Pertwee! The frilly clothes, the ludicrous hair, the mighty beak, the dodgy back, the influential friends in high places with whom he is on first-name terms. Ah yes, that old chestnut…
A strangely incongruous reality of the Third Doctor is that disarming ease of manner with stuffed shirts. This was as much as part of actor Jon Pertwee’s own famously ‘clubbable’ personality as was his habit of rubbing the back of his neck or tip of his nose just long enough to ensure the studio camera didn’t forget who wore the velvet trousers. Damascus by Jonathan Barnes, part of the Short Trips range of short-format audio plays, makes great play of this sometimes controversial aspect of the character, casting the British Prime Minister, no less, as the Doctor’s companion and subordinate in an oddball adventure that riffs on many of the Pertwee era’s idiosyncrasies.
The story is told from the first-person perspective of ‘Jeremy’, the fictional British PM first mentioned in “The Green Death” (1973) as a production joke at the expense of the then-Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, a politician whose career would subsequently be very publically undone by his trial and acquittal for involvement in the murder of a male model. Yes, this is sort of relevant.
When a giant UFO appears over Norfolk, the British PM naturally expects UNIT to be hot on the case. Enraged to learn that their mysterious ‘Scientific Advisor’ isn’t answering the phone despite being on “the payroll”, the PM takes flight to the Home Counties to track down the Doctor at UNIT HQ and enlist his help in saving the world (or maybe just Norfolk). With him on this mercy dash is one Jason Sinclair, his flamboyant aide and factotum. As a “confirmed bachelor” (as they used to say in the 1970s), Jason proves a source of some considerable distraction to the PM. But how odd is this ‘secret’ set-up with its big painted UNIT sign? And as for this bizarre Doctor chap…
Narrator Tim Treloar brings a playful, Wodehousian archness to the character of Jeremy while his take on Pertwee is refreshingly un-forced, while still conveying the essence of the original through his very similar vocal tone. No one can ever replace the Mighty Pert, alas, but it’s pleasing to hear Big Finish jump back into his era and mix it up.
Inevitably, with this degree of satire at play, Damascus sometimes feels too much like an elaborately constructed in-joke; the whole Jeremy Thorpe angle, in particular, may strain your indulgence by the end - particularly if you didn’t grow up in the UK in the 1970s. But most of the tropes and obscurities Barnes has fun with are beloved in fandom and he doesn’t miss much out – the vagaries of UNIT’s timeline and location, the oddness of the Third Doctor’s employment status, the malfunctioning UNIT phone system – all the greatest hits and more are here. So if you’re in on the joke, great. New to the Pertwee era? Best watch it all first. Skip The Monster of Peladon if you want.
Although it dutifully moves its alien threat closer to centre stage as the story unfolds, this one’s all about celebrating the Pertwee era itself and does so with a lot of love and mischief.
To be enjoyed with an excellent drop of red and a spot of cheese.
DOCTOR WHO – SHORT TRIPS: DAMASCUS / WRITER: JONATHAN BARNES / DIRECTOR: LISA BOWERMAN / NARRATOR: TIM TRELOAR / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW