In my previous post I wrote about how the transition of the lead actor and production crew changed the direction and tone of Doctor Who in the 1970′s. In the 1980′s, this was not exactly the case as John Nathan Turner was the only producer during the 1980′s. The former production unit manager of All Creatures Great and Small (where he found the fifth actor to play the Doctor on TV, Peter Davison), JNT was familiar with Doctor Who but hardly on the same professional level as Barry Letts or Graham Williams whom he had replaced in 1978.
Be that as it may, JNT saw more changes in his time on the program than any other and shepherded the program overseas as a major success on the local public TV circuit. Love him or hate him, JNT embodies the 80′s era of Doctor Who. During JNT’s time as producer the series saw its 25th anniversary special, a spin-off pilot and the incredible Longleat Exhibition. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times and it was also the last decade for Doctor Who on the air until it returned in 2005.
Tom Baker – Peter Davison
The actor who would take over from the then most successful actor to play the Doctor was a household name thanks to his appearances in All Creatures Great and Small. In 1978 Doctor Who had met something of a creative slump and even Tom Baker had grown bored with the part as was evident in his performance. JNT introduced several changes for Tom Baker’s last season including a new opening sequence, a revamped signature tune and a mix of experienced and new writers and directors. The result was an exciting and unusual final season built around the theme of decay and rebirth. It was stylishly done and made for an impressive debut of Peter Davison as the youngest actor to fill the role until Matt Smith in 2010.
Christopher H. Bidmead had already developed his take on Doctor Who, introducing what is now referred to as a ‘hard science fiction’ approach. Castrovalva remains one of the more successful regeneration stories, despite its flaws. For the first half of the story the Doctor is weak and hardly the indestructible hero that the audience had known him to be. In part one, he mostly stumbles around the TARDIS while companions Tegan and Nyssa try and steer the craft free from the Big Bang. Adric just hangs out and gets yelled at by Anthony Ainley playing the role he had waited for his whole life, the Master. Seeing him play the dastardly villain is something that everyone should experience. I had long thought of Ainley’s Master as more of a mincing cartoon character but on second viewing he is just insane. Not the Master, Ainley. It works beautifully.
The TARDIS database spits out some nonsense about a tranquil spot where the Doctor can recuperate, leading the crew to land on Castrovavla. Davison gets a few key moments to really shine in this story, but the supporting cast are just dreadful. Seldom have so many useless companions filled the TARDIS than in 1980. Due to the high comedy of Tom Baker’s era, there was a direct edit to tone down the humor which meant that Davison was the driest of the Doctors. Combining the toned down, flawed human Doctor with a beige suit costume results in one of the most faded depictions of the timeless hero. However, the actor’s youth and acting skill helped this incarnation become one of the most fondly remembered Doctors and is often cited as the Doctor viewers bonded with the most, included new producer Steven Moffat and David Tennant, Doctor No. 10.
Peter Davison – Colin Baker
The Twin Dilemma
An unusual choice as the sixth Doctor was Colin Baker, an actor most familiar to TV viewers for his part in the program the Brothers. He was apparently chosen because he effortlessly entertained a wedding party that JNT attended, leading the producer to gleefully declare that he had found his Doctor No. 6. After just a year and a half as the Doctor, Davison had decided to leave. The scripts were poor and the quality of the program was not what he had hoped it to be. For his last season, the quality improved, ending with the Caves of Androzani which saw the fifth Doctor boldly sacrifice his life for his companion while gun runners, drug dealers and androids duked it out. Another unusual decision was to end the season not on Davison’s swan song but instead give viewers a glimpse of the new Doctor in his premiere adventure.
If there are any adventures worse than Twin Dilemma I cannot think of them. Colin Baker’s acting is bombastic but charismatic in this turkey about twin boy geniuses, birdman kidnappers, giant slugs and goofy space cops. Nothing connects from one scene to the next. Re-watching all four parts recently I found myself screaming at the TV ‘what’s going on!?’ in tears. The Doctor regenerates into a manic depressive personality, a regeneration gone wrong. He attacks his companion, dresses in hideous clothes and acts like a coward when confronted by villains. Aside from the chemistry between Colin Baker and guest actor Maurice Denham, the ancient Timelord and old friend of the Doctor’s. The scenes filmed in a Chinese restaurant set doubling as a space police precinct don’t help the ridiculousness of the story and it all falls apart.
I happen to like Colin Baker’s Doctor and think that there are some good stories in his era, but this was not one of them. Following one of the most revered Doctor Who adventures with the most derided is just insane, but this is how it was. The sixth incarnation of the Doctor was obnoxious, ill-tempered and flamboyantly eccentric, an interesting change from the mellow and serious fifth Doctor. But this approach to make the Doctor more of a dangerous anti-hero did not go over well with fans.
Rather than leaving fans to anxiously await the return of the program in a year’s time, the production crew scrambled to rethink what they had done and how they could make it up to viewers. They never really did, unfortunately and many fans and non-fans view this as the time when the tuned out, leaving Doctor Who forever.
Colin Baker – Sylvester McCoy
Time and the Rani
After one year of poorly received hyper violent episodes, Doctor Who was placed on an 18 month-long hiatus. When it returned, it was a shadow of its former self. Actor Colin Baker had noticeably gained considerable girth and had dyed his hair a lemon yellow. His biting wit and harsh persona had softened so much that even in the colorful coat he barely registered to the eye. When the word came down that in order for the program to live on it would need a new leading man, it is difficult to know what anyone was thinking. In the end, they went with relative unknown Sylvester McCoy.
A children’s television entertainer and comedic actor, he would fit the demand from management that Doctor Who become more family-friendly and less dangerous. His first season was a brightly-lit candy-colored kids’ show that had little in common with the series fans had grown to love. For any that had stuck by Doctor Who through the unpopular Colin Baker era, more jumped ship after the seventh Doctor appeared on the screen in a hastily-filmed regeneration scene involving a blond wig and CGi effects. Time and the Rani shares some of the problems of Twin Dilemma, but moreover it is not as clever as it thinks it is. Filled with techno-jargon and historical figures slotted into a machine feeding a giant brain with knowledge, it’s something of a disaster. However, it all feels so very new that you almost forgive it.
We are presented, once again, with a weak and confused Doctor who cannot remember who he is. In this instance, the Rani convinces him that she is actually his companion, the squeaky-voiced Mel, and that he is working on an experiment that she knows nothing about. In reality, she is tricking him into working out some problems in her own giant brain experiment. Her cronies are the cookie monster look-a-like creatures the Tetraps who kill with a tongue to the neck. The effects are quite good, some of the acting is decent and the effort is clearly there to bring the family back in front of the tube and watch Doctor Who. The only problem is that the family audience was no longer really a part of the picture any more. In the following seasons, Doctor Who darkened its tone and refined its approach but here it is a very obvious attempt to deliver what the BBC head of serials wanted.
The seventh Doctor was an impish little Scots-accented man who appeared harmless but was actually a brilliant tactician. More or less he was a retread of the second Doctor with a goofy accent. This isn’t in itself a bad idea, but it is odd to make the new Doctor so similar to an old one. I like McCoy’s take on the character a lot and think that his heart was in the right place during his tenure, but he got a raw deal in the way of opening stories with Time and the Rani. Doctor no. 7 is a relatively controversial incarnation as some view him as ideal and others as embarrassing. Much like 1970, in 1987 the program attempted to save itself by completely rethinking what it was about… only in ’87 it didn’t quite work out.
As I write this the new episode of Doctor Who has already aired. Since I live in the US it will take me a while to see it but when I do I will surely share my two cents.
Here’s the new opening sequence:
From the responses that I have seen online new Doctor Matt Smith is impressing even the most cold-hearted of fans which is nice to hear. New producer Steven Moffat has stated that he will not be introducing much change at all to his version of Doctor Who, feeling that his predecessor had it right. I can understand why he is saying that but I couldn’t agree less. But I also in disagreement regarding the focus of the show being the companion and his statement that fans are lonely mentally-retarded people. Hopefully none of that will interfere with my enjoyment of the program nor will his personal views hamper his creativity.
Doctor Who and The Eleventh Hour premieres on BBC America April 17th. Matt Smith will be touring in New York City to drum up support so keep your eyes peeled.