The Fifth Doctor, for the first time, was a deliberate reaction against his predecessor. The first three Doctors had been cast before the concept of regeneration was set in stone, and the Fourth was cast because Barry Letts thought Tom Baker was a good actor (having been looking for someone older, a feeling familiar to Steve Moffat).
After playing a man in foil underpants in The Tomorrow People, Peter Davison became famous for playing mild-mannered vet, Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great And Small. Doctor Who producer, John Nathan-Turner, thought that a character along similar lines would make a good contrast to Tom Baker, and cast him as the Fifth Doctor.
Script editor, Christopher Bidmead, conceived the Fifth Doctor as being an old man in a young man’s body, slightly crotchety, sardonic and distracted. An explorer with no other agenda than just wandering around looking for things that intrigued him.
In Four To Doomsday (Davison’s first recorded story) the Doctor is excitable, inquisitive and flippant. Castrovalva sees him breathless and bewildered. Frontios sees him dispensing emergency medical aid with the mildly irritated comment that “If anyone asks if I was here, you can tell them I came and went like a summer cloud.”
Say what you like about Christopher Bidmead’s writing (and I will. Logopolis is terrible, for my money), but he came up with an excellent basis for the Fifth Doctor’s character, before he left halfway through his first series.
Enter Eric Saward. Saward had written The Visitation, a fairly traditional pseudo-historical episode, and Earthshock, the action-packed herald of continuity porn that leaves everybody gobsmacked the first time they see it. This got him a permanent job as script editor, having performed the role partially uncredited after Bidmead left.
Saward had an idea for the direction of the show that required the character of the Doctor to change. The universe according to Eric was a more cynical place, where the Doctor’s idealism became misplaced. The fatalistic and cynical view of the universe meant that the Doctor wasn’t about fun anymore, but about trying to rise above the harsh realities of an unforgiving universe. His character was driven by the tone of the show, rather than the other way around.
That’s not to say that every story ended with a load of bodies lying at the Doctor’s feet. The Fifth Doctor era also dabbled in sumptuous concept driven sci-fi. Castrovalva, Kinda, Snakedance and Enlightenment all combine memorable ideas and images to a good yarn. Traditional monsters may be in short supply, but you can’t fail to warm to the sight of a snake skull exploding from a crystal ball, or sailing ships hanging majestically in space.
In terms of the Fifth Doctor’s demise, however, the grim and unforgiving universe is more important than poetic sounding ideas and the wonders of the solar systems. The fates of the Fifth Doctor’s companions do not read like a bedtime tale of happy happy joy joy times.
Adric, the boy genius with no social skills, dies in a doubly futile attempt to save the Earth. Nyssa, a noblewoman from a planet destroyed by the Master (who has since taken on the form of her dead father), goes off to try to find a cure for a leprosy-like illness. Tegan reacts to the numbing levels of slaughter in season 21 by running away at the end of Resurrection Of The Daleks, and Turlough’s exile from his home planet is revoked in Planet Of Fire. Given the choice, I’m not sure if I’d rather be an Eighties Doctor Who companion or married to Henry VIII.
Peri joins the Fifth Doctor in his penultimate story, and then promptly gets them both infected with a fatal illness in The Caves Of Androzani. The Doctor tries to save the girl he barely knows. What ensues is one of those happy moments of television where nearly everything goes right, and the Fifth Doctor era closes with a pay-off to a character arc that happens completely by accident, as the Doctor gives his life to save Peri’s, finally saving someone, after becoming increasingly unable to do so in recent stories. Oddly, it’s never mentioned by anyone working on the show as something that was deliberately intended.
Peter Davison’s performance in Androzani, however, is the opposite of thoughtless. It‘s also so good that, to a large extent, the new series tries to give the Doctor bits of it to re-enact from time to time. I have no idea whether this is conscious or unconsciously done, but there are bits from the post-2005 series that seem to me to be clearly written and acted in an attempt to homage moments from Androzani.
They’re not as good, though. It’s possibly the best individual performance by any actor playing the Doctor ever. It’s not that he’s bad in his other stories, but he’s clearly engaged with the material in a way that he isn’t with, say, The King’s Demons. Then again, The King’s Demons is part of a strange little mini-series of two-parters apparently designed as part of some fiendish campaign called ‘keep history twee’. Considering how good Davison is in Androzani, it makes you wonder how good his Doctor could have been if he’d been given different stories.
If the Fifth Doctor era hashardcore fans (make yourself known, if you are one), they’d be hard pressed to find a run as relentlessly entertaining as those experienced by earlier Doctors. The Eighties seems to specialise in going from the sublime to the ridiculous, from Earthshock to Timeflight or Terminus to Enlightenment. Certainly, the peaks and troughs are reflected by the last large fan poll (Doctor Who Magazine’s 2009 ‘Mighty 200’) where Davison’s series all rank in the lower half, but two of his stories feature in the Top 20.
My personal opinion is that all the ingredients are there for the era to be better, but they just didn’t click often enough. People don’t stick to what they’re good at. The producer is good with budgets, and the show looks reasonably good most of the time. The script editor can produce a good action yarn, and has a nice line in black humour. The lead actor is capable of turning in a good performance out of anything you give him, and yet, despite all of this, there’s an overwhelming air of ‘But, why would anyone do that?’ to the Davison era. People don’t act, speak or even dress the way that logic dictates they should. It’s in the background, but it all adds up.
After trying to get away from silliness under the previous production team, we find ourselves mired in it again, but this time with a pretence of seriousness. John Nathan-Turner micromanages in costume, and scripting and casting, and it often doesn’t work.
Feedback suggests that audiences of the time liked the Fifth Doctor straight away, but viewing figures gradually declined as the show struggled to engage consistently with its audience. Overall, the Fifth Doctor’s era is hardly a disaster. It’s just that, for the most part, it’s just sort of there. Frustrating, bi-polar, and divisive, it’s rife with wasted potential amidst the dire and the daring.