It’s the end of March, which means it’s time for another Doctor Who viewing roundup… except this month will be a little shorter than the first two. I’d told myself that each month I’d watch at least three stories from the assigned Doctor, but this was the first month where I barely hit three stories. It didn’t have to do with quality of stories available, but rather the amount of free time I had this month. Sorry, Jon Pertwee fans.
But anyway, Pertwee’s five years on the show were a huge change in general for Doctor Who. Not only was it in color, but he was trapped on Earth for his first three seasons and worked with UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (introduced in Patrick Troughton’s story “The Invasion”) as their scientific advisor. It’s a very different sort of era, although even within it there are distinct sections…
Pertwee’s debut, this story (and the three that followed) were a very serious take on Doctor Who. I like to think of this as the “competent UNIT era” because it was only in Season 7 that we really got that. The Brigadier is ruthless and a strong military man, and new companion Dr. Liz Shaw is a Cambridge professor who is supposed to be a near-equal for the Doctor.
I say “supposed to be” because she’s barely in the second half of this story, once the Doctor is up and running around and working with UNIT and the Brigadier to stop an invasion of strange plastic-inhabiting creatures known as the Autons. (Fans of the modern series might remember they came back in the debut episode “Rose.”) It’s a little slow paced at times, but “Spearhead from Space” is entertaining. I like that you’re kept in the dark for the majority of the story on what’s really going on, and the immediate clash between the Doctor and his new “employers” in the form of a military group is brought up effectively. As a throwing the glove on the ground and announcing that this is the way the series will now be, it works.
“The Dæmons” is one of those stories where it’s been proclaimed a classic for as long as I can remember. I remember seeing it in the ’80s (back when the BBC only had some black and white prints in their archives) and enjoying it a great deal. So as a result, for the Pertwee stories I watched, this one ended up being the biggest disappointment when I revisited it. There is an awful lot of padding in this story about the evil Master trying to revive (and gain power from) an ancient alien known as a Dæmon. The Doctor is constantly diverted away from the main story, presumably to stretch things out. New companion Jo is adorable, though, which goes a long way. And UNIT? Well, they’ve started to slide into buffoon territory. They’re not out-and-out incompetent, but they’re mostly used to help stall. (Although Sgt. Benton’s sharp-shooting is presented as quite effective. Sgt. Benton’s groovy red pants, perhaps not so much.)
This was also the final story of the season that introduced the Master (think Moriarity to the Doctor’s Holmes) as an adversary to the Doctor, one that used him in every single story. I’d say he’d gotten tired by this point, but actor Roger Delgado (who gets second billing!) is so good that I don’t care that he’s overused. He’s amazing and somewhat hypnotic to boot. But still, it’s hard to deny that this story is a bit silly in places, never bothers to fully make sense, and has a god-awful resolution. The memory cheated on this one. It’s not bad, per se, but it is by no means a classic. I’m actually fine with waiting another 25-odd years to see this one again.
For this story, I had two friends (Erik and Jason) come over to watch it, which was a fun way to experience it. Erik had seen it somewhat recently, it’d been years for me, and Jason had never seen it. It’s a bit of a run-around with the Doctor and Jo isolated from the other main characters but it’s an enjoyable (if perhaps atypical Pertwee) story. No longer Earth-bound, this story traps the Doctor and Jo inside a strange alien zoo machine while an entirely different story unfolds on the planet where the machine is located. The two don’t connect until the final episode, but there’s such a strange air about “Carnival of Monsters” that it works. The two circus/carney folk who have the machine are a riot (and not just because of their ultra-crazy outfits), the aliens on the planet are wonderfully bureaucratic, and the Doctor and Jo manage to carry a story where they go around in circles for a hell of a lot of time. It’s not like most Pertwee stories (it’s short, it’s concise, there’s no UNIT, no karate-chopping, not set on Earth, no long chase scenes) but it’s very much like a typical Doctor Who story, if that makes sense. A fun way to wrap up the Pertwee stories for March.
And that’s it! I wish I had more to say about Pertwee, but the best laid plans and all that. (Even this entry is a little shorter than I’d hoped. Once again, time restraints and all.) In August (details still being worked out) I might be revisiting some earlier Doctors so I’m hoping to squeeze in a Pertwee then. But we shall see…