The Power of Three: Pertwee Is the Best

The twelfth Doctor might be “revisiting an old favorite.”

photo: comparison of young Jon Pertwee and Arthur Darvill
Did the Time Lords base the third Doctor’s face on Rory Williams?

Jon Pertwee is my favorite Doctor (1970–1974). His performance was fueled with 50 years of life experience. As a Naval Intelligence officer in WWII (along with Ian Fleming), Jon reported directly to Winston Churchill:

“I did all sorts of incredible things. Teaching commandos how to use escapology equipment, compasses in brass buttons, secret maps in white cotton handkerchiefs, pipes you could smoke that also fired a .22 bullet.”

The third Doctor reflected Jon’s love of gadgets. Exiled on Earth by the Time Lords, he passed the timey-wimey building new technology. This aspect has been picked up by new Doctors 10 (the machine that goes “DING!”), 11 (constant TARDIS repairs) and 12 (hacked technology in “The Caretaker“). The Doctor’s favorite working project was the canary-yellow Edwardian roadster “Bessie.” Based on a 1940s Ford Popular chassis, Bessie was the perfect replacement for his TARDIS (itself a junker when he stole it).

FYI: Jon started acting after the war, eventually appearing in Will Any Gentleman…? with William Hartnell in 1953.

In spite of the magician’s outfit he wore as a joke, Pertwee insisted on portraying the role more seriously than his immediate predecessor Patrick Troughton (who left the show with co-stars and main production team). He wanted his Doctor to be a heroic, charming and technically savvy man of action…sort of a middle-aged James Bond.

Partners in Crime

Jon Pertwee as the Doctor (Spearhead from Space)
Can’t get away: The Doctor discovers his TARDIS is broken in “Spearhead from Space”

This Doctor empowered his companions. As scientific lead of UNIT, Liz Shaw was initially skeptical of his alien origins. He charmed her with his technical abilities (and his mischievous attempt to escape with a disabled TARDIS) in “Spearhead from Space.” Comparatively, Jo Grant was a bimbo who wore a satin choker when introducing herself as his new assistant in “Terror of the Autons.” Her character grew; she was talking the Doctor out of dumb ideas by “Carnival of Monsters.” Sarah Jane Smith was even more skeptical, leading a guerrilla attack against a medieval-Sontaran alliance in “The Time Warrior.”

His relationship with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart developed as well. Stuck on Earth against his will, the Doctor childishly lashed out on the Brig. Played brilliantly by Nicholas Courtney, he endured the Doctor’s tantrums with unflappable grace. This run was the foundation of their friendship for future regenerations.

The Next Doctor

Perhaps the exile (the longest time he’s had to stay in one place until reboot episodes “The Power of Three” and “Time of the Doctor“) cemented the Doctor’s love of humanity. In “The Ark in Space”, the fourth Doctor says “It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species.” Why does he go through extreme measures to save Earth? I think he wants to keep us alive long enough to realize our potential.

photo: Roger Delgado and John Simm as the Master
The Master Degenerated (in my humble opinion): Roger Delgado, John Simm

Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor was my favorite since 1980 (David Tennant was a close second). Watching Jon Pertwee in “The Three Doctors” changed that. Pertwee fans would think Tom Baker was too young and goofy. Roger Delgado‘s performance as the Master in “Mind of Evil“, “Terror of the Autons” and “The Sea Devils” ruined John Simm’s Master for me (Derek Jacobi’s performance at the end of “Utopia” came close to the old Master).

This era had its silly moments. By today’s standards, a 55-year-old hero flipping stunt men half his age with Venusian Aikido is as hilarious as Captain Kirk’s fake judo on Star Trek. The Bug-eyed monsters and special effects make suspension of disbelief almost impossible. For a wholesome BBC kid’s show with no budget, Doctor Who is extraordinarily well written and conceived. Tom Baker’s madman antics won me over as an 18-year-old discovering the show from Starlog magazine. As a middle-aged man today, Jon Pertwee is the best.

Best of the Best

Presented in order of original broadcast:

Spearhead From Space
This is the debut of the third Doctor, Liz Shaw, the Autons, UNIT as a regular character, and first episode shown in color. Having no memory of his forced regeneration and exile, he stops Nestene fron conquering Earth with Autons. The plot inspired “Rose,” first episode of the 2005 reboot.
A drilling project called Inferno digs through the Earth’s crust to get energy. Inferno’s director chooses production over safety, with catastrophic consequences. The serial drags on for 7 episodes, but the parallell universe the Doctor gets thrown into is gold. Nicholas Courtney gets to play a heroic and fascist Brigadier.
Terror of the Autons
The Nestene Consciousness makes their second attempt at invading Earth with Autons. This series debuts the Master (played brilliantly by Roger Delgado) and Jo Grant as the Doctor’s new companion.
The Mind of Evil
The Doctor encounters a prison reform technique inspired by A Clockwork Orange. He speaks Chinese in one scene, first time using an Earth language other than English (with subtitles). The cast is brilliant, but Roger Delgado steals the show as the Master.
The Three Doctors
In this first ever multi-Doctor story, the Time Lords unite the Doctors against Omega’s anti-matter plot to destroy the universe. The real pleasure is the chemistry between Troughton and Pertwee. It’s also the first use of “Oh, you redecorated. I don’t like it.” William Hartnell was too weak to stand at this point, but still managed to slam his future selves “a dandy and a clown.”
Carnival Of Monsters
The Doctor’s trapped in a miniature carnival of aliens, and characters are trapped in an endless loop of their own actions. First episode of a shrunken TARDIS (followed up by “Logopolis” and “Flatline“), first performance by Ian Marter (future Harry Sullivan), and the Time Lords end the Doctor’s exile to Earth. Everything before the Bug-eyed monsters appear is fantastic.
The Green Death
The environmentalist/anti-corporate themes are a bit rushed and underdeveloped, but Jon got to flex his comedy chops with a variety of disguises and funny voices. The serial ends with Jo Grant leaving the Doctor for Professor Jones. He looks as heartbroken at her engagement party as David Tennant explaining his lost companions at the end of “The Next Doctor.”
The Time Warrior
A lone Sontaran warrior, seeking to repair his space ship and leave Earth of the Middle Ages, gives advanced weapons to bandits. This introduces Sontarans (who are more terrifying and sadistic than in modern episodes), Sarah Jane Smith (who mistakenly thinks the Doctor is part of the Sontaran plot, organizes a guerilla attack) and the name of the Doctor’s home planet Gallifrey.
Planet Of The Spiders
The final Jon Pertwee story. There’s a lot of filler in this 6-episode story, but it wraps up a few loose ends (the blue crystal he stole from Metebelis Three in “The Green Death”). It also introduces Buddhist themes and the term “regeneration.” Sarah Jane Smith is a brilliant companion, and the Doctor shows his finest character traits…even while facing his own death.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Three: Pertwee Is the Best

  1. Great article. I started watching DW properly in 2006 (David Tennant is my Doctor) and I’ve been gradually making my way through all the classic episodes. I think the Pertwee years are by far the best and the only era that I’ve wanted to watch again and again. Roger Delgado is fantastic, he just steals the show in every episode he’s in. And I love the UNIT team!

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