Growing up with the Doctor – Sylvester McCoy (1987-1989)
I was overjoyed when Doctor Who was returning, as the Trial of a Time Lord had been rather a muddle, but the start of Sylvester McCoy's time as the Seventh Doctor – "Time and the Rani" – was quite frankly an embarrassment. There were a number of good actors – Wanda Wentham, Mark Greenstreet (fresh from the BBC Classic serial "Brat Farrar"), Donald Pickering, and of course Kate O'Mara.
But while the effects and the alien costume design was effective, the script was a travesty of spoken English. It was horrible. The actors struggled to overcome its limitations valiantly, and it was easy to see why Andrew Cartmel, the new script editor, was deeply unhappy at the curate's egg that he had been saddled with.
Rani: Prepare the Doctor's cabinet for occupation.
Mel: Well, that'll be a waste of effort. You've got to find him first and then catch him.
Rani: I need neither find nor catch him. The bumbling fool's ready made as a sacrificial lamb.
Mel: He's shrewder than you think. Underestimating the Doctor is a common fault.
Mel: He's got qualities you'll never have.
Rani: Such as?
Mel: Something I'd call humanity.
Rani: Huh. You're as sentimental as he is. Get on with your work.
The late Kate O'Mara manages to do a very funny impression of Bonnie Langford at one part of the story, but it was a sad swan song for her in Doctor Who. She is probably better remembered for her role in Dynasty, the American TV show, but I fondly remember her in Triangle, a British drama about a passenger ferry company, which had a ferry, some sea, a very small crew, Kata O'Mara, and virtually no passengers! No wonder the show stopped; the ferry company must have gone bankrupt!
The first season with Sylvester McCoy was patchy. There were moments of greatness in Paradise Towers, Delta and the Bannerman, and Dragonfire, but also moments that made me cringe. And sometime the script had large holes in it. The cliff hanger in Dragonfire was dire, and so was some of the dialogue that Sophie Aldred had to say. And who heard of a villain who, while searching for a power source for a thousand years, decides to run a freezer centre?
But there was a potential there – Sylvester McCoy was settling into the part, and showed he could bring a strong presence to the Doctor. Sophie Aldred was more promising than previous companions.
The year of the first Season, 1987, was the year that the Great Storm hit Jersey and the South of England. Trees were uprooted. Roofs blown off. I remember driving home on the night of the storm – having just co-produced the opening night of the Grouville Church history pageant – and thinking it was hard to drive at 11.30 at night.
The wind was tugging at my mini (and no power steering back then) and I was going along Victoria Avenue at a steady 20 mph. In the morning, the scene was like the Blitz. Trees uprooted everywhere. Huge roots sticking in the air; huge holes in the ground. Broken water pipes gushing water. While we have recently experienced very turbulent weather, the number of trees felled in that one night has yet to be approached.
Season 25 in 1988 was a brilliant opening with Remembrance of the Daleks. The script and effects played to Doctor Who's strengths, and even now, it still stands out as a fine piece of television. Sylvester McCoy shows how good he can be, with the right script, and so does Sophie Aldred as Ace. Suddenly, we have a sea change in the series, and a companion who would not be out of place in 2005 – feisty, independent, with a real character of her own, and not a screamer. The Daleks return to 1963 London, Coal Hill school, but there are two factions, still hating the unlike as Daleks have since their inception, but also hating each other for being different.
And this is a story about race, about prejudice with "No Coloureds" on the windows of lodging houses, and a wonderful vignette when the Doctor talks to a Jamaican about the nature of choices over whether or not to take sugar:
Café: (The sign says open, but there are no lights on and no customers. A Jamaican man comes out from the kitchen.)
John: Can I help you?
Doctor: A mug of tea, please.
John: Your tea. Sugar?
Doctor: Ah. A decision. Would it make any difference?
John: It would make your tea sweet.
Doctor: Yes, but beyond the confines of my taste buds, would it make any difference?
John: Not really.
Doctor: What if I could control people's taste buds? What if I decided that no one would take sugar? That'd make a difference to those who sell the sugar and those that cut the cane.
John: My father, he was a cane cutter.
Doctor: Exactly. Now, if no one had used sugar, your father wouldn't have been a cane cutter.
John: If this sugar thing had never started, my great-grandfather wouldn't have been kidnapped, chained up, and sold in Kingston in the first place. I'd be an African.
Doctor: See? Every great decision creates ripples, like a huge boulder dropped in a lake. The ripples merge, rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways. The heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences.
John: Life's like that. Best thing is just to get on with it.
This doesn't advance the plot, but it adds background and texture to it. Remembrance of the Daleks is very good at that, and apart from the smallest lapse – "rice pudding", it is a strong opener, and shows how much promise there could be, even in a series where CGI was still mostly in the future.
And 1988 was a year of new beginning for me as well. I met Angela, who was to become my wife, and went on a trip with Rosemary and Mark Hampton to the Festival des Remparts (a Medieval festival weekend) in Dinan as a kind of recce to see if we could do something historical over there. We never did, but it was fun wondering about dressed in medieval clothing – I was in a brown friar's outfit!
1989 was the year I was married in Grouville Church, with my friend Terry Hampton officiating. It was a time of change.
And that year, Doctor Who changed as it began its final season of the "classic" era, with some fine stories, of which "The Curse of Fenric", especially now it has been re-edited with missing material reinstated, is one of the finest of the McCoy era.
This is a much darker, more manipulative Doctor, more sombre, and Ace, as before, continues to excel as a companion, becoming much more of a character in her own right rather than a mere foil for the Doctor.
ACE: There's a wind whipping up. I can feel it through my clothes. Is there a storm coming?
LEIGH: I wasn't expecting one.
ACE: The question is, is he making all the right moves or only going through the motions?
(Ace leads Leigh away around the corner, and the Doctor runs across the open space unseen into the guard room. The keys to the cell are in a desk drawer. The Doctor frees Sorin and they leave.)
LEIGH: What are you doing here?
ACE: You have to move faster than that if you want to keep up with me. Faster than light.
LEIGH: Faster than the second hand on a watch?
ACE: Much faster. We're not even moving yet. Hardly cruising speed. Sometimes I move so fast, I don't exist any more.
LEIGH: What can you see?
But all too soon, as the year drew to a close, the final episodes of Survival were shown, and the Doctor and Ace disappeared into history.
DOCTOR: They've been taken back to the wilderness. The place is different but the hunt goes on. You know all about the hunt, don't you, Ace?
ACE: I felt like I could run forever, like I could smell the wind and feel the grass under my feet and just run forever.
DOCTOR: The planet's gone, but lives on inside you. It always will.
It was also the year (at its close), when our son Martin was born, in mid-November. And although it was later corrected, it was still a shock to know that he was born with talipes, more popularly known as "club foot". We felt joy and grief combined. Just as Doctor Who had grown darker, troubled with stories of pain and loss with Ace and her past history, so had our own personal world of the future, as well.
But the story continued, as the Doctor and Ace left to go into the sunset. I didn't know if it would ever be back. But I hoped that it would. Hope is the expectation of things yet to come; we all need that in our lives.
DOCTOR: There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold.
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