Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Best of Doctor Who: The Seventh Doctor

If any actor who played the Doctor has grounds for asking for his money back its Sylvester McCoy.

Originally recruited to clown around with Bonnie Langford in a series of embarrassingly bad episodes, it seems he'd been taken on by an out-of-touch production team to see out the twilight of the series in some pre-CBBC slot for adolescents who haven't the energy to change channels. It was so bad you really did want to hide behind the sofa.

But then Andrew Cartmell took over as script editor. He couldn't save the write off that was McCoy's first series, but for the show's 25th anniversary series he got to work on his Master Plan. Out went the comedy Time Lord and Bonnie Langford, and in came a darker Doctor and a companion with a back story.

Now you can argue that if you were going to do this you wouldn't really want to do it with actors of such limited range as McCoy and Sophie Aldred, but that's what happened and, to be fair to the two leads, they did their best and, if nothing else, their genuine affection for each other did show through.

McCoy's second season began with a bang with Ben Aaronovitch's Remembrance of the Daleks, which took us back to Foreman's Scrap Yard in 1963, gave us duelling Dalek factions in league with the National Front and introduced us to UNIT's forerunner The Intrusions Counter-Measures Group.

The series then went off the rails a bit before coming back strongly with the pointless, baffling but wonderfully surreal Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Don't ask me what it's about, but menacing kites and a killer bus conductor work for me.

McCoy's third series though was his best. Four top notch stories and not a bad episode amongst them. The show had been throwing up at least one utterly cringe worthy script a year since Tom Baker hung up his scarf, so this was the best series since the Key to Time.

First there was Battlefield, a welcome return for UNIT and the Brigadier as they fight an honourable foe in the form of Jean Marsh's Morgaine and her dimension shifting knights. Fortunately UNIT are all tooled up with their new ass-kicking female Brigadier and a range of bullets for all eventualities.

Then there was Ghost Light, which was very much in Sapphire and Steel territory being set in a Victorian mansion populated by strange characters and evolutionary throwbacks.

Next we had The Curse of Fenric, set in Northumberland in World War II and featuring code breakers, a Viking curse, Russian commandos, vampires, Nicholas Parsons as a consience troubled vicar, and lots of hints that the Doctor is now 'more than just a Time Lord'. Okay, so it was a vampire story film during the day due to technical limitations, but it really was on location in the north of England (Yorkshire standing in for Northumbria).

Finally there was Survival, in which Anthony Ainsley as The Master finally stops doing a poor impersonation of Roger Delgado and becomes the feral predator I suspect he always wanted to play.

And that was that. Literally. The BBC canned the series and it was all over.

So what's the best Seventh Doctor story then? Well I'd have liked it to have been Battlefield, but the pacing is a little uneven thanks to it being stretched from three episodes to four episode and the knights look cheap (because they were). Still it was nice to see old Lethbridge-Stewart doing all right, married to the previously invisible Doris and living in a huge mansion. How he paid for it I've no idea. Maybe he pocketed a few of the gold bullets.


So the winner has to be The Curse of Fenric. Had it featured a more iconic Doctor and a more iconic monster it would be a contender for the best ever story, I'm sure. Watching it now I realise that thanks to Cartmell the jump from the old series to the new wasn't that great after all.

With a contemporary theme (pollution), the Doctor hovering in the background letting his companion do all the work and poor old Ace gets put through the emotional wringer, this could have been an RTD script. But whereas the new series likes to paint it characters in black and white, here we are in shades of grey again and there is no Ghost in the Machine ending, but instead a complicated denouement that I would explain to you if only I could remember it.

Shortly after broadcast Doctor Who was no more, but at least the old series went out on a high.

2 comments:

  1. I agree with some of your comments. And yes I do remember that the scripts did improve from the earlier SM series, Battlefield and Remembrance spring to mind. And you are right Andrew Cartmell was stuck with Sylvester McCoy. But McCoy trying to sound serious and dark just didn't work. The Doctor needs to command presence, he's someone who could grab attention and respect and take charge. McCoy simply couldn't pull that off.

    And Martin, please don't forget the series all time low when the Doctor battled Berty Basset, although I cannot remember which series that appeared in.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, please - can I forget the Kandy Man? I really, really want to.

    Yep, that was dire. It was The Happiness Patrol, from McCoy's first series. Apparently there's a strong anti-capitalist message in it, but I never managed to watch enough to judge.

    ReplyDelete