Doctor Who: The Third Doctor Era (1970-1974)

Third Doctor

When the seventh season of Doctor Who began on 3rd January 1970, there were notable differences from what had come just six months earlier. First, following Patrick Troughton’s departure, there was a new Doctor, played by 50-year-old Jon Pertwee. Second, the show was now broadcast in colour. Third, since the Doctor had been sent into exile by the Time Lords at the end of the sixth season, all of the seventh season’s stories took place on Earth, with the Doctor facing either invading aliens (Spearhead from Space, The Ambassadors of Death) or terrestrial sci-fi threats (Doctor Who and the Silurians, Inferno). But the Third Doctor did not face these problems alone: following his arrival on Earth post-regeneration, he was quickly reunited with his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), who would now become a regular during Pertwee’s tenure. The Doctor joined United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) as a scientific advisor, with scientist Dr Liz Shaw (Caroline John) as his assistant.

The character of Liz was dropped after just one season, and when the eighth season rolled around, the Doctor was given a new assistant, the perky and innocent Jo Grant (Katy Manning). That season also saw the Doctor gaining a proper arch-nemesis: a nefarious fellow Time Lord named the Master, played by Roger Delgado, a close friend of Jon Pertwee. The Master would turn up to conduct an evil scheme or two in all five stories that season, and then three more across the next two seasons. After simply slipping away at the end of 1973’s Frontier in Space, the Master was supposed to come back for one last adventure (also intended to be the Third Doctor’s final story) which would give the character a proper send-off. But that plan evaporated when, in June 1973, Delgado was tragically killed in a car accident in Turkey.

Third Doctor Group

As well as the Master, the Third Doctor encountered other new villains that would reappear in years to come: the living plastic Autons, the reptilian Silurians and their amphibious cousins the Sea Devils, and the war-hungry Sontarans. At the beginning of 1973 – Doctor Who’s tenth anniversary year – he got to meet his previous incarnations, portrayed once again by William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, in the special The Three Doctors. That same story saw the Time Lords ending the Doctor’s exile and returning control of the TARDIS to him, enabling him to go wandering the universe once more. (The Third Doctor had already left Earth a few times before this, but at the behest of the Time Lords.) The following season, following the departure of Jo Grant, another new companion was introduced: journalist Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen, who would go on to become one of the Doctor’s most popular and distinguished companions.

Third Doctor SJ

On 8th June 1974, at the end of his fifth season playing the Doctor, Jon Pertwee made his final regular appearance on the show in Planet of the Spiders, where the Doctor was forced to regenerate after suffering fatal radiation poisoning. Pertwee would play the Third Doctor again in the 1983 special The Five Doctors, as well as a stage show in 1989 and a Children in Need special in 1993. He died in May 1996, aged 76.

My Thoughts

I found the Third Doctor’s era to be better overall than those of the First and Second Doctors. Certainly the story quality was more consistent, even over the span of five seasons; practically every story is entertaining to at least some degree, and none stand out as being absolutely atrocious. A reduction in numbers of episodes – an average of 26 per season, compared to 42 for the First and Second Doctors combined – may have contributed to this.

After years of seeing the Doctor travelling freely through time and space, temporarily limiting his adventures to 1970s Earth would seem to be a recipe for boredom at first glance, but that’s definitely not the case. It was pleasant to have a relatively grounded setting surrounding the more imaginative sci-fi elements, as well as an excuse for introducing a little military action into the stories, which is directed well and enhanced by the introduction of colour. During the period where the Doctor cannot use his TARDIS, he is sent off-world by other means just enough times for his UNIT surroundings to not get stale. And even when he goes back to freely travelling through space and time, the presentation of each story – from the direction to the music – still feels more stable than in the black-and-white days, like the show has hit its stride.

Jon Pertwee is my joint favourite classic Doctor, alongside Tom Baker; in fact, if I were forced to choose one, I would go with Pertwee. The Third Doctor is very much a gentleman, in both his looks and his disposition. He can be arrogant and crabby, like most Doctors; but he can also be kind and fatherly, which Pertwee handles especially well. He is also a very active and energetic Doctor, sometimes using Venusian martial arts to get out of a difficult situation, and participating in chase sequences with a variety of vehicles.

I was disappointed that Liz Shaw only got one season and four stories, as I would have liked to see her developed further. She was very different from most of the Doctor’s other sidekicks up to this point: more mature, closer to the Doctor’s intellectual level, and not standing for any nonsense. Indeed, that was part of the reason why the character was dropped (in addition to Caroline John becoming pregnant); the producers preferred companions who could serve as audience surrogates. Thus, Jo and Sarah Jane (at least, what we see of her alongside Pertwee) are not much different from the other young ladies who have accompanied the Doctor in the past: screaming and having to be rescued a lot of the time, but still bright, pleasant and capable. Nicholas Courtney, in the now expanded role of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, has a great on-screen presence as the classic British military man who is generally friendly with the Doctor but still butts heads with him at times. And Roger Delgado, in my opinion, remains the best incarnation of the Master: he has a refined air which is a good match for Pertwee, and is unapologetically dastardly enough to be fun without having to resort to chewing the scenery. (Omega, the villain of The Three Doctors, has that base covered.)

Third Doctor Master

My Favourite Third Doctor Stories

Inferno: During a project to drill down to the Earth’s core, the Doctor ends up being transported to an alternate, more dystopian universe, where the same project is in its later stages and ends up dooming the entire planet. There’s grim and compelling drama as the Doctor gets to grips with more hostile versions of the people he knows, followed by a tense race against time as he tries to get back to his own universe before the same fatal mistakes are made.

The Sea Devils: This was the first Third Doctor adventure that I ever watched, and I found it especially good fun. It has a great deal to offer: there’s some enjoyably daft-looking monsters, plenty of evil-doing from the Master, and the story moves rapidly between many different situations; from the Doctor and the Master having a swordfight, to Jo trying to break the Doctor out of prison, to a firefight on a naval base.

The Green Death: Another classic adventure, involving giant maggots, an evil computer, some pro-environmentalism, and the most bittersweet departure of a companion in Doctor Who up to this point.

My Least Favourite Third Doctor Story

Invasion of the Dinosaurs: As I stated above, I don’t consider any stories from the Third Doctor’s era to be really bad, but one still has to go at the bottom – and sadly, it happens to be the one with dinosaurs in it. While it’s still watchable, the special effects are laughably awful even by Classic Who’s standards; and the bad guys’ plan and reasoning are bizarre and nonsensical, such as Mike Yates being unwilling to see the Doctor harmed while also willingly taking part in a scheme that will kill most of the world’s population.

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About Richard Southworth

Hi, my name's Richard. I created this blog to talk about my interests - and I have quite a few of those. I love zoology in general, herpetology in particular (especially snakes!), writing (have won National Novel Writing Month nine times so far), reading, astronomy, palaeontology, and travel. Thank you for coming to my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you here!
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2 Responses to Doctor Who: The Third Doctor Era (1970-1974)

  1. Burrunjor says:

    The Third Doctor is by far and away my favorite. Jon Pertwee had a certain gravitas, authority and presence that no one else has matched in the role. I also think seasons 10 and 7 are two of the greatest seasons the show ever produced.

    I also loved all three of his companions, the Brigadier, and the Delgado Master, even though his legacy may have been tainted recently, was still one of the best tv villains of all time.

    Liked by 1 person

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