Starring Jon Pertwee (The Doctor), Caroline John (Liz Shaw), Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart) and John Levene (Sergeant Benton)
The TARDIS materialises on the planet Earth in the 20th Century, where the Doctor, who has just gone through a new regeneration, has been exiled by the Time Lords. He reluctantly agrees to work in an unofficial capacity for Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart of UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), who had previously encountered and worked with him, in an earlier incarnation, on two other occasions. The Doctor works closely with Liz Shaw, a young graduate from the University of Cambridge who is seconded to UNIT as a scientific advisor. He spends much of his time using UNIT facilities to try to repair the TARDIS, which has been disabled by the Time Lords, but is also called on to deal with alien invasions, intergalactic kidnapping, military sabotage and mad scientists whose actions threaten to destroy the planet.
I don’t have any clear recollection of watching Doctor Who in its original incarnation when William Hartnell played the lead role, although I undoubtedly would have done. I do have memories of various stories from the period when the Doctor was played by Patrick Troughton and I was certainly watching it week on week long before Troughton gave up the role in the summer of 1969. However, it was the arrival of Jon Pertwee that probably coincided with the start of the period when I became an avid fan of the series and he remains my favourite Doctor. Budget constraints placed on the show dictated that the Doctor would now be exiled on Earth; something I think has been greeted down the years with a mixed reaction. It did, however, give the stories a consistent running theme and it always worked well for me. My fondest memories are reserved for stories from the second, third and fourth seasons of Pertwee’s Doctor, those that feature his companion Jo Grant, played by Katy Manning, but having recently watched his first season again I was struck by the unexpected high quality I found and the constantly fascinating and thought-provoking themes that still resonate strongly today.
It is at least fifteen years since I last watched ‘Inferno’, the final story in the season reviewed here, and probably longer for the preceding three stories. In fact, in the case of ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ I suspect this might be the first time I have seen it again since it was broadcast in late March through to the beginning of May 1970.
In a later story, ‘The Three Doctors’, which included the return and final appearance of William Hartnell, the first Doctor, he describes Pertwee and Troughton as the “dandy and the clown”. Just as Patrick Troughton had done before him, Jon Pertwee drew on some aspects of earlier interpretations of the Doctor and incorporated his own take on the character. Pertwee’s Doctor is a mixture of arrogance and compassion. His attitude towards his companions (Liz Shaw in this first season, Jo Grant later on and finally Sarah Jane Smith) is sometimes that of a stern father, sometimes a mentor and sometimes condescending, but no matter how sorely his patience is tried, he feels a great deal of affection for them all. He is, first and foremost, a scientist, but he also sees himself as something of an action man. When he is not talking about “reversing the polarity” he is often to be found playing with various gadgets of his own invention or taking a very active role in the pursuit of villains.
Pertwee, who was also widely known for the television series ‘Worzel Gummidge’ and the long-running radio show ‘The Navy Lark’, seemed to have good screen chemistry with the other regular actors, notably Roger Delgado who played the Master from the beginning of his second season onwards. Delgado’s tragic death in June 1973 is said to have been a major factor in his decision to leave the series. He also worked very well with Nicholas Courtney, a great favourite amongst Doctor Who fans, who surely must make an appearance in the revived series at some point, although age may be a factor since he is now in his eighties.
The first season with Jon Pertwee, the seventh season of the so-called “classic series”, comprised twenty-five episodes between 3 January and 20 June 1970, each one 25 minutes in length, telling four stories. It opens with ‘Spearhead from Space’, which cleverly introduces the new Doctor in a satisfying manner and sets the scene for the direction the series would take over the next few years. It also introduces the Autons, who would appear again in ‘Terror of the Autons’, the opening story of Pertwee’s second season. They made a third appearance in 2005 in ‘Rose’, the very first episode of the revived series. ‘Spearhead from Space’ is told across four episodes (the remaining three stories each got seven episodes). It is also the first Doctor Who story to be filmed in colour.
‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ marks the first appearance of the Silurians, reptilian creatures (clearly modelled on the 1954 film ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’) who, we discover, ruled the planet Earth 200 million years earlier. There is interesting moral ambiguity in the story about exactly who the aggressor is. We also have the theme of the dangers of nuclear power misused and science gone mad, something that is returned to again in ‘Inferno’. The Silurians are classic Doctor Who monsters, actors in rubber suits who largely seem to have been given only the very basic of stage directions. The labyrinth of caves in which the Silurians have been hibernating for all these millions of years are, of course, entirely artificial and unrealistic, but that’s all part of the charm of it. It is, in fact, a fast moving and enjoyable story. Paul Darrow, who is probably best remembered as Avon in ‘Blake’s 7’, is featured here, as is Geoffrey Palmer, who has starred in various popular sitcoms over the years. Palmer appeared in Doctor Who again, playing different roles, in ‘The Mutants’ in 1972 and ‘Voyage of the Damned’ in 2007.
‘The Ambassadors of Death’ is the story that surprised me most, probably because it is the one I remembered least. Even the opening credits sequence is slightly modified from the norm, coming in two parts with a brief recap teaser in between. The story was clearly inspired by ‘The Quatermass Experiment’, the classic 1953 BBC serial that was remade as a film by Hammer Film Productions in 1955. As is often the case with Doctor Who, it is best not to look for holes in the plot or dwell on the implausibility of some of the scenarios, but it just works really well as a story. I also noticed the use of some rather unusual and not always entirely appropriate original incidental music, which I found both odd and strangely compelling. ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ marks the first appearance of Sergeant Benton, a regular for the next few years to come, having previously appeared in the 1968 story ‘Invasion’ as Corporal Benton.
‘Inferno’ is widely regarded to be one of the classic Doctor Who stories. It has very obviously parallels with a 1967 Star Trek episode called ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and would seem to have been influenced by that earlier work. Once again, the theme of science gone mad is at the heart of the story. This time around the Doctor taps into some of the available nuclear power to conduct his continuing experiments on the TARDIS console and is shifted sideways into a parallel dimension in which he finds himself in a totalitarian version of Britain with a decidedly less than friendly version of Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT. It’s an intense and rather downbeat story with some interesting themes and an unusual one insomuch that the Doctor fails to save the planet from destruction, in one reality at least. The “primords”, humans mutated into savage beasts who look uncannily like Oddbod in ‘Carry On Screaming’, need to be taken with tongue in cheek, but otherwise ‘Inferno’ maintains the very high standard of the previous three stories and the inter-related themes.
Jo Grant was and will probably always remain my favourite companion, undoubtedly because of nostalgia and the fact that as a twelve-year-old I had a huge crush on Katy Manning. However, there is no doubt in retrospect that she was a rather simpering character and, from this distant perspective, a distinctly sexist creation. This is given greater credence by the decision of producer Barry Letts to dispense with the actress Caroline John after just one season because he felt Liz Shaw was an unsuitable companion for the Doctor (John was pregnant at the time, which undoubtedly would also have been a factor in the decision). Shaw was portrayed as a strong and independent character who respected the Doctor but was not intellectually threatened by him. Watching these first season episodes again, I realise how good this character who I previously had given very little thought to could have been had she stayed around longer.
I don’t know what younger viewers of the revived Doctor Who would make of this earlier incarnation. The very limited special effects of old Doctor Who have always been a point of discussion and good-natured humour and would undoubtedly be a big problem for some viewers used to the kind of special effects that are now the norm. The length and the slower pacing of the stories would also, I imagine, come as a surprise, as perhaps would the rather downbeat themes. For me, though, watching these episodes again has not just confirmed my memories of them, but actually surpassed my expectations.
When Doctor Who was revived in 2005 it was no longer permitted to refer to UNIT as United Nations Intelligence Taskforce and so it became Unified Intelligence Taskforce.
Numerous episodes of Doctor Who were wiped or otherwise destroyed by the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s. Considerable effort has been made to locate missing episodes from a number of different sources, primarily overseas broadcasters, although 108 episodes from the first six years of the show remain missing. The Jon Pertwee episodes were badly affected by the BBC’s policy of reusing or destroying old videotapes and although mostly now restored, several parts of ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ exist only in black and white.
Review posted 28 April 2010