50 Years Ago: Jon Pertwee Brings Color to ‘Doctor Who’
When the seventh season of Doctor Who arrived on British screens on Jan. 3, 1970, the replacement of the show's lead actor wasn’t the first thing fans noticed.
Instead it was that, for the first time, the sci-fi program was broadcast in color. It was several seconds before the psychedelic, futuristic swirling imagery settled upon the face of Jon Pertwee, the third actor to play the centuries-old Time Lord.
In 1969, the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, wanted to avoid being typecast as an actor and decided it was time to move on (advice he later gave to the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, who heeded it). Troughton settled the ship after First Doctor William Hartnell’s final season, which was plagued by bad feelings, partly caused by the actor’s ailing health and his failure to connect with a new production team.
Regarded as the show’s father figure, Troughton was popular with both cast and crew, and even had a reputation for being a practical joker behind the scenes.
Watch Patrick Troughton’s Final Scene on 'Doctor Who'
That was the position Pertwee inherited, as well as a desire by the BBC to cut the production budget. Like several TV networks – notably NBC and Paramount with Star Trek – the British broadcaster had an uncomfortable relationship with its unaccountably popular sci-fi show and wanted to cut its budget.
So, in Troughton’s final episode, the Doctor was exiled to Earth. The plot of "The War Games" saw him being punished by the Time Lords (the first time other members of his race had appeared) for breaking the laws of non-intervention and sentenced to remain on Earth in the 20th century until they saw fit to lift his travel ban. He still had his TARDIS, but it was unable to move through time. That, they hoped, would save money on production.
Watch Jon Pertwee's 'Doctor Who' Titles
A change of Doctor, a change of budget and a change of broadcast format over six months was a tall order. But Pertwee proved up for the challenge. A former Navy intelligence officer and veteran of comedy productions, he was, at 50, a year older than Troughton but 11 years younger than Hartnell, and quickly helped the production team invent an all-new version of the main character.
Instead of Troughton’s “space hobo,” the third reincarnation was a “dandy” in appearance but also a serious, gentlemanly scientist; instead of witty quips and caring asides, he delivered arrogant demands and action scenes.
In another attempt to set the new scene before the third Doctor's arrival, Pertwee didn’t appear on screen until the plot of his first story, "Spearhead From Space," was set up. The four-part arc introduced the Autons, plastic people who come to life and set out to kill the human race so that their masters, the Nestene Consciousness, can take over the planet.
The story worked well, resonating with audiences, giving the new all-action Doctor a strong opportunity to introduce himself in words and deeds, and setting up a reasonably functional dynamic between the new regeneration, new companion Liz Shaw, the specialist military UNIT force and its leader, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, creating something of a James Bond-style adventure squad.
Watch Jon Pertwee’s First 'Doctor Who' Scene
Behind the scenes, Pertwee began establishing himself at an early stage. “I remember when we were filming in some BBC training premises for 'Spearhead From Space,' I went for a little walk about the place, being perennially inquisitive,” he said later. “I found, in the course of my walk, a little Victorian bathroom with the most amazing Victorian bath and shower. I went rushing back to [director] Derek Martinus and said, ‘Look what I’ve found – we’ve got to use it’. He came along, agreed it looked superb and we used it.”
“Making the whole of 'Spearhead From Space' on location meant that you were given very little time for rehearsal,” said Caroline John, who played scientist and companion Liz Shaw. “You tended to have to turn up, run through it and then go for the take. … It was difficult for the actors and nerve-racking for myself. It was done in a very short space of time, which was new to me, as I’d thought television would at least give you some chance to think. … The people who played the mannequin monsters could barely see where they were going, but they still managed to avoid that detectable hesitancy that you get when you’re walking in the dark.”
Some eagle-eyed fans may have noticed tattoos on the Third Doctor’s arms, a result, Pertwee said, of “a little mistake from younger and more foolish days.” “I always thought it was quite amusing to have the Third Doctor, who was so preoccupied with being the archetypical gentleman, displaying a nice big piece of arm adornment," he noted. "And nobody said anything when filming, so they were seen onscreen. Perhaps people were frightened of offending me so early on in my time!”
Watch the Autons Activate on 'Doctor Who'
“The Doctor is an alien stranded on Earth, and sometimes he feels more at home with other alien races,” Den of Geek noted in 2011. “Certainly, he strongly empathizes with their plight in some cases. To pad out the longer stories, the production team come up with whole new plot elements that instantly take the story to another, more dramatic level. The storytelling is on a larger scale than previous Earthbound stories, and it's generally pitched at a less playful, more gritty tone. … Season 7 is largely unique in terms of approach and style to the rest of Doctor Who.”
Over the following months, many improvements were made. Liz Shaw was left out of the continuing adventures after it was decided she was too much of an equal to the Doctor, making it difficult to create tension between them. Even though the concept was axed, their pairing could be seen as a brave attempt to introduce gender equality on a mainstream TV show, many years before it became something to genuinely aspire to.
“In my opinion, Caroline John didn’t fit into Doctor Who,” Pertwee said. “I couldn’t really believe in her as a sidekick to the Doctor, because she was so darned intelligent herself. The Doctor didn’t want a know-it-all by his side, he wanted someone who was busy learning about the world. Although Caroline and I worked well together, I don’t think it did the series any harm when she left, incidentally to have a baby, and not because she was sacked or anything melodramatic like that.”
Watch the Nestene Attack on 'Doctor Who'
Shaw agreed with much of Pertwee’s assessment. “They would insist on dressing me in miniskirts and not a lot else," she recalled. "I used to point out that these sorts of clothes would hardly have been Liz Shaw, Cambridge scientist’s kind of wardrobe, but I think they were a bit too scared there would be trouble if the traditional Doctor Who glamour girl was dispensed with. … There’s no getting away from the fact that Doctor Who is about the Doctor, not his assistants. Even if you were allowed to initiate some kind of action, it would invariably get you into trouble, and the Doctor would then have to rescue you. You couldn’t really win.”
She noted that "it was fairly clear quite early on that my character didn’t really fit into the prescribed Doctor Who format of action, action, action.”
By the next season, the Third Doctor was fully established, with Pertwee undoubtedly comfortable in the role. The Autons returned (notably in Ninth Doctor Christopher Ecclestone’s opening episode, “Rose”), as would Pertwee’s slightly sarcastic catchphrase “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” which he and writer Terrance Dicks knew was nonsense, since neutrons have no polarity and proved Pertwee’s personal opinion that the Doctor often used “technobabble" as explanation.