Doctor Who in the 1970s | The Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker years

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Colour TV revolutionised Doctor Who in the 1970s, from Jon Pertwee’s Earthbound adventures to Tom Baker’s multi-coloured, multi-genre shenanigans.

Many fans hold that Doctor Who is the best idea for a TV series ever conceived. Now approaching its 60th anniversary, the BBC’s flagship sci-fi programme may not have always lived up to that, but over the last six decades, it’s a show that has had at least as many incarnations as its title character. In this weekly series, three Doctor Who fans go through the greatest show in the galaxy, decade by decade…

Part Two: The 1970s

“What did you expect? Some kind of space rocket with Batman at the controls?”

With change baked into its format, Doctor Who occasionally gets a soft reboot. The first of these, in 1970’s Spearhead From Space, strips away the stories about alien worlds and Earth history that characterised the 1960s and reinvents it as an “Earthbound” show. Later in the the decade, it regenerates again, blossoming into full-colour, genre-bending adventures in time and space.

In a departure from the usual eight-week break between 40-episode seasons, the programme returned for season 7 after an unprecedented six-month break. From then on, around 25 new episodes per season became the standard. It was also produced in colour, even though colour broadcasting wasn’t yet widely available in the UK – for many viewers in 1970, the new Doctor’s adventures continued in black-and-white.

Played by Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor has been grounded on Earth by the Time Lords and left with no choice but to earn his keep as a scientific adviser to UNIT. Although he was cast for his comedy background, Pertwee plays the part straight, as a man of action with a few twinkly flourishes. His frustration with his situation is matched only by his enthusiasm for modern gadgets, alien martial arts, and vehicular mayhem.

As the decade goes on, TARDIS travel is reintroduced to the show and Pertwee is replaced by Tom Baker. Obviously the most recognisable incarnation, the Fourth Doctor personifies the contemporary reading of the character as a trustafarian – an upper-class alien wading into other cultures with a massive scarf, a bag of jelly babies, and a righteous moral sensibility. Baker is funny, and scary, and magnetic; “the definite article, you might say” (and he does, in his debut serial).

Examining any two “eras” in a row will show you that Doctor Who is actually many different TV shows strung together over 60 years, and never more so than in the 1970s. While the Pertwee years adjust and expand their Earthbound brief over the first half of the decade, the Baker years are a vivid, ghoulish, genre-bending affair buffeted by changes behind the scenes, developments in sci-fi at large, and a predictably unpredictable leading man.

Having shed its original idea, the show that builds out from its pared-back beginnings in the 1970s became bigger than ever before. What else do you expect from a decade in sci-fi that began in the wake of Star Trek’s UK TV debut and ended with Star Wars revolutionising blockbuster cinema?

Read more: Doctor Who in the 1960s | The William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton years

Down to Earth (1970 – 1974)

Doctor Who in the 1970s - the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eraA lot happened in that six-month gap between 1960s Who and its 1970s reboot. The original series of Star Trek symbolically took over Doctor Who’s 5.15 timeslot on BBC One on Saturday 12th July 1969, a week or two after Patrick Troughton’s swansong. Then, on 15th November 1969, BBC One followed BBC Two by broadcasting in colour for the first time. And at one point in the middle, the BBC’s higher-ups questioned if Doctor Who had much left in the tank after its already-commissioned seventh season.

One of the several proposed replacements was a remount of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials, but it was research into this that informed the next season’s new, more grounded direction. Furthermore, the show embraced colour but generally veered away from the Trek brand of space-faring sci-fi.

Pertwee’s first serial, 1970’s Spearhead From Space establishes a new status quo by promoting previous guest star Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier to regular status and casting Caroline John as Liz Shaw, the Doctor’s assistant at UNIT. It also introduces the Autons, plastic drones of the Nestene Consciousness that most commonly look like shop-window dummies.

Troughton-era director Barry Letts replaced outgoing producer Derrick Sherwin early on and stayed in the job for the rest of Pertwee’s tenure. And across his first season, he quickly converts the freewheeling anthology format into something more like a workplace sitcom with action and monsters.

Apparently at Pertwee’s behest, there was also an increased focus on the types of gadgets and vehicles popularised by the James Bond franchise and the 1960s Batman TV series, the latter of which was a driver of early colour-TV sales in the UK when the show was repeated on ITV throughout the decade.

Having moved out of his defunct TARDIS, he dallies with whatever car, motorbike, or hovercraft he got hold of for that week’s random chase sequence. By his final season, he’s driving around in the “Whomobile”, a Car-Built-For-Homer-looking flying vehicle that Pertwee commissioned with his own money for use in the programme. The technobabble was pared down to a memorable favourite phrase: “reversing the polarity of the neutron flow” will get you anywhere!

In other action sequences, the resident stunt team HAVOC would get in extended scraps that occasionally advance the plot and receive the unimprovable credit “Action by HAVOC” for their trouble.

Like the parallel universe in the season seven finale, Inferno, the setting is the present we know, just a little bit later. This Tomorrow’s World conception of the 1970s appealed as much to adults as kids and the show grew more popular season on season.

John departed between seasons, but the workplace setting ramps up by adding more regulars, including loveable Jo Grant (Katy Manning) and UNIT bods Sergeant Benton (former Cyberman performer John Levene) and Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin). It’s not a typical family unit, but rather the “UNIT family”, as fans call it.

Of course, the other major regular is the Master (Roger Delgado), a rival renegade Time Lord envisioned by Letts and script editor Terrence Dicks as the Doctor’s Moriarty figure – a consultant for the villains, to his scientific adviser. He appears in all five serials of the eighth season, messing about with all sorts of other invaders, and then turns up periodically thereafter.

Doctor Who in the 1970s - the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eraUnder Letts and Dicks, there’s a left-leaning conservatism about all of Doctor Who’s contemporary stories, which range from eco-parables like The Green Death to an allegory for Britain’s Common Market membership in The Curse Of Peladon and its sequel. And between the giant maggots and the Ice Warriors, there’s always a bunch of bureaucrats or businessmen making nuisances of themselves by either actively working with the villains or failing to take the dandyish, short-tempered Doctor at face value.

(It’s still a run in which the Doctor is more or less working for the military, but let’s just say it comes with no short supply of comebacks to the sort of person who proclaims Doctor Who never used to be political.)

After an unsuccessful spell trying to launch the Daleks in a spin-off US TV series, writer Terry Nation brought the Doctor’s most popular enemies back to the BBC in 1972. Season nine’s Day Of The Daleks inserted the characters into an already-commissioned time-travel thriller, while Nation himself mounted something of a one-man 1960s revival by writing Planet Of The Daleks and Death To The Daleks, in a show that had otherwise moved on from this brand of space opera.

On the other hand, the tenth season opens with the show’s first-ever anniversary special, the now-traditional multi-Doctor story, with William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton as special guest stars alongside Pertwee on a mission for the Time Lords.

It’s not the greatest Doctor Who story ever, but it is a story only Doctor Who could do at that time (eat yer heart out, Spider-Man: No Way Home) and it also serves to restore the Doctor’s TARDIS privileges, and adventures in time and space resume over the following two seasons, with occasional returns to UNIT as its home base.

In a bigger change, Manning left the show at the end of season ten, and the “assistant” role was shaken up by the introduction of feminist journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), possibly the best companion ever.

Sladen’s first season is Pertwee’s last as the Doctor, and years ahead of her time, she drags her role a little closer to equal billing. Even in her second story, Invasion Of The Dinosaurs, Sarah Jane is capable enough to go off on her own, investigate the baddies, and demonstrate to captive scientists that they’re not really on a spaceship, all while the Doctor is off driving the Whomobile under a stegosaurus.

A mooted final confrontation with the Master was waylaid by Delgado’s tragic death in a car accident in 1973, and Pertwee’s swansong instead ties up dangling threads involving the Doctor’s mishaps with the giant spiders of Metebelis III. Directed and co-written by Letts, Planet Of The Spiders is a big send-off for the UNIT era that brings the idea of “regeneration” (it’s called that now) to a new audience.

Pertwee was the longest-serving Doctor up to this point, but no matter how this Tom Baker fella turned out, at least the show’s future was in safe hands with Sladen.

Behind the sofa (1974 – 1979)

Upon the Daleks’ return, journalist and critic Stanley Reynolds coined a phrase that’s stuck to Doctor Who like a Kaled mutant latched on Tom Baker’s throat. Writing for The Times in 1973, he observed:

‘Still, the Daleks are the boss space horrors, something to get the children hiding behind the sofa.’

As it happened, “behind the sofa” was exactly where future seasons were aiming to send its impressionable young audience. New producer Philip Hinchcliffe and writer-turned-script editor Robert Holmes sent the Fourth Doctor back out into a universe that’s had a startling influx of gothic horror, with companions Sarah Jane and UNIT doctor Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) in tow.

Starting in December 1974, the one-two punch of seasons 12 and 13 represent classic Doctor Who at the peak of its power and popularity. The first season introduces the new Doctor opposite a variety of familiar monsters with a loose story arc linking the different serials. The potato-headed Sontarans return and the once-and-future Big Bads the Cybermen make their one-and-only 1970s appearance, (they’re not the most colourful baddies are they?)

Most memorably, the Time Lords dispatch the Doctor to despatch the Daleks at birth, and he meets their creator Davros. Often remembered as one of the best Doctor Who stories ever, Genesis Of The Daleks was prompted by Letts and Dicks asking Nation to revise his proposed season 12 serial, which was apparently (you’ll be shocked to hear) too reminiscent of his previous scripts.

In their next season, the show dispensed with returning monsters, but developed a magpie-like tendency to draw on a variety of sci-fi and horror texts. After a more traditional UNIT-centric opener held over from the previous production run, season 13 has serials that specifically riff on Forbidden Planet, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Thing From Another World, and Hammer’s Frankenstein and Mummy movies.

Traversing spooky stories like Terror Of The Zygons, Pyramids Of Mars, and The Seeds Of Doom, the Doctor himself becomes scarier than he has been since the early seasons. Baker’s huge grin, mad eyes, and unpredictable personality make his Doctor somewhat dangerous and a lot more alien – there’s a friendly but frightening quality in him that no actor except Peter Capaldi has come close to replicating. Despite this, or probably because of it, he became a fast favourite.

On the writing side of things, Holmes once described Doctor Who as a show between ‘Grand Guignol gothic horror on one side and Monty Python on the other’ without going too far in either direction, which is as good a description as you’re going to get. As both a writer and script editor, this belting run is distinguished by his dark sense of humour and memorable one-off characters.

Most of these first two seasons were broadcast on BBC One in 1975, which became a banner year for the show’s ratings. And by 1976, an average of 11 million viewers were tuning in to see the Doctor contend with killer plants, unhinged computers, time-travelling war criminals, and Time Lord conspiracies.

One contemporary review of The Seeds Of Doom went like this:

‘Strangulation—by hand, by claw, by obscene vegetable matter—is the latest gimmick, sufficiently close up so they get the point. And just for a little variety, show the children how to make a Molotov cocktail.’

I beg your pardon, that’s actually a quote from homophobic moral-panic hobbyist Mary Whitehouse, featured in one of her tirades against Doctor Who’s full tilt into teatime horror. Sounds great though, doesn’t it?

Whitehouse and her National Viewers’ And Listeners Association targeted Doctor Who throughout Hinchcliffe’s tenure, with particular umbrage towards the cliffhanger of The Deadly Assassin episode 3, which closes on the Doctor with his head underwater, seemingly dead from drowning.

Responding to the controversy in a 1977 interview with The Daily Express, Holmes said that he aimed the show at the intelligent 14-year-old rather than younger viewers. Hinchcliffe similarly observed that Whitehouse seemed to think Doctor Who was ‘for little children’ – the show’s status as a family-friendly programme produced by the grown-up Drama department made it a subject of confusion, wilful or otherwise.

In any case, the BBC sent a written apology to Whitehouse and moved Hinchcliffe on to another drama series. His successor, Graham Williams, was briefed to introduce a lighter tone with less violence. Holmes resigned early in season 15 and gradually wound down his involvement with Doctor Who until the mid-1980s.

Elisabeth Sladen had already left the show in 1976’s The Hand Of Fear, and she leaves big shoes to fill. The Deadly Assassin is also notable as the first story ever where the Doctor travels without a companion, a concession to Baker’s request for more solo adventures after Sarah Jane left. In the next story, he starts a Pygmalion thing with alien tribeswoman Leela (Louise Jameson) – accounts vary on whether he requested a talking cabbage or Miriam Margolyes as his new companion, but either way, his ideas were declined.

In a 2014 interview with Digital Spy, Baker reflected: ‘Graham Williams was absolutely devoted, but he didn’t have that kind of flair that Philip had. But he let me get away with murder, so that was alright!’

Many accounts say Baker became trickier to work with in the second half of his tenure in the TARDIS, but his performance is one of the constants in an era that loses track of its identity from one season to the next.

Season 15 is the Beeb-mandated lighter season, in which Williams and script editor Anthony Read serve up an extra-mild version of the era’s greatest hits with mixed success – serials include the autumnal folk horror Image Of The Fendahl; a Fantastic Voyage knock-off in The Invisible Enemy; and a decidedly un-Holmes-like Sontarans on Gallifrey finale, The Invasion Of Time. K9 arrives, Leela departs, and there’s a missing muchness all round.

Season 16 was filmed and broadcast the year after Star Wars landed in UK cinemas, and its serials are unified by a loose space-opera/fantasy story arc involving quirky robots and galactic royalty. It sees the Doctor on a quest for the Key to Time, an all-powerful McGuffin that’s scattered in six parts through time and space, with the aid of Romana, (Mary Tamm) a newly graduated Time Lady who’s a professional foil to the Doctor’s ancient amateur.

After writing The Pirate Planet for the Key to Time season, the great Douglas Adams had a stint as script editor on season 17, which moves Doctor Who firmly into Monty Python rather than Grand Guignol. Beginning with Tamm regenerating into Lalla Ward’s Romana II, the season has at least one indisputable classic serial – City Of Death, a contemporary yet timey-wimey caper in which the villainous Count Scarlioni (Julian Glover) steals the Mona Lisa seven times over.

The serial was broadcast during a strike that took ITV off air, so it’s nothing more than a funny fluke of scheduling that the best Doctor Who story ever happens to be the most watched Doctor Who broadcast ever, peaking at 16.1 million viewers for the final instalment.

But the pendulum swung the other way when industrial action at the BBC postponed and then cancelled the filming of Adams’ six-part season finale, Shada, leaving it incomplete. It’s since become something of a white whale for reconstructors of all stripes, with umpteen adaptations and animated versions through the years. The BBC-backed 40th-anniversary version available on disc and streaming is a feature-length patchwork of live-action footage with animated bits and newly recorded dialogue. Had it been completed as planned, Shada would have been the first complete story of the 1980s.

Williams and Adams both left after season 17, holding their joint leaving party on 14th December 1979. However, Baker stayed in the role for a seventh and final season under a new producer and script editor. And as he mused in that Digital Spy interview, perhaps it was one season too many.

The 1970s are dominated by the two longest-serving Doctors, each characterised by a series swimming against expectations, first with its action-packed extravaganzas and then with successively quirkier sci-fi and horror homages. Usually, the early 1980s are characterised as Doctor Who’s most garish period, but that’s purely superficial – it’s the show’s first decade in full colour that values stimulating penny-dreadful stories rather than eye-catching costumes and up-to-code genre bunkum.

One day, they will come back…

Major recurring characters we meet for the first time in the 1970s include the Autons, the Silurians, the Sea Devils, the Zygons, Jo Grant, Davros, and everyone’s favourite tin dog K9 (in The Invisible Enemy), but it’s the Time Lords that are the most fleshed out. Following The War Games, we learn that they’re from the planet Gallifrey and that the Master went to school with the Doctor there and so did a bloke called Drax. The veil of mystery is all but gone by the time we get to The Invasion Of Time.

But where do we first hear the name “Gallifrey”? Why, it’s in 1974’s The Time Warrior, which has a strong claim as the cradle of Doctor Who as we know it. It also features the first appearance of Sarah Jane, the first appearance of the Sontarans, and even the first appearance of that diamond logo, which has been revived for the forthcoming era. Even if it wasn’t also as fun and witty and inventive as The Time Warrior is, it would be a landmark serial.

Six more brilliant things about Doctor Who in the 1970s

1. Season seven kicked off with a new arrangement of Ron Grainer’s theme tune, but it wasn’t until the third serial, The Ambassadors Of Death, that it got its greatest add-on – “the cliffhanger scream”, a.k.a. the screeching note that accompanies an array of unforgettable cliffhangers through the Pertwee and Baker years, (including the one above, from episode 1 of The Time Warrior) right up to the present day.

2. ‘Oh, so you’re my replacements. A dandy and a clown.’ It’s great how the very first multi-Doctor story establishes that incarnations might not get on. Though they were firm friends in real life, Pertwee and Troughton kept up the performance of bickering in convention appearances and later TV guest spots, like kayfabe in wrestling.

3. If nothing else, Sarah Jane is the definitive companion for appearing in a definitive companion scene – 1975’s Pyramids Of Mars has her ask the Doctor why they don’t leave alien god Sutekh to his plan if they know the world isn’t destroyed in 1912 and the scene that follows lays out the show’s vague “time can be rewritten” rule in unforgettable terms for the very first time.

4. Roger Delgado’s performance as the Master is hard to top. Pre-Deadly Assassin, he cuts a charming, dangerous figure, albeit one whose plans always go wrong. The chummy rivalry between the Doctor and the Master peaks in 1972’s The Sea Devils, and the extended fencing match between two old school friends messing about.

5. Speaking of the Master – 1971’s Terror Of The Autons represents Doctor Who horror at its most deranged and irresponsible. Holmes not only revives the nightmarish Autons but revels in adding new twists. Jo almost gets suffocated by a plastic daffodil! A policeman’s face gets ripped off to reveal a featureless synthetic skull! A hideous troll doll lurches around murdering people in chroma-key-vision! It makes Baker’s era look like Playdays!

6. The 17th season may not always live up to the promise of Douglas Adams script-editing Doctor Who, but it’s stuffed with underrated bits, from the witty gags and off-kilter resolution of The Creature From The Pit to the wild, pinballing tone of outer-space pile-up mystery Nightmare Of Eden. Oh, and did I mention City Of Death is the best one ever?

Bye bye, Duggan! Feel free to share your favourite things about 1970s Doctor Who in the comments…

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