HomeTVRevisiting Sylvester McCoy's era of 'Doctor Who'

Revisiting Sylvester McCoy’s era of ‘Doctor Who’

Our reviewer Greg Jameson, one third of ‘Doctor Who’ and cult British TV podcast ‘The Complete Menagerie‘, is embarked on a marathon mission to watch (or listen to) every single episode of classic ‘Doctor Who’ in order of transmission, including those from the 1960s still missing from the archives. That’s seven hundred episodes spanning seven Doctors across two and a half decades.

At the end of December, he posted his thoughts on Colin Baker‘s troubled era as the Sixth Doctor that ended almost as soon as it began. One month on, he has reached the end of the intriguing yet inconsistent era, studded with a few jewels, that ended the original run of ‘Doctor Who’.

Join us for a roundup of his thoughts on ‘Doctor Who’ from 1987 to 1989.

This is the only era to consistently improve

The show got off to a great start in 1963, but William Hartnell’s final season is arguably his weakest. Troughton’s three years were consistently good, but his final year in the role was, repeating Hartnell’s fate, riddled with back room chaos and tumultuous changes in production personnel. Pertwee’s era was solid, but the mighty Season Seven, his first of five, was never bettered. He left on ‘Monster of Peladon’ and ‘Planet of the Spiders’, two of his weakest stories. Tom Baker’s first three seasons are the best in the show’s history – truly the gold standard of what makes for great ‘Doctor Who’. But his final four rarely recapture the magic of his first few years. Davison’s inconsistent era was hit and miss – OK so he went out on a high with ‘The Caves of Androzani’, but the next story in the same season was Colin Baker’s dire debut ‘The Twin Dilemma’. The rest of the Sixth Doctor’s era had no respite from being troubled. It’s well-documented that Sylvester McCoy’s era gets off to a rotten start. ‘Time and the Rani’ may well be uninspiring, but at least it isn’t nasty in the same way as ‘The Twin Dilemma’. If anything, McCoy’s clownish, muddle-headed first impression is irritating rather than unlikeable. But, in much the same trajectory as Patrick Troughton, who took a few stories to settle before becoming impressive, McCoy quickly grows into the part and drops the prat-falling. His first season ends on a high with ‘Dragonfire’ before his final two seasons keep getting better and better. No other Doctor managed to vastly improve on their first full season, and it speaks to McCoy’s gifts as a performer, and the increasing confidence of the production team that they knew what to do with the show, that the last two seasons of ‘Doctor Who’ are amongst the very best. After seasons 25 and 26, the show goes out with its head held high.

The show rediscovers its power

Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy
Credit: BritBox/BBC

Despite a few dips in quality aside, the final two seasons of McCoy’s era showcase a remarkable parade of imaginative stories. Revisiting them today after the stodginess and stagnation of much of the Davison and Colin Baker eras, these stories, even the sub-par ‘Silver Nemesis’ and ‘Battlefield’, feel inventive and bursting with ideas. What accounts for this remarkable late flourishing of ideas? The pressure is off. There is less interest and interference from the BBC’s Sixth Floor. Like when a football club has been relegated with six games left to play before the end of the season, suddenly the anxiety is lifted and free-flowing football returns to the stadium for the first time in ages.

McCoy and Aldred are one of the great Doctor/companion pairings

Looking back across the entire classic run, there are but a few pairings of Doctor and companion where the chemistry is exactly right. The Second Doctor and Jamie, the Third Doctor and Jo, the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane spring to mind as the pinnacle of actors in complete harmony. The First Doctor had a good rapport with Susan and Vicki, but the affectionate bond between Ian and Barbara is the defining emotional link for the viewer in the earliest days. The Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS was overcrowded with often-annoying companions, and the Sixth Doctor and Peri did nothing but bicker. Whilst Mel was the link between eras, providing the Seventh Doctor with assistance in his first four adventures, his era had yet to hit its stride. The paternal affection the Seventh Doctor shows towards Mel is ramped up when the delinquent Ace tags along for the ride. He sees something of himself in his young companion: a misfit, a loner, somebody who doesn’t really know how to fit in. The difference is that the Doctor has long since given up trying. In other words, the Doctor can help his companion to grow and to mature. That becomes a defining theme of the rest of the era. Both actors work in beautiful tandem on this, building their rapport over time. I enjoy seeing them together so much that their wanderings in the English countryside in the sub-par ‘Silver Nemesis’ brought an instant smile to my face, and Ace telling the Doctor that she trusts him and believes in him in ‘The Curse of Fenric’ brought tears to my eyes. There’s more psychological depth in this pairing than we have seen before.

This is the most emotional era of ‘Doctor Who’

It is the Seventh Doctor’s era that is clearly the template for the ‘New Adventures’ novels of the 1990s, many of which would be written by authors who later contributed to the 2005 and beyond remake. Ace’s backstory and her later encounter with her own mother (and grandmother) in ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is the first story to explore the emotional implications of time travel and being able to face up to demons from the past. Then there’s the metaphorical exploration of Ace’s burgeoning sexuality in ‘Survival’, which would have been inconceivable in any other era. Years later, the late McCoy era would be used as a blueprint for rebooting the show. It’s hard to imagine that the style of modern ‘Doctor Who’ would have been possible had the show ended with the Sixth Doctor’s finale ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’. In so many ways, the Sylvester McCoy era influenced the modern show more than that of any of his predecessors (for better or worse).

This is the most political ‘Doctor Who’ has been

There’s also a fair bit of politics in the Pertwee era. The miners’ strikes that were a defining feature of both the 1970s and 1980s in the UK were examined in ‘The Monster of Peladon’ and to a lesser extent in McCoy’s ‘The Happiness Patrol’. Climate change and the impact of corporate greed is addressed in Pertwee’s favourite story, ‘The Green Death’, which is by far the most overtly left-wing story up to that point. Left-wing utopianism is satirised in the Pertwee story ‘The Invasion of the Dinosaurs’, with Operation Golden Age standing in for any Marxist revolution you care to name. Colonialism is thrashed out in Pertwee’s ‘The Colony in Space’. But political references become more overt during the McCoy era. Fascism and racist views form part of the storyline of ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’. In ‘The Curse of Fenric’, Ace is gifted a Sickle and Hammer badge, the emblem of Soviet Communism, by Captain Sorin (Tomek Bork), which she is delighted about despite the cost in human life and suffering caused by the ideology. It is certainly an eyebrow-raising moment, but perhaps more understandable in 1989 when the USSR was collapsing and along with it, Communism in the West, thus rendering it less of a threat. Despite that, it’s hard to imagine that Ace would have accepted a swastika badge from Mike Smith (played by Dursley McLinden), emblem of the other evil ideology that blighted the last century. By McCoy’s second season, an entire story, ‘The Happiness Patrol’, is devoted to taking none-too-subtle pot shots at the government of the day. Again, this would foreshadow the reboot, where the taking down of the Prime Minister (Penelope Wilton) was reduced to a glib phrase. As so often when politics is brought into ‘Doctor Who’, it is handled reductively and to make an ideological point rather than to tell a story. It often badly dates episodes. ‘Doctor Who’ is stronger and more compelling when it is telling adventure stories with a good moral heart rather than preaching propaganda. The McCoy era’s biggest weakness is in eroding this boundary.

This is the most original era of ‘Doctor Who’ for some time

The quality of the scripts and the script editing is much better during McCoy’s tenure than in the rest of the 1980s. These twelve stories delve further into the Doctor’s origins, but in so doing, make him more mysterious not less. The Doctor is connected to ancient mythology (Merlin) and takes on the qualities of a deity (Lady Peinforte threatens to disclose the Doctor’s identity in ‘Silver Nemesis’, and he speaks of the battle between good and evil in almost biblical terms in ‘The Curse of Fenric’). No other Doctor could be seamlessly parachuted into a Seventh Doctor adventure. That’s a good measure of just how quirky and well-tailored to McCoy’s strengths the series had become. The Doctor is a wanderer, a meddler, a maverick, a madman too, possibly, but a decent one. The Seventh Doctor finds his voice in a way the show hadn’t quite managed to do for a decade at that point, after the Tom Baker era’s decline into silliness. McCoy deserves enormous credit for this turnaround. His skills as a performer enable him to play this timeless benevolent genius with what seems like effortless conviction. A few forgivable shaky deliveries aside, McCoy’s portrayal of the Doctor really is wonderful. He was perfect for the part and was instrumental in reversing the quality of the end product.

The memory cheats

I haven’t always been a cheerleader for the Seventh Doctor. Everybody watched ‘Doctor Who’ when I was in primary school. Only a few nerds like me admitted to it. When ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ aired, I remember a lot of schoolmates telling me how great they thought ‘Doctor Who’ was again. By the time of the next story, ‘The Happiness Patrol’, I was back to believing that I was the only one tuning in. Sylvester’s final season coincided with my transition to secondary school when I went from being in the oldest year group, towering over the tots, to the youngest and smallest year group. It was a scary time. Not only that, but I had swimming lessons on a Monday evening, so I had to rely on the incredibly fickle timing mechanism of the VHS recorder to tape the show, and I would watch it the second I made it home smelling of chlorine. So out of Sylvester’s final season, there was barely an episode I watched on transmission. I even remember having to borrow 10p from a classmate to phone home to ask my mum to record ‘The Curse of Fenric’ episode three, because I had forgotten to “set the tape”, as we used to say. All very stressful. That, coupled with the added misery of the onset of adolescence, meant that I didn’t appreciate the Sylvester McCoy era as much as I should have done at the time. In my mind’s eye, the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), the brave young veterinary surgeon who had brought me into this crazy world in 1983, remained unparalleled and insuperable. These associations would take some time to iron out. I also had the advantage of being able to watch every single episode of the Seventh Doctor’s era, albeit on shaky VHS cassettes, and access to very few archive episodes as they were drip-fed into commercial release. Thus is was that I took Sylvester’s era for granted, and concluded that he didn’t measure up against classics like ‘Spearhead from Space’, ‘The Ark in Space’ and ‘The Seeds of Death’. I thought too that he was weak in comparison to my memories of the Davison era. And yet… and yet… Slowly, gradually, I reappraised the McCoy era and grew not just to embrace it but to love it. Without a doubt, the Seventh Doctor’s era is the one that has risen the most in my estimations. Why did I not see how great it was at the time? I look at the world differently now, and appreciate Sylvester’s Doctor much more. It’s all part of growing up. For some reason, this show hung around in my life long after it went off air. I bought up the tapes, books and magazines. It was to be a passion that endured for twenty years. Even now, when ‘Doctor Who’ is balanced in my life with other interests, I derive great pleasure from tuning in and discussing it with like-minded friends.

There will be a conclusion to watching ‘Doctor Who’ in order

This whole wonderful experiment in watching every single episode from start to finish has helped me to contextualise many of the thoughts and feelings I have relating to ‘Doctor Who’. There is one final instalment of this adventure, which will rank each Doctor’s era. What I didn’t mention to you along the way was that I gave each ‘Doctor Who’ story a mark out of five (with half points available). Once I had scored ‘Survival’, I then went through and calculated an average mark for each Doctor, to see how they were ranked. The final result was surprising… and is therefore worth sharing. Thank you for coming this far on my adventure re-appraising every era of classic ‘Doctor Who’. The scores are in. The results have been verified. I have lists and facts a’plenty for you in the final part of the journey, coming soon. Stay tuned!

Go back to the start with our analysis of the William Hartnell era. ‘Doctor Who’ is available to stream on Britbox and is heartily recommended.

Greg Jameson
Greg Jameson
Book editor, with an interest in cult TV.

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