When the DWC ran with Second Doctor Week last year, my thoughts immediately turned to Columbo. No, really.
If you enjoy Patrick Troughton’s performance as the Second Doctor (and who doesn’t?), then you’ll get a kick out of Peter Falk’s work in Columbo, an American television series that ran between 1968 and 1978. (It also appeared between 1989 and 2003, although in terms of my personal head-canon that iteration of the show doesn’t exist.) Indeed, I’ve often thought that if Americans had done their own version of Doctor Who in the 1970s, then Falk would have been a great choice for the lead.
In Columbo, Falk plays a sartorially-challenged homicide detective whose seemingly clumsy exterior belies his astute intellect, fierce moral integrity, and commitment to justice.
The first and most obvious comparison to be made between Falk’s Columbo and the Second Doctor is in the way they dress. Troughton’s Doctor is sometimes referred to as a cosmic hobo, due to his dishevelled and somewhat eccentric appearance. His clothes and general demeanour cause people to underestimate him, a characterization that I much prefer to the ‘oncoming storm’ version of the Doctor. This allows Troughton to hover at the margins of the action, gathering information and insights until he is ready to pounce and take action. Lieutenant Columbo is, similarly, under-estimated by the people that he meets. The murderers in Columbo are always of high social-status and tend to be sure of their own intellectual and social superiority. Their under-estimation of Columbo is a key part of their downfall. They realise far too late that the crumpled, rather gauche figure of Lieutenant Columbo is their intellectual equal or even superior to them in that respect. Tobias Vaughn would not seem out of place in an episode of Columbo, with his smug, supercilious air. And I could easily see Donald Pleasence, Patrick McGoohan, and Robert Culp, all of whom faced off against the good Lieutenant, giving masterful turns as corrupt industrialists, mad scientists, or galaxy-dominating despots in Doctor Who (or perhaps as the Master, although that’s a discussion for another day and another Doctor).
The character of Lieutenant Columbo is also one who, like the Second Doctor, possesses moral certainty. Troughton’s version of the Doctor is a hero, who knows that there are monsters in universe that must be fought (sometimes at a terrible cost). Columbo, meanwhile, is committed to the justice system he serves. Fundamentally, he pursues criminals because it’s his job. He’s a cop. However, Columbo also happens to possess a strong commitment to the notion of right and wrong – just as the Doctor is committed to ideas of good and evil – and will doggedly pursue every lead, no matter how obscure, in his attempts to bring a murderer to justice.
This means that there are some fantastic moments for Falk to play as an actor when Columbo’s mask slips and he gives those around him a glimpse of the moral fury that (partly) motivates him. One comes in an episode called A Stitch in Crime when Leonard Nimoy (as the murderer) rubs Columbo up the wrong way and the lieutenant does something that very rarely happens – he gets angry, slamming a jug down on Nimoy’s desk, and accusing him directly of murder. It’s electrifying to watch.
Troughton’s Doctor also wears a mask, presenting himself as clown-like and eccentric when it suits him. Like Falk’s Columbo, his Doctor will, on occasion, allow this mask to slip, giving Troughton as an actor the opportunity to monologue (as in The Moonbase) about things bred in dark corners of the universe or to rail against a specific foe or the injustice of a situation.
Both Troughton and Falk further share a commonality of approach in terms of the physicality of their respective performances. Their bearing and demeanour is reminiscent of the silent-film comedians of yesteryear, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Of course, Falk and Troughton do not give as exaggerated a physical performance as those two. Nevertheless, they are physical performers, who also bring a comic element to their work. Witness Troughton hopping away from the Cybermen in The Invasion, before landing on his backside and comically mugging for a photograph taken by pseudo-companion Isobel Watkins. Likewise, Falk careens out of control in an episode called The Greenhouse Jungle, while taking a shortcut down a steep slope, before tripping, rolling, and landing in a crumpled heap. Both are moments of pure slapstick.
Columbo is regularly repeated in my neck of the woods, so if, like me, you’re in Britain, it’s easy to check out the Lieutenant’s adventures (on the ITV and 5 networks). For those who choose to do that, I’d recommend sticking to those episodes made in the 1970s, when both the series itself and Falk were firing on all cylinders. You could look out for The Greenhouse Jungle, Any Old Port in a Storm, Now You See Him, and Try and Catch Me, all of which, in my opinion, easily hold their own in terms of entertainment value against the very best of Doctor Who.