“So you’re my replacements – a dandy and a clown!”
Which, on the face of it, is pretty harsh! The Third Doctor might be snappily dressed, bouffant-bound, and a driver of an outdated roadster, but he’s no dandy. He might surround himself with pretty young girls and enjoy visiting country houses, but the Third Doctor is no Byronic figure wandering around Venice in a frilly shirt.
Consider so-called “NuWho“: the four main Doctors we’ve had – Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi – are all seen as fairly “physical” Doctors; at least, some consider them to be the first Doctors to engage physically, to some degree, with opponents. This is of course bunkum. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was the first “physical” Doctor, purveyor of such treats as Venusian Aikido; (intelligent) use of the sonic screwdriver as a weapon; and travel by helicopter, motorcycle, hovercraft, and rocket as well as scathing put downs. The Third Doctor swiftly erased the audience’s memories of the Second Doctor and this was achieved without the colour and tightly plotted storylines of his first season; the Third Doctor was simply an action man – Action Who if you will – never afraid to engage the enemy physically. But like his earlier selves, he was also a genius, never afraid to engage the enemy intellectually.
Much has been said over the years about the “dynamic” of the Third Doctor’s era, it often being called “The UNIT Family” – but in all honesty I find this a crass and distinctly dull description of the period. Popular as he was, the Brigadier was little more than a personification of this Doctor’s bizarre relationship with the Establishment. The real key to Jon Pertwee’s period on the show, the one aspect that made both the Doctor and the UNIT period work, was the Master.
Scenes between Roger Delgado and Jon Pertwee were always guaranteed to thrill and amuse. Hops to EEC-style planets and xenophobic miniscope-fearing aliens are little more than diversions to the Third Doctor. His longing for an equal to pit his wits against is evident in most of the Master-free stories. In the serious, issue-lead Season 7, the Doctor often find himself in a battle of wills with both the Brigadier and the story’s main villain. Obviously as allies, the Doctor and the Brig’s relationship had to warm and we saw this as the Master was introduced.
Of course, declaring the Third Doctor’s era as a few face-offs between Delgado and Pertwee is wholly irresponsible. The Doctor also had the opportunity to defeat the Daleks on four occasions, as well as finding himself up against Ice Warriors, Draconians, the Nestene Consciousness, a Sontaran, and more than his fair share of bonkers scientists. No matter who the human face of the aggressor was, you could guarantee the Third Doctor would enjoy frustrating them and telling them off.
The Third Doctor was essentially a man of extremes; I don’t mean in the sense of the Sixth Doctor, with his insane patchwork costume and overbearing manner, but the phrase “sartorial elegance” is synonymous with the third incarnation. Furthermore, he is dallying with the Establishment – the Earth equivalent of the very types that banished him. Finally, the Doctor at this time often assumed a very hands-on role, engaging in physical combat (Venusian Aikido), grappling with Daleks, Ogrons, and Silurians, and taking to the air, land and sea in a succession of extreme vehicles: hovercrafts, helicopters, “Whomobiles”, and of course the ever-faithful yellow roadster, Bessie!
The shadow of the man was also extreme. The Fourth Doctor drove the roadster in his first adventure, and even the Seventh felt the need to drag the thing out of mothballs. Slightly like driving your first car, or your dad’s? I’m not sure about that, but none of his successors looked half as good driving Bessie. She was part of the character.
As we’ve seen, you can judge a man by the quality of his enemies; the same is true of his friends. The Third Doctor was fortunate to have the lovely Liz Shaw as his assistant – despite her being a professor herself! The relationship here was more one of equals; Liz as a character could never have survived with the Doctor constantly fighting another equal in the shape of the Master just 12 months later. This relationship was also balanced in order for the Doctor to fall out with the Brig while Liz acted as go-between – her reasoning and decision-making best displayed in Season 7’s Inferno when her fascist alter-ego manages to see through the propaganda and see the Doctor as completely true.
Jo Grant was the Doctor’s natural companion: stylish, bubbly, bright but not a genius, easily hypnotised, and scared. And longing for adventure. Who else could turn down such a lovely pair of eyes? Let’s face it, the Third Doctor was a control freak too, and just needed some cute young Earth-girl to make his teas. The relationship between the two is of course closer to “niece and kindly uncle” than the couple of scientists we saw working together previously and as such is much warmer. The same can be said of the relationship with Sarah Jane, but of course this was not to develop until the Doctor underwent an important change…
As he was trapped on Earth for so long, the Doctor spent a long time tinkering with the TARDIS and wishing himself elsewhere. His eventual escape – following the Time Lords’ lifting of his exile – leads him into danger at every turn. Suddenly, he becomes a little more reckless, throwing himself headlong into many situations and allowing his wonder at the beauty of the Universe get the better of him; stumbling into traps left by other races (Death to the Daleks), left for other people, and ultimately, one for him.
Planet of the Spiders is a curious mix. Unmistakeably a Third Doctor story, it nevertheless reminds us of the existence Doctor’s fellow Time Lords, reintroduces the blue crystal from Metebelis 3, and the brings into play the “B” movie concept of giant spiders. Pertwee is strangely engaging throughout, no doubt in mind of what is soon to occur!
A man of extremes, perverted by two of the things that least interested him: the Establishment, and the acquisition of material wealth – one of these would lead to his heroic death, and, to a generation of British children, Doctor Who would never be the same again.
(Adapted from an article originally published in March 2005.)