An Appreciation of the Pertwee Era

As we move into October, two things come to mind: costumes and horror movies. Like last year, I’ll be dedicating the month to spookiness and camp, which, oddly enough, brings us to Jon Pertwee:

He was the third man to inhabit the Doctor on the now famous BBC series Doctor Who. When he took the role, the show was in one of its lowest points. The ratings were down, star Patrick Troughton and his co-stars chose not to renew their contracts and it seemed the show was at its final season. This could’ve been the end of the story if not for three things that happened thanks to outgoing producers Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin: a new staff in the office, a change in format, and the arrival of color.

During Bryant’s watch, associate script editor Terrance Dicks (okay, snigger now so it won’t be an issue later) was hired to help Sherwin and ultimately replace him when Bryant moved on and Sherwin took over as producer. As part of the plan to revamp the show, Bryant and Sherwin devised a new status quo for the series. The Doctor would be exiled to Earth in the early 70s (or was it the 80s?). Denied free movement in time and space, the disgraced Time Lord would work with a UN funded Intelligence Taskforce — UNIT — charged with investigating bizarre and untidy incidents that plagued the Home Counties in the 80s (or was it the 70s?).

This new format was intended to make the show cheaper as it would be switching to color. All that space travel broke the budget every year and with the Beeb unwilling to give the show more money, Bryant and Sherwin sought to make a more economical adventure. Around this time, Sherwin cast his new Doctor. Pertwee was a song-and-dance man known for his comedy chops and some believed his take on the part would play to those strengths. Instead, Pertwee wanted to play the part completely straight. His Doctor would be a voice of authority more in league with the very Time Lords that exiled him. While he wasn’t beyond some flights of fancy, the Pertwee Doctor was more serious and level-headed than his predecessor. The differences are apparent when the two version meet in the Anniversary story “The Three Doctors.”

The Doctor does not get along with himself.

Sherwin was happy with Pertwee’s take, but was soon off the show having been offered a better opportunity elsewhere. Replacing Sherwin was BBC staff director Barry Letts. Stuck with Sherwin’s new format, he and Dicks, now promoted to script editor, began to work out their first season. Each story would run seven episodes and feature the Doctor, his new assistant Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, and UNIT battling … um … well … as writer Malcolm Hulke put it, the format offered two story ideas: “Alien invasion and mad scientists.”

That’s exactly what they did.

Following an introductory four-part story produced by Sherwin, Dicks commissioned scripts that featured a reverse alien invasion, an actual alien invasion, and a mad scientist trying to dig to the core of the earth.

But let’s get back to that first story, “The Spearhead from Space.” Just as living plastic emissaries of the Nestene Intelligence begin an attempted invasion, the newly regenerated Third Doctor arrives on Earth in a heap of his old clothes. He’s immediately taken to hospital where he encounters Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. The Brig, as we’ll come to know him, met the Doctor in his Troughton guise the previous year, but is surprised to learn this white-haired man with a mighty nose emerged from the TARDIS.

For the Doctor’s part, he’s still suffering from post-regeneration trauma and keeps asking for his shoes.

Eventually, the Doctor recovers and the Brig comes to trust his new appearance enough to introduce him to Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, UNIT’s scientific adviser. Being pretty and smart, she and the Doctor hit it off almost immediately. Well, the Doctor is more interested in getting her to help him retrieve the TARDIS key from the Brigadier. Once she does, both the Doctor and the audience learn that he has lost the knowledge to make the TARDIS go. Also: he fried the dematerialization circuit.

The Brig, the Doctor, and Dr. Elizabeth Shaw.

This would be the status quo for the next three years. With the arrival of Sgt. Benton, Captain Yates, and Shaw’s replacement, Jo Grant, UNIT would become something of a family for the Doctor. While occasionally butting heads with the Brig, the group would foil alien invasions, Daleks, mad science, more living plastic, and the Doctor’s best enemy.

No discussion of the Pertwee years would be complete without talking about the Master.

Through that first year, Dicks and Letts noticed certain similarities in their Doctor and Sherlock Holmes. Wanting to follow that train of thought, they chose to introduce a Moriarty character to match wits with the Doctor. From the word go, we’re told the Master is a criminal from the Doctor’s home world and that the Doctor is uniquely suited to deal with him. The two Time Lords would battle for the entire second year of the Pertwee era. While the Daleks will forever be his archenemy, the Master is something of a sparing partner. The first time I ever saw Pertwee in the role, he refered to Master as his “best enemy.” I think it’s a fitting description. The Doctor enjoys foiling this opposite, but equal, intelligence. There is an element of sport to their conflict.

The Master

Played by Roger Delgado, the Master is man of refinement and great cunning. He’s also armed with mind control abilities and a tissue compression eliminator that allows him to shrink any opposition to death. Generally dressed in black, he was also a … um … master of disguise.

With all the pieces in place, the production team set out to scare the wits out of its audience. Children all over England watched as a troll doll came to life and killed a man. They saw phones, policemen, and plastic flowers all conspire to kill good, honest people. They also saw the Master cackle in delight. It caused some furrowing of parental brows, but it also turned the viewing figures around and set in stone a concept for the show that continues to this day.

Though, some refinement was still ahead.

Katy Manning as Jo Grant.

After three seasons, the Doctor was forgiven by the Time Lords and given a new dematerialization circuit. Once again free to travel time and space, it was the beginning of the end of the UNIT family. Katy Manning, the actress who played Jo Grant, would leave the show at the season’s end and, tragically, Delgado was killed in an auto accident earlier that year.

When the fifth year began, Pertwee felt the magic was dissipating and chose to move on. Letts and Dicks also chose to move on.

You’ll note I haven’t spent as much time on Pertwee’s performance as I did Troughton. This is because the Pertwee era is very much an ensemble both in front of and behind the camera. Those years are as much about Letts, Dicks, Manning, and actors Nicholas Courtney and John Levene (the Brig and Sgt. Benton respectively) as the star. Courtney’s Brig was a rock-solid army man, often baffled by the Doctor’s leaps of logic. His prefered solution to any crisis is summed up in the quote.”Five rounds rapid.” Manning’s Jo Grant was a firecracker if somewhat ditzy. There character grows a lot during her time with the Doctor and it’s fairly difficult for her to chose a different sort of life when she leaves. Benton, though a good soldier, was always willing to follow the Doctor, even if it meant disobeying the Brig.

Benton, upon first entering the TARDIS.

Behind the camera, Letts and Dicks strove for a new level of quality in their storytelling. Letts was fascinated with science and expected an extra level of veracity from the scripts Dicks commissioned. The two even attempted to come up with some laws for time travel based on the available science of the day. Their efforts are honored in the current series as the notion of “locked events.” In addition to producing, Letts often wrote and directed stories himself. He and Dicks saw the series as being more than just a children’s program and elevated the content accordingly.

It made for richer stories and, for the first time since the first two seasons, a consistency of purpose. Where Troughton offered a definitive concept of the character, Letts and Dicks defined what the show really is.

Of course, when all the principals involved  in the Pertwee era were gone, they handed the TARDIS key and eccentric wardrobe to the man who would give us the definitive image of the character:

“If the sum of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square on the other two sides, why is a mouse when it spins?”

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About Erik

Erik Amaya is the host of Tread Perilously and the former Head Film/TV writer at Bleeding Cool. He has also contributed to sites like CBR, Comics Alliance and Fanbase Press. He is also the voice of Puppet Tommy on "The Room Responds."
This entry was posted in Nerd Alert, Projected Pixels and Emulsion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to An Appreciation of the Pertwee Era

  1. Pingback: Tread Who Safely: Spearhead from Space | The Satellite Show

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