Is Matt Smith's Doctor a black belt at every martial art in the universe? Did David Tennant's best mate have an epic mustache? How many car chases did Eccleston have? Jon Pertwee may or may not have been the best star of Doctor Who, but he was clearly the manliest. And some new DVDs will let you get to know him way better.
The Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who sometimes gets written off as a rip-off of Batman or the John Steed/Emma Peel version of The Avengers. And there's a grain of truth to that characterization — but it was also one of the most fun periods of the show's history. And Pertwee's swinging, Austin Powers-dressing Doctor is probably the most swashbuckling Time Lord you'll ever see.
In the early 1970s, the Doctor was stranded on Earth with a non-working TARDIS and forced to team up with a paramilitary organization called U.N.I.T., saving the world from monsters and mad scientists. This era showed just how far you could push the concept of Doctor Who without losing some essential quality of the show. They took away the time machine, they took away the travel to other planets, they even lost a big chunk of the Doctor's mystery, and yet it's still recognizeably Who.
And the Pertwee stories are an odd mish-mash of James Bond action hero stuff and some curiously philosophical notes — the show's producer, Barry Letts, was a serious Buddhist and environmentalist who wanted the show to touch on weighty topics from time to time. And given the constraints of setting every single story on Earth in the present or near future, the show does an amazing job of coming up with some really wacky story ideas.
Like a lot of eras of Doctor Who, the Pertwee years were probably at their best early on — so it's great that a few new DVD releases give you a brand new look at his first couple of seasons.
First and foremost, we finally have a DVD set of "The Mind of Evil," in more or less full color. This is a story from Pertwee's second season, in which he faces off against his arch-enemy the Master, for just the second time ever. This was one of the Pertwee stories that was lost, except for a somewhat washed-out black-and-white version that really didn't do the story justice — so the restored print, with mostly vibrant color, is a bit of a revelation and reminds you that this is supposed to be a slam-bang adventure, not a film noir. (The restored color mostly looks fantastic, but it does look wobbly from time to time, and starts strobing a bit during parts of episode two.)
In "The Mind of Evil," the Master poses as a professor who's come up with a brand new process for rehabilitating violent criminals — his machine siphons all of the "negative impulses" out of your brain, leaving you good-natured and docile. The only trouble is, the machine is actually alive, and it starts killing people by making them see their biggest fears — whenever this happens, Dudley Simpson's electronic score cranks up and plays a sinister version of Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien."
And meanwhile, the Master has a scheme to hijack an illegal nerve-gas missile from the U.N.I.T. blokes, and use it to destroy a peace conference, plunging the world into war. And he's controlling a Chinese diplomat named Chin Lee, who's channeling the power of the evil machine to murder other diplomats.
With us so far? Great. This is basically the set up for lots of prison riots, gunfights, explosions, helicopters, battles of wits, and general mayhem, with Jon Pertwee in the middle of it all, using his alien martial arts to toss people around like rag dolls.
Like I said, it's a lot more fun now that it's in color and not sort of dark-looking. Even if you've seen "Mind of Evil" before, you probably didn't realize it was supposed to be fun and zany. I had remembered "Mind of Evil" as sort of a slow draggy tale, but now it seems fast-paced and bouncy instead, even over six episodes. The restored print really does make all the difference.
Meanwhile, this month's other new release is a "special edition" DVD of "Inferno," a story from the year before written by the same writer as "Mind of Evil," Don Houghton. This one is a madcap adventure in which a mad scientist (who's not secretly the Master) is drilling under the Earth's crust, hoping to find limitless energy — but instead he's going to destroy the world. And to make matters worse, the Doctor's experiments with fixing the TARDIS get him zapped to an alternate world where Britain is a fascist country and his best friend, the Brigadier, is a bully with an eyepatch.
For even more Pertwee excitement, there's a recently issued "special edition" of "Claws of Axos," the story which comes right after "Mind of Evil." And not that long ago, they put out a special edition of Pertwee's first story, "Spearhead from Space" — and "Spearhead" is soon to be the first ever classic Doctor Who story to get a Blu-ray release too, since the whole thing was shot on film and we still have the prints.
The notion of the Doctor, the quintessential anti-establishment hero who solves problems with offbeat and usually nonviolent methods, teaming up with a military organization is an odd one — but the chemistry between Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney is legendary. Especially in these early stories, they spar again and again, and their conflicts are pretty engaging and often get to the root of what these early stories are about. In their world, there's always some peace conference, and the Brigadier's superiors are always freaking out, and the Brigadier is frequently caught between the greed and selfishness of his fellow humans and the Doctor's judgmental gaze.
As usual with the special features on these things, you learn a lot about what was going on behind the scenes — some of which might change how you view the stories themselves. For example, both Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks say, in no uncertain terms, that they hated the "Doctor banished to Earth" format they were saddled with at the start of their era. They also hated the fact that Pertwee's first season was already set up to have three seven-episode stories, for budgetary reasons, when they came on board.
Meanwhile, we learn that Nicholas Courtney was struggling with terrible depression during the making of "Terror of the Autons," so his role in that story had to be reduced — but he bounced back for "Mind of Evil," and his role was actually punched up in "Mind of Evil" to compensate for his relative scarcity in the previous story. Also, in the original storyline for "Mind of Evil," the Brigadier would have spent a lot of the story being under the Master's control, causing him to be aghast at the terrible things he helped the Master to do — but luckily for fans of the Brig, there's none of that in the actual story.
As usual with these things, the special features are a mixed bag — for every great moment of insight, there's another "comparing the filming locations then and now" bit. (And I don't know how many times we need to be told that "Inferno" director Douglas Camfield had a military mind.)
Probably the biggest surprise, among the special features on all the recently released discs, is a featurette about the years that Doctor Who was off the air from 1989 to 2005 — why this is on the disc for "Inferno," a story from 1970, is unclear — which includes a very odd piece of information. In this featurette, an actor named David Burton claims that he was hired to play the Doctor in a 1991 production, which launched independently in the hopes of winning BBC support. And Burton actually claims that he filmed two whole episodes of Doctor Who, before the project was scrapped. (Click here for a detailed explanation of why this is probably not true.)
In any case, the Jon Pertwee era had a lot of thrilling action-adventure storytelling, mixed in with moments of genuine poignancy or philosophical exploration. Pertwee's collaboration with the Brigadier, Sergeant Benton and Captain Yates remains one of the most interesting ensemble casts the show's ever had, and stories like "Mind of Evil," "Inferno" and "Claws of Axos" show quite how much entertainment value there was in these stories of the Doctor defending the planet he's trapped on. Most of all, the thing that comes out of the early Pertwee stories is a certain joie de vivre, the sense of a Time Lord who's having a blast driving a crazy yellow car at unsafe speeds, helping his soldier friends fight evil, and dishing out tons of Venusian aikido to all comers.