Category Archives: seventh doctor

[The Seventh Doctor: Summary + Best Episodes]

To say that Sylvester McCoy’s turn as the Doctor got off to a bad start is something of an understatement. Season 24 is dreadful, following on from two seasons that are almost just as dreadful. That he managed to turn things around is a testament to his talent as an actor and of the skill of the writing and production team, and thankfully it means that Doctor Who ended on a reasonably high point.

Seasons 25 is the turning point, throwing up a couple of good serials. Season 26 is where the show blossoms into a confident and modernised version of itself. There are definite hints of the current era show in these stories, particularly the final three that focus on Ace’s character. The lack of studio shooting also lends a more natural visual style to these episodes, more in line with what we expect on TV these days. These seasons are also the closest thing I have to “my era” of Doctor Who, with some vague memories of McCoy in his hat and umbrella, Dalek claws and chalk circles having stayed in my head for the past 25 years.

I’ve already commented somewhat on Mel, a total non-entity that the Doctor is lumbered with for his first season. That her departure coincides with the panto style being phased out is surely no coincidence. As for Ace, I like her as a character – her short temper and “act first, think later” style reminds me of Leela – but Sophie Aldred’s acting often verges on the cringeworthy, with lines like “oi, wotch it, tin ‘ed!” and “yeah, brill!” dominating much of her dialogue. That said, when she’s written well, like in Curse of Fenric or Survival, she is perfectly watchable, and a good companion for the Doctor.

Thoughts on the Seventh Doctor

In some ways, each successive actor has an easier time playing the Doctor, because they have increasingly more inspiration to draw from. In McCoy’s physicality and facial expressions, I see hints of Jon Pertwee. In his friendly professor-like tone, I’m reminded of Peter Davison. In his mannerisms and expressions, I see hints of Patrick Troughton. In his darker threatening side and righteous rants, I see hints of the Bakers. He even carries himself in a “dignified elderly gentleman” way that reminds me a little of William Hartnell. He’s basically all the best bits of the Doctors throughout history, but somehow makes this style his own.

He has a few quirks. McCoy retains his own accent, which makes me wonder why David Tennant never did. Perhaps they thought it would more difficult to understand a Scottish accent in other countries? Admittedly, McCoy does have a tendency to mumble through some of his lines, making them hard to hear, but his actual voice is great. I like how he rolls all of his arrs (Rs? Rrrs? Arse?) to such an extent that he makes a big thing about it, intentionally choosing words with Rs in them and rrrrrevelling in the lovely arriness of them.

McCoy has a lot of range, too. He can be the “pratfalling fool”, but also be a commanding presence, or calmly talk a gunman out of shooting him by delivering a somber speech about death. I can’t think of anything that he’s done wrong or handled badly. He had to put up with some terrible scripts early on, but he has really surprised me on the whole. I’m torn over whether I like McCoy more than Troughton. I think it’s a close call, and Troughton just about pips it, but maybe I’d have to revisit some of those early serials again to refresh my memory. Regardless of ranking, I consider the seventh Doctor a more than successful portrayal, and I doff my panama hat to Sylvester McCoy.

Tom Baker > Patrick Troughton > Sylvester McCoy > Peter Davison > Colin Baker > Jon Pertwee > William Hartnell

Episode Highlights

It’s safe to say that I will be discounting anything from season 24 in my best of list. Dragonfire was the only one remotely worth watching, but seasons 25 and 26 top that easily, with the “Ace Trilogy” being a particular highlight (although since I would have to watch Ghost Light several times before I could consider it a favourite, I’m afraid it doesn’t make the top three this time).

Remembrance of the Daleks (4 parts)
This smartly-written story uses some great misdirection, while exploring themes like racism. It makes amends for so many bad Dalek stories up until now.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (4 parts)
This is a creepy story made on a small budget, but the performances and direction make it work remarkably well.

The Curse of Fenric (4 parts)
Like watching a different show entirely, The Curse of Fenric is classy, well-produced and features the most dramatic Doctor/companion scene since… well, ever?

Thoughts on the entire show, 1963 to 1989

On the whole, I am glad I embarked on this journey through time and space. My intention was to familiarise myself with the whole story of “The Doctor” from beginning to end, and I by watching every single episode, I have done just that.

However, as is the case with many TV shows, the quality does vary. In Doctor Who’s case, the quality varies a lot, and watching every single episode is like an exercise in masochism. That’s why I made a note of my favourite serials while going through them. For anyone with a more casual interest in the show’s early years, it’s probably better to watch the “highlights” and ignore the rest. Maybe I’ll revisit some of these stories and revise my lists accordingly, but for the time being, I think my favourite picks for each Doctor hold up well enough. You can see them on the ‘Summary’ link next to each Doctor on the Episodes page.

As any show that goes on for as long as Doctor Who has done, there are changes over the years. Black and white to colour, film to video, stage to location, a range of styles from humour to tragedy, melodrama to hard science, fantasy, history, monsters and characters. Changes of actors, changes of tone, changes in theme, of music and directing and editing. An Unearthly Child couldn’t be much more different from Survival, and yet the core threads of humanity and adventure run through them.

Despite all these changes, there is one consistency that makes “Old Who” difficult for many new fans to digest. I don’t want to come across as superficial, but unfortunately studio video productions like this have a certain look and feel to them that is decidedly un-modern. It’s not just the “video look” of the picture, but by shooting a multi-camera production in a three-walled set-up like that, you have certain limitations. It feels more like a stage play, particularly in the early days where they rarely did any retakes. Everything is shot straight through. Everyone tilts their bodies towards the cameras. Dramatic angles are few and far between, and the lack of additional takes makes for some unconvincing edits, particularly where monsters are involved. Lighting looks artificial, sets look like sets. There were times when some directors pushed the boundaries and tried something visually interesting, but it’s quite telling that they usually went over-budget and weren’t brought back. There’s a reason that Spearhead from Space is still a pleasure to watch, and it’s not just Robert Holmes’ script – the studio strike was a blessing in disguise.

Nevertheless, despite all its issues, despite all of its cheapness, its low budgets, its melodramatic style, Doctor Who is still a science fiction show with some great ideas, some great writing, and some great performances, you just have to dig a little to find it. Over the course of this adventure, I have crammed in so much content in such a short space of time, that it’s difficult to digest it all, but I think Tom Baker’s era will remain my favourite. He is a superb actor that made the role of the Doctor his own, and it coincided perfectly with a writing and production team that took some risks and weren’t afraid to make Doctor Who scary and memorable.

This isn’t quite over yet. Doctor Who is still alive and well today after 50 years, and I want to revisit the 2005 reboot and onwards to see if I have a fresh perspective on it now. I also have one more chance to enjoy a new appearance from Sylvester McCoy in the Paul McGann TV movie, which I actually saw when it was first shown, but I cannot remember much about it.

But this point now officially marks the end of “stuff I haven’t seen before” and anything else will just be a catch up. Preferably over a nice cup of tea with some crumpets.

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Survival

Seven hundred and one episodes. Twenty-six years of television in the space of sixteen months. My epic journey through time and space with the iconic Doctor has finally reached its end (or, at least, its last major milestone). Survival is not a proper finale like you would expect these days (it’s not even a monotone finale like we had in 1969), but in its own way, it is rather poignant. It deals with the theme of survival, which is appropriate given the show was killed off. A harsh wilderness, survival of the fittest, survival of a planet, and survival of the Master. It’s Anthony Ainley’s final appearance as the Master, Sophie Aldred’s final appearance as Ace and the last time we see that iffy purple swirling galaxy.

The Master is more dangerous and unpredictable in his animal-like state. It’s something he wants rid of, but then learns to control it.

The Master is more dangerous and unpredictable in his animal-like state. It’s something he wants rid of, but then learns to control it.

Survival is not the best, but the continuation of Ace’s character-building that started earlier in the season is much appreciated and has hints of the modern style that the show now uses in its revived incarnation. Here, Ace returns to her home of Perivale to reunite with “the old gang”. There’s a kind of sadness to these scenes, of lost youth, good times that have passed, friends that have moved on, and things that will never be the same again. It’s relatable. Then they get abducted by a race of teleporting cheetah-people from a dying planet, and it becomes a bit less relatable.

Hale and Pace make a cameo appearance as shopkeepers, telling that joke about outrunning the lion, while the Doctor stocks up on cat food.

Hale and Pace make a cameo appearance as shopkeepers, telling that joke about outrunning the lion, while the Doctor stocks up on cat food.

Survival is quite a personal story. It’s not about some universe-ending disaster. Admittedly, the cheetah-people’s world is falling apart, but it’s really just a story about a group of people trying to escape, trying to stay human, the Master using the Doctor as bait, the Doctor trying to bring Ace back from the point of transformation, and Ace coming to terms with what it means to survive, developing a doomed friendship with Karra, and learning what she truly calls “home”.

The cheetah-people do look unfortunately cuddly for what are supposed to be scary hunters.

The cheetah-people do look unfortunately cuddly for what are supposed to be scary hunters.

Nevertheless, the ending does have a whiff of “we need a spectacular finish” to it. The exploding motorcycles are ridiculous (did the production have excess dynamite to use up?), more so that the Doctor survives the blast without a scratch! The final (brief) battle with the Master is like something out of Star Wars, but I did enjoy that. And the Doctor’s closing lines to Ace, about all the wonders of the Universe that are still out there for them to see, are very nicely done, and really hammers home that this is the end. I understand this speech was a late addition once the producers knew it was all over. Although Sylvester McCoy would return to TV as the Doctor a couple more times, this is basically the end of his run, and I will have more to say about him shortly.

The alien planet is well-realised for its time, using digital video effects.

The alien planet is well-realised for its time, using digital video effects.

For now, I finish the main bulk of my Doctor Who marathon with a sort of sadness that it’s all over. I never experienced it on its first broadcast, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for the fans still tuning in every week to suddenly realise it was to be no more. Although there are still hints of the cheesy old pantomime / stage drama style, the show’s twenty-sixth season has seen it turn into something vastly improved. Had it continued, I could well imagine a gradual transition into the 2005 series, and I would have traced that change back to here. Alas, it seems the show was not fast enough to adapt, and thus not fit to survive.

“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice and somewhere else the tea is getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do.”

The Curse of Fenric

It’s hard to believe that, just two seasons ago, I was watching the Rani in a wig and a space bus full of rock ‘n’ roll tourists. Somebody obviously woke up and realised Doctor Who needed to be a bit more serious and sophisticated, and The Curse of Fenric is the high point so far. Well, it’s as sophisticated as a TV show can be when it features vampires, ancient viking curses and a man who travels in a police box, while still being accessible family viewing.

Dr. Judson and his ULTIMA machine are clearly based on Alan Turing and the Enigma machine. I'm not sure the Enigma machine ran on poisonous green gooey artifacts, though.

Dr. Judson and his ULTIMA machine are clearly based on Alan Turing and the Enigma machine. I’m not sure the Enigma machine ran on poisonous green gooey artifacts, though.

The cast is mostly terrific. Nicholas Parsons is great as the reverend struggling with his faith amidst the violent backdrop of World War II. Alfred Lynch plays Millington, a slightly unhinged naval commander, and although he comes across as a bit “Poundland Gary Oldman”, it’s a classy performance anyway. Some of the extras are cringeworthy, but Ace is definitely improving and her scenes with the Doctor are, hands down, the best so far.

In a sci-fi twist on a legend, it's not the crucifix that keeps vampires away, it's the psychic barrier caused by unwavering faith. Sure, why not?

In a sci-fi twist on a legend, it’s not the crucifix that keeps vampires away, it’s the psychic barrier caused by unwavering faith. Sure, why not?

There’s some solid drama and emotion here. It’s as if the writers have suddenly realised Ace should be an actual character rather than a box to tick and could have important parts of the plot dedicated to her. The revelations about her mother, about her past and the time storm that stranded her on another world are, admittedly, a little messy, but they’re appreciated. Her rant about the Doctor not telling anybody what he knows is absolutely superb and completely true, and the whole exchange is really well done by both McCoy and Aldred. It’s the best scene in years, frankly; I even mouthed “wow” when it was over. Ace is growing up.

I almost expected her to stay behind with the Russian bloke, but that would have been a poor conclusion.

I almost expected her to stay behind with the Russian bloke, but that would have been a poor conclusion.

The WWII setting is great; it’s not an overused era on this show, surprisingly, and I enjoy all the code-breaking enigma machine type stuff. Even the “vampires” are more interesting than usual, being “haemovores” from Earth’s far future, and the prosthetics on the uglier ones are really excellent. It’s well-made, it looks good, it seems to be shot on location and, as expected, there are plenty more explosions.

It's not the first Doctor Who story to feature creatures rising from the water, but it is the best.

It’s not the first Doctor Who story to feature creatures rising from the water, but it is the best.

The only real problems I had with this one are in the choppy plotting and editing. Too many pointless things happening for no real reason. Ace climbing down a ladder to escape a haemovore attack, only to have to climb back up again. Reverend Wainwright finding his faith for all of five seconds, then losing it again. Fenric’s inability to resist a chess puzzle for some reason. The ancient haemovore deciding to side with the Doctor in a scene that feels like it was written in and inserted later. It’s not a problem exclusive to this serial – it happens a lot through the long running of this show – but it’s more apparent here where everything else is at a much higher standard. And if this is the standard that Doctor Who had reached in 1989, it’s even more of a shame that it wasn’t allowed to continue. Or, then again, maybe that was for the best in the end.

One more left.

Ghost Light

Much like Warriors’ Gate, I think I would have enjoyed Ghost Light more if I had a better idea of what was happening! I did get the gist of it, that an alien survey had materialised on Earth to catalogue all of its species, much like the expeditions of the 19th century, and I enjoyed the parallels with the preserved animals around the house. And the “ghost in the basement” idea is nothing new, but it works.

A policeman investigates the disappearance of the house's original occupants.

A policeman investigates the disappearance of the house’s original occupants.

Where things start getting fuzzy is with the other residents and their relationship with ‘Light’, their motivations, and what exactly the ‘husks’ are. I could probably watch Ghost Light twice and still not quite understand it; the flow of information is bitty and muddled. Having just read a plot synopsis, I’m sorry to say that most of it flew over my head. It’s not that it makes no sense, it’s just poorly explained on screen. At one point, the Doctor even claims he can’t keep up with everything that’s going on himself. It is at least quite a clever script with playful use of themes like evolution and preservation, and it wraps it up in the tropes of a horror story.

Husks in the dark. I have no idea.

Husks in the dark. I have no idea.

It’s also quite well made, with moody lighting and haunting music. Ace gets a more prominent role in the plot, referencing a traumatic childhood event that occurred in this house 100 years later (ah, time travel!). Exploring the backstory of the Doctor’s companion is something the modern series does as its core premise these days, but it was more of a rarity back then. It’s a good thing, but it doesn’t have much impact on this story in the end, and Sophie Aldred doesn’t have the acting chops to make it work. Sylvester McCoy continues to impress, however.

'Light', appearing in angelic form, wakes up from his dormant state to sort everything out.

‘Light’, appearing in angelic form, wakes up from his dormant state to sort everything out.

I suppose it’s a credit to Ghost Light that I did enjoy it despite being lost and confused throughout. Some of it is just “weird for weird’s sake”, but there’s some subtle and disturbing horror too (the soup!), as well as some tragic moments. Light being defeated by his fear of change is the perfect Doctor Who ending, really.

Battlefield

It’s the final season and it would seem intent on going out with a bang. The use of explosives is becoming a bit of a joke now, but Battlefield is the show’s attempt at doing an “epic”, with transdimensional medieval knights facing off against UNIT’s military forces in a large-scale skirmish, while an evil sorceress summons an all-consuming demon. Granted, it ends up looking like a strange war reinactment documentary, but for a BBC show recorded on video in 1989, it’s not bad going.

Morgaine and Mordred study the land. Only one can be the hammiest!

Morgaine and Mordred study the land. Only one can be the hammiest!

Battlefield certainly isn’t bad but when the premise is that the legend of King Arthur is from a parallel dimension and a thousand year old war is brought to Earth, you have to expect a bit of hokiness. Larger than life characters speaking of glory and honour in olde worlde tongues, evil cackling laughs and technology dressed up as magic. It’s sometimes a bit much to take seriously, however I do like Mordred and Ancelyn – they have a certain charm to them; it’s like watching a scene from Thor. The Destroyer is your typical overblown world-destroying monster, but it is an impressive piece of puppetry and costuming.

The Destroyer, entrapped by silver shackles.

The Destroyer, entrapped by silver shackles.

While archeologists dig up old fossils, another fossil is dug up out of retirement and squeezed back into uniform for one last hurrah. The Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart has a way of enhancing any story he’s in, and he has some great moments in this too, particularly reminiscing with the Doctor. Despite the change of actor, the Doctor and the Brig have good screen chemistry. There could have been a bit more friction between him and the new Brigadier (played by Angela Bruce). I particularly liked the exchange in which he confesses to not understanding women, in which the Doctor replies “don’t worry, people will be shooting at you soon”. I half-expected him to die by the end of the story, going out in a blaze of glory, but found myself relieved that he survived the ordeal. It’s a good end for him.

The Brigadier threatens to kill Morgaine's son Mordred. Unlike the Doctor, his threat is not an empty one.

The Brigadier threatens to kill Morgaine’s son Mordred. Unlike the Doctor, his threat is not an empty one.

Battlefield also stirs up some nostalgia with the surprise return of Bessie the car, but what I wasn’t expecting was a memory dug up from my own childhood. I have a recollection of the “chalk circle” scene; I have definitely seen it before. My mind has mangled that up with memories of Remembrance of the Daleks but I wasn’t entirely sure this scene was also from Doctor Who. Now I know it was. It makes me wonder what else I saw at age six that has been burned into my impressionable mind, before the show finally went off the air. Not much, probably.

It's funny what sticks in your head as a child. I have no memory of the Destroyer, but I definitely remember this.

It’s funny what sticks in your head as a child. I have no memory of the Destroyer, but I definitely remember this.

The idea of the Doctor being Merlin is handled with a slight twist: it’s not a case of mistaken identity, rather it’s something he hasn’t done yet. A future incarnation of the Doctor was Merlin, and he even leaves himself a note. That’s quite clever. For a time-traveller, there ought to be this sort of thing happening more often. Speaking of the future, the whole story is a few years ahead of the ‘present’, as evidenced by the pub charging five pounds for a lemonade, and their telephone being voice-activated. We’re not far off that now, are we?

Ace rises from the water holding Excalibur. Oh-ho, I see what they did there!

Ace rises from the water holding Excalibur. Oh-ho, I see what they did there!

Battlefield is nothing special, but it’s perfectly fine. It’s got some elements of the show’s dafter past, with mad villains and monsters, but it’s good fun.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Circuses are kind of creepy, but if I had watched this serial when I was six years old, I would NEVER want to go to one ever again. The most memorable Doctor Who episodes have a way of taking something ordinary and twisting it into something terrifying, giving kids nightmares in the process, and this does exactly that.

I could have done without the rapping.

I could have done without the rapping.

Even now, as a grown adult, I have to admit that many of the scenes in this serial verge on the disturbing, such as when Ace is locked inside the workshop, and the bits of robot clowns start moving behind her. Brrr!! And those audience members with their lifeless faces and glowing eyes! And Mags turning into a werewolf! It’s got some good direction and lighting, and makes excellent use of some very limited sets.

Wonderfully creepy.

Wonderfully creepy.

But it’s also full of really great performances. Ian Reddington as the ‘chief clown’ does so much with so little. A simple hand gesture, a creepy smile, and he’s created a frightening foe. T. P. McKenna as ‘Captain Cook’ is a scary look into what might happen to the Doctor if he ever became selfish and complacent enough, putting others’ lives, even his own travelling companion, before his own. The other circus performers are a varied bunch and you really feel for their plight. And as for the Doctor, he is very quickly rising up the ranks of my favourites. He’s brilliant in this, and if those magic tricks at the end of part 4 are really all performed by him, I have a newfound respect for Mr. McCoy.

Cook and Mags, galactic travellers. Like holding up a mirror into a dark alternate universe.

Cook and Mags, galactic travellers. Like holding up a mirror into a dark alternate universe.

There are still hints of hokiness, some of the characters don’t quite work, and some of the production can’t avoid looking too cheap for what it’s trying to portray, but what this serial manages to do is turn its recent silly elements into creepy ones. Lighthearted humour becomes dark and twisted menace, and it succeeds by showing just enough to set the imagination at work. Its combination of direction, performance and production doesn’t have many of the weak links I usually expect from Doctor Who, and the musical score manages to maintain the creepy mood throughout.

Who let Harry Potter onto the show?

Who let Harry Potter onto the show?

While it’s not the greatest show in the galaxy, it’s easily the best serial since… oh, Caves of Androzani, certainly. That deserves a round of applause at least.

Silver Nemesis

Another season, another disappointing Cybermen story, although I don’t expect much from them anymore. As this is their last appearance in the classic series, it is fitting that they go out with a bang, much like the Daleks did, but that’s not the only similarity with Remembrance of the Daleks – the plot is rather familiar too.

One more time. The Cybermen's final appearance in shiny jump suits.

One more time. The Cybermen’s final appearance in shiny jump suits.

So, there’s an all-powerful god-like statue thing (the Nemesis) about to collide with the Earth, that the Doctor sent into orbit in the 17th century, and the Cybermen have rocked up to Earth to claim it for their own. They have rivals also searching for the Nemesis, namely some 1988 neo-nazis (the Fourth Reich) and a time-travelling sorceress and her servant from 1638. There is little time to develop the character motivations, unfortunately, so we’re left with three underwhelming groups of villains.

The Doctor completes the living metal statue by giving it back its bow.

The Doctor completes the living metal statue by giving it back its bow.

There is some hint of a sort of non-linear storytelling early on, when Ace sees a painting of her in Windsor Castle that she hasn’t had painted yet, but nothing ever comes of it. The Doctor’s previous (unseen) adventure in the 17th century is alluded to, and there are some hints of a dark secret that he has that the Nemesis (and sorceress) knows of, but, again, it’s not explained. It’s just a tease, a way to inject some mystery into the character. Which is fine, but it was pointless here.

I wonder if the Tardis set was unavailable, because the usual machinations take place outdoors, using this upgraded tape deck.

I wonder if the Tardis set was unavailable, because the usual machinations take place outdoors, using this upgraded tape deck.

I do enjoy the anachronistic elements of these types of stories. Lady Peinforte and Richard walking around modern day England, struggling to understand the culture and technology, but these comedic scenes take away from the serious tone of the story. The bit with the Queen walking her corgis around the grounds is just plain weird.

They had to use a double for this sequence; the real corgis were busy.

They had to use a double for this sequence; the real corgis were busy.

Elsewhere, the Cybermen are relatively unthreatening, failing to hit their targets at close range, and falling for the Doctor’s rudimentary tricks. I don’t know if it speaks more of the Doctor’s cunning or of the Cybermen’s stupidity that his “piggy-in-the-middle” trick with the bow actually works. The Cybermen are all talk, no action. Ace takes out loads with some gold coins and by knowing how to duck. Ducking is a technique that solves so many confrontations, it seems!

The hidden cyber fleet orbits the Earth.

The hidden cyber fleet orbits the Earth.

This isn’t particularly good, then, but it has some fun humour and some of the action is good. While it’s hardly unwatchable, it is messy and, at times, rather silly.