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Doctor Who: Time Crash (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Time Crash originally aired in 2007.

To days to come.

All my love to long ago.

– the Fifth and Tenth Doctors look backwards and forwards

There is a strange school of thought about the revived Doctor Who, populated by a very vocal minority of fans, who insist that the new series hasn’t been paying nearly enough attention to what came before – that it’s really the show “in name only” or whatever extremist rhetoric you want to use. These are the fans who refuse to be satisfied with The Day of the Doctor because it’s not “The Eleven Doctors”, without having actually seen the anniversary special.

These are fans who are heartbroken that the show hasn’t found time to show Paul McGann regenerating into Christopher Eccleston, or who object to the destruction of Gallifrey or the re-working of monsters with messy back stories like the Cybermen in order to make them more accessible to modern audiences. It’s worth stressing that this viewpoint is very much in the minority, but it exists. Any journey into on-line forums or discussions about the show will inevitably trip across this particular viewpoint.

Of course, that’s complete nonsense. Even if it was ambiguous beforehand, Time Crash exists as nothing short a love letter to a very particular past era of the show.

More than just a tip of the hat...

More than just a tip of the hat…

To be fair, Time Crash is far from the first demonstration of how much love the revived show has for the original Doctor Who. Anybody watching the previous three years of the show will recognise the obvious efforts made to connect this television show to the classic BBC serial. Those nods began relatively low-key, but then grew bolder over time. Time Crash is located as a prelude to Voyage of the Damned, and the first story on the fourth season DVD set.

The fourth season is really the point at which even the most cynical of fans would have to concede that the show has reconnected with its roots. Not only did the third season feature the Macra and officially confirm that the new series even counts Paul McGann as a Doctor, but this is a season which includes a raft of references to obscure continuity. In two early, back-to-back episodes, we get shout-outs to William Hartnell stories The Sensorites and The Romans.

Back (of the head) to the future...

Back (of the head) to the future…

While you could argue that including the Daleks, the Cybermen and even the Master are all shrewd business decisions, there’s no reason to include shout-outs to the Macra and the Sensorites beyond a deep and abiding love of the source material. The show waited until the third season to name Gallifrey or to depict the faces of the eight previous Doctors, but it’s very obvious that it was crafted from sincere affection for the source material.

Check out the influence of the Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy eras on the show – eras that would have been formative for many of the writers and staff working on the show. The futuristic stories of the Davies era owe a conscious debt to Andrew Cartmel and even to Philip Martin’s Vengeance on Varos. Just because the show hasn’t been dedicated to cramming in pop culture artefacts doesn’t mean that it isn’t a labour of love.

A one-man team-up...

A one-man team-up…

Still, Time Crash is the point where it becomes impossible to miss the way that Davies is linking the revived series back to the classic science-fiction show. There are lots of reasons for this. Most obviously, it’s Davies’ last real chance to do this. Sure, he’ll be sticking around for a string of specials at the end of the season, but this is his last full season of Doctor Who. The same is true of David Tennant, who is a massive fan of the classic show. (In contrast to Christopher Eccleston, who had never watched the classic show.)

There are also lots of little reasons. This is the thirtieth season of the show, counting from the classic series; it’s also the forty-fifth anniversary. While neither are huge accomplishments, they are worth celebrating. While resurrecting Doctor Who had been a massive risk for the BBC, a long and painful process, the show had become one of the station’s great success stories.

Where ever he lays his hat...

Where ever he lays his hat…

The fourth season is really just a massive celebration of how successful the show has been, culminating with Journey’s End claiming top spot in the weekly ratings and massive Appreciation Index scores. It feels only right that celebrations of the show’s legacy and history should be a part of that. More than that, though, audiences have come to accept Doctor Who as what it was, so it made sense to begin introducing classic elements with a minimum amount of rejigging.

So, while the show invested considerable time and effort into making the Daleks scary and resurrecting the Cybermen and reinventing the Master, the fourth season offers us a version of the Sontarans that are largely unchanged from the classic series, barring some improvements in make-up and costumes. Time Crash offers us our first “multi-Doctor story” of this bold new era, teaming the Tenth Doctor with the Fifth Doctor.

Making one's self at home...

Making one’s self at home…

And it’s quite clear that this is very much about acknowledging and appreciating the show’s heritage. Particularly Peter Davison, who is notable as the only Doctor Who lead – aside from Christopher Eccleston and maybe Paul McGann – who is just as recognised for his contributions to British television outside the show, whether it’s Law & Order: UK or All Creatures Great and Small. And yet, he remains a vital part of the show’s history, and a massive influence on its creative team.

Time Crash might as well have roped in the entire production team to appear over the Doctor’s shoulder as he very sweetly told the Fifth Doctor, “Because you know what, Doctor? You were my Doctor.” It’s an incredibly sweet moment, and one that is surprisingly candid. The show leans quite heavily on the fourth wall, but Time Crash sees Tennant and Moffat take a sledgehammer to it – all so the audience at home gets the sense that they really do love Davison’s work.

Doctors in the TARDIS...

Doctors in the TARDIS…

David Tennant considers Peter Davison (along with Tom Baker) as his definitive version of the Doctor. Although, given Tennant is now Davison’s son-in-law, he’s hardly an objective source. Still, Steven Moffat is a fan of Davison’s work on the show, and hasn’t been shy about sharing his opinion. Notably in the middle of a rather infamous interview where he really lays into the rest of the classic show:

Q: You’re willing to recognise its limitations?

A: Yes. I still think most of the Peter Davison era stands up.

Q: I hated the Davison era.

A: How could you? When I look back at Doctor Who now, I laugh at it fondly. As a television professional, I think ‘How did these guys get a paycheque every week?’. Nothing from the black and white days, with the exception of the pilot episode, should have got out of the building. They should have been clubbing those guys to death. You’ve got an old guy in the lead who can’t remember his lines. You’ve got Patrick Troughton, who was a good actor, but his companions – how did they get their Equity card? They’re unimaginably bad. Once you get to the colour stuff, some of it’s watchable, but it’s laughable. Mostly now, looking back, I’m startled by it. Given that it’s a teatime show, a children’s show, I think most of the Peter Davison stuff is well-constructed, the directors are consistent.

Q: They’re consistently crap.

A: Peter Davison is a better actor than all the other ones. That’s the simple reason why it works better. There’s no complicated reason why Peter Davison carried on working and all the others disappeared into a retirement home. I recently watched a very good Doctor Who story, one I couldn’t really fault. It was Snakedance. Sure, it was cheap, but it was beautifully acted, well-written. There was a scene where Peter Davison has to explain what’s going on. The Doctor always has to. Now, some old actor like Tom Baker would come to a shuddering halt in the middle of the set and stare at the camera, because he can’t bear the idea that someone else is in the show. But Peter Davison is such a good actor, he manages to panic on the screen for a good two minutes, which has you sitting on the edge of your seat because you’re thinking ‘God, this must be really bad’. He’s got the most awful lines to say, but he’s doing it brilliantly. My memory of Doctor Who is based on bad television that I enjoyed at the time.

And yet, despite the fact that Moffat goes on in that same interview to describe the show as “limited by the relatively meagre talent of the people who were working on it”, it’s quite clear he harbours a great deal of affection for Davison’s work on the series.

Some cheek...

Some cheek…

Which is something really interesting about the new show. It draws its influence from the range and breadth of the classic series. Sure, the first script of the first season that wasn’t written by Russell T. Davies is a gigantic homage to the much-loved Hinchcliffe era, but it’s worth noting that Davies draws heavily on the ideas and politics of late eighties Doctor Who, with his own science-fiction scripts drawing more from Vengeance on Varos and The Happiness Patrol than Robots of Death or Genesis of the Daleks.

While the more popular monsters get to feature heavily – Daleks, Cybermen and the Master – Davies also finds room to bring back the Macra and to mention the Sensorites. Steven Moffat helped to resurrect the popular Silurians and Zygons, but he also brought back the Nimon. Matt Smith’s performance as the Doctor is most heavily influenced by the classic series leading actor with the least surviving material.

You have to make time for yourself...

You have to make time for yourself…

Peter Davison might always exist in the shadow of Tom Baker in popular consciousness, but that doesn’t blind Moffat and Davies to the superb work that Davison did. Indeed, an extended portion of Time Crash consists of the Tenth Doctor explaining just how much of Tennant’s performance (and even his outfit) is drawn from Davison. “And then I was you, and it was all dashing about and playing cricket and my voice going all squeaky when I shouted. I still do that, the voice thing. I got that from you. Oh, and the trainers, and–“ Oh, and the glasses.

Moffat’s assessment of Davison might be a bit harsh on the other actors to play the role. After all, Doctor Who does require larger-than-life performances from its leads. However, the writer’s comments are not necessarily inaccurate. There’s an argument to be made that Tom Baker and Colin Baker and even Jon Pertwee were more performers than actors. Pertwee was better regarded as a comedian than an actor when he took the role; Colin Baker was famously hired after being entertaining at a party; Sylvester McCoy burst into show business putting ferrets down his pants.

Taking five...

Taking five…

In contrast, Davison is very much a television actor. It’s hard to imagine Time Crash working with any of the other classic actors, and not just because Davison just about manages to fit into the same outfit. Well, almost the same outfit. Colin Baker’s version of his outfit. (This is something the script cheekily acknowledges as the Tenth Doctor promises his predecessor will “be able to close that coat again” when he gets home.)

Davison manages to handle Moffat’s dialogue with great ease. Moffat’s dialogue is markedly different from the dialogue in the scripts produced while Davison was working on the show – it’s a lot looser and more casual than the dialogue from the classic series tended to be. There’s nothing wrong with that; television has changed in the decades since The Caves of Androzani aired, and it’s demonstrated by other changes like the shift in the format of the programme and even the performance styles of actors like Eccleston, Tennant and Smith.

Taking his measure...

Taking his measure…

It’s very hard to imagine the Fifth Doctor delivering lines like “timey wimey.” That’s a very modern type of exposition, and unlike the technobabble usually given to Davison’s Doctor. “That’s a paradox that could blow a hole in the space time continuum the size of… well, actually, the exact size of Belgium. That’s a bit undramatic, isn’t it? Belgium?” It’s a line that is easier to read in the voice of the Tenth Doctor than the Fifth.

However, Davison makes it work. More than that, though, he does it while still sounding like the Fifth Doctor. This isn’t a reinvention or reworking of the character. Davison says those lines and suddenly they fit the character perfectly. He transitions between these two eras perfectly. Whether offering a brutal put-down of the Tenth Doctor or making none-too-subtle jabs at the Master’s sexuality, Davison manages to keep the character consistent. The Fifth Doctor would never get to make remarks about the Master’s “rubbish beard” on screen, but he totally could have.

A glass act...

A glass act…

In that way, Davison himself forms a bridge between the classic series and more modern Doctor Who. His work here suggests that the style and pace and tone of the new series are actually perfectly in keeping with the classic series, even if there are obvious changes over time. More than that, he’s given some well-deserved vindication and recognition. Davison’s tenure is often underrated, and it’s nice to see the actor given the chance to remind us all of just how good he was.

Time Crash is an incredibly sweet valentine to an under-appreciated performer, but it’s also a bold demonstration of just how deeply Davies and Moffat (and everybody else working on the show) cares for the classic series. As if we didn’t know already.

One Response

  1. Love it! Davison is also “my” Doctor, my first one, and I do love the way he owns Moffat’s dialogue… especially when he mistakes the 10th Doctor at first for… a fan!

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