Throughout its lifespan on the airwaves in its native United Kingdom and in many countries across the globe, Doctor Who has shown the hero triumph over many monsters from stars, from the bowels of the Earth, other dimensions and even living in the tear duct of the human body. Be that as it may, in 1978, Doctor Who had been beaten by one monster it had never anticipated as its ultimate foe.
Tom Baker’s ego.
The answer to a thousand prayers, Tom Baker brought an uncanny level of character and charisma to the part of the time-traveling stranger called the Doctor. A relative unknown, he exploded onto the screen in his first scene in the part and never stopped surprising viewers with his quirky behavior, boundless energy and non-stop flair. Be that as it may… six years on in the role and it seemed that Tom believed he was the Doctor… and nothing else mattered. He mugged to the camera, sleep-walked through scenes he didn’t like and bullied producers.
By his own admission many years later, Tom Baker had become impossible to work with.
Enter new Executive Producer John Nathan Turner. JNT (as he was called) was determined to reign Tom’s performance in and slowly fade his powerful glow to a glimmer in order to bring in a new star and restart the program that had frankly floundered from its original impetus. While the program in 1976 was a triumph, stories such as ‘The Horns of the Nimon’ were a chore to get through and looked far more enjoyable for Tom than anyone else, including the viewers.
Peter Davison brought something not seen on the program since its inception, innocence. While Pertwee was an authoritative entertainer, Troughton an accomplished character actor and Hartnell the hardest old man you’d ever come up against, baby-faced Davison was none of these things. Perhaps as a test to the strength of the character of the Doctor, the decision was made to make this fifth incarnation everything you’d never associate with the hero of the last 18 years.
Davison’s Doctor was fallible, distracted, blusterous, confused and even passionate about simple things like riding on a locomotive or enjoying a nice cup of tea. Surrounded by a youthful crew of misfits who flew into three separate direction at the earliest convenience, this Doctor was rarely helped by his companions and more often than not was trying to keep them out of trouble or even apologizing for their behavior. From the irascible Tegan, the distant scientist Nyssa, arrogant Adric and shifty Turlough, he was forever wondering just where they ran off to and if he’d have to spring them from any number of traps they had stumbled into.
From 1980 until 1983, the Doctor encountered the one thing that had become alien to him in his journeys; failure. The Doctor failed to stop the Master, Cybermen, Daleks and the combined forces of the Sea Devils and Silurians from massacring hundreds of innocents as he stood by awestruck and powerless. Perhaps most tragically, he failed to save the life of his teenage assistant Adric as he collided with the planet Earth in a time-traveling craft causing the end of the dinosaurs and the beginning of the age of Man (it’s complicated).
Yet this Doctor dueled with the forces of creation, was responsible for the big bang, outwitted the evil Mara on two occasions and even stood toe-to-toe against the greatest Time Lord of all, Omega. Never afraid to take arms against his enemies, this Doctor pulled guns, swords and even hat stands at his enemies (again, complicated).
While he was often out of breath, he was never out of conviction. In his final story, The Caves of Androzani, he saved the life of his assistant Peri. While they were both stricken with a strange sickness, he struggled to bring her the last of the cure and then collapsed from the effort, ready to die. His last words, ‘Is this death’ struck a chord with viewers as they watched a bizarre display of computer graphics and colors play over his dormant face.
After facing so much death and destruction, this Doctor seemed to have aged before the eyes of his fans. While at first an upbeat debonair hero, he had become a frazzled and desperate man. Was his hour up?
It’s difficult to explain given that we’ve doubled the number of Doctors since this story, but at the time it seemed like it could have been the end.
In a violent explosion of color, he finally sat up a changed man… but that’s another story altogether.
During the 1980’s Doctor Who enjoyed a boost in viewing figures and increased exposure overseas. With the Target line of novelizations (without VCR, this was the only way to relive many stories never replayed on TV), a role playing game by TSR and even a home computer game, it was a new golden age for the program.
Each Doctor clearly embodies the age in which he was on screen. Peter Davison‘s fresh face and colorful attire represented the optimism of the 1980’s as the world hurdled toward the era of the personal computer, compact disc and electronic club music. In short, we were becoming more sci-fi. Bearing that in mind, I often wonder if this was why so many terrible things happened to the Fifth Doctor to mirror the shattered hopes and dreams of the 1980’s.
The carnage rose to an alarming roar with Davison‘s last season featuring the last survivors of the human race being turned into zombified workers for an alien race in Frontios, nuclear weapons being turned against humanity in Warriors of the Deep and the wholesale slaughter of Resurrection of the Daleks which featured the highest body count of any Doctor Who story seen up to that time.
Whatever the case, due to his age many viewers related to this new younger Doctor and proudly claimed him to be their Doctor over the outgoing tired Tom Baker. This is a common practice and no malice is ever meant by it.
In fact, many fans of one particular Doctor later realize that other Doctors are similar in certain ways and share qualities that drew them to whichever they chose to be their favorite.
In just a few days, Davison will be returning to the role to star opposite current Doctor #10 David Tennant in the November 16th Children in Need Special. It will be interesting to see how he plays the part after so long.
I have a feeling I’m not alone here.