Saturday, 23 March 2013

Doctor by Doctor #3

License to Frill 

Jon Pertwee, 1970-74

After three years of alternating adventures in science and history with an aged professor, and another three fighting monsters in the company of a scruffy little anarchist, Doctor Who underwent what must be the greatest shift in style and content it has ever seen. In 1970, coinciding with the series’ shift to colour, Doctor Who ceased to be a programme about travels in space and time, and was reinvented as a military action series set in near-future England – in the company of an upper-class dandy agent.

Exiled to Earth, with his knowledge of time travel mechanics supressed and his TARDIS grounded, the Doctor started a new phase of his life. Without travel in time and space an option, the Doctor might as well have been an eccentric human scientist. Thus, after the mostly human seeming first and second Doctors, the third Doctor arrived with a sudden barrel-load of extraterrestrial attributes. Stumbling out of the TARDIS in his predecessor’s ill-fitting clothes, he loses consciousness and is taken to a local hospital, whereby he is examined, revealing twin hearts, an inhuman pulse rate and unrecognisable blood. He even, following an injury, puts himself into a healing coma, a talent that this incarnation will come to use several times in dire straits. As if this alien biology wasn’t enough, the Doctor, always an incorrigible namedropper, takes this habit to new lengths, peppering almost every conversation with stories about Sir Walter Raleigh and Napoleon, just in case anyone forgot he used to be a time traveller.

Despite the blocks on his TARDIS knowledge, our Time Lord hero (we can call him that now) displays a vast knowledge of the universe. After having spent his first two lives blundering into situations and learning most things on the hop, the Doctor now drops sudden insights into Delphon eyebrow-wiggling and the history of the Daemons. This encyclopaedic knowledge of the universe seems to be a Time Lord gift, allowing him access to a great database (we later see the ninth Doctor searching his brain for information in such a fashion). Perhaps this is part of his reintroduction to Time Lord society; in spite of his exile, he seems to have now been linked to his homeworld once more. Could this explain his sudden acquisition of a hitherto unmentioned second heart? Another mystery is the Doctor’s serpent tattoo, displayed during the Doctor’s first ever nude scene in Spearhead from Space. Of course, in reality this is a relic of Jon Pertwee’s time in the navy, but its presence in the series makes one wonder (and rather wonderfully, it’s coiled into a question mark shape). Fan consensus is that it’s a Time Lord criminal brand (an idea introduced later in the New Adventures novel line). It’s a cool idea, although the tattoo looks distinctly faded, as if he’s had it for a while. Could this hint at some kind of earlier existence for the third Doctor? If the ‘Season 6-B) theory is true, who’s to say the Doctor didn’t regenerate before his exile? He has had his memory tampered with, after all…

While Hartnell had begun as part of an ensemble cast, and Troughton had been a strangely mercurial figure on the edges of proceedings, Pertwee’s role was truly one of leading man. Best known for his comedy roles, Pertwee made the decision to play the Doctor dead straight, with only occasional bouts of silliness. The third Doctor is more arrogant than either of his predecessors, self-important and patronising to an aggravating degree. He gets away with it out of sheer charm. Pertwee’s broad smile and charisma make it impossible to find this pompous character annoying, even at his most disagreeable moments. Indeed, it’s a common anecdote from the writing staff during his period on the show that they were instructed to drop a “moment of charm” for the lead actor into each script.

With Doctor Who now 100% an action series, the Doctor was reinvented as an action hero, an agent for a military organisation defending the Earth from extraterrestrial threats. He wastes little time getting in with UNIT, utilising his previous encounters with the Brigadier (in The Web of Fear and The Invasion, which can only be seen as try-outs for this new version of the show) to get a cushie number with access to all the scientific equipment the UN budget would spare. His continual despair at the military approach rings a little hollow because of this, as does his railing against his reduced circumstances. Being stuck in one time and place might be a blow to the Doctor, but by most people’s standards he’s fallen on his feet very nicely.

He’s a peculiar mix, the third Doctor; part secret agent, part eccentric inventor, part gentlemen’s club posh nob, part eco-warrior.  He drops his links to high society into conversation to get his way with the bureaucrats he proclaims to despise, abuses his position in UNIT flagrantly, and quaffs wine and nibbles cheese while harping on about his superior knowledge. Yet he hangs out with the Nuthutch hippy crowd and invariably sides with rebellious groups against organisations not entirely unlike the one he now works for. His position as Scientific Advisor is more down to his society being ahead of our own, than any particular scientific skill on his part; we learn that his degree in Cosmic Science wasn’t too impressive and much later that he scraped by on his last permitted attempt. Still, he’s more than capable of creating miraculous devices from terrestrial technology, and of taking his TARDIS apart and putting it back together, even if this didn’t actually help him get it working again.

The Doctor, always prone to the occasional act of violence, despite his high-minded ideals, now leaps into the fray ready to fight. While he primarily relies on Venusian martial arts (more inexplicably acquired knowledge) he doesn’t shirk from a fist fight, fencing or a quick wrestle. In hand with both his tech-savvy inventiveness and his action man persona is his love of vehicles of all stripes, something that was in fact brought to the part by Pertwee himself. After pinching an antique car in his first adventure, he decides his work for UNIT requires such a vehicle, and acquires Bessie, his speedy retro-styled runabout (not a roadster, whatever it’s often called – a roadster is a two-seater). Over the course of his five years in the role, Pertwee got to travel by hovercraft, motor-tricycle, orbital spacecraft and, um, milk float. Right at the end of his tenure, the actor had his own space age car built, a genuine roadworthy vehicle officially called the Alien but generally known as the ‘Whomobile.’ It could only fly on the telly, though (and the Whomobile actually was a roadster).

The third Doctor’s appearance tells you everything you really need to know about his character, and, once again, was down to the input of Pertwee himself. Both his predecessors had an archaic style to their clothes that hung over into the third Doctor’s outfit, but while the first Doctor was a rather smart, austere figure, and the second was a trampy little scruff, the third was an out-and-out dandy. The third Doctor had elegance and style, his usual outfit consisting of a ruffled shirt, often finished with a cravat or bowtie, a velvet jacket in black or a rich, vivid colour, a cape, smart black trousers and patent leather shoes. It’s a look that not only drew on the Victorian high society, but also late 60s/early 70s fashions. Nonetheless, the action Doctor frequently wore more practical clothes, getting into overalls for spelunking or tinkering with his car, and even getting down to a T-shirt and jeans whilst in the lab in The Silurians. Mind you, by the end of his life, he was wearing dinner dress into the jungles of Spiridon, regardless of the impracticality. Vanity wins out in the end.

The third Doctor’s era introduced numerous elements into the series, including such memorable monsters as the Autons, Silurians, Sea Devils and Sontarans, facets of Time Lord lore such as the stellar engineer Omega and the planet Gallifrey, and all manner of TARDIS technobabble. The core of the series in this period, however, was the Doctor’s relationship with his comrades. To begin with, he had quite a frosty relationship with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, despairing of his military mind and happy to dismiss his ideas. They fell out drastically when the Brig destroyed the Silurian base, but nonetheless were back on decent terms in the following story. The Doctor remained supportive of the Brigadier behind his back, though, and their working relationship developed into a firm friendship over the years. Unfortunately, this was accompanied by the Brig’s gradual decent into idiocy and only Nick Courtney’s wonderful performance saved the character from becoming a complete laughing stock.

The Doctor’s three assistants brought out different elements of his character. Liz Shaw, played by the excellent Caroline John, was an intelligent woman who the Doctor treated as an equal – or at least, as more equal than most humans. A fully qualified scientist of multiple disciplines was more than the Doctor required as his assistant – indeed, the bastard pinched her job as Advisor – and Dr. Shaw left to return to Cambridge. Her replacement was kooky spy-girl Jo Grant, played by the utterly irresistible Katy Manning. Jo is who most people would envisage as the third Doctor’s companion, thanks to Manning’s three years in the role and her great onscreen chemistry with Pertwee. The Doctor’s growing affection for the clumsy girl and her own development into a confident young woman went hand-in-hand, but inevitably led to her leaving him for a man who was, as she put it, “a younger you.” Ouch. We could argue long about the Doctor’s feelings for Jo; but be they romantic or merely paternal, he clearly loved her, and his final story with her, The Green Death, ends with one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the series.

Sarah-Jane Smith - the ever-loved Elisabeth Sladen – began as a passing acquaintance of the Doctor, before becoming a genuine companion figure only at the very end of his third life. She’s something of a challenge for him, an outspoken feminist squaring up to his old-fashioned patriarch. It’s a measure of both their characters that they soon earn each other’s respect. Beyond the core group there was the rest of the UNIT family, the stolidly reliable Benton and the well-meaning but misguided Captain Yates, although the most entertaining relationship for the third Doctor was perhaps with his own former self. The sheer affront on the Doctor’s face when his crumpled younger self turned up was as much Pertwee’s indignation at his predecessor’s coming in and stealing the show.

The most important relationship in Pertwee’s era was, however, between him and the Master. Roger Delgado’s portrayal of the devil-hearted Time Lord was perfectly pitched, a sinister man in black as charismatic and self-assured as the newly interpreted Doctor. Their opposing personalities were perfectly matched; while the Doctor was a very hands-on, action-minded character, the Master preferred to operate from a distance, manipulating others into doing his dirty work. The Doctor displayed some hypnotic abilities, but they were vastly overshadowed by the Master’s. The third Doctor now displayed a greater understanding of the rights of alien life forms – taking time for diplomacy where the second Doctor would have strode in, metaphorical guns blazing. Yet it’s the third Doctor who would use military might when the situation called for it, even personally gunning down an Ogron or two during confrontations. This dichotomy between his actions and his ideals is put into sharp relief by the actions of the Master, who displays no regard for the lives of others, be they human, Gallifreyan or otherwise. The Master is very clearly what the Doctor could have become, had he followed the wrong path. Perhaps this is why they so clearly have such affection for each other, neither ever quite being able to bring himself to finish the other off. Indeed, the Doctor, after his first scuffle with the Master, admits he’s looking forward to seeing him again. Never mind the many bystanders killed in the process, the game is on.

Pertwee’s first season – the show’s seventh – has a gritty, industrial feel with something of a Quatermass flavour. From the eighth season onwards, the show drops this approach and goes glam, embracing a frothier sort of action, replacing Liz with Jo and bringing in the Master as the show’s first regular, recurring villain. Slowly, the restrictive Earth-based format was eased out, with Time Lord missions to Peladon, Solos and Uxarius giving the Doctor the opportunity to stretch his legs on other worlds. Finally, at the beginning of the tenth season, his exile is rescinded, allowing him to travel in time and space freely once more. With his time travel knowledge restored, and the TARDIS now thoroughly studied, the random wanderings of old are gone, and the Doctor now travels where he wishes. After all his pining to get back on the road, it’s ironic that, once given the chance, he can’t break away from Earth. He continually returns, hanging out at UNIT and using their facilities, going on dates with the Brigadier and organising little trips with Sarah.

It’s in his final story, Planet of the Spiders, that the Pertwee era comes to a head. all the elements we’ve come to expect are there, from comedy yokels to unnecessary chase scenes. The Doctor is back at UNIT, using his lab to conduct experiments into human psychic abilities, seemingly just as a hobby. He ends up getting an innocent man killed during his experiments, something that is not entirely his fault but remains his responsibility. Facing his old mentor – the abbot K’anpo, once a hermit on Gallifrey – the Doctor comes to accept that his thirst for knowledge is a dangerous vice. While he faces his fear, con fronting the Spiders of Metebelis III at the risk of his own life, it can’t be said that he actually learns to let go of this hunger; indeed, his successor is perhaps more guilty than he is (more on that later, of course). Saturated by radiation, the Doctor arrives back on Earth after weeks missing; “the TARDIS brought me home,” he says, rather tellingly. Regardless of what K’anpo says, the Doctor dies here, his body destroyed. Thankfully, his particularly powerful Time Lord mentor is on hand to help out. We learn that the Doctor’s transformations were acts of regeneration – as much a spiritual term as a biological one – and that it’s something that all Time Lords can do. Thus, the Doctor’s third change, but his first explicit regeneration, leads the series into yet another new era.

No comments:

Post a Comment