The Context of 'Doctor Who' 6
Peter Davison, famous for playing veterinarian Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great And Small, wore an Edwardian cricketers’ uniform and adopted a more down-to-earth, physical approach when he took over the role of the Doctor. Producer John Nathan-Turner added a celery stick on Davison’s lapel to add whimsy - a sign that the understanding of what was happening with the programme was merely cosmetic. Unfortunately, Davison’s breathless, brotherly interpretation of the character, an interpretation which visibly owed much to his preceding role as the panicky younger brother in All Creatures Great and Small, lacked the gravitas that Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee and Baker had all managed to bring to the role. Though now the protagonist, in other words, and therefore the pivot of the show, Davison’s portrayal of the Doctor left something to be desired. His group of travelling companions - who might have ‘saved’ the show had they been able to form a bridge between the central character and the audience - were a strange mixture: Tegan, an Australian air hostess who accidentally finds herself in the Tardis and was never comfortable with it; Nyssa, an orphaned alien aristocrat; and the young Adric, a supposed mathematical genius. None won over the audience: Tegan was loud, brash and negative; Nyssa too remote; and Adric was greeted with positive hostility by the fans.
Keen to duplicate the success of Baker’s early ‘Gothic horror’ days, the producer made the stories darker: Nyssa’s whole planet was destroyed with her family; later companions Turlough and the robot Kamilion turned out to be enemy agents. Adric perishes while saving the Earth from a crashing spaceship, but even that blatant emotional downturn didn’t revert the ratings which were plunging.
After three years, Davison regenerated at the end of ‘The Caves Of Adrozani,’ having sacrificed his life for companion Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant). His replacement was Colin Baker, who was given an appalling cartoon-like costume which seemed to shout at the viewer ‘This is someone with whom you cannot possibly identify’. Baker began with a psychotic break in which he tried to strangle to death the companion he had just saved.
Nathan-Turner had decided that the Sixth Doctor should be as irritating as possible and Baker obediently played him as boorish and arrogant. Had he slowly recovered a sense of nobility over a story or two, this might have worked - perhaps the initial idea was that in this way the latest incarnation of the Doctor could replicate the transition from Hartnell’s grumpy and cold grandfather figure to the warmer, heroic Doctor, mirroring and perhaps capturing the soul of the show in the process. But poor writing and lack of vision meant that this utterly failed: Just at the time when Nathan-Turner needed experienced and careful writers, he hired untried ones who produced a series of dire or at best mediocre scripts. The desperate attempt to replicate the Gothic tone resulted in gross violence, ugliness and grimness which occasionally verged on the unintentionally comic.
As we have seen, there are three fundamental ‘pillars’ to Doctor Who: how the Doctor himself is interpreted by the writers and producers; the nature of the narrative, i.e. what shape the story itself takes; and the way in which times change around the show through the decades, with effects on its content and style. During this period, all three were undermined: the programme had effectively unplugged completely from its social context, for a start. As Britain powered through the 80s, reinventing itself under a no-nonsense and divisive Prime Minister, Doctor Who sank into an irrelevance, watched by a fraction of its former audience. It had lost its way, and this was reflected in its shift of timeslot: for a while it was matched against Britain’s most popular TV programme, Coronation Street, as though BBC head Michael Grade, who openly hated Doctor Who, was trying to kill it off. It went off the air for over a year, returning with ill-thought-out storylines. In the season-long story arc ‘The Trial Of A Time Lord,’ in which the Doctor is prosecuted for genocide on his home planet, only to discover that the trial is actually a plot by his own future self to steal his remaining regenerations, we see writers struggling to get to the core of the programme: the Valeyard, as this future Doctor was known, was a kind of embodiment of what had happened to the show’s protagonist - he had turned bad, lost himself. For a show which had grown to depend upon its protagonist as the hub around which all else had to revolve, these seasons were a disaster. Not only was the hero undermined, the stories lost any shape that they might have had. Behind the scenes, the death of long-time writer Robert Holmes led to unmoderated clashes between Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward. Episodes had to be drastically rewritten when Saward left. Colin Baker was sacked.
Would the show be able to regenerate itself out of this mess? Could these three pillars - protagonist, story and context - be rebuilt?
Stay tuned for the next instalment!