Doctor Who in the 1980s | The Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy years

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Doctor Who in the 1980s saw three new Doctors in the TARDIS – Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy – and the threat of cancellation. Andrew Blair reflects on a tumultuous decade…

NB: This feature contains spoilers for the Doctor Who serial Earthshock.

Many fans hold that Doctor Who is the best idea for a TV series ever conceived. Now approaching its 60th anniversary, the BBC’s flagship sci-fi programme may not have always lived up to that, but over the last six decades, it’s a show that has had at least as many incarnations as its title character. In this weekly series, three Doctor Who fans go through the greatest show in the galaxy, decade by decade…

Part Three: The 1980s

‘It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for.’

In its third decade on air, Doctor Who drastically varied in quality from story to story, from the sublime to the ridiculous. The 1980s saw four Doctors, a chaotic staff turnover behind the scenes, and the temporary cancellation of the show.

Towards the end of the 1980s, following an enforced hiatus, the programme emerged with fresh new voices and was beginning to move in directions familiar to anyone who saw the revived 2005 series. But it was a tumultuous decade that led the BBC to pause the show indefinitely in 1989.

New Scientists (1979 – 1981)

In December 1979, producer Graham Williams left the show and the BBC promoted production unit manager John Nathan-Turner to the head job. Christopher H. Bidmead – a journalist with contributions to New Scientist – was recommended to the show as a new Script Editor. Like a Graham Chapman Army Colonel, both men agreed that Doctor Who had become too silly.

First of all, Nathan-Turner was concerned about branding. Thus, the theme music and title sequence were updated – Peter Howell’s stinging synth arrangement revamped Delia Derbyshire’s ineffable hissing, and Sid Sutton’s starfield sequence replaced the kinetic time tunnel visuals of the 1970s. And the new logo was designed to look like neon tubing just in case anyone thought this wasn’t 1980.

Nathan-Turner also decided regular characters would wear the same costume in every story, so you’d be forgiven for wondering if it smelt absolutely honking in the TARDIS.

Bidmead’s struggle to find writers (Nigel Kneale reportedly hung up on him) was matched by Nathan-Turner’s struggle to find directors. Lovett Bickford and Paul Joyce were deemed overambitious and were blacklisted from the show. Still, by the time Joyce was fired from Season 18’s Warriors’ Gate, Bidmead’s approach started to pay off.

At best, his Doctor Who found wondrous settings and ideas, underscored by a funereal melancholy. Outside of the excellent Warrior’s Gate, this is also exemplified by Tom Baker’s righteous ire in Full Circle and calm fury in The Keeper of Traken, (the latter a story about the sacrifice it takes to maintain a fairytale). Sometimes, however, the funereal tone came across as clinical – more autopsy than adventure.

This feeling lingered on after Bidmead’s exit at the end of the season. Tom Baker and Romana actress Lalla Ward were leaving too, finding the new approach comparatively joyless – unsurprising for a season whose first scene sees the temporary destruction of enjoyably irritating robot K9, and later replaces the tin dog with the less enjoyably irritating maths-gannet Adric (Matthew Waterhouse).

Brute force and cynicism (1982 – 1985)

Season 19 would feature a new Doctor and, in the end, no fewer than four Script Editors. Nathan-Turner did some emergency work after Bidmead finished up some scripts he’d commissioned, but when his replacement, Antony Root, was seconded to BBC One’s Juliet Bravo, writer Eric Saward was finally given the job full-time.

Unsurprisingly, the season is another uneven one, this time anchored by the controlled performances of Fifth Doctor Peter Davison. The youngest actor cast as the Doctor at the time, Davison was a household name from his work on All Creatures Great and Small and had the unenviable task of following charisma powerhouse Tom Baker.

With Bidmead and Nathan-Turner dialling down the jokes, Davison’s comedy instincts went underused. You can see him tailoring his earlier scripts (written with Baker in mind) for his Doctor and his wry sarcasm is very enjoyable. Otherwise, the Fifth Doctor is an earnest optimist who struggles to impose himself, and whose spirit is worn down by events. Intended or not, here is a very clear character arc for him, as his sense of wonder and excitement erodes throughout his life.

The characterisation in this era is interesting. At Nathan-Turner’s request, Bidmead had introduced three new companions, all arriving in the wake of tragedy, but we see very little interest in the emotional repercussions.

Tegan loses her aunt and is twice possessed by an ancient evil. Nyssa’s entire planet is destroyed, and she repeatedly encounters the Master using her dead father as a host body. Adric loses his brother and ultimately dies, tragically rather than heroically. There’s no sense that this is the trip of a lifetime for any of the companions.

Second, Nathan-Turner asked that the Doctor not hug his companions in case it was construed as in any way sexual. This makes the regulars seem even more detached than their emotional responses would suggest, and the Doctor is far from reassuring.

Stories such as Kinda, Snakedance, Mawdryn Undead, and Enlightenment carry on from Warrior’s Gate by combining thoughtful science-fiction concepts with exciting adventure and strong character work. Though not always appreciated at the time, (Doctor Who Magazine fan polls rated Snakedance and Mawdryn Undead but not Kinda and Enlightenment) these are stories whose reputations have grown over time.

To understand the Saward era, you have to understand the popularity of Season 19’s Earthshock – a fast-paced sci-fi actioner with at least one gunfight in every episode. It was popular with audiences, and children who watched it will still remember the surprise return of the Cybermen and the shocking death of Adric at the story’s climax.

Directed by Peter Grimwade, Earthshock remains an efficient action-packed story with a great sense of momentum. It’s also camp as balls, largely thanks to the performances of David Banks, James Warwick, and Beryl Reid. But Adric’s shocking and tragically pointless death is almost immediately forgotten, and the programme may have taken the wrong lessons from the serial’s success.

It had a serious tone, returning monsters and continuity references, plenty of deaths, and the Doctor losing at the end. Overriding stories like Kinda and Snakedance, its success influenced the next three seasons, and this became Doctor Who’s dominant storytelling mode.

Season 21 gave us three stories where many of the supporting cast are killed. This ties into Tegan’s eventual departure – she is disgusted when, on top of the colossal death toll, the Doctor picks up a gun and announces he’s going to kill Davros (who, presumably, she doesn’t know). She leaves in tears, although her announcement that ‘it’s stopped being fun’ undermines an otherwise powerful scene: when did it start being fun?

This is nothing compared to the lengths the show goes to undermine one of its greatest stories. In The Caves of Androzani, the Doctor and brand-new companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) end up embroiled in a drug-smuggling operation. The Doctor doesn’t want to overthrow the government or make everyone see the error of their ways, he just wants to get out and keep Peri safe. To do this, he ultimately sacrifices his life.

Returning writer Robert Holmes felt the Fifth Doctor had too easy a time of it and decided to put him through hell in his final story. Androzani pays off the previous stories where the Doctor was unable to save companions or limit the loss of life; here, his heroism is based on sacrificing himself to save a stranger he brought into the conflict.

It’s also another story directed beyond what the budget and time allocated to Doctor Who allowed, with scenes unfilmed due to director Graeme Harper’s ambitions, but these paid off handsomely. All in all, The Caves of Androzani demonstrates that this era was capable of concluding a character arc in a dramatic and thematically satisfying way.

And then, The Twin Dilemma was broadcast.

John Nathan-Turner decided to give Sixth Doctor Colin Baker a full story at the end of Season 21 to make an impression.  And to be fair, he did!

Unfortunately, The Twin Dilemma continued a trend in recent seasons where the money had run out by the final serial. With Saward rewriting Antony Steven’s wayward scripts, the Sixth Doctor’s first impression was of a violent and unpleasant man in a cheap-looking and underwhelming story.

Baker’s take on the Doctor is more verbose, unstable, and remote. In his first story, these characteristics are more intensely felt, which makes the new Doctor look aggressive, hostile, and violent. Specifically, he strangles Peri, the person he just sacrificed himself to save a week earlier.

Conceptually, the Sixth Doctor isn’t a bad idea, but the realisation is poor. The components don’t preclude a better version of the character, as Baker’s superior Big Finish audio adventures confirmed, but as with the Fifth Doctor’s companions, it’s not clear why Peri is actually there. It rarely seems to be fun in any way for her (which is something both Baker and Bryant understood and lobbied to change) so the central pairing is either deeply implausible or depicting someone trapped in an abusive relationship.

Instead of drawing a line under violent stories where the Doctor is unable to prevent mass slaughter, Season 22 goes further. The programme doesn’t have the storytelling skill to pull off the grimdark, cynical universe it aspires to put onscreen.

For example, at the end of Attack of the Cybermen, the Doctor states he’s never ‘misjudged anyone as much as he’s misjudged Lytton’. Prior to this story, he’d met Lytton once, as a Dalek agent who pointed a gun at his face. It is entirely reasonable to misjudge Lytton. Like Adric’s death, it’s a dramatic beat that doesn’t stand up to analysis.

And then, the BBC cancelled Doctor Who.

Cancel culture (1986 – 1989)

Well, they tried at any rate.

BBC One Controller Michael Grade disliked Doctor Who. He could fairly point to moments where it looked cheap and laughable, and he didn’t believe the production team had the ability to make a better show even with a bigger budget. In February 1985, he announced the show was going on hiatus.

Perhaps slightly aggrieved by the public outcry in the show’s defence, the BBC ultimately recommissioned Doctor Who for a shorter run, going from 13 x 45-minute episodes to 14 x 25-minute episodes. Fandom was mollified, while those at the corporation who wanted rid seemed satisfied they had landed a killing blow; that Doctor Who would simply bleed out in public.

To be fair, the chaotic production and broadcast version of Season 23 seemed to back that up. Given minimal guidance from the BBC over how they actually wanted Doctor Who to change, Saward and Nathan-Turner opted for a riff on “A Christmas Carol”, with the Doctor on trial for interference on other planets, with evidence submitted from his past, present, and future exploits.

The working relationship between producer and script editor deteriorated throughout the season. Robert Holmes died midway through writing the final episode, and when Nathan-Turner opted not to use the planned cliffhanger ending in case the BBC decided not to recommission the show, Saward resigned. The conclusion was rewritten by writing duo Pip and Jane Baker with lawyers present to ensure there were no similarities with Saward and Holmes’ previous script (which they weren’t allowed to see).

Meanwhile, although Colin Baker’s performance develops, he reportedly sought clarification as to whether he was performing the Doctor being horrible because he was bluffing or the Doctor being horrible because the evidence had been tampered with by the Time Lords.

Structured as a single 14-part story, The Trial Of A Time Lord wasn’t without moments of brilliance, but ultimately it was a muddled and confusing serial that failed to follow through on any of its major concepts. It did not answer the looming question “Why keep making Doctor Who?”

And then, unexpectedly, the BBC decided to keep making Doctor Who.

Nathan-Turner had thirteen months to produce fourteen episodes with no Script Editor in place. He was then told to sack Colin Baker, who wanted to make another series but was offered a single regeneration story at the start of Season 24. Unsurprisingly, he declined.

With no script editor or lead actor in place, the Bakers (Pip and Jane, not Tom or Colin) were once again commissioned. Nathan-Turner knew from the previous quick turnaround that they could write fast, but their style was to produce light and frothy nonsense and act as if they’d handed in The Seventh Seal.

Incoming script editor Andrew Cartmel was more influenced by comics writers and artists of the past 10 years, especially 2000 AD. As Nathan-Turner became more withdrawn from the creative process, Cartmel had freer rein and recruited like-minded writers from workshops run by the BBC script unit. He encouraged writers to engage more with real-world concerns.

With the Bakers’ already-commissioned season opener Time And The Rani as a notable outlier, Season 24 is a more creative and satirical run. Serials include Paradise Towers, a novel hybrid of J.G. Ballard and CBBC set in an absurd futuristic parody of a failed 1960s high-rise apartment building, and Delta And The Bannermen, a tonally jarring mix of rock-and-roll music, attempted genocide, bees saving the day, and guest-star Ken Dodd getting gunned down in cold blood.

There was a sense that what the show was lacking in coherence it made up for in little moments of humanity, sweet romances and the new Doctor being the kind of person who would stop investigating alien bounty hunters because he hears someone crying. Doctor Who was less introverted than it had been in years.

The Seventh Doctor was intended to echo Patrick Troughton’s incarnation, and Nathan-Turner cast Sylvester McCoy, a gurning bundle of energy and quiet brooding. His first season was a transitional one, with McCoy still finding his feet in the role, but by the start of the next season, Doctor Who would have its playground-influencing mojo back

‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ was the first story of the 25th-anniversary season and accordingly harked back to its origins while pointing the way forward. As well as giving new companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) plenty to do and making the Doctor unnerving in a dramatically interesting way, it’s delivered with confidence and solid production values.

(The latter is partly due to overspending, and instead of noting that Doctor Who actually looks alright when you put money into it, the BBC banned director Andrew Morgan from working on the show again.)

Viewed with modern eyes, the final two seasons have connective tissue with the 2005 revival. Christopher Eccleston’s series would likely be as is without the McCoy era, but Cartmel and his team deserve praise for treading similar ground 16 years earlier, even if the script editor’s strengths lay in honing and expanding offbeat ideas, rather than the nuts and bolts of story structure.

Nevertheless, Seasons 25 and 26 are among the strongest of the original run. Even the lesser stories have an infectious charm courtesy of the leads, and in the case of 1989’s Battlefield, there are some brilliant ideas let down by the execution. The Doctor begins to move away from being a traveller and towards a mythic figure. Centuries of fighting Daleks and Cybermen give way to the realisation that maybe, just maybe, they need fettling.

The comics-influenced scripts produced garish visuals, and while the trend in comics was towards dark and gritty storytelling, the TV show has long utilised camp and irony to deflect attention from political subtext.

In this respect, late-80s Who feels like an Agitprop version of the Graham Williams era. Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol critiqued the contemporary politics of the UK. The Greatest Show In The Galaxy is about the death of 1960s idealism with a meta-commentary on the BBC and Doctor Who itself. Historical outings like Remembrance Of The Daleks, The Curse Of Fenric, and Ghost Light respectively revisit the origins of Doctor Who, explore the Second World War and its influence on the programme, and once again revisits the Victorian era.

The ratings were not good (being counter-programmed against ITV juggernaut Coronation Street didn’t help) but fundamentally, the BBC were not making 25-minute-long shows, science-fiction, or family programmes in 1989. They were looking more and more for external production companies to make their programmes. Doctor Who was not formally cancelled but left in limbo; the possibility of someone else making it tantalising but distant.

In the 1990s, someone else did make it. Then, in the 2000s, the BBC made it again. And put money behind it. It fitted into a Saturday night 45-minute drama slot. And it worked. All the things that seemed obvious in 1989 were, in fact, still true in 2005. And fittingly enough, the last story of that original run was called Survival.

One day, they will come back…

Unlike any other classic era, there are very few returning characters or monsters in the new series. 2022’s The Power Of The Doctor is the biggie, featuring companions Tegan and Ace, and cameos from the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors. And behind the scenes, director Graeme Harper and Survival writer Rona Munro are among those with credits on both Classic and New Who.

However, there are plenty of references to the 1980s in the new series. Characters from Androzani Major appear in The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe, and there are namechecks for the Terileptils in The Pandorica Opens, the Eternals in Army Of Ghosts, and the Valeyard in The Name Of The Doctor. There’s even a fleeting reference to Timelash in The Sarah Jane Adventures, the superior reboot of 1981’s K9 And Company.

Oh, and the Rani reappeared in 1993’s curio anniversary celebration Dimensions in Time, described in The Second Doctor Handbook as a ‘dreadful travesty’. More on that next week!

Six more brilliant things about Doctor Who in the 1980s

1. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor marks a return to Patrick Troughton’s anarchic, melancholy, manipulative clown, imbued with a new, mythic edge. Thanks to McCoy and Aldred’s obvious rapport, this comics-influenced “dark Doctor” take never becomes one-note or unpleasant. Plus, McCoy’s strengths as an actor lie more in the quiet moments than dominating wrath.

2. On the guest star front, Ancelyn lifts Battlefield in every scene he’s in. Marcus Gilbert understood the assignment, threading a needle through the conflicting tones of the production to turn in a performance that wouldn’t be out of place in The Princess Bride. As Ancelyn says: ‘Let them come. Do you not know I am the best knight in the world?’

3. While it completely never forgot to scare the audience, the 80s don’t have the same “behind the sofa” reputation as the previous two decades. However, The Awakening, a two-parter from Season 21, has a suitably haunting monster that terrified me as a child. From its medieval devil carvings to the demonic vomiting sprite that haunts the TARDIS, the Malus is a really strong creation that lingered long in my memory.

4. Eric Saward’s finest work on the show, Revelation Of The Daleks, is loosely based on Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One” and is darkly hilarious. As well as turning Davros into an amoral businessman, Saward creates the dignified yet rubbish knight Orcini and gives us the delightful sight of Alexei Sayle firing a rock’n’roll ray-gun at Daleks. Uncommonly for this era, the story points in a straightforwardly optimistic direction with the Doctor suggesting a galaxy-saving change in career for the survivors.

5. Planet Of Fire is a sorely underrated story: given a checklist of items (write out two companions, write in the new companion, bring back the Master, kill off the Master, and make sure it’s set in Lanzarote) writer Peter Grimwade brings a solid plot about religious zealotry, featuring strong characterisation and the funniest Master reveal. Also, Davison’s acting choices – both his reactions and lack of reaction – suggest so much more emotional turmoil than the show was interested in showing at the time.

6. Despite the abundance of Doctor close-ups, this era does have some fantastic cliffhangers. For sheer exhilaration, it’s hard to look past Part 3 of The Caves Of Androzani. Director Graeme Harper’s use of handheld cameras gives a sense of immediacy. The sound design ramps up the tension. Davison delivers a masterclass in intensity without ever getting out of his seat. The increasingly rapid cutting makes you feel like a planet is going to hit you in the face. Incredible stuff.

Andrew Blair is a writer and performer from Scotland. He also writes poetry, including a pamphlet of poems about a fictional version of Robert Pattinson. He writes about Doctor Who a lot and is broadly in favour of it.

Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do. Feel free to share your favourite things about 1980s Doctor Who in the comments…

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