Doctor Who: a celebration of Sylvester McCoy

Andrew’s look back over Time Lords past continues with Doctor number seven, played by Sylvester McCoy…

Percy Kent-Smith. Sylveste McCoy. Sylvester McCoy. Sly McCoy. The Doombringer. That last one isn’t real. Yet.

Sylvester McCoy’s first series is an anomaly in Doctor Who‘s history. A fan would call it refreshing. Others would simply gape at the screen blowing bubbles in their spittle.

Lower budgets, shortened production times, and mad rushes just to get something finished are difficult enough without the directive that the show must be a CBBC cliché. This is Doctor Who as Through The Dragon’s Eye, all broad brush-strokes. There’s not been enough time for finesse, but what it does have is an infectious silliness and cartoon energy that can make for fun, diverting and pleasant brain-off telly.

Only Dragonfire commits the cardinal sin of being boring, certainly, and Paradise Towers is a great example of an excellent script let down by the production (and also by Richard Briers’ messing about). Often, however, the sheen of fun is not enough to prevent yourself from thinking, “Why is Sylvester McCoy (dressed as Colin Baker) playing the spoons on Kate O’Mara (dressed as Bonnie Langford)’s tits?”

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Scientists are working on it, but we will probably never know.

Given his track record in winding up script editors, John Nathan Turner ended up with novice Andrew Cartmel – an ideas man with the confidence of a thousand heavily subsidised supervillains. He wasn’t as strong at nuts and bolts storytelling. Audiences demand an internal logic that was sometimes lacking in Season 24’s relatively simple storylines, so as Cartmel got more ambitious the stories got more complex, but the exposition either wasn’t included or was left on the cutting room floor as stories over-ran. Right-on liberal politics and anti-establishment expressionism were in. Telling people what the hell was going on was out.

The strength and surplus of ideas present in the McCoy era appeals to me, but its earnestness can be slightly uncomfortable to watch. New companion Ace is very much a product of four white men trying to write an outcast teenage girl, getting lumbered with some of the very worst BBC swearing ever produced.

However, when Rona Munro writes Ace’s character, she’s suddenly completely believable. Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy also clearly enjoy each other’s company, so for the first time in the 80s, the Doctor and his companion are actually having fun, and this makes the show instantly better. Ace has a consistent character and – it’s amazing how this seems revelatory – actually wants to be there. Dated, awkward, obviously not a teenager… there’s no way Ace should work, but she does, despite the Doctor’s dubious methods of exorcising demons from Ace’s past, she makes the show a lot more fun again.

Also dividing opinion was the style of enthusiastically flinging as many widescreen concepts and ideas at the screen as humanly possible, and seeing which ones would stick. When it didn’t work, you got Silver Nemesis, but when it did work, you got The Curse Of Fenric. Thematic content became important, as stories became heavily reliant on metaphor and symbolism.

Critics have compared this to the heights of the 70s in that, rather than twinkly-eyed middle aged men scaring the crap out of children, the McCoy era feels like it’s being written by ardent young firebrands who feel they have to be clever.

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When clever doesn’t work, the writer is lambasted, but when it’s married to an entertaining yarn, no one minds. In the most successful stories, it’s just another layer. It’s not like anyone says of Watchmen, “Oh don’t get me wrong, it’s very good and all, but don’t you think they were just trying to be a bit clever?”

These writers grew up watching the show. They knew of the need for monsters, but were also inspired by the wealth of inventive storytelling in 80s comic books. The works of 2000 AD loom large in the influences of the McCoy era. Obviously, it isn’t as good as Watchmen (but then what is? Also, The Ballad Of Halo Jones was reportedly a more direct influence), but there’s nothing wrong with lofty aspirations. Personally, I think it’d be an interesting experiment to turn the McCoy era into comic books. That’d be amazing.

At the centre of this, Sylvester McCoy is another divisive figure, despite putting a lot of time and thought into how he was going to play the role. After Season 24 was completed in a mad rush, he sat down and thought about the character and came up with some ideas that were good enough to become tropes of the series: the Doctor is old. He’s seen so many people leave him, either by moving on or by dying, that he’s lonely. And because he’s seen so much death and sadness despite trying to do good, he sets out to actively rid the universe of some of its greater evils.

No disrespect to Peter Davison and Colin Baker, but their interpretation of the role didn’t exactly shake up the character as much as McCoy’s did. Like it or not, this new approach to playing the Doctor was something that was partly assimilated, partly reacted against by the new series. The Doctor’s loneliness is now fully developed, a staple of the character, and he keeps insisting he’s just a traveller who improvises his plans rather than going into a situation with one.

McCoy clearly advances the potential of the role in his tenure, which isn’t bad going when half the Internet says he can’t act. Sure, he’s not got the range of, say, Paul McGann, but there’s something fundamentally Doctor-ish about McCoy, and yet he chooses to play against that and go in a different direction. He makes brave decisions in the role. He also makes bad ones, sure, but these are rarer than the web would have you think.

I’ll take the occasionally inexplicable growling of a line if it means we get to see the Doctor walking calmly away as an entire circus explodes around him, or fending off a horde of vampires by murmuring the names of his companions. This is where the comic book influence is writ large, with images and concepts that linger in the mind. And yet…

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Some dark corners of the Internet conceal people with a pathological hatred for McCoy, and some of them appear to genuinely need help. No other Doctor really has to deal with that level of anger or dismissal. It’s not like people in the street are saying, “Oh yeah, Doctor Who got a lot better before it was finally cancelled. Shame really”. They’re saying, “Remember when Sylvester McCoy bollocksed up Doctor Who?” Most people didn’t watch it, weren’t aware of it, and assumed that when it went it must have been rubbish. Which is understandable.

It’s just that I’ve just watched all of Season 26 with a friend who hadn’t seen it before, and it’s utterly brilliant.

I hadn’t properly realised how good it was before. It’s almost romantic, this notion of a small, unloved old TV show being given fresh life by a team of young writers who couldn’t believe they were getting to write for it.

It’s very Doctor Who really, isn’t it?

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