Captain of the Team
Peter Davison, 1981-84
By now, we know the Doctor. A force of nature, storming through the universe, filled with the arrogance of a man who knows that he is the most intelligent person in any room where he might find himself. An old rogue, gruff but charming, a man with effortless authority and gravitas. So far, at least. The fifth Doctor is different.
In 1981, with Tom Baker ready to depart after a record TARDIS tenure, John Nathan-Turner and his production team faced the difficult challenge of continuing Doctor Who without the man who had become synonymous with the lead role. The only solution was to do things completely differently. The transformation of Doctor Who from late seventies camp to, well, early eighties camp, had already begun in Baker’s glossy final year. Now the transformation would be completed with the recasting of the central role. The Doctor would be played by an already well-known face, a younger, more skilled actor, already a household name for the role of Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small. The difference between Baker’s sweeping, dominant performance and Davison’s more subdued approach couldn’t be greater. Davison’s naysayers often accuse him of being a boring Doctor, and he’s been saddled with the nickname ‘the wet vet.’ They couldn’t be more wrong. Davison’s performance as the Doctor perfectly embodies a subtler take on the character that was exactly what the series required after years of Tom Baker’s excesses.
The fifth Doctor is a unique version of the character, more sharply defined against the generic characterisation of the Doctor than any of the other incarnations, even the northern ninth. He does, of course, share many of the Doctor’s perennial traits: curiosity, intelligence, compassion, humour. On the other hand, many Doctorish personality traits are absent or greatly reduced. He is very rarely arrogant; his description of himself as “Pretty, sort-of, marvellous,” in Time Crash is about as full of himself as he gets. While he is frequently ratty, with a sarcastic streak to his humour, he is slow to anger, and when he does lose his temper it is for the most serious of reasons.
From the outset, the fifth Doctor seems weaker than his predecessor, it’s true. Left damaged by a traumatic ‘death,’ the Doctor is still regenerating during the opening few episodes of his debut serial, Castrovalva. It’s unsettling to see the Doctor like this, so vulnerable, relying on his new companions to help him back to the TARDIS. Once there, he comes apart, the unravelling of his costume symbolising the deconstruction of his character. Slowly, he pieces himself together, cycling through his earlier personae as he seeks to establish his own, new self. He is damaged, it’s true, and it’s a long time before this version of the Doctor ever seems quite comfortable with himself. He looks in horror at his reflection, aghast at the young, handsome man he has become. After centuries of dominating events with easy authority, to appear fresh-faced and inexperienced must be a terrible setback. It certainly affects his relationships with his companions, as we’ll see later.
"Well, it wouldn't be cricket!"
One of the first things he comes across, as he searches the TARDIS for the zero room in which to recover, is the Ship’s cricket pavilion. He probably installed it in his fourth incarnation (in which he often mentioned a preference for cricket), but it provides his fifth self with a vital lifeline in his time of need. The very moment his personality is forming, he finds something with which to identify and define himself. In reality, the fifth Doctor’s costume, which remains barely changed throughout his tenure, was a product of branding concerns. In terms of the fiction however, it perfectly matches this Doctor’s character. It’s not an outfit that a real Edwardian cricketer would ever have worn; rather an eccentric mixture of period and modern elements, but the dominant element is the cricket jumper. Cricket symbolises everything that is most important to this Doctor: team-playing, sportsmanship, good manners and grace. The beige frockcoat with its red-piping and the Panama hat lend a more sartorially striking air, the garish striped trousers a showier element, reduced by the muted colours of the overall ensemble. The celery, worn where another well-dressed gent might wear a rose, adds an eccentric touch, later given the most spurious justification in Davison’s final story. Quite how it sticks on, though, is anyone’s guess, as is its astonishing ever-freshness (perhaps he replaces it in-between stories?)
His first delicate moments aren’t helped by the fact that the Master – seemingly completely mad following his unnatural rebirth – has set up another contrived trap for the Doctor and his friends. The Doctor solves the riddle of Castrovalva, of course, and it seems to be the strength required to face up to the Master that finally pulls him back to together. He certainly doesn’t seem to care about his former ‘best enemy,’ though; from now on, any mercy on the Doctor’s part towards his foe is down to nothing more than his usual decency and compassion. The Master hounds the Doctor from now on, through this life and into the next, but the cat-and-mouse playfulness between them is over. The Doctor, quite understandably, would happily be rid of the lunatic.
Arguably, though, he feels the same way about several of his companions. While he praises the team that has formed around him, and thanks them for their help in his time of need, he has a difficult relationship with both Tegan and Adric, with only Nyssa sharing any real friendship with him. This is hardly surprising, though; the Doctor chose none of these people as companions, and suddenly he’s found himself responsible for them. With a younger Doctor came a younger set of travelling companions, and an altogether different dynamic. Davison was only twenty-nine when he was cast, almost twenty years younger than his predecessor and the youngest Doctor ever until Matt Smith was cast in 2010. This youth sets him apart from all his predecessors, and is characterised in different ways. There’s a youthful physicality to him, a sort of breathless enthusiasm that manifests unexpectedly. Witness his immediate response to a mission accomplished in Castrovalva: a brisk running race back to the TARDIS for him and his team. On the other hand, there’s very much the sense of great age trapped within a young body, a steady-headedness that belies his physical nature. Despite his apparent sportiness, this Doctor rarely engages in any physical activity in the course of his adventures, preferring a more cerebral, diplomatic approach.
"For some people, small beautiful events is what life is all about!"
The Doctor’s apparent youth does affect his attitude, however, and this is most apparent in his relationship with Adric. Now, we all know that Adric is rubbish, a gawky, geeky character played by one of the most hopeless regular actors in the series. However, alongside Tom Baker, his character worked. Adric makes sense as a young protégé for the high-minded fourth Doctor. Next to the fifth Doctor, however, the relationship is different. As an awkward, wilful adolescent, Adric needed a firm hand, someone he respected. The fifth Doctor could never offer that, and so this aspect of the characters’ relationship was more or less dropped. Their dealings with each other are more like that of a man and his petulant kid brother. Adric was an accident waiting to happen in this sort of setup, and soon enough, the little twerp got himself killed, running back into a doomed situation to try to prove himself to the Doctor when he could have got out. The Doctor, for his part, suppresses his reaction to this, burying his guilt and urging the others to move on. However, he continues to punish himself for ‘failing’ Adric; indeed, this incarnation’s final word is ‘Adric.’ (On the other hand, I don’t think the Doctor’s nights are constantly plagued by guilty dreams of Adric, unlike some of the spin-off writers.)
Tegan is another headache for the Doctor. Again, it’s easy to imagine that the fourth Doctor would have had an easier time with her, his more dominant personality winning the battle of wills. The fifth Doctor, quieter and more restrained, finds is harder to stand up to ‘the mouth on legs,’ her brash Ozzie charm the antithesis of his restrained manner. While none of his initial companions are there by his choice, at least Adric wanted to be there, and Nyssa has nowhere else to go. Tegan, on the other hand, actively wants to be anywhere but in the TARDIS. Much like Ian and Barbara, she just wants to get back to Earth, and has no qualms in making this very clear to the Doctor. About the only thing they have in common is liking cricket. In fairness, the Doctor has no excuse for not getting her back to Heathrow, having somehow developed the ability to fly the TARDIS perfectly except when this airport is involved. Tegan’s heart is in the right place, however. She puts her all into helping the Doctor during his regeneration, and while she goes to pieces during the first attempt to take her home (Four to Doomsday, which lands them on a starship in orbit by mistake), she then survives a particularly horrific experience at the hands of the Mara. Tegan slowly comes to terms with her life in the TARDIS, and the Doctor gradually develops some respect for her.
Adric’s death threatens to drive a wedge between them once again. Tegan didn’t like Adric at all, but she is left shocked by his sudden death, and even more so by the Doctor’s absolute refusal to go back and save him. The Doctor’s objection to rescuing him isn’t on the grounds that it can’t be done; he flat out refuses to even discuss it, as if altering this event is morally repugnant to him. Staunchly moral, this Doctor will not even entertain the idea of changing history for personal reasons. Once the TARDIS finally reaches Heathrow, the Doctor dumps Tegan back where she belongs, just as she had come to value her opportunity to travel in space and time. The Doctor carries on with Nyssa, a far more suitable companion for him in this incarnation. Quiet and bookish, thoughtful and highly intelligent, Nyssa is the perfect companion for a more reserved Doctor. Sadly, with three companions to take care of, she is often sidelined in the stories, left to get on with the technical stuff while the Doctor keeps the other, unreliable sidekicks out of trouble. Their extended series of adventures together in audio format illustrate their suitability to one another rather better, but on television, Tegan is drawn into the Doctor’s world again almost immediately in the strange series of coincidences that is Arc of Infinity. Nyssa certainly seems pleased to have some female company again, while the Doctor takes a little longer to appreciate Tegan’s return.
"Brave heart, Tegan."
There’s a good-naturedness to the fifth Doctor that his immediate predecessor lacked. While he is sometimes irritable he is always pleasant company, polite and well-mannered to the end. He is astonishingly patient with his companions, and often with others he meets in his travels. There’s the sense that this Doctor would rather take things slowly, holidaying through the universe and maybe settling down once he has found somewhere to his liking. Trips to Deva Loka begin well, only for local matters to intervene, forcing the Doctor to take action; he is still incapable of ignoring an injustice or the threat to an innocent. In spite of his more ordinary, human demeanour, he is open-minded when it comes to other cultures and alien life, only stepping in when he is certain it is the right thing to do. He graciously accepts being called an ‘idiot’ by Panna of the Kinda – can you imagine any of the other Doctors taking that lying down? – and listens patiently to the Monarch of Urbanka before standing up to hid madness. Probably the happiest we see him is at the Crowley’s cricket match and fancy dress party, and he still gets ensnared in a family disgrace, pulled in by his curiosity. He may be looking for a quiet life, but he is still the Doctor, and this is the lifestyle he has created for himself.
The fifth Doctor comes across as far more straightforward than his predecessors, but he does have a devious side. He lets the Time Lords throw him to the wolves in Arc of Infinity, confident that the real threat behind the scenes needs him alive; and he carefully judges Turlough, that most mysterious of companions, steering the young man onto the right path. It’s this desire to see the best in people that marks him out; he remains optimistic in the face of the constant darkness he encounters in his travels. His trust in Turlough proves correct, even though this alien orphan has been press-ganged into assassinating the Doctor by the Black Guardian. Even when he has discovered the Guardian’s involvement, the Doctor remains confident that Turlough will come through. It’s only during his last trip in the TARDIS, on the Planet of Fire, that Turlough angers the Doctor; having extended his trust, the Doctor is not welcome to having it betrayed.
There are many times when this Doctor seems less formidable than his former selves. He no longer seems quite as sharp, having to expend great concentration when planning moves against the Master and getting Adric and Nyssa to take care of much of the theoretical side of things. He uses glasses for the first time since losing his elderly first body (although his tenth incarnation will suggest that these are merely ‘brainy specs’ used for effect). Events often resolve themselves more by luck than by judgment, with the Doctor occasionally seeming like a bystander in his own show. All the time, though, he is observing events, learning, questioning, staying one step ahead. This is a Doctor who prefers to work on the periphery of events, only to have to get involved once the danger becomes too great. He also rushes to help people in immediate danger, with no thought to himself; it’s this straight-up compassion that shows the Doctor at his best.
It’s interesting to look at the other Doctors’ attitudes to this incarnation. While the fifth Doctor often seems frustrated with himself – ‘I should have realised!’ being a common complaint on his part – it’s his immediate successor who criticises him the most. Admittedly, the sixth Doctor is appallingly vain and full of himself, but his disparaging take on the ‘effete’ fifth isn’t so incredible. When he meets his other selves, changes in attitude become apparent. (Indeed, this version of the Doctor suffers from crossed timestreams particularly seriously, not only meeting three of his earlier selves in The Five Doctors, but later version on screen (Time Crash), on audio (The Sirens of Time) and in print (Cold Fusion, The Eight Doctors.) His first self argues with him, eventually conceding that he did ‘Quite well,’ while his seventh self dismisses him as ‘Not even one of the good ones.’ It’s only much later that his tenth self reveals how much he has come to appreciate life in his fifth incarnation. OK, so this was a fourth-wall break, allowing both Stephen Moffat and David Tennant to praise their favourite Doctor, but it nonetheless stands as a reappraisal of the fifth Doctor in the show itself. Davison himself considered that he was too young for the part. Possibly he is right, although I feel the sudden injection of youth did the series the world of good. Still, it’s interesting to hear him play the part now, in his fifties, for Big Finish’s audio productions. His more mature performance, more measured than even his subdued take in the eighties, is impeccable. Unlike the later Doctors, there is simply no room for extra exploits in his storyline, and so the audioplays create a sort of parallel timeline, in which new adventures, and new companions, are retroactively inserted into the Doctor’s life. A lost world in which an older fifth Doctor led a different set of adventures, shining a new light on his character.
Also illuminating is his attitude to his enemies. There’s a sense of frustration, more than anything, to the Doctor when he is confronted by his perennial foes. His exasperated dealings with the Master I’ve already commented on. Equally, when he encounters the Cybermen, in their new beefy guise for the eighties, he seems frustrated at their inability to appreciate the universe for what it is. For a man who has come to appreciate the simpler things in life, the need to conquer and destroy is merely baffling. It’s equally true of his dealings with the Mara, a malign, sexual intelligence that perverts Tegan into its instrument. The dark desires the Mara represents are the antithesis of this virtuous hero. (That said, I disagree with the analysis that the fifth Doctor is entirely sexless. His interactions with Professor Todd in Kinda, and to a degree with Kari in Terminus and even Jane Hampden in The Awakening are mildly flirtatious, and indicate that this youthful looking Doctor is attracted to more mature women.)
This quiet, non-confrontational Doctor is a strange fit in the series at this time. It was all change at the televisual level, with the Saturday night slot that had served Doctor Who so well for so long replaced with a Monday-Tuesday double bill. This altered the structure of the stories, no mostly comprised of four-part serials which would play out essentially as two-parters, changing direction after episode two for a new approach in the concluding third and fourth instalments the following week. High concept stories abounded, but for every thoughtful exploration of the universe, such as Castrovalva, Kinda or Terminus, there was a militaristic actioner, including Earthshock, Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks. While the former story type seems tailored to Davison’s performance, the latter throws it into sharp relief. The real reason for the existence of these gung-ho stories is the presence of Eric Saward as script editor and occasional scriptwriter. His view of the science fiction was very much in the more action-oriented, violent future war mode – even comparatively sedate stories in this period frequently had high body counts and copious amounts of kid-friendly green gore.
Yet throwing our good Doctor into this environment forces him to act in ways he is not comfortable with, showing him in both his best and worst light. Rarely (although not never) had the Doctor picked up a weapon before the Davison era. By the end of his first season, the fifth Doctor was gunning down Cybermen, and would later engage in the slaughter of his perennial enemies, the Daleks. Revelation really is the story that shows this dichotomy. The Doctor goes off to face Davros, determined to execute him and finally put a stop to the Daleks’ latest campaign of destruction. Tellingly, the vindictive scientist talks him into sparing his life, at least long enough to get the upper hand once again. It’s a shocking turn of events; not only does the Doctor mow down Daleks and then decree that their creator must die, when he finally faces him he cannot pull the trigger. Following this, Tegan leaves the Doctor’s company, appalled by the carnage around her. The Doctor vows to mend his ways, but what he really means here is questionable. I agree with Gareth Roberts’s interpretation: the Doctor is vowing to toughen up.
"There should have been another way..."
The following story, Planet of Fire (first episode broadcast on February 23rd 1984, the day of my birth, fact fans!) shows this newfound resolve in action. Once more ensnared in the Master’s intrigues, the Doctor allows his onetime friend to burn to death, looking on impotently but resolutely. Sure, the Master returns, as he always does, but this doesn’t lessen the power of this moment. The Doctor also destroys Kamelion, the occasional companion who has been hiding away in the TARDIS for several episodes. Once more turned into a puppet by the Master, Kamelion begs for destruction, and the Doctor grants it. For all the ‘wet vet’ nonsense, the fifth Doctor can prove to be single-mindedly callous if the situation calls for it.
Finally, with a new companion, Peri Brown, by his side, the Doctor makes the fateful decision to visit the Sirius system. Caught up in the machinations of various power-hungry individuals on the planets Androzani Major and Minor, the Doctor is swept up in an orgy or warfare and violence that leads inevitably to his own death. The Caves of Androzani is rightly lauded as a classic of Doctor Who, and was voted as the greatest story of all time in the most recent DWM story poll. A triumph of writing, direction and acting, it’s a thrilling and claustrophobic affair that shows the fifth Doctor in his finest light. The seedy, malicious world of Androzani is everything this Doctor is not; selfish, greedy and violent for its own sake. Thrown in there, he is swept along impotently, but his very presence is the catalyst for the entire corrupt system to collapse at last. The source of all the greed and corruption is spectrox, a life-extending substance that, in a nice example of symmetry, is fatally toxic in its raw form. Unfortunately, the Doctor and Peri are both exposed. What follows is four episodes of the Doctor doing everything he can to get Peri out of this hellhole he’s inadvertently brought her to, in an effort to save both their lives. He even fights off his impending regeneration in order to keep moving forward (check out the effect in episode three as he regains consciousness, and compare it to the effect used for his eventual transformation.)
Finally, he manages to escape with the barely vital Peri, with just enough of the fabled spectrox antidote for one. This he gives to his companion, before collapsing to the floor. ‘I might regenerate,’ he mutters. ‘Feels different this time…’ Although for the first time here, the series presents a regeneration as simply what happens to the Doctor when his life is threatened, it is also presented as very nearly failing altogether. ‘Is this death?’ he murmurs, as Peri tends to him. No, this is no mere change for the Doctor; this is very possibly the end of his life altogether. Of course, he regenerates, in crescendo of sound and colour, but that does not reduce the sacrifice he makes. The fifth Doctor dies to save a single innocent life, and this is quite right. Anything grander would not do his character justice.