It’s 1982 and things are changing for Doctor Who in a big way. While the world reacts to the launch of the Commodore 64 computer in California, and England is in the middle of its coldest winter since the 50’s, season nineteen opens with episode 1 of "Castrovalva" and someone else is wearing Tom Baker’s scarf.
Peter Davidson was 29 when he auditioned for the role of the Fifth Doctor. It would be another 30 years before an even younger actor would take on the role. Davidson was already a household name in the UK portraying Tristian Farnon, cheeky younger brother to Robert Hardy older brother in All Creatures Great and Small. A program you’ve never heard of – let alone James Herriot, the Yorkshire Veterinarian whose novels inspired it. Yet the series had as much a cult following as Doctor Who or any of the endless Soap Operas such as Coronation Street or Dallas.
It was a shock to see Davidson emerge from the crumpled remains of the Fourth Doctor’s attire, open eyed, possibly drunk with a vacant expression on his face. The nation was so used to seeing him curing a Farmer’s prized cow in some wet muddy field - not trundling down the Tardis’ corridors in a wheelchair thinking his companions were still Ian and Barbara from Hartnell’s time. There were fans of the series who hated the switch over hoping the Master who had ensured Baker’s demise would quickly dispatch his youthful successor. I was probably one of them because with the new title sequence and the new direction – showing episodes twice a week meaning that seasons would zip by in 14 weeks not 26 - it felt the BBC in some ways had devalued the program. Of course, by time "Castrovalva" ended, and Davidson dressed in his Edwardian Cricketer's suit with a sprig of celery (to cure his allergy to gases in the Praxis range), everyone, even me, accepted him.
Davidson played the Doctor by choosing not to be the focal figure allowing his Companions to lead the way. Like Harvey Dent, he chose to flip a coin to decide what action to take. Do I go down that corridor? Do I let say something to vex my enemies? Do I throw a cricket ball at them? It was as if Doctor Who had become a first person role-playing game.
Davidson’s main foe was the Master played by the late Anthony Ainley. Being too young to remember Roger Delgardo’s Master opposite Jon Pertwee, Ainley became my template for the rogue Time Lord. He had the inane laugh. He liked to wear disguises often for no real plot reason, duch as an Oriental wizard in "Time Flight" or a white haired old bloke with a silly transparent hat in "Castrovalva." Yet Ainley and Davidson played the roles perfectly as Holmes and Moriarty often scene-stealing even when some of the Master’s schemes were bloody silly!
Another Fifth Doctor adversary was the Mara: a snake-like entity that dwelt within the "dark places of the inside." The Mara was unique as it was a true psychological monster with genuine horror. On two occasions it possesses the Doctor's third companion, Tegan, making her a "meat puppet" although sadly its debut in "Kinda" was spoiled by one of the worse examples of poor FX's ever seen in the program's 50 year history.
Yet Davidson's Doctor faced an even greater enemy – a companion's death. Adric, who had joined Team Tardis last season, dies when trying to stop the Cybermen from wiping out Earth in "Earthshock." It was totally unexpected. It gave me chills seeing the closing credits of Episode 4, silent, no music just a broken gold star for mathematics. No other companion has ever been given such a bleak accolade.
Patrick Troughton had recommended to Davidson to audition for the role of the Doctor as soon as Tom had decided to step down, but on the pretext that never do it for more than three years. Something that has stuck with future actors who played the role, yet only one actor has had the misfortune to be sacked.
1984, and Colin Baker arrives at the end of "Caves of Androzani," the Fifth having scarified himself to save his then companion Peri. This time the character personality paradigm shifted alarmingly. Gone was the Fifth’s sweetness and compassion. In came verbosity, egotism, rudeness and the most shocking tasteless multi-color costume ever created. By no means do fans blame Baker for what happened during the rough few years of the Sixth Doctor’s brief era on the small screen. The fault lay entirely with Producer John Nathan Turner who wanted to construct an “anti-Doctor” - someone that would show the true alien qualities of how a Galifreyan thinks and acts and not diluted with “human” weaknesses. So in Episode 1 of "The Twin Dilemma," in comes the infamous scene of the newly regenerated Doctor choking the life out his terrified companion which sent not only the wrong signals to the Who fan-base, but also to the top offices in the corridors of power at the BBC.
It was a sign of things to come. Violence on TV in the UK had been a focal debating point for years the legacy of the National Viewers and Listeners Association. In addition, Doctor Who – no longer a target by them - had a new sharpshooter aimed squarely upon its content. By time Season 22 had began airing with stories like "Vengeance on Varos," which in irony explored the notion of how violence affects television audiences, new BBC Director General Michael Grade had decided to put the series on hold. It wasn’t before I got probably the nearest chance to see an actual Doctor Who episode being made as months earlier the Who production team had been at Blists Hill Museum in Ironbridge just 2 miles from where I live. I didn’t get a chance to go sadly, I was on holiday in Malta, but when I got back our local paper, the Shropshire Star, had full coverage of the event. Pictures of Colin in his yucky costume and yellow umbrella warding off the cold rain of summer menaced by plastic trees in Redfern Dell. The story, "Mark of the Rani," was itself a bit of a milestone as it featured the debut of The Rani, the first new renegade Time Lord since the Master himself in 1972, played by Kate O’Mara, but I still remember it more when Baker uttered to his companion: “The tree won’t hurt you!”
There was no laughing few months later. With the closing of "Revelation of the Daleks," the series was put on hiatus for 18 months. 18 months without Doctor Who on television was unheard of after nearly 20 years of simultaneous broadcast. Fans wrote letters of indignation to the BBC, those same fans who earlier complained about the rising tide of violence and darker themes. Woes, which played right into the hands of Michael Grade who interviewed years later went public revealing he had curtailed production because he simply hated the show. It was apt when "Trial of a Time Lord" began its 14-week run in 1986, and Nathan-Turner had heeded the Master’s voice. The violence was toned down and so too had the plots. The only thing to this day that I found memorable from "Trial" was the idea of the Valeyard: the Doctor’s darkest future incarnation who recently name-dropped in "The Name of the Doctor." Baker did his best to try to make his Doctor work, but already his fate was sealed. Who was given another short lease of life but on the condition that a new actor was chosen to succeed him. Colin Baker deserved a lot more – and even though he left the series in a storm cloud -he still plays the Doctor today in Big Finish’s audio adventures.
Colin Baker refused to take part in the regeneration scene for the opening of "Time and the Rani." It was left to newcomer Sylvester McCoy to do: showing how pantomime the series had become with the crazy notion that the Sixth’s regeneration was caused by banging his head on the control console! Sylvester, the first Scottish actor to play the role had his roots firmly planted in children’s television having been a semi-regular on Vision-On aimed at children with learning difficulties and more known for his crazy stunt of putting live Ferrets down his trousers.
He may have started out as a buffoon, very much in the mould of Tom Baker and Troughton, but as incoming script writer Andrew Cartmel took hold of the series the Seventh underwent a startling persona change. Out went the pantomime person, playing practical jokes and misquoting lines of dialogue, in came a more mysterious and darker Doctor, manipulative often coaxing his companion Ace and others around him to do his dirty work. Even going to the point of ensuring some would lose their lives in order to gain a victory over his enemies such as the cosmic entity Fenric or the dreaded Kandy Man! It was a brave effort to make the series go back to its roots – making the Time Lord an enigma, but even so it didn’t stop the inevitable as in 1989 the series was cancelled.
It would be 1996 before Paul McGann became the Eight Doctor in Doctor Who TV Movie. In the interim period after the broadcast of "Survival," McCoy’s Doctor carried on in the pages of the New Adventures published by W H Allen who were nearing the end of their Target range novelizing actual broadcasted episodes. The new range – published until broadened the Who concept in ways the television series couldn’t. In came even darker stories beginning with the "Timewyrm" arc, and unlike the tv series, were not restricted to violence, bad language and even sex with a notorious scene as a future ancestor of Ace’s has full blown nookie in the Doctor Tardis! The range was criticized by some, but I have to say I enjoyed reading the novels – after all apart from Doctor Who Monthly they were the only regular fix of Who any fan could get.
Some of the novels were groundbreaking ideas later incorporated in the 2005 revival. Such as Paul Cornell’s Human Nature where the Doctor chooses to become human and spends time as a schoolteacher in 1941. The penultimate novel Lungbarrow even went so far to give a detailed background into the Doctor’s family on Galifrey with the revelation that the Doctor was one of three founding members of all Time Lord society hinting to the reasons for his departure way back in 1963. It’ll be interesting to see if any of this touched upon in "Day of the Doctor."
The last novel released, The Dying Days, has an apt title. Not only featuring McGann’s eight Doctor it was also a cold matter of fact statement that despite every effort to revive Who’s TV fortunes the movie failed to ignite a new audience in the US. And it was BBC Worldwide that needed guaranteed success in the Nielson ratings to ensure funding for a proposed ongoing series, which never came. Like Colin Baker, Paul never got his chance to shine even though controversy abounded over the idea the Doctor was now half-human and the Master was a shape-changing snake!
I tried to like the TV Movie. It was gladdening that McCoy had been given the opportunity to do a proper handover. The new Tardis set was amazing inspired by Jules Verne’s novels like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. However, elsewhere things were terrible with the use of the “turn back time” plot at the end of the story and the Smurf Daleks.
For the next 9 years Who waded back into the television wilderness. The Eight Doctor’s adventures continued with licensing for novels handed to BBC Books. Writers such as Kate Orman and Laurence Miles expanded upon the meager template in the TV film, with the Doctor accompanied by diverse companions such as bisexual Sam Jones to Compassion who hailed from the 26th Century and later evolved into a living Tardis! A re-occurring enemy was Faction Paradox, a time travelling cult who delighted in causing temporal paradoxes to irk the Time Lords, which were later revealed to have been founded by a possible future Doctor. While in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, McGann’s Victorian Doctor, then the latest incumbent for the long running comic strip, squared off against the Celestial Toymaker and a new Master accompanied at one point by Kroton, a Cyberman, who had rediscovered his humanity.
Yet whispers started to grow in early 2004 that a new series was on the horizon. That is was going to be produced by BBC Wales. Enter Russell T. Davies – and it made this fan both happy and slightly alarmed...
Look for Part 3 next week!
Fan art via From A Hat Facebook: