General note for this entire series: this will, obviously, be a terribly subjective analysis. Firstly, because I'm me, and my ideas of good and bad will certainly vary differently from those of others. Secondly, because I will be basing my musings on an incomplete assemblage of sources. This includes all of the classic serials on DVD, but no others--I know, I know, but I'm fairly new to Who fandom, and I am not buying VHS tapes that won't even fit anywhere in a year or so. It also includes selected Big Finish audios, which are delightful on the whole. A parting note before I dive in to Doctor number 3: I love the new series, I love the old series, I love all the Doctors, and I love pretty much every companion, so, any criticism or picking which follows, comes from a place of love.
Okay, I have to admit a little personal bias here. While I enjoy every single Doctor, and I enjoy the contrasts that they give us, Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor is my least favorite of the bunch, and this includes the short-shrifted Paul McGann. This is not just fan sniping, however, because my relative coolness toward the Third Doctor stems almost entirely from the very nature of his character. In a complete and rather surprising departure from who we thought the Doctor was, Jon Pertwee gives us a compelling portrait of the Doctor as action hero (that is merely not my ideal version of the Doctor--matter of taste). If it weren’t for the strength of the underlying moral and ethical elements of the character and Jon Pertwee’s multi-layered performance, we’d almost think we were watching a completely different show.
Following on from “The War Games,” where the Second Doctor was forcibly regenerated, we see Jon Pertwee fall out of the TARDIS in living color. While it takes “Spearhead from Space” a while to warm up, it has some lovely moments early one establishing just what sort of chap this new Doctor is. In fact, several of his biggest tropes are on full display right there in the first serial: the love of cars, the action sequences, the co-operation with UNIT, the attempt to reason with invading aliens, and, most memorably, perhaps, the clothes. The action hero dandy with a healthy disrespect for authority: that’s the Third Doctor in a nutshell.
As I said, this is the Doctor as action hero. This is not at all to say that the Third Doctor is some sort of fight first, think later kind of hero. He is emphatically not. However, he is remarkable for his willingness and ability to use physical violence in a pinch. His “Venusian aikido” has got to be one of the most memorable fake fighting styles ever created. (It’s also, especially in “The Three Doctors,” one of the silliest.) He also loves anything with a motor: cars, helicopters, motor boats, you name it. Much of this apparently came from Pertwee himself, who was something of an action man. According to lore, the producers stuffed his last story, “Planet of the Spiders” with as many forms of transport as possible to send their leading man away happy.
The Third Doctor’s era, though, will always be remembered as the UNIT years: we have the Brigadier, Capt. Yates, Sgt. Benton, Liz Shaw (my favorite under-rated companion), Jo Grant and a slew of stories centered around the UNIT crew trying to repel the latest alien invasion of Earth. Not until Sarah Jane Smith came on as companion, in Pertwee’s last season, did the show have a permanent cast member who wasn't in UNIT, even though he had regained his ability to travel in the TARDIS at the end of “The Three Doctors.” (Technically, though, he never resigned from UNIT, as we were reminded in “The Sontaran Stratagem.”)
The other striking feature of the Third Doctor’s era is the expansion of the myths of Gallifrey. Indeed, it’s in “The Time Warrior” that we finally hear the name of the Doctor’s home planet. We also see more of the Time Lords, along with our first multi-Doctor story. Most importantly, however, we finally get the one person in the universe who is a match for the Doctor: the Master. While almost certainly over-used in his first season, the Master provides a wonderful counterbalance to the Doctor and went on to become the third in the trinity of the Doctor’s enduring foes, joining the Daleks and the Cybermen.
My favorite Third Doctor moment is also one of his most unusual. At the end of “The Green Death,” after Jo Grant leaves to marry the very groovy Welshman Professor Jones, the Doctor walks away, quietly, with a tear in his eye and drives off alone in Bessie. For a Doctor who is largely defined by his outsized personality and flamboyant tastes, it’s that moment that I find the most affecting and the most genuine. It’s this Doctor at his most human and down-to-earth, two things which the next Doctor could rarely be accused of being.
Favorite episodes? Watch “Inferno,” if only because everyone raves about it so, the flawed yet still wonderful “The Green Death,” and the brilliant “The Time Monster.”