Bigger On The Inside: A Quick Start Guide To… The Seventh Doctor
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR MEDIA BLASPHEMY.
It can’t have escaped your attention that Doctor Who is about to celebrate its landmark 50th anniversary. The world’s longest running sci-fi show began in 1963, and has run on and off to this day. After thirty-three seasons, its 800th episode or so will be simulcast to 75 countries and hundreds of cinemas nationwide on November 23rd. Clearly, there’s a lot going for it, but the sheer size and scope of the show can make it impenetrable for first time viewers.
So if you’ve never seen an episode, or you only started watching it because David Tennant was a bit dishy, here’s the first in a twelve part series giving you a quick over-view of each Doctor, each companion, big name monsters and stories to snog, marry and avoid. We’ll even throw in the spin-offs that ran (mostly) in recent years, to let you know if they’re worth a look. So get your sonic screwdriver at the ready, and delve into articles which we hope… are bigger on the inside…
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR: SYLVESTER McCOY 1987-1989
Long term fans of Doctor Who love The Brigadier almost as much as they love the late, great actor who played him, Nicholas Courtney. The character was so well loved his off-screen death became a deciding moment in the finale of Matt Smith’s second season. More recently, the revelation that the new head of UNIT, Kate Stewart, is his daughter, brought tears to the eyes of many full grown men and women in 2012’s The Power of Three.
Yet for some reason, all this love comes to some fans at the expense of ignoring one of the character’s finest pearls of wisdom. When asked to explain The Doctor, he replied: “Wonderful chap. All of them.” Never has this ignorance been more apparent than with The Seventh Doctor, who suffers the unfortunate fate of being The One Who Got Cancelled.
He arrived at a crossroads for a national institution which an increasingly hard-to-please nation was being convinced no longer needed his services. He arrived at a time when a production department, reeling from the enforced sacking of his predecessor, was in a frenzied state of desperation, clinging onto life by a thread, uncertain of where it was going, or indeed, if it would be travelling for much longer. Later, his very life-force would be forcibly snuffed out, plans unfinished. And yet, despite awkward beginnings and an unplanned conclusion, the Seventh Doctor has – in retrospect – gained the love he deserves.
With Colin Baker forcibly removed from the TARDIS following his second season, producer John Nathan Turner elected to cast someone as far removed from his bombastic, arrogant Doctor as possible. He found his Time Lord in the form of Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith, better known by his stage name Sylvester McCoy.
McCoy had rose to prominence not as an actor, but as a member of comedy troupe The Ken Campbell Roadshow. In those early days, his shtick, as it was, included putting forks up his nose and stuffing ferrets down his trousers, and he later went on to appear on children’s television shows like Tiswas. This background got him the part, but has also cast a shadow over his time in the role – his detractors neglecting to remember he’s also a highly respected stage actor, who worked with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Sir Ian McKellen long before Sylvester he turned up in The Hobbit thanks to his biggest fan, Peter Jackson.
For his first run of stories – at least partially planned for the Sixth Doctor – he was expected to ham it up. The edict from on high about the show’s excessive violence under Eric Saward’s script editing put his replacement, Andrew Cartmel, in the unfortunate position of making a show that looked and felt a lot more cartoony than ever before, with showbiz cameos and one-dimensional plots.
Yet neither Cartmell nor McCoy wanted to make the kind of stories that made up those initial episodes which certain elements of fandom continue to use as a noose around their necks. When the lovely, if miscast Bonnie Langford elected to leave the show, her replacement was a young woman named Sophie Aldred. Sophie ended up playing below her age as a streetwise teenager with a penchant for explosives, and for the first time since Sarah Jane Smith, a proper back story of sorts.
Dorothy Gale McShane may have preferred her nickname Ace (how 80s is that?), but just like the literary character she was named after, she soon realised she wasn’t in Kansas – or rather, Perivale – anymore. Ace began her adventures accidentally whisking up a time-storm in her bedroom whilst making her own explosives, finding herself stranded on the rubbish-looking Iceworld complex on the planet Svartos.
With a space in the TARDIS, she willingly joined the Doctor on his travels, and Andrew Cartmel managed to do what critics later tried to suggest was a Russell T. Davis innovation: letting the companion’s role develop over time. Ace became The Doctor’s student and he, her willing Professor – indeed, she even called him that as a sign of affection, only using his proper name when she was scared.
Over the course of two mostly brilliant seasons, he showed her the seven galaxies, and as promised, got her home to Perivale in time for tea, and plans were afoot that she would eventually leave his side to become a Time Lady herself. Sadly that was never to come to pass.
The series had been on shaky ground since Colin Baker stepped into the role, and things had gotten progressively worse for the good Doctor as time went by. Surviving cancellation due to national outcry, the edict from on high, muttered only in hushed tones, was that the show must die, but in order to do so effectively, it would require a spot of self-sacrifice.
As Russell T. Davies later revealed, the reason he was told by a BBC scheduler some years later for the show’s cancellation was ‘suicide’, and it was in the scheduling that Jonathan Powell and Michael Grade – the sworn enemies of the programme – found their deadly bullet.
At the time, the biggest show on television was Coronation Street, airing every Wednesday night at 7:30pm to an audience of up to 25 million people. Doctor Who was therefore shunted to Wednesday evenings at 7:35pm, by which time only a fraction of the possible audience would be interested when the salacious goings on in Weatherfield were already catching their attention.
What makes this even more ignoble was that the show under Cartmell had finally found its groove again. Whilst McCoy’s tenure had started with badly, it soon morphed into a show quite unlike anything it had ever been before, yet somehow re-enthused with the very spirit of Doctor Who.
The Doctor and Ace formed a natural bond, helped by the real life friendship of Sylv & Sophie, and their stories were more intelligent than the show had ever been. Sure, there were misfires – the Cybermen limped through Silver Nemesis and despite bringing back Nick Courtney and Jean Marsh, Battlefield was mostly fluff – but when it worked, it was magnificent. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy really was overcoming the budget constraints which restricted it to low-quality video recording and badly-realised CGI, by telling uncompromising stories in which characters were key.
The BBC, however, had had enough, and no amount of stunt casting big name celebrities in guest roles could pull in the punters. As the fate of the show was being decided, a certain Steven Spielberg just happened to express an interest in the property, via his production company Amblin. Perhaps the cash-strapped Beeb could out-source production to an external company, making a ton of money worldwide?
It’s hard to say what impact outside interest really had in killing off the show, but the results were plain to see. As The Doctor and Ace walked off into the sunset of what transpired to be their final adventure on screen, a hastily written monologue recorded on the show’s 26th anniversary by Sylvester McCoy was overdubbed on that lingering shot, and long-term production of Doctor Who ceased.
In the years that would follow, Sylvester, Sophie, Andrew Cartmell and John Nathan Turner bore the brunt of fan anger, and even now, their detractors remain vocal. Yet what they managed to make under intense pressure was a show which continued to capture the imagination of millions. Theirs was a bold attempt at making big ideas happen on a tiny budget, but it made fans out of many, and long may it continue to do so.
STORIES TO START WITH:
Remembrance of the Daleks: The Doctor and Ace land in 1963 a few days after the First Doctor left on his debut adventure, to find his worst enemy searching for something he left behind. This story finally tackled the myth about Daleks and stairs, features an early role for Joseph “Geoffrey The Butler” Marcell, and is pretty much a bona fide classic.
The Happiness Patrol: A political satire which crept under the radar only to feature on Newsnight 25 years later, in which Sheila Hancock excels as a dictator who insists everyone in her colony must be eternally happy.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: Creepy, if highly eccentric stuff as robot clowns staff a psychic circus, where the human performers are under threat: bring in fresh acts to keep the Gods of Ragnarok entertained, or die…
The Curse of Fenric: Despite being shot on low-quality video, this is a gorgeous looking and surprisingly grown up tale set in 1940s England under threat of Nazi invasion. Something evil is lurking in the sea, and the coastal village of Maiden’s Point is soon under threat from the vampiric Haemovores.
Ghost Light: Mad as a box of frogs, to the point that not even the cast really understood it when they shot it. What turned out to be the final ‘classic’ story produced is a period treat, in which a powerful alien being cataloguing the universe plays God with the lives of a Victorian household.
STORIES TO AVOID:
Pretty much all of Sylvester’s first season is made on a shoestring budget, with bad acting, bad scripts, bad effects, bad music, bad lighting, bad sets… just avoid anything from Season 24, in general. Elsewhere, Silver Nemesis isn’t much cop, but it’s still a golden nugget next to THAT season.