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.

  2. I've really enjoyed your set of Peter Davison articles. He was the Doctor when I watched Doctor Who as a kid and he was dashing, kind and handsome and looked like a fairytale prince with his blond hair and long, flapping coat, so of course I loved him, in my childish, uncritical way. I think even then I saw him as somewhat different from the invincible superheroes in other series, however - he did seem to spend an awful lot of time being captured and bashed about, and when he was bashed, it looked as if it hurt. I have quite clear memories of being upset at the tragic end of "The Caves of Androzani". The character's reckless, heroic capacity for self-sacrifice and suffering was definitely part of his appeal.

    I recently rediscovered him via "All Creatures Great and Small", particularly the first three series, which I was too young to see when they were originally broadcast. I started watching them out of nostalgia for Robert Hardy after he passed away last year, but I was soon very taken with Davison's performance too, particularly how he added a certain amount of pathos to a character who could, in other hands, have become irritating or purely "comic relief" from the main plot. (I've been blogging my way through All Creatures - please do take a look on if you're interested!)

    After watching All Creatures, I decided to (re)visit Davison's Doctor Who episodes. I find it rather difficult to make an emotionally detached assessment about Davison's Doctor because I can't really decouple him from the strong emotions associated with the character from my childhood, so it's very interesting to read the insights of people like yourself who watched him for the first time as adults. The scripts are certainly fascinating in their variety (and some are pretty terrible!). Like you, I much prefer the more cerebral, fantasy-like plots (Castrovalva, Kinda, Enlightenment, Snakedance - Fiona Cumming was indeed marvellous!) to the violent, cynical ones (Earthshock, Warriors of the Deep - although the bruised, battered Doctor at the end of that is very moving - Caves of Androzani, etc.) I do, however, have a soft spot for Frontios; to me, the Doctor in that doesn't come across as crotchety but just a little sarcastic and smart-alecky, and as someone with sarcastic and smart-alecky tendencies myself, I can't really judge him! "I came and went like a summer cloud" is poetical and gorgeous and, to my mind, fits him beautifully - I associate the image with the light colours he wears, his swift, sweeping movements and his cloud of golden hair. I also can't really blame Bidmead, who helped create the character in the first place, from writing him as he always intended him to be. I just find it a shame that he and Fiona Cumming, with their gentler vision, weren't allowed to play more of a role in the Fifth Doctor's tenure. It's also a great shame that no other Barbara Clegg scripts were filmed - apparently she submitted two others but they were rejected, despite the excellent 'Enlightenment'.

    1. (continuation due to character limit) I don't know the first thing about acting, but it sometimes feels to me as an observer that Davison plays 'against' his characters as they are written - emphasising the tragedy of comic characters such as Tristan, for example, by hinting at the wider implications that extend beyond the situations that are actually shown on screen. At the end of The Caves of Androzani - one of the few times I've seen where he tackles full-blown tragedy - he seems somehow to universalise the tragedy and make it not just about this one character dying as a result of an unedifying series of events, but about anyone who has ever died when they were still young and beautiful, and therefore also about the tragedy of war, amongst other things. (Perhaps that's just my reading too much into the performance, but it did at least seem to allow that reading.) I didn't like Caves of Androzani all that much, overall - as you said in your review, the writer seemed to be interested in everyone but the ostensible hero of the story for most of the piece - but the ending was certainly very poignant.

    2. First of all, thank you so much for mentioning your own blog; I've been loving it, and have added it to the "Blogs I Like" section on my home page. Beautifully written and observed.

      And I'm delighted you enjoyed my four-part Davison retrospective. We obviously came to the Fifth Doctor at very different points in our lives, but found many of the same qualities to love. I don't know if I mention it in this particular essay (I talk about it in a lot of later entries), but my husband is an actor, so I always love hearing his perspective when we discover something new. I loved Davison, as you did, right from the start, as a "fan"; my husband adored him as a fellow actor -- he was acutely aware of his craft, and the thought he put into each scene and line and gesture. I think it's very likely (as you suggest) that Davison -- as a true "thinking man's actor" -- doesn't necessary go for the obvious choice, but does indeed often play the opposite of what's written, or try to put a specific scene in a larger context. As you said, some of the Fifth Doctor scripts are pretty terrible, but that never shows in his performances; he commits so completely to even the worst scripts. I've watched some of his Doctor Who serials a dozen times now, and I continue to find fresh things to enjoy in his performances.

      I'm glad to find another viewer who prefers the more elegant and cerebral serials to the more violent ones. I watched most of Davison's run on Doctor Who without knowing what "fan consensus" was -- I wanted to experience the serials without preconceptions. It wasn't till later that I realized how many fans prefer the Fifth Doctor's more traditional action-adventure yarns. But yes, like you, the Snakedance-Enlightenment approach is much more to my liking; it so suits his *own* approach, and really distinguishes the Fifth Doctor era from the others. I was sad, when I did get to digging through others' reviews, to see how little had been written about Fiona Cumming; she doesn't seem to get nearly the credit she deserves. I took the time to eulogize her shortly after her death, in a post in August of 2015.

      And it's funny what you say about "Frontios." I wrote this set of essays so early in my Who viewing; I don't think I'd seen half the classic serials at that time. My opinions about most of the Fifth Doctor serials hasn't changed much since I wrote this essay, but "Frontios" is one that I've come to admire more. When I first watched, it bothered me that the Fifth Doctor wasn't quite the man I'd so come to enjoy; now I'm able to appreciate it much more on its own terms.

    3. I realized I neglected to comment on your own comment that the Fifth Doctor "did seem to spend an awful lot of time being captured and bashed about, and when he was bashed, it looked as if it hurt." I remembered that, in an early draft of my essay, I had a paragraph about the fact that the Fifth Doctor seemed to be injured in just about every serial, and that, like you, I much appreciated the fact that that made him far from an invincible superhero -- and in fact, far different from how the previous two actors had played the Doctor. I loved too that when the Fifth Doctor would get injured -- e.g., in "Terminus," when one of the guards injures the Doctor's arm -- that Davison would see to it that it didn't instantly heal in the next episode: that pain would remain, but he would persevere through it. Since they were, by that point in the series' run, shooting scenes out of order, I found it all the more impressive that Davison was so committed to this vision of the Doctor -- as someone who could be wounded, who could get hurt, but who would always push through the pain, to accomplish his aim -- that he would keep track of his "injuries" as they were shooting, to make sure they didn't magically heal.

    4. Thank you very much for your kind comment, and I'm glad you liked my blog (and didn't mind my bit of self-promotion!).

      I can't remember whether it was in the Davison essay or elsewhere that you mentioned about your husband being an actor - I read some of the other articles on the blog, too - but I definitely did pick up on that. It must be very interesting indeed to have an insider view of the actor's craft and what is going on in their mind as they approach their role.

      I think the idea of the Fifth Doctor as a non-invincible hero made a big impression on me as a child. I was too young to have seen either of the previous Doctors (I'm not even sure how aware I was at the time that there had been other Doctors) so I wasn't comparing him with them, but many of the characters in children's TV, particularly on cartoons, do emerge unscathed from whatever kind of injury they might suffer, or at least reappear as good as new the next day/week. So the Fifth Doctor was a big difference from that. I'm sure I didn't realise the attention to detail that Davison put into making it believable when I was six or so, but it did make an emotional impact. I don't know whether I had any idea what was coming up in Caves of Androzani or whether I thought our hero would escape to fight another day. Whether that was my first experience of 'death' on TV (I have no recollection of 'Earthshock'), or whether that honour went to one of the rabbit heroes of Watership Down, I can no longer remember, but I do remember it quite vividly. I suppose with a younger Doctor, there was really no way of avoiding making his regeneration tragic. You couldn't really do "he's got a bit old and tired and needs a new body now to make him strong again" convincingly with a sporty-looking thirtysomething, so there's (perhaps only seen in retrospect?) always a kind of air of incipient tragedy about him which the signs of physical vulnerability only serve to emphasise.

  3. I think even coming back to Davison as an adult, I started off liking him as a 'fan' and simply enjoying his performances (and, I have to admit, finding him very good-looking!). After a while, though, I did start analysing what it was about this particular actor that I found so compelling. I'm still not sure I fully understand it but he is certainly very good at portraying vulnerability and making his characters lovable, even one who is a bit of an anti-hero like Tristan.

    I agree with you that he wasn't "Tristan but brave" in Doctor Who - the two characters are fully distinct. He is perhaps at his most Tristan-y in Four to Doomsday where he seems to have more of a sense of fun than in some of the later serials. (I also liked the idea of his having items in his pockets that turned out to be useful - it's a pity they didn't keep on with that.) I understand that John Nathan-Turner wanted to get away from what he considered to be silliness that had crept in during the Tom Baker era, but I wish Doctor Who had made a little more use of Davison's talent for comedy. It must have been obvious from All Creatures that he could handle humour sensitively and avoid drifting into silliness.

    Re. cerebral versus violent serials, I suppose many fans who watched Doctor Who as children or teenagers probably have a certain nostalgia for the types of serials that appealed to them then. When I saw The Visitation, for example, I thought that it was just the thing that would have appealed to me when I was a kid, but that it had nothing much to say to me as an adult, unlike, say, Kinda or Castrovalva which are interesting on multiple levels. Perhaps it's also a matter of personal taste, however - I have very little interest in action movies as an adult.

    I read your eulogy for Fiona Cumming. It is indeed a shame that she doesn't seem to get the credit she deserves. I found it interesting in your reviews of the original episodes that you had noticed how she managed to tease better performances out of some of the less experienced actors than some other directors did. I hadn't picked up on that, although I did appreciate her artistic flair.

  4. (Last comment - sorry for writing an essay!) Re. Frontios, one reason why I like it is that, in the midst of a grim scenario, with good worldbuilding, the Doctor finds a nonviolent solution to the problem, by playing the Gravis's own desires against him. He wins, and he does so absolutely on his own terms. In that sense, it's a realisation of the 'ideal Fifth Doctor ethic', so to speak, of strength through cleverness/persuasion/gentleness/turning evil back on itself. (Perhaps the only other times when this happened were Kinda, Snakedance and the rehabilitation of Turlough, although some others came close.) Unfortunately, the alternative, Saward conception of the Doctor seemed to be a weak, ineffectual, indecisive figure in a world that was too macho and grim for him. One good friend of mine considers the Fifth Doctor to be 'wet', I think for this reason, and I don't think he's alone in this.

    It is interesting how Davison himself seems to cite grimmer serials as his favourites despite their not suiting his approach all that well, and despite his wanting to portray the Doctor as more vulnerable and to be a non-violent role model. Perhaps he's thinking more of the plotting and direction and so on, and of his experiences making the serials. Androzani was certainly technically accomplished, even if it is grim and dark and doesn't have enough of the Doctor in it. I suppose the experience of acting in something is very different from the experience of watching it.

    I see that you rank Castrovalva very highly in your list of serials, and I don't think that's typical 'fan consensus' but I love it too. I think the most 'perfect' Davison serial must be Enlightenment. I found myself relaxing in that one (and realising I wasn't usually that relaxed) when I realised that everyone seemed to be on top of their game, with no awkward dialogue or cheesy 80s special effects to detract from an interesting and complex story. (I just realised recently, on my third or fourth watching, that the chess set at the beginning is symbolic.) Castrovalva has many imperfections - the boring bit with too much foliage in Episode 2, the rope-ladder that appears for no apparent reason, the Doctor getting out of the Zero Cabinet for no apparent reason, the lack of ability to build a convincing-looking Escherian building in the 80s, the Master's Castrovalva plot not making all that much sense. But nonetheless I love it for the whole idea of someone building an imaginary Escherian palace with a civilisation in it out of maths to trap their enemy in (that has a fairytale feel), the society of Castrovalva with all its archaic language and strange hats, the beautiful set, Shardovan (what a wonderful character, built up in only a few lines of dialogue), determinism vs. free will in one line, the question of how the flesh-and-blood people can interact with the Castrovalvans, and of course the Doctor who really does look as if he has just taken delivery of a new face and is figuring out how it works, with all those wonderful little expressions.