This is a post in the Tor.com Twelve Doctors of Christmas series. Click the link to peruse the entire series.
The Third Doctor is the one who was exiled on Earth during the 1970s (well, it’s not necessarily the fictional 1970s, but let’s not get into the briar patch of dating those stories). He strikes me as having adapted to his new planet, a character like John Steed in The Avengers or Adam Adamant, an authority figure (he can cow civil servants by mentioning encountering their boss at the club) who’s also a cool boho dandy. When those shirts of his were originally fashionable, they were the costume of the gentry. At the time of transmission, they were the uniform of the counterculture. On Jon Pertwee, they’re both.
This duality manifests itself in how, at one moment, he’s chiding his military liaison the Brigadier for his lack of intelligence, and at the other, chiding his companion Jo for not obeying her superior officer. At the very start of his era, he’s framed as a selfish, petulant child, with the Brigadier and scientist Liz Shaw his (flirting with each other) parents. That slight step back from authority was in line with previous interpretations of the part. But he swiftly moves forward in the format, taking the spotlight from Liz completely and becoming caustic/brotherly mates with “the Brig.” (He seems to name his “sprightly yellow roadster”—and look how much Terrance Dicks has picked into that description—after Liz, in a way which these days might constitute sexual harassment, but she never seems to notice.) The next companion, Jo Grant, is framed as his daughter/disciple rather than his keeper. But that childish streak remains, and excuses the greatest excesses of his rudeness: he’s frustrated like a toddler in a playpen at being stuck on Earth.
When the Third Doctor meets an alien, he extends a lace-cuffed hand to it, insisting to those around him that we must treat it as an equal, no matter how weird it is, while at the same time winking at the audience at how absurd the encounter is. That condescension to the norms of the mainstream audience is exactly how Roger Moore’s James Bond might approach, for example, an exotic banquet.
These dualities in the character perhaps stem from the two men in charge of the show at this point: meat and potatoes genius storyteller Terrance Dicks (the script editor), always a man of the people, and pacifist, Buddhist, intellectual Barry Letts (the producer), always looking to liberalism. These old friends allowed Jon Pertwee, an actor who’d previously hidden everything about his own personality behind silly voices, to pick and choose what he wanted to be, from across the political and social spectrum. He thus encounters the cosmic and spiritual like a hippie lord who lets the travelers stay on his estate. When Sarah Jane Smith arrives, she’s consciously framed as a feminist (“women’s lib”) character, which he seems to think is only right, and, simultaneously, a bit much, really.
Pertwee is a tremendous lead, convincing us, as all good Doctors have to, of the seriousness of everything around him, but always ready with a funny voice or (as Terrance Dicks insisted on), a “moment of charm.” The character gains the actor’s fondness for cars and tall stories. He’s the first Doctor for whom name dropping historical figures seems to be a game (and a social weapon) rather than just a statement of fact. He does in miniature what all Doctor Who does: reduces technobabble to a handful of magic phrases, delivered with a snap and verve that dares us to contradict him. He is the only Doctor to manifest the skills of “Venusian Aikido,” which generally involves him yelling “hai!,” striking poses, and sending stuntmen flying. After which he often apologises for the use of violence. He’s also one of a few Doctors who’ll grab a gun and shoot a monster dead. (No apologies for disintegrated Ogrons.) He is too dignified to run convincingly, but oh, he can saunter. He towers above the Daleks, who are not at their best in his era, and the actor has no interest in assigning added presence to them: he’s the star of this picture.
When it’s time for him to leave, the Third Doctor, wonderfully, enacts a Buddhist parable, as he faces his own fear, goes inside the mountain to confront the demons of ego, and stumbles out of a TARDIS which has found its way, gorgeously, to Earth, his former prison, which he now calls “home.” The regeneration is aided by your actual Buddhist sage/Time Lord. All this mystical stuff means that the Brigadier has to come on, rather like Graeme Chapman’s military man in Monty Python, to bring things literally down to Earth, and preserve the balance of this wonderful period in the show’s history, by muttering “here we go again.”
The next Doctor kept the enormous audience that this version of the show had gathered, kept the presence and authority, but thumbed his nose at the establishment and at Earth. Regeneration means that Doctor Who can always be right for its times. Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, in his time, was the zeitgeist.
Paul Cornell is a noted novelist, comic book writer, screenwriter, and all around clever gent, but Doctor Who fans will know him best as the writer of the Hugo-nominated new series episodes, “Father’s Day,” “Human Nature,” and “The Family of Blood.” More dedicated Who fans will also be familiar with Paul’s extensive bibliography with Big Finish and as the creator of popular spin-off companion Bernice Summerfield.