Like all good things, the Jon Pertwee tenure of Doctor Who was bound to end. After four wildly popular seasons of television and just coming off of a mostly stellar tenth anniversary year, Pertwee, producer Barry Letts, and script editor Terrance Dicks decided it was time to call it a day. Season 11 would be the last to feature the Third Doctor’s frilly shirts, velvet jackets, curly ever-whitening mop, and Venusian Aikido moves, but not before introducing audiences to who many consider (still to this day, even) the quintessential Doctor Who companion and one of the longest-serving of the whole series.
Season 11 – December 1973 – June 1974
The UNIT Family was slowly beginning to come undone by the end of the last season. Katy Manning, who had portrayed companion Jo Grant for three seasons, had decided to leave the show, and Roger Delgado, whose presence as the Master had become an indelible part of this new era of Doctor Who, had died in a car accident between seasons while filming a movie abroad. Both of these departures reportedly hit Pertwee hard and, while he may have wanted to continue as the Doctor beyond his fifth season, the oncoming exits of Letts and Dicks were in a way forcing his hand. So what was he to do for his final year? And who could possibly replace Jo Grant?
Luckily, the answer to the second question came in the form of a capable feminist reporter named Sarah Jane Smith, played by the late, great Elisabeth Sladen. The way Jo had been an opposite reaction to Liz, so too was Sarah Jane a reaction to Jo. She stood her ground, didn’t suffer fools gladly, often gave the Doctor or the Brigadier the proper crap they deserved, and she thought most of what was going on was ridiculous, though terrifying. It’s a credit to Sladen that Sarah Jane became who she became, because script editor Dicks clearly attempted to write what he assumed was a feminist seemingly without actually understanding what that meant. It doesn’t mean “a bit ill-tempered woman with a job.” Still, Sarah Jane became stronger the less outwardly stroppy she was, and eventually, she was the best. Not that she didn’t start very strong.
Season 11 began with another script from the man who would become the script editor the following year. Robert Holmes was commissioned by Dicks to write a medieval historical story to utilize a castle location to which they had access, but Holmes had little to no interest in doing so. However, creating an alien race to be involved in this medieval story was right up his alley, and so we got The Time Warrior. The Doctor and UNIT are investigating the disappearance of several scientists from a research facility conducting who-gives-a-crap experiments. The Doctor poses as a scientist (which he, of course, is anyway) to get to the bottom of this. One of his roommates is Professor Rubeish, who can’t see anything without his very thick glasses. Another “scientist” is Sarah Jane Smith, who is actually a reporter posing as her famous aunt Lavinia. One evening, Rubeish is taken and the Doctor sees a spectral image of something and hops in the TARDIS to follow it, not realizing that Ms. Smith has stowed away.
Back in the Middle Ages, a vile warlord named Irongron and his henchman Bloodaxe discover a large metal ball has fallen from the sky. From inside it steps a small man covered head-to-toe in armor. His name is Linx and he claims to be a member of the great Sontaran Empire. His ship needs fixing, so he has decided to steal scientists from the future to help him, then, as payment for giving him quarter in the castle, Linx has promised to give Irongron all manner of weaponry advanced well beyond the time. Upon arriving, Sarah Jane immediately thinks the Doctor is to blame for everything, and flatly doesn’t believe she’s in the Middle Ages until it becomes abundantly clear. Eventually, the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Lord Edward of Wessex must find a way to stop Linx, retrieve the kidnapped scientists, and stop Irongron’s haphazard scheme.
As is common with most Robert Holmes stories, I think “The Time Warrior” is brilliant. It has so much fantastic, witty banter, especially from Irongron, who speaks like an idiot Shakespeare reject. The very fact that there are characters named “Irongron” and “Bloodaxe” also makes me laugh quite a bit. Professor Rubeish is a good Mr. Magoo analog, too. Sarah Jane’s first story is a doozy, giving her lots of opportunities to show her mettle, standing up to Irongron, and trying to introduce the idea of equality for women to his female kitchen staff.
The Doctor, too, has a lot of good running about and fighting and pretending to be a very silly-looking robot for awhile. This is the very first serial in which he speaks the name of his home planet: Gallifrey! It’s also the first time we see or hear anything about the race of Sontarans, a squat warrior race of clones all bred to fight the seemingly endless and unnecessary war with the Rutans. In a couple of seasons we will know what a Rutan is, but for now, Linx remains the first and best version of a Sontaran on screen until, probably, Strax in the new series.
The second story of the season is the final to be written by my favorite writer after Holmes, Malcolm Hulke. A friend and mentor of Terrance Dicks, he stopped writing for the series when the regime changed, though he would go on to novelize several of his TV scripts for the Target range. His final story is arguably one of his strongest, though, due to some unfortunate and legendarily shoddy special effects, people often call Invasion of the Dinosaurs one of the dumber stories of the Pertwee era. But, I assure you, it is not.
Returning to the present, the Doctor and Sarah Jane exit the TARDIS to find the streets of London deserted. They are arrested by the army, but the Brigadier finds them and releases them. It seems UNIT is helping assist the regular army with something rather strange: Dinosaurs are appearing suddenly in parts of the city, hanging out for awhile, and then, just as suddenly, disappearing. The Doctor recognizes this as a “Time Eddy” and thinks someone is doing it intentionally. And, wouldn’t ya know it, he’s right. A professor named Whitaker is operating a “timescoop” at the behest of an MP named Sir Charles Grover. They are figuring out a way to move things through time without affecting the world around it. Why?
Well, it’s simple yet complicated. They think the world’s gone to pot and think it should start over, but with the “right” people doing the restarting. They’ve convinced a group of people that they’re going into outer space to another planet to colonize on behalf of the human race, but those people are actually just in the facility and are about to be taken back to Earth as it was millions of years prior and mess up the whole of natural history. And the worst part? Well, there’s two worst parts. One is that Sarah Jane gets kidnapped and sent about the “spaceship” to be conditioned to be docile, and the other is that Captain Mike Yates, still messed up after his ordeal at the end of “The Green Death,” is helping the mad scientists, believing it to be the proper path for humanity.
I think this is such a weird and cool concept for a story. First of all, just having a ton of dinosaurs roaming a completely desolate London is a really engaging image, and then to find out that the dinosaurs being there are only a ruse to get people away so they can perform this OTHER nefarious plan is a really terrific switcheroo. There’s lots of great themes that Hulke uses here, like brainwashing, environmental insanity, the “new world order,” and conspiracy, as well as his usual stuff of not trusting the military or elected officials, that really hit home and work well as a piece. This is also the last major UNIT story for Jon Pertwee, so it’s an end of an era there as well. Having Mike fall in with these people is very heartbreaking, but you sort of believe he’s doing it for the right reasons; that makes his quiet resignation from UNIT at the end of the serial all the more tragic.
Now, the dinosaur effects at the beginning of the story are admittedly terrible. They are clearly just plastic hand puppets shot on video superimposed over filmed shots of the military personnel fighting. It doesn’t go together well at all, and if you’re the sort of person who can’t abide poor effects, it might be hard to overcome. But, what I like about it is that Barry Letts never said to Hulke he shouldn’t have dinosaurs in it. Yes, it probably wasn’t going to look great, but the idea and the story were good enough to warrant going forward anyway. That’s what’s great about Doctor Who and about Malcolm Hulke’s writing in general: never did a low budget get in the way of a high concept.
Now, from Robert Holmes and Malcolm Hulke, we go to a story by one of the most consistently boring writers in the whole of the series, who is still very important for having written that damned first (and others) Dalek serial: Terry Nation. His script for Season 10, “Planet of the Daleks,” may as well have been called “Rehashing of the Daleks,” but at least his story here, Death to the Daleks, is slightly new and fairly interesting, if ultimately lackluster. It concerns the Doctor and Sarah Jane crash landing on the planet Exxilon because of an energy drain to the TARDIS. The planet contains a primitive yet intelligent indigenous race, some other crash-landed humans, a couple weird monsters, and the Daleks, who have also arrived because of the energy drain. What’s interesting is that the drain has rendered their weapons totally useless and they suddenly cannot EX-TER-MIN-ATE anything. However, it’s still just a big ol’ runaround, and there’s still a mysterious city in the distance that the Doctor has to get to with the help of the indigenous people of the planet. It’s a lot of the same with a little bit different.
But, I’d rather watch “Death to the Daleks” a million times over before I watch the next serial, the six part The Monster of Peladon, a sequel to “The Curse of Peladon” and the final Doctor Who script to be written by Ice Warriors creator Brian Hayles. In it, the Doctor and Sarah Jane end up on Peladon a number of years after his last visit. King Peladon has grown old and died, and his daughter is now the ruler. Again, the Federation is involved, as is the irritating giant-eyed Alpha Centauri. Now, the Federation are at war with the Galaxy Five confederation and Peladon is being used as a meeting place for all the aliens to confer. Unfortunately, there are reports that Aggedor, the mythical though actually pretty nice monster of the title, is killing miners, and some believe it to be due to the planet itself being displeased by all the aliens.
From here, we get an allegory to miners striking and working conditions and all sorts of other blah-blah. The Ice Warriors are in this story again, but now are back to being pure bad guys, unlike the interesting and nuanced way they were depicted in “Curse.” That this story is six parts only makes the boring parts more boring and the costume design is often laughable, especially with regard to the badger-haired miners. Every season (except 7) of Jon Pertwee has had one dog, and this one is definitely Season 11’s.
However, Pertwee’s tenure ends on a considerably higher note, even if it too suffers from the six-part conundrum. Written by Robert Sloman, but really by his uncredited writing partner Barry Letts, Planet of the Spiders was also directed by Letts, making it the only Doctor Who story in history to be produced, directed, and written by the same person. It’s full of the Zen Buddhism of which Letts was a huge fan, as well as having some chases and action stuff to make Pertwee feel good.
While investigating a psychic, the Doctor and Brigadier are surprised to get a package from Jo Grant, all the way from the Amazon. It’s the Metebelis crystal that the Doctor gave her as a going away present. She writes in the note that the locals fear it and claim it to have some bad ju-ju going on around it. Meanwhile, Mike Yates, now a civilian, contacts Sarah Jane about some weird goings-on at a Buddhist retreat at a monastery run by a mysterious monk named K’anpo Rimpoche. They stumble upon a circle of chanting people, led by the Lupton, a creepy guy by all accounts, and in the middle of the circle a giant spider begins to appear. Sarah Jane returns to UNIT to tell the Doctor, only to find that Lupton has followed her, stealing the Metebelis crystal in the process. A full episode of chase begins featuring cars, helicopters, boats, hovercrafts, and the Whomobile, a specialized car Pertwee owned that had been featured briefly in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.”
The Doctor and Sarah Jane get back to the monastery and meet Cho-Je, the servant of K’anpo. Lupton, with the crystal, chants and is teleported to Metebelis Three by the spiders, who subconsciously allow Sarah Jane to be transported as well. There she sees the human (or “Two Legs”) slave class who serve the giant spiders, who themselves serve The Great One, the giantest giant spider of them all. It seems the Great One needs the crystal the Doctor took to complete a lattice that would amplify her mental powers to a staggering degree. The Doctor follows, gets captured, tries to stage a revolution by the Two-Legs, retrieves the crystal, and heads back to Earth with Sarah Jane, but the bad times are not over. Finally meeting K’anpo, the Doctor realizes that the old monk is his former teacher on Gallifrey, who has so learned how to harness regeneration that he’s projecting his future incarnation in the form of Cho-Je. The Doctor knows he must face The Great One, even if it means he will die due to the heavy radiation in her lair. He recognizes his “greed for knowledge” is the reason for the whole problem and his fear of the spiders must be faced.
Back on Earth, the Doctor’s lab is empty for weeks and Sarah Jane and the Brigadier ruminate about what might have become of the Time Lord. Just then, his TARDIS lands and he exits, horribly sick from the radiation. What follows is one of the best and most touching regeneration scenes in the whole series.
“Planet of the Spiders” is entirely too long, and pretty much everything having to do with the “Two Legs” on Metebelis is boring and un-engaging. There’s also quite a lot of repeated material at the beginning of episodes from the end of the previous ones, which can be tiresome if you’re watching them back to back. The Third Doctor was never particularly greedy during his time, even for knowledge, but Pertwee delivers these scenes incredibly, impressively well. He really gave this final story, and especially that final scene, his all. There’s a reason he’s my favorite classic series Doctor, and scenes like these illustrate that beautifully. The story is not the best in total, but I really enjoy it for what it is and as a final story for a terrific Doctor, it does its job and then some.
For a brief glimpse at the end of what is a pretty lousy regeneration effect (it’s just a crossfade!), audiences were able to see the man who would be the Fourth Doctor. Little did anyone know that this former builder, the youngest actor ever to play the role, would become the longest-sitting Doctor of all time, eclipsing his predecessor by two whole years, and would be, still to some, the face, scarf, hair, and teeth of Doctor Who. As for the production team, Letts and Dicks had one final story to produce, which would usher in this new lead actor, and soon the regime of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes would begin, which some (including myself) see to be the most successful and consistently great of the whole show.
Tom Baker begins next week!