Monday, 19 August 2013

Doctor by Doctor #7

The Man with the Plan

Sylvester McCoy, 1987-96

Sylvester McCoy - aka Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith, to give him his birth name - has a special place in Doctor Who lore for several reasons. He was the first non-English Doctor, being the first in a run of three Scots to take the lead. He was the last Doctor of the television series' original run, and thus it was his incarnation who took the series into the 'Wilderness Years.' And, on personal level, Sylvester McCoy was the very first Doctor I ever watched, in my very, very early youth. I was five when the series was cancelled. I can just about remember watching bits of season twenty-four and twenty-five. Many years later, I sat down to watch The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and, by Jove, I recognised that robot coming out of the sand!

Born and raised in Dunoon, Percy Kent-Smith once trained to become a monk, much like his Doctorly predecesor Tom Baker, before ditching that for the performing arts. He rose to prominence as a stuntman and comedian, performing ridiculous acts for the Ken Campbell Roadshow and such shows as Jigsaw and Tiswas. He'd later bring some of these talents to the role of the Doctor, such as his spoon-playing skills, although sadly we never got to see the seventh Doctor stuff a ferret down his trousers or hammer nails into his nostril.

It's only fair to say that McCoy is far from the most talented actor to play the Doctor. His acting style is idiosyncratic, to say the least. His mode of speech is unusual; it's not simply that he has a roaring Scots accent, but his emphatic delivery and unusual emphasis, not forgetting his rrregular rrrolling of 'r's, makes his every utterence sound peculiar. However, it must also be said that the man brings a unique eccentricity to the role, and provides a strange and charismatic screen presence. Despite being a small, unassuming specimen, it's hard to take your eyes off him. McCoy is unique, as is his Doctor.

Following a botched regeneration (which involved McCoy lying on the floor in his predecessor's costume and a blond, curly wig), the new Doctor seems to spring to life fully form. "Ah, that was a nice nap!" he exclaims, before ringing off his to-do list. Immediately he is very different to his predecessor. Gone is the bombast and proclamations, replaced by a more thoughtful, quizzical demeanour. There's no explanation for where his new accent has come from, or, for that matter, where the rest of his mass has gone (needless to say, Colin Baker's costume had to be taken in considerably for the diminutive McCoy). He seems rearing to go, unaffected by the post-regenerative trauma we have become used to. It's only the Rani's drugging of him, to suppress certain parts of his memory, that puts him on the back foot. If it wasn't for that, he'd already be very much in charge of the situation.

It's refreshing to see that in this instance, the Doctor isn't immediately concerned with fixing a new outfit. I always love to see the Doctor running around in his predecessor's togs, and seeing wee McCoy charging about in his multicoloured tent is a treat. When he does finally find time to visit the TARDIS wardrobe, he takes his time picking through various joke costumes before settling on his new ensemble. On the one hand, it's a perfect outfit for a modern Doctor; the sort of smart-casual affair a respectable man of the 1920s would wear on a day at the golf course. The dress scarf and two-tone brogues add a touch of class, and the panama hat preferred by his fifth self has returned. (The jacket changes from pale grey to brown in season twenty-six to signify the Doctor's darker attitude - yes, chocolate is the universal colour of dark destiny.) Yes, it's altogether a more suitable set of clothes - rather than a costume. That is, except, for that godawful pullover. No longer content with a question mark on each shirt collar, John Nathan-Turner and his design team have now branded them all over the Doctor's tubby torso. Conversely, I love the umbrella; it's a subtler version of the same gag. To begin with, the Doctor holds on to a couple of models before settling on the question-mark-handled version. The umbrella gives him something to play with when he's under stress or knee-deep in trouble. It's clearly a security blanket for the poor love.

There's a touch of the old-style comedian to this Doctor. Much like his second self, he plays the fool so that his enemies underestimate him. He takes this much further, though, pratting about and putting on an act where he can. Some of his previous self's showmanship has certainly survived the transition. This is a Doctor who can't resist an unattended microphone, who loves jazz, and who can pull a bunch of props from his pocket and put on an impromptu magic show. A lot of this silliness and performance is playing on the strength of McCoy's talents, but it's still a major part of the personality of this Doctor. He's fun-loving and carefree for his first few esacapades, excepting some moments of sombre introspection, and even those he punctures with mixed metaphors and malapropisms. Yet there's a great deal more to him, most of which comes out in his second and third seasons.

It's common to label the sixth Doctor as the violent incarnation, and certainly, the overt aggression of this persona seems to have been lost by the mellower seventh Doctor. He seems, at first glance, to have a pacifist philosophy. "Weapons," he muses, "always useless in the end." He has a poetic streak that he can turn into an astonishing defence technique. "Pull the trigger, end my life!" he orders a gunman who has him in his sights, talking him down with sheer force of personality. This isn't a Doctor it's easy to imagine firing a blaster or constructing a bomb. And yet, this Doctor is capable of violence on a vast scale. He's a man with blood on his hands, and more to come - but not immediately.

We must admit that season twenty-four is not a golden era for Doctor Who. Time and the Rani is desperate filler, Paradise Towers has a great script scuppered by a hamfisted production and DragonFire is plainly awful. Only Delta and the Bannermen, Doctor Who's Hi-de-Hi pastiche, is really worth making time for, and it's hardly going to go down in history as a great piece of children's television. Yet the seeds of something better are there, as Andrew Cartmel takes over as script editor and begins to stamp his vision on the show. The earliest change he makes is to write out Bonnie Langford as Mel. Now, with all respect to Langford, who really is a great performer and a far better actor than she gets credit for, Mel is a very poorly realised character. For me, the only thing of interest about her is that she's from Pease Pottage, which is up the road from me, and they never even come out and say that in the programme. Mel is as generic a companion as you can get, but she is actually quite well suited to the sixth Doctor and his grandiloquent, theatrical ways.

The seventh Doctor needs someone altogether tougher. He gets on with Mel well enough, perhaps even more so than his predecessor, but she's of little use to him. It's common for fans to point to the next season as when the Doctor begins engaging in his grand plans, but really, he's at it straight away. Are we to believe that he goes to Paradise Towers purely because Mel wants to try out the swimming pool? They've got one in the TARDIS, after all. Oh, sure, it's pure chance he arrives at the Galactic Tollport at just the right time to get involved in Gavrok's genocidal pursuit of the Chimeron Queen. And as for his search for the 'dragon' of DragonFire - is he really motivated by nothing more than curiosity?

Arriving on Iceworld, he quickly leaves Mel and Ace together, accepting Ace into his lifestyle very easily. When the adventure is over - and Ace has proven her intiative and coolness in a crisis - Mel suddenly finds the urge to go off travelling with galactic scummer Glitz. The Doctor seems surprised - as would we - but is he hiding something? "I suppose it's time," says Mel, somewhat resignedly. The Doctor makes a speech about "days like crazy paving" that he's clearly been preparing, then takes Ace under his wing. All very neat. We know the Doctor has hypnotic abilities, and he'll display these again very soon. Has Mel been 'motivated' to leave the Doctor's company, millions of years into her future, at just the right moment?

Ace is just weird. Sophie Aldred is great, of course, playing the part with a mix of bolshiness, cool and vulnerability. She's still about ten years too old for the part, though, and she can't do anything about the way the character is written. Supposedly straight out of working class Perivale, she comes across more as a posh girl trying to be street. Then there's all that guff about being swept to Iceworld in a time-storm. Any other time, the new girl from Perivale would meet the Doctor in Perivale. Not Ace. She's serving milkshakes in a kids' show version of the Mos Eisley Cantina. The Doctor accepts this frankly bizarre situation without question, but of course he knows better. There are other powers at work here. He has to take Ace with him. She's been put on Iceworld specifically for that purpose.

The relationship between the Doctor and Ace is unusual. On the surface, it's very amicable, and far more relaxed than virtually any Doctor-companion partnership we've seen so far. When he's not on a mission, the Doctor seems to spend much of his time engaging in laidback educational tourism. He's happy to take Ace to a sunny jazz gig, or to indulge her curiosity in the beginnings of the computer age. He even takes her back to Perivale to see her friends, idly stifling a yawn to show he's getting a little bored. It's hard to imagine any of his former selves being so accomodating. It certainly appears that he enjoys her company, and she his. In time, though, we learn that there's a great deal more to this relationship. Ace is but a pawn of Fenric, a being of immeasurable evil with whom the Doctor is playing a long game. The supposedly innocent holidays with Ace lead to confrontations with powerful enemies, and even the usual level of coincidence that meets the Doctor can't explain them away. Ace's desire to see the beginnings of computing is, in fact, a pre-programmed desire that leads the Doctor into his final confrontation with Fenric, and other, incidental conflicts seem less innocent once analysed. How did the Master know that the Doctor would be visiting Perivale with Ace, someone who he has never met? Did the Doctor tip him off somehow, to engineer one last confrontation? Other times he's not so subtle; he takes Ace back to Gabrial Chase to confront her fears, dressing it up as an initiative test but clearly using it as a both a way to train her up for future engagements and defeat whatever alien force has taken up residence in the house.

We don't get to see the Doctor's first trip with Ace. When season twenty-five arrives, they already come across as a seasoned team. Ace is still headstrong, but the Doctor's newfound sense of responsibility holds her in check. She also has a clear respect for him, pretty significant coming from a troubled teen with authority issues. It's from this point on that we see the Doctor truly becoming the proactive forward planner that he is known to be in this incarnation. Now that he has Ace at his side, tooled up with Nitro-9 to provide the brute force, he's ready. There's to be no more playing around, pretending to simply wander from place to place. The Doctor is on a mission now. The gloves are off.

With Cartmel in charge, there seems to be a distinct policy of breaking with the past, while still outwardly celebrating it. Old elements come back, only to be killed off. The Cybermen return, just to have their shiny metal asses handed to them by the Doctor. UNIT are reinvented, and although in the event the Brigadier wasn't killed off, he was retired. Even the Master gets a fairly definitive defeat. First and foremost though, it's the turn of the Daleks. Remembrance of the Daleks is one of the all-time classics of Doctor Who, and it's as if, al of a sudden, everyone remembered how to do this show right. It's an unapologetic love letter to the show's earliest days on its twenty-fifth anniversary, taking classic alien invasion serials as its start point and doing them better. This was, of course, the only ay to beat those rose-tinted memories of the sixties and seventies episodes. Yet, the ethos is different. This new Doctor, this unassuming little comedian, is on a mission: to finish off his long-term enemies, one by one. He hatches a plan to trick the Daleks into destroying themselves, using the Hand of Omega, a deadly and terrifyingly advanced piece of Time Lord tech, as bait. Many innocent people die in the crossfire, but it works. The Daleks are defeated, their homeworld destroyed, and the Doctor shows no remorse.

Over the course of the story, however, we learn some intriguing things about the Doctor. Most insightful is a short scene in a cafe, in which he philosophises with Geoffrey off The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. We see him mulling over the consequences of his actions, something the Doctor has rarely done before. He knows that what he does here will affect many lives. There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things, and they must be fought - but not without casualties. At the end of the story, he and Ace stay around for the funeral of a major character - another unusual move for the Doctor, who has previously been more fly-by-night. To top it off, we learn that the Doctor was, back in his first life, carrying a weapon of mass destruction in his TARDIS when he landed on Earth in the months leading up to An Unearthly Child.

The successive production teams have continually tweaked the Doctor's backstory throughout the years, creating varying, sometimes entirely contradictory, version of his past. In universe, it's tempting to speculate that perhaps the Doctor's past is being altered, a consequence of his continual trips through time. With Cartmel and his cohorts, however, there was a definite and deliberate aim to create a new background for the Doctor, something that pointed to his being "more than just a Time Lord." There doesn't seem to have been any concrete plans for what this entailed, and anything considered too revealing was vetoed (so out went the inference in Silver Nemesis that the Doctor was, in fact, God). The purpose was to engender an air of mystery, and it worked. Suddenly we were getting scraps of information that pointed to a longer life than we had imagined, involving the architects of Time Lords society, dark secrets and fighting such beings as Fenric and the Gods of Ragnarok "all through time..."

Given all this forward planning, it's understandable that the seventh Doctor has developed a reputation as a mastermind, a player of chess on a thousand boards. On television, though, we only see snatches of this. Yes, he hoodwinks the Daleks and Cybermen into destroying themselves, and shamefully manipulates Ace, seemingly for her own good, but most of his victories remain improvised. While he goes to Terra Alpha to follow up on disturbing rumours, and goes to Gabrial Chase with house-cleaning in mind, once he's knee deep in events he has to find a way to wrap things up on the hoof. He doesn't expect two factions of Daleks to come after the Hand of Omega, or for Lady Peinforte to become involved with his plans for the Cybermen. His masterplans don't rarely go quite to plan. Battlefield is an unusual one; the Doctor becomes caught up in the manipulations of his own future self (revealed to be none other than the great wizard Merlin).

The twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth seasons of Doctor Who showed a massive upswing in quality (Silver Nemesis notwithstanding). Fast-paced, three- or four-part stories with a mix of revamped old villains and brand new threats, displaying the kind of imagination the show had been missing for several years. The writing was better than it had been in years, the effects were top-notch for the time, the music had improved and the Doctor had grown from being a twonk to a mysterious player of games who merely appeared to be a twonk. Doctor Who was better than it had been in years... but nobody was watching anymore, so they cancelled it. Having defeated the Master yet again, the Doctor and Ace walked off arm in arm, muttering about cruelty, injustice and cold tea...

After twenty-six years, Doctor Who was over. Except, of course, that it wasn't. Doctor Who had been about more than the TV series since almost as soon as it started, and now that the series had ended, it was no different. Doctor Who entered the nineties with comic strip adventures for the seventh Doctor in Doctor Who Magazine, while in print, classic TV stories were still being novelised by Virgin Publishing, then-holders to the Target imprint. It wasn't long before they began to look at the possibility of new, continuing adventures for the Doctor, picking up where the TV series left off. Thus, the New Adventures were born.

The New Adventures are still considered by many to be the pinnacle of prose Doctor Who. Controversial among fans at the time, they purported to tell stories "too broad and too deep for the small screen," continuing the adventures of the Doctor and Ace in a more adult fashion. In practice, this intially amounted to a very adolescent attempt at introducing sex, drugs and swearing to the Doctor's world (albeit not the Doctor himself), but over time the New Adventures genuinely matured. With such authors as Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt joining from the TV series, and old hand Terrance Dicks embracing the new order, it could have been business as usual. However, these authors took the opportunity to create stories that would never have been allowed in a BBC children's programme. Then there were the up-and-coming writers, such as Mark Gatiss, Lance Parkin, David McIntee, Paul Cornell and Gareth Roberts. Even one Russell T. Davies wrote for the line in its latter days. This was a range that actively sought out new talent, and as such, is responsible for the breakout of several very talented, very successful authors.

The New Adventures, rightly or wrongly, took the version of the Doctor at the TV series' conclusion as the character's high point, and continued to develop him in that direction. The foward-planning, sometimes manipulative version of the seventh Doctor was built upon and developed into a powerful, Machiavellian character. The Doctor of the New Adventures is a character who lives by a philosophy of pure Utilitarianism - the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. He is a man who will sacrifice one life to save a thousand without compunction. Indeed, a man who will sacrifice a universe to save his own. A man who, over the course of the novels, carries an enormous weight on his shoulders, slowly crushed beneath the guilt.

The Doctor is, we learn, Time's Champion, chosen by the very personification of Time to protect and serve history. This blatant mythologising of the Doctor's character is something that was touched upon in the TV series - in the fourth Doctor's 'Key to Time' sequence, as well as the later seventh Doctor serials - but the extent to which the New Adventures take it is something quite new. At the same time, certain authors, most notably Marc Platt, took the hints of a greater background, laid down by Cartmel's rough notes, and began to weave a new, deeper history of Gallifrey in general, and the Doctor in particular. The Doctor of the New Adventures is a vast, powerful being, who only happens to be incarnated in the body of a short Scotsman. (There are shades here of the intriguing lines from very early in the TV series. In the first Doctor serial The Daleks' Masterplan, the Doctor is described as humanoid, to which the Daleks chillingly respond "That is how he appears to you.")

Ace, on the other hand, undergoes an even more controversial evolution. For the first few novels, she develops much as a young woman would be expected to, growing up, romancing and experimenting. Following the events of Paul Cornell's excellent Love and War, however, she leaves the Doctor's company, having been betrayed by him (for the greater good, of course). She returns, a few books and three relative years later, as a hardened space marine. Although often written with apomb, when the right authors got to use her, 'New Ace' is the most infantile thing the New Adventures ever did, an embarassingly nineties attempt to bring an eighties character up to date.

On the other hand, Love and War introduced her replacment, Professor Bernice Summerfield. Benny, as she is known to her friends, is what a companion really had to be for Doctor Who in the nineties. A mature, professional woman who isn't ashamed to enjoy a drink and a shag, Bernice is an adventurous archaeologist whose relationship with the Doctor is one of respect. Indeed, had she been paired with an earlier, less powerful incarnation of the Doctor, it is likely she would have overshadowed him completely. Bernice was so successful that she remained the Doctor's main companion throughout the bulk of the New Adventures, made numerous guest appearances after leaving the TARDIS, and then inherited the series once Virgin lost their Doctor Who licence in 1996. Big Finish then took the rights to Benny, making her the star of both a novel series, and an audio series which is still going strong after fifteen years. In fact, it's now very difficult to read Benny in a New Adventure without hearing actress Lisa Bowerman reading the lines.

The New Adventures explored the future of humanity in a way the time-hopping TV series never managed. Benny was from the 26th century, a time that had been devastated by war with the Daleks (oft-mentioned but never seen, the Daleks were a shadowy presence in the NAs). After Ace had left for good, the Doctor and Benny were joined by Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej, two Adjudicators from the dystopian 30th century, a period in which the Earth Empire had become corrupt and was heading towards collapse. (There will be more on these two in the following 'Book-Quest' review of Original Sin.)

In time, the Doctor found himself facing his own future. The shadow of the upcoming TV movie loomed over the New Adventures, with the BBC preparing to take back the rights to Doctor Who prose publications. The Doctor became aware that regeneration was imminent, and set about tying up loose ends while he still had the gall to do so. Eventually, he found himself back on Gallifrey, in the penultimate New Adventure, Lungbarrow. In this novel, we discover, finally, who and what the Doctor really is. Loomed, rather than born, like all Time Lords, the Doctor is the reincarnation of the Other, a mysterious figure from the very beginning of Time Lord history. It's a strange, arcane account of the Doctor's origins, indicative of the desire to keep the Doctor sexless by making him a literally asexual organism, and has been accepted, dismissed and forgotten in equal measure by fans.

While the new mythology built up by the New Adventures has been mostly subsumed by new developments (Mad Norwegian and Obverse Books' Faction Paradox range is probably the true successor to this facet of the NAs), the ethos of the New Adventures continued through the better BBC books, the Big Finish audios and, ultimately, the resurrected Doctor Who television series.

While the end of the Doctor Who New Adventures signified the passing of the baton from the seventh Doctor to the eighth, McCoy's Doctor has, like all his comrades, lived on. There are as many versions of the seventh Doctor's existence as there are media in which to publish them, and each is quite different, most notably in its treatment of Ace. While in the NAs, Ace grew into a Dalek-busting marine, before maturing into a time-travelling vigilante, in the comics she was killed saving the human race, dying in the Doctor's arms while still a teen. In the BBC novels, she was killed and replaced by her own parallel universe alter ego, while in Big Finish's range, Sophie Aldred has continued to act far below her actual age as a slowly maturing Ace who now acts as mentor to a new companion, Hex. The original plan by the TV team was to have Ace train up to become the first in a new generation of Time Lords, something that is hinted at in Big Finish's recent boxset UNIT: Dominion, and is depicted at length in the 2001 BBCi webcast Death Comes to Time (which posits the Doctor as an omnipotent 'God of the Fourth'). It's all most confusing.

Despite these varying accounts of his post-TV life, the seventh Doctor does has a single, definitive ending. Dispatched to Skaro, the planet of the Daleks, he collects the remains of the executed Master. It is this fateful trip that leads into the opening moments of the 1996 TV movie, which, for its first twenty minutes, is very much a seventh Doctor adventure. The Doctor, older and better dressed, his wild hair greying, is a solitary traveller in this film, engaging in Time Lord missions in his redesigned, baroque TARDIS. He's clearly still forward planning - he's even got some filing cabinets in - but once again, things do not go as planned. With the Master not quite as dead as he seemed, the Doctor is sent crashing to Earth, setting course to the one place he can get the correct component to fix his damaged TARDIS. All is going as expected, until, not stopping to check his surroundings, he steps out into a gangland shooting.

This final, random misadventure, ending with the Doctor dying on the operating table due to his surgeons' lack of understanding of his alien physiology, is a fitting end for a character who spent so long trying to stage manage the universe. A last, pointless accident robs him of his life. He never saw that one coming. It's a final, dignified performance by McCoy, who excels at playing this older, calmer version of the Doctor. He was back on our screens all to briefly, and then it was all change once more...

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