When I published my 25 favorite Classic Whos in November of 2013 (having by then seen all the serials all at least twice and some a dozen times), the comments I received were largely kind and gracious. My opinions were obviously my own, and (maybe) no one else's, but the Who community was big enough to permit all opinions. The only place I received much flak was in how little Pertwee I included: just one serial in my top 25. (One Twitter follower said it didn't make him respect my opinions any less, just doubt my sanity.) I've come to realize that although fan consensus will tell you that the Tom Baker era was the most beloved, it's the Pertwee era that has the most passionate defenders. It's an era -- unlike Tom Baker's, which divides neatly by producer: "the Hinchcliffe years," "the Williams years," etc., each with its own supporters and detractors -- with one team supervising it all: producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, whose consistency, confidence, and unwavering belief in "what works" and "what doesn't" inspires the most ardent fans. I have heard Whovians I respect say things like, "There's not one bad episode in the whole Pertwee era," and I personally can't say that about any season of Who, let alone a whole era. But the uniformity of intent is persuasive: if you buy into the premise, if you buy into Pertwee and the Third Doctor, and the Earthbound stories that gradually give way to more out-of-this-world adventures, there's nothing to deter you from your affection. There are no sudden shifts in style, no wild reinventions or wholesale reboots. There's one long, continuous flow.
But if you don't buy into the premise, if you don't find yourself cottoning to the Third Doctor, or the men behind the scenes, how do you make peace with Pertwee? An assignment for myself. Some of the Who fans and friends I cherish most are Pertwee devotees: where do we find some common ground? It's easier perhaps to see where we differ. Aside from my disinterest in largely Earthbound adventures (although I adore Nicholas Courtney, his warm, continued presence doesn't compensate for my thirst for other worlds and other times), my reservations stack up quickly. I find the overuse of CSO distracting. It doesn't seem to me as merely "evocative of the period": the sort of thing you simply have to overlook if you watch Classic Who. It seems arbitrary and mystifying, as when the outdoor scenes in "The Green Death" flip-flop from location shooting to CSO and back again. Other complaints: I don't like the frank moralizing that was a passion of Letts and his cohorts (I'd rather my Whos be subtly allegorical than overtly polemic), and I don't know which bothers me more: the chauvinism that permeates the era once Letts takes over fully in Season 8, or the flat-footed attempts to pay lip-service to the women's movement.
I miss the audacious directors of the Troughton era. For me, one of the sad ironies of the Pertwee era is that the director most responsible for establishing the "house style" -- the brilliant Doug Camfield, who directed "Web of Fear" and "Invasion" during Troughton's reign, and emboldened the producers into mounting a reboot -- started one Third Doctor serial, locked horns with the star, fell ill partway through shooting, and didn't return to the series till Pertwee was gone. The three great regular directors of the series' first six years -- Camfield, David Maloney and Derek Martinus -- were mostly absent during the Pertwee era, helming just one serial apiece. And their replacements -- Lennie Mayne, Paul Bernard and Michael E. Briant -- were notably inferior, with Mayne and Bernard rarely able to offer anything in the way of visual distinctiveness or flair.
But my biggest problem with the era lies with Pertwee himself. I'm not a Pertwee detractor: far from it. I think he's quite talented; I simply find him less interesting in Doctor Who than in other roles. The decision for Pertwee to play the Third Doctor as "himself" is certainly a sound one; his dapper demeanor nicely balances the UNIT settings. But for me, it doesn't seem to unleash his imagination the way other vehicles do, from Will Any Gentlemen? to Carry On, Cowboy to Worzel Gummidge. I find Pertwee uneven throughout much of his run on Doctor Who. At his best, I'm taken with his warmth, his sincerity, and the way he physicalizes the Doctor's thirst for knowledge. At his worst, I see him settling into a distressing complacency. When I wrote my four-part essay on Peter Davison, I noted that he seemed to have "an endless bag of tricks at his disposal"; I feel that way about Troughton as well -- and about early Hartnell too. Playing a role far removed from their own personality keeps them sharp and focused; you're aware of the wheels ever spinning, gracefully. On Who, I find Pertwee mostly gets fired up by outside forces: actors whose rhythms counter his own, story-lines that stretch his comfort zone. But he doesn't do as well on his own; because he doesn't have to "find" the role, he doesn't always look for the variations, the grace notes, the buttons. He hits his marks, but shortly after Season 8 starts, I can pinpoint where those marks are, and sometimes I get there ahead of him. And when the script calls on him to moralize, or worse, to engage in hyperbolic rectitude ("This is the worst day's work the world has seen for many, many years"), I often find myself wishing his fire burned with a little more intensity.
That last quote is from "The Green Death," and it's one of my least favorite Pertwee performances; the script hits notes I've heard a dozen times already in the Pertwee era, and his performance retreads old ground too. But twice in the serial, he engages in disguises, once as a milkman and once as a washerwoman, and suddenly, his reactions get sharp, and his physicality and timing precise. He seems energized by "playing a role." It's wonderful and it's sad, because from the start of Season 8, as Pertwee begins to dictate more of what he wants, and to make himself more dominant and more comfortable, he ironically robs himself of what sparks him as an actor: the tension. Tension between actor and role. Tension between actor and co-stars. Tension between actor and script. The things that, from what I've seen (and heard, in his delightful, dextrous work in The Navy Lark), make Pertwee a more compelling actor. Pertwee needed challenges; by playing the Doctor so close to home ("this dashing Pied Piper image," as he put it), he denied himself those.
And as an aside, I'm never going to take to "The Silurians." I've watched three times now, to the same mounting sense of irritation. I understand what folks see in it, but for me, it's undermined by the familiar Malcolm Hulke tropes. The characters who are obstructive either due to attitude or agenda (thus allowing him to stretch the serial to seven episodes). The moment someone rushes in, prepared to make a confession -- and therefore bring all the misunderstandings to an end -- and is cut off before they can do so (thus allowing him to stretch the serial to seven episodes). The steady stream of captures and escapes. And in "Silurians," I never buy in to the intended moral ambiguity; the Doctor's umbrage at the end doesn't ring true to me, as the Silurians never seem how he describes them. Because the Silurian costume obscures their faces, they're forced to identify themselves by gesticulating wildly; the young Silurian is so animated, I have trouble taking him seriously. And once all the rational Silurians have been wiped out by the young rebels, the Doctor's peace-making arguments don't seem to hold water. They infect the citizens of Earth with a plague, but UNIT shouldn't retaliate? I find "The Silurians" terribly earnest, but crying out for variety, pacing and logic. (I confess, I find another much-lauded Pertwee serial, the aforementioned "Green Death," equally tedious: its aspirations commendable, but its execution lacking.)
So what do I like about the Pertwee era? Quite a few things, as my latest rewatch reminded me.
I've stated my affection for Nicholas Courtney, but someone else inspires even greater delight: Caroline John. I love Liz Shaw. I love how quickly the actress settles in; I love how sharp her reactions are. I love Liz's smart retorts, and I love her sideways glances. I love how she assumes the role not of an assistant, but a colleague: one whose scientific prowess and insights the Doctor respects and relishes. The dynamic feels fresh, and a natural extension of all the strong female guest characters who distinguish the Troughton era. And John does wonders for Pertwee: she keeps him on his toes. (Pertwee, tellingly: "In my opinion, Caroline John didn't fit into Doctor Who. I couldn't really believe in her as a sidekick to the Doctor, because she was so darned intelligent herself. The Doctor didn't want a know-it-all by his side, he wanted someone who was busy learning about the world." What he means, of course, is that Pertwee himself didn't want "a know-it-all by his side": the Second Doctor had no trouble traveling with Zoe, the astrophysicist. But it was precisely because of that tension that Pertwee's scenes with John are so absorbing, and that he goes limp for a while after she leaves. Even the shrewdest actors don't always know what showcases them best.)
What else? I adore the chemistry that develops between Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. Although I find Katy Manning does everything asked of her brilliantly, I don't care for the way Jo is written in her earliest serials; after the novelty of Liz Shaw, I find it distressing to return to an assistant who's there mostly to be a sounding-board, and her bouts of timidity really annoy me (e.g., her terror at stepping outside the TARDIS in "Colony in Space" -- you can't help but feel Liz Shaw would have leapt out of the police box -- or her haunted-house jitters in "Day of the Daleks"). There's a chauvinism in the conception of Jo Grant that's unmistakable, and because the Third Doctor spends much of Seasons 8 and 9 talking at Jo rather than to her, it doesn't do anything for Pertwee either: a certain smug self-satisfaction starts to set into the role once Jo comes on board. But as Jo is allowed to blossom, the dynamic becomes more appealing, and by Season 10, I find the Third Doctor and Jo Grant equally matched, and it's my favorite Manning season.
I find Roger Delgado consistently entertaining, even in serials that make me shudder (e.g., "Mind of Evil," which I think might boast his most commanding performance). I've seen comments that he's at his best early in his run, that he eventually becomes too broad and hammy, but I don't see it; to me, he's eminently watchable throughout. I have no complaints with John Levene's charming Sergeant Benton, and although Richard Franklin's character proves more elusive, when the writers settle on a formula (e.g., the aforementioned "Mind of Evil," where Captain Yates is quick-witted and resourceful), Franklin responds beautifully -- and he makes his final-season arc, in which Yates's youthful idealism proves his undoing, extremely touching. (It's a nice touch that, for all the era's macho posturing, one of its most lasting images is of Mike Yates's fragility in the final serial, as he attempts to jumpstart his own regeneration.) And I'm a huge Lis Sladen fan; the writers have her initially come on too strong -- she was, after all, their "answer" to complaints of chauvinism -- but she's never less than winning, and often wonderful.
I like the gravity of Season 7, and even though I am not a Barry Letts fan, and find most of the tonal shifts that he initiates in "Terror of the Autons" not to my liking (they impede my enjoyment of Seasons 8 and 9), I like the celebratory feel of Season 10 and the go-for-broke feel of Season 11. As for writers, I'm not fond of Robert Sloman or Baker & Martin, but the Pertwee era has my favorite set of Robert Holmes scripts, and I enjoy Malcolm Hulke when he lightens up: when he stifles his penchant for didacticism and just lets rip with a good yarn, or a warm scene, or a hoary gag. And oddly, I admire many of the things about the era that we learn -- in the DVD extras -- made its creators cringe. Over the years, "Claws of Axos" has become a Doctor Who punchline,"Death to the Daleks" dismissed as one of the nadirs of the series. I like them both. I see the creative team straining to do something different: angling for originality, for boldness in the face of complacency. My overall feeling about the Pertwee era is that, in trying to avoid the woeful lows that plagued the final Troughton season, they aimed for something more stable and grounded. But in avoiding the lows, they also trimmed the highs. You don't get a lot of out-and-out turkeys in the Pertwee era, but to my mind, you also don't get many blissful flights of fancy. It's a confident era, not -- by and large -- a daring one. And "daring" is one of my favorite things about Doctor Who.
But that said, there are ten serials I like very much, that -- for various reasons -- I take delight in rewatching. And I'll go into them, in detail, next.
Next up: counting down my top ten Pertwees, #10 to #6.