My earliest Doctor Who memory is of a Fifth Doctor story. Ironically it doesn’t feature Peter Davison – it’s a scene from ‘The Five Doctors’ featuring Jon Pertwee getting kidnapped by a black proto-CGI triangle and it freaked me out.
Of all the Doctors, Davison, along with Patrick Troughton, probably had the toughest job. For seven years, Tom Baker had been the be all and end all of Doctor Who, a towering intimidating presence on-screen and off. For many viewers, Baker had been the only Doctor they knew. Peter Davison had the mammoth task of following that.
The Fifth Doctor was a recognisable figure, at least – my dad knew who he was because he liked cricket and All Creatures Great and Small. But more than that, Davison had the acting chops to create a new character that could follow Tom Baker but not emulate him. It was a ‘smaller’ performance than Baker’s, but that was needed. Baker’s Doctor died saving the universe; when it was time for Davison to move on, his Doctor died saving just one person. It’s a significant difference. Maybe it’s appropriate as well – Davison was one of two Doctors to have a companion die on screen, so it’s fitting that he should sacrifice himself to save another. Maybe his regeneration is an act of absolution.
Anyway, given Big Tom’s massive shadow, it’s interesting that many of the current Doctor Who production team name Davison as their favourite, including David Tennant and Steven Moffat.
Maybe that’s not really a surprise – the Fifth Doctor is something of a prototype for the relaunched version of the show, playing up the idea of an incredibly old man in a young man’s body. The contrast is a potent one. The mini-episode ‘Time Crash’ draws attention to this: “You know, I loved being you.” says the Tenth Doctor, “Back when I first started at the very beginning, I was always trying to be old and grumpy and important like you do when you’re young, and then I was you. And I was all dashing about and playing cricket and my voice going all squeaky when I shout and I still do that! The voice thing, I got that from you… Because you know what, Doctor? You were my Doctor.”
It’s a beautiful moment, a love letter to an era. Some will point to Chris Eccleston and Billie Piper as the moment Doctor Who was reborn, but the seeds were there way back in the eighties, a young-old man wearing a cricket jumper and some celery.
Happy birthday, Peter.