Wednesday, 29 May 2013

BFI Southbank: Peter Davison



Murder, treachery, madness... Doctor Who at its best
(Image: BBC/2 Entertain)

BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 4 May 2013
The story voted ‘best ever’ by readers of Doctor Who Magazine represents Peter Davison’s era, during the BFI Southbank’s ongoing celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.

Five months into the BFI’s Doctor Who at 50 season and their monthly events are generating groups of familiar faces who meet before and after in the bar for drinks and a chat, some of who have only become friendly since these screenings began. This happy by product of the BFI’s year-long celebration seems particularly appropriate for an event based around the most sociable Doctor of them all,
Peter Davison.

First up, courtesy of the BBC/2 Entertain, there was an unexpected treat in a clip from ‘Grim Tales’, the ‘making of’ documentary accompanying the upcoming Special Edition DVD of ‘The Visitation’. It was good to see Davison, Janet Fielding (Tegan) and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa) back together again and obviously enjoying each other’s company, accompanied by host and the following year’s companion Turlough, Mark Strickson (Davison: “Wrong story, Mark”).
Introducing the screening, current series writer Mark Gatiss amused everyone by revealing that, for some bizarre reason, he thought the Fifth Doctor was going to be comic actor Lance Percival. With some insight, Gatiss went on to recall “the sense of newness” the Fifth Doctor had for an audience whose younger members would only have known Tom Baker, that there was “nothing safe” about Davison’s casting and that his first season was equally brave, as it was “quite trippy… like something from the late ‘60s.” For Gatiss – and many enthusiasts – the best was saved until last, as Davison’s final story, ‘The Caves of Androzani’, was “like nothing else in the history of Doctor Who” and reached “the absolute pinnacle.”
Only Doctor Who could offer a story that is unremittingly bleak and cynical and, the Doctor and Peri aside, populate it with the most self serving and brutal characters you’re ever likely to see in the series, then produce it an impressionistic and theatrical style, most notably in the character of the tragic villain Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable).

Left to right: director Graeme Harper, Mathew Waterhouse
(Adric), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), Janet Fielding (Tegan),
Peter Davison (the Fifth Doctor) and co-host
Justin Johnson. (Courtesy BFI)
Graeme Harper’s determinedly innovative direction, using hand held cameras, odd angles, fades between scenes and slow motion, is like nothing on television now and suggests the visual vocabulary of 1980s pop videos, but this heightened, artificial quality perfectly complements the remarkable fantasy world- building of Robert Holmes’s fine script. It says a lot that the production voted ‘best Doctor Who story of all time’ by Doctor Who Magazine isn’t about any of the icons of the series like the Daleks, Time Lords or, really, the Doctor himself, and was honoured for simply being a masterpiece of television drama. I could really feel my pulse quickening with the approach of the brilliant cliff hanger to episode three – for me, the best the series has ever done – where acting, direction and the use of sound all combine brilliantly.

Regarding the story’s spectacular use of sound, between episodes 2 and 3 co-host Dick Fiddy interviewed the story’s composer Roger Limb, in a chat that revealed the jazz-loving musician possessed remarkable recall about how the 1980s stories were put together. Further indicating how seamlessly ‘Androzani’ had been assembled, Limb revealed how director Graeme Harper had gone from being initially wary of using an electronic score to “[enthusing me] with what he wanted the music to do”, producing a soundtrack that “pushed the boundaries” and, significantly, “worked brilliantly on the big screen.”

After episode 4, and the by now traditional short quiz during which audience members were able to revel in "shouting out for Dick", the Fifth Doctor panel took the stage in the persons of ‘Androzani’ director Graeme Harper, Sutton, Fielding, Davison himself and ‘The Visitation’-documentary-absent Waterhouse, completing the regular cast line-up from the Fifth regeneration’s premier season.

Harper spoke about joining the BBC as an Assistant Floor Manager in 1966, and, as was traditional in the BBC hierarchy of the time, working his way up to the point where he took the Corporation’s director’s course and was offered the director’s chair on ‘Androzani’. Some of the edge and tension of the story was likely to have come from the director being “terrified” of what he was trying to achieve, but Davison paid tribute to his approach by saying that Harper was “a hurricane of fresh air” and that his swan song was “a fantastic story to go out on”. Sutton – who had never seen the story before – concurred, praising ‘Androzani’ because “it looked so different [and] looked like it had moved on leaps and bounds” from when she had been in the series only a year before.

Peter in trouble with Janet (again). (Courtesy: BFI)
As host Justin Johnson wittily pointed out, the repartee between the four cast members was “like having Christmas Dinner with a dysfunctional family”. Nostalgically, Fielding and Davison riffed on the tendency for the Doctor and Tegan to argue, Sutton mediated and Waterhouse fended off some humorous jibes, although his moment in the spotlight did come when the death of Adric from the end of ‘Earthshock’ was shown. Waterhouse spoke of how he’d found out that his character was going to be killed off from an advance script for episode 4 that Davison had, and, in a remark typical of the on-stage banter, the leading man remarked “the idea that [we had] a script available weeks in advance is extraordinary.” Moving on by a few generations of viewers, Davison recalled emailing new series Executive Producer Russell T Davies and asking whether the companion Rose was going to be die, so he could decide whether his sons could watch or not. Davies’ priceless reply? “You killed Adric – what do you care?”

Questions from the audience brought out something I’d always suspected about ‘Androzani’, that it was a deliberate allusion to “Maggie [Thatcher’s] world”, as a corrupt capitalist secretly funded a war to keep the price of his stocks high. More controversially, one audience member believed that the screening was “the best Doctor Who I’ve seen for quite a few Saturdays.” With members of the current production team in the auditorium, the panel diplomatically suggested that the different structures of the classic and contemporary series were “formats for their time”, with Davison in particular “envious of the love and the care that’s gone into the [new] scripts.”

How does this man stay so young?!
(Courtesy BFI)
As always, the event could have gone on longer, with the guests showing no sign of losing enthusiasm for being questioned. While the Fifth Doctor’s era isn’t my favourite – a generational thing, perhaps – it was good to see the Davison years represented by a story that showed just how pioneering, stylish and dramatic a television production Doctor Who can really be. Twenty-nine years on from ‘The Caves of Androzani’, that’s why I’m still watching.

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