Before I begin, I thought I’d alert you to somebody who was blogging again. Fresh from finishing the draft of Plain Kate, Erin is putting her thoughts on her online journal, and wondering what she should write next. I personally hope that she returns to Otter’s world, and she herself would like to do something funny, but right now she has posted this creepy prologue to a novel not yet written. Go over and check it out and be sure to say ‘hi!’
And now on with the post.
Doctor Who almost ended in 1969. British television was changing, as the BBC prepared to give up black-and-white transmission for colour. Series that were producing forty episodes a season were being cut to twenty-six. Doctor Who, frankly, seemed tired; a product of a bygone era outclassed by later British offerings like Doomwatch or American imports like Star Trek. With lead actor Patrick Troughton leaving, along with a fair chunk of the production crew, and with ratings a fraction of what they’d been three years beforehand, was it worth moving Doctor Who into the colour era? Fortunately, somebody thought so.
Jon Pertwee took over the role of the Doctor during a period of considerable change. A new production crew and a reworked production schedule meant a completely different approach to the show. The season length had now been cut back to 25 episodes, and the decision had been made to “exile” the Doctor to Earth, reliant on his friends from the British Army stand-ins of UNIT to fight off alien invasion after alien invasion. Jon Pertwee was a taller, more flamboyant actor than Patrick Troughton, and his Doctor was far less likely to play the fool to confound his enemies. This was the action Doctor, almost a quirky James Bond, using the latest gadgets and gimmickry to beat the monsters in style.
The show was given one year to prove itself. And prove itself it did. Ratings shot up and, by the time Jon Pertwee left, the show was a BBC flagship.
There is a lot of good material here to choose from, if you overlook the somewhat seventies attitude, and ambitious special effects that pushed the boundaries of what was possible at the time, and look it. Some of the stories have dated well, but others haven’t. The heavy use of the Earth setting, however, lends a realism that tends to hold the show in good stead. And there are some stories where the ambition pays off in spades.
Spearhead From Space (1970)
This is the critical pilot episode that rebooted the series for the colour format. It introduces the newly regenerated Doctor, reintroduces Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart (now a Brigadier) and the UNIT concept, and tests them immediately with one of the more frightening monsters to grace the program. The Autons are aliens with such an affinity for plastic that they can project their consciousness into it and manipulate it for violent effect. You can guess what their plans are as a new type of display mannequin starts appearing in stores across Britain. The moment of their attack is one of the more violent and effective scenes in the program’s history. It’s no accident that Russell T. Davies turned to the Autons to help relaunch the series in 2005.
The Mind of Evil (1971)
The next year, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks decided that what the Doctor needed was an arch enemy, and the Master was created. Actor Roger Delgado was given an entire season to confront the Doctor, and the chemistry between him and Jon Pertwee ensured that a major new addition to the show’s continuity would take root. The Master was actually introduced in the story before The Mind of Evil (entitled Terror of the Autons). I recommend this story because, while Terror of the Autons was a decent offering, it amounts to little more than a reworking of Spearhead from Space with the Master added in. The Mind of Evil brought the Master out of the Autons’ shadow as he tried to manipulate Earth into a nuclear war through the rather convoluted use of a creature that sucked evil out of people and projected onto them their worst fears. A highlight of this story is getting to compare the Doctor and the Master’s worst fears. The Doctor gets a melange of all of the monsters he’s faced, while the Master gets an image of the Doctor… pointing at him and laughing.
The Curse of Peladon (1972)
The Jon Pertwee era is generally known for its Earth-based stories, but this Doctor did get to fly around in his TARDIS, and it contributed one item to the Doctor Who canon that fans remembered years after the fact: that being a fairly consistent future history of Earth which contained a Galactic Federation. The Curse of Peladon is a mystery chalk full of aliens, among them the Martian Ice Warriors who had previously been used as monsters to threaten the Doctor. I also recommend this story because it’s one of the best to feature third Doctor companion Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning). Wrongly caricatured as little more than a blond ditz, this tale allows her to show some steel.
The Carnival of Monsters (1973)
Possibly the most underrated of Jon Pertwee’s stories, The Carnival of Monsters is an imaginative, well written tale that supports its mystery with some of the most remarkable set design I’ve seen on the program. The Doctor and Jo land in 1926, on board an ill-fated ship that’s about to vanish in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The mystery deepens as they find the passengers on board caught in a time loop. And then they discover a mysterious hatch that the passengers are mentally blocked from seeing — a hatch that leads the Doctor to other worlds. Where are they? Meanwhile, somewhere else, two travelling performers arrive on a xenophobic alien planet with an advanced little peepshow device.
Robert Holmes’ script is well crafted and a lot of fun, with plenty of laughs and decent action, and the actors prove up to the task. In the DVD commentary, producer Barry Letts who also directed this tale, is way too hard on himself. The story’s combination of humour and drama, plus plenty of winks to the fourth wall, would set the stage for many episodes to come.
Planet of the Spiders (1974)
Limiting my choices to just five stories per Doctor has forced me to leave a lot of decent episodes out of this list. You should also pick up copies of Inferno and The Time Warrior, and I have to say that I have a soft spot for Death to the Daleks, but no list of must-see Pertwee episodes would be complete without Planet of the Spiders, even though this episode hasn’t dated well. Despite parental complaints at the time that the monstrous spiders gave their children nightmares (and despite many old fans remembering these spiders giving them nightmares — I myself and a few friends at grade school happily took up the Buddhist chant that the villains of this piece used to call up the spiders, so it clearly reached us at some level), today they look charmingly retro. The story is also overlong, with a length chase sequence in episode two that goes nowhere. However, the story features several well-drawn characters, whose tales build and resolve themselves to a satisfying degree.
A number of elements come home to roost in Planet of the Spiders. The Doctor is forced to confront the consequences of his insatiable curiosity, wherein an innocuous gem snatched during a hasty visit to Metabelis 3 in The Green Death becomes the centre of a power struggle that will force Pertwee’s Doctor to face his worst fears and sacrifice himself. It is a remarkable turn of events for a charismatic, self-assured Doctor to display his weaknesses, and the moment of his death is especially poignant.
By the end of Planet of the Spiders, Doctor Who was one of the most popular programs on the BBC, and Jon Pertwee was its longest-serving and best remembered Doctor. All that was about to change, however, as the next guy showed us just what has possible for the show to do.