A lot of important things happened for the first time on the fifth of October. On the fifth of October 1962, the Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, was first released. On the fifth of October 1969 the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast. On the fifth of October 1978 I was born (which was important to me, even if not so much to the rest of you reading this – almost as important as those other things). And on the fifth of October 1988, Daleks went upstairs for the first time.
Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor has a better reputation than Colin Baker’s among Who fandom, but a much worse one among the general public (those of the general public who care enough to remember the different Doctors) and in this case the general public are definitely the ones in the right. Baker was the better actor, and neither actor was blessed with the greatest scripts in the world. The reputation of McCoy’s Doctor rests more on the series of novels written about the character after the show was cancelled than it does on the episodes he was actually in.
McCoy was hired to replace Colin Baker, who was sacked under rather unpleasant circumstances (BBC management only agreeing to continue the show if they sacked their lead actor, and Baker refusing to return to film his regeneration scene) and his first series was an absolute embarassment. McCoy himself was not particularly happy with his early scripts (unsurprisingly, as they were drivel), which lumbered him with the worst companion in the history of the show (Melanie Bush, played by Bonnie Langford, a horribly miscast stunt ‘celebrity’ casting) and turned the Doctor into a buffoonish character who spoke in malapropisms and played the spoons at the slightest provocation, and the 1987 series is generally regarded as the absolute nadir of the show’s 26-year run (it was certainly bad enough that even as a nine-year-old I felt that my intelligence was being insulted).
For the next series, script editor Andrew Cartmel, in collaboration with various scriptwriters, came up with what later became known as ‘the Cartmel masterplan’ – a plan to make the Doctor darker and more mysterious over several years (a plan which was later transferred to the novels once the TV show was cancelled). For some reason Cartmel seemed to think that ‘darker’ meant ‘turn the Doctor into a manipulative sociopath’ and ‘more mysterious’ was ‘tell people every single detail of the Doctor’s past life, and every tedious detail of the internal politics and history of his home planet’, but as the ‘masterplan’ was meant to take several years, the early signs of these changes were mostly positive.
The twenty-fifth series of Doctor Who began with Remembrance Of The Daleks by Ben Aaronovitch (brother of the liar and hypocrite David Aaronovitch, who I actually once played on TV), which was by far the strongest thing that had been done in the show for many, many years. The story (about two warring factions of the Daleks searching for the MacGuffin of Omega, which had been planted by the Doctor, who was secretly doing a ‘don’t throw me into the briar patch’ trick to make the Daleks blow themselves and their home planet up) was a tight one, the humour, while still present, was much more subdued, and the story was genuinely scary at times.
Remembrance was also the first story to feature Sophie Aldred’s Ace (who had been introduced in the previous story) as the main character. Aldred is not a particularly good actor, and Ace sometimes gets some well dodgy lines (as she would no doubt put it), but the central idea of the character (a streetwise tomboy who likes playing with explosives and weaponry) was a refreshing change from the normal screamers – in this story, she gets to beat the shit out of a Dalek with a baseball bat, for example, which one can’t really imagine Jo Grant doing.
The effects were some of the best ever seen in the show (one or two very minor bits of dodgy CSO with the floating coffin, but the Dalek spaceship is done wonderfully, and the Daleks look sleeker and more menacing than ever before), although having the Daleks’ communication device being a plasma lamp ( £9.99 from Maplins – you too can have an interstellar communicator for Christmas! ) was frankly risible. It’s also structured well, especially the first episode, where what would normally be the big reveal (the fact of the Daleks being the villains) is thrown out casually, with the *real* big reveal (that the Daleks can float and are coming up the stairs after the Doctor) being the cliffhanger.
The story also tries to do something rather interesting with the central Nazi imagery of the Daleks, having the war between two Dalek factions essentially be a racial war, and having one faction ally themselves with a white supremacist group on Earth. These points are made too heavy-handedly (Ace looking disgustedly at a ‘no coloureds’ sign in the window of the B&B where she’s staying) and the production team seem far too proud of what were essentially just a couple of platitudes thrown in to the story, but I’m willing to give a lot more slack to people who are trying for something more interesting and falling short of their ambitions than I am to people who aren’t trying to push things at all. And, of course, even platitudinous anti-racist statements still need making, unfortunately.
This rather adolescent political point-making (“bad things are bad!”) is however symptomatic of the failures of the story – and it has some, despite being a well-above-average Doctor Who story. The new script editor and writer were both very young, rather nerdy men, and they were writing the kind of story that is liked by young, nerdy men. This involved an obsession with continuity minutiae.
The story involves a return to the junkyard where the TARDIS was first seen, and is set in 1963. This is OK (even though the junkyard had only been seen three years earlier in Attack Of The Cybermen, another overly-continuity-obsessed story) because the story involves the Doctor following up on a plan that had been put in motion by his first incarnation. But the Daleks’ base is the school where Ian and Barbara taught, for no real reason, and the story also references “the yeti in the underground, the zygon gambit, the loch ness monster”, the Dalek Invasion Of Earth, shows a TV set introducing an episode of “the new science fiction series, doc-” and references the Quatermass stories. While these references individually are fun little things, there is a feeling after a while of deliberately trying to keep out those who aren’t as familiar with the show’s history.
The next story, The Happiness Patrol, contained some heavy-handed allegory about Margaret Thatcher and had the Doctor fighting a robot Bertie Basset. The rest of this series veered between the poor and the average, which made it an improvement over the previous series, but this was the only *really good* story in the 25th series.
The next series was an improvement, but it came too late, both for me (my mum got sick of me wanting to watch Doctor Who when she wanted to watch Coronation Street, and I couldn’t in all honesty argue that the show was good enough to stop her turning over) and for the show, which was cancelled in 1989.
It’s a shame, because the show was quite clearly getting better after the horrible 25th series – writers like Aaronovitch and Marc Platt were doing work which, while having too much of the moody adolescent about it for my personal taste, was clearly a cut above the drivel churned out by people like Pip & Jane Baker. The show was essentially trying to go from Batman & Robin to the Tim Burton Batman and while my tastes are more toward Christopher Nolan or Adam West, I’ll take Tim Burton over Joel Schumaker any day.
While everyone has a favourite and least favourite Doctor or Doctors, I think a dispassionate examination of the series shows that it fluctuated in quality every few years, more or less irrespective of who was in charge. Every one of the first seven Doctors had an opportunity to shine, and every one of them had stories that were tasteless, forgettable or just plain nasty. But throughout the 26 years the original show ran (and the TV Movie and the audios – I’m less than convinced by nuWho, which seems to know the words but have forgotten the tune), the character of the Doctor – five parts Sherlock Holmes to one part each John Steed, Groucho Marx, Bugs Bunny and Mr Spock – shines through, one of the truly great fictional creations of all time.