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60 Years of Dr Who. Part 3: The Third Doctor

By Matthew Kresal

UNIT, cars. It must be the Third Doctor.

Though it began airing in 1963, one could argue that Doctor Who hit its stride in the 1970s. Moving into colour with a new leading man in the form of Jon Pertwee and with a new Earthbound format seeing the Doctor exiled to Earth as scientific adviser to UNIT, the beginning of the decade saw the series move from potential cancellation to a hit series once more. It was a time of changes to the series and, unsurprisingly, would-be serials fell by the wayside. Among them was a potential return to the series by a writer from its earliest days tackling a new Doctor and a new format in The Mega.

The writer in question was Bill Strutton. Australian by birth, Strutton was a frequent writer for British TV from the late 1950s into the mid-1970s, writing for series as wide-ranging as The Saint and Emergency Ward 10. Today, thanks to the ongoing popularity of Doctor Who, his best known work might be the 1965 serial The Web Planet. One of the most ambitious stories of its era, The Web Planet featured not only an alien world a lot like the Moon, but populated with creatures that include giant ants, grub creatures, anthropomorphised moths, and something akin to a Lovecraftian Elder God. Though a ratings winner, achieving 13 million viewers at one point, the serial ran massively over budget due to its ambition and, thanks in part to the realisation but also to the flaws in Strutton's script, The Web Planet is less fondly remembered today among surviving 1960s Doctor Who serials.

Giant ants and anthropomorphised moths from The Web Planet.

Picture courtesy BBC.

All of which, along with The Web Planet being a rare foray into the science fiction genre for him, might explain why Strutton never wrote another televised Doctor Who serial. But in the late summer of 1970, as the Pertwee era was ramping up between his first two seasons in the role, Strutton reached out to the production team about writing for the series again with an outline for a serial called The Mega. Commissioned by producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, Strutton worked on The Mega outline for some weeks, possibly with an eye for the serial being part of Pertwee’s second season, then reaching the end of its production on in his third season, which would begin filming in the summer of 1971. Ultimately, The Mega would go unmade, with Strutton’s final TV credit being for Crown Court in 1973. By an odd coincidence, Strutton passed away on Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary, November 23rd, 2003.

A decade after Strutton’s passing, fans got to experience The Mega for themselves. In 2008, Big Finish Productions (the UK-based company producing audio dramas and spinoffs since 1999) began a new range of releases as Doctor Who – The Lost Stories . Initially focusing on unmade stories from the era of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, their attention soon turned to the unproduced scripts from the other Doctors. The Mega would be the sole Third Doctor entry in the range, with its release rounding out both Big Finish’s celebration of the series 50th anniversary and concluding the initial run of Lost Stories releases.

Working from Strutton’s 1970 outline, Big Finish regular Simon Guerrier had his work cut out for him. The plot certainly fits into the early Pertwee era, being an Earthbound thriller serial in the vein of Inferno and The Mind of Evil with Britain (and by extension the world) under threat from Prince Cassie, leader of the tiny European nation of Golbasto, which has received help from the titular alien race to build a molecule ray capable of assassinating “warmongers” and potentially entire cities at the press of a button. All the tropes are present, too, from the Brigadier and the UNIT regulars to global tensions playing out against an otherwordly threat and even the odd throwaway reference to recurring characters of the time.

What separates The Mega from those other stories is its scope. The Web Planet was perhaps the single most ambitious tale of Doctor Who’s early years, and five years (and two Doctors) later, Strutton was still aiming for lofty heights. The Mega offers up some sizable action sequences that put even the most ambitious ones of the Pertwee era to shame, including chase sequences and full-on riots in the heart of London, not to mention European locales. The titular aliens themselves are described in a way that makes one wonder how they could have been realised in an early 1970s BBC TV studio.

Bessie, the Third Doctor, Sergeant Benson, and a car chase.

Picture courtesy BBC.

Yet while it retains the thriller aspects of the Pertwee era, parts of The Mega feel out of sync with it. The Mega and the molecule ray feel like things out of the time that Strutton originally wrote for. A time when writers such as Dalek creator Terry Nation would name planets after odd words in a semi-educational moment, endearing perhaps at the time, but coming across as odd decades later. To the credit of Guerrier and Big Finish, they preserved that, even if it makes for odd listening occasionally as the story becomes a cross between the tropes of the Pertwee era and the quirks of the Hartnell one nearly a decade prior.

The Mega is also both helped and hindered by all too common issues with classic Who: length and pacing. It’s a six-parter, which isn’t always bad, as Lost Stories such as Farewell Great Macedon show. The Mega, however, suffers from its length. Once the Doctor and Jo Grant get to Golbasto at the end of part two, their portions of the narrative quickly become repetitive, with a series of confrontations, escapes, and returns. The Mega isn’t alone in its suffering, nor does it do much to alleviate it. Guerrier does his best to liven things up with his prose and in fleshing out the outline (something he goes into more detail about in the CD booklet notes, which was vague in places to the point that Jo wasn’t mentioned until partway through the outline), his work can only liven things up so much. The Mega is just too long for its own good, making a better four- or even five-parter than six, with even its scope not affording enough plot to sustain it.

Even so, The Mega is a well-realised piece of work. Produced at a time before the company had embraced the idea of re-casting roles played by departed cast members (Pertwee having passed away in 1996 while attending an American science fiction convention and Brigadier actor Nicholas Courtney having passed away in 2011), The Mega is an enhanced talking book in the style of the First Doctor and Second Doctor Lost Stories . Here, Katy Manning and Richard Franklin (who played Jo Grant and UNIT Captain Mike Yates, respectively) reprised their roles while also serving as narrators, with Manning reading Pertwee’s Doctor. Manning does well recreating her 1970s self while deepening her voice when doing Pertwee, offering a flavour of his Doctor, as does Franklin while channelling both Courtney as the Brigadier and John Levene as Sergeant Benton, even if Benton’s accent goes a bit over the top (perhaps unsurprsing, given Levene in real-life). The supporting cast of Bo Poraj and Derek Carlyle is likewise solid, with both playing multiple characters across the six episodes (Poraj even playing the leaders of opposing nations!). The sound design and especially the music of Richard Fox and Lauren Yason completes the story with their score capturing the feel of era’s various musical stylings rather nicely. Even so, it feels a shame that The Mega didn’t arrive a couple of years later, after Tim Trealor assumed the Third Doctor mantle and Jon Culshaw took on the Brigadier, as this being full-cast might have helped it even more, though this feels like a prototype for it as a production in many ways.

Where would The Mega have fit into the Pertwee era if it had been made? Given its ambition, it’s easy to imagine it being an end of season epic where budget could be saved for it. Or, likewise, being akin to 1974’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs , remembered more for special effects that weren’t up to par. As an audio production, it’s an intriguing piece of lost Doctor Who history. Perhaps not a classic by any means, but an intriguing look at a Pertwee era that might have been.

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Matthew Kresal is author of the SLP book Our Man On The Hill.


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