Thursday, 15 May 2014

Doctor Who: Assessing the Pertwee Era

When Doctor Who was grounded
The "Horror Channel" has been showing repeats of old Dr Who episodes, mainly at the moment from Jon Pertwee's tenure as Doctor Who. These are:
Terror of the Autons
The Daemons
The Sea Devils
The Three Doctors
Planet of the Daleks
The Green Death
With the exception of "Planet of the Daleks", they all are grounded on earth, even when the Doctor gets his freedom to travel.
One of the most notable features of that are the opening shots, which are invariably a location shoot of some kind. Hence we have a circus, a village church, a boat crossing the sea, a weather balloon by a reservoir, and a disused mine shaft.
"A little man in a bowler hat watches the customers enter the big top of the International Circus. He walks round the back, past the lion's cage and finds a quiet spot to light up a small cigar. We hear the sound of the Tardis materialising and a motor horse box suddenly appears in the open ground before him. Agog, the man walks over and looks round it while a trim man in black suit and gloves, and with a neat beard gets out." (Terror of the Autons)
"It is a dark and stormy night. The quiet village of Aldbourne in Wiltshire pretends to be Devil's End, with an appropriate eerie howling wind and thunderstorm. Lightning briefly the church illuminates the over the green as the public house, the Cloven Hoof, turns out its last customers, a man and his dog into the storm." (The Daemons)
The Doctor and Jo are being ferried to a small island in a small boat.
ROBBINS: That's it over there.
(The Doctor looks through a pair of binoculars at what is really Norris Castle on the Isle of Wight.)
DOCTOR: There you are, Jo. That's the Master's permanent residence from now on.
JO: Well, let's hope he's still there.
(The Sea Devils)
"A long, silver weather balloon has brought its payload to earth by the edge of a lake, and a man carrying a shotgun finds it. Meanwhile, a Land Rover comes over the bridge at the entrance to the Minsbridge Wild Life Sanctuary and heads for the warden's lodge. A woman comes out to meet it" (The Three Doctors)
"Llanfairfach colliery has been closed, says the notice on the gate, but underground a scared man is making his way along one of the worked out roadways. Welcome to post industrial Glamorgan, everyone." (The Green Death)
Even if some of the story plays out on studio sets, the location element is important for grounding the narrative in the world we are all familiar with. An alien jungle in Planet of the Daleks is not as convincing as a village and church for making the viewer suspend belief.
It is when the narrative is framed in the everyday, the ordinary, the commonplace, that the science fiction element becomes a greater menace. Jon Pertwee famously talked how aliens on an alien planet were not as scary as a yeti in "Tooting Bec", but he hit the nail on the head.
C.S. Lewis said that Alice must be an ordinary little girl, or the impact of the extraordinary world she finds herself in would not carry the same dramatic power. With Doctor Who, this is reversed. The alien intrusion is extraordinary, but it is grounded in an ordinary world.
Morality and the Daleks
"Planet of the Daleks" contains quite a few of Terry Nation's mini-sermons about war and peace. It is this, as much as the plot itself, which gives Pertwee's Doctor some depth of character. He is not just a man of action, he is also a man of wisdom, dispensing words of advice when needed. Here are a few of the best vignettes, which I really like.
The Dalek is held up as ruthless, not prone to human weakness. Nation evidently was drawing on the Second World War, and the Nazis in their creation. There is no place in the Nazi war machine for human frailty.
DOCTOR: The load getting a little heavy?
TARON: I don't think I'm equipped to handle all this any more.
DOCTOR: Oh, why? Just because you've found out that you're not made of stone?
TARON: This job doesn't allow for human weakness.
DOCTOR: Then they should have sent a machine, shouldn't they.
TARON: I thought they had. I was wrong.
DOCTOR: Good, because the business of command is not for a machine, is it? The moment that we forget that we're dealing with people, then we're no better off than the machines that we came here to destroy. When we start acting and thinking like the Daleks, Taron, the battle is lost.
And on the same lines, when the Doctor speaks out bravery and courage, this is not a question of discipline and skill, although they can help. But that are nothing to do with courage. The really brave person is the one who is terrified, but still does what has to be done.
CODAL: Bravery? I've been terrified ever since I landed on this planet. It's different for Taron and Vaber, they're professionals. They've seen action before.
DOCTOR: And do you think they're any the less brave because of that?
CODAL: They know how to deal with fear. They're used to living close to death. I'm not. I'm a scientist, not an adventurer.
DOCTOR: Well, forgive me if I'm wrong, but aren't you a volunteer?
DOCTOR: Then you must have known what you were getting into?
CODAL: No. None of us did. We're not a warlike people, Doctor. We've only just developed space flight. No one had attempted a voyage of this length before, but every man and woman from my division volunteered. Over six hundred of them. You see, I didn't even have the courage to be the odd man out. What are you laughing at?
DOCTOR: Ah, you, my friend. You may be a very brilliant scientist but you have very little understanding of people, particularly yourself. Courage isn't just a matter of not being frightened, you know.
CODAL: What is it, then?
DOCTOR: It's being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway, just as you did.
And finally, when the Thals have succeeding, and are about the leave the planet, the Doctor reminds them that they should also remember the cost of war. In a way, it is a rejoinder to those who criticise commemoration of the war dead. Remembrance Day is thinking of the fallen, and the cost of warfare; it is not a glorification of war.
TARON: Doctor, we'd never have succeeded without all your help. I wish there was some way of thanking you.
DOCTOR: As a matter of fact, there is.
REBEC: Yes, Doctor?
DOCTOR: Throughout history, you Thals have always been known as one of the most peace loving peoples in the galaxy.
TARON: I hope we always will be.
DOCTOR: Yes, well that's what I mean. When you get back to Skaro, you'll all be national heroes. Everybody will want to hear about your adventures.
TARON: Of course.
DOCTOR: So be careful how you tell that story, will you? Don't glamorise it. Don't make war sound like an exciting and thrilling game.
TARON: I understand.
DOCTOR: Tell them about the members of your mission that will not be returning, like Maro and Vaber and Marat. Tell them about the fear, otherwise your people might relish the idea of war. We don't want that.
REBEC: You can depend on us.
The Doctor's moralising may seem to be recycling "home truths" about life, but if no one ever mentions those, how are we to hear them? Certainly, as a teenager, growing up with the Pertwee era, I imbibed that and took it very much to heart. It lays bare the moral case for a fight of good against evil, and the way in which the battle must be fought to be just.
Peace Maker, but not a Pacifist
While the Doctor fights evil, where peace is possible, and it is an honourable course of action, he seeks to find a peaceful solution first. In the Sea Devils, a race of intelligent lizards from the distant past have been revived from millions of years hibernation, and want to reclaim what they regard as their world.
SEA DEVIL: There are many thousands of our people in hibernation in this base. We have other colonies hidden all round the world. We shall be the victors in the war against mankind.
DOCTOR: But there's no need for a war. Why can't you share the planet?
SEA DEVIL: That would be impossible.
DOCTOR: The depths of the sea and those areas on Earth where man cannot live can be yours.
SEA DEVIL: And man would agree to that?
DOCTOR: There's a chance. Wouldn't it be better to try for a peace, than to launch yourself into a war that you cannot possibly win?
SEA DEVIL: I will consider what you have said.
DOCTOR: Let me return to the humans, and I will endeavour to make a peace for you.
SEA DEVIL: Perhaps it would be possible.
And he is very much the "honest broker", seeking peace between reptiles and humans:
WALKER: Oh, come, come, Doctor. You speak as if these creatures are human. We're not going to hand over the world to a lot of lizards, you know.
DOCTOR: You can share it with them, surely?
WALKER: Oh, come. Really, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Look, let me make one final attempt to negotiate.
WALKER: Well, you didn't get very far last time, did you?
DOCTOR: Just you think of it, sir. Think of it. Wouldn't you like to be the man behind a peaceful settlement? Walker the peacemaker, they'd call you. Or would you prefer to be known as the man responsible for launching a full scale war!
In the end he fails, but it is not because he has not tried. Peace is the first solution, but events may dictate otherwise:
HART: Well then, Doctor, what happened?
DOCTOR: I managed to destroy their base for you.
HART: Thank goodness. Well done.
DOCTOR: Well, I did what I had to to prevent a war.
But when he does have to destroy, he is never pleased about the outcome. It is a failure of the attempt to get peace, not a victory to rejoice in. The same downbeat mood is found in "The Three Doctors", after the Doctors defeat Omega and destroy him:
JO: What's the matter, Doctor? Everything worked out all right, didn't it?
DOCTOR: Yes, for us.
JO: I know what it is. It's because you had to trick Omega.
DOCTOR: I didn't exactly trick him. I promised him his freedom and I gave it to him. The only freedom he could ever have.
JO: What else could you do? It was either him or everything
The strength of John Pertwee's tenure as the Doctor comes with the grounding of the narrative in the realism of location, the moral values of the Doctor himself, and the regrets he has when he defeats some of his adversaries. That is why the best of his stories are still very watchable today, and still hold up very well.


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