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
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.