When Sylvester McCoy took over as the Doctor in 1987, it is difficult to fathom the producer’s thinking. Doctor Who was continuing to sink in the ratings and the BBC’s own audience reaction reports said that, while there was a core of loyal fans remaining, this seemed to reduce with each passing year. At one point, less than half the sample audience wanted to see another series of the programme. Having had Colin Baker’s interpretation fail, producer John Nathan-Turner brought in a new writer, Andrew Cartmel who was relatively young – younger than the programme – and various British television celebrities of the day, including Brenda Bruce, Liz Spriggs, Judy Cornwall, Richard Briers and Clive Merrison. Scripts became more light-hearted and comic: as Nathan-Turner said about the story ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ ,’music plays an important part in the script… Really, I would hate anyone to call this “Doctor Who – The Musical”, but it’s the closest the show will ever get’.
He went on to say ‘We’ve certainly heightened the humour – but it’s not silly like “Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. I think there’s a lot of character humour, which is the best kind, because it comes from the essence of the part’. Perhaps he was trying to make the most of Sylvester McCoy, who had started his acting career as a stuntman and comic: ‘He’s very witty and amusing,’ the producer said:
Very inventive, tremendously physical, and he wants to do his own stunts, which he’s very good at. He was suggested by his agent, so I went along in January to see him in ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’ As a result, I met him and chatted to him. And there we were.
So one of the programme’s pillars - its connection to the social themes of the day - had been abandoned. The stories went sideways into comedy; the Doctor became an extreme of Patrick Troughton’s ‘clown’, without any of the gravitas. Had a likeable companion been inserted into the Tardis to compensate for this, something might have been salvaged, but it was not to be. Nathan-Turner devised Melanie Bush as a character in July 1985, eventually casting Bonnie Langford, who, he said, fitted his concept of Melanie as a health fanatic perfectly. She went on to be very unpopular with audiences.
McCoy remained on the series until it ended in 1989, ending (ironically) with the story called ‘Survival’.During his time, though, script editor Andrew Cartmel responded to fans’ protests that that the character of the Doctor and his adventures were becoming increasingly lightweight. He developed what became known as the Cartmel Masterplan, an intention to try to restore the mystery of the central character. Consequently, the Seventh Doctor grew into a much darker figure than any of his earlier incarnations, manipulative and seeming to possess a knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes, which was almost reminiscent of Hartnell’s original ‘wise old man’ archetype.
From comic beginnings, the Doctor grew into a formidable opponent usually several steps ahead of his enemies. There were clues that he secretly had been involved in the very origins of the Time Lords themselves.
While this showed promise, being an attempt to rebuild at least the pillar of the Doctor’s character, the downslide in ratings seemed inevitable: they never recovered from the Colin Baker era. Part of the problem was the shambolic nature of the stories, which lacked shape or focus. Budgets were smaller than ever too. The show had unhooked itself from the successful rails upon which it had been built.
It was cancelled in 1989.
But it would be back…