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“Doctor Who?” The Deconstructed Davison Doctor…

This week, I had the privilege of stopping by The Galactic Yo-Yo to talk a little bit about Doctor Who with the wonderful Molly Marsh. In preparation for the episode, I rewatched the bulk of the Peter Davison era for the first time in years. I talked about it on the podcast, which is worth your time. But I also thought it was worth jotting some of the thoughts down in more detail.

Rewatching the Peter Davison era of Doctor Who is a strange experience for a number of reasons, not all of which are good.

The Davison era arguably served as a point of transition. It existed in the negative space between two particularly memorable incarnations of the Time Lord. Tom Baker is justifiably considered the most important and influential actor to play the role. Notably, he was the only lead from the classic series to get a showcase scene in The Day of the Doctor. Despite Colin Baker’s protestations, this made a great deal of sense. For an entire generation of television viewers – not just Doctor Who fans – Tom Baker is the Doctor.

On the other extreme, Peter Davison was succeeded by Colin Baker. Whether rightly or wrongly, Colin Baker occupies a similarly important place in the mythos. With his garish costume and his string of terrible stories, Colin Baker was long the public face of the decline and decay of Doctor Who as a cultural institution. This isn’t entirely fair. The rot had set in considerably earlier than Baker’s arrival, and there’s a sense in which he suffered from terrible timing. Still, Colin Baker wound up serving as the face of the show’s hiatus and the embarrassing Doctor in Distress.

This puts Peter Davison in a strange position. He is caught between these two hugely important moments in the show’s history. However, he also arguably lacks a strong cohesive identity like other iconic iterations of the character. The Fifth Doctor is a markedly different character from the iterations around him, and Davison was subject to criticisms from fans that his interpretation of the title character was “bland” or “boring.” It’s arguable that the Sixth Doctor’s abrasive personality was a direct response to this perceived blandness.

However, in just under three full seasons in the role, Peter Davison left quite a mark on the Time Lord. His final story, The Caves of Androzani, is rightly regarded as one of the finest Doctor Who stories ever made. (Indeed, it is one of the rare stories to have topped polls of fandom.) More to the point, it’s notable that Davison would become a surprisingly strong influence on the revival series. Tom Baker got to occupy centre stage in The Day of the Doctor, but Davison returned first in Time Crash. The short served primarily as a love letter to Davison’s influence on the role.

There’s a lot of very fascinating stuff happening during Davison’s time in the role, most of seemingly happening by accident. The most striking thing about Davison’s tenure in the role is the recurring sense that he doesn’t quite fit. The Fifth Doctor often seems to struggle with the basic narrative conventions of Doctor Who, wrestling with the series’ core concepts and underlying assumptions. Over the course of Davison’s three seasons in the role, Doctor Who seems to ask what might happen if there were an iteration of the Doctor who wasn’t up to the task.

To be clear, any coherent throughline across the Davison era is most likely a result of fluke rather than any conscious design. After all, the Davison era was a notoriously troubled period of the show’s history, particularly in its early installments. Writing assignments seemed to be divided based on expedience rather than ability, the show attempted to make several dramatic changes to the format without the ability to followthrough, and the script editor was selected at the last minute based on his overt homaging of a classic Robert Holmes story.

More than that, once the production team settled into their groove, the Davison era seemed to be constantly at war with itself. The classic distinction between “gun” and “frock” stories might be a little too simplistic, but it has endured because it has at least some basis in fact. The Davison era is the period of Doctor Who history where those two sensibilities are most overtly at odds with one another, where Kinda and Earthshock can be broadcast within the same season while Arc of Infinity can lead directly into Snakedance.

While other periods of Doctor Who obviously have stories that fall into either category of those two categories, the eras as a whole clearly lean one way over the other. The Seventh Doctor’s era might feature stories like Battlefield and Silver Nemesis, but it seems more to be more purely committed to adventures like The Happiness Patrol and Ghost Light. The Third Doctor might occasionally intersect with glam culture in Claws of Axos and faux Buddhism in Planet of the Spiders, but it’s still the era of the show where the Doctor gets a job working for the military.

This difficulty in picking one side over the other arguably reflects Doctor Who‘s crisis of identity during the Davison era. From story to story, the Davison era seems remarkably unsure of what it is actually doing. There were undoubtedly troubled eras before this point. Producer Graham Williams struggled to maintain a consistent level of quality in realising his vision of what Doctor Who could be. However, for the first time since the show’s earliest seasons, the Davison era seems genuinely unsure what vision it is supposed to be following.

Against all odds, however, the Davison era gradually coheres into something interesting and compelling. It happens almost entirely by accident, often despite the production team’s lack of a clear vision and occasionally in direct opposition to their own stated direction. Very little in the Davison era works the way that it is supposed to, and yet a surprising amount of it works nonetheless. More than that, it taps a rich vein for later more ambitious and more competent versions of the show to explore on their own terms.

The Fifth Doctor is repeatedly defined as a character who has troubling occupying the narrative space reserved for the protagonist of Doctor Who. This happens for a number of reasons, none of which derive from a conscious effort to diminish the character or deconstruct the show. However, the net effect is to suggest a version of Doctor Who were something has gone fundamentally wrong with the storytelling mechanics of the series. The Fifth Doctor often seems lost in his own show, struggling to keep his head above water.

This happens for a number of reasons. The Fifth Doctor is consciously crowded out of his own TARDIS. He becomes the first iteration of the character to regularly travel with three companions at a time since the First Doctor. The Second Doctor dropped down to two regular companions towards the end of his first season, and the Third Doctor established the tradition of a single female companion. The Fourth Doctor briefly travelled with two companions in his first season, but dropped down to a single female companion quite quickly.

In contrast, the Fourth Doctor spends his final season building an ensemble that will carry across his regeneration. He recruits Adric in Full Circle, meets Nyssa in The Keeper of Traken and takes on Tegan as a stowaway in Logopolis. As a result the Fifth Doctor arrives to a party that is already in progress. He feels like a member of a larger ensemble rather than a lead in his own show. He seems to struggle for space within the show’s central cast, a problem compounded by the fact that the Fifth Doctor lacks his predecessor’s capacity to take charge of a situation.

Of course, this was never intended to leave Davison fighting for oxygen on his own show. Instead, the production team had hoped to ease the dramatic transition from Tom Baker to Peter Davison by building a support structure around Baker that might then ease the audience into Davison. It’s not a bad approach. Like so much of the Davison era, it would be more skillfully emulated by the revival. The Tenth Doctor arrives in The Christmas Invasion surrounded by Rose, Mickey and Jackie. The Twelfth Doctor arrives in Deep Breath with the help of the Paternoster Gang.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the Fifth Doctor simply cannot control his companions. Adric repeatedly betrays the Fifth Doctor, whether consciously or accidentally; he sells him out to the Master in Castrovalva, pledges his allegiance to Monarch in Four to Doomsday, gets himself trapped in a battle suit in Kinda. Adric never learns from his mistakes, and the Fifth Doctor never meaningfully calls him out on the risks that he takes and the choices that he makes.

Of course, the Fifth Doctor fails to keep Adric safe. Adric very famously dies in Earthshock, becoming the first companion to die while in the Doctor’s charge since The Daleks’ Master Plan, sixteen years earlier. Adric isn’t even the only companion to die during the Fifth Doctor’s tenure, although it seems fair to argue whether Kamelion “counts” as a companion given that that production difficulties involving the prop made it impossible to feature the character heavily following his debut in The King’s Demons. Nevertheless, Kamelion dies in Planet of Fire.

More than that, the Fifth Doctor repeatedly makes terrible choices when it comes to choosing travelling companions. The Fifth Doctor repeatedly welcomes companions into the TARDIS who are planning his destruction. Turlough is introduced in Mawdryn Undead as a pawn of the Black Guardian, instructed to murder the Fifth Doctor. Similarly, Kamelion is shown to have been programmed by the Master as to make him unreliable. It might even be argued that the Mara’s influence on Tegan in Snakedance fits this pattern.

Again, this is not a result of any conscious effort to undermine the Fifth Doctor’s ability to protect or to choose his companions. Instead, the production team were clearly emulating soap opera plotting – sudden sharp twists, brutal deaths and shifting allegiances. After all, British television was changing during the eighties. Coronation Street had been running for twenty years, but Brookside launched in 1982 and the BBC would launch Eastenders in 1985. Audiences clearly wanted that kind of storytelling, and Doctor Who tried awkwardly to provide it.

Of course, Doctor Who wasn’t very good at being a soap opera. In fact, it was terrible. Its writers, script editors and producers had no experience with the format. So the Fifth Doctor’s era offered a weird funhouse mirror of the genre. The companions were all given strong archetypal personalities that were designed to play off one another, but without any detail or humanity to round out those archetypes into characterisation. More than that, there was no real sense of progression or character development. None of the companions grew or evolved.

Instead, the Fifth Doctor was surrounded by companions who were as broadly and vaguely defined as any other companions from the show’s history, but with each given a single discordant note. Adric seemed to be an arrogant misogynist, dismissing Nyssa as “a girl” in Four to Doomsday. Turlough is consistently characterised as a weak-willed coward. Even outside of deaths and betrayals, the Fifth Doctor seems to have wound up with a highly dysfunctional group of companions that he fails to whip into shape.

Of course, the idea of crossing over Doctor Who with a soap opera would eventually pay dividends during the Russell T. Davies era. From Rose onward, Davies would shrewdly demonstrate the appeal of that genre intersection, creating a version of Doctor Who that was actively and enthusiastically welcoming to general audiences. As with the idea of building a support infrastructure to support a risky regeneration, the production team during the Davison era had a great idea with terrible execution.

It’s notable that the closest that the Fifth Doctor comes to having a proper and functional relationship with a companion is with Nyssa. Nyssa is the companion with the least defined personality, despite the fact that the Master wiped out her entire people in Logopolis. Nyssa is the companion who fills the role that Terrance Dicks sarcastically described as somebody who could pass the Doctor his test-tubes and tell him how brilliant he was.

That is, of course, a bit flippant. Nyssa was transparently a science-fiction character. She was largely defined by her interest in science, which made her useful for the purpose of providing exposition – she also memorably macgyvered together a bit of tech to destroy an android in The Visitation. More to the point, Nyssa’s lack of a defined personality tended to allow her to serve as a sounding board to other characters, such as to Tegan in the opening scenes of The Visitation.

It’s no surprise that Peter Davison has explicitly praised Nyssa in those terms, singling her out as his own favourite of the companions from his time on the show:

I liked the character of Nyssa best of all. She seemed to me to work best in the ‘Doctor Who’ format. Now I know that she wasn’t as popular a character as Tegan, but speaking from the Doctor’s angle, I don’t think that stroppy type works as well as the more passive, ‘pass the test tube’ kind of assistant. I think if you try and break the mould then the character emphasis changes and you’re veering dangerously into the realms of soap opera. I really like that kind of gentle character that Nyssa had – it was a good contrast, and I think that she went best with the Doctor I played. That’s not to pass any kind of judgement on Janet Fielding or Mark Strickson or anyone, because we all got on tremendously well. It’s just an opinion about the characters.

Davison demonstrates a shrewd understanding of the narrative mechanics of Doctor Who, and seems to realise that Nyssa is the only companion to treat the Fifth Doctor as the Doctor.

Indeed, there are a few small traces of this to be found in Davison’s tenure. At one point in The Visitation, the characters are exploring an old abandoned house. Tegan and Adric are trying to get in the front door. “Shall I let the others in?” Nyssa asks. The Doctor responds, “No, not yet.” It’s an innocuous exchange in text, but Davison plays it almost as if the Fifth Doctor just wants to enjoy this moment with Nyssa, perhaps the closest that he comes to the traditional dynamic between Doctor and companion across the entirety of his tenure.

Of course, Nyssa is not the Fifth Doctor’s defining companion. Sarah Sutton does not end up the Frazer Hines to Davison’s Patrick Troughton, the Katy Manning to his Jon Pertwee, the Elisabeth Sladen to his Tom Baker. If the Fifth Doctor can be said to have a defining companion, it is undoubtedly Tegan Jovanka. Tegan appears as a regular in all three of Davison’s seasons, introduced in his predecessor’s regeneration story and departing in his antepenultimate story.

Tegan would describe herself as “a mouth on legs” in Earthshock, and the description stuck. Janet Fielding has admitted that she found serving the objectification of Tegan to be “quite frustrating” and the character’s lack of intelligence to be “very repetitive.” Nevertheless, it’s notable how much time Tegan spends criticising the Fifth Doctor. Both versions of Romana could be quite dismissive of the Fourth Doctor, but they were coming from the perspective of Gallifreyian society. In contrast, Tegan was – at least conceptually – a much more conventional companion.

The dynamic between the Fifth Doctor and Tegan verges on toxic. Tegan spends a lot of her time on the show (especially in her first season) pointing out how useless or ineffective the Fifth Doctor is, and the Fifth Doctor continuously responds to this criticism by making passive aggressive asides while refusing to directly engage with Tegan. When the Fifth Doctor does manage to get Tegan back to Heathrow in Time-Flight, he quickly becomes embroiled in a mystery involving disappearing planes.

“Look, Tegan, this is your planet,” the Fifth Doctor argues. “I would have thought you wanted to help.” Tegan responds with a rather damning indictment of the Fifth Doctor’s abilities, insisting, “I am helping, by wanting to leave the recovery of Concorde to the experts.” The Fifth Doctor shrugs off the insult. “Well, I might be able to help,” he continues. “That’s what worries me,” Tegan deadpans. When the Doctor leaves Heathrow without Tegan at the end of Time-flight, it almost seems an act of petulance, as if he’s glad to be rid of her.

Indeed, there’s some grim comedy in the suggestion that the universe will not allow the Fifth Doctor to escape Tegan. He finds himself drawn back into her orbit in Arc of Infinity. Of course, the production team were not aiming for dark comedy. Once again, they were aiming for soap opera dynamics – something equivalent to a season-bridging cliffhanger. However, the execution of that idea is so clumsy that it really seems like the universe has decided that the Fifth Doctor’s defining companion will be one who has no faith in his abilities.

It isn’t just the companions. The Fifth Doctor struggles to meet a number of other basic requirements necessary for Doctor Who to work. The Fifth Doctor appears to have no real control of his TARDIS, spending most of his first season trying (and failing) to get Tegan home. This isn’t unprecedented. The First Doctor also struggled with piloting the ship, and dealt with a crew that he had absentmindedly abducted, who did not want to be there. As such, like the crowded TARDIS, this could be seen as a nostalgic throwback to the show’s earliest days.

However, that was before Doctor Who was a cultural institution, when those early audiences didn’t trust the Doctor. In those early serials, the Doctor was an ambiguous figure who still being shaped and defined. There was no expectation of what the Doctor was supposed to be. However, the Fifth Doctor arrived at a point where those expectations had been codified, and where his inability to properly control the TARDIS and his difficulty in establishing a team of companions who wanted to travel with him marked a clear departure or aberration.

The Fifth Doctor is also defined largely by his passivity. Part of this is simply down to the fact that Peter Davison was following Tom Baker, and every iteration of the character is defined in opposition to their direct predecessor. However, it was also down to the kind of stories that the show told in the first season. Stories like Castrovalva, Four to Doomsday and Black Orchid tended to treat the Doctor as a character without any true agency in the narrative.

Again, this was not intentional. Castrovalva was clearly structured by writer Christopher H. Bidmead to play as two two-parters, perhaps reflecting the show’s new twice-weekly broadcast schedule. However, this creative choice means that the Fifth Doctor spends half of his first story getting to that story. The TARDIS crew don’t arrive at Castrovalva until the end of the second episode. Instead, the Fifth Doctor spends most of the first two episodes dealing with baggage carried over from Logopolis. This reinforces the idea of the Fifth Doctor as a character to whom things just happen.

Similarly, the pacing of stories like Four to Doomsday and Black Orchid are incredibly relaxed. In Four to Doomsday, the Doctor arrives on board a giant ship heading towards Earth, where he is welcomed as a guest by the mysterious alien known as Monarch. Monarch is clearly intending to invade Earth, but the Fifth Doctor just casually wanders around the ship for most of the story, only bothering to make a conscious effort to stop Monarch in the final episode. In Black Orchid, the Doctor spends an extended portion of a two-part story playing cricket and donning fancy dress.

To be fair, there are reasons why Four to Doomsday and Black Orchid are paced that way. Writer Terence Dudley had been working in British television since the sixties, and had actually pitched to Doctor Who during its first years. This perhaps explains why these stories feel so relaxed and so slow, particularly when contrasted with more dynamically paced stories from the same era, like Earthshock or The Caves of Androzani. Still, no matter what the reasons might have been behind the camera, this plays into the idea that the Fifth Doctor who is largely passive.

There are stories where this approach to the Fifth Doctor can work very well. Kinda and Enlightenment wouldn’t necessarily work as will with a more dynamic iteration of the character. However, this version of the character is largely codified by the breakout success of Earthshock. A nostalgic throwback to classic Patrick Troughton stories, Earthshock finds the Doctor embroiled in a sinister plot to destroy the Earth, one overseen by his old adversaries, the Cybermen.

The Cybermen shouldn’t really be a problem for the Doctor. They are, at best, the “other” monsters. They are the monsters that only really became a recurring fixture of Doctor Who because Terry Nation had taken away the Daleks, and the crew thought that the monsters from The Tenth Planet might serve as a credible replacement. The Second Doctor repeatedly squared off against the Cybermen, and beat them handily. Beating the Cybermen is just something that the Doctor is supposed to do.

The Cybermen last appeared in Revenge of the Cybermen, one of the weaker stories of the Fourth Doctor’s first season. While Genesis of the Daleks had managed to make the Daleks scary again, the Fourth Doctor mercilessly mocked the absurdity of the Cybermen. “You’ve no home planet, no influence, nothing,” he goaded them. “You’re just a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the Galaxy in an ancient spaceship.”

However, Earthshock turns the Cybermen into a credible threat. However, it’s more than that. The Fifth Doctor spends so much of Earthshock on the back foot. He is constantly outwitted and outgunned. He finds himself continuously at a disadvantage. He spends an extended portion of the second half of the story being held captive by the Cyberleader, subject to mockery and goading. The Fifth Doctor is genuinely at a disadvantage.

Earthshock is an uncomfortable watch, particularly airing roughly a month before the Falklands War. It is a story that is very much about how the Doctor isn’t gritty or violent enough to do what is necessary. Earthshock is particularly uncomfortable because it appears to gender its criticisms of the Fifth Doctor. The Fifth Doctor is not enough of a man to defeat the Cybermen. He is contrasted with the hypermasculine Lieutenant Scott and even berated by Captain Briggs, played by queer icon Beryl Reid.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of the Doctor losing. After all, after eighteen seasons on the air, it is nice to reestablish the stakes. However, Earthshock insists that the Fifth Doctor fails because he is a man of feeling rather than a man of action. When the Cyberleader argues that the Doctor’s emotions make him weak, the Doctor rhapsodises about “the pleasure of smelling a flower, watching a sunset, eating a well-prepared meal.” However, the Cyberleader is ultimately vindicated. He assures the Doctor’s cooperation by threatening Tegan, and the Doctor loses Adric.

Earthshock is just the most obvious example of this approach to the Fifth Doctor. One of the more interesting aspect of the Fifth Doctor’s tenure is the recurring difficulty that he has doing things that the Doctor should be able to do by default. In Black Orchid, the Doctor finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery. The audience would expect the Doctor to take charge of the situation, as in stories like The Unicorn and the Wasp. Instead, the Doctor is implicated as a prime suspect and arrested.

It is too much to compare Black Orchid to an episode like Midnight, which deconstructs the narrative privilege of the Doctor within the world of the show. However, there’s also a clear sense that the Fifth Doctor is struggling with a situation that the Third or Fourth Doctor could easily escape. “Is this the reason that you wish to remain incognito?” Muir asks. “What is your name?” He presses, “Have you any means of identification?” He continues, “Just exactly who are you and what are you doing here?”

These are questions that most iterations of the character handily deflect or avoid, mostly because the writers choose not to have the guest cast ask them. So this is a small indication that the Fifth Doctor doesn’t enjoy the same narrative protections and assumptions as his direct predecessors. Indeed, the Fifth Doctor ultimately proves his innocence in Black Orchid by taking his accusers into the TARDIS. Unable to assert his own role as the Doctor, the character falls back on asserting the iconography of the series. (He goes on to briefly lose the TARDIS in Frontios.)

Snakedance is a story built around that core premise. The basic set-up is classic Doctor Who. The TARDIS arrives on a planet that is in imminent danger, and the Doctor quickly figures out what is at stake. However, the Doctor spends the bulk of Snakedance running around like a raving lunatic, yelling that the sky is falling. However, nobody listens to him. He is ignored and then incarcerated. Again, there’s a sense in which neither of his predecessors would have suffered the same indignities trying to do the same thing. The Fifth Doctor fails consistently at being the Doctor.

Of course, none of this appears to have been planned. Very little of it seemed intentional. What little cohesion exists is largely down to Peter Davison’s performance as the Fifth Doctor. Davison is a consummate professional, and it often seems like the actor has put a lot of thought into how best to make the script work. The Fifth Doctor seems to have a more vivid internal life than his direct predecessors, and Davison expends a lot of effort reverse-engineering a characterisation from the scripts that he is given.

This idea of a deconstructed and dysfunctional protagonist is something that the revival employs with considerably more skill and finesse. The question of whether the Doctor can ensure the safety of his travelling companions informs and shapes a lot of the Davies era, with stories as diverse as School Reunion and The Last of the Time Lords exploring the question of what the Doctor owes to those travelling in his care, and whether he can make promises to them about his ability to protect them.

Indeed, the revival has consistently argued that it is entirely fair to criticise the Doctor based on how he treats his companions. “You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around,” Rory argues in The Vampires of Venice, and not unfairly. Similarly, a large part of the dynamic between the Twelfth Doctor and Clara is rooted in the Doctor accepting his “duty of care” to the people that he takes under his wing. It’s notable that the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration story, World Enough and Time, starts with his failure to protect Bill.

Similarly, stories like The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor are built upon the idea that the name “Doctor” is a title that is earned rather than a name to be taken for granted. “The name I chose is the Doctor,” the Doctor tells Clara in The Name of the Doctor. The name you choose, it’s like, it’s like a promise you make.” Central to this understanding of the character is a tension, a sense that it takes genuine effort to be the Doctor and that it is not something to be assumed.

This approach to the character sits at the heart of The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar, as the Twelfth Doctor visits Davros on Skaro. As usual, Davros taunts the Doctor about his weaknesses. Much like the Cyberleader in Earthshock, Davros argues that the Doctor’s mercy makes him weak. The Doctor dismisses the idea that he was convinced to visit Skaro out of shame. Instead, he clarifies, “I came because you’re sick and you asked. And because sometimes, on a good day, if I try very hard, I’m not some old Time Lord who ran away. I’m the Doctor.”

This adds a particular richness to the Fifth Doctor’s tenure. In hindsight, it often feels like the Fifth Doctor is trying very hard to be “the Doctor”, but never arrives on “a good day.” This is try in a number of senses. Peter Davison took over Doctor Who at a point at which the show was unsure of its identity, and it would struggle to define itself after the departure of Tom Baker. So much of Davison’s tenure feels lost and confused, trapped in a mesh of continuity.

Famously, Davison’s second season was the twentieth anniversary season. It was decried that every episode in the season would feature a returning monster. The result is a mess of a season, often wallowing in nostalgia. Arc of Infinity is built around a variety of elements of the show’s past that arguably never worked in the first place, but are simply “important” to the show’s continuity. The King’s Demons features a particularly nonsensical plot from the Master. The famous use of a wax work to stand-in for Tom Baker in a promotional photoshoot says enough about The Five Doctors.

Indeed, there’s a strange sense of fatigue running through the twentieth anniversary season. It’s notable that stories like Snakedance and Enlightenment play as meta-critiques of the festivities, focusing on celebrations that are ultimately hollow and empty, carrying no real weight or meaning for the people observing them. Doctor Who seemed lost in its twentieth anniversary season, and so it makes sense that it should feature a protagonist who seemed just as confused.

However, there was also a broader cultural context to consider. Britain was going through a number of serious social and political changes during the eighties. Margaret Thatcher had won election in May 1979. It is no exaggeration to suggest that “no Prime Minister in living memory has had such far-reaching influence on the social landscape”, with Thatcher becoming part of the country’s “mental furniture.” Thatcher cast a long shadow, particularly over pop culture. Thatcher offered a bold new vision of economic and social conservatism that would have a far-reaching impact.

It is debatable to what extent classic Doctor Who was ever anchored in the present of Great Britain. The Third Doctor had theoretically been stranded on contemporary Earth, but even the particular dating of his exile was somewhat hazy. Nevertheless, like any piece of pop culture, Doctor Who reflected British identity and anxiety back at the nation. Doctor Who always offered a snapshot at what was percolating in the country’s subconscious, even if it wasn’t clearly articulated.

Early stories like The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth offer a glimpse of a country struggling to come to terms with the legacy of the Second World War. The Third Doctor’s space stories like The Curse of Peladon or Colony in Space seemed to hint at British anxieties about the country’s future in a rapidly-changing European context. The Hinchcliffe era taps into primal fears about resurrected evils and a world gone mad, a perfect snapshot of the mid-seventies.

And so the Fifth Doctor exists in the context of the early years of Thatcherism. The character’s identity crisis might be read in that light. After all, what does it mean to be a good person in a world that does not reward goodness? Thatcher’s election had been a shock to the system, and offered a radically different vision of the future than the one proposed even a decade later. No wonder the Fifth Doctor felt like the narrative rules of his universe were coming undone.

This is particularly obvious during the Fifth Doctor’s final season, which is sorely underrated largely due to the fact that it is bookended by two of the worst Doctor Who stories ever made, Warriors of the Deep and The Twin Dilemma. The presence of those two serials effectively undermines an otherwise impressive run of stories, one that taps into something lurking deep within the contemporary psyche.

The Awakening takes the Fifth Doctor back to modern Britain, with the character landing in 1984. However, the Doctor discovers that history is broken – there is “a confusion in time.” An alien influence is causing the past and present to overlap with one another, trapping a seemingly civilised village in the midst of a barbaric war game. It is “living history” in all of its brutality. The village is caught under some kind of pagan spell, with Hutchinson even plotting to offer Tegan as a sacrifice as “Queen of the May.” It evokes The Wicker Man.

The Awakening suggests a nightmare of modern Britain, a country that has never made peace with the passage of its golden age into history. After all, the Falklands War was packaged and sold as a triumph of the British Empire. Newsweek had warned readers that “the Empire Strikes Back.” The Falklands War appeared to resonate with something primal within contemporary Britain, stirring up some latent jingoism. That national myth was key to her electoral victory in the 1983 election. It secured Thatcher’s government, and would embolden her policies.

The Fifth Doctor’s final season is preoccupied with these feelings lurking just beneath the surface. Frontios offers a grim vision of mankind’s future, a point past the end of history where mankind had collapsed into fascism and totalitarian rule. This was a harsh landscape openly hostile to the Doctor. The TARDIS appears to be destroyed early in the story, its insides scattered across the interior of the planet. There are monsters lurking below the surface of Frontios, skulking in the darkness.

Frontios literalises the central metaphor. Turlough is given an ambiguous “race memory” of the horror of the Tractators, something primal dwelling deep in his subconscious. Like the collapse of past and present in The Awakening, it has the feeling of a dream. This sense of dream logic is only enhanced by the ways in which the season seems to prefigure the miners’ strike that was waiting just over the horizon. Frontios and The Caves of Androzani are stories about the threat of fascism and the horrors in the mines. Resurrection of the Daleks opens with police terrorising innocents.

Of course, there is no way that anybody working of Doctor Who could have actually foreseen the chaos that would unfold, kicking off just as The Caves of Androzani was broadcast. Still, the parallels are evocative and haunting. The miners’ strike left lasting scars on Great Britain. It was arguably the greatest triumph of Thatcherism, reversing the victories that miners had accomplished during strikes in the early- and mid-seventies. Towards the end of his tenure, the Fifth Doctor seemed to soak up the apocalyptic mood.

Resurrection of the Daleks is both terrible and brilliant. It is a mess of a story, but an interesting mess. In many ways, it feels like a more reflective and considered take on Earthshock. Once again, the Fifth Doctor is thrown into conflict with a classic monster. Once again, the death toll climbs dramatically. However, there’s an impressively funereal atmosphere to Resurrection of the Daleks, a sense in which its melancholy and darkness feels earned. Its meditations on nihilism and futility seem much more engaged than those in Warriors of the Deep.

Once again, contemporary Britain has become unstuck in time. In The Awakening, the present overlapped with a nostalgic past. In Resurrection of the Daleks, the Doctor finds a point of connection between the present and a brutal future. The internal plot mechanics of Resurrection of the Daleks are ambiguous at best. The plot doesn’t make any sense. Why would the Daleks set a trap for the Doctor with canisters of a virus deadly to them? Why does the time corridor connect specifically to Earth in 1984, and not anywhere or any time else?

In truth, it doesn’t matter. Resurrection of the Daleks is a theme piece. The Doctor materialises in Shad Thames to discover that the industrial era is decaying and abandoned. “Such neglect,” the Doctor muses. “One hundred years ago, this place would have been bustling with activity.” There is a sense of collapse and entropy. Something that was once great and triumphant has fallen into ruin. (Ironically, Shad Thames would be gentrified in the years that followed Resurrection of the Daleks, marking the serial as something of a weird time capsule.)

This sense of ruin and decay permeates Resurrection of the Daleks, which is a story about powers way past their prime that still wage wars that ended long ago. Shad Thames is paralleled with the old prison station that holds Davros as prisoner, but it also mirrors the Daleks themselves. It is implied that the Daleks defeated the Movallians and that the humans defeated the Daleks, but that victory has just led to decadence and collapse. The Daleks take the station, but not without heavy casualties. They need to hire an outside bounty hunter to lead them to victory.

However, Resurrection of the Daleks returns to the characterisation of the Fifth Doctor as the version of the character who struggles with the narrative responsibilities of the role. Like so many later Dalek stories, Resurrection of the Daleks is explicitly framed as a response to Genesis of the Daleks. (It seems unlikely that Destiny of the Daleks lingered in the memory.) In that story, the Fourth Doctor weighed the option of committing genocide against the Daleks. In the moment, he declined to do so. However, he would later improvise a trap to delay the expansion of the Dalek empire.

For many people, the “do I have the right?” speech from Genesis of the Daleks is quintessential Doctor Who, a moral thought experiment about the moral weight pressed upon the character. The Curse of Fenric leans rather heavily on it in order to suggest some ambiguity about the Second World War. It’s not hard to draw a straight line between that speech and the revival’s recurring motif tendency to confront the Doctor with horrible choices involving genocide in stories like The Parting of the Ways or The Runaway Bride.

While the Tenth Doctor might be a little genocide-happy, generally speaking, the assumption is that the Doctor will typically side against genocide. The genocide that ended “the Last Great Time War” hangs over the series until it is eventually reversed in The Day of the Doctor. The Ninth Doctor’s defining moment in The Parting of the Ways comes when he is faced with the choice of “killer and coward” and chooses “coward, everytime.” The Twelfth Doctor refuses to be goaded by Davros into admitting that “compassion is wrong” in The Magician’s Apprentice.

This is what makes Resurrection of the Daleks so interesting. The Fifth Doctor essentially throws all of that away. He explicitly rejects his moral decision in Genesis of the Daleks. He explains, “Once before I held back from destroying the Daleks. It was a mistake I do not intend to repeat.” The Fifth Doctor seems to be directly responding to the challenge of Earthshock. That story suggested that the Fifth Doctor was not sufficiently masculine enough to protect the people around him – not enough of a killer. So, confronted with the Daleks, the Fifth Doctor makes himself a killer.

The Doctor has always had a complicated relationship to guns. The Tenth Doctor frowned on them in The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky, and his willingness to use one in The End of Time, Part II illustrated the gravity of the stakes. The Eleventh Doctor was happy to use one as a tool in Flesh and Stone and The Time of the Angels. Nevertheless, the sight of the Doctor holding a gun feels strange. It should. This is a character who is defined by his sonic screwdriver. As Steven Moffat explained, they didn’t give him a gun, they gave him a screwdriver to fix things.”

However, the Fifth Doctor doesn’t have a screwdriver. He lost it in The Visitation. So, in Resurrection of the Daleks, the Fifth Doctor uses a gun – several guns, in fact. He uses a pistol to shoot a Kaled mutant that has escaped from its shell. He threatens Davros with another weapon at the climax of the story. The Fifth Doctor is clearly uncomfortable, but he is committed. This is a man coming to the end of himself, committed to being a killer rather than a coward.

The Doctor uses the deadly virus against the Daleks, effectively wiping them all out. There’s a sense in which Resurrection of the Daleks is keenly aware of its absurdly heightened masculinity, down to the helmets and guns styled to look like Dalek stalks while looking like strange science-fiction phalluses. It also feels quite pointed that Davros and the Daleks die screaming in a hot, sticky, white mess that looks pretty explicitly sexual. Still, the Fifth Doctor is a killer. He has given up his pacifism and his morality, and tried to make himself an action hero.

Of course, this accomplishes nothing. The Doctor doesn’t kill Davros. Davros escapes to see another day, as he always will in stories like this. Most of the supporting cast is dead. The death toll is absurdly high, with several innocent characters getting shot in the back. However, the most damning indictment comes from Tegan, that most steadfast of the Fifth Doctor’s companions. “My Aunt Vanessa said, when I became an air stewardess, if you stop enjoying it, give it up,” Tegan explains. “It’s stopped being fun, Doctor.”

That’s a damning indictment of the Fifth Doctor. It is perhaps his most fundamental failure to live up to the expectations of the Doctor. After all, the Doctor probably shouldn’t endanger companions or lose control of the TARDIS, but it’s possible to construct compelling Doctor Who episodes around that. However, at its most basic, Doctor Who must be fun. That is why people watch. That is the entire purpose of the show. Once Doctor Who stops being fun, there’s no point to it. The Fifth Doctor hasn’t just failed his companion, he had failed his audience.

To be fair, this is undoubtedly a very generous reading. In hindsight, it’s easy to treat the Fifth Doctor’s acknowledgment that he “must mend [his] ways” at the end of Resurrection of the Daleks as the same sort of facile conclusion as “there should have been another way” from Warriors of the Deep. After all, any real sense that writer and script editor Eric Saward had accepted these criticisms of this hyperviolent militaristic spectacle is undermined by the mere existence of Attack of the Cybermen at the start of the following season.

Nevertheless, it feels like a moment of genuine introspection from the show, and feeds organically into the Fifth Doctor’s final story. The Caves of Androzani offers another fundamental failure on the part of the Doctor. He takes Peri away on an adventure to Androzani Minor. While various tie-in media would suggest that the Fifth Doctor travelled with Peri for some time between Planet of Fire and The Caves of Androzani, this is still Peri’s first on-screen adventure as a proper companion. As far as audiences watching at home are concerned, this is her first trip in the TARDIS.

The Fifth Doctor screws up, because the narrative rules of Doctor Who are suspended. The Doctor is as reckless as any of his prior incarnations, taking his companion to an alien world and walking right into the middle of a galactic crisis, without bothering to do any of the actual homework required to ensure that he has found a safe and sustainable environment. There’s nothing inherently unusual about this. The Fourth Doctor tended to throw himself into dangerous situations without any forethought, because the narrative structure of Doctor Who would always support him.

Exploring Androzani Minor, Peri slips and falls into a nest of the indigenous bat creatures. Her leg falls into what appears to be an egg. The Doctor climbs down to help her out. As a result, both characters are poisoned. The Caves of Androzani effectively fatally poisons its two leads less than ten minutes into the story, before they have encountered any other characters within the narrative. As with Adric and Kamelion, the Fifth Doctor has failed in one of his most fundamental responsibilities: his responsibility to keep his companions safe.

Much like the idea that the show needs to be “fun”, this is one of the core assumptions of Doctor Who. After all, in reality, randomly dropping a human being into an alien environment would be incredibly risky and likely involve a horrible death. However, the narrative logic of Doctor Who requires that the Doctor can safely guide his companions to alien worlds, and ensure that they don’t die horribly before the get to the actual plot of the story in question. If the Doctor can’t prevent his companions from dying ten minutes into the first episode, then what is the point?

The Caves of Androzani is permeated with a feeling of apocalyptic dread, a palpable anxiety that the world is unravelling around the Doctor. The Caves of Androzani returns time and time again to the basic existential fear that the universe is chaotic and unstructured, that the assumptions that the characters take for granted are unreliable at best. It’s no coincidence that Krelper and Stotz are introduced playing dice, as much a statement of intent as anything in the story.

The Caves of Androzani repeatedly reinforces the idea of how various characters are subject to the capricious whims of chance. Morgus is one of the most powerful men in the Praesidium, but even he cannot control fate. The entire story is predicated on his failure to properly murder Sharaz Jek. Later on, after the Doctor survives a military execution thanks to Jek’s intervention, Morgus incorrectly assumes that more powerful forces are plotting against him. This leads him to murder the President and flea Androzani Major. He loses everything based on a simple misunderstanding.

This reflected the mood of the times. Unemployment had risen dramatically during Thatcher’s first years in office and would peak in 1984. Poverty increased dramatically under Thatcher. After an eight-year gap, there were a wave of IRA bombings on mainland Britain in the early eighties, culminating in an attack on the Conservative party conference in October 1984. There was a palpable sense of unease in the air, with the Brixton Riots of April 1981 demonstrating the tensions simmering just beneath the surface of modern Britain.

There’s a sold argument to be made that the final part of The Caves of Androzani, thrillingly directed by Graeme Harper, is the single best episode of classic Doctor Who ever produced. It is a powerhouse piece of television, a propulsive nightmare that finds the Fifth Doctor struggling to keep moving forward as the world falls to pieces around him. It is permeated with apocalyptic dread, and it feels like the perfect culmination of the Fifth Doctor’s tenure. Doctor Who has been creaking around the character for over two seasons, and it is finally imploding into itself.

In that context, it’s notable that The Caves of Androzani affords the Fifth Doctor a minor victory. The Fifth Doctor manages to save Peri. Against all odds, he retrieves a cure for the toxin that has poisoned her, and administers it in the TARDIS. There is not enough to save himself, but that doesn’t matter. The Fifth Doctor manages to keep his companion safe. At the cost of his own life, the Fifth Doctor is able to impose the smallest sense of order on the chaos. In his dying moments, against overwhelming odds, the Fifth Doctor manages to be “the Doctor.”

Peter Davison’s tenure as the Doctor was a difficult and troubled time for Doctor Who. The show was figuring out its own identity, and the United Kingdom was working through some major social and cultural realignments. It was a tremendous weight on the show, on its production team and on the lead actor. It was an era that often seemed to be stumbling in the dark, without a single clear direction, caught between various competing impulses.

In spite of this – or perhaps because of this – there is something very special about the era. Peter Davison seemed to arrive at a point where it was seemingly impossible for Doctor Who to continue on as it had done, due to the various forces at work and due to difficulties behind the scenes. In The Day of the Doctor, the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors offer a reconciliation with the War Doctor, the iteration of the character who lived through “the Last Great Time War” – and who implicitly stood in for the trauma of the extended cancellation.

“You were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right,” the Eleventh Doctor assures his past self. On a purely production level, it is too much to suggest that “it wasn’t possible” for Doctor Who to succeed in the early eighties. To be frank, many of the problems with the show were self-inflicted, resulting from either poor choices or poor execution. However, allowing for this, there is a sense in which Doctor Who had found itself disconnected from contemporary pop culture, and had to realign itself.

It’s a testament to Davison as an actor that he finds a way to hold all of this chaos together, to fashion something resembling a cohesive character from these competing impulses and disjointed decisions. Watching the Fifth Doctor at work, it often feels like the show around him has failed, and he has no choice but to soldier on against all odds. Indeed, it’s arguably that the show truly collapses once the Fifth Doctor regenerates, with the Sixth Doctor unable or incapable of holding the fracturing show together to the extent that his predecessor did.

The Fifth Doctor’s era is not a hidden masterpiece. It is not necessarily a highlight in the extended history of Doctor Who. However, it is a fascinating artifact, a snapshot of a show and world seeming to come undone, and the character caught in the middle of it all.

3 Responses

  1. Personally speaking, I have an odd relationship with the Fifth Doctor’s era. I discovered Doctor Who in reruns here in the States in the early 1980s, and I started watching it at a point that was the very beginning of JNT’s time as producer (the first complete serial I ever watched was The Leisure Hive). So after several odd stories the guy with the long scarf changed into the guy with the cricket coat. That meant some of the earliest Doctor Who stories I ever saw were either from the very end of Tom Baker’s era, or from Peter Davison’s three seasons on the show. Which in hindsight is a really weird way to get into Doctor Who, because (as you observe here in detail) these seasons were atypical, a marked change from what had come before. But I did not realize that until several years later, when I did finally watch Baker’s fist six seasons, as well as Jon Pertwee’s five year run. So it’s become an odd experience as an older viewer to revisit the Davison era, because my present-day awareness that the show was struggling to find a new identity and a workable format and a way for the character of the Doctor to function in a different cultural landscape is at odds with my childhood feelings & memories that this is what Doctor Who is supposed to be.

    • This is interesting, because it’s quite similar how I encountered the Davison era as well. The Davison era was the first classic Doctor Who that I watched. And even though I didn’t watch it all at once, I prioritised it in my watching relative to the other eras of the show. (Even then, watching episodes out of order is different than watching them as they aired, even if they aren’t strictly serialised.) The first time I really approached it since – having a holistic view of classic Doctor Who was with the blu ray releases spurring a rewatch.

  2. I read that “guns and frocks” article, and I answered “no” to every one of those supposedly divisive questions because of how they were worded, because I’m a casual fan of the show, and I have no idea what most of them describe. If I’d been at that convention, I would have found the effort to reify two arbitrary groups of fans weird and off-putting. I’d wonder if I should keep watching at all if that were the product of interest in Doctor Who.

    I suppose it’s a good example of where Doctor Who fans were in the 1990s, cordoned off from the idea that anyone who was at all interested in the series wouldn’t have detailed opinions on every facet of it.

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