Sylvester McCoy as Doctor Who: an appreciation

Simon warms to a Doctor once voted best-ever in the role - and argues that his contribution to the show is under-regarded...

They say that you always have a loyalty to the Doctor that you grew up with, and in my case, by the time I was seriously getting into Doctor Who, it was Sylvester McCoy.

Granted, I’d been watching the show for a good few years by this point, and was around six years old when I caught Logopolis, the first story I ever watched. But while I enjoyed the Davison era and tolerated Colin Baker, I really found myself warming to the Sylvester McCoy reign in the Tardis quite a lot. It used to puzzle me week in week out to see the show slagged off by reviewers, as it struggled to hold its own against Coronation Street on the other side. But retrospect shows, I think, that I wasn’t too far wide of the mark. Because the McCoy era of the show has more going for it than it’s ever given credit for.

The man himself is the first factor. McCoy wasn’t an obvious choice to play the Time Lord, and you can’t ever imagine him getting the part in the current era, where the poster in Toys R Us needs to be seriously considered. But I loved that little bit of eccentricity, and while it wasn’t too tricky to improve on the actor who preceded him, I felt that he had an identity in the role. He’s not the best Doctor Who ever, granted, but he proved to be a good choice, and his passion for the show since is no surprise. He also changed the tone of his performance a surprising degree over his run. The early McCoy episodes, where he was playing the role a lot lighter, were certainly his weakest, as his portrayal of the Time Lord got much darker towards the end of his run.

Furthermore, once he managed to rid himself of Bonnie Langford (surely the worst assistant for the good Doctor of all time) and got Sophie Aldred in as his companion, things improved considerably. Some of McCoy’s earlier stories were the wrong side of ropey (Time and the Rani, anyone?), but when he teamed up with Ace it gave the writers an interesting, almost parental dynamic between the Doctor and his assistant that harked back to genuine old-time Who. It would have been interesting to see how the duo of McCoy and Aldred would have developed had the show kept going, although John Nathan Turner was believed to be looking to phase Ace out in the following series that never came.

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Then there were some of the stories. Detractors of the McCoy era – and I’m not blind to its problems – will quickly point to the Candyman in The Happiness Patrol and the likes of Dragonfire and Ghost Light as muddled episodes that did nothing but hammer a few more nails into the show’s grave. The tepid Cybermen outing Silver Nemesis didn’t help either, especially as it was designed to mark the programme’s 25th anniversary.

But what about Remembrance Of The Daleks? Get over the fearsome foes struggling to scale the cobblestones, and that’s as a good a Dalek story as we’d seen since Genesis Of The Daleks. The same writer, Ben Aaronovitch, also gave us the King Arthur-inspired Battlefield, which too was quite a piece of work, even if the piss-poor monster in the last episode left a lot to be desired.

And then there’s The Curse Of Fenric, the finest episode of the McCoy era, and a good shout for one of the best 20 stories in the show of all time. This put the Doctor to the side of the action for the most part, instead developing the character of Ace quite dramatically, in a strangely moving and brilliantly constructed story. It stands up particularly well, not least because the DVD release has edited the story – Nicholas Parsons and all – into one full story.

Even throughout the low points of his era, McCoy had a gusto, energy and quirkiness that served the show well, often at times when a story around him was sinking without trace. And yet when he did get good material to work with, he made the most of it, and helped deliver some stories that simply shouldn’t be overlooked in the world of classic Who.

The fact that he was my Doctor obviously slants things a little for me, but even putting that to one side, the Sylvester McCoy era was a healthy, needed improvement from the days of Colin Baker, and it really deserves some reassessment.


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