They say that ‘your’ Doctor is the one you watched when you were twelve, old enough to be a fan and young enough to not be cynical. I’m not sure if this is exactly my story, as I came to Doctor Who through the books, but it’s true to say that Sylvester McCoy is ‘my’ Doctor.
This is ironic, because Sylvester’s era seemed almost deliberately designed to not be particularly new-viewer-friendly. The show was falling out of favour at the BBC and so the McCoy years weren’t blessed with intensive advertising or Radio Times covers. The show was moved from Saturday nights into a kamikaze head-to-head battle with Coronation Street, and so the era was perhaps the moment that Doctor Who became a genuine niche interest rather than something aiming for the mainstream.
Now, the reason I came to Doctor Who through the books rather than the TV show itself was that I visited my grandmothers on Saturdays and had no control over what was seen on television. Therefore, when Doctor Who shifted to a midweek transmission, I was probably one of the few viewers they actually gained, with me watching Sylvester’s debut on a battered portable television in my bedroom.
Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred (who played Ace) deserved better than that. Their era was one that started redressing production issues that had been made recently, moving away from continuity porn and sequels to episodes made twenty years ago and towards a darker, more imaginative universe.
This is evident in the persona of the Seventh Doctor. Although the Sixth is often thought of as the ‘difficult’ Doctor, the Seventh is an altogether scarier prospect, one that will burn down your world in a single night if it’ll serve the greater good, one that will help you become the person you could be but not without inflicting a far amount of emotional agony along the way.
This is the strange thing about the relationship between the Doctor and Ace. He’s recast as an almost mythic figure, facing off against ancient gods in a twisted circus, playing chess against cosmic evil and winning through a tricks terms gambit. He’s teamed up with a working class girl from London with mummy issues and a lack of direction.
In a way it’s similar to the template used in 2005’s reboot, but while Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor was a broken survivor, Sylvester’s Doctor was at the height of his powers, delivering what could have been seen, at the time, as conclusive victories against the Big Two monsters of Doctor Who’s history. This Doctor wasn’t messing around.
We see this most clearly at the climax of ‘The Curse of Fenric’, where Ace’s faith in the Doctor is preventing the villain’s defeat. The only way to win is for the Doctor to emotionally destroy her… And he does.
It’s a stand-out moment for the era, because we already know that the Doctor can be a ruthless manipulator, and that Ace has a world of her own issues to face. It turns out that the Doctor was lying to her, that his dismissal of his friend was all a lie, but there’s enough suspicion cast to make us ask the difficult question – what if he wasn’t lying?
It’s an elephant in the room, and it almost seems like it’s a character flaw crying out for a resolution it never received, on TV at least. And maybe we don’t want it to happen, because while he can be a nasty piece of work, the Seventh Doctor is also incredibly liveable and oddly human. He hates burnt toast and bus stations – don’t we all?
I also like the fact that the McCoy era includes the first mention of Elvis in Doctor Who. It’s almost an accidental mission statement for the programme, drawing on new influences like graphic novels and jazz, rather than complacently being influenced simply by the grand history of the longest running TV show in the world.
The show was suddenly growing up again, realising that there’s a bigger world out there. In that sense, it’s probably appropriate that Ace’s growth from a frustrated, damaged teenager to a confident young woman is the key character arc of the final seasons of the classic series. There’s a moment in ‘Survival’ when it appears that the Doctor is dead and Ace holds his umbrella and wears his hat. She’s ready to take over from him, or at least try, and in a story that’s all about her growing maturity, sexual and otherwise, it’s an important moment.
And so maybe it’s significant that this era was when I joined the show proper, when I made a transition in my fandom. It’s an era of growth and change, one that ironically saw the TV series cancelled but that also saw it evolve into books, comics and CDs. It was the seeds planted in the Sylvester/Sophie years that enabled the 2005 relaunch to stand a fighting chance, with writers cutting their professional teeth on the New Adventures books and building on themes that would later emerge in the new series.
Back when I was young, it felt like the Seventh Doctor era was an ending. Instead it turned out to be a glorious transformation.
Happy birthday, Sylvester and Sophie.