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Tansy Rayner Roberts

A Modern Woman’s Guide To Classic Who: THE THIRD DOCTOR YEARS (1970-1974)

December 28th, 2010 at 15:25

Summary: Doctor Who is in COLOUR! Also, there are no more missing stories from now on, despite the BBC’s best efforts, though several are only available as black and white prints.

The Third Doctor’s era is in many ways more comparable to other 70’s adventure shows like The New Avengers than to prior incarnations of Doctor Who. He drives a vintage car, practices Venusian aikido, hooks up with military outfit UNIT in order to stop alien invasions, and waggles his eyebrows. I adore him, but this does tend to be a love-him-or-hate-him Doctor. Which is true of all of them, I suppose…

Jon Pertwee was known far and wide as a comic actor, and while he brings great moments of comedy to the part, his strength as a Doctor is that he mostly plays it absolutely straight, something made all the more impressive when you pay attention to the absolute gobbledegook he was often required to say. Most people’s description of him revolves around his appearance: the ruffled shirts, velvet coats and other dandy fashions, or his height and shock of white curly hair, but once you start paying attention you realise that for this accomplished radio performer, his Doctor was all about the voice. Sure, the Drashigs may be glorified sock puppets with teeth, but when he says ‘Drashig’ in That Voice, there’s a world of history and horror in his tone that makes you believe.

Things You Need To Know: In the War Games, the Doctor was put on trial by his own people for meddling in the affairs of lesser races. As punishment, he had his knowledge of time technology erased from his mind, and was sent into exile on Earth with a broken TARDIS. So naturally he spends the next several years interfering with lesser races. Time Lords really don’t think things through, do they?

The majority of this era are contemporary stories, with mad science or aliens added. In the last two years of the five year run, the Doctor earned back his knowledge and freedom, and while much comedy was taken from his thwarted attempts to take his companions to specific times and places, he still had far more control of the TARDIS than previously seen – it might take him three goes to get back to UNIT HQ, but he would get there eventually! Still, it was contemporaries that ruled the day – UNIT stories were supposedly set a little in the future, though this is rarely evident apart from all those rampaging alien invaders and extra British space missions.

The sonic screwdriver is front and centre, as is the Doctor’s yellow roadster Bessie.

The Companions: This is where it gets awesome! The Third Doctor is accompanied by three excellent and interesting women, each of whom have something unique to contribute to the show.

Dr Liz Shaw (Caroline John): with apologies to Zoe, Liz was the first companion who really came close to being an equal to the Doctor – as a fellow scientist, she was more of a partner to him than a helper. He still acts superior to her, of course, but considering that a large chunk of his superior knowledge has been erased, his reach far exceeds his grasp, which leads to some good comedy moments. On the whole, the trio that is the Third Doctor, Liz and the Brigadier was very promising, even if they only had four stories with which to work. The official story is that the production team gave Liz the chop because her smarts got in the way of explaining the tricky stuff to a dimwitted audience – she and the Doctor would natter happily away about particle physics instead of her saying ‘what’s happening, Doctor?’ Which is silly, really, because saying ‘what’s happening, Doctor?’ was totally the Brigadier’s job.

Jo Grant (Katy Manning): the most iconic of the Third Doctor’s companions, she was sweeter and ditzier than Liz, though still very cute and with a great sense of adventure. An espionage graduate with a habit of bumping into things and causing havoc, her best talent was escapology, which was handy because she and the Doctor were constantly getting locked up, tied up or both. Luckily for her, the Doctor’s exile was rescinded in her final season as companion, which meant that she got to travel in time and space as well as having adventures on Earth. Jo developed ongoing relationships with many other characters as well as the Doctor, thanks largely to the format of the show at this time, and was friendly with the Brigadier, Benton, Mike Yakes and even to some extent, the Doctor’s “best enemy” the Master. This era is often referred to as the UNIT family, because of the way the ensemble supporting cast was used.

Jo is in many ways the template of the modern companion – especially in her final story, The Green Death, where she not only gets one of the most credible romances of Classic Who, but gets enough character development that we can see why she chooses to leave the Doctor’s side: not just because of dishy Cliff, but also because she has grown into her adult self and her priorities are shifting away from her role as companion. It’s worth noting this because companion leaving stories are one aspect of New Who that have been consistently mishandled, despite the extra focus on characterisation and family context that we get in the new show – it feels at times as if the writers can’t imagine companions wanting to leave the Doctor under ordinary circumstances, and so have to create some giant life-changing drama out of it.

Replacing Katy Manning’s Jo would have been a daunting task for the production team, possibly on par with the modern team trying to find a replacement for Rose. Luckily for Barry Letts and his crew, the perfect actress crossed their path, to present a character who would not only be a huge contrast to cute, funny Jo, but would herself come to represent the quintessential Doctor Who Companion…

That’s right, we’re talking about Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). Though she only had one season of five stories with the Third Doctor, she would go on to be one of the most longstanding companions with the Fourth, and later be the first Classic character to be reintroduced to New Who, as well as getting her own kids TV spin off show at the ripe old age of 60. Sarah was introduced as a far pricklier, more independent character than Jo, and while she later did her fair share of sailing around saying ‘what’s happening, Doctor?’ and screaming, her first story is one of her best. In The Time Warrior we are introduced to her as a journalist trying to investigate missing scientists by stealing her aunt’s identity, and even after she has accidentally stowed away in the Doctor’s TARDIS and ended up in a real medieval castle, she is convinced for some time that he is the villain, and tries to stir up a revolt against him. Bonus awesome points for the moment that she tries to introduce feminist concepts to a kitchen full of women. “You’re all living in the Middle Ages!”

Another of those much-maligned stories by fans which I personally adore is the Third Doctor’s last adventure, Planet of the Spiders. Sarah Jane is as strong here as she was in her introduction (conventional fan wisdom, I think inspired by comments by Sladen herself, is that Sarah was never again allowed to be as feminist and independent as in her first stories, which is partly if not wholly true) and I love that it is made clear that she continues with her career as a journalist despite occasionally flitting around planets with the Doctor.

The UNIT family of course does not consist of just the Doctor and the women who pass him test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is (an actual quote, there). We also have the men who play the supporting cast: The Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), Sgt Benton (John Levene), Lt. Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) and the Master (Roger Delgado).

The Brigadier gives the Third Doctor a laboratory and the title of UNIT’s scientific adviser during his exile – theirs is often portrayed as a prickly relationship with the Brigadier being pompous and wanting to blow all the aliens up, and the Doctor being pompous and wanting to create peace between humans and aliens, but to be honest the Brig is pretty accommodating of the Doctor’s foibles and the Doctor is not averse to blowing things up himself.

Benton makes the tea. He’s a cutie pie. Mike Yates is the rather dull officer who suddenly gets a plot arc in the final year, beginning with a stint undercover in the Green Death, moving through betrayal of UNIT in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and a redemption of sorts in Planet of the Spiders.

The Master is worth mentioning as well, an important character introduced here in Terror of the Autons as a member of the Doctor’s race and his best enemy. Played brilliantly by Roger Delgado, this villain became a regular staple of the UNIT family years, regularly being captured and escaping in order to villainate for another day. It’s possibly true that he was overused, but considering that the actor was to die quite tragically within a couple of years, I’m rather glad we got as much Master action as we did. The character of course was regenerated over the years and there have been many splendid Masters, especially those played by Anthony Ainley, Derek Jacobi and John Simm, but Roger Delgado is the reason the character was iconic enough to bother bringing back. Suave, intelligent, and so evil it hurts. Even when his plot was ridiculous, he rose above it with grace and style.

Feminist Heroes: Liz Shaw, Sarah Jane Smith

Best Stories To Watch:

Title: Spearhead From Space [1970]
Featuring: the Third Doctor, Liz Shaw, the Brigadier and Benton, Autons!
Why Watch: Shot on film because of strike action, this is probably one of the best looking of any Classic Who stories. Jon Pertwee’s debut as the Doctor shows off exactly what his performance will entail: comedy, action, gravity and mad science. Liz and the Brigadier are introduced strongly, and there’s a great new villain in the form of the Autons and the Nestene consciousness. This story is a lesson in how to reboot Doctor Who for the next generation of viewers, and it’s fascinating to see what RTD and Steven Moffat took from it.
Category: Contemporary, Mad Science
If You Like This You May Like: Inferno, a brilliant and high tension parallel world story, which works best if you’re more familiar with the regular cast already. I also very much like The Silurians, which introduces you-know-who, has a guest appearance by Paul Darrow, and shows the conflict between the Brigadier’s world view and that of the Doctor at its most effective.

Title: The Green Death [1973]
Featuring: the Third Doctor, Jo Grant, Brigadier, Benton, Mike Yates,
Why Watch: This is probably the most emotionally satisfying of the Classic Who stories – while it may be odd to recommend the last Jo Grant story as her best, it’s one which works on many levels, with a great mix of romance, banter, action, tragedy, environmental politics and evil computers. Not only does Jo get her coming of age story, but we also see the Doctor at his madcap best, and the subplot of having to deal with Jo growing up and away from him, and characters like the Brigadier also have some excellent scenes. Plus, um, it’s the one with the giant maggots. Also I defy you to not have a tear in your eye in the final scene.
Or Not: If you have a phobia about maggots, this isn’t the one for you. Because of the giant maggots. Also there’s a prop of a giant fly which… let’s face it, the story is improved if you close your eyes during that part.
Category: Contemporary, Mad Science
If You Like This You May Like: The Three Doctors, Carnival of Monsters

Title: The Time Warrior [1973-4]
Featuring: The Third Doctor, the Brigadier, Sarah Jane Smith, Sontarans… well, a Sontaran
Why Watch: A great script and a great introduction of one of the most legendary Doctor Who companions. After the darling luvviness of the Third Doctor’s relationship with Jo, it’s a nice change to have a companion who (like Jo) was a bit more challenging of how wonderful he was… cough, a bit more of that would have worked with Martha, you know… and when Sarah does finally figure out that the Doctor is the good guy, they feel a lot more like allies than like a doting assistant and brilliant professor. Also the plot about an alien warrior crashing in medieval England and trying to screw with their society works very effectively, and the script is full of excellent dialogue.
Category: Contemporary, Historical AND Mad Science
If You Like This You May Like: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (apart from the dinosaurs), Planet of the Spiders (YES I LOVE IT I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY)


Honorable Mentions:
Terror of the Autons, The Sea Devils and The Daemons are probably the best Master stories, and represent the UNIT family era very respectably. Day of the Daleks is a marvellous time travel paradox story which ties into the future where Daleks have invaded the Earth.

Previous Posts:
INTRODUCTION
THE FIRST DOCTOR YEARS 1963-1966
THE SECOND DOCTOR YEARS: 1966-1969

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3 Responses to “A Modern Woman’s Guide To Classic Who: THE THIRD DOCTOR YEARS (1970-1974)”

  1. Tweets that mention a modern woman's guide to classic who: the third doctor years 1970-1974 -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Alex Says:

    I adore John Pertwee so, so much. I don’t remember much of him, to be honest, specifically, but gosh I loved him.

  3. tansyrr Says:

    He definitely benefits from a rewatch.

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