Duty Officer, Please: The Doctors Revisited (Jon Pertwee)
The Pertwee era, and I can vouch for this having written for it, presents a major challenge in providing a history of Doctor Who, simply because it doesn’t fit with any of it. For 60% of it, the premise of the series is out of place. The Doctor is portrayed, inevitably, as a reaction against the previous Doctor, but the previous Doctor is the template for every single Doctor after Pertwee. It’s got an awful lot of military action-hero stuff that’s kind of weird for the program. It’s an odd experiment that has really survived as a sort of limit case for what Doctor Who can be.
This is, ultimately, what The Doctors Revisited does. Pertwee is admitted up front as an oddity, and then studied and explained in half an hour. Moffat is on hand to explain why Jo Grant, Liz Shaw, the Brigadier, and the Master worked, and in three out of four cases it’s “the actor playing the part.” And an expanded field of celebrity guests are on hand to talk about the impact of it, reaffirming that this wasn’t just an odd era of Doctor Who, it was a major part of the popular consciousness.
It’s not particularly flashy – of the first three episodes, it’s the one making the simplest case. Both Hartnell and Troughton were defined in terms of how they anticipated the present. Pertwee is simply explained as it was. But it’s a persuasive case. Manning, Courtney, and Delgado really were fantastic actors. As was Pertwee, although he gets somewhat short shrift in his own special. The clips and sequences they pick are compelling early 70s television, or, perhaps more accurately, look reasonably like a modern sense of what compelling early 70s television would look like.
If there’s an objection to be had – and I’m not entirely convinced there is – it’s in the choice of stories to air after it, which is Spearhead From Space. But this objection is rather churlish. Unlike Tomb of the Cybermen, it’s not really that you wish they’d picked a better story, or that they’d had a better story available to pick. Spearhead From Space is absolutely brilliant. And as Moffat enthusiastically points out in his introduction to it, it’s gloriously weird in a very Doctor Who sort of way. It’s a fantastic choice of Pertwee stories to show in 2013.
No, the problem is that you almost wish they’d picked a crappier one. The realization that the Pertwee era doesn’t quite fit into any coherent narrative of Doctor Who’s history has led to a genuinely unfortunate squeamishness about it. And so we get a very weird sort and not entirely accurate message out of this program. Yes, the Pertwee era had some real strengths, and yes, it was massively popular television, but the stuff that was popular doesn’t much look like Spearhead From Space.
Am I saying they should have inflicted The Claws of Axos upon an unsuspecting population? Well, yes, because that’s some of the most fun you can have with a Doctor Who DVD there, since The Claws of Axos is wall-to-wall “what the fuck” in a way that very few things that aren’t The Web Planet are. But more realistically, I’m saying I wish they’d done Terror of the Autons, or Carnival of Monsters, if they were willing to admit that Pertwee went into space, which they don’t actually ever do.
Instead we get the explanation of why the era doesn’t fit, followed by a story that simultaneously encapsulates how it does fit while highlighting the essential differences. Which isn’t untrue, but misses the opportunity to say “no, really, this was what was popular and beloved in 1973.” The complete absence of Carnival of Monsters is actually worth stressing, since for years this was the BBC’s preferred Pertwee story, and since it is in point of fact brilliant. It shows off so many of the best parts of what Doctor Who in the 1970s was. Yes, it’s missing UNIT, but so is most of the Pertwee era, in truth.
It’s understandable why the Pertwee era is a problem for writing histories of Doctor Who. But there’s a squeamishness and an urge to apologize for it that’s taken root as a result of that difficulty, and that’s unfortunate. It’s strange – it’s one of my least favorite eras of Doctor Who, and this is unrelentingly praiseful of it, and yet I’m left with the inescapable sense that it was far too hard on the era all the same.
November 21, 2014 @ 1:05 am
Interesting. One thing people forget is that Pertwee had a lower proportion of Earth-based adventures than McGann (duh!), Eccleston, Tennant, and arguably McCoy and Capaldi (depending on how you count them). That changes if you limit it to contemporary or near-contemporary Earth, but still: almost a quarter of Pertwee's Earth-based adventures involved time travel. More, if you include parallel Earths.
I'm currently rereading your Pertwee book, again. One thing I notice – and this possibly comes of growing up in his era – is that I enjoyed (and still enjoy) both his action and glam stories. Carnival is great, but Inferno is too. And I have a very soft spot for The Claws of Axos…
I really must get around to watching The Mind of Evil in colour for the very first time…
November 21, 2014 @ 1:16 am
Interesting essay. On the subject of Moffat's introduction to "Spearhead from Space", is it just me who loves watching his introductions to these stories? I honestly think Moffat is one of the best people out there at pitching a Doctor Who story as something worth watching. Sometimes I enjoy his pitches more than the episode itself 😛
November 21, 2014 @ 1:41 am
One bit of praise and one bit of criticism:
Spearhead from Space was my first Pertwee episode, and it cemented the image of the era in my head: lots of outdoor location shooting done on film, so the show had a look in these years that no pre-cancellation era before or after matched. Between the stagey teleplay look of the Sixties and the unwatchable shot-on-VHS-with-a-home-camcorder look of the Eighties, Doctor Who looked positively filmic and even competent in these years, special effects aside.
That said, the UNIT years, to me, are Doctor Who at its most boring. Josh Marsfelder, friend of this blog, characterized it as "Pertwee wearing a flamboyant cape and smoking jacket driving around in an ancient hot rod squaring off against mad scientists in the English countryside . . . [nothing] particularly different then any of the other contemporary spy-fi stuff starring charismatic secret agent action heroes." Which makes the show sound incredibly conventional and not remotely imaginative or exciting. To me, at least. And correctly, I think.
These are the impressions of an incredibly limited viewing experience. But a Doctor stuck on Earth, palling around with soldiers and mini-skirt wearing, screaming assistants is a character I want nothing to do with. The Doctor is not James Bond.
November 21, 2014 @ 3:30 am
The Pertwee era, and I can vouch for this having written for it
November 21, 2014 @ 3:41 am
"for" obviously was supposed to read as "about." but I like the idea that Phil is actually 79 years old and once wrote under the name "Malcolm Hulke"
November 21, 2014 @ 5:32 am
But how many stories are like that? In the first place, as Phil notes, much of the Pertwee era was not, in fact, stuck on contemporary earth. Of the twenty-four stories of the Pertwee era, nine are primarily not set on contemporary earth, and another five (Inferno, Day of the Daleks, Time Monster, Three Doctors, Planet of the Spiders) have significant components not taking place on contemporary earth.
Note also that, in terms of setting stories in contemporary earth, the Baker era up to Sladen's departure is actually at pretty much the same level as the latter part of the Pertwee era – 5 stories out of 13 set primarily on contemporary earth, compared to 4 out of 10 in Pertwee's last two seasons.
I also think that the Pertwee's era's future stories are actually interesting in that they're one of the few (only?) attempts in the show's history to do any kind of world-building. And it's kind of a pessimistic, anti-imperialist, environmentally conscious world-building. Basically, it's a vision of humanity screwing itself over and heading out into space because we've ruined our own planet, and then building a brutal, oppressive empire that ultimately collapses. It's strikingly bleak.
November 21, 2014 @ 8:44 am
I don't know, I think you need to give them 'Spearhead' because it was, ultimately, the mission statement for the Pertwee era. It might not have succeeded very well, it might not have been worth trying, and they might have changed missions altogether after the first season and then given up on making it anything other than normal 'Doctor Who' by the end. But the brief that they were working to is laid out so perfectly in 'Spearhead' that you just can't talk about the rest of Pertwee without having seen it.
November 21, 2014 @ 8:52 am
so what we are left with, as Dustin noted above, is not the fact of what the Pertwee era was, going back and rewatching Dvds, but what sticks in the popular conscousness, a sort of "after image" of the third Doctor. And its a strange one, one that, as we see, is at odds with the facts of what was actually televised. Its the people believing the Tom Baker has the Jelly babies out every episode, when that certainly wasn't the case.
I, perhaps, feel pretty alone in seeing the Pertwee era in two chunks by how Jon played the Doctor, which is to say, his first season is separate from the other four. Those tend to blend together in a bad CSO/Unit/Jo Grant haze, and i have a hard time telling you which actual seasons Axos or the Daemons was in. That's fine, its the trademark of, as Philip put it, Lett's remarkable consistancy with production.
But the first season was a different creature entirely: extended stories, more adult, Liz Shaw (criminally underused Liz Shaw), more film, less hair, and Pertwee less sure in the "Tory-ness" of his portrayal.
But again, we're looking at it critically, with a Skaro-load of hindsight, and these Doctor's revisited specials really do serve as a reminder to what the public seems to remember, not what actually happened.
November 21, 2014 @ 9:59 am
Phil is a Time Lord.
November 21, 2014 @ 12:22 pm
I adore the Pertwee era. Absolutely love it.
And if you love even just a few of "Rose," "The End of the World," "Aliens of London/WWIII," "The Christmas Invasion," "Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel," "Smith and Jones," "Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords," "Partners in Crime," "The Sontaran Stratagem," "Turn Left," "The Eleventh Hour," "The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood," Strax, Lady Vastra, "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship," "The Power of Three," "The Day of the freaking Doctor," and "Dark Water/Death in Heaven" — not to mention Rose, Martha, Donna, and Clara — then you love the Pertwee era too, even just a little bit, and a little bit of it. Because all of those contain crucial elements that were either born or perfected during the Pertwee era, and quite probably would not have existed in anything like the form we saw them without it.
Maybe not at all, from what I understand of the near-death experience of the show prior to "Spearhead from Space."
Is it different from the rest of Doctor Who? Not, as Philip points out, nearly as much as people say. In most important respects it's still the same show. I'm truly baffled by the hate it gets now given how absolutely crucial it was to the show's history and how important its DNA is, never more than today. Even people who have recognized no other strands of that DNA have noticed Capaldi's costume.
We can speculate that such developments as the contemporary Earth action/invasion (pioneered with Troughton, perfected with Pertwee), UNIT and its leader named Stewart (ditto), the single female companion paired with the Doctor as sole male protagonist, and the multi-Doctor adventure would maybe have happened anyway. We can assume that the Autons, the Silurians, the Sontarans, and the Master would have been invented regardless of what else was going on with the programme. We can hope that if they hadn't decided to shift the premise and establish a recurring cast they'd just have found some other way to reengage the public and save the show from cancellation.
But the way I see it, the Pertwee era is at least four solid years of genius (and one underrated mixed bag), and deserves all the praise it can get. Thanks, Philip, for not burying it here. 🙂
If nothing else, figure that if change is what this show thrives on, if the point is to keep doing different things, for there to be five years of its history that don't "fit" (how could they not?) is a positive boon.
November 21, 2014 @ 2:00 pm
I thought he may have been hinting at writing an upcoming Short Trip or whatever vehicle exists for Past Doctor fiction these days, but a long-game cover story for Dave Martin bitter about the Aardman success could work, too.
November 21, 2014 @ 6:12 pm
I have a feeling that the stories shown for each Doctor were not merely chosen to be representative of that particular Doctor, but also to balance each other, giving a broad view of the range of the show.
So we get a pure historical, and the original main cast, for the first Doctor. The Doctor coming out of a regeneration for the Third, and going into a regeneration for the Ninth, showing regeneration from both sides.
Choosing a third Doctor story to show that the third Doctor eventually gets into space would be quite useless for introducing a new viewer to the scope of the program. Or for showing someone only familiar with the new series the scope of the show as a whole.
You don't need to prove that the Doctor can go into space, it's evident from the episodes for all the other Doctors. Showing that the program can work brilliantly even when the Doctor doesn't have access to all of space and time provides contrast. Can a modern viewer imagine 9-12 adapting so well to being Earth-bound?
November 21, 2014 @ 8:12 pm
Being raised in Australia through the late 1970s and early 1980s meant viewing a near constant rotation of Pertwee and Baker (and later Davison) five nights a week at 6:30pm. Consequently my view of the Third Doctor era is as its being as normal as anything during the 4th and 5th Doctor’s runs.
I’ve never been able to generate much antipathy for the Pertwee era, despite some well-argued essays on the subject, partly due to familiarity and nostalgia, and partly because I don’t see much wrong with it. Sure it’s different to the rest of Who, but then, life’s like that sometimes.
To use a personal metaphor; I’ve worked for myself or as an independent contractor for all of my working life (I’m nearing fifty), since finishing a traineeship at twenty. I detest bosses and refuse to have one! I work my own hours, doing what I want, when I want and woe-betide anyone who tries to control or ‘organise’ me. I choose my own clients and have refused work for, and even returned clients deposits and walked away from their jobs if I found them too difficult or just to be someone I could work with. Not a recipe for major success I’ll grant you, but I value my personal space, peace and freedom above financial gain.
Except for a period of six years, when with a new young family and mounting debt I needed a stable income of a specific amount. I took a job that I didn’t really like with a company I didn’t really respect to meet those needs. Peer reviews, planning meetings, schedules, and ‘teams’ for projects! Fucking teams; I hate teams. I had people I liked among the dross, and did my work to be best of my ability within the confines placed on me. As soon as the opportunity came and I was able, away I went, back to the way of life I preferred.
These were my ‘UNIT’ years.
Sometimes we have to make the best of what we have available. That’s how I view the UNIT-Pertwee years; the Doctor doing what he had to because of circumstances. Doing the best he could within the confines placed on him and making friends amongst those around him. And then when he was able, he moved on.
November 22, 2014 @ 1:24 am
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November 22, 2014 @ 1:24 am
Interesting, as TARDIS Eruditorium has generlly been about analysing Doctor Who in the context it aired, and now it's looking at shows that do the exact opposite. They're practically the antithesis of this blog.
November 22, 2014 @ 5:53 am
Or David Whitaker was a Time Lord whose current incarnation is a madman with a blog…
November 22, 2014 @ 9:48 am
The introduction of the single female companion really is a significant innovation here – Colony in Space is literally the first story in the history of the show to do that. From then on, it'll be the norm, with the exception of Season 12 and most of the Davison era. (Note how, from Colony in Space on, even the UNIT/contemporary earth stories tend to de-emphasize the other UNIT characters in favor of Jo – Day of the Daleks and The Time Monster see Jo and the Doctor, and Planet of the Spiders Sarah and the Doctor, traveling to another time separate from the other characters; Sea Devils removes the other UNIT characters entirely; Invasion of the Dinosaurs functions rather like new series UNIT stories, with the Doctor and Sarah wandering into the story and only running into UNIT some ways into the story. The Pertwee era from Colony in Space through Planet of the Spiders, in particular, is more like the post-Pertwee show than anything that came before.
November 23, 2014 @ 5:58 am
this is a marvelous comment, and very true: the UNIT years were the "Doctor has to get a day job" years
November 24, 2014 @ 12:32 am
November 25, 2014 @ 3:49 pm
I agree – I think the Platonic ideal of Doctor in the public awareness (if such a thing can really be said to exist) is defined primarily by the Letts/Hinchcliff tenure. That's what RTD was seeking to imitate when he revived the show, and Moffat has explicitly talked about "Hinchcliffing it up" in the most recent series.
November 25, 2014 @ 11:08 pm
That would be an interesting Short Trips experiment: Everyone Writes About Their Least Favorite Doctor.
Mine would be Davidson obviously… but what sort of plot? ponders
The Cybermen are my least favorite Who villains so let's make them part of my premise… "The Fifth Doctor and a Cybermen are forced to compete against one another in a deadly game show. But the only way to survive the competition may be to join forces and work together…."
What would your "Least Favorite Doctor" story be?
November 26, 2014 @ 7:15 am
They've already made my "Least Favorite Doctor" story. It was called "The Feast of Steven."
December 3, 2014 @ 12:39 pm
"The Claws of Axos is wall-to-wall "what the fuck"'
… that made my day.
Forrest Lawrenceton III
January 26, 2015 @ 10:28 am
For me, the great unanswered question of Pertwee's legacy is, why didn't it become tradition for every subsequent Doctor to take up the role of Worzel Gummidge upon regenerating?