Sunday 13 October 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary - Reflections on the Seventh Doctor

The first I ever heard of Sylvester McCoy was on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine announcing him as the seventh Doctor. Similarly to when I first learnt of the sixth Doctor, my first thought was that it seemed a little soon for a new Doctor. The difference here, however, was that this time, I was more aware of how long Colin Baker had been the sixth Doctor already (even though we were only just getting to his episodes in Ontario). When I first learned of the sixth Doctor, I mistakenly believed Peter Davison had only been around for one year. When I first learned of the seventh, I knew Colin Baker had only had two seasons.

It would be a couple years before I actually got to see the seventh Doctor in action. However, it did come sooner than I would have expected. TVOntario had always been several years behind the U.K. in its broadcasting of Doctor Who, but in the late 80’s, it began to catch up. The ‘85 hiatus provided the first opportunity to catch up a year. Then, when TVO reached “The Trial of a Time Lord” season, they actually purchased both that and Sylvester McCoy’s first season together and aired them as one season. TVO ran several advertisements for the new “season” before it started, and they focused entirely on the seventh Doctor, showing scenes from “Time and the Rani”. I was actually a little worried at the time that they were going to skip “The Trial of a Time Lord” for some reason. They had skipped “The Five Doctors” a couple of years previously, so it didn’t seem impossible that they might skip that one too. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, and they showed “Trial” before moving on to the seventh Doctor.

I was well into high school by that time, and was surrounded by people who mostly despised Doctor Who, and would make fun of it and anyone who dared admit to watching it. Even most of my friends made fun of the show with a certain regularity, mainly taking it to task for its terrible special effects. Star Trek: The Next Generation was becoming extremely popular at the time, and it was generally the programme people held Doctor Who up to. Even the one friend I had who was a big Doctor Who fan (the one I used to swap VHS tapes with at the time, as I discussed in my first and second Doctor reflections) once said to me, “Let’s face it, Michael. Doctor Who will never be as good as Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I disagreed, of course, but I was alone in that assessment.

It always used to bug me that people evaluated Doctor Who and other science fiction entirely on their special effects. When the Sylvester McCoy episodes started airing, they had a noticeable improvement in their special effects, and I was able to use that to help defend the show, but it wasn’t really enough. Most people didn’t look at the actual content of the programmes. If a show didn’t measure up visually, it didn’t matter about anything else, and whenever I tried to argue that special effects weren’t everything, I was shot down. I continued to argue with people about that well into my university days.

Of course, it didn’t help that I didn’t think Sylvester McCoy’s first season was all that good. I liked Sylvester McCoy himself, but the stories were flawed. Even “Dragonfire”, which had received a lot of praise in Doctor Who Magazine didn’t really live up to my expectations of it. I did still enjoy the stories, but they left a lot to be desired.

In the summer of 1989, just after McCoy’s first season had aired on TVO, I went on a family trip to visit my extended family in England. Although I had been to Scotland and England a few years earlier on a choir trip and had visited some family afterwards, there hadn’t really been a lot of time to interact with people (other than my fellow choir members). This trip was a chance to meet family I’d never met before and, although I wasn’t really conscious of it, a chance to meet other people who liked Doctor Who—or so I thought.

Even though I knew the show was losing popularity in the U.K., I still expected it to be popular enough that I wouldn’t be the butt of jokes about it. After all, it was made there, and it had had twenty-five seasons, with a twenty-sixth just around the corner. There simply had to be people in England who liked it! And presumably, somewhere, there were. But they weren’t in my family.

The thing is, I wasn’t going out of my way to mention Doctor Who or get Doctor Who allies. I just figured if it happened to come up, people wouldn’t think it so strange. However, I was buying a lot of Doctor Who books (I was trying to complete my Target collection, and they weren’t very easy to find in London, Ontario), and that brought my obsession to my British relatives’ attention. And their response was even worse than I generally received back home.

One great aunt in particular drilled into me repeatedly, demanding to know how I could possibly watch or like such “junk”. She seemed to make it her personal mission to make me feel as bad as possible about liking Doctor Who. She told me about no one watched that show. When I tried to protest that it had lots of fans, she insisted that wasn’t true. “I bet you could knock on every door on this street,” she said, “and ask if anyone watches it and you wouldn’t find a single person who does.” In her opinion, the only shows worth watching were those that were regularly in the top ten rated, and Doctor Who was never ever in that list, and that was all the proof she needed that it was trash. “I’d be surprised if you could find one person in all of Birmingham who watches that show,” she said. While the rest of my relatives weren’t quite as vitriolic about Doctor Who as she was, most of them didn’t like the show either and were not impressed by my interest in it.

To make matters worse, this reception from my great aunt was perfect fuel for my siblings, particularly my brother, who saw it as final proof that I was a hopeless nerd (which I was, but they meant it in a bad way). To them, it was vindication that they had always been right, and I was just a sorry joke, and they made sure I knew it.

My great aunt was easily proven wrong though. There was at least one person in all of Birmingham (and I’m sure there were more) who liked Doctor Who; there was even one person on my aunt’s street: One of my cousins admitted to occasionally watching the show. She wasn’t a fan like me, but she didn’t dislike it. She said that she had particularly liked the series with Bonnie Langford in it. That was the one that had just aired on TVO, and I hadn’t liked Langford’s Mel at all, but I was eager for an ally, so I agreed heartily with my cousin that it had been great.

So, with my dreams of being in a place where everyone adored Doctor Who dashed, I returned to Canada and back to my life of being one of the very few Doctor Who fans I knew. I was disappointed, I admit. The idea that England was a place where Doctor Who was actually popular had always helped give me strength in my own convictions. I could rest assured that while I might have been alone in my area of the world, there were a lot of other fans out there. Learning that the show was not quite as popular as I expected deflated me a little. But I got on with things, and as my high school years progressed onwards, I actually managed to bring a few people round to my way of thinking. I didn’t actually manage to create any new fans out of it, but I did get a few people to watch it occasionally and agree that it wasn’t quite as bad as they had thought it was.

That fall though, there was another surprise on its way. After completing each season, TVO had always gone back to the previous season to repeat it, picking up where the last batch of repeats had left off. After airing Sylvester McCoy’s first season, they went back to airing Colin Baker’s first full season. Previous repeats had already put them part way through that one, so they soon finished “Revelation of the Daleks” with several weeks of summer left before the new season was due to start. Strangely, the next story they aired was “Time and the Rani” rather than “The Trial of a Time Lord”. It was a bit odd, but the reasons seemed obvious. There obviously weren’t enough weeks left to air all of “Trial” before the new season started. But things got more confusing when they then skipped a couple stories and re-aired “Dragonfire” next. I reasoned again that this was due to the timing. There were presumably just three weeks left till the new season and so a three-episode story like “Dragonfire” was needed. Yet TVO had never needed to do something like this before. As a public station, they didn’t really need to première the new season at any specific time, so why couldn’t they have waited one more week and aired the four-episode “Paradise Towers” instead? While I realized something strange was going on, I never once considered the actual explanation.

Around that time, Doctor Who ads began airing on YTV. This was a new, national cable station that focused on programming for young people (thus its full name, Youth Television). At the time, I thought it was kind of cool that Doctor Who would soon be showing on more than one television station. There would be extra opportunity to see episodes, and especially to catch missed ones. I still intended to do most of my watching on TVO, as it was commercial-free. I couldn’t imagine having to watch Doctor Who with commercials in it.

The week after “Dragonfire” part three aired on TVO, I was psyched for what I was convinced would be the first episode of “Remembrance of the Daleks”. I had read great things about the story in Doctor Who Magazine, and it seemed to me that this coming season would be much better than the last. So that Saturday, I sat down in front of our TV, ready for the seventh Doctor to face the Daleks. Seven o’clock arrived and the TVO ident came up on the screen. Then the show started.

But it wasn’t “Remembrance of the Daleks”. It wasn’t even Doctor Who. I honestly can’t remember what it was—something I didn’t even recognize. I was aghast. Saturday at 7 p.m. had been the standard Doctor Who time slot on TVO for as long as I could remember. Still, time changes could conceivably happen. Indeed, TVO always repeated each Doctor Who episode the following Thursday, and for the longest time, that time slot was also 7 p.m. Yet, just a year or two earlier they had move the Thursday repeat to 7:30. Perhaps they were doing the same with Saturday? It was a possibility, so I waited till 7:30, but it still didn’t come on. I pulled out the week’s TV listings and checked TVO for the entire night, even six o’clock and earlier in case it had been moved earlier and I had just missed it. But it wasn’t there. I wondered if it could just be a one-week thing, that the other show on was a special. Except I couldn’t remember that ever happening before. Doctor Who had been on every week without fail as far back as I could recall. Yet this week it wasn’t.

The very next day, Doctor Who premièred on YTV in what would become its regular slot of Sundays at seven. I tuned in of course, especially because I hadn’t gotten to see it the day before. The YTV ads had mostly shown scenes from “The Happiness Patrol”, and since that was part of season 25, I fully expected them to start with “Remembrance of the Daleks”, so for the second time, I was prepared to watch the seventh Doctor meet the Daleks—albeit with commericals. For the second time, it didn’t come on. However, at least this time, it was Doctor Who. YTV inexplicably started with “The Happiness Patrol” (I guess their ads should have been a clue). They showed “Remembrance” three weeks later after “Happiness Patrol” had finished.

Doctor Who didn’t return to TVO the next week, or the week after that. It soon became clear that it wasn’t coming back to TVO at all. At the time, I had no idea that the license for the show was an exclusive one and that YTV had outbid TVO for it, so I couldn’t understand why they had dropped it. Indeed, I was kind of heart-broken. They always sounded so proud of the show when they ran their membership pledge drives, stating that it was a an important part of their line-up and happily proclaiming that they were the first-ever North American station to carry the show (they were actually wrong about that—CBC carried it briefly in the 60s—but that didn’t stop them saying it). I did eventually learn of the licensing situation and forgave TVO.

Adjusting to Doctor Who on YTV was actually kind of difficult, although I was grateful to them for showing it. Indeed, the very next day after part one of “The Happiness Patrol”, they began a Monday to Friday airing of the series starting right at the very beginning with William Hartnell. New episodes on Sundays and old episodes I had never seen before during the week! It was great! However, there were aspects of YTV that bugged me. The station had some weird picture problems. In particular, red colours often had little lines of static through them. The more vibrant the red, the more noticeable it was. This was a problem across all their programming, not just Doctor Who, and it was a problem that stuck around for years. Then there were the commercials. As Doctor Who was never made for commercial television, it was understandable that inserting commercial breaks would be somewhat sudden. However, YTV’s breaks were often incredibly badly edited. Scene changes in Doctor Who at the time were often heralded with musical cues. These cues would start, only to be cut off with a jump to commercial. There were even occasions where dialogue was interrupted. Of course, I taped everything at the time so as to have a complete collection of the series, which meant I could hit pause and edit the commercials out, but it was always noticeable where a commercial had been.

I actually became quite proficient at using the pause button on my VCR remote—too proficient even. I discovered the hard way that VCRs (at least every model I owned from that time on) had a built-in function to take into account the average person’s reaction time to hitting pause during a commercial. Since most people would take a moment and thus potentially record a bit of commercial, VCRs would automatically rewind the tape about one second whenever you hit pause. Unfortunately, I wasn’t most people. I was always ready to pause the tape the moment the commercials started and my reaction time became so fast, I was losing some of the show as a result! I had to start consciously holding myself back for a second or so. I did eventually learn to hit pause at exactly the right time.

Of course, with Doctor Who on as frequently as it was, there were bound to be times that I couldn’t be there to tape it manually. At first, the weekday episodes were on at 5:30, which was a time I could usually be home for. However, YTV later moved the show forward to 4 o’clock. It was impossible for me to be home from school in time to see it at that time, and I had to rely on taping every episode with the timer. That meant that virtually all my Tom Baker episodes, for example, were taped with the commercials still in them, which was rather annoying. Still, at least I had the episodes.

Despite the annoyance of commercials, being able to see so much Doctor Who was simply amazing. It was like a dream come true. After years of being ridiculed for watching it, suddenly it was on all the time, which implied that other people must be watching it too. It was still hard to find those people, though.

Although they aired the stories in the wrong order, YTV did air all of season 25 that fall, and I loved it all. It was so much better than the previous year and it quickly catapulted Sylvester McCoy into the position of my favourite Doctor. I’ve said before that I don’t normally have a favourite (and that’s a position I maintain today), but there have been a couple periods in my life where I’ve had one. Sylvester McCoy is one of only two Doctors to ever be considered my favourite (Colin Baker was the other), and he remained my favourite for a few years (into my early university years, in fact). Looking back now, it was more the stories that did that than his Doctor specifically, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment.

I loved the idea of adding more mystery back into the show. I loved the idea that there was more to the Doctor than we thought we knew. It’s not in vogue amongst Doctor Who fandom today to admit it, but I loved the “Cartmel Masterplan”—script editor Andrew Cartmel’s vision for the series and the secret history of the Doctor. In some ways, it seemed as though the series was growing up and becoming more sophisticated, a view I would continue to have (even doubly so) during the years of Virgin’s New Adventures novels. I’m not sure I would describe it in the same way today, but I was growing up myself at the time, and it felt good to think that I was doing it alongside my favourite TV show.

After season 25 finished, YTV aired season 24 in the Sunday night slot, and after that went straight into season 26 in the spring of 1990. And wham! Suddenly Canada had caught up to the U.K. At last, I could look forward to seeing new episodes relatively soon after they had aired in Britain. Things were looking really good. There was even a brief mention in Doctor Who magazine at some point that YTV was negotiating with the BBC to have some episodes of Doctor Who filmed in Canada. To this day, I think that Doctor Who has woefully neglected ever setting a story in Canada. To think what could have been!

But no.

Word came in that Doctor Who was not coming back in the fall. The BBC had not renewed it for a new season. The end had come at last.

I didn’t really accept it at first. I clung foolishly to the hope that it would just be gone temporarily, that this would just be another hiatus like in 1985. My one Doctor Who fan friend would pat me sadly on the shoulder whenever I said that. He knew the truth, and so did I, really. I just wouldn’t admit it.

But at least YTV still had the weekday showings, which eventually incorporated the Sylvester McCoy stories as well. I also still had my growing collection of VHS tapes, which meant I could watch Doctor Who whenever I wanted. There were also The New Adventures novels—a series I utterly fell in love with. But there weren’t any new episodes, and that was sad. By the time I headed off to university, it was clear that there wouldn’t be any new episodes for a long time, probably never.

The “wilderness years” had begun.


  1. Hi! I'm just starting to make my foray into Dr. Who (beginning with the reboot and now deciding to work my way back). I came across your blog when I was looking for some guidance on the depictions of women in rebooted-Who (also known as, is it just me?) Anyway, I'm eager to read your stuff and would love to get some tips on which season/doctor of the original series it would be good to start with, or if you have any favorites you'd like to share. Cool stuff on pathfinder, by the way. I was just going to get started in a local game.

    1. Hi Mary,

      Gald you like the blog! With so many episodes, Doctor Who can sometimes seem a bit intimidating to get into because people aren't sure where to start. The nice thing is that there are a lot of good starting-off points throughout the years (often when a new Doctor starts or when a new production crew takes over).

      You could start right at the very beginning, of course. The first two William Hartnell seasons are mostly intact (very few missing episodes) and they give a great look at the roots of the series. However, starting at season 3, there are a lot of missing episodes, and the vast majority of the early Patrick Troughton episodes are missing, which is unfortunate.

      Starting in the 70s might be a better option. A good place to start would be right at the beginning of Jon Pertwee's time with "Spearhead from Space", or at the beginning of Tom Baker with "Robot".

      Doctor Who in the 80s tended to be quite referential to the past of the series, so can sometimes be a difficult era to get into since you won't always know what they're talking about. However, the early Peter Davison stories don't do this nearly as much, so they're a good jumping in point (not his very first story, "Castrovalva" though, as that story completes an arc started in the last couple Tom Baker stories).

      You might want to just look at a few isolated stories first to get a feel for different eras before making the leap into watching everything. I'd suggest the following:

      "The Aztecs" with William Hartnell
      This story is very indicative of the early 60s, demonstrating both the original dynamic of the show and the historical stories that were relatively common at the time. It's also a great story and lets Barbara, one of the first Doctor's best companions, really shine.

      "Spearhead from Space" with Jon Pertwee
      This is the first story of the third Doctor and sets up the feel of most of his era. It's also a really good story.

      "Terror of the Zygons" and "Pyramids of Mars" with Tom Baker
      Both great stories that are also very indicative of the early Tom Baker years. "Pyramids" has a deus ex machina ending, but the rest of it is good enough that you can ignore the problems with the ending.

      "The Caves of Androzani" with Peter Davison
      This is Peter Davison's last story and one of the best stories of the entire classic series.

      "Remembrance of the Daleks" with Sylvester McCoy
      While this story has a number of nods to past continuity, they're made in a much subtler way than was typical in the 80s, meaning they don't leave people unfamiliar with the show confused about what's going on. This story is also great for the Doctor's companion, Ace. Few companions on the classic series really developed much as characters, but Ace is a shining exception. This is one of her early stories and starts off the character arc she's about to have.

      I hope this helps! If you have any further questions, I'm happy to answer!

      Take care,