Having weathered the storm of one lead actor leaving the show, the announcement in 1969 that Patrick Troughton was handing back his keys to the TARDIS was less stressful than it might have been. Mind you, the revelation that he was to be replaced by Jon Pertwee, a seasoned theatrical performer and renowned clown, must have had proto-Whovians scratching their heads and wondering if the show was veering too heavily into the realms of comedy.
They needn’t have been concerned. From his first moment – leaving the TARDIS and collapsing with regeneration dizziness in color, no less! – the Third Doctor carried himself with great dignity, as if he refused to lower himself to the whimsical nonsense his immediate predecessor would happily potter his life away with. If he was funny, it was usually as a result of his own pomposity being pricked, by one of his young female companions. And this lofty air could easily have made him an unsympathetic character — a professorial braggart in a ruffled shirt — but for two shrewd moves on the part of the show’s producers.
First, for the early adventures at least, the Doctor is exiled to Earth, and he takes up a post as scientific advisor to UNIT, the UN-sponsored military organization devoted to battling invaders from space. He’s presented as an unwilling, and sometimes unhappy member of the team, but this is because he is hemmed in by the conditions of his exile. He might be able to fend off Autons and all sorts, but fundamentally his mind is fixed on ways to escape. He’s never allowed to be too comfortable.
Secondly, no matter how puffed-up and superior the Third Doctor becomes — and he can really inflate, given the right circumstances — he will always be brought down to Earth by the bulldog Brigadier. In fact it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the relationship with the Brigadier is the most significant one of the Third Doctor’s tenancy. He may always need a Jo Grant or Sarah Jane Smith to impress and twinkle in front of, like a beloved headmaster, but it’s in that unspoken, bristley affection between the UNIT leader and his wayward science advisor that you can see the real sparks.
And they’re both men of action too. The Brig has his men and his guns and his military planning, which the Doctor roundly mocks. But given a spot of argy-bargy, he’s got moves. Martial arts moves, mainly, lots of throwing people over his back. You’d never expect that level of aggressive physicality from the First Doctor and the Second Doctor was more of a scamp than a scrapper.
There again, the Third Doctor is also a scientist and proud of it. So every new thing that crosses his path, he can’t help but investigate, and then explain in detail. First to Liz Shaw, who understands enough to know how far ahead his mind is, then to Jo Grant, who often looks like a dog being shown the Wisden cricket almanac, and then to Sarah Jane Smith, who is far too practical to spend much time examining her surroundings.
Here’s a clip. He wears a bow tie. Bow ties are cool:
So for all his loftiness and “my dear fellow” Wildean strut, the Third Doctor brought back the note of authority that the Second tried so desperately to drop. It would reappear in the damning moral lectures the Fourth gave to his enemies, in the stiffness and occasional ruthlessness of the Ninth, and in the frosty bearing of the Sixth.
And you could argue that without it, we’d never have arrived at the idea that the Doctor needs his companions to rein him in, to prevent his Time Lord coldness interfering with his natural warmth.