PERT-WEEK: Doctor Who - Grounded!

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Sorry, Universe, Tony Fyler can’t come out to play.

 “The first thing I heard when I joined was ‘They’re going to end it this season’. The show was going downwards at that time. I thought it was like being given a job on the Titanic! They were actually looking for a replacement at the time, but they never really found anything, so they decided to do another year of Doctor Who. Around that time, it all sort of came together. Barry Letts became producer, I took over as script editor, Jon Pertwee became the Doctor, the show went into colour, and the whole thing clicked. We suddenly took off again and started getting really good viewing figures. It was like a renaissance for the show.”
Terrance Dicks, incoming script editor for the Jon Pertwee era.

We all know the story. At the end of the sixth season of Doctor Who, the Doctor is forced to regenerate and exiled to Earth by his own people, beginning the Third Doctor era in 1970. The truth is rather more prosaic – the show could have ended in 1969, the mammoth enterprise that was The War Games came about from creative chaos and two regular scripts falling through, and had anyone at the time been able to come up with an idea anywhere near as good as Who was, the longest-running science-fiction show in TV history could have been just a six-year oddity of the sixties.

That said, it’s arguable that someone did come up with an idea as good as Who was. That idea was Doctor Who, but in a way it had never been seen before. With the go-ahead for ‘one more season’ and Patrick Troughton’s decision to leave the role, there was a chance to make Doctor Who in a new way. What there wasn’t, though, was either the money or the commitment to really go on making the same show, but simply with a new actor. It was budget restrictions, rather than the Time Lords, that forced the new incoming Production Team to think differently – and to make the second most risky decision in the show’s history to that point. If regeneration had been a staggeringly inventive way of getting around the increasing ill health of the lead actor, grounding the Doctor on Earth was a last roll of the dice, to make more of what budget there was (allowing the re-use of sets and scenery and avoiding the need to create weird and wonderful alien worlds for each story), and also allowing the show to subtly change its dynamic, from science-fiction more towards the action fantasy shows that were getting higher ratings (mostly for independent stations). In itself, while antithetical to everything the character of the Doctor had been about up till that point, grounding him on Earth allowed the show to mount a fight-back against those other adventure serials of the time, like The Saint, Danger Man and Department S, and prove what we now know – Doctor Who is the show that can be anything, depending on the lead writer, the Production Team, and the actor in the lead role.

It’s fair to say that in 1970, Doctor Who struck gold when Barry Letts took over as Producer, Terrance Dicks came in as Script Editor, and Jon Pertwee took over as the Doctor. While somewhat saddled with the grounding decision made by the outgoing team, and particularly departing Producer Derrick Sherwin, what Letts and Dicks had together was a determination to make order out of comparative chaos, and make the show work.

That’s not to undermine Sherwin’s contribution to the success of Doctor Who when the show was grounded, which was colossal – it was Sherwin who had the casting vote that brought Pertwee in, Sherwin who took the grounding decision, and Sherwin who provided the backdrop of UNIT that would see the new Doctor and the new format settle in.

If you look at the structure of season seven, you can see the thinking behind the show – in a season of just four stories, three of them were mammoth seven-parters, allowing for both elongated viewer buy-in in an age where if you missed an episode, you simply missed it, and for minimal change over a prolonged period – having three seven-parters was the same in viewer terms as having five four-parters, but with two whole story-budgets you didn’t have to think about, let along spend – fewer writers, fewer locations, fewer sets to be designed from scratch and so on.

The idea of UNIT as the Doctor’s way into stories was a surprising success – surprising because again, it was antithetical to much of what the Doctor had previously been about, and because the idea was so very much on a par with everything else out there – secret villain-fighting organisations, an impression probably heightened by the introduction of Caroline John as fashionable Cambridge brainbox Liz Shaw, a kind of test tube-wielding Cathy Gale (occasional kinky boots and all). But what made the whole thing gel was a moment of Derrick Sherwin’s trust and genius in casting Jon Pertwee. Pertwee was best known at the time as a comic actor with a great way with voices and an ability to ‘become’ whatever was needed in a scene. But Pertwee the man was very much more interesting than the roles he was genuinely called on to play – a lover of action, gadgets and most particularly anything that went vroom and sped off with him clinging on for all he was worth. These action elements added an extra hands-on edge to his Doctor that, for all William Hartnell’s physicality is undervalued, took the character into a whole new realm and crucially allowed the show to function as an action fantasy, rather than simply the BBC’s version of what everyone else was doing.

It was a golden combination and almost achieved perfection within that first 1970s season – the addition of colour, for those who were able to see it in those days, being an additional marker of the ‘newness’ of the show under Pertwee, Letts and Dicks. But for Season eight, two crucial changes were made. While Caroline John was fantastic on-screen, the dynamic between her and the Pertwee Doctor didn’t work in terms of the scripts: if anything they were too similar. So tall, brainy Liz was out and short, squeaky Jo Grant was in – a clumsy, somewhat scatterbrained would-be spy who could revert to a sixties companion mold of ‘what’s that, Doctor’ing, but whose strength was in her convictions and her absolute undying loyalty. And, as much to give the Doctor and UNIT an additional way into the battles they would fight as to pit the Doctor against his own Moriarty, Dicks came up with the concept of the Anti-Doctor, and with the casting of Roger Delgado, the show gained another element of sheer genius as the Master was born. With those elements in play, the format would find new character depths in terms of what actually made the Doctor vulnerable, as well as setting up a dynamic that could both make it work as an Earth-based adventure fantasy and still deliver something markedly different to everything else out there – the familiarity and fact of alien life as both the chief danger, and the most assured salvation.

After three full seasons in which Doctor Who went from its ‘adventure in time and space and history’ roots to become an action-fueled, Earth-based but alien-laden fantasy drama, The Three Doctors gave the Doctor his freedom in time and space again, and season ten and eleven are notably less Earth-based than seasons seven to nine, as Pertwee’s Doctor solidified his position as the definitive version for a generation of fans with his combination of an imposing figure and a warm smile, his action man readiness and his way with a perceptive or persuasive speech. More to the point, the work of the team who had made Pertwee’s Earth-bound Doctor a success allowed the show to once again command large family audiences, and the status and budget that went with them, meaning the Third Doctor could afford to go out into the universe more and more often. While the return of time and space restored some of the programme’s original balance, the show would still hold on to the UNIT sets and characters to retain the bones of the format that had worked so well. It would take a new Doctor, less comfortable in the UNIT environment, to finally break that tie.

Why is any of this important to us here in 2015? Simple: because one of the core features of 21st century Who that make it different from most of Classic Who is its continuing connection to an anchor-point on Earth, whether it be Jackie and Mickey, or Wilf, or Rory, or Coal Hill School. The Doctor may no longer be permanently grounded, but the lessons of the era when he was continue to resonate through Doctor Who today.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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