You may have missed the news, but this is the 50th anniversary of a cheap, scrappy British science fiction series called Doctor Who. Like a fair number of folk my age, I first stumbled across Doctor Who one Saturday afternoon on PBS, back when PBS was able to air things like Doctor Who, The Avengers, The Prisoner, and it being cultural and all, Benny Hill. Unlike many, however, I seem to be one of the few people who came into the show not during an airing of the iconic Tom Baker years, but rather during the tenure of the man with the velvet smoking jackets and Venusian aikido. The Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, was my introduction to Doctor Who, and he remains my favorite.
Pertwee’s early life is one of expulsion from a long string of schools, including the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, before he finally ended up in the Naval Intelligence division during the war, alongside a chap by the name of Ian Fleming. After the war — during which he woke up one night after a wee bit of revelry to find he had a tattoo of a cobra on his arm — Pertwee launched a successful career as an actor and occasional stuntman, mostly doing comedy, and in 1970 inherited the role of The Doctor from Patrick Troughton. Just as Troughton’s wily scamp of a doctor had been a departure from William Hartnell’s cranky patriarch, so too did Pertwee play the iconic character differently from Troughton. In no place is this more obvious than in the fashion, an aspect of The Doctor almost as important as the man playing him.
Bill Hartnell’s Doctor, the First Doctor (that we know of, anyway), dressed to match his mood: old and a little mean and black. His was the wardrobe of the typical Edwardian gentleman — or a Teddy Boy, though I doubt anyone would mistake William Hartnell’s Doctor for such: plain but refined, the black drape of a professor, which is what he was meant to be, more or less, when the show began. Actually, the more I look at him, with that swept back hair and ribbo tie…it’s true! From this moment on, let Hartnell be known as the Teddy Boy Doctor. All he needs is a pair of creepers. When Troughton assumed the role in 1966, his outfit was almost a hobo’s variation of Hartnell’s restrained black and whites. Striped pants, a more threadbare and rumpled jacket, shaggier hair; the “Tramp Doctor” was a more playful Doctor with a more playful outfit.
Both men, however, were like cartoon characters in that they wore the same outfit every week. Accessories might augment the uniform — Hartnell had a pointy cap, and Troughton had a ridiculously voluminous fur coat — but for the most part they had just the one outfit. Until Pertwee took over and really developed the concept of the TARDIS’ infinite walk-in closet. Hartnell had been the adult, the stern grandfather of early 1960s England. Troughton’s tramp with his mop top hair signified a shift in society toward the more free-wheeling and open society of London in the swingin’ sixties. And then along rumbles the Third Doctor in his jalopy Bessie, resplendent in Chelsea boots, velvet jackets, ruffled shirts — the very picture of the sartorial excess of the late 60s/early 1970s. And what’s more, he brought more than one outfit. When the Third Doctor encountered the First, the First Doctor irritably dismissed his later incarnation as “a dandy.” The Second Doctor called him “Fancy Pants.”
Pertwee’s Dandy Doctor didn’t just usher in a more splendid wardrobe (which was perhaps to take advantage of the fact that his was the first run to broadcast in color); it was a more libertine and decidedly hipper incarnation of the series all around. His longest running companion, Jo Grant (Katy Manning) was a swinging London girl, an employee of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce — UNIT — and the first (and still only, much to the chagrin of David Tennant fans) Doctor Who star to pose nude with a Dalek (though the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, let it all hang out in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales). Both Pertwee, a former stuntman, and Manning performed their own stunts — and unlike previous seasons of the shows, the Pertwee era was one full of action and fight scenes. Hartnell was an old man and Troughton was prone to scampering away, but Pertwee and Jo would simply assume a fighting stance and whip out a judo throw or kick. There was still a bit of the patrician in the Third Doctor, but he was less stern grandfather, more cool uncle (who shows up at family events in his own hovercraft).
Pertwee’s Doctor also helped solidify the importance of the Doctor’s outfit as an integral reflection of his character, though it was the Fourth Doctor whose sartorial choices would elevate the Doctor’s fashion to the level of the iconic. Tom Baker played the role longer than anyone else. Although he returned to having only the one outfit after Pertwee’s enviable closet full of threads, the one outfit on which he settled is still recognizable immediately as “the Doctor Who outfit.” The slouching fedora, the tarp of a topcoat, and of course, the absurdly long scarf once again embody the fashion excesses of the era, but more than that they are single most defining outfit in the long history of Doctor Who, just as Baker himself remains (at least for older fans) the definitive Doctor.
Subsequent Doctors would be hampered by the show’s need to have “a Doctor Who outfit,” and they were uniformly dreadful, aiming for quirkiness but forgetting the style. From Peter Davidson’s dull cricketer’s outfit to Colin Baker’s abominable rainbow nightmare, it was clear these men were wearing costumes more than outfits. The Third Doctor was a dandy, yes, but he was a believable dandy, and his outfits were believable if extravagant. Similarly, the First and Second Doctor’s clothing might have had its peculiarities, but they were very believable as “something that guy might wear.” Even Baker’s get-up looked natural and lived-in, the easy and consistent outfit of the easy and consistent Doctor. Up until then, they were reflections, if funhouse mirror versions, of the times in which their runs took place. That’s lost somewhat (perhaps for the best — no one wants a Grunge Doctor in flannel, with pictures of Mudhoney taped to the TARDIS walls) once the Doctor starts wearing cricket outfits and clown clothes and sweater-vests covered with question marks. They would return to a Doctor with outfits more reflective of their times with Chris Eccleston, but it was never quite as much fun.
My heart will always be with Pertwee — fellow dandy, fellow globe-trotting international man of mystery, the Doctor who brought us both Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith. If you dropped the Third Doctor into an episode of The Avengers, he would have fit right in (Pertwee actually does appear in an episode of The Avengers, but just as a soldier), and he and Steed could have gone shopping together at a store run by Jason King. That incredible combination of action, aliens, and gorgeous ruffled shirts and array of smoking jackets keeps me coming back to the Third Doctor, as does the genuine affection one feels between him and his Scooby Doo gang-esque band of companions. While some may don the fez of Matt Smith, or the suit and sneakers of David Tennant, or the scarf of Tom Baker (no one ever dons the Technicolor dream coat of Colin Baker), I will recline in my wine-colored smoking jacket, prop my Chelsea boot clad feet up on my window sill, and raise a glass of port to the two-fisted, tattooed Third Doctor.
Keith Allison’s personal style falls somewhere between Jon Pertwee and Matt Smith, but his hovercraft is in the shop.