The Classic Who Must See List
Part VII: The Sylvester McCoy Years (1986-9)

Sylvester McCoy

Well, it’s past time to finish this blog series, isn’t it? Mind you, this perhaps a metaphor for how the original series developed. In 1985, Doctor Who was still a part of the popular consciousness of Britain. Daleks and TARDIS were household words, and the show was still pulling in ratings of 7 million or more.

But the series had entered rough waters thanks to a changeover of BBC management. The full details can be found in this post about the sixth Doctor (Colin Baker)’s tenure on the program, but basically an unsympathetic upper management seeking to pour resources into overseas distribution and a new soap opera to compete with Coronation Street cancelled production of Doctor Who early in 1985. The show would not return to the air until September 1986 and, when it did so, it received very little publicity, and its season length was cut in half. The first episodes of Trial of a Time Lord were among the lowest rated in the history of the program.

For many people, Colin Baker was the last Doctor to grace our screens as part of the original series. They don’t realize that, after the series returned, it still managed to pull four more seasons out of its hat before finally succumbing to cancellation. More importantly, they didn’t realize that one more actor had taken over the role.

The Colin Baker era ended under a considerable cloud. BBC1 Controller Michael Grade had essentially forced producer John Nathan-Turner to fire the actor. The working relationship between the producer and his long-time script editor Eric Saward had also exploded, such that Saward had resigned. Nathan-Turner, who had previous expressed an interest to move onto other projects, was given the job of reintroducing the Doctor one more time. He was essentially the script editor for the first four episodes of the twenty-fourth season, which became Time and the Rani.

In creating the Doctor, Nathan-Turner again decided to go in a different direction to what had gone before. In reaction to Colin Baker’s bombastic portrayal of the Doctor, the early drafts of the seventh Doctor suggested cues from Peter Davison and Patrick Troughton. Nathan-Turner also decided to cast someone significantly smaller for the role, settling upon Sylvester McCoy, but also auditioning Tony Robinson.

But Nathan-Turner still needed a script editor, and here’s where things got interesting. He signed on Andrew Cartmel, a young man who was basically just out of university. Doctor Who was Cartmel’s first major television production.

Cartmel didn’t let this fact intimidate him. He had bold ideas of where the show should go, and his first commission was Stephen Wyatt’s Paradise Towers, a story about an architectural monstrosity of a high-rise complex that had somehow gotten cut off from the world around it, and allowed to descend into cannibalism and anarchy. The story was inspired by the J. G. Ballard novel High Rise, of which both Wyatt and Cartmel were fans, and was somewhat out of the ordinary fare for traditional Doctor Who fans. But Cartmel didn’t care. The series was on its last legs, so what harm could there be in ditching the old, and trying something new? It took a while for this new style to really take hold, and the resulting clash basically writes off all of season twenty-four as a bit of a mistake. However, by the time the show returned for its silver anniversary, the new style was in place; it was clicking under a new stable of directors assembled by Nathan-Turner, and the show’s fans started to feel a return to the old optimism as the stories got more serious, and the quality picked up.

Cartmel decided that a sense of mystery needed to return to the production, and he set about challenging all the assumptions we’d built up around the Doctor through the previous twenty-four seasons of the program. In Remembrance of the Daleks, he started the Doctor on the road as the great master planner, running several steps ahead of his enemies and even his friends as he works to save time and space. The Happiness Patrol and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy were called “oddball” stories for their use of unusual costumes, unusual characters, and somewhat wacky set design, but the two stories worked as serious tales, with Greatest Show creeping everyone out from the get go (scary clowns will do that for you), and The Happiness Patrol praised for its surprisingly adult subtext about Thatcher’s England and gay rights.

It was as controversial as all get-out. Many fans of the old series did not like the new and unfamiliar direction the series had taken. Though many appreciated the return of more serious storytelling that didn’t shirk the violence where necessary, the show had aged, and was taking on more complicated sensibilities and introducing grey areas to the old black and white morality. When the show went off the air and the series moved into the New Adventures novel format, this pattern continued, such that fans of the older, simpler series were alienated. Indeed, one of the things Russel T. Davies had to add back into the show to make it succeed were touchstones for the kids.

Still, had the series not returned back in 2005, Cartmel would have to be credited for a considerable accomplishment. Because of him, Doctor Who did not die with a whimper. It did not go quietly into the night. The program’s ability to adapt and grow was ramped up to the max. The series made bold new moves that tended to be the hallmark of much younger programs. And the final two years of the original series boasts a number of stories which date well, and which fans can happily and proudly show to their friends.

Here’s a selection:

Remembrance of the Daleks

Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)

This is the story which most successfully marries the old style of the show fans of the day knew and loved with the new developments Andrew Cartmel was planning. Not only does it use the Doctor’s best loved enemies, it uses them well, while taking the Doctor into new areas. Writer Ben Aaronovitch crafted a tightly plotted, action-oriented story that director Andrew Morgan made good use of (breaking the budget in the process), but one that also had depth, contrasting the Daleks’ fascistic character with the casual racism of early-sixties England. The story also shows an uptick in the quality of the acting, directing and special effects. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred show obvious chemistry and it’s just all a lot of fun. Truthfully, this should have been the story to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the show and not Silver Nemesis — which, confusingly, recycles the same plot with Cybermen, and doesn’t do it nearly so well.

The Happiness Patrol (1988)

May be an acquired taste for some, as it has a lot of oddball stuff. This story about a far-flung colony where everybody has to be happy or else features some weird sets which, upon subsequent viewing, intentionally contrast the bright and joyful colours of the colony with its sinister underpinnings. The acting is a little over-the-top in places, and the direction doesn’t quite live up to the script, but watch for Sheila Hancock playing the colony’s leader Helen A as an impersonation of Margaret Thatcher, watch for the use of the pink triangle (and all that that implies), and the crazy Kandy Man, which is so obviously a take on Bertie Basset’s mascot that the candy company sued. Well, if it’s not quite to your taste, it is only three episodes long.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988)

Like The Happiness Patrol, it may be an acquired taste. This is a story about a famous intergalactic circus that has fallen on hard times, possibly thanks to the influence of something powerful and sinister in the background. The Doctor and Ace investigate, and Ace confronts her fear of clowns.

There are fewer oddball elements (such as the painfully annoying Whizz Kid), but there’s also less depth. Stephen Wyatt’s story is actually quite straight-forward, even if it is laced with crazy characters that he takes time to develop. The clowns themselves are a triumph, as is the set-design, which definitely contributes to the creep. Director Alan Wareing was this season’s big discovery, and it’s no surprise he was commissioned to direct two more stories the following year.

Ghostlight (1989)

An overly ambitious production that manages to succeed by sheer force of will (and by sterling acting and directing). A mysterious house in Victorian England is the home of an alien influence that could end all life on Earth. The Doctor and Ace investigate, and Ace confronts her demons (this thread did get used a lot, but it didn’t become completely cliché, largely because the seasons were so short). If you pull the plot apart and examine it in detail, you might make some sense out of it, but audiences who watched it at the time were quite confused. It really could have used an extra episode to tell its story. Still, there was a sense of something deep and interesting here, and it looked darn good.


The Curse of Fenric (1989)

Various plot threads within the seventh Doctor’s story come home to roost as the Doctor confronts an evil from the dawn of time in a coastal English village during the Second World War. There’s espionage and intrigue as England’s Russian allies send troops to steal the encryption-deciphering Ultima machine, but Commander Millington, head of the base, may have actually set a trap. The events here have implications for the end of the world, as humanity’s mutated descendants — somehow related to Viking settlers who lived here centuries before — put in an appearance. It’s all a bit of a muddle to tell, but writer Ian Briggs’ manages to produce a script that keeps the elements coherent, and keeps the story moving. Again, this tale could have used an extra episode to fully tell itself (and the production crew actually petitioned the BBC for one. An extended version of this story was released, with missing scenes helping to fill out this tale, but it’s clear that much was cut before the story started filming), but more people were able to follow along with this story than with Ghostlight and, again, it looked darn good.

One story you have to avoid in the final year is Battlefield, which promised to be the highlight of the season, but fell short on a number of fronts. Here, Andrew Cartmel’s master plan was taken to the max, with the Doctor clearly implied to have acted as Merlin in the past, and all sorts of threads from that revelation coming home to roost. Unfortunately, Ben Aaronovitch’s script isn’t quite up to the task, the direction (which took its cue from the previous season’s highlight Remembrance of the Daleks) clashes horribly with the style that Aaronovitch is trying to achieve, the actors are over-the-top in the worst ways possible, and the less said about the incidental music, the better. This may have been a case of the production crew just trying too hard.

Survival (1989)

The final story of the original Doctor Who series brought back the Master and almost rendered him an afterthought, as both the Doctor and the Master succumb to the influence of a dying planet. Writer Rona Munro tells an intriguing story about why we fight, and how we destroy ourselves, and director Alan Wearing carries it off with aplomb — in spite of the appearance of an animatronic cat that looks like it was attached to a lawn sprinkler. The story wasn’t originally intended to be the final Doctor Who story (Ghostlight was filmed last), but the ending was rewritten in such a way that it makes for a decent send-off. Watching it now, it’s good to know that the program would be back, and that indeed, Andrew Cartmel had helped push the program into a direction that would keep it alive for the next sixteen years, through a successful novel series that pursued a significantly more adult audience.

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