Saturday 14 September 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary - Reflections on the Third Doctor

Jon Pertwee was my first Doctor. The funny thing is, it was a long time before I realized this. During my childhood, Tom Baker managed to supplant himself into my memories of Jon Pertwee stories. It became like Jon Pertwee never existed and it had been Tom Baker all along. A couple years ago, when I reviewed the Sarah Jane Adventures episode “Sky”, I talked a little about my original introduction to Doctor Who, and my attempts to figure out which story my earliest memories of the show came from—a Dalek story with Tom Baker, and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Except, it wasn’t with either of them.

I can’t say for sure what the very first episode of Doctor Who I ever saw was. I was so young then, that what memories I have of that time are nothing more than images, like photographs in my head—and blurry photographs at that. In all likelihood, my first exposure to the show was not a full episode, but rather just a few moments. My mom used to watch the show regularly, so I’d hear or catch glimpses of it from week to week. It used to terrify me. To me, Doctor Who was not a science fiction show; it was a horror show. So not surprisingly, my earliest memories of it are piecemeal. Memory is never a particularly reliable thing (studies have shown just how poor human memory actually is) and during the earliest years of life, it was even less reliable, so I suppose it’s not so strange that Jon Pertwee managed to morph into Tom Baker in my memories.

It’s still a weird sensation. I still have a very vivid memory of Tom Baker strapped to a table with Daleks hovering over him. But that scene doesn’t exist anywhere. It never happened. The scene is from “Day of the Daleks” and is actually of Jon Pertwee strapped to a table. I’ve seen the story many times now, so obviously, I have a memory of the real scene too, and the two memories conflict in my head. The Tom Baker one won’t go away even though I know it’s not real.

With Tom Baker taking over Pertwee’s place in my early memories, one might reasonably think that Pertwee didn’t have much of an effect on me. After all, if I forgot him so easily... But there’s no doubting the show itself did have an effect—in more ways than just scaring me—and Pertwee was an important part of the show. Despite being terrified of the show, I was strangely drawn to it. It was a long time before I was willing to watch an episode all the way through (not until well into Tom Baker’s time), but it still held a prominent place in my mind. I can’t really explain it, but Doctor Who was significant somehow, in ways that other television shows weren’t. It had already been running longer than most other shows, but I certainly didn’t know that at the time, so what made it more significant than other shows—even the ones I watched regularly and all the way through—I can’t really say.

It might have been because it was a non-cartoon show that had toys associated with it. I can’t remember exactly when I got it, but at some point around when I was five or six (well before I actually started watching the show), I had a battery-powered Dalek toy. It was red in colour. You could switch it on and it would roll awkwardly forward and screech, “Exterminate!” I think it was a gift from my grandfather, but I’m not sure. To be honest, I’m not one hundred percent certain it was actually my toy. It might have been my brother’s. I just played with it a lot and thought it was the most awesome thing ever, even though the sight of a Dalek on television would give me nightmares.

That Dalek did eventually get shoved aside in favour of Star Wars figures and later, Transformers, but in many ways, I think it was very instrumental in cementing Doctor Who’s existence in my mind. It made the show more than just a show to me, and until Star Wars came along, that was something I couldn’t say about any other TV show or movie.

Doctor Who definitely had an effect on my earliest years, particularly in how I developed creatively. It would eventually culminate with my writing a whole series of short stories with the sixth Doctor (which I’ll get into in a few weeks’ time), but even when I was only five and six years old, Doctor Who was influencing my play. It awakened interests in science fiction and fantasy. It was the ultimate escape from reality into the weird and bizarre, something my young mind revelled in even when it was being terrified by the horrible monsters on-screen. But it had real-world effects too. Doctor Who pointed me towards interests in physics and especially astronomy. For many years of my life, I was determined to become an astrophysicist, specifically a cosmologist. Admittedly, a lot of that came later during Tom Baker’s time, but the roots were in place earlier than that. Of course, there were probably lots of other things influencing me, too—at that age, just about everything influences you in some way—but I think Doctor Who has had a far more lasting effect. Maybe that’s just current bias affecting my memories (and, as I said, memories are not very reliable), but even so, that means it’s affecting me now even if it didn’t necessarily do so then. That alone, is a huge effect.

So what of Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor? All these memories I’ve talked of so far have been vague early-year memories about images and toys. What about the Doctor himself? Well, as I’ve said, I kind of forgot who Pertwee was or that he even existed. Even when I first saw a picture of him in that Doctor Who Annual I mentioned in my reflections on the first Doctor, I didn’t remember him.

My first actual memory of seeing Pertwee was in “The Five Doctors”. For some bizarre reason, TVOntario skipped over that story and so I didn’t initially get to see it. TVOntario was always a couple years behind the United Kingdom in the episodes it ran, and by that time, I had a fuller awareness of the show and what was to come. I knew from things like Doctor Who Magazine that “The Five Doctors” existed and it was something I longed to see—just so I could see the earlier Doctors. But it never aired. I finally saw it when my friend and I convinced our local comic book store to order a few VHS releases. When they came in, I snatched up “The Five Doctors”. My friend grabbed “Day of the Daleks”.

Watching “The Five Doctors” was an exciting moment for me. As well as the third Doctor, it was my first experience of the first and second Doctors! Even here, however, I didn’t recognize having seen Pertwee before. There was a certain familiarity to him, but not one I recognized as being anything more than the familiarity that all the Doctors have. Otherwise, he seemed completely new to me. But when I borrowed my friend’s copy of “Day of the Daleks”, I was in for something of a shock.

By this time, I had given up trying to figure out what story my earliest Doctor Who memories had come from. I had tried for quite some time, but there were only two Tom Baker Dalek stories--”Genesis of the Daleks” and “Destiny of the Daleks”. I had read the novelizations of both and even seen part of “Destiny” on TVOntario just before I started watching the show religiously, but neither of those stories fit the memories. I even checked the novelization of “Death to the Daleks”, a third Doctor story, because it had Sarah Jane Smith in it, and even though she didn’t specifically appear in the scenes I could remember, I was certain she was in the story. But it still didn’t fit. I had concluded that either the novels had changed some things about the stories (which I knew did happen) or my memories were totally wrong and made up.

I had (and still have) three very distinct Doctor Who memories that I was certain all came from the same story. One was the aforementioned scene of the Doctor strapped to a table with Daleks looking over him. Another was a scene of a man telling the Daleks that “maybe I’ve just helped exterminate you,” and then getting exterminated. The third is of a massive army of Daleks swarming out from under a bridge (and yes, my memories really do have massive numbers of Daleks in them and not the piddly three in the actual episode).

Lo and behold, all three of those scenes were in “Day of the Daleks”. I was both ecstatic for finally finding the source of those memories and also stunned because Tom Baker wasn’t in it. For the first time, I realized that I had seen and watched some third Doctor episodes before, and I started to wonder what other ones I had seen. I still had a number of vague Doctor Who memories from when I was very young that I had never placed. Most of them weren’t as clear as the ones of “Day of the Daleks” (I think it was the Daleks that made those three memories so clear; the Controller’s extermination, in particular, was a scene that haunted me in my youngest years), so they weren’t ones I could easily track down. The few that were fairly clear, I had already found the source for and they were all Tom Baker (for example, I had a very clear memory of parts of “The Brain of Morbius”).

I still don’t really know how much more of Jon Pertwee I saw when I was young and TVOntario was airing the episodes for the first time. I’m not even sure I saw them on TVO. For the longest time, that was the only station we got that carried the show. The one PBS station we received was one of the very few that didn’t carry Doctor Who, but according to my mom, there had been a time we got another PBS station that had carried it. As such, it’s possible I watched “Day of the Daleks” or other third Doctor stories on that channel instead of TVO. Either way, I really can’t be sure what Pertwee I saw and how much I saw. Nevertheless, when YTV started airing the full series right from the beginning and all the way through, I started seeing moments during the later Pertwee stories that rang a bell for me. Had I seen these ones when I was only four or five years old? The maggots in “The Green Death”, the city of the Exxilons in “Death to the Daleks”, Aggedor in both “The Curse of Peladon” and “The Monster of Peladon”, and the spiders in “Planet of the Spiders”—these all seemed familiar somehow. Perhaps I’d seen them before. Perhaps my memory was just playing tricks on me. Whatever the case, I’m quite certain I saw some Jon Pertwee (mostly in bits and pieces) during the mid-seventies. I’d like to believe that I saw either “Planet of the Daleks” episode three or “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” episode one in their original colour form. If so, they would be my only claims to having seen missing episodes before they were lost (colour restoration has since restored both those episodes from existing as black and white copies, but the original colour prints remain lost). Alas, apart from “Day of the Daleks”, I’ll never know for sure what I saw (unless somebody invents time travel or the Doctor himself shows up in the TARDIS so that I can go back and check).

Whatever the case, there was a definite familiarity to watching the entire Pertwee era when it aired on YTV. It wasn’t just the Doctor; the show’s entire format was becoming more like that of the show I had first experienced, and I was enraptured by it. I was in high school at the time, and there was a guy in my writer’s craft class who used to complain that he liked Doctor Who, but he hated that horrible Doctor (Jon Pertwee) that was on YTV at the moment and wished they’d get to Tom Baker already. I kept assuring him they would get to Baker eventually, but I didn’t understand his dislike of Pertwee. Personally, I wanted Jon Pertwee to last even longer. I had seen Tom Baker before. Pertwee was new to me and, at the time, much more exciting. I was also, for the first time, starting to really understand the degrees to which Doctor Who had changed over the years and that really opened me up to trying new things with my own writing. I’d always loved to write (going back to those sixth Doctor short stories I mentioned and even earlier), but I’m not ashamed to admit now that a lot of what I wrote back then was a bit formulaic and a bit repetitive. I was finally starting to branch out a little more in my writing and I owe a lot of that to the third Doctor’s era.

It’s odd, but even though Jon Pertwee is a well-loved Doctor and most fans will praise both him and his era, he’s an oft-unmentioned Doctor—perhaps not the least-mentioned of all the Doctors, but the least-mentioned of the very early Doctors. A couple of months ago, when Matt Smith first announced he was leaving but before Peter Capaldi was announced as the new Doctor, I wrote a post about what I’d like to see in a new Doctor. I mentioned then that it would be nice to see one based a little on Jon Pertwee. So many of the later actors portraying the Doctor list Patrick Troughton as one of the main influences on their Doctors. No one ever lists Jon Pertwee. There’s nothing wrong with Troughton as an influence, but simply as a change, it would be nice to see a bit of Pertwee influence shining through. He was the first Doctor to be broadcast in colour; he helped make the show a success again after flailing ratings nearly resulted in its cancellation at the end of the Troughton period (I wonder what I’d be talking about now if that had happened; it almost definitely wouldn’t be Doctor Who as I would probably never have seen it). I think Pertwee deserves just a little more love.

The final Jon Pertwee season introduced Sarah Jane Smith, a character who was one of the most influential fictional characters (other than the Doctor himself) of my entire life. Of course, most of that influence came during Tom Baker’s period and Baker is the Doctor my memories most associate her with (and, as such, I’ll talk a great deal more about her next week). However, there is a chance that she started to form her impressions on me before Tom Baker arrived on the scene. Looking over the whole series today, I feel that she was actually a much better character during her time with Jon Pertwee. She was more independent—one of the few pre-2005 companions to go back home between adventures with the Doctor and maintain a life of her own, which included a career as a journalist. Her journalism career was pretty much forgotten about after the first Tom Baker story, “Robot”, and that’s a shame, I think. I wonder how much of that early Sarah Jane imprinted on the young me. Like so much from that time, I’ll never really know for sure, but whether it was during Pertwee’s or Baker’s periods, imprint on me she certainly did. Even today, over two years later, I still get a little teary-eyed when I think of Elisabeth Sladen’s sudden and untimely death. No other character (or actor) has ever affected—or, I suspect, ever will affect—me in such a way. That says quite a lot.

Even the Doctors have never affected me quite that way. When William Hartnell died, if I even heard about it at the time (which I probably didn’t), I was way too young to know who he was. When Patrick Troughton died, I knew who he was, but I still had never seen any of his episodes, so his death was nothing more than an unfortunate anecdote in the history of Doctor Who. I first learned of Jon Pertwee’s death when it was announced in the local newspaper, The London Free Press. I was saddened by it . And shocked—partly because I wasn’t expecting it, and partly because it was the first time I had seen that newspaper (or any other newspaper) ever mention Doctor Who. It was a one-paragraph story (about three or four sentences total, I think) with a small picture of Pertwee to go with it, relegated to a small corner of a page in the middle of the Entertainment section. It wasn’t easy being a science fiction fan in London, Ontario. It was even harder being a Doctor Who fan. So, despite the sadness I felt at Pertwee’s death, I also felt a hint of joy or even triumph that somebody in the city had considered it worthy of reporting, even if it was such a small article.

Of all the Doctors, Jon Pertwee holds the oddest position for me. He was the Doctor during some of my most formative years, yet I have so little memory of him from that time. In fact, all my memories of the third Doctor specifically (not the stories he was in) come from much later in my life. Yet there’s no doubt that Doctor Who had a huge effect on my very early life and Jon Pertwee was no doubt a part of that. Even if his image didn’t imprint itself in my head, the show he starred in did, the character he played did, and one of his companions most certainly did. But his successor... Well, his successor ensured that the show’s early effects stuck on me forever.

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