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The Third Doctor: A Military Man?

Militarism (noun) – 1. The spirit or tendencies of a professional soldier. 2. Undue prevalence of the military spirit or ideals.

The story of the Third Doctor and the militarism inherent in his tenure starts, I think, with the Daleks. Before those BEMs (bug-eyed monsters) burst on to the scene, it was pretty clear what Doctor Who was going to be: the strange tale of two teachers who have been plucked out of their normal lives and sent on a journey through time and space. A television show that was going to use its ability to travel anywhere and anywhen to inform as well as an entertain (“Doctor, what’s gravity?”) So far, so Reithian. It was the Daleks, in their first appearance, which blew all of that out of the water. Their popularity ripped up Doctor Who’s original ‘rulebook’ on so many levels.
Doctor Who, it turned out, was actually going to be about daring escapes, cliffhangers, and screaming companions, although it would take some time before this new formula was solidly in place. It was also going to be about monsters. Those terrible things that have been bred in some corners of the universe. That have to be fought. By heroes. Not heroes like the Doctor though, at least not yet. At this point, the Doctor was a selfish old man who seemed somewhat out of his depth and tended to disassemble in the face of danger. It was only later that this would change.
Daleks Ian Chesterton William Russell
The hero of the show was clearly Ian Chesterton, who, despite being a middle-class teacher from London, was able to step up to the mark when he found himself stranded on the desolate, radioactive husk of a planet that was Skaro. It was Ian who gave us the scene that defined the relationship Doctor Who would have towards violence, and, by extension, militarism, even though it makes uncomfortable viewing for modern audiences, partly because of its gender politics.
That scene is when Ian challenges the Thals about their pacifism and tries to persuade them that they need to confront the Daleks. More specifically, he provokes Alydon, one of the Thals, into attacking him by threatening to exchange a Thal woman, Dyoni, for the TARDIS fluid link, which the Daleks have. By doing so, Ian shows that the Thals’ pacifism has a limit. That there are circumstances in which, however much we may abhor violence, it cannot be avoided. It’s telling though that Ian resorts to this tactic only when the time-travellers’ position has become desperate and it seems like they might be stranded on Skaro forever.
This basic premise of violence as a last-resort option was still the default position of the show when the Doctor fell to Earth at the beginning of  the 1970s, having been forcibly regenerated into Jon Pertwee. The added wrinkle, of course, was that this version of the Doctor was going to be working with the military, specifically UNIT, in his attempts to keep Earth safe from harm. And it was the Earth that this Doctor was protecting, at least at first, having been stranded here by the Time Lords.
The Third Doctor has received criticism from some in fandom for being too much of an establishment figure. Certainly, he comes across as more of a patrician than other incarnations, particularly when lounging about old country houses with a glass of wine and some rather good stilton, while waiting for some ghosts to make an appearance in Day of the Daleks. He is also the scientific advisor for UNIT, which puts him right at the heart of the establishment. It also means that he’s working for, rather than co-operating with, the military. In stories like The War Machines, The Web of Fear, and The Invasion, the Doctor was a ‘freelancer’ whose co-operation with the government and its military came on a one-off basis due to expedience, which was a somewhat different arrangement.
3rd Third Jon Pertwee Liz Shaw Brigadier Nicholas Courtney Caroline John
But why shouldn’t the Doctor work with the military on a regular basis? After all, he will use violence if only as a last resort. Well, this new arrangement changes the basic format of the show, which, of course, was the whole point at a time of declining ratings, budgetary pressures, and near-cancellation. The Doctor is no longer the same, mercurial figure that stands apart from the structures of the planets he visits. He is not a trickster figure looking in on societies, who is able, by standing apart, to criticize the structures that he sees. The Third Doctor looks on and criticizes, but his critical position is weakened by the fact that he is embedded in the very structures that he is taking swipes at. He comes across as haughty and a bit aloof, rather than mischievous and a bit anarchic like some of his other incarnations. He’s also a bit of a hypocrite, who tends to rail against the Brigadier’s militarism and use of force while taking the odd, unprovoked pot-shot at an Ogron when it takes his fancy.
Despite this, it’s refreshing to have the hero of an action-adventure series stand back and comment critically on the violence therein. The most famous example is when the Doctor rails against the Brigadier at the end of Doctor Who and The Silurians. Our hero seems to have calmed a difficult situation down and is all set to broker peace talks, only for the Brigadier to order a pre-emptive strike and destroy the Silurians’ base. The problem with this is that the Doctor and Brigadier are back working together in the next story when, considering how angry he is, you would have expected him to turn his back on UNIT forever.
However, as time went on, the militaristic aspects of the Third Doctor’s tenure softened somewhat. What had started as a working relationship with UNIT became more familial and less formal. The Doctor also headed back out across space and time after the Time Lords granted him control of the TARDIS again. He became an outsider once more, gallivanting around the cosmos with Jo and poking his beak-like nose in where it wasn’t wanted but was very much needed. And it was while he was on one of these journeys that the Third Doctor was given the opportunity to properly express his ambivalence towards violence and war, in a little exchange that I still think is one of the most powerful moments in the whole of Doctor Who.
Planet of the Daleks Jon Pertwee 3rd Third
The story in which this occurred was Planet of the Daleks, sometimes described somewhat disparagingly as a Daleks’ greatest hits package. (Personally, I love it. In fact, I think I’ll watch it again tonight.) I’ll briefly set the scene. The Daleks have been defeated. The Thals are about to return to Skaro. And the Third Doctor and two Thals have this conversation, which is arguably as good a coda for the core ethic of Doctor Who as any other that has ever been written:

Taron: Doctor, we’d never have succeeded without all your help. I wish there was some way of thanking you.

The Doctor: As a matter of fact, there is.

Rebec: Yes, Doctor?

The Doctor: Throughout history, you Thals have always been known as one of the most peace-loving races in the galaxy.

Taron: I hope we always will be.

The Doctor: Yes, that’s what I mean. When you get back to Skaro, you’ll all be national heroes. Everybody’ll want to hear about your adventures.

Taron: Of course.

The Doctor: So be careful how you tell that story, will you? Don’t glamourise it. Don’t make war sound like an exciting and thrilling game.

Taron: I understand.

The Doctor: Tell them about the members of your mission that will not be returning. Like Maro, Vaber, and Marat. Tell them about the fear. Otherwise your people might relish the idea of war. We don’t want that.

Matt Badham

The Third Doctor: A Military Man?

by Matt Badham time to read: 5 min
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