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Classic Doctor Who: The Third Doctor’s Essential Episodes

This is where things start getting tricky. After two seasons truncated by ruthless purges of the historical record, the Third Doctor is missing nary and episode—and, hey, he’s in color! (Though some of it is restored color, from black and white prints for export to countries that didn’t yet have the more advanced technology.) What this means for the purposes of this exercise is that distilling down his many adventures into a mere five essentials is… well, it’s damned hard.

Nevertheless, here I dare to make the bold declaration that the following fives serials are simply indispensible to the new Who viewer. Oh, sure, I would have loved to have counted The Carnival of Monsters in here, since it is hugely fun and I love it. Ditto Inferno (alternate universe!), and Mind of Evil (alien emotion-sucker/prison reform allegory!) and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (this one’s pretty self-explanatory). But when it comes to essentials, and bearing in mind the five episode limit under which I currently labor, these really are the definitive and utterly necessary stories of the Third Doctor’s sovereignty.

I should probably make it clear here, by the way, that the Third Doctor is my doctor, for while he had departed the role some time before I was born, the vagaries of Australian broadcasting meant that his episodes were airing and re-airing on our televisions long into my childhood, interspersed with those of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor (yes, it was confusing). My first memory of Doctor Who is either Day of or Death to the Daleks—NOT included here, by the way; the Pertwee years were not good ones for the “Exterminate!” crowd—and I really did for real hide behind the sofa in terror… but that didn’t stop me going back for more, obviously. Kids are pretty dauntless, it seems. (Which is a good thing, or else this show might not have lasted past the first season, since that was its intended audience.)

So, what did make the grade? Well…

Played by: Jon Pertwee
First Appearance: “Episode 1” (Spearhead from Space, January 3, 1970) Last Appearance: “Part Six” (Planet of the Spiders, June 8, 1974)—with two later guest appearances in the reign of the Sixth Doctor, as well as the 1993 charity special East Enders crossover, Dimensions in Time
Episodes: 128
Serials: 24
Seasons: 5
Style:Edwardian Dandy
Catchphrase: “Reverse the polarity”

Characteristics: A refined and perfectly-elocuted gentleman of action, diplomacy and science, the Third Doctor is exiled to early-70s Earth and denied travel through both space and time by his Time Lord brethren (except when he is dispatched by his jailors on desperate missions elsewhere). But had he landed in Regency England, he would doubtless have been equally at home, soon to become all the rage among the aristocracy of the day, careering about the countryside in tricked out phaetons and curricles and such, so very patrician and gentrified is he. Dashing, dapper, authoritative and yet vulnerable withal, this Doctor is a reluctant recruit into UNIT, but also a valiant protector and an impassioned advocate for human (and occasionally alien) rights. He is also a martial arts expert, an inventor and expert linguist, which would be a much more useful talent if the TARDIS wasn’t equipped with mind-bending translation abilities. It’s still quite impressive, nonetheless.

Companions: Given the numbers the previous two Doctors had run through, it is a lovely change of pace that in his 5 seasons, comprising 24 serials and 128 episodes, this version only gave his heart to three companions/assistants. First came skeptical UNIT scientist Dr. Elizabeth “Liz” Shaw (Caroline John), then—in direct contrast—came total ninny Jo Grant (Katy Manning). And then, finally, came very probably the greatest companion ever (sorry, Zoe, Jack and Amy!), the delightful Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen). The Doctor is also very fond of his antique roadster, Bessie, making her almost an honorary companion.


1. SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE, Season 7, Episodes 1-4
Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Derek Martinus
Setting: Contemporary England
4 Episodes: “Episode 1” (January 3, 1970), “Episode 2” (January 10, 1970), “Episode 3” (January 17, 1970), “Episode 4” (January 24, 1970)

Even were this episode not landmark in so very, very many ways—the first one in color! The first with the Third Doctor! The first to kick off the UNIT years!—it would deserve a spot on this list purely for being all kinds of eeky creepy awesome. Just when the Doctor finds himself stuck on 1970 Earth as a result of the Time Lords’ strict punishment for time meddling, the alien Nestene Consciousness decides it would be a good time to invade the planet. (One can’t help but think it really didn’t think this one through.) Perpetrating this invasion with small plastic polyhedrons, mistaken for meteorites, small parts of the Consciousness animate both shop mannequins (that’s the creepy part) and authentic replicas of assorted humans—called Autons—and it is up to the Doctor to convince old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and his team of paranormal hunters, UNIT, that he is to be trusted; thereby to save the day, alongside his reluctant new cohort, the brilliant, no nonsense Dr. Liz. Oh, and bug-eyed-while-being-strangled Doctor! Simply hilarious, and worth the price of admission alone.

EXPLAINED! Time Lord biology. And possibly some questions about UNIT’s original scope and purpose that may have arisen in the minds of New Who fans.


2. THE DAEMONS, Season 8, Episodes 21-25
Written by: Guy Leopold
Directed by: Christopher Barry
Setting: Contemporary England—Devil’s End, Wiltshire
5 Episodes: “Episode One” (May 22, 1971), “Episode Two” (May 29, 1971), “Episode Three” (June 5, 1971), “Episode Four” (June 12, 1971), “Episode Five” (June 19, 1971)

There are doubtless those who will suggest that Terror of the Autons, the ninth season’s first serial, should be on this list, since it introduces us to the diabolical stylings of the Doctor’s archnemesis, the Master (Roger Delgado), the renegade Time Lord who goes on to have such a profound impact on events as the regenerations go by. But considering we’ve just had an Autons story, and plus Terror of the Autons is also where we were first saddled with the never-the-sufficiently-despised Jo, I think things Master-y are much better demonstrated in this kickass story of archaeology, black magic, religion and the big UNIT family (love you, Mike Yates!). True, it’s not exactly filled to the brim with original ideas, even back then—an alien explanation for human mythology (in this case, the Devil) wasn’t new, nor was an impenetrable dome mysteriously surrounding a small town (take that, Stephen King). Also, the Doctor acts like kind of a dick for a good part of it and the demon effects? Not good at all. Still, The Daemons is one of those serials that stick in the mind long, long after it has completed, and is also notable for the fact that the sardonic Master, villain of the last five serials and Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock, has clearly by this stage attained a popularity almost rivaling his less-megalomaniacal counterpart, given that his impending doom is considered worthy of an episode-ending cliffhanger.

EXPLAINED! Ummm… how human civilization flourished, apparently.


3. THE SEA DEVILS, Season, Episodes 9-14
Written by: Malcolm Hulke
Directed by: Michael Briant
Setting: Contemporary England, a Naval Base
4 Episodes: “Episode One” (February 26, 1972), “Episode Two” (March 4, 1972), “Episode Three” (March 11, 1972), “Episode Four” (March 18, 1972), “Episode Five” (March 25, 1972), “Episode Six” (April 1, 1972)

I concede that for anyone following this list faithfully, coming into this one without prior knowledge of the reptilian Silurians might make The Sea Devils slightly less resonant. But at the same time, while the concept of the Silurians and their “sea devil” cousins is an enduringly clever one (two intelligent species indigenous to Earth predating humanity, having lain long-dormant until being disturbed by nuclear testing and such) it would be foolish to dedicate almost half of my real estate to these related foes—and the fact is, this is the best of the limited Silurian-based stories. The Doctor and Jo pay a visit (for some reason) to the incarcerated Master on his island prison where they stumble upon (don’t they always stumble upon?) weirdness in the form of sea monsters attacking the Royal Navy. It turns out they are sentient prehistoric amphibians being called upon by the Master, with the aid of a duped human lackey, who hopes to turn them into his own personal army, and the Doctor must try to broker a peace between our race and theirs before it is too late. Action-packed, replete with a quite astonishing conclusion and notable for the trippiest, most off-the-wall musical score this side of Ladyhawke, this serial is also marks the only time during his tenure that the Third Doctor utters his catchphrase “reverse the polarity of the neuron flow”—though much polarity would go on to be reversed in subsequent episodes across several incarnations.

EXPLAINED! “Reverse the jelly baby of the neutron flow,” uttered in “The Almost People” (06.06). And Vastra, maybe?


4. THE GREEN DEATH, Season 10, Episodes 21-26
Written by: Robert Sloman
Directed by: Michael Briant
Setting: Contemporary Wales—the mining town of Llanfairfach
6 Episodes: “Episode One” (May 19, 1973), “Episode Two” (May 26, 1973), “Episode Three” (June 2, 1973), “Episode Four” (June 9, 1973), “Episode Five” (June 16, 1973), “Episode Six” (June 23, 1973)

This story could be the most stultifying of The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve-style awful and I would probably still have included it here, because it sees the blessed departure of that unrelenting ditz, Jo. Oh, I know plenty of people like her, and some even suggest that the Doctor’s feelings towards this airhead ran more towards the Rose-like than the times allowed him to express, but be that as it may—and I doubt it; the Doctor was still a very paternal figure in this guise—I feel very strongly that her decision to turn in her UNIT badge in order to marry an environmental crusader was very good news for the show. And, in fact, I hardly feel the need to slap her at all when watching this! (Possibly because I know it’s her last?) The reason this episode requires an environmental crusader, by the way? Chemical poisoning! Turning miners green and then killing them (hence the title), creating giant maggots, and then there’s a whole super-computer thing too… basically, this is another Doctor Who progress=disaster episode, but it is done so thoughtfully, so excitingly, and with scenes of such captivating emotion, that it escapes the burdens of its overplayed environmental message. I am also pretty sure this episode is the reason I love Mutant Monsters Attack! movies. Yet another reason to be grateful to Doctor Who.


5. THE TIME WARRIOR, Season 11, Episodes 1-4
Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Alan Bromly
Setting: Contemporary and Medieval England
4 Episodes: “Part One” (December 15, 1973), “Part Two” (December 22, 1973), “Part Three” (December 29, 1973), “Part Four” (January 5, 1974)

It was really about time some canny civilian noticed what UNIT has been up to, and how lucky we are that that person was intrepid journalist Sarah Jane Smith! Smart as a whip but eternally pleasant along with it, Sarah goes undercover to investigate a conclave of Britain’s top scientists, being held in a research facility for some unknown reason. That reason turns out to be that several of their colleagues have gone missing, which we soon learn is because they have been transported to the 12th-C by a Sontaran warrior, whose crashed ship is in need of repair. But while he is in the neighborhood, he first claims Earth for his Empire and becomes a weapons dealer, promising advanced tech to a medieval criminal and his merry band of ruffians. There are so many reasons to love this episode: it is a fun, if relatively straightforward, historical, which had been rare throughout Doctor’s exile. (His time travel ban has been lifted here, by the way.) It first gives us the Sontarans; perhaps my favorite of the Doctor’s alien foes, they are just so… single-minded. It also has crackling dialogue and a quite thrilling last act. But above all, it brings us Sarah Jane Smith for the first time. And that really is essential viewing.

EXPLAINED! The planet of the Time Lords is named Gallifrey. And Strax!


So, just how wrong did I get it? Was not including Planet of the Spiders a mistake? But what should I have replaced to make room for it? And do we really want to give people even more reason to fear arachnids than they do now? Wasn’t my damaged childhood enough of a triumph for that story? Looking forward to your thoughts…

Next time: The Fourth Doctor—The Sad Clown

Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.


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