1970 turned out to be a truly significant year in the history of Doctor Who. Having weathered the storm posed by its first ever change of lead actor in 1966, the show’s popularity had mostly continued unabated, but things started to change by the end of that decade, and by 1969 the ratings had started to wane.
As Patrick Troughton disappeared from our screens in June of that year, it could have been the last that we ever saw of the Doctor. The following week, BBC1 replaced the series with a new American import – Star Trek. Serious consideration had actually been given to cancelling Doctor Who altogether, but it was given a stay of execution, and it was already known the programme would be back the next year – albeit with half of the usual number of episodes – with Jon Pertwee playing the title role.
It was a radical transformation in more ways than one. Along with a new lead actor, the show was also to make its debut in colour; the format was also to change radically, as the Doctor was exiled to contemporary Earth by his own people, having been found guilty of meddling in the affairs of others, which broke their cardinal rule of non-interference. He ended up as Scientific Advisor to the global military outfit known as UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), with the majority of his adventures tending to be Earthbound.
Despite this being something of a risky gamble, it ended up being a huge success, and all the changes reinvigorated the show, making it hugely popular all over again. With the first few stories and format already having been set in motion by the previous production team, it fell to the new producer – Barry Letts – and his script editor – Terrance Dicks – to run with things, keeping up all of the new-found momentum, as well as making a few minor tweaks and course corrections to ensure the series’ popularity continued.
Letts and Dicks jointly presided over a new golden age, with Pertwee’s tenure as the Time Lord coming to an end in 1974, and the pair moving on after casting his replacement, Tom Baker. The story of what happened in order to regenerate an ailing property is certainly one worth telling, and this latest DVD set from Reeltime Pictures does just that, going behind the scenes of Pertwee’s era, and giving us access to a range of people who just happened to be on both sides of the camera during that period.
Starting in 1984, Reeltime Pictures’ Myth Makers series has been interviewing production staff and actors from Doctor Who, going from 1963 right up to date. In those days before DVDs, let alone DVD extras, Reeltime managed to capture a range of contributors, including many of whom that are no longer with us – as the number of these will only ever grow fewer with the inexorable passage of time, the range of Myth Makers tapes (nowadays DVDs and streaming) provides us a valuable resource for future reference.
Split across two discs, The Doctors: The Jon Pertwee Years – Behind The Scenes Vol. 1 gives a look at what it took to make this show during the first half of the 1970s. The first of these discs is probably the strongest, offering us two lengthy sit-down chats with Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, interviewed almost three decades ago by the modern voice of the Daleks, Nicholas Briggs, who comprehensively runs through the full period they spent working on the series, and he manages to tease out more than the usual stock anecdotes.
What really does come through strongly here is not just the professional respect Letts and Dicks had for each other, but also a strong friendship which carried on long after they had both departed the series. Dicks, in particular, is somebody whose full contribution to Doctor Who should not be played down; as well as co-creating the Time Lords for Troughton’s final story in 1969, he novelised almost 70 stories, and was writing published fiction relating to the show right up to his death in August 2019.
On the second disc, one of the features is named after writer Don Houghton, which is a little bit misleading, as it actually features a host of writers from the era – including Houghton – on a panel at a convention from 1987. However, as there is little to no material available of Houghton talking about his work, the real rarity value of this archive footage more than makes up for any initial misgivings about the accuracy of the labelling; there is also a lot of fun seeing all the members of the panel riffing off each other.
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Directors Christopher Barry and Paul Bernard – again, sadly both since departed – get a feature of their own, with a pair of separate interviews spliced together, looking back at their work on the series. Possibly the weakest of all the interview compilations here comes with a collection of guests from a 2008 Doctor Who event; however, we do at least get some decent actor anecdotes from these supporting players, who would most likely not justify getting a full interview of their own, so they do at least manage to bring a little bit of extra colour and flavour to proceedings, although the production quality of this feature could do with some extra polish.
With the next volume in this 13-part series going right back to the very beginning, with William Hartnell’s time playing the original Doctor, Reeltime Pictures will hopefully manage to raise the bar from what has proven to be a very promising – if, at times, a little patchy – start.
The Doctors: The Jon Pertwee Years – Behind The Scenes Vol. 1 is out now on 2-Disc DVD.