Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Best of Doctor Who: The Third Doctor

Ah, now we're getting somewhere. It's 1970, Doctor Who goes colour and Jon Pertwee takes the reins and to cap it all I'm born! (Three days before the first episode of The Ambassador's of Death to be precise).

Its difficult to know what the BBC thought they were getting when they signed up Pertwee, a comedy actor who'd had bit parts in Carry On films? Probably not the dandy action man they actually got anyway.

The Pertwee years pretty much exactly coincide with height of Glam Rock and Ted Heath's government. There is certainly a touch of glam to the debonair Third Doctor and his frequently patronising attitude makes him a bit of a Tory too.

Then there are the obsessions of the era. Five stories concern energy sources (The Silurians, Inferno, Claws of Axos, The Three Doctors, The Green Death, The Monster of Peladon), three are about nuclear war or domesday weapons (The Colony in Space, The Mind of Evil, Day of the Daleks) and two are about environmentalists (The Dinosaur Invasion, The Green Death).

As Pertwee is one favourite Whos though, the honourable mentions are going to be quite long, so lets crank up Bessie, reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, and get on with it.

Firstly there's the debut story itself, Spearhead from Space, which gave us the Autons and the classic scene of the dummies gunning down hapless shoppers. UNIT get their colour debut to and whilst the Brigadier's gang often appear to have been reduced to little more than a flag party and have lost their sixties gizmo's, they do contribute to a significant amount of gun play and enjoyable mayhem for the rest of the Third Doctor's tenure.

The first season also ends with a cracker too in Inferno, which features the destruction of a parallel earth and a baddy Brigadier. Overlong and overrated, with the ubiquitous green goo, it's still good, as long as you don't expect it to be the greatest Who ever, which some people will claim.

The next season saw the arrival of The Master, played by the late and great Roger Delgado. Horrendously overused, he started well with Terror of the Autons and the series also contains The Daemons, a story of witchcraft and devilry in an English village which scores ten out of ten for atmosphere, but loses all its points for a silly plot and a useless Doctor.

Once the Third Doctor actually gets to leave earth we have enjoyable romp in The Carnival of Monsters. In terms of fun this could be the best-of-Pertwee. The one down side was the useless Drashigs. Writer Robert Holmes apparently suspected they'd look awful, so made their name ana nagram of dishrags.

Another favourite of mine is The Day of the Daleks, the first story that actually uses time travel as plot device. Hard to believe it took them ten years to use time travel in a story about a time traveller isn't it? A tale of Freedom Fighters from the future trying to change history whilst being hunted by time travelling cyborgs, it does sound a little like a certain Arnie movie doesn't it?

If we were allowed to include Special Editions in this list it might well be a winner. The new effects make the Dalek controlled future look like Blade Runner and give the U.N.IT. versus Dalek fight at the end a suitably epic feel.

It's also quite progressive. This Doctor's reign almost exactly corresponded with Ted Heath's stay in Downing Street and, despite producer Barry Letts being a communist, the Third Doctor didn't spend a lot of time hanging around with the proles. Here though, whilst Jo falls for the propaganda of the Controller, the Doctor diagnoses a very sick future society just by observing the conditions of the workers.

Also the metal dustbins are kept very much in the background until the end, which works. The sink plungers from Skaro were always more effective in the imagination than reality.

Other Pertwee Dalek stories were less good. Planet of the Daleks is a rehash of the original Daleks story, although better made, and Death To The Daleks is an uninspiring H Rider Haggard rip.

Then there's The Three Doctors. Not much to write home about in many ways, but worth while to see Troughton and Pertwee playfully sending each other up and Hartnell's last TV appearance - filmed in his garage as he was too ill to get to the studio. Sad to think that all three are no no longer with us.

Another honourable mention must go to The Time Warrior, which introduced those root-vegetable clones, the Sontarans and the late Liz Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith in a passable medieval yarn.

A better Sarah Jane story though is The Dinosaur Invasion. Now mostly remembered for the lamentable condition of the titular sauropods, it is a good story with some well meaning, but very sinister, eco-utopians as the real villains. Never trust a hippy indeed. Not bad, but you're better off reading the book.

So what the top Pertwee story then? Well it was almost The Curse of Peladon, the story of a primitive planet petitioning to join the swanky Galactic Federation, which by complete coincidence came out just as Heath was trying to get us into the Common Market. Here we have Jo Grant not being completely useless for a change and the plot twist of the Ice Warriors now being goodies.

However for the award of best-of-Pertwee we have to have an earth bound adventure. It also needs to be from his first series, as the Third Doctor, and the series generally, was never again so gritty and serious.

When I first put this post up the winner was  The Silurians, and not just because it's set in Derbyshire. The idea of aliens who have been here all along, and who probably have a better claim on the earth than we do, was a startlingly original one. It's also done really well.

Production values are pretty good and whilst the papermache Allosaurus is a bit of an embarrassment - they had a bit of a problem with dinosaurs in the Pertwee years - the underground base and the caves are greats sets and scenes of the epidemic outbreak at railway station are frighteningly realistic.

There are some familiar faces in the cast including Avon from Blake's Seven as a UNIT officer, Mackay from Porridge as a scientist and Geoffrey Palmer as an administrator.

It's main strength though is Malcolm Hulke's multi layered script. Both factions, the Silurians and the humans, are split into hawks and doves, but unlike in the New Series, they aren't caricatured as good and bad. Major Baker, the leading human hawk, turns out to be genuinely brave man whilst his opposite numbers in the reptile camp are eventually proved right when the Brigadier blows up their caves and wipes them all out.

Written whilst the National Front and the Black Panthers where in the news, this is remarkably even handed and grown up stuff, a million miles from the simplistic "Racism's bad, m'kay?" approach of RTD in the New Series. Instead Hulke created a genuine moral dilemma, with no easy answers.

But then I changed my mind.

True, Silurians is great, but it's not really exciting enough for six episodes and whilst the dark ending is certainly startling, some of the effect is lost when the Doctor turns up working for the Brigadier again next week. What's a little genocide between friends, eh?

That aside though the next story really is one of the best.

The Ambassadors of Death is also very long, but punctuates its three hour running time with so many battles, chases and punch ups that you don't really notice.

Liz Shaw, the first female companion with something other than cotton wool between her ears, gets both to be clever and menaced by a couple hoods in a Ford Capri.

The Brigadier, meanwhile, is far from being the Colonel Blimp he later turns into. A one man killing machine he bumps off at least half a dozen baddies personally with a variety of weapons and none at all. He is also on the ball for a change, both doing what the Doctor says and even finding out a few things for himself, but at the end the Brigadier is happy to let the Doctor sort things out in his own non-violent way. This is the way the Doc and the Brig should always work together.

The aliens-in-space-suits were so effective that Steven Moffat stole the idea for Silence in the Library. The special effects are pretty good for the time too. The space scenes were reused for an abortive series called Moonbase 3 and with a Hammond organ standing in for The Blue Danube in the 2001-style docking scene is a great touch of irony.

The idea of monsters who aren't actually villains is also pretty neat. That a whole galaxy of space faring baddies was queueing up to invade early seventies Britain was one of the least plausible concepts of this period, so it's reassuring to know this lot were really just visiting.

So all told this wasn't bad for my first Who. Strange to think though that I was born into a world where the BBC could put out a show which featured the a British Mars Mission.

What happened to those dreams?

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