A few thoughts on humour in late seventies Doctor Who

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Spurred on by TV Years sharing this late seventies audioclip of Jon Pertwee rubbishing K9, I’ve been having another ponder about the state of Doctor Who during that time. Personally, I love this era of the show – but I’m aware that not everybody shares this view.

At least today it has more love amongst fans than it did at the time (although the general public, fools that they were,  seemed to enjoy it). At the time, as can be evidenced from that short clip, it wasn’t just Pertwee who was dissatisfied. Mind you, I’ve always had the strong sense that Jon Pertwee never forgave Tom Baker for being more successful than him in the role ….

But it’s true there was a vocal section of Doctor Who fandom who were convinced that Tom Baker and Graham Williams were ruining the show. Everything was just too silly for them – if only DW could recover its gritty roots, then all would be well.

This viewpoint lasted well into the eighties. Having leafed recently through a number contemporary fanzines, it’s not uncommon to come across articles which write off all of Graham Williams’ three years as a total disaster. By the early nineties the balance had changed though – Williams was in and JN-T was out.

That’s the way fandom worked – if you disliked S17 then you liked S18, if you liked S18 then you disliked S17. Liking (or indeed disliking) both or bits of both didn’t seem to be an option. You had to nail your colours to a mast (Williams for ever, JN-T never, etc).

It always surprises me when somebody today vouchsafes the opinion that humour in late seventies Who ruined the programme.  This rather ignores the fact that DW light-heartedness didn’t begin in 1977 (Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee all had their comic moments).

Also instructive is the way that certain Hinchcliffe stories (The Android Invasion, The Brain of Morbius) display a wisecracking Doctor very similar to the later Williams model. Slicing DW into discrete eras depending on when the various producers arrived and departed is something we’ve always done, but it doesn’t always work (see also Meglos, something which easily could have slotted into S17).

I’ve never bought into the assertion that S15-S17 are total gigglefests from start to finish. There are plenty of gags and comic moments, but there’s drama as well.  I sometimes feel I’m ploughing a lonely furrow when I declare my love for the likes of The Creature From The Pit or The Horns of Nimon but that’s okay.  Who needs to be popular?

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3 thoughts on “A few thoughts on humour in late seventies Doctor Who

  1. I remember Gareth Roberts writing that most of the problems of Season 17 Doctor Who would have been solved by the present day convention of the tone meeting.

    One thing that can be said for the comedy of this period is that it is, in essence at least, genuinely witty and funny. The problem that I often have with it is the manner in which it’s performed, with some guest actors doing unrestrained turns that takes a lead from Tom Baker (who often seems to be performing with the chief aim of amusing himself by this stage).

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    • In terms of unrestrained turns,Graham Crowden obviously immediately springs to mind – although had he played it dead straight I’m not sure it would have improved the story.

      ISTR Graham Williams was always keen to ensure each story had at least one prominent and respected guest actor – someone whom he hoped would ensure Tom toed the line, which was an interesting way of attempting to keep him under control (didn’t always work though, as you’ve said).

      I wouldn’t want every story to play out like S17, but then they didn’t – next year you got something quite different. So my appreciation of late seventies Who is informed by the fact it’s just another phase the show went through – similarly I can enjoy The Chase, knowing that it’s not the default setting for the series.

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  2. Douglas Adams said that the comedy in Doctor Who only works if it’s played straight.

    I certainly remember people in the seventies saying that Doctor Who had deteriorated into a comedy show since Tom Baker took over from Jon Pertwee.

    Jon Pertwee’s portrayal of the Doctor was the one that was most like a conventional hero, which may explain why people who think that Jon Pertwee was the onlt Doctor Who who was any good usually like Phil Collins.

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