Doctor Who: a celebration of Jon Pertwee

Andrew takes a look back at the sterling work of the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, who took the character in a dandyish new direction…

Jon Pertwee (aka ‘The Tall Lightbulb’, Worzel Gummidge, and ‘The Pert One’) played the Third Doctor as a hybrid of Jeeves and Wooster. The confidence bordering on arrogance, the fondness for the finer things, the frequenting of gentlemen’s clubs (not that kind of gentlemen’s club. Probably) and a keen sense of idealism are all traits he shares with Bertie Wooster.

His intelligence, ability to see a plan through, and inner steel are things that Wooster’s butler also possesses. Plus, he likes yelling “Haii“, mugging shamelessly and wearing ostentatious clothing. Thus was a TV legend born.

Pertwee’s background was in comedy. Featuring in various films, he was most well known for starring in The Navy Lark for eighteen years, and Doctor Who was his big chance to break away from the perception the public had of him. As a result, the Third Doctor’s character is not big on quips, but instead is a generally serious man, heavy on the charm. He doesn’t deliver punchlines as such, but there’s a lot of character-based comedy delivered straight.

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Take his first meeting with Jo Grant, for example. There’s a lot of funny dialogue in it, but the Doctor’s not trying to make a joke. Rather he’s just genuinely annoyed that this “ham-fisted bun vendor” is to be foisted upon him.

The Pertwee era featured two distinct tones and approaches to the show. His first season featured a scientist as a companion, and was fixed firmly on Earth after the game-changing events of The War Games. We now knew of Time Lords, still godlike and all-powerful, capable of forcing a new body onto the Doctor and placing him in exile. Instantly the series’ main asset (the wealth of storytelling available via the TARDIS) is limited to stories set in present day Britain.

In Season 7, Doctor Who becomes Quatermass. The regular characters are not necessarily the Doctor’s friends. Working for UNIT and being a named character is no guarantee of survival until the end of the story. (Also, the Pertwee era is the start of Doctor Who‘s long and noble tradition of killing off Geoffrey Palmer’s character at the earliest opportunity.)

The Doctor is an alien stranded on Earth, and sometimes he feels more at home with other alien races. Certainly, he strongly empathises with their plight in some cases. To pad out the longer stories, the production team come up with whole new plot elements that instantly take the story to another, more dramatic level. The storytelling is on a larger scale than previous Earthbound stories, and it’s generally pitched at a less playful, more gritty tone. Like Season 18, Season 7 is largely unique in terms of approach and style to the rest of Doctor Who.

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Then, in Season 8, the show relaxes a little. It’s been in colour for a full series, the BBC is more satisfied with it, and it builds up towards a more family-friendly show that everyone can enjoy. Not to denigrate Season 7, which is a fan favourite, but the pattern of the Third Doctor era can clearly be seen replicated in the Russell T Davies years of the show, and the more fun-filled years of both eras resonated with a larger number of people.

Bringing in The Master and fixing a regular UNIT team of The Brigadier, Benton and Yates (plus whichever redshirt Derek Ware was playing that week) alongside new companion Jo Grant made the show into an ensemble piece, with the same six characters frequently reoccurring throughout.

As producer, Barry Letts, and script editor, Terrance Dicks, grew bored of limiting stories to Earth, they found ways around the problem, culminating in the Time Lords restoring the Doctor’s ability to fly the TARDIS, after the events of The Three Doctors.

Despite this, the most fondly remembered stories from this era are all Earthbound (Inferno, The Daemons, Spearhead From Space and The Green Death are the top four based on the Doctor Who Magazine”Mighty 200″ poll). Two of these are written by Robert Sloman and Barry Letts, with strong Buddhist-influenced moral messages that Letts was keen to develop for an audience of children.

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In the midst of the many gradual changes for the programme is Pertwee, resplendent in his wine-coloured velvet, his cape, and his frilly collar. Despite dressing like a sexually confused clown at an upmarket Sixties deviance club, this Doctor has a hard edge to him. His confidence has built to an arrogance bordering on narcissistic, but he has a righteous moral code that allows him to rage at military and political heavy-handedness, while nipping outside to use a purely defensive form of Venusian aikido.

At least his arrogance is tempered with a strong sense of compassion, and culminates in a regeneration that taught a generation of children the meaning of the word ‘hubris’. Unlike the Tenth Doctor, the Third seems to find some peace on his way to death, both incarnations starting from aloft a perch of arrogance before falling.

Crucially, the Doctor’s arrogance is usually either justified or punctured by the events surrounding him. There’s a very funny child-like streak to the Third Doctor. He even sulks at one point. “What’s wrong with being childish? I like being childish.”

So, sometimes he acts like a pompous ass, and it’s a bit overbearing. Sometimes he gets called on it, and then he acts like an irate child and goes into a sulk. When the First (and youngest) Doctor turns up in The Three Doctors, he’s the patriarch, with the Second and Third the squabbling children.

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My favourite image of the Third Doctor is as he whistles cheerfully while casually lobbing homemade stink bombs over the castle battlements in a successful attempt to avoid bloodshed in The Time Warrior. He’s clearly revelling in the childishness of it, while also making a personal ideological point. Plus, he just looks so damn happy.

He’s also the first Doctor to officially offer an alien a square-go. The Third Doctor’s peaceful politics were backed up with an entirely pragmatic willingness to hit things when they attacked him. Witness The Sea Devils, where he attempts to broker peace and barely contains his fury at the civil servant sent in to represent the government (admittedly, this happens a few times in the Pertwee era). But if anyone lays a finger on him, he’s completely willing to turn that aggression against them. 

This Doctor was a man of action. Hoverboats, jet skis, vintage roadsters, fights to the death, diving bells, flying cars, Pertwee took them all on. Next time you watch Casino Royale, imagine Pertwee doing the opening free running chase sequence. Sure, you’d have to add in a bit where he stops for a glass of wine and a sandwich, but otherwise it’d be exactly the same.

So, that’s the Third Doctor, then. A violent, dandy, Buddhist, action pacifist. You can’t say they weren’t taking the character into new places.

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