The 80’s was a very important period for Doctor Who as conventions and exhibitions became more common and producer John Natahn Turner played the dual role of series producer and publicist, ensuring that the program received attention in the press on a regular basis. Peter Davison, the first new actor to play the lead role was already a household name thanks to his part in All Creatures Great and Small. At just 29 he was the youngest actor to play the role at the time and a considerable risk for the BBC. Even so, Doctor Who enjoyed a strong and dedicated following in the 80’s and as the program celebrated its 20th Anniversary in 1983 it seemed that the series was headed into a new era of greatness.
1980′s Part One: Peter Davison
Script editors have always been instrumental in the tone of a series. Christopher H. Bidmead (in Tom Baker’s last series), Antony Root and Eric Saward all worked on shaping the face of Doctor Who in the 80’s. Whereas the previous series under Douglas Adams focused on humor and absurd plots, the new direction was more concerned with presenting sophisticated intelligent tales toward a more educated teenage viewer. In the final series, this direction shifted toward a more violent type of story and horrific elements were also added. Peter Davison carefully chose his all beige costume carefully and chose to mainly stick to the background until the eleventh hour when he would suddenly launch into action. Using his wits and everyday objects rather than gimmicky gadgets, the Doctor was more vulnerable and emotionally responsive to his companions who tested his patience or outright tried to kill him. This was a new younger face for the Doctor that viewers would easily relate to.
The Doctor and his TARDIS loaded with three companions land on the planet Deva Loka to find that an Earth expedition is dangerously close to collapse as the small crew come close to insanity. The indigenous people, called the Kinda, are a mystery to the humans. They live simply and appear to be largely primitive but in reality have a deep connection to the universe and the forces of evil that dwell within it, such as the Mara. When Tegan becomes a conduit for the Mara to enter the corporeal world, the dangers that are brewing come to a boil and Armageddon looms. The Davison era began as a series of intelligent adventures written with wit and imagination. Kinda is a good example of this style as it operates on a higher level of understanding with deep elements of spiritual thought. It also features what appears to be a blow-up snake and a wicker tank… but never mind.
The final part of the Black Guardian trilogy easily stands on its own. What appears to be a period drama set on a racing yacht is revealed to be a cosmic race by immortal beings for the ultimate prize of Enlightenment. The TARDIS crew is slimmed down to just two (Tegan and Turlough really work well together in my opinion) and the Doctor is given space to shine as he struggles to uncover the mysteries around him without becoming trapped in them. A wonderment of special effects provides some of the best images of Doctor Who in the 80’s- the idea of vintage racing yachts in space is just awesome- and the danger is very palpable.
Caves of Androzani
The final adventure of the fifth Doctor is very thin on plot and very thick on tension. Essentially the Doctor just wanders into a deadly war and gets caught in the crossfire. Uninterested in solving any mystery or in battling any monsters, the Doctor’s main goal becomes a determination to save his companion Peri. The story of the fifth Doctor can be seen as a kind of maturation into a dangerous universe. In his last year the Doctor is surrounded by death and destruction. When he decides to take part and kill Daleks, Davros and the Master he has turned a corner and transformed into a darker kind of hero. He is still very much the daring English gentleman, but he has also taken on a darker shade of character. Saving Peri is very much a desperate attempt to redeem himself for his previous companion Adric’s death, a loss that the Doctor thinks himself wholly responsible.
Caves of Androzani is atypical of Doctor Who as it’s not really about much of anything but the Doctor shows such bravery and courage in the face of impossible odds that this has to be a classic.
Honorable mentions: Four to Doomsday, Earthshock, Frontios.
There are plenty of Davison stories worthy of praise and a lot of subpar ones as well. The program had great difficulty in judging what was within its ability often resulting in silly adventures that looked embarrassing (Time Flight), but there are great ones too. Four to Doomsday is a fun smart adventure that utilizes the large crew of companions well. Earthshock brought the Cybermen back from retirement and featured a jaw-dropping finale. Frontios is a lovely Christopher H. Bidmead tale hampered by the silliest monsters and unlikeliest hair styles I have ever seen, but it features digging machines piloted by dead bodies! Ahhh!!
1980′s Part Two: Colin Baker
The most controversial year of Doctor Who saw the program enter a realm of darkness. The newly regenerated Doctor in a fit of rage attacked his companion, begged for mercy from his enemies and exhibited erratic behavior that challenged the viewers to accept him as the same man they had regarded as a hero for years. The sixth Doctor was a selfish, arrogant and unpredictable personality all dressed in colorful clothes more akin to a children’s program. It was a very interesting confluence of contrasts that resulted in one of the more bizarre renditions of the Doctor. Actor Colin Baker intended to outlast 7 years but was fired after only two series. Colorful, brash and over-the-top, the Colin Baker years saw viewers turn away from a family favorite as it had perhaps changed too much too soon. It’s unfortunate as the sixth Doctor starred in some great stories but after an eighteen month hiatus was brought back as a shadow of his former self.
Vengeance on Varos
Attempting to find a valuable mineral to keep the TARDIS running, the Doctor and Peri become part of the entertainment on the planet Varos in the Death Zone. Financially distraught families watch from their cubicles with baited breath as the Doctor attempts to outwit death traps and save the planet from the clutches of the Mentors. This story is just brilliant. It exhibits inspired plotting, interesting visuals and a great guest cast. The effects, sets and acting of certain actors is disappointing but the overall aim of this one is quite high. After being attacked for being too violent, Doctor Who wryly stated to its audience ‘violence sells.’
Mark of the Rani
An excellent period drama with sci-fi elements, the Master and a new character called the Rani make this story great. Colin Baker has often said that he is a director’s actor and given the right direction will shine. I can see what he means by this as this story has a lot going on in it and he grasps the opportunities with both hands. Witty, clever and brave, the Doctor redeems himself to anyone still unsure if he is the same Doctor they had loved before. I have to admit that it took as long time for me to accept Anthony Ainley but he is just fantastic in this and there is absolutely nothing for him to do (a sign of a superb actor). Ironically, the Rani is the only weak point in this as she is an interesting idea but lacks the charisma of the Master.
An exercise in an adventure gone wrong, Mindwarp is part of the series-long story Trial of a Time Lord which centered on tedious expositionary sequences set in a court room with occasional cut aways to another story. It’s a terrible idea but Philip Martin (Vengeance on Varos) used his portion of the series to craft a very good story that exposed the terrifying danger that young Peri lived in by traveling with the Doctor, a man that had already been shown as unhinged mentally and emotionally. The Doctor is investigating arms sales on Thoras Beta and ends up getting embroiled in the disturbing experiments being performed to pacify the rival Alphan rebels. He ends up being subjected to the same pacification treatment in a horrifying sequence that produces a morally twisted version of himself. Whereas he was once opposed to the Mentor Sil (again from Vengeance on Varos) the two are now aligned together. The Doctor betrays Peri, works with his enemies and appears to have reverted to the personality that we first glimpsed directly after his regeneration. When the pacification process is reversed, the Doctor desperately attempts to undo all of the damager, but is far too late. Scary beyond words, even the Doctor is dumbfounded by the course of events at the end of this one, a moment that was as electrifying as it was saddening.
The story suffers from some vagueness in the plot that is unnecessary but in essence this is a fantastic adventure that stunned me the first time I saw it.
Honorable mentions: The Two Doctors, Revelation of the Daleks.
The best of the multi-Doctor stories, the Two Doctors has lots of humor, the incredible Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines as well as Jackie Pierce. Unfortunately it also has the Sontarans in it who serve no purpose. Even so, it’s very well shot and has unusually fine music. I’m self-conscious about citing Revelation of the Daleks as a Colin Baker classic as he is barely in it, but director Graeme Harper shows that he understood what makes a gripping Doctor Who adventure.
1980′s Part Three: Sylvester McCoy
The last Doctor of the classic Doctor Who series was a unique decision to embrace the wishes of BBC execs and remake the program as children’s entertainment. Stage performer Sylvester McCoy was familiar to some for his appearances in Tis Was, making his casting as the 900 year-old Time Lord a puzzler to be sure. No doubt the casting of McCoy and Bonnie Langford lent to a light entertainment style, which allowed the script editor Andrew Cartmell to craft his master plan that would re-invent Doctor Who for a new generation.
In only three years, McCoy would run the gauntlet from buffoon to dashing hero and finally mysterious alien mastermind. 1987-89 was a time of experimentation and revival of Doctor Who and it saw some absolutely amazing adventures along with depressing viewing figures. The program that had entertained millions was cut down too early and would not be seen again for several years.
But it certainly went out with a bang.
Remembrance of the Daleks
In 1988 there was an increase in Doctor Who’s popularity and talk of a feature film circulated. When Remembrance of the Daleks screened, the concept of a new Doctor Who film that could be better than what I had just seen was just silly. A period drama with soldiers not unlike U.N.I.T., two warring Dalek factions, a new Dalek design and a companion swinging a baseball bat powerful enough to destroy the dreaded monsters the Doctor faced was the perfect recipe for a motion picture in my mind. After an uneven first series, McCoy had settled into the role and showed that he had what it took to be a daring, brilliant and witty version of the much-loved Time Lord.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Stephen Wyatt had written what I consider to be the one redeeming story from series 24, Paradise Towers. He managed to find a way to tell a new kind of Doctor Who story that combined weird concepts with childlike innocence and fairy tale danger. Killer clowns, a circus that killed people and ancient gods that demanded to be entertained make this one a true classic. There are problems, of course and the production team doesn’t seem to be up to the challenge to make some of the rather big ideas work, but the general idea is superb. We also get more of Sophie Aldred as Ace acting opposite McCoy in what has to be the one of the best Doctor/Companion combinations ever.
The Curse of Fenric
The final series of Doctor Who is so good that it’s just tear-jerking to realize that another series did not follow. The scripts were more involved and bolder, the effects more elaborate and the acting much finer. Curse of Fenric is another period piece set in a British Army base during the final days if WWII. The Doctor is playing a dangerous game with an ancient evil entity called Fenric, a game that he began long ago. Deep in Maiden’s Bay, an ancient cursed Oriental treasure pulses with power from a crashed Viking ship. The curse brings to life the many dead bodies in the sea and a being of great power from the future, Ingiga – the Ancient One. This story is so dynamic and daring that I still find it hard to believe the BBC managed to produce it. The monsters are terrific, the plot amazing and the acting top notch. It’s a sad shame that so few families were watching as Doctor Who died a slow painful death as this is one that stood to bring about a return to greatness that the series desperately needed.
Honorable mentions: Paradise Towers, Happiness Patrol, Survival.
There area few other notable McCoy adventures that I should point out such as the mis-directed Paradise Towers that saw cannibal old ladies fattening up skinny girls to eat them, gangs of teenagers and a deadly pool cleaning robot (well, they weren’t all great ideas). The acting gets hammy and the Doctor just blows up the bad guy which never really sat well with me. Happiness Patrol is excellent and has that perfect mix of the weird and the horrific that I applaud the McCoy era for. Many fans slate this one, but it’s the ideal example of the series posing as a kid’s show and actually telling a very adult scary story. Survival could be one of the all time greats if you ignore the goofy Cheetah People and the Master’s big plan to use a gang of teenage boys to kill the Doctor. Still, the direction is tight, the script outstanding and the visuals memorable.
And so Doctor Who left our screens until it returned once in 1996 and again in 2005, but then it was a very different program.