The Fifth Doctor (1): Season 19 – “That’s Democracy for You”

Peter Davison is my Doctor. My earliest memory is of the fourth Doctor regenerating into the fifth. The Five Doctors was the first story I had on tape. I still have vivid recollections of images that have stayed with me since the early 1980s: Kamelion in the straw. The Myrka, peering through a smashed bulkhead. The mini-Malus crouching in the TARDIS. Tractators circling the Doctor. Davros looming out of the freezing fog.  These are my stories.

So, re-watching them – properly re-watching them, one episode at a time rather than half-watching whole stories – has been quite some experience. I’ve discovered I grossly under-valued Peter Grimwade’s stories, particularly Planet of Fire. I’ve realised I shouldn’t ever have iconoclastically championed Warriors of the Deep. Most of all, I’ve realised Peter Davison really is my Doctor. He’s everything I want the Doctor to be – brave, never giving up. Witty, with a nice line in sardonic humour. Never cruel, or cowardly. A hero.

Various commentators have suggested that Season 19 looks back to the earliest years of the series. There are three companions in the TARDIS, one of whom is desperate to get back to present-day Earth. The Ship, for the first time since 1969, refuses to land where it’s told. There’s a whole two episodes practically set inside the spaceship, and suddenly a much more “educational” tone to some of the episodes. All this is true, and with Ian Levine on board as the semi-official continuity advisor it’s hard to argue that at least some of it isn’t down to his advice. However, at least as important are the lingering influences of Season 18’s creative forces – Christopher H. Bidmead and Barry Letts.

Barry Letts’ impact on the series can’t be underestimated. The creative revival of the early 1970s was the most complete reformatting of the show that’s ever been attempted in such a short space of time. He rescinded the dead end of Earth exile while maintaining the Doctor’s links to contemporary England, resurrected old monsters, half-invented the Master, cast Tom Baker and commissioned Genesis of the Daleks. Then, he came back and oversaw John Nathan-Turner’s first year on the show. There’s also plenty of evidence to show he was involved in The Five Faces repeat season – editing the end of Carnival of Monsters, for example. Bidmead clearly respected him, and Levine has often written passionately about his love of the Jon Pertwee years.

And Season 19 is the most Pertwee-like since 1974. Clearly the Buddhism and anti-colonial message of Kinda is merely a shared interest of Letts and Bailey (and a giant snake is a good substitute for a giant spider). And the Master’s regular recurrences can’t be anything but an explicit call back. But elsewhere, there are overtones of Pertwee to be found particularly towards the end of the season. The Visitation practically lifts and shifts the opening of The Time Warrior – a mysterious light appearing in the night sky and falling to Earth, to the consternation of the locals. And Time-Flight is the best Baker and Martin script they never wrote: not just because of the dodgy CSO, the blobby monsters, or the overly ambitious ideas. Not even because of the Master in a rubber mask. It’s the references to the Great One and the 1970s style mysticism of the Xeraphin that make this feel like a charmingly flawed throwback to an earlier era. Or possibly Grimwade had seen the repeat of The Three Doctors and made a few notes.

The Pertwee era influences are, if anything, even stronger the following year with the revenge of Omega, powerful and mystic blue crystals, a corrupt colonial Earth, the return of the Brigadier and a reimagining of The Three Doctors. So, for all Davison cites Troughton as his inspiration, the writers of his first two series are more attuned to Pertwee, although generally through the lens of Season 18’s “hard SF”. And unlike the Pertwee era, Season 19 has no single creative voice. Four to Doomsday comes across as though it’s been written from Bidmead’s character notes: Adric witters on interminably about maths, Nyssa gets excited about apparatus, Tegan whinges about Heathrow and the Doctor blithely potters about making weak racist jokes. Actually, it’s fascinating to watch Davison visibly grow into the role across the course of the story. You hear that familiar note of exasperated panic creeping into his voice for the first time as he deals with Tegan’s hissy fit in the third episode. And although it’d be a stretch to argue everything comes together in the final episode, Four to Doomsday is a rare example of a Doctor Who story that gets better as it goes along. The Doctor’s final confrontation with Monarch, persuasion of Adric back to his side, audacious rescue of Bigon and space walk to the TARDIS are an example of him spectacularly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Sadly, Dudley sets a trend for this era: between Tegan’s panicky TARDIS theft and Adric siding with the baddies, the villain’s machinations are less dangerous to the Doctor than the selfish behaviour of his companions.

Elsewhere, Bidmead’s thoughtful approach is evident in both Kinda and his own Castrovalva. The latter makes sense of the new, twice-weekly broadcast by splitting itself 50/50 between the TARDIS in Parts One and Two, and Castrovalva itself in Three and Four. The contrast between the sterility of the TARDIS and the verdant Castrovalva works extremely well, and it’s clever that Tegan, an Aussie girl, is suddenly so much more confident out of the TARDIS than inside it, whereas Nyssa’s out of her comfort zone outside the Ship. Her hilariously unsuccessful attempts to get back to nature are one highlight of a surprisingly funny story. Bidmead’s hardly remembered for his comic touch, but it’s his one liners (“That’s democracy for you”) that stick in the mind better than some of the more laboured “hard SF” stuff.

Kinda is one of the best performed stories in Doctor Who’s history. On the downside there’s a lot of expository dialogue which is useful in clarifying the plot and is better than no explanations at all (cf. Ghost Light) but does feel like it’s been inserted at the insistence of a nervous script editor. And then there’s the pink snake – but then, perhaps Buddhist evil always manifests itself as a rubbish version of a common phobia. But against this: “you can’t mend people”, “it’s all a bit too green for me”, the fifth Doctor effortlessly taking charge and displaying utter confidence in the face of ultimate evil, the lovely coda in the forest. It’s all much more elegant and considered than almost any other story, provocative in the right way, beautifully written and beautifully structured – and structure, so intrinsic to Bidmead and Bailey, is something that this nervous new script editor is far less comfortable with.

The script editor Eric Saward’s own contributions to Season 19, The Visitation and Earthshock, are the shape of things to come – though oddly (thanks to the postponement of The Return) not for another 18 months. And they are exactly as you might expect. The Visitation establishes the new house style from the off. Everyone speaks the same language, and banal monikers such as Scythe Man replace actual names (and characters). Worse, practically the first thing the Doctor does upon meeting fruity thespian Richard Mace is to grab Mace’s gun and inspect it with relish. And later, emblematically, he replaces the destroyed sonic screwdriver with another gun. “I never miss,” he says with pride. Elsewhere, the Doctor yells at Tegan, is obnoxious to Adric and Nyssa and behaves as atrociously as his next incarnation. That Davison can incorporate all of this into the character of the fifth Doctor, established, thanks to the running order of Season 19, as thoughtful and empathetic, demonstrates both his skill as an actor and the lack of work the production team have put into the new Doctor. Meanwhile, vast swathes of incident seem to have been introduced simply to occupy the companions without advancing the story. The climax, a fumble in some hay, is bathetic, except for the lingering shots of the Terileptil, screaming as his skin blisters and burns (cf. Oliver Reed in The Devils), which are just sadistic.

Earthshock is much better. Saward is good at building tension: all the characters are in jeopardy, and even the continuity works: Adric’s discussion of Alzarius, E-Space, CVEs, Logopolis, Romana and Black Orchid tie together his whole journey in the TARDIS. Even his reasons for wanting to leave were foreshadowed in The Visitation, where he bemoaned the lack of attention the Doctor gives him. Indeed, before the first episode of Earthshock they’ve barely exchanged more than a glance since Kinda. But the dialogue and characterisation are still weak, and the pay-off to Adric’s death at the start of Time-Flight is horribly fumbled. It starts off by answering the question of what happened to the freighter’s escape pod, as if that’s clearly more important. There’s the start of an interesting debate about why the Doctor can’t go back to save Adric. But it’s dismissed by a wave of the Doctor’s hand and the promise of a nice holiday. It’s difficult to know how kids would have reacted to this at the time. In retrospect it looks crass, especially given a tiny tweak to the script (have the debate interrupted by the Concorde’s time turbulence, hurling them straight into the next adventure) could have covered the awkward join.

Season 19 is clearly in transition. With three script editors, an inexperienced producer, and the shadows of Barry Letts and Ian Levine hanging over it, it’s hardly surprising that there’s little thematic consistency. Instead, the producer resorts to first principles and imposes a kind of unity through the wheeze of Tegan’s desire to go home, ending the season, perfectly naturally, with the TARDIS arriving where it’s been trying to get for the past nine weeks. But for all that, there is something unique about Season 19: the sense that this is all a bit more experimental than usual, with lots of focus on people dressing up and assuming other roles. Maybe that has something to do with the context of New Romantics, and the fashion styles of 1981. Or maybe it’s a happy coincidence, but between Tegan’s costume sketches in Four to Doomsday, the ball in Black Orchid, the Master’s Arabian Nights fantasy and the android disguised as Death there’s a running theme of clothing and identity. In an era of the show which, more than ever before, creates a specific image and brand for its leads, this is interesting. It’s as though by adopting the clothes of an English cricketer, the fifth Doctor has adopted that whole ethos of fair play and laid back sportsmanship. Or perhaps it’s the new producer trying on various costumes to see which one fits best. What will I be this week? A military SF space movie? Or a gentle 1920s Sunday night murder mystery?

So while that inconsistency is understandable, it’s also troubling. Since 1977, Doctor Who has been plagued by false dawns and hesitant new starts. The 1970-76 series were overseen by four key personnel – there are more than that involved in just this one year. And while the death of Adric feels like a final break with Season 18’s approach, it’s far from clear going into the anniversary year what the new approach is going to be.

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