Saturday, September 1, 2012

Doctor Who: The Peter Davison Years

"The hero is no braver than an ordinary person, but he or she is braver five minutes longer." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Entertainment Weekly recently ran a cover story on the TV series Doctor Who, lauding it as one of the cult classics of all time. I had never seen an episode of Doctor Who -- never even heard of the show -- until Christmas Day, 2010. My husband and I were vacationing in South Florida; the house there had BBC America, and as we were channel surfing, there was a 2005 episode entitled "The Christmas Invasion." We decided to take a look, and entertained and intrigued -- and since the house also had streaming Netflix -- we decided to explore further.

"The Christmas Invasion" marks the beginning of the second season of the second run of Doctor Who, which began in 2005 and continues to this day; the original series ran from 1963 to 1989. (For our purposes, let's call the original series Classic Who and the latest version New Who.) Really all we picked up from that first episode was that there was a Doctor (a "Time Lord," played by David Tennant) and a companion (played by Billie Piper) and that they traveled the universe in a space ship that looked like a blue phone box (a "TARDIS") -- so now, in retrospect, it's alarming how much we didn't understand. (We were shocked when Piper left after our first season watching -- who knew the Doctor went through companions like the rest of us went through socks? We later learned that the Doctors themselves would change as well: the Doctor would "regenerate," and one actor would be replaced by another -- and that's how you sustain a series for nearly fifty years.) But there was enough that we did appreciate and enjoy to keep us coming back for more. Over the next three weeks, we devoured the following four seasons. By the time we were halfway through New Who Season 5, we realized we were no longer mere viewers: we were fans.

So the following winter, we found ourselves back in Florida on vacation, and it seemed fitting that we take a look at some Classic Who. I wrote to that erudite Who reviewer Paul Reed, asking if he'd steer me towards some episodes he particularly admired. (I was once again spoiler-free: I didn't know the Doctors; I didn't even know the actors' names -- or that the serials were going to go on for two, four, or even ten episodes at a time.) He cautioned me: not everyone who likes New Who likes Classic Who. The production values, he warned, can be cheesy; the acting variable. Undeterred, we bought a dozen serials and got started.

And it wasn't bad -- not bad at all. Initially, it was rarely as stimulating as New Who had been, but the best serials provided a fun evening's entertainment -- and as for the worst ones: well, at least we hadn't wasted more than an evening. We knew nothing of each Doctor's popularity -- or which companions were revered and which reviled; we formed our own opinions based solely on what we saw on the small screen. If a period started to bore us, we'd move on to another Doctor, or another companion: anything to vary the diet. For some reason I can't recall, we arrived at the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, late in the game, and the first episode of his we viewed was, in fact, his first episode, entitled "Castrovalva," from 1982.

And suddenly this was some other series altogether.

Classic Who no longer seemed merely inviting; it now seemed involving -- invigorating even. We broke our pattern of "random viewing" and elected to watch the Davison serials in order. Within about two weeks, we'd breezed through three years of the Fifth Doctor. Two months later, I revisited it all again.

A disclaimer: I'm not a sci-fi fan by nature. Never seen an episode of Star Trek. I've never seen any of the Star Wars movies, except the first one, which I don't remember very well. Never watched Space 1999 or Babylon 5 or Blake's 7 or any of those series with numbers in them. So what was my attraction to the Davison Who? Why did it get to me?

Watching Davison, I realized what I had found distancing about the show up to that point. The other Classic Doctors were eccentrics, born of a theatrical tradition that certainly suggested "other-worldly," but for me, it was an approach that sapped some of the suspense out of the series. As much as I enjoyed several of the other Doctors (and the Second Doctor was, I thought, especially good), the stylization undercut the sense of menace: you always trusted that these larger-than-life creations would swoop in and save the day. Davison eschewed the theatrical flourishes of his predecessors; his Doctor was as close to being "one of us" as a Time Lord with two hearts can be. He gave the material weight and resonance by flipping the perspective. With Davison, we were no longer seeing the universe through the Doctor's eyes; he was seeing it though ours. He shared our sense of wonder -- and our sense of dread. And the results gave off the same glow as the New Who we'd watched a year earlier. (The other morning, BBC America reran the New Who "Planet of the Ood," and when David Tennant told his latest companion Catherine Tate that he shares everything she's feeling -- "the fear, the joy, the wonder" -- I thought, that's precisely what I got from the Davison era.) Davison's take on the role was clearly the forerunner of his 21st-century namesakes.

Shortly before joining the series, Davison commented that, for him, "the suspense of 'now how's [the Doctor] going to get out of this tight corner' has been missing." (He was determined not to play him as a superhero.) Davison's recognizably "human" reactions recharged the series; they reinforced the sense of risk, the potential perils lurking in the shadows. Audiences in the early '80s had wondered how Davison, barely thirty, was going to essay a role previously played by actors a decade or two older, and Davison confronted the age issue head-on, bringing to the role, in his words, "a sort of reckless innocence." It was a brilliantly intuitive move. When Davison's Doctor flew down corridors, solution in sight, it was with equal parts inspiration and desperation; that manic intensity -- the Fifth Doctor was forever thinking on his feet, always strategizing the best way out of a tight spot -- made him instantly rootworthy, and his endless vigor seemed enviable. (As a side note, I later learned that writer Christopher Bidmead, who was scripting the Fourth Doctor's regeneration into the Fifth, had his own plan for the Fifth Doctor: he was conceiving him as "an old man in a young man's body." But as it turns out, Bidmead left the series before Davison even got warmed up, and thank goodness he did, because it freed Davison to go in a far better direction. Bidmead's blueprint survived fleetingly -- in the Doctor's steely outbursts at his companions, in his well-worn spectacles -- but in fact, it's those times when Davison is asked to play crotchety that he's at his least convincing, and the one time a serial trots out the "old man/young body" concept in full force, in Bidmead's "Frontios," Davison's Doctor becomes momentarily unrecognizable. And yet I was amused to see some fans point to "Frontios" as the one time the "real" Fifth Doctor emerges. I quickly learned there are as many opinions in the Who universe as there are viewers.)

The Fifth Doctor was a hero not because of any superpowers (he couldn't do Venusian karate, like the Third Doctor, or render a foe unconscious with one touch, like the Seventh), not because he shrugged off danger like the Third Doctor or laughed in its face like the Fourth, but because he was a fiercely compassionate soul who felt compelled to fight injustice wherever he found it. And Davison was precisely the actor to pull off a Doctor fueled by empathy; his young co-star Mark Strickson describes how Davison taught him "how not to act whilst still acting," and that ability -- that philosophy, really -- informs Davison's performances. Not merely a great actor, but a smart one, Davison seems to have an endless bag of tricks at his disposal -- but he employs them without chicanery; his performances are honest above all else. You're never aware of him "acting," but he always seems active, present, focused -- most of all, involved and engaged: what's often referred to as an "actor's actor."

What's startling about the Davison years is that he finds his Doctor fairly quickly, but the writers take a full season to catch up. His Doctor was such a departure, particularly from the more imposing Doctors of the previous decade, that the early writers have no idea how to rethink the old formulas; they leave the character sketchy and call upon Davison to fill in the blanks -- which he does, handsomely. The Who adventure that best defines Davison's take on the Doctor is easily his second-season "Snakedance." The wild youthful intensity; the righteous passion and the nervous posturing; the constancy of a good teacher and the curiosity of a good student; the sincerity, tenacity and humility -- writer Christopher Bailey captures it all, in a way he hadn't a year earlier in "Kinda," written before he'd seen Davison's Doctor in action. Of the three Davison years, his first season has the most varied set of scripts (a revolving door of script editors, it's one of the few Who seasons without clear direction in terms of style, content and tone -- and surprisingly, all the better for that). But the following year, drafted by writers who'd actually seen Davison in action, has the ones that best capture the Fifth Doctor, and for that all-important reason, Davison's second season is also his best. (His final season is done in by script editor Eric Saward: more on that later.)

Davison's reactions and responses were always relatable, but he was careful never to play the Doctor as an Everyman. But neither did he play him as "Tristan Farnon [his career-launching role in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small], but with bravery and intellect," one of those apocryphal stories that continues to make the rounds. There's a famed panel discussion from the British lunchtime magazine Pebble Mill at One, where Davison is set to assume the role of the Fifth Doctor and a young fan suggests that approach: "Tristan Farnon, but with bravery and intellect." Although Davison later claims that's basically what he did, I don't buy it. Of course Davison says that: it's a lovely fan-friendly gesture, and on some level, he might even believe it. But watching the early years of All Creatures Great and Small tells a different story, as I learned when I dug into some of Davison's other roles.

Next: a look at Davison's other long-running TV roles, before and after Who. Or click here to go directly to capsule reviews of all twenty of Davison's Who serials.


  1. Brilliant article. As a young lad who saw his beloved Doctor 'killed' by Davison I didn't warm to him initially and I think his stories vary in quality a lot. However, you rightly assert the skill Davison brought to the role and he remains one of the best actors to play the Doctor and probably the best of the classic run. have you watched all this Doctor Who since 2010? Do you ever go out?! ;)

    1. I so appreciate your kind words. Yes, terrifyingly, I've only been watching Doctor Who since 2010, and since then, I have seen every serial at least twice, and some of the Davisons as many as a dozen times or more. As noted, I didn't know anything about any of the Doctors when I started watching Classic Who: I had no idea that T. Baker was beloved, and what a challenge it was for Davison, following that. I only knew that, from his first serial, I found Davison brilliant. And it was during a period in the summer of 2012, when I was laid up for a few months with some health issues, that I decided not only to rewatch and write up the Davison era, but also to watch as much as I could of Davison's other TV roles, to get a real sense of his repertoire and range. The result was this essay, and in turn, this blog.