Tuesday, 6 September 2016

DOCTOR WHO 1982-84 revisited

We're enjoying the Peter Davison era of Doctor Who properly.

Peter Davison is surprised by an unexpected adversary - Eamonn
Andrews - in March 1982. (Image copyright: ITV)

I’m really enjoying Peter Davison’s Doctor Who stories this time around. I’ve always liked him as an actor: just look at the quality of The Last Detective, Campion, Sink or Swim and, particularly, A Very Peculiar Practice. Mr. Moffet is a personable interview subject, always has interesting things to say and is very funny, as you can see in his 50th anniversary knees up The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.

Before the family Fairclough’s current re-watch, I believed the Fifth Doctor Who had enjoyed a handful of superlative stories – the Mara tales, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Frontios’, ‘The Caves of Androzani’, maybe ‘Black Orchid’ – but that the rest of his tenure was typical 1980s television: nice to look at but rather banal. And, I thought, PD had used Who as a quick stepping stone on to better things.

Where was I at the first time round? I’d been a member of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society since 1977. My acquaintance with the first organised Who fandom in the UK had been quite the eye opener.

One of my favourite Doctor Who pics.
(Image copyright: BBC)
Before joining, I’d liked every story although, obviously, I knew some were better than others. In the first Celestial Toyroom newsletter I received after becoming a paid up member, DWAS president Jan Vincent-Rudzki vividly bitched about how awful ‘The Deadly Assassin’ was; not the production, you understand, but the story – a betrayal of the utopian Time Lord culture we’d seen before, how the Doctor only knew his civilization’s history when it suited the plot (a fair point), etc. etc. I was so influenced by his review that I wrote a letter to the DWAS fanzine TARDIS – I wanted to join in! – that was a very jaundiced review of the next story, ‘The Face of Evil’. Imagine my confusion when I read that Mr. Rudzki liked it. I don’t think I ever sent that letter.

The opinions of others are very influential when you’re growing up; I was 13 going on 14 when I joined the DWAS. Primarily at the instigation of TARDIS ’77 TV reviewer John Peel (not that one), a tide of printed bile was initiated directed at the then current production team led by producer Graham Williams. The general consensus seemed to me to be that Doctor Who was now badly written, shoddily made and that Tom Baker was TOO SILLY. And K9 was crap.

The DWAS had been helped into existence through adverts placed in the short-lived magazine World of Horror, which printed pictures from early ‘70s Who as well as the sc-fi Gothic era of Williams’ predecessor, Philip Hinchcliffe. With hindsight, a negative reaction from the DWAS to Williams’ witty, intelligent and artistic playfulness was perhaps inevitable.

When you’re an awkward teenager – and there were a lot of us in the DWAS – you don’t like people taking the piss. When you’re told your favourite TV show is doing it… well, it was way beyond the pale.

Which was why we all liked the eighteenth season of Doctor Who: serious sci-fi concepts, serious performances, and a real visual flair in the production design and direction. When new producer John Nathan-Turner announced that Tom was leaving, we were over the proverbial moon.

Like I said, you’re very impressionable in your teens. I had a good DWAS friend who, after watching ‘Earthshock’ and for reasons that, thirty odd years later, seem far too trivial to go into now, decried JNT and all his works. Even then, ‘Earthshock’ wasn’t my favourite story of 1982, but I found the dramatic ending, with the pointless death of Adric (a much improved Matthew Waterhouse) genuinely shocking after the previously unassailable Sir Tom, Romana, K9 and co., much as I loved them.

Fans are an odd bunch, in the nicest possible way. Today, you’ll regularly find one declaring on social media ‘I’m never watching Doctor Who again!!’ after an episode goes out that doesn’t conform to his/her view of what the series should or shouldn’t be like. Another friend of mine astutely coined the term ‘powerless elite’ to describe fandoms. It’s an apt phrase, neatly summing up the fan’s dilemma: he or she might know something inside out, but rarely gets the opportunity to make or directly influence the TV series/film/novel/comic strip/band they’re so enthusiastic about. Of course, there are significant exceptions – Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall to name a few.

Back in the early 1980s it was a different story. The highpoint for professional fandom in those days was editing Doctor Who Monthly (and that’s still an honour a lot of fans would like to achieve). Anyway, my friend decided that JNT HAD TO GO and that Seasons 19-21 were a crashing disappointment after the promise of the 18th. I went along with him. Of course I did – I desperately wanted to fit in.


The traditional Annual had a new lease
of life when Peter took over.
(Rob Fairclough collection)
Watching ‘Arc of Infinity’ in September 2016 is like seeing an old friend back in rude health after a long illness. The story twists in unexpected directions, has the Davison era’s mature attitude to what motivates apparently ‘evil’ people, while Colin Baker impressively fleshes out a nothing part (in, coincidentally, the kind of role Patrick Troughton had played in ITC film series prior to his stint in Who). OK, ‘Arc’ isn’t ‘Androzani’, but there are episodes of I, Claudius that can’t match Davison’s swansong.

The performances of the regular cast 1982-84 are the equal of any throughout Who history. What particularly impresses watching Davison, Sutton, Fielding and Strickson is the intelligent subtlety in their acting. The characters have a life beyond what’s written in the script, something that’s true of great TV drama through The Power Game, Secret Army, The Singing Detective and G.B.H. on down.

As far as I can see, the promise of Season 18 wasn’t squandered. I’m very keen on how, apart from a few obvious exceptions, the Doctor’s adversaries have credible reasons for what they’re doing. On the whole, they do morally dubious things because they genuinely believe, through mental or physical illness, boredom or just being misguided, that their actions are justified – Hindle, Lon, Mawdryn, the Eternals, the Silurians, Bragen – or, and very ‘80s, this – personal or corporate greed: Ambril, Terminus Incorporated, Morgus and Sharaz Jek. The latter plot option was so successful it created a successful new narrative for 21st century Who – ‘big business is bad’.

This sophistication extends to the Brigadier, the series’ biggest 1970s icon, played as ever by the fabulous Nicholas Courtney. Yes, the Brig’s back, but he’s retired from UNIT and has had a nervous breakdown he’s in denial about. Character development like this for the commander of UNIT UK would have been unthinkable in 1975. It’s part of the refreshing vulnerability in the regular roles that begins with a young, not-taken-seriously Doctor and runs through companions that are possessed by a malign mental force, coerced into assassination and who, in one case, pleads for death because he’ll never be free of the influence of the Master (Anthony Ainley, above left, on generally fine, grotesque form).

It feels like I’m watching Peter Davison as Doctor Who for the first time.

Actually – we are.

The 1982-84 TARDIS crew back together at the BFI in 2013,
with Graeme Harper (far left) and Justin Johnson.
(Image copyright: BFI)

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