Growing up in the ’90s, Doctor Who wasn’t really a thing. Following the sci-fi show’s cancellation in 1989, there was a 16-year period – aside from a one-off television movie in 1996 that failed to resurge the series as a whole – where traveling through time and space in a little blue box was non-existent. And yet during this time, at the young age of six, I was first introduced to a mysterious man with a bouffant hairstyle, velvet jacket, and a thrill for adventure.
This was Jon Pertwee. The once-circus performer and Royal Navy member (who reported directly to Winston Churchill during the Second World War), before later turning to the world of acting, made his debut as the Time Lord in January 1970’s Spearhead from Space. Taking on the Autons, life-sized plastic dummies animated by an alien Nestene Consciousness, it didn’t take long for the 50-year-old to make his mark.
Death to the Daleks, a four-part adventure with Sarah Jane (played by the wonderful Elisabeth Sladen), is one of the earliest memories from my childhood. In many ways, it’s a story indicative of the show’s lasting charm. We have the Doctor’s greatest foe in the Daleks, one of the most loved companions in Sarah Jane, and the terrifying Exxilons that contributed to the “hiding behind the sofa” phenomenon that scared children for decades. We even have the Root, a snake-like creature whose schlocky effects answer the question of what would happen if your Dyson hoover went rogue.
Above all else, we have the Doctor, who was now stranded on an unknown planet with the TARDIS drained of all its power, unafraid to venture into the dark to find a solution. Maybe it was Pertwee’s confident demeanor or the way he remained cool whenever the most evil of threats were presented, but I instantly felt safe. Uttering phrases like “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” this window into a galactic world like no other has fascinated me ever since.
Playing the role for almost four-and-a-half years, Pertwee ushered Doctor Who into the age of color television, accompanied by his commanding authority, love of flamboyant clothing and wild tech like the wacky Whomobile, dear devotion to his companions, as well as his willingness to get involved with daring action that all helped take the show to the next level. Having previously been known as a comedy actor, this was a drastic change for Pertwee – one the London-born actor thrived at.
While the likes of David Tennant, Tom Baker, Matt Smith, Patrick Troughton, and the many other interpretations of the Time Lord have all heightened why Doctor Who is such a special show, Jon Pertwee is the one that I keep coming back to time and time again. Most notably, due to budget cuts at the BBC, this Doctor was exiled to Earth, giving us the first real chance to see how the character dealt with being cut off from the wider universe. It was one Pertwee excelled at, acting as scientific advisor for UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) as the Earth increasingly came into contact with extraterrestrials.
Frequently caught in the crossfire between humans and whatever alien life came knocking, this was a Doctor who often played the role of diplomat to ensure minimal casualties. Even if that didn’t always come to fruition, Pertwee’s straight-edged approach helped convey a greater power than we’d seen previously, resulting in a Doctor who was willing to thrust himself into danger if it resulted in a better outcome. This was further complimented by rare playful moments, like singing an aria from Rigoletto in the episode Inferno or eating a sandwich halfway through a duel with The Master in The Sea Devils.
Speaking of which, Pertwee’s encounters with Roger Delgado’s outstanding performance as the character’s own Moriarty, is now a thing of legend. The chemistry between the two of them has yet to be matched to this day, regularly exchanging blows and constantly looking to one-up one another. In spite of that, there was an air of respect shared. Following their first clash in Terror of the Autons – which results in the death of thousands – the Doctor begrudgingly admits that he’s “rather looking forward” to their next meeting. This dynamic brought out the best in Pertwee, allowing his straight-man approach to be pushed in different directions to see the best and worst in both humanity and his own race.
Similarly, the back-and-forth between the Doctor and Brigadier (head of UNIT) works marvelously. Considering one is a military man and one looks to avoid bloodshed wherever possible, the coming together of these two opposite views made for delightful viewing.
On the other side of this, we have the companions: Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, and the aforementioned Sarah Jane Smith, who were all brilliant in their own ways. Liz, a scientific advisor whose short-stint only lasted one season, was the first to prove they could hold their own against the Doctor. Sarah Jane, meanwhile, is considered continuously by Doctor Who lovers as a fan-favorite companion – and rightly so! Again only spending one season with this Doctor, the investigative journalist always asked the right questions at the right time, offering an inquisitive mind to bounce ideas off the Doctor.
Overall, Katy Manning’s portrayal of Jo stands out – likely due to the character being with the Third Doctor for three out of five seasons. Lighthearted and loveable, no companion could chisel away the armor to the character’s heart better, often resulting in Pertwee grinning like a Cheshire cat. The pair’s friendship on and off screen was as plain as daylight for all to see.
It’s then in Jo’s last episode, The Green Death, when the Doctor slips out the back of a party physically unable to say goodbye that we see just how good of an actor Pertwee is. No yelling. No screaming. No tears. Just a quiet subtle exit as he drives across the hills of South Wales. It’s beautifully understated, remaining one of the best scenes in the show.
The statesman-like performance given across 128 episodes is naturally helped by the quality of the writing. If it’s not debating ideologies with an ancient alien demon that resembles the devil in The Dæmons, it’s stopping a Sontaron from accelerating history in The Time Warrior or even brokering peace between man and lizard in The Silurians. Without a strong leading man in Pertwee, none of these superb stories work.
The Third Doctor is smart, suave, and sometimes stubborn, nevertheless, always willing to risk his life to do the right thing. It’s these traits that help the character to feel more human than ever – in addition to taking on a human name in John Smith – while also embodying exactly what makes the Doctor so heroic.
The best example of this is in Planet of the Daleks where the Time Lord solemnly shares some advice to a fellow captive: “Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened, you know. It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.” Few lines represent what the Doctor stands for greater than this, something that Pertwee embodied best 50 years ago, and which has still yet to be surpassed.
You can stream Pertwee’s Doctor Who episodes and other classic seasons on BritBox.
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