic, too action-oriented, with Pertwee delivering an interpretation of the Doctor that felt too cozy and less complicated than other Doctors. I had always loved Pertwee's first season due to the quality of the stories and its attempt to create a more adult, sophisticated and morally complex tone. But everything after it had struck me as child-like in comparison.

Having now watched all of the Pertwee era in order, I find my opinion was completely and totally wrong-headed, and it's now become one of my favourite eras. My feeling on Season Seven remains unchanged, it's still perhaps the greatest single season of stories in Doctor Who's history, but whereas I had always lamented the fact that the series didn't retain this approach, I now see how untenable that would have been in the long run. The stories of the seventh season stand out as dark, adult, morally complex adventures, but another four years of that would have been stifling and frankly would have become dreary pretty quickly.

I find Season Eight to be wildly uneven, full of great moments and a lively, fun spirit. But it's also hampered by stories that never quite gel, with only The Mind of Evil an unqualified success. The additions of the Master and Jo Grant are the great successes of this season. Roger Delgado's performance is never less than stellar, and he proves such an immediately compelling and charming foil to Pertwee's Doctor that he instantly makes the character resonate as the supreme nemesis he's meant to be. Even in stories that don't measure up, where he's hatching the same plan or making the same mistakes, Delgado is just so fun to watch that it doesn't matter.

As for Jo Grant, while I never found the character's flighty scatter-brained qualities to be as charming as others, I can't deny that the transformation of her character from ditzy girl with more guts than sense into resourceful and principled woman to be well-defined and extremely well-performed by Katy Manning. Additionally, her chemistry with Jon Pertwee was a sight to behold. After Jo Grant, for the rest of Doctor Who, the ideal TARDIS crew remained the Doctor and a young woman. In the 1960s, that had never been the norm, and Liz Shaw had been part of the larger UNIT framework. Jo Grant established that norm, and a lot of that was from the close bond that Manning and Pertwee shared and brought to the foreground.The production team also succeeded in making the Brigadier and UNIT into the fan favourites they remain to this day, even if they sometimes don't quite master the delicate balance of making them funny without reducing them to buffoons.

The remaining seasons of the Pertwee era go from strength to strength, the tenth anniversary season in particular being superb, with three of the five stories being genuine classics.

The Third Doctor menaced by some famous foes,
from the Radio Times 10th Anniversary Special (1973).
Indeed, I'd have to say that this era established much of what the series was in the minds of the fans and the audience at large. The 1960s had seen the series constantly experimenting with what kinds of stories it could tell; historicals, experiments in surreality and fantasy, more comedic stories, more horrific stories, bases under siege, etc. But the Pertwee era defined what Doctor Who was for many people; it was an action-adventure series where an eccentric alien and a young woman fought off alien monsters. It had been moving in this direction throughout the Troughton era, but the Pertwee era is where it finally defined what the core of Doctor Who was.

And that consistency came from the production team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. Together, they brought stability and consistency to a series that, for much of its history, had been plagued with chaos and uncertainty. Letts was skilled at creating efficiencies in production and storytelling that capitalized on the programmes' strengths while keeping things mostly in budget and under control. He was quick (often too quick) to embrace new technologies and techniques that could add production value to the series, and created a safe and comfortable atmosphere for people to do their best work.

Dicks, a veteran of the chaos that plagued the series near the end of the Troughton era, knew exactly what kinds of pitfalls he wanted to avoid. He knew which writers he could rely upon to create workable, exciting and intriguing stories within the means of the programme (Robert Holmes and Malcolm Hulke being the best examples). But he also nurtured new talent that required greater guidance, such as Bob Baker and Dave Martin, the Bristol Boys, whose inexperience often resulted in big concepts and shaky plotting. Dicks' practice of always doing the final drafts of every script resulted in remarkable consistency of tone and style, and his mastery of structure allowed him to make the best of troublesome scripts and instances where writers perhaps didn't always manage to fit their story within the structure of the series. 

All of this results in an era that feels incredibly of a piece. The Hartnell and Troughton eras run all over the map, with numerous peaks and valleys as different production teams try different approaches. The Pertwee era feels almost like one long consistent story. It's not self-conscious about this, of course, but you can't escape this feeling. The result of this remarkable consistency made it hard for me to pick five stories to choose as the best of the era. There are standouts, of course, but there are a lot more candidates to choose from as well. Frontier in Space is a favourite, and so it only narrowly edged out Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Mind of Evil, The Curse of Peladon, etc. Picking the three worst was remarkably easy, however, because they stand out like sore thumbs in this era.

From L to R: Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks
Finally, we have Jon Perwee himself. I get why his performance could be the stumbling block for some viewers when it comes to this era. His Doctor is undoubtedly arrogant, pretentious and at times his waspish moods come across as downright unpleasant. His devotion to action, including hand-to-hand combat, vehicles and (at times) weapons, feels at odds with the other Doctors. But there's great warmth and charm to his Doctor, and his flaws do factor in to his character's journey, becoming the very cause of his regeneration. His imposing and invulnerable air of authority become comforting rather than boring, and is always in service of the underdog. Pertwee viewed this role as his chance to prove himself as a serious actor, and I feel that insecurity, that vulnerability, is always under the surface,  softening and mellowing his interpretation.

It's an era that remains remarkably easy to watch and enjoy, to sink into on a rainy afternoon. And that's really what Doctor Who is built for. After Pertwee, Letts and Dicks' departure, Doctor Who would change slightly once again, embracing a new tone and heading deeper into space, building upon the success of the Pertwee era to reach new heights and solidify the opinion that the 1970s would be the golden age of the programme.

Best Third Doctor Stories: Inferno, The Green Death, Carnival of Monsters, Spearhead from Space, Frontier in Space

Worst: The Mutants, The Time Monster, The Monster of Peladon


  1. Your Top Five is also my top 5, but I'd replace "The Mutants" and "The Time Monster" with "Death to the Daleks" and "Planet of the Daleks" in your bottom three. I can watch Mutants and Time Monster without being bored, though I'll grant both stories' faults, but I cannot stay awake or alert through either of these Dalek stories. Totally agree with you about "Monster of Peladon" though. Utter tedium.

    1. I'll agree those Dalek stories are pretty bad. They'd probably be my fourth and fifth worst, maybe. But I'd say that the writing is what holds those up. "Death to the Daleks" is actually pretty well directed, by and large, with a solid first episode.

      But "The Mutants?" Bad story, bad direction, and terrible performances, including the all-time worst performance win Doctor Who history, in my opinion. That's the trifecta of awful for me! And "Time Monster" has similar problems.

      It's a toss up really. Boils down to would you rather be bored or irritated? I choose bored, but not everyone would.