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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.

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Doctor Who: Castrovalva (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.

Castrovalva originally aired in 1982.

Welcome aboard. I’m the Doctor. Or will be if this regeneration works out.

– the Doctor greets Adric

Tom Baker did seven years of Doctor Who. That is impressive. No matter which way you look it, and no matter how cynical you might be, it’s hard to argue that Baker’s departure wasn’t a fundamental and radical change to the series. In fact, his influence is so great that Castrovalva even opens with a rare pre-credits sequence, just to make sure that the viewers know that Baker is gone. (Despite the fact that John Nathan Turner apparently asked that the scene be shot so that the new season could open without having to show Tom Baker.)

Baker was going to be a tough act to follow. In fact, to many people, Tom Baker is still the Doctor. I don’t mean that in a sort of “stubborn fans refusing to acknowledge change” sort of way. I mean that in a “when The Simpsons make a Doctor Who reference they use Tom Baker” sort of way. He cast one hell of a shadow, and it’s hard to truly fathom how daunting it must have been to try and step out from that show.

That Peter Davison manages to do so is nothing short of amazing. Equally impressive is the fact that Castrovalva manages to be its own story. While it suffers – as with so many Bidmead scripts – from the fact that the technical limitations of the show can’t keep pace with his ideas, there’s still a lot to love here. And not just Peter Davison. Though he helps.

“Oh! The brainy specs!”

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