I will admit, up front, that the Pertwee era is far from my favorite era of Doctor Who. And this is not an uncommon opinion in Doctor Who fandom. Though the heyday of Pertwee bashing came in the 1990s, it’s notable that when Time Unincorporated began collecting major essays from the fanzine scene it devoted an entire chapter to the Pertwee controversy. And while they admit that the controversy had largely dissipated, there is still something about the Pertwee era – something that isn’t true of either the Troughton or Hartnell eras – that invites a love-it-or-hate-it debate. It is, in many ways, the first controversial era of Doctor Who.This is the third in the series of collected articles from Philip Sandifer's excellent blog, this time looking at the Pertwee era, of which Sandifer and I share the majority view among fandom - though it is not a crushing majority - that this is not Old Who's finest period. But rather than whining about the stories, like I have done, Sandifer unpacks with some care why it is that the Third Doctor sometimes doesn't quite work, often rather sympathetically, particularly to Pertwee himself, and also Katy Manning and Nicholas Courtney on whom the success of the stories often depends. I had previously read his essay on Moonbase 3 after watching the episodes; but in the context of the other essays showing what Dicks and Letts were trying to achieve, and why it barely worked in Who and didn't work on the Moon in 2003, it makes a lot more sense. Basically his thesis is that the show was flitting uneasily between action and glam, though Dicks and Letts may not have been fully aware of this themselves.
There is also some brilliant additional coloration in the side essays on Monty Python and David Bowie, and the piece on The Three Doctors is an extended riff on William Blake which also quotes another William, my brother. As before, Sandifer explains better to me what I have seen on screen and makes me want to expand my reading / viewing (though in fact none of the non-TV Who referenced here, five books and two audios, were new to me).
Which is not to say that I completely agree with him. On a broad point, I find Sandifer's overall tracking of the show's history deterministic and almost Whiggish. To pull another quote, this time from the Planet of the Spiders essay:
Pertwee doesn’t regenerate because his time is past. He regenerates because he’s finally accomplished what his era set out to do in the first place.It's a nice peroration, but it is very much projecting the future onto the past as if it were inevitable (which is what I mean by Whiggish). Pertwee regenerated, fundamentally, because the actor decided / was persuaded to leave the show. The artistic judgements about where to take the story flowed partly from that fact and largely from other factors affecting the show's creators, some of which we know about and some of which we don't. And while it's good and satisfying that towards the end of Planet of the Spiders, Pertwee's Doctor has a moment of repentance and redemption before he dies, I think it's a strong reading (which is to say, factually incorrect) to say that he regenerates because he has accomplished his mission - indeed, I wish that it were otherwise; I'd have preferred if this thought had been better integrated into the story as a whole, better yet the season as a whole, rather than just dragged in at the end.
And on a much more specific point, I agreed with almost all of Sandifer's judgements of individual stories with the extraordinary exception of The Mutants, which most fans would put pretty far down the list of Pertwee stories and I would put firmly at the bottom. Sandifer praises it, though not terribly coherently, for its use of "spectacle". I will allow it good use of location filming, but really not much more than that; in terms of spectacle, the transmogrification of Ky at the end is surely a botch? Its political messages are certainly botched, and so, rather more often than one can forgive, is the acting and directing.
Anyway, despite my occasional disagreements, another good addition to the thinking fan's bookshelf.