Doctor Who: A Dangerous Reversal
The era of the Second Doctor had generated much warmth: Troughton and Hines had worked so well together on screen that the goodbye scene between the Doctor and Jamie was even more intense for being heart-felt. The stories had been a science-fiction extravaganza with very few poor examples, and quite a few long-term classics such as ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’, ‘The Invasion’, ‘The Mind Robber’ and of course ‘The War Games’, in all of which the Doctor and his companions enter an ongoing drama, act as catalysts, resolve issues and then depart. But, just as the producers had put the entire show at risk when they had switched Hartnell for Troughton in 1966, so, in 1969, another, perhaps even more radical change was activated: the entire premise of the programme was flipped over, almost totally reversing everything that audiences had come to know and love.
After Troughton departed, the Doctor was not only a known renegade from a named, ancient, powerful civilisation which possessed powers over time and space and could control his appearance, he was also no longer to be a free agent - he was to be limited to one time and place (conveniently, of course, Britain in the 1970s) with all the free-wheeling ability to travel around the universe in the TARDIS completely taken away, its secrets wiped from his memory. Far from being whisked along through wild adventures as we had been with the Second Doctor, the Third was stuck as scientific advisor to an earthbound United Nations-run paramilitary taskforce called ‘UNIT’.
Budgets had played a role in this: the transition to colour television probably left little room for even the ramshackle sets of other worlds that the show had managed to put together in its first few years, which wouldn’t have looked as convincing in colour anyway. But what happened as a result of all of this was an entirely new direction for Doctor Who.
Complacency arising from hindsight again tells us that this was merely an ‘exciting new phase’ in the programme’s long history - but again at the time this huge change was as revolutionary and dangerous as the switch from Hartnell to Troughton, if not more so because it involved more than just a change of the lead actor: the whole premise of the show, the principle ideas upon which it had been founded, were being tampered with. The new Doctor Who was colourful, flamboyant; the Doctor was no longer self-effacing and shambolic, but dignified, pompous, a patrician - a Time Lord with emphasis on the ‘Lord’ in fact. He wore an opera cloak and cuffs, had gadgets and a vintage car. A resemblance has been pointed out to James Bond, extremely popular in cinemas at that time, with the character’s new found action-orientated martial arts and stunts (a stunt team, HAVOC, had been hired), but Jon Pertwee’s interpretation had perhaps more to do with Patrick Macnee’s John Steed from the also popular British 60s programme The Avengers, with his gentlemanly combat techniques and refined manners.
Indeed, just like the commercial television-produced Avengers, UNIT’s remit was to investigate odd cases and potential threats to security, which formed the essence of most of the stories of the new season. The Doctor found himself often at odds with his military ‘boss’, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, positioning him as anti-authoritarian. Paralleling this, the Doctor was given a classic adversary of the ‘evil twin’ variety when another Time Lord, The Master, played by the goatee-bearded Roger Delgado, appeared on Earth to do mischief - arguably the first piece of mischief being the dispelling of any sense of mystical aura around the Time Lords which ‘The War Games’ had managed to create. The Doctor and Master were now clearly both outcasts from an earth-like, even English-like, upper class, albeit one of super-galactic proportions. As Doctor Who has gone on, any sense of its original character mystery, so key to the dramatic power of its early years, has been diluted to the point of unintended comedy.
It was as though someone had devised the show from scratch, newly, without reference to any past. The Doctor was now clearly and inevitably the protagonist of each adventure as the story started when he became involved, as opposed to the earlier scenario, when an ongoing story in time and space was sped up or changed by the arrival of the TARDIS crew; the removal of the core mystery about him as a character also meant that he was simply a ‘hero’ rather than a mysteriously wise external mentor. This process had begin with Troughton but now any sense that this character could be anything other than the star of each tale was dissolved.
Instead, tracking with the times (and being trapped in them for the moment), writers touched on topical subjects such as pollution, politics and feminism. Hartnell's Doctor, keen to stay uninvolved and obscure, had gradually been drawn into events until he had become an active moral crusader; Pertwee's Doctor was a moral crusader from the start.
In '70s Britain, the slogan used by 1960s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan ‘(most of) our people have never had it so good’ grew increasingly hollow. Economic growth struggled at about only half the rate of that of Germany or France. A former imperial power, Britain was compelled by economic necessity to seek membership of the European Economic Community; trade unions became more militant and aggressive, leading to a complete breakdown with government; the effects of the 1973 oil crisis, which led to a three day week in 1973-74, all added up to a general mood of misery in the country. Stories of corporate corruption, pollution, governmental incompetence and militaristic coups cropped up in Doctor Who during these years as a reflection of this, as the whole culture took on an ironic colour: the optimism and energy of the 1960s, mirrored in the epic tales of the Second Doctor, introverted to become somewhat depressing and claustrophobic.
Writers struggled with these limitations of the earthbound Doctor, and occasionally found ways to vary the ‘Earth’s being invaded again’ plotlines that formed the basis for the bulk of this period. A scheme was even found, via an alternate history storyline, to re-introduce the Doctor’s nemesis the Daleks, who hadn’t made an appearance since the Second Doctor’s adventure ‘The Evil of the Daleks’ in 1967. Clearly, Doctor Who was straining to get out and about again: something within the show was of an Epic nature rather than Ironic. It was grating against its context.
The contrasts couldn’t have been clearer when the show’s tenth anniversary was celebrated in unique style by bringing together the incarnations of the character so far in a tale appropriately titled ‘The Three Doctors’, which was originally supposed to feature all three Doctors equally. Hartnell was too ill and was, therefore, reduced to a pre-recorded cameo role, appearing only on the TARDIS's scanner and the space-time viewer of the Time Lords. It would be the last time he played the Doctor and his last acting role before his death in 1975. In effect, though, his lack of appearance ‘on stage’ reflected the shift that had occurred in the nature of the programme: the deferential days of the wise old mentor had faded. The Doctor was now the action-orientated protagonist.
First Doctor: [As he appears on the TARDIS's television screen] Ah, there you are! I seem to be stuck up here. [He examines the Second and Third Doctors.] So you're my replacements. [They smile at him.] Humph. A dandy and a clown. [They appear insulted.] Have you done anything?
Second Doctor: Uh, well we've assessed the situation-
First Doctor: Just as I thought! [Chuckles] Nothing.
The First Doctor’s insults sum the situation up perfectly: he can insult them because they have in fact become something less than he was. Whereas he could be the mysterious mentor who stepped into tales with wisdom and foresight, they have degenerated (rather than regenerated) into entertainers; whereas he was part of an era that had the remit ‘to inform, educate and entertain’, they were no longer concerned with anything other than the last of that trio.
After this adventure, the Time Lords - now further revealed as squabbling and struggling managers rather than semi-divine figures - restore to the Doctor all his knowledge of time and space travel and give him the freedom to once again use his TARDIS. The writers take advantage, plunging into the past, the future and outer space with renewed vigour as if in an effort to escape the gloom of the '70s themselves. Though the remainder of this era is still more or less explicitly political, investigating interplanetary as well as earthly intrigue, and being very interested in power play between factions in stories such as ‘Frontier in Space’, ‘The Green Death’ and ‘The Monster of Peladon’, there is a new energy to the scripts, assisted by the arrival of a more dynamic new assistant, Sarah Jane Smith.
This was building up to another sea-change in the evolving story of Doctor Who.