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.