jason stives looks at the seventh doctor, sylvester mccoy…
The final incarnation of the Doctor to be seen on the show in its original form, the Seventh Doctor (played by Sylvester McCoy) started out dramatically troubled. Adorned with hat, tan coat and a plague of question marks on his pull over, he was played as a buffoon, a clown with a pension for jumbling pros and getting himself into trouble more than finding it. However, things soon changed and the mystery of the Doctor resurfaced taking him back to his roots and making him a far more powerful being than he had started out as.
Soon the Doctor was meddling with the timelines in the shadows, setting events in motion that would save all of time and the future of his companion Ace, a street-wise and troubled teenager from the 1980s. This Doctor proved to be very irascible when pushed beyond his limits commanding a God-like presence that would frighten his enemies and worry his allies. His actions at time seemed to push the limits but all with a certain twinkle of trust that made him the man to be aligned with when the time comes.
His adventures saw him reunite with old friends like Rhe Brigadier and face famous foes like The Daleks, The Cybermen, and The Master. Along the way the Doctor would experience many deaths that shaped him into a lonely being in his later lives and show that his power extended beyond being able to solve a problem with some kettle and a string.
While far more likable than his predecessor, Sylvester McCoy’s era as the Seventh Doctor continued the gradual slide that had begun two years earlier in the shows quality and appeal. Sidelined in his first season with a goofy demeanor and a series of stories that were poor in quality and thwart with behind the scenes production issues, McCoy’s era would ultimately see the show’s cancellation in 1989. Many at the BBC post-1989 and a small spattering of fans still view McCoy’s run on the show to be just as dismal as Colin Baker’s but within the stories of his latter two seasons and behind the scenes, things were changing that ultimately laid the ground work for some of the most important changes to happen to the show.
With the hiring of script editor Andrew Cartmel in 1987, a lengthy plan was put into place in McCoy’s second and third season to return the Doctor to his mysterious glory. Feeling he had become a victim of circumstances over the years, Cartmel along with a core group of writers started dropping hints in various stories that the Doctor was this God-like deity that had been around maybe even longer than his own people. The result was a series of hints in some of the best stories of this era, including the three essentials for this column that laid the ground works of making the Doctor far more like he was in his first incarnation as an ominous figure off in the distance that was incapable of being understood. McCoy himself played his Seventh Doctor to this very well and delivered some great performances that were a complete 180 to his comedic persona that was laid out in his first season.
While McCoy was saddled with the Sixth Doctor’s dreadful companion of Mel for his first season, the meat of the show in this period ran with the Seventh Doctor and his companion Ace, a street cred teenager from the 1980s who is accidentally transported through space while conducting an experiment in her room. Ace is the first example of the modern day companion, as many of the Seventh Doctors stories focus on not only the Doctor but Ace’s development from a naïve teenager to a stern, independent woman. Season 26 in particular devotes a three story arc to the Doctor teaching Ace to face her fears and to overcome her insecurities to become an empowering person. Suddenly, the progress of the companion was just as important as that of the Doctor and Ace in her lost teenage persona looking for a purpose echoes greatly what Rose would be in the first few seasons of the shows revival in 2005.
Strangely enough, the best thing to come from this era was the cancellation of the show. While Sylvester McCoy displayed a lot of talent and had some much underrated stories, the cracks in the shows presentation had really been showing compared to more contemporary shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation which was making waves both home and abroad in the late eighties. Had Doctor Who continued into the 1990s, the show probably wouldn’t have aged well and its ultimate demise after a few more years would have never seen the shows re imagining in the mid 2000s. But the wilderness years between the shows cancellation and return would be a productive one if not a visually productive one…
“Remembrance of the Daleks”
Eighties Doctor Who had a surprisingly swell run with Daleks stories (depending on who you are talking to). After languishing in repetition throughout the seventies, the three 80s stories to feature the infernal pepper pots brought a morbid sense of death and destruction back to the Doctor’s greatest enemies. Their sole appearance in this era, “Remembrance of the Daleks,” is a swell bit of nostalgia that harnessed some of the best elements of the show’s past just in time for the show’s 25th Anniversary in the fall of 1988.
The Doctor and Ace land outside of the Coal Hill School in London, 1963 where the local military is investigating strange happenings at the infamous IM Foreman junkyard at 76 Totters Lane (all references to the first DW story, An Unearthly Child). With the assistance of members of the military, it is soon discovered that two rival factions of Daleks are present in the area surrounding the school, both searching for an artifact the Doctor hid on Earth at the same time, a remote stellar manipulator known as “the Hand of Omega, an ancient and powerful artifact from the Doctor’s home world of Gallifrey.
The big thing to take from Remembrance, besides the Daleks best appearance since “Genesis of the Daleks” 13 years earlier is this is the beginning of the before mentioned “Cartmel Masterplan.” If you watch the four prior stories of the Seventh Doctor’s era, the night and day change over in tone is astounding. The Doctor while clearly ready to stop the threat of his greatest foes is lurking in the shadows, secretly doing business he had set up when his first incarnation had visited Earth at the exact same time of this story. The Doctor switches his pro nouns when discussing the history of his people, using the term we and then they to correct him from giving away too much. It was this devise that began the rebuilding process of the mystery of the Doctor, something that script editor Andrew Cartmel felt had been missing for years from the shows format.
For fans of the classic series there are subtle and very blunt references to the show’s history and it acts more like a proper anniversary story than the story that ended up representing its silver anniversary (a story I will not discuss here as I think it’s dreadful). The Daleks never look better with two opposing factions given a nice sleek look and improved visual effects for this occasion. Story has it that director Andrew Morgan went so far over budget on this story that he was never asked to direct for the show again.
“Curse of Fenric”
Vampires, immortality, curses, and horny teenagers. No, this is not a description of a Twilight book(although it comes pretty damn close) these are some of the elements that inherit the Curse of Fenric, the second to last story ever broadcasted of Doctor Who in its original form.
While a convoluted story at best, the basic elements of the story are wonderful with the Doctor and Ace landing in war torn England and getting involved with Dr. Judson a handicapped mathematician work on his decoding machine, basically acting as a nod to Alan Turing who created the earliest version of the modern computer. In between this landmark discovery, you have an army of underwater vampires named the Hemivores surfacing from the deep to seek immortality in the form of an ancient being name Fenric, who has found his way back into the real world looking for a host. So much is at work it can be hard to follow and the original broadcast had some 20 minutes of footage cut out to save time.
Beyond the vampires, this is a pivotal point in the development of Ace. Up to this point, the Doctor wasn’t just wandering into adventures; he was taking Ace to places she needed to go. Here, he takes her to an English military base where she encounters her soon to be widowed grandmother who is acting as mother to a baby that will one day be Aces mom, a woman she truly detests. Sophie Aldred’s performance in this story is high caliber as she really gets to show her range of emotions. In a pivotal scene, the Doctor is forced to break the will of Ace in order for her to stop believing in him. It is done to outwit the Fenric beast but the malicious intent put into it on the behalf of the Doctor is uncomfortable at best leading to a true sign of affection between the two once they flee the grasp of Fenric.
To this day I am still not sure what the plot to the spooky and strangely complex Ghost Light, which for the readers probably isn’t a good sign since it’s a recommendation. Let me see if I can muster up enough to explain the plot: The Doctor and Ace visit an old Victorian house in the year 1883, and meet the homes proprietor, a man named Josiah Smith, who seems to have the servants of his house under some sort of hypnosis. Alongside a rogue adventurer and a Neanderthal butler, the Doctor soon learns that the house has a history with an alien race that was sent to Earth to catalog all known species. The ships leader, a mysterious figure named Light has been in a slumber for thousands of years and has awoken. Amidst this sudden event, Ace has lingering and dreadful thoughts about the house that link to her troubled past in the late 20th century.
Ghost Light is technically the first of the story arc involving Ace as we learn here that the house they have entered she will torch in 1981 but her reasons go beyond just teenage delinquency. The Doctor knows this and sees the events in this house as a way of getting Ace to face her own fears. There is also a loose linking theme of evolution explored here by the inhabitants of the house, then by the Hemivores in Fenric and finally, the Cheetah people in Survival.
The one thing the BBC was always able to do well in Doctor Who regardless of shoddy special effects was create a historical setting and despite a stuffy theater feel, the house in Ghost Light has great mystery and feels confined perfectly to the events. Sylvester McCoy gives another wonderful performance with the Doctor clearly displaying a sense of knowing about what is going on and it’s something that would run through not only the remaining series but the novelizations and audio adventures that followed in the shows 16 year hiatus.
This story also showcases this period’s pension for discovering new, talented writers, in this case, a writer named Marc Platt, whose sole credit to the show is this story. Platt would go on to write many great novels and audio books under the Doctor Who brand but this is his definitive work on screen. Originally, Platt had perceived the three part Ghost Light as a four part story entitled Lungbarrow, a story that would’ve featured the Doctor returning to his home world to confront his family of cousins in the ancient house called Lungbarrow. Ultimately, producer John Nathan Turner felt this revealed too much about a character that for the past two seasons they were rebuilding the mystery around so the idea was nixed. However, Platt did end up publishing Lungbarrow in a hard to find paper novelization for the Doctor Who: New Adventures range for Virgin Publishing in 1996. If you can find a copy of this in print you are lucky, if not there is an e-book of it available through the BBC website.
All Photos Credit: BBC America