Category: Jon Pertwee

moonbase01For my most recent reviews of Doctor Who Classic at The A.V. Club, please visit Click on season numbers to browse individual episodes.

To see the reviews in publication order, it’s easiest to start at my staff page at The newest material is at the top of the list.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Ambassadors Of Death

“The Ambassadors Of Death” (season 7, episodes 12-18. Originally aired March 21-May 2, 1970)

To call “The Ambassadors Of Death” the weakest serial of Doctor Who’s seventh season is less of a knock against it than it might seem. Jon Pertwee’s first year as the Third Doctor was well above average as a whole, especially given the success of the gamble to drastically reinvent the show as an Earthbound, team-driven sci-fi drama of what we’d now recognize as the X-Files/Fringe/Torchwood format. There’s a pretty good case for calling it the series’ best season, period. (That’s a hard one to pick, though. Doctor Who has been so changeable over the years that it’s difficult to compare seasons, like apples and some fruit that doesn’t even grow on this planet. I’d vote for season 13, the second Fourth Doctor season, with its murderers’-row of “Terror Of The Zygons,” “Pyramids Of Mars,” “The Brain Of Morbius,” and “The Seeds Of Doom.” But I digress.)

“The Ambassadors Of Death” isn’t perfect, far from it, but nevertheless it has a lot going on that I really love, and which exemplifies what the creative team was trying to do with season seven—lure in a larger (and older) audience by blending the established “eccentric scientist fights alien monsters” sci-fi with slicker, higher-octane spy-thriller stuff that aimed for the less campy, more serious side of James Bond and The Avengers. The gloriously lavish action sequences here are the most blatant part of that, like a big neon billboard, but there’s subtler stuff percolating in the story too, particularly in the way it strives to suggest that its titular aliens might be truly out-of-this world, in the sense of perhaps being too strange for us to meaningfully communicate with or understand. And it also rests on a more-complex-than-usual motivation for its lead villain, General Carrington—arguably, he’s not a bad person, but a decent man twisted by his own inner trauma. (If only the presentation of that had been less murky, this could have been a much better story—but I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Originally published Jan. 6, 2013 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Three Doctors

“The Three Doctors” (season 10, episodes 1-4; originally aired 12/30/1972-1/20/1973)

On paper, “The Three Doctors” seems like it should be a lot better than it is. Kicking off the show’s 10th season, it celebrated Doctor Who’s anniversary by bringing together all three of the actors who’d played the mysterious traveler up to that point, and set them loose in an adventure together for the first time, and one that lifted the veil on the history of his people, the Time Lords. It also advanced one of the series’ longest-running plot points when, in thanks for saving their bacon, the Time Lords lifted the last vestiges of his criminal conviction from season six’s “The War Games,” allowing him to travel freely through time and space on his own for the first time since the program had still been filmed in black-and-white.

And I did enjoy it when I first saw it as a kid in the 1980s more than I do now, so it’s good to remember that what works for an audience in one age range might misfire for an older one—but the best of Doctor Who, I think, works for all its fans across the board. “The Three Doctors” has its good points, but on the whole it’s a disappointment, with a lackluster story and unimaginative production values that are merely adequate even by the forgiving standards by which classic-era Doctor Who must be judged. Sure, it’s not an embarrassing train wreck like “The Twin Dilemma,” which sinks so low because it’s weighed down with such a stunning array of bad ideas. But that just highlights the major problem with “The Three Doctors” again: It has some good ideas in it, but they’re treated with such an unambitious lack of imagination that there’s not enough actually happening here for the story to be offensively bad—just boring.

Originally published Oct. 14, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Claws Of Axos

“The Claws Of Axos” (season 8, episodes 11-14. Originally aired March 13-April 3, 1971)

Once you’ve watched enough Doctor Who to be able to recognize recurring scriptwriters, you start to get a feel for what you can expect from any given story that has their name on the credits. Robert Holmes was Doctor Who’s Alan Moore—a guy who knew the show’s conventions and formulas so well that he could tell a story that tore those conventions apart and reassembled them while still staying true to their spirit. Terry Nation was the series’ first major heavy hitter, and you could always rely on him for solidly paced action-adventure, but left to his own devices he also kept recycling the same ideas over and over again.

And then there’s the team of Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who debuted with the Third Doctor adventure “The Claws Of Axos.” Baker and Martin were mainstays of the show throughout the 1970s, with nine scripts to their credit solo or as a team, including the 10th-anniversary special “The Three Doctors” and “The Invisible Enemy,” which introduced the Doctor’s robot dog K9. They’re responsible for the equivalent of two full seasons of Doctor Who, and as such you have to count them as one of the series’ major creative forces. But the thing about them is that none of those nine stories is really good enough to be a true classic—none have the dazzling dialogue, tightly focused plots or audacious metatextuality that marks the best of Doctor Who. “The Claws Of Axos” certainly doesn’t break that mold—it’s just about the gold standard of adequacy for this era of Doctor Who. It’s certainly entertaining and far from terrible. There’s plenty of exciting action and stuntwork, a genuinely creepy alien monster in the Axons, and it works in season eight’s overarching villain—the Master—in a way that not only justifies his scheming presence but helps set up the most compelling twist in the story: The surprisingly believable idea that the Doctor is just as untrustworthy as the Master is, and is willing to sell out humanity for his own aims. But that doesn’t excuse its flaws, some of which stem from the limitations of the budget and the special effects but the worst of which are straight-up script problems, namely the badly mishandled subplot about Chinn, the petty-tyrant bureaucrat whose greed plays right into the Axons’ hands (and tumorous tentacles), and the near-total sidelining of the pretty sizable cast of regular co-stars in favor of a one-off side character. It’s not particularly bad, especially by Doctor Who standards, but if “City Of Death” is a home run and “The Twin Dilemma” is a foul tip that hits the batter in the face and breaks his nose, “The Claws Of Axos” is a base hit, solid and respectable but unexceptional.

Originally published May 27, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Curse of Peladon”

“The Curse Of Peladon” (season 9, episodes 5-8. Originally aired Jan. 29-Feb. 19, 1972)

It’s hard to see it if you’re watching Doctor Who out of chronological order like we’re doing in this TV Club series, but “The Curse Of Peladon” was an unusually old-fashioned sort of story for where the series was in 1972, even while it also pointed toward Doctor Who’s future. The heart of the issue comes up as soon as the Doctor makes his appearance: The TARDIS lands on a remote planet and he and his companion get out, having no idea where they are, and immediately get embroiled in an adventure. But what’s weird about that, right? That describes the opening five minutes of almost every Doctor Who story since the very beginning. It’s been the basic format of the show since 1963, and it’s still true today. Ah, but—it wasn’t true in 1972. Because for a couple of years, the Doctor wasn’t a wanderer through time and space, but a convicted criminal sentenced by his people to exile on Earth, where he served as the reluctant employee of a military organization whose job description didn’t involve randomly popping around to anywhere more than 50 miles away from London.

There was a good reason why that had happened. Two years before, when Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor was replaced by Jon Pertwee’s Third, Doctor Who also made the biggest stylistic shift in its history, making a radical change in format to regain declining viewership and compete with the smart, sophisticated sci-fi shows of the era like Star Trek, The Avengers, and The Prisoner. The show became slicker and smarter itself, most importantly by boosting the sophistication of its writing, with a concerted effort at political and social relevance and a distinct sense that Doctor Who was trying hard not to be seen as just a children’s show anymore. It was a necessary move, and it worked on both the popularity and artistic fronts: Ratings went up, the show wasn’t cancelled, and as a group, season seven’s four stories are easily among the finest Doctor Who ever did.

Originally published April 1, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Silurians

“Doctor Who And The Silurians” (season 7, episodes 5-11; originally aired 1/31-3/14/1970)

Jumping from “The War Games” to “The Silurians” is one of the smallest leaps forward in time we’ve made in this feature so far, with the two stories separated by only a single serial, “Spearhead From Space.” But although they were made less than a year apart, and by many of the same people, the differences between them make Doctor Who feel like it’s almost a completely new series.

A big part of that, of course, is the switch to color from black-and-white, and the increased use of on-location filming in places like Marylebone Station in London that brought a new realism to Doctor Who’s visual presentation. But there was also, as I noted in my “Spearhead From Space” writeup, a very conscious mandate for season seven to tell stories that were more morally complex than earlier years, and that would keep the attention of both adult audiences as well as the kids. Season-opener “Spearhead From Space” laid the groundwork for this, but most of its energy went to establishing the fact of the Doctor’s new Earthbound exile after his “War Games” trial, and introducing the new triad of main characters (the Brigadier, Liz Shaw, and the Third Doctor), who would work together to defend Earth from alien invasion and other sci-fi threats. The Doctor himself had not been terribly active in “Spearhead From Space” either, spending half the story in a hospital bed, which was another way of giving the setting and supporting characters more screentime. “The Silurians” picked up those loose threads, putting the Doctor firmly back at center stage in a story that resisted being broken down into simple divisions of good versus evil. Although it’s three episodes longer than “Spearhead From Space,” “The Silurians” keeps a snappy pace throughout thanks to Malcolm Hulke’s well-plotted script.

Originally published Dec. 18 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, Terror of the Autons

“Terror Of The Autons” (season 8, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Jan. 2-23, 1971)

It’s a law of storytelling physics, at least for the kind of serial adventure story that is Doctor Who: For every hero, there is an equal and opposite villain. Not just the run-of-the-mill bad guys who take a number and line up for a single-episode smackdown, but a true nemesis, someone who presents a genuine challenge to the hero’s abilities and also to the fundamental question of who he is. All good hero/villain pairings do this to some extent, but the emergence of a nemesis relationship is something special, even epic, and when it’s done well it resonates throughout the entire series. You know what I mean: Holmes and Moriarty. Batman and the Joker. The great rivalries.

In Doctor Who’s case, you could make a pretty good argument that prior to our Mystery Guest Villain’s debut in 1971′s “Terror Of The Autons,” the Doctor already had a perfectly serviceable epic nemesis in the Daleks. He’d clashed with them repeatedly since the beginning of the series, and the things they stood for—fear, oppression, stagnation, conformity—helped define what the Doctor stands against. Obviously, that relationship is still important, even crucial for the series today. But there was always something missing, because the Daleks are perhaps too diametrically opposed to the Doctor. The differences are starkly apparent, but the commonalities aren’t. That’s what Moriarty has over the Daleks: He’s equal and opposite, a man with the skills and temperament of Sherlock Holmes who represents the ways Holmes could have gone wrong. The other problem with the Daleks is that by the time of “Terror,” they’d grown overexposed by repeated return engagements, and had in fact been effectively killed off four seasons earlier in “Evil Of The Daleks.” So the field was open for a new nemesis.

Originally published Oct. 16, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Time Warrior”

“The Time Warrior” (season 11, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Dec. 15, 1973-Jan. 5, 1974)

Considering that it’s a show about a guy with a time machine, Doctor Who went for a very long time without visiting the past. “The Time Warrior,” which brings the Third Doctor to the Middle Ages, was the first story since Season Four’s “Evil Of The Daleks” to take place in a historical setting. The Doctor and his friends engaged in plenty of time travel, but it was all between contemporary Britain and the future with its dazzling array of spaceships, ray guns, and aliens. The show’s first three seasons, on the other hand, were full of trips to the past—about half the series consisted of stories where the TARDIS crew were entangled in ancient history, and ran into people like Roman emperor Nero and King Richard the Lionhearted. But they were never as popular as the sci-fi thrillers, and dropping them was a conscious choice on the part of the producers. It seems shortsighted to eliminate half the potential story lines. But the historicals had a lingering bad rep among the Who behind-the-scenes crew, apparently because they had a hard time seeing them beyond their educational mandate from Doctor Who’s original mission statement—they felt like school, in other words. “Time Warrior” scriptwriter Robert Holmes certainly felt that way: He’s quoted in the DVD extras as saying “I hate Doctor Who in history mode because I think it’s too whimsy and twee.” Instead, he came up with a compromise that’s become the default method ever since for the way Doctor Who deals with the past: The pseudohistorical, in which the setting is in the past, but the story line emphasizes science fiction over historical accuracy, and generally doesn’t involve real historical figures. It wasn’t the first time the show had done this—”The Time Meddler” and “Evil Of The Daleks” both had strong sci-fi elements. But “Time Warrior” marks when the show’s creative staff got a handle on how a pseudohistorical should work. It helps a lot that Holmes’ story is full of lively humor, a memorably repellent yet strangely compelling villain in Linx the Sontaran—and of course there’s the introduction of the Doctor’s new sidekick, feisty journalist Sarah Jane Smith, played with intelligence and charm by Elisabeth Sladen.

Originally published Aug. 14, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “Spearhead From Space”

“Spearhead From Space” (season 7, episodes 1-4; originally aired 1/3/1970-1/24/1970)

It’s a Whovian truism that whenever the Doctor regenerates, Doctor Who reinvents itself as well. But the debut of Third Doctor Jon Pertwee in 1970′s “Spearhead From Space” was a far more radical refocusing of the series than any other regeneration—not merely adapting the tone of the show for the quirks and strengths of a new lead actor, but massively overhauling everything, from the mood and the look to the kinds of stories the show would tell. If it hadn’t succeeded, I’m not sure we’d still remember Doctor Who today, let alone be publishing articles about it 41 years later.

A bit of background: As the 1960s were winding down, so were Doctor Who‘s ratings. Patrick Troughton had also decided that after three years, it would be wise to leave the show to avoid typecasting. Although there were some creative triumphs in Troughton’s last season, particularly “The Mind Robber,” my impression is that the show was increasing seen as stale and formulaic in comparison to Star Trek as well as other British sci-fi shows of the time, like The Prisoner and The Avengers, all of which had also proven that grownups, not just kids, would tune in to this stuff if the stories appealed to them. And so when Troughton left in 1969′s “The War Games,” the producers took the opportunity to wipe the slate clean. The Second Doctor was captured by the Time Lords, the people from whom he’d been a fugitive all this time. His human companions were sent back to their own times with their memories erased, and the Doctor himself was sentenced to a combination of death (enforced regeneration) and exile to Earth. The last we see of Troughton is him spinning away into a black void, screaming.

When Doctor Who came back, it was grounded, in more ways than one.

Originally published June 19, 2011 on Read the complete article.

Primer: Doctor Who

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: The rise and fall and rise again of Britain’s venerable science-fiction series Doctor Who.

Doctor Who 101

An icon of modern British culture and the longest-running science-fiction TV show in history, Doctor Who has never been more popular than it is today, thanks to producer Russell T. Davies, whose revitalization of the series returns this month under the aegis of new producer Steven Moffatt. Matt Smith, taking over the title role from David Tennant, will become the 11th actor to officially play the time-traveling wanderer.

The original series ran for 26 seasons, each consisting of several feature-length serials broken into half-hour episodes with cliffhanger endings. No matter who’s playing the lead, the basic premise has been essentially the same since the show’s debut: A mysterious, eccentric alien known only as The Doctor (not “Doctor Who,” in spite of the title) travels through time and space having adventures and fighting evil. He’s usually accompanied by one or two humans picked up along the way. They journey with him in a time machine called a TARDIS, which looks like a blue phone booth. If grievously wounded (especially by that fatal condition “actor-quits-itis”), he can regenerate his entire body, gaining a new face, a new personality, and a new name at the top of the cast list in the credits. This has also given the show an easy way to make more sweeping stylistic changes to evolve with changing times, and a way to correct elements after they go stale or otherwise become unworkable. In fact, it’s become expected that a regeneration of The Doctor will also regenerate the whole show. (Fans generally know each Doctor by the order in which they were introduced, so William Hartnell, who originated the role, is the First Doctor, and newcomer Matt Smith is the Eleventh.)

Originally published on April 8, 2010. Read the complete article.

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