Grab your sonic screwdriver, dust off that velvet blazer, and make sure you’re up to speed on your Venusian Aikido, because today is the day we celebrate the birth of Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee!
Celebrated by fans of Doctor Who as a leading man of action, the Third Doctor is a beloved fixture of the legendary science fiction franchise – and the man who brought him to life is equally beloved among those in the fandom community. Whether known for his convention appearances, his roles outside of Doctor Who, fathering Gotham star Sean Pertwee, or any other part of his fascinating life, there’s no question that all who’ve been touched by Pertwee’s influence have been made better for it.
So on this, what would have been his 103rd birthday, let’s look back at the life and times of the man of the hour – after all, they say that the departed are never truly gone so long as they are remembered.
Some nostalgic regeneration
John Devon Roland Pertwee was born July 7, 1919, in Chelsea, London, into an already auspiciously artistic family as the son of screenwriter and actor Roland Pertwee and a distant cousin of Bill Pertwee. What makes his family ties all the more interesting is the fact that his godfather was actor Henry Ainley, father of Anthony Ainley – the man who would go on to star opposite Pertwee as the Master in The Five Doctors anniversary special.
With a pedigree such as his, it was no wonder that Pertwee got a very early start, performing in a circus act where he rode the Wall of Death on a motorcycle with a toothless lion in his sidecar. He would later be coaxed into repertory theater, and be contracted by the BBC by age eighteen, but joining the circus was just the beginning of Pertwee’s thrilling and unusual early life.
Like other Doctor Who alumni like Tom Baker, Pertwee was a military man, serving in the Royal Navy for six years and was a veteran of WWII. During that time, however, Pertwee was a member of the highly secretive Naval Intelligence Division, where he served alongside the likes of James Bond creator Ian Flemming. He was, in short, a spy, reporting directly to the likes of Winston Churchill – with all the secretive trappings inherent to the job. It served him well later on in crafting the persona of the Third Doctor, which was modeled more after the aforementioned James Bond as he worked with U.N.I.T. during his exile on Earth.
After the war, Pertwee’s early work focused on comedy, such as his performances in the radio sitcom The Navy Lark. Though some thought it detrimental at the time, along with his lisp, the strong resemblance he shared with actor Danny Kaye worked to his benefit as he became known as a Danny Kaye lookalike. Not only did his impersonation of Kaye appear in the film Murder At The Windmill, but he also doubled for Kaye during London location work on Knock On Wood.
The TARDIS Years
It was in 1969, after building his list of credentials in stage productions like A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and small television spots like his appearance on The Avengers that he got the opportunity to appear on Doctor Who. After asking his agent to apply for the role of the Doctor, Pertwee was surprised to find out he’d been shortlisted: he was the second pick after Ron Moody, who was unavailable for the role. Pertwee would go on to play the part for five seasons, longer than either of his predecessors despite appearing in fewer episodes than Hartnell in particular thanks to a reduced production schedule.
Though Pertwee would go on after his Doctor Who run to have further success with shows and roles like the titular scarecrow of Worzel Gummidge, he credited Doctor Who for allowing him to evolve as an actor. Forming the character under the guidance of the BBC’s head of drama, Shaun Sutton, he learned to play the Third Doctor simply by playing himself. In doing so, he gained a better understanding of himself as a whole, and as an actor: a dapper, tech savvy man of action. Beneath the comedic disguises and voice work he relied on was a capable and confident person who could do great things.
Things, such as comedic disguises and voices. The aforementioned Worzel Gummidge is noteworthy for its total departure from Pertwee’s Third Doctor, with a transformation so complete he was barely recognizable as the lovelorn living scarecrow, constantly chasing after coconut shy doll Aunt Sally’s affections. In fact, Pertwee did a lot of work in children’s media after Doctor Who, working on a BBC drama but one time after his departure from the show, playing the role of an aging Basque arsonist and pornographer in an episode of Virtual Murder entitled “A Torch For Silverado.”
Though he was quoted as saying that he might have stayed in the role of the Doctor for too long, somewhat inhibiting his ability to get certain roles, Pertwee had nothing but positive feelings for the character, the show, and the fanbase. No stranger to the convention circuit, veterans of old school fandom and diehard fans of the show are intimately familiar with his regular appearances in the early days of the popular Los Angeles-based convention Gallifrey One. To this day, his memory lives on in stories shared by the elders of fandom who regale the younger generation with tales of Pertwee’s charisma, good humor, and talent shared off screen with those who loved him.
Though Pertwee passed away on May 20, 1996, his legacy survives him as readily as his own family. Whether it’s through posthumous appearances in other Doctor Who stories and seasons, reliving his classic time spent as the Third Doctor, Worzel Gummidge, or any other of his legendary roles – or the memories of those who knew him personally as an enthusiastic part of the fan community, Jon Pertwee continues to touch lives even to this day. His memory is a blessing, his talent transcendent…and his advice as the Third Doctor in solving any problem will never go out of style.
As we salute Jon Pertwee on this, his birthday, remember:
When in doubt, just reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.
Liz Carlie (she/her/he/him) is a regular book, TV, and film reviewer for SCIFI.radio and has previously been a guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. In addition to being an active member of the traditional fandom community, she’s also an active participant in online fan culture, pro wrestling journalism, and spreading the gospel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She resides in Southern California with her aspiring superhero dog, Junior, enjoying life one hyperfixation at a time.