Mention the era of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor to anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Doctor Who and you may we expect and receive some well-worn descriptions. ‘Man of action’ is one, maybe ‘exiled to Earth’, and then there’s ‘UNIT family’. They’re true, all of them, to a greater or lesser degree than Pertwee’s successors in the role, but what strikes me about these descriptions is how they attempt to find the unique aspects of the Third Doctor, sorting them from the more traditional and expected aspects of our hero. As mentioned they are accurate enough, but left as the sole descriptors for the Pertwee hero and his era we lose a vital element to this incarnation of the Time Lord – his Doctorishness.
The Pertwee Era is one of change of course (there’s another shorthand description) – colour, personnel, location, a new sense of dynamism, Action by HAVOC. While he’s on Earth there’s the sense that for the Third Doctor everything s going on all at once, and he’s in the middle of it doing his utmost to do the right thing. Jon Pertwee often likened his character to that of a ‘Mother hen’, using his great cloak to shield his female companions from whatever nasties they were facing. To be honest I can’t think of a single story where this actually occurs, but the notion of protection is a really useful theme to explore in Pertwee’s Era. The Doctor is firmly established as Earth’s protector more literally than ever before – once priding himself as a gentleman of the Universe he has been brought down to Earth as its guardian against threats from space, prehistory, modern science, and ultimately in the Master, the worst aspects of his own people. We can laugh at the routine appearances of Roger Delgado’s villain and the familiarity of the Doctor’s earthbound locations, but in an in-series context it’s arguable that the Time Lords were right – the Doctor was best put to use on our world, and is simply the best man for the job. And clearly we rub off on him, too, because no sooner does he receive his get-out-of-jail-free card with a new TARDIS materialisation circuit then he’s back here checking in on us. He’s not the only protector figure in Pertwee’s era of course – assignment on Earth leads to assignment to UNIT, and the Brigadier’s role as a reluctant ward, each man keeping the other on the straight and narrow; Jo is his moral compass – which is not to denigrate the roles of either Liz Shaw or Sarah Jane Smith, but The Daemons does cast a long shadow over Pertwee’s best stories.
As viewers casual and committed we need the Doctor to be first and foremost a protector, and no matter how he strays into periods of aloofness (early Tom Baker) or spurious morality (early Colin Baker), this is the version of the Doctor we want to see. Pertwee’s Doctor embodies this effortlessly, some of his best monologues are speeches of comfort (on the nature of heroism to the Thal Vaber in Planet of the Daleks, the ‘daisiest daisy’ speech to Jo in The Time Monster); at his worst he is aloof, haughty, hectoring and priggish – but at his best (more often than not) that metaphorical cloak of comfort comes out readily. We’ve seen versions of this with both Hartnell and Troughton previously, but in the Pertwee Era, with its UNIT and Production family, there’s an intimacy and confidence that parcels Jon Pertwee’s Doctor with an accessible humanity that moves to the background noticeably in his successors. If Saturday teatime Doctor Who was the comfort viewing for television audience families, then the era of the Third Doctor is comfort, security and protection personified. ‘The man Who’ fell to Earth, and became one of us.