Monday, November 10, 2014

Doctor Who: The Jon Pertwee Years

When my husband and I started watching the classic era of Doctor Who in December of 2011, armed with a dozen DVD's recommended by a friend, we had no idea what to expect. We knew nothing of the show's history: which Doctors and companions were revered, and which reviled; which periods were most beloved, and which most belittled. All we knew was that we had binged on New Who Series 2 through 6 the previous year, and now looked forward to seeing the show in its earlier incarnation. We watched in fairly random order. I remember we started with "Genesis of the Daleks" and for some reason reached the Fifth Doctor last. Somewhere around the middle, we got to the Third Doctor, and the two stories of his my friend had recommended: his first two serials, "Spearhead From Space" and "The Silurians." "Spearhead" we found enjoyable, but "Silurians" felt endless, and although we'd been giving each other quizzical looks all the way through, it wasn't till it was done that we turned to each other and spoke, with essentially the same request: "Can we move on to another Doctor?" The Jon Pertwee era, or at least what promised to be a "Doctor stranded on Earth" set of stories, was not the Who we wanted to view. We had been weaned on Tennant and Smith, with big adventures through time and space; seeing the Doctor trapped in Earthbound settings wasn't what drew us to the series. It wasn't what fired our imaginations. And having already watched the Fourth, Second and First Doctors, Pertwee was our least favorite incarnation to date: we gravitated towards the less imposing Doctors -- and his air of withering authority and exasperated superiority wasn't much to our liking.

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. When I like him best, it's for his ability to balance the Doctor's decisiveness and warmth, without letting them slide into empty aggression or mawkishness. In addition, no one could slip in and out of disguises better than Pertwee, and few Doctors had his gift for conveying a lot of information silently, without the benefit of exposition. (The brief scene in Episode 3 of "Curse of Peladon" where he attaches a revolving mirror to his sonic screwdriver, nearly hypnotizing himself before beaming with pride at his accomplishment, seems to me a mini-masterpiece of mime.)

But at his worst, mostly in large swaths of Seasons 8 and 9, 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. 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. Ironically, as Pertwee begins to dictate more of what he wants, and to make himself more dominant and more comfortable, he 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.

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 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.


  1. I'm fond of Pertwee but can understand all the criticisms you level at him. He was a comedian more than an actor and playing it straight revealed his limitations much more. His character was also more of an establishment figure, a snob even. However, in the context of the 1970s he was very good and his era is a strong one. I actually quite like an overtly moral Doctor in his speeches. My favourites would have to be The Time Warrior, Time Monster (as it's totally mad and has a machine that's cockney rhyming slang for sh*t), Carnival of Monsters, Sea Devils (wobbly heads and a swordfight!) and The Curse of Peladon. There is some variety - S7 is totally unique in many ways, while S11 has a very different, end of an era, feel. I feel it also helps if you see Pertwee young - as an adult viewer, his flaws stand out more than if you feel in love with his version early on.

    1. It's true: I'm always aware that -- as someone who came to Classic Who at age 52 -- my perceptions are, by definition, so different from those who experienced it when they were young. I wish I'd had that fun, of seeing it when I was a kid! Very interesting to hear your own comments on Pertwee. When I first watched Davison, I was so taken with him as an actor, I rushed to see what else he'd done; with Pertwee, I felt he had more to offer than I was seeing in Who, and THAT prompted me to check out his other work. And as you said, because he was more comedian than actor, playing the Doctor "straight" does reveal his limitations. That said, I have grown more fond of the era in the last several years; even this latest rewatch revealed so many aspects -- including quite a few of Pertwee's performances -- that I highly enjoy.

    2. I don't remember the fun as much as the sheer terror! My era was early Tom Baker and my memories are of Krynoids, Davros, Sutekh, robot mummies and Sarah-Jane as a robot! I was traumatised but loved it all the more for it!!

  2. i don't think The Silurians actually does end. I'm sure there are a gazillion episodes after part 700, still running...

    1. I love it! I confess, every time I (re)watch "Silurians," I try to clear my head of preconceived notions and just let this wave of optimism wash over me -- and every time, by the time we get to Part 5, I'm thinking, "Please let it end..."

  3. Camfield left Inferno due to illness, didn't he? Your post makes it sound as if he stormed off set after falling out with Pertwee, which I'd not seen suggested anywhere before. Happy to be corrected if there's a good source for it, though. And of course it is true he didn't direct for the show again until Baker's time.

    1. Paul, you may well be right. I usually double-check passages like this twice, once as I'm writing and once when I'm done, but in this case, all I could find was the original source for my comment, which was at Brief History of Time Travel: "Pertwee would not follow Camfield's directions and when the star argued with production assistant Chris D'Oyly John, an irate Camfield descended from the production gallery, forcing Dunn to intervene and persuade Pertwee to comply. Things would come to a head during rehearsals on episode three at the start of the following week." I took that to mean that things came to a head between Pertwee and Camfield, but "things came to a head" might have simply meant "things got much worse," and indeed, as you noted, Camfield did indeed collapse due to health issues. And I took the fact that Camfield specifically did not return to the show till Baker's first block to mean that he did not care to work with Pertwee again, but that is merely a presumption. I should have been clearer. Revising it now, and I thank you.