Inside the TARDIS: The End (1981-1989)
By Dan Toland
20 November 2008 Due to several circumstances illness, boredom, an almost superhuman inability to get along with new producer John Nathan-Turner Tom Baker announced in October 1980 that he would be leaving the title role of the Doctor at the end of his seventh season. In the minds of the public Baker was the Doctor, and this was a blow that could easily have crippled the longest-running science fiction television show in the world. However, Nathan-Turner seized his chance to completely remake the show the way he saw fit, and over the next eight years the role would be played by a 29 year old bleach-blonde light comedy actor, a noisy soap opera villain in a clown suit and a former vaudevillian who specialized in stuffing live ferrets down his trousers. Unsurprisingly, it was also cancelled. Twice.
With a strong desire to cast the Fifth Doctor completely against expectations and to be as different from Tom Baker as possible, JNT turned to Peter Davison (born Peter Mofett, 1951-), a young actor he had worked with previously on All Creatures Great and Small. Davison fit the bill JNT had been looking for; he was young (at 29, he's the youngest actor ever to play the role) and relatable, he projected a much more down-to-earth quality about himself than any of his predecessors and, to be frank, he had straight hair. Yes, this was a concern.
And, probably more than anything else, he had a built-in audience; his role as veterinarian Tristan Farnon on All Creatures and leads in several sitcoms of the day had made him a household name in the late 70s and early 80s, which JNT had hoped would alleviate the impact of viewers who would leave the show with Baker.
What Davison lacked was an admittedly indefinable quality fans of the show have long called "Doctorishness." The first four Doctors all had a sense of being in control at all times, of knowing something no one else did, of having almost absurd self-confidence, and varying degrees of eccentricity and wit. Davison, on the other hand, never looked like he knew what was going on, frequently seemed overwhelmed and was never really allowed to display any sense of humor whatsoever until his final season. That's not to say he had nothing going for him. Davison was (and is) a very good actor, possibly the best the series had had up to that point (although I'll certainly argue Troughton's case), and has the curiosity and innate heroism that would later manifest itself in David Tennant's performance. Davison manages to turn the Fifth Doctor's vulnerability into a dramatic plus.
JNT was very eager to put his stamp indelibly on Doctor Who. The characters now ceased to wear clothes, and began to wear highly tailored costumes; Davison's cricketer's outfit, complete with the now obligatory question mark collar, looked as if it had been designed and created by a BBC in-house staff fashion designer which, of course, it was much to the actor's fairly vocal displeasure; he was not totally sold on the cricketing suit to begin with, but felt very strongly that it would have looked better as an "off-the-peg" look. (Jon Pertwee always wore velvet jackets, but he didn't wear the same velvet jacket for five years.) This carried over to the entire main cast; for the first time since Tom Baker's inaugural season, there were multiple companions, and during Davison's first year they never changed their clothes. And those companions, in an effort by the producer to bring an element of tension within the TARDIS, all seemed designed to constantly fight with each other. Adric was a snot-nosed jackass mathematical genius who sulked and fought with the Doctor. Tegan was a loudmouthed, abrasive Australian stewardess who shouted and fought with the Doctor. Prep student Turlough didn't really argue with the Doctor too much, but he did try to kill him a few times. Only Nyssa, an alien biochemist, did what companions up to that point had traditionally done: she asked a lot of questions, got the story explained to her, got into trouble and waited for the Doctor to come rescue her.
Christopher H. Bidmead, the script editor from Tom Baker's last season, had left the program and was replaced by Eric Saward (1944-), a man who was less interested in teaching the laws of thermodynamics to teenagers than in overseeing an action / adventure show. This, coupled with JNT's desire to play to the fans more than the general audience, meant that there were altogether fewer trippy or highbrow stories, and classic villains returned in droves. The Master, as played by Anthony Ainley, made at least one appearance every year (which would continue into Colin Baker's tenure), and the Cybermen returned in the Season Nineteen story "Earthshock." The overwhelming fan response to seeing the Cybermen back after a long absence meant that the following year, Season Twenty, would be marked by having an old enemy or supporting character return in every story, culminating in the 20th anniversary special "The Five Doctors." Naturally, the fanboys loved it and the casual fans were turned off. Doctor Who became one of those shows you couldn't watch unless you'd been following it for a long time.
"If the freighter crashes into Earth with you on board, won't that make it very difficult to carry out your task? After all, you would be very crumpled."
Fifth Doctor, "Earthshock"
When Davison had first taken the role of the Doctor, he ran into Patrick Troughton in the BBC parking lot, who, after congratulating him, advised Davison not to stay any longer than three years. After much thought, Davison heeded this advice, leaving JNT with the need to cast the Sixth Doctor at the end of Season Twenty-One.
Colin Baker (1943-) had been acting for roughly 15 years, doing a lot of stage work and guest parts on television. His best-known role up to this point was as Paul Merroney in the primetime soap The Brothers, a prototypical JR Ewing who was at one time voted the most hated man in Britain. With this in mind, Baker (no relation to Tom Baker, by the way) was contracted to play the role of Maxil, Commander of the Gallifreyan Guard, in the Season Twenty opening story "Arc of Infinity," and in so doing, actually got to shoot Peter Davison. He was invited to the wedding reception of a production member of this story, and it was at this wedding that JNT, seeing Baker being ridiculously entertaining to all the guests, decided there and then that he'd found the next Doctor, making Baker the only actor to take the lead role of the show after having already made a guest appearance (not including David Tennant, who made guest appearances in several Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas, but more on this tomorrow).
After this, JNT apparently went completely insane. Nathan-Turner was remarkably good at many aspects of production. He stretched Doctor Who's virtually nonexistent budget so well that the season he took over looks almost modern compared to the season before, and he was a genius at publicizing the show. New actors, from Doctors to guest artists, had it in their contract that they would be required to attend a certain number of conventions each year. And Doctor Who was effectively never out of the newspapers for more than a week or so. But he fancied himself a creative type as well, and many people who worked on the production, time and again, have regretfully said that this was not actually the case. More than anything, according to costume designer June Hudson, was his fierce love for clothing and wardrobe. While this had previously popped up in the costume redesign for Tom Baker (where JNT had to be convinced to keep the scarf), and the designed look of Davison's cricketer's uniform, it really made its presence known when he insisted absolutely insisted that Colin Baker's costume was to follow the Victorian motif, but be "totally tasteless." Despite attempts on every front including Baker himself, who not only had to be seen in the damn thing, but really wanted to wear black, in part to hide his tendency towards weight gain JNT won out, and Baker was saddled with the ridiculous clown suit that destroyed everything.
Okay, that may be hyperbole. But video cameras in the 80s had a very narrow range of colors which they could handle; what this meant was that not only did the Doctor look like an explosion at the Crayola factory, but everything else the costumes worn by Nicola Bryant as companion Peri Brown, the sets, the monsters, you name it also had to be insanely colored and, to top things off, lit like a department store at Christmas. And while we're at it, we may as well put sparkles and sequins on everything. All the work that had gone in making the show look more professional instantly went out the window. It's almost impossible for a scene in an underground tunnel to have any tension or atmosphere when it's lit by row upon row of florescent lamps.
This was not the only sketchy decision to be made. Rather than wait until the start of Season Twenty-Two to launch Baker as the new Doctor, it was decided that Davison would leave in the penultimate story of Season Twenty-One ("The Caves of Androzani"), and that Colin would have an entire four-part story ("The Twin Dilemma") to close off the year so that the audience would have the opportunity to get used to the new state of affairs. However, it was decided that it would be interesting to have the regeneration go wrong, where the Doctor would go insane over the course of the story. He shouts, he's abusive, he's cowardly and at one point he tries to strangle Peri. Yes, he gets better at the end, but still, the message to the audience was "The new Doctor is crazy, obnoxious, loud and can't dress himself. See you in nine months!" Not to mention that the insipid story is mentioned in every "worst story ever" conversation. It's no wonder the audience wasn't really sold on the new guy.
But more importantly, things were going wrong behind the scenes: JNT had been trying to leave the show but the BBC wouldn't allow him to, script editor Saward felt that Baker was miscast as the Doctor and the BBC was becoming more and more dismissive of the show. All of this culminated in a production crew who really seemed not to care anymore. When Season Twenty-Two rolled around, in a new 45-minute format (much like the show today), it was arguably the worst the program had seen up to that point. This was not in any way the fault of Baker; he's a very good actor who injected enormous charm and personality into some truly dire scripts, despite a character brief that demanded he be arrogant and dismissive. There were a few bright spots, however; "Vengeance on Varos" is a great story, and "The Two Doctors" sees the final appearance of Patrick Troughton on the show, airing two years before his death. But on the whole, it was disappointing, and when it was over, the BBC cancelled the program.
At first, anyway. JNT and his unrivalled brilliance at playing the press went into overdrive, and with the assistance of Eric Saward and a number of fans, leaked word of the cancellation to the British press, which instantly took up the ending of a cultural institution as a cause cιlθbre. The BBC quickly changed gears and announced that the series was only going to be rested for 18 months. However, Jonathan Powell, who was the BBC's Head of Drama at the time, now freely admits that the intention had been to end the show. Despite the healthy ratings and the merchandising money, he and BBC Controller Michael Grade simply didn't like the show. And as big a fanboy as I am, I look at this era and I can't say I don't understand. Even for its time, Doctor Who was an embarrassment to the BBC; it looked cheap and rushed. It couldn't compete with American series that were being imported to the UK; Buck Rogers (fuck Twiki) and The A-Team were routinely beating it in the ratings.
When Season Twenty-Three finally rolled around in September of 1986, the production office decided to try something new: the episode count had been slashed, and they were back to their original length. Therefore, they decided to make one long, 14-part story called "The Trial of a Time Lord," which would parallel the fact that the show itself was on trial for its own existence. This turned out to be an extraordinarily bad idea, because although the story itself had its definite high points not least of which were seriously improved special effects and a very mellowed and more palatable Sixth Doctor the uninitiated were turned off at the prospect of stumbling upon the series midway through a season-long storyline. It also didn't help that the Doctor was up against monsters with vulvae for faces. (Seriously.) And the new theme song sounded like someone farting into a synthesizer. The ratings actually took a nosedive, and the BBC stepped in and said that they would allow the program to continue, but only on the condition that Colin Baker be fired.
Now, this was incredibly unfair to Colin. He was easily the best thing about the show, and was a good actor who had time and again been given obscenely bad scripts. He was very excited about being the Sixth Doctor; he loved the part, and had originally announced his intention to break Tom Baker's record. The BBC treated him very poorly, yet this has not prevented Baker from being an enthusiastic ambassador for Doctor Who to this very day. The man is a true class act, and if Big Finish (more tomorrow) has done anything, it's proven that given the right scripts, Colin Baker could have been remembered today as the best actor in the role.
"In all my traveling throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilization: decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen... they're still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power. That's what it takes to be really corrupt."
Sixth Doctor, "The Trial of a Time Lord"
Despite the BBC's insistence that he actually audition people this time, JNT watched a play one night and decided he'd found his Seventh Doctor. Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith (1943-) was a former seminary student who had joined the cast of Ken Campbell's Roadshow. There he perfected a routine called "An Evening With Sylveste McCoy: The Human Bomb," where he performed such acts as driving a nail into his nose, stuffing the aforementioned ferrets into the aforementioned pants and attempting to escape from chains while a toy train with a fork attached to the end of it raced towards Lil' Sylveste. Kent-Smith took this character as his stage name, eventually tweaking the first name slightly to become Sylvester McCoy. He was a short, spoon-playing, pratfalling vaudevillian of the old school, and he was a complete 180 from his predecessor.
What wasn't a complete 180, alas, were the four stories that comprised Season Twenty-Four. This is arguably the worst season ever, and is not helped by the fact that no one had seemed to figure out what to do with McCoy yet. For this year, he quite understandably played the Doctor in the manner which presumably got him hired: lots of pratfalls, plenty of physical comedy and silly wordplay. One bit they tried for a while was a tendency for the Doctor to mix up aphorisms ("time and tide melt the snowman," "a stitch in time takes up space") in an effort to differentiate him from the Sixth Doctor, who constantly quoted literature and used long, archaic words (a conscious effort by Baker to hopefully get younger audience members running for their dictionaries); they wisely got rid of this in short order. Unfortunately, while McCoy was (and remains) a remarkably gifted comedian and physical performer, there never seemed to be any weight to his Doctor for this season. As Troughton and Tom Baker proved, you can only laugh at your enemies if you're prepared to become deadly serious at a moment's notice, and these four stories never really gave McCoy that option. (Also, he can't really act angry.) Oh, and as for the costume good news! The question marks on the shirt collar are gone! Bad news! They are instead thrown all over his sweater. Oh, and his umbrella handle is shaped like a big question mark. Oh, JNT!
Season Twenty-Five, however, is where things start to get interesting. Andrew Cartmel, who became the new script editor when Eric Saward quit in a firestorm during the "Trial" season, was a very young writer who wanted to see Doctor Who return to its more mysterious roots. As such, he launched what later became known as the Cartmel Masterplan, a new backstory that would retcon some of the history which had been revealed, by means of hints sprinkled occasionally through certain stories, which suggested, possibly, that the Doctor had been a part of the dawn of Gallifreyan civilization, and that he was "far more than just another Time Lord." These hints never really went anywhere (on screen, at least), but it was something new, anyway. And with this, JNT seemed to become interested in producing the show again.
McCoy's performance completely turned around, as well. The Seventh Doctor went from being a clown to becoming what has been called in some circles "the manipulative Scottish git." From this point on, for the final two seasons, the Doctor went into every situation knowing everything that was happening, controlling everyone in the room, revealing nothing to anyone least of all Ace, his companion, who bore the brunt of his manipulations and mind games. It was a very different take on the character, and a brave choice. And to be honest, it was a much more interesting one than had been done in recent years. However, it was really too much. Other Doctors had been equally capable of pulling all the strings of a situation, but McCoy could be downright sinister about it. Which is not to say he's an unlikable character; the Seventh Doctor is still a very funny, charming man with a lot going for him, but the way he screwed with Ace's head bordered on cruelty.
"There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace, we've got work to do."
Seventh Doctor, "Survival"
After Season Twenty-Six, Doctor Who was put on hiatus. It was never officially cancelled, largely to avoid the cry that had happened four years earlier. Now, after 27 years, seven Doctors, 159 stories and 695 episodes, the Doctor's story was over.
Until, that is, the fans took over.