Doctor Who Week: Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy

No. Too much has been said already.

By Dan Wiencek & Diana Estigarribia
September 16, 2004

orig. November 22, 2003

Diana: And now we come to the “the Dish,” “the TV Star,” Peter Davison. First of all, what a professional burden, to be cast into this role after Baker’s long, successful, immensely popular run—at that point, Baker is Doctor Who, and I’m sure many believed he was irreplaceable. Even I felt that way at first, since Baker was my first exposure to Who and I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. When the episodes first transitioned into the Davison years, I had trouble with what I perceived was a physical and character weakness in Davison’s Doctor. It was like they’d pulled back too much from Baker’s characterization, and in trying to create a “straight man” type to Baker’s over-the-top social comic, they overcompensated.

Dan: I believe Davison himself complained about this, and I’m sure he (and you) are right. After Baker’s penultimate season I’m sure the last thing JNT wanted was another comedian taking his act through the cosmos.

Diana: But I soon grew to like the Davison Doctor. I think they ultimately succeeded in their aim to present a more vulnerable, reasonable, serious Doctor. And as his era evolved I noticed the Doctor’s relationship with the companions was different. Davison always seems to have a small army of people around him. Ironically, though he was the “young” Doctor, I always saw him as a father figure, with Tegan, Nyssa, Adric and Turlough as his “children.” They all fall into types: Nyssa, who’s the smart, “good” child, Tegan, the loud, headstrong rebel, Adric, the immature whiner who needs attention, and Turlough, the black sheep/boy in trouble. (Peri I consider more of a transitional, Colin companion).

Dan: What a spot-on characterization! It’s funny, even though a lot of fans find both Adric and Tegan to be absolutely grating, I like both of them, and kind of for the reasons you elucidated: each is like a sibling struggling with their place in the family and competing for their “dad’s” attention and affection. Even though their behavior is sometimes irritating, I can look past it because you can see why they act the way they do; the strong psychology at work makes it more believable and more interesting.

That said, I never could get into ol’ Turlough. “Tractators!!”

Diana: Ha! That is a funny (silly) moment. I love Turlough. Mark Strickson is a really wonderful in the role. I liked that he was introduced as someone who is deliberately being used to destroy the Doctor, but the more he gets to know him, the less he wants to do it. Also, his origin (and farewell) story, Planet of Fire, is part of that great run Peter had in his last season.

Peter really has his hands full with this bunch, not to mention the baddies he’s got to confront every week. I like how Peter played all this: impatient but supportive, and always brave. He seemed even braver when things got hairy because you knew he wasn’t a derring-do type to begin with.

Dan: I remember the great scene in Resurrection of the Daleks when Davros says to him, “Such an act [murdering Davros] requires courage … a quality you lack …,” and the Doc doesn’t really argue with him. Peter’s Doctor very much illustrates the truth that courage is not the lack of fear, but the power to overcome your fear.

Diana: I love that scene, it’s one of my favorite all-time. Peter plays it spot-on. He’s sweating, he’s gulping, he just don’t wanna be there, with a gun pointed at Davros. It’s one thing to shoot somebody in self-defense, but another to actually set out and say, as he does, “To destroy Davros.” Even better is the coda, when he realizes he’s lost this chance, “I’m an imbecile.”

As for his stories, there’s no way around the fact that the writing was at best “uneven” during Peter’s three years. Each of his season has clunkers and gems. But overall I like his stuff and some of my favorite all-time Whos are Davison stories: Kinda/Snakedance, Earthshock, Resurrection of the Daleks, and his regeneration story, Caves of Androzani, which may be his best story of all.

Dan: Yeah, the consistent quality of, say, Baker’s first three seasons is gone and never to return. JNT’s insistence on using the Master as a semi-recurring villain don’t help; a lot of my least-favorite Davison stories are also Master stories. I agree with all your favorites above; I also think The Visitation is one of Davison’s best, and Black Orchid gives you a nice chance to see the Tardis crew on their day off, so to speak. (Adric turning down a dance with Nyssa to stuff his face at the buffet table does strain credibility somewhat-what is he, 12?) And Caves of Androzani is hands-down Davison’s best, for my money, and along with Talons of Weng-Chiang probably the best scripts Robert Holmes ever wrote for the show. You couldn’t go out on a higher note than that. (My least fave: Time-Flight. Ugh. There’s simply nothing enjoyable about this. And don’t mention UNIT if you’re not going to show the Brig!)

Diana: Yes, the Master was definitely over-used. Was he present this much in Pertwee? I like how, despite the Doctor’s inability to deal with Davros, in Planet of Fire, he just stands and watches the Master presumably go up in smoke, making no effort to help him. I liked that little touch. And you simply can’t say enough about Caves. (Maybe I should have done that story in my other piece!) Peter’s dichotomy if you will is on display. His determination and bravery (“You’re not going to stop me now!”) and his gentleness (“I’m sorry Peri—I can’t make it…”) on total display. Love him, love him.

Dan: Before we throw it over to Baker II, a word on companions. Like Peter himself, I thought for the longest time that Nyssa was the best companion of the era: she was pretty, sure, but also intelligent and with a plain, Sarah Jane-like decency. But rewatching them all on video I’m not so sure. Nyssa is also the compromiser, the waffler, the ditherer; whether because of her pampered, untested upbringing or some other reason, Nyssa often seems helpless in the face of crisis, unable to offer leadership or sound advice other than “Wait for the Doctor!” There’s nothing wrong with this dramatically, but I find myself feeling more affection for Tegan and her insecure, sarcastic bossiness: her in-your-face qualities contrast ideally with Peter’s reserve, and together the two of them make a pretty strong team. I find myself wondering what story would’ve been like with just the Doc and Tegan, with no Nyssa or Adric to take sides or add fuel to the fire. It would be really interesting to see these two people who, at times, genuinely can’t stand each other nevertheless be forced to face every situation together, in a way that tends not to happen in the crowded Davison stories. Ah well, a fellow can dream. Anyway, that’s why I nominate Tegan as my favorite companion.

Diana: I’ve loved Tegan from the very beginning. And for Nyssa, I’m glad to see a reformed Nyssa-lover, so to speak—I always thought she was the weakest “child” of that era. Everything you said is right on, preach it, brother! I was indifferent to her at best. And I know Peter says she’s his favorite, but as actors, I think Janet Fielding brought out the best in him. From the most minor scene up to the highest level of drama, his stuff with Tegan is conflicted, humorous, affectionate, moving. “Brave heart, Tegan,” never fails to put a lump in my throat. Tegan’s exit from the show in Resurrection I think is one of the most heart wrenching of all. It’s the only time that I can recall (tell me if I’m wrong) that a Doctor refuses to let a companion go; he’s fairly pleading with her not to leave him. But it’s fitting that these two people should have a disagreement right down to the end.

Dan: Yes, I love how he says she mustn’t leave “like this,” with their differences still unresolved. Of all the companions, I think Tegan would be the most interesting to check in on post-Tardis; she’s seen a lot of horrible things that obviously affected her deeply. I’d love to know how she was getting on in the world.

Diana: And I think it’s because of Peter’s overall relationship with all his companions that his regeneration scene, with the “spirits” of his friends appearing, works so well. Because it was actually dramatised (as opposed to clips, like when Baker regenerated) it’s so powerful. Especially that little call to “Adric?” after Peter’s Doctor hears his voice.

Dan: Adric. Is he really that annoying? I think for a while, definitely. He’s a believable precocious adolescent boy, and therefore, he’s annoying. But I really like how they redeemed him in Earthshock: for just a few minutes, near the end, you see him as the confident man he would’ve become had he lived. I think Mr. Waterhouse did a fantastic job there.

Diana: Yes, indeed. I go on at length about it in my piece on Earthshock. (Be sure to read it, everyone!)

Ok, so speaking of exits and farewells, I have to admit this is the moment when I abandoned the TARDIS and left the Doctor’s side: Colin Baker.

I hate to be so predictable and join in the lynch mob against Colin, but even today, even after reading about his troubled era and all that, I still can’t abide his characterization. I don’t like the costume, I don’t like the broad strokes of comedy, I don’t like the attitude. What happened to Doctor Who during Colin Baker’s time? How could we go from Caves of Androzani to Twin Dilemma?

Dan: I wish I could tell you, my dear. I’ve been racking my brains for something positive to say about Baker’s era, and very little is coming. I liked Sil, I kinda liked Sabalom Glitz, and Peri was a potentially interesting gal who maybe didn’t get her chance to shine. (And getting married off to Brian Blessed-shades of Leela all over again. Have we learned nothing?) But other than that, I’m damned if I can offer much else. I’ve seen Baker at conventions and he’s a perfectly affable and entertaining fellow, but his portrayal was just completely wrong, and apparently even JNT came to realize the costume was a horrible mistake. I don’t know, are there any stories you remember semi-favorably, or did you stop watching outright at this point? I guess Vengeance on Varos was OK, as was Mark of the Rani, but we’ve still fallen pretty far from the quality of even the middling Davison stories.

Diana: Yes, I liked Sil; he was weird and menacing and enjoyable to watch. There are moments in Attack of the Cybermen, mostly for the return of the Lytton character. We touched on The Two Doctors previously, and by virtue of it being a program continuity show, and the always-magical Patrick Troughton and Frazier Hines, it has to be Colin’s best outing. It’s enhanced by that great Spanish location, and has a great guest star: Jaqueline Pearce, well-known as Servalan from “Blake’s 7.” Simply great as Chessene, a character who has an arc that ties in nicely to the overall theme of the story. But once again, who’s the scripwriter? Robert Holmes. There you go.

As for Trial of a Time Lord, the Valeyard, Peri’s fate, well … I wasn’t watching very closely at that point, because I was fairly horrified at what was going on before my eyes. It’s as if they completely lost sight of what was great about Doctor Who.

Don’t want to beat a dead horse, so, let’s move on to more pleasant conversation: Sylvester McCoy. I said earlier that besides Troughton, there was one contender for title of “my favorite Doctor,” and I can now reveal that it’s Sylvester. As an actor, he brings such weight to the role; almost the exact opposite of Peter Davison’s youthful innocent. Sylvester’s Doctor is an omniscent, secretive Doctor. You don’t really know what’s going on with him; he’s got something up his sleeve, and he’s up to something. It’s like he’s taken the reins of the time and he’s actively shaping events.

Dan: Ah, McCoy, another certifiable British (Scottish) oddball. I remember an old Prince’s Trust concert where he hammered a nail up his nose. McCoy has a strangely ageless quality to my mind; his overall demeanor is fairly youthful, but his features are a weird mix of young and old, a craggy child’s grin combined with an old man’s drooping eyes. That helps him to bring a definite alien mystique back to the part. It’s ironic-a lot of what JNT tried to expunge from Dr. Who in Peter Davison’s era (specifically that air of cosmic mystery as opposed to Davison’s conflicted humanity) he actively revives in Sylvester’s.

I enjoy Sylvester’s performance, but I must say, they almost lost me in that first season of his. Having just suffered through a long drought of good stories in the Baker era, I was in no mood to give stories like Paradise Towersand Delta and the Bannermen (and even later Ace stories like Happiness Patrol) the benefit of the doubt. Maybe if I saw them again today I’d feel differently, but at the time I recall thinking, “Not again!”.

Diana: Me too, but I’m stubborn! I felt the way when Peter first came on the scene, or even, for example, the first season of “Star Trek: the Next Generation.” I didn’t like the stories, but I loved the character(s), so I stuck with it.

Dan: Whereas I just stopped watching Trek until it got good. 🙂

Things perk up, of course, once Mel shuffles off and Ace takes her place. I adored Ace. Certainly the best Doc-Companion chemistry since Baker and Sladen, but with the polarities reversed: this time it was the companion who was sullen, moody, and childish, with the Doctor serving as the gentle, persistent link to the world of humanity.

Diana: Yeah, Mel I didn’t care for at all. She seemed so manic and crazy and it’s not what I want from a companion. But Sophie Aldred is the “ace in the hole.” (one of us had to say it!) You had the classic combo of Doctor and female companion, and you had an age difference, even a social difference—the Doctor’s always-aristocratic air clashing with Ace’s wrong-side-of-tracks grittiness. And her nickname, calling the Doctor “Professor,” is just great, and cements the whole teacher/student aspect of it as well. It’s also very cute.

Dan: I loved how the show’s creators had the courage to show Ace’s petulant and unpleasant side, warts and all-I love in Curse of Fenric when she’s holding the baby with her mum’s name (no points for guessing the surprise there) and hands it back brusquely, saying she “hates” the child’s name. She was no caricature of Troubled Youth; she was a real person who you really hoped would pull herself together and learn to cope with her anger. Ace was JNT’s great idea; watching Sylvester and Sophie together, I can forgive him for Colin Baker.

Diana: Yeah, when a companion is written well from the beginning, the actor has a chance to play an arc each and every story because there’s an emotional set-up there. You’ve got to have internal conflict as well as conflict with the baddie and the Doctor. And despite Ace’s young age, she always seemed so “adult,” to me, dealing with the big issues—her relationship with her mother/parents, which you don’t really address until you’re older; sexuality (her budding romance with the guy in Remembrance; the line in Fenric, “Doctor—I’m not a little girl”); “women’s lib” as Ace has some major testatarone flowing through her, which is great; and her place in the larger world—this rather seamy teenage life she lived before being whisked off into space.

Dan: And such wonderful common sense too. Ace is the closest I think we get to Buffy-like meta-commentary; she had just the smallest inkling that her life had become a science fiction story, and reacted appropriately. I like when the Doctor tells her about the Master and she asks “Do you know any normal people? Not just these mad nutters trying to rule the universe?”

Diana: Ha! And not even Ace is technically “normal,” as she’s intergalactically involved (though not to her knowledge at first) with forces greater than herself!

Dan: My favorite McCoy would be a close tie between Remembrance of the Daleks and Curse of Fenric. I haven’t seen Ghost Light since it was first (and last) shown in Chicago, and would like to give it another chance; I found it incomprehensible on first viewing. But both of the former stories have good strong villains and a very meaty B-arc between the Doc and Ace; this was a whole new kind of Doctor Who, where the relationship between the Doctor and the companion was a recurring thread as important as the main story. What a shame it had to be cancelled; another year of Sylvester and Sophie could’ve been terrific.

Diana: Curse of Fenric is tight from beginning to end. No flab, no pad, no false notes. It’s all good. There are so many excellent ideas in that story and each and every one is executed well. One of my favorite all-time Who scenes comes in Fenric, in the church, when the vampiric baddies are about to grab the Doctor. He concentrates with all his considerable power to “spiritually” repel them. And you get that great reaction shot of Ace’s when she sees/hears what’s going on: that tremendous outpouring of energy as he draws on his ultimate faith: reciting the names of his companions. So awesome!

I love how that idea of faith and belief is turned round in that story, that the classic “I’m gonna point this crucifix at ya, vampire” is really about the person’s belief, and not the object. I like how it’s reflected in the priest’s sudden agnosticism, the Russian’s faith in the Revolution, and finally, in Ace’s belief in the Doctor that actually turns out to be a hindrance at that moment in time.

Obviously, Fenric’s my favorite as well, and I think it also ranks as a great overall Who. I’d put that in the vault. Ghost Light I didn’t understand either when it first aired; on subsequent viewings, I’ve gotten used to its odd rhythms and pace, the off-kilter performances, the “meaning” of the story. It’s challenging, for sure. The whole Sylvester era is about Big Ideas and Themes. So you need a larger-than-cosmos Doctor to pull that off, and Sylvester certainly is capable.

In my opinion, I think Sylvester and Sophie saved the show. I think a lot of people who stopped watching Who returned to it once they saw that there was a proper Doctor and companion back in the TARDIS.

Dan: I wonder if the audience figures bear that out? Certainly I was more excited to be watching it than I had been in a long time.

Diana: I believe McCoy’s slot was scheduled against “Coronation Street,” the long-running, wildly popular soap, so that couldn’t have been easy to overcome. His ratings were rising, but at 4 million viewers, it was a far cry from the 8-10 million that Baker/Davison enjoyed. But The BBC gave up on it too easily and too soon. It still flabbergasts me that it was canceled. I wish they’d bring them back for the new series; but I suppose that’s impossible as Sylvester was shown regenerating into Paul McGann for the TV movie. I’m afraid to admit that I have not seen the movie or Paul McGann’s portrayal—have you?

Dan: I have seen it. Your trepidation is justified; it’s a disappointing movie in a lot of ways. Mainly it just doesn’t feel like Doctor Who, or like anything that could even become Doctor Who. It just has a very generic, rubber-stamped cheapie Sci-Fi-channel-original-movie air about it. The best thing about it, however, is surprising: McGann’s performance. He was really quite a good Doctor. Maybe it doesn’t entirely make up for a truncated McCoy era, but McGann had a great child-like quality that wasn’t like anyone who’d come before him, and he looked and sounded the part to a T. Pick up the VHS (without getting your hopes too high) and check him out. I don’t blame him for the fact that the movie kinda sucked; he made it watchable, and besides, it is canonical—ya gotta see it for yourself sooner or later.

Diana: I know, I’ve been in denial all these years. I’ve always meant to go to the Museum of TV and Radio in NYC and watch it, because I don’t think I can spend my hard-earned money on it, blind, like that.

Dan: So now that we’ve got through forty years of amazing history, what do you think of the future? Obviously this is a great time to be a Doctor Who fan, with a lot of possibly-great stuff on the horizon. What do you think of the upcoming series chances? Can the magic of Doctor Who be revived in an irony-laden, post-Buffy TV universe?

Diana: No question. It needs to be what it once was/still is, despite this so-called irony-laden, post Buffyverse you speak of. I know people enjoy the hell out of that kind of thing (to go off topic for a moment, I never did). I’m a total traditionalist and I hope they do Who “straight.” For example, like “X-Men.” For heavens sake, there’s people running around in rubber costumes and capes in the X-verse, was there ever a chance for winking at the camera? But they pulled it off by making it real and serious and fun. That’s the kind of tone and outlook I want for the new “Doctor Who“. And of course, a strong Doctor, his match in a companion(s), good, evil villains, and modern (yet traditional) stories and plots. There’s a chance for the Beeb to elevate Doctor Who head-and-shoulders above the rest.

Dan: But it took a very delicate balance of silliness, cleverness, and imagination to keep Doctor Who on course all those years, and the show can’t simply go back on the air as if it’s 1989 and the intervening decade-and-change never happened. How will they do it? I don’t know. I’m excited to find out, and I’m optimistic.

Diana: Well said. I am, too. And I’m sure every other Doctor Who fan who has waited and hoped for a regeneration of this kind. Long live Doctor Who!