Sunday, August 21, 2016

Doctor Who: Goodbye Too Soon

For several weeks, the theme for these Sunday Doctor Who posts has been about transitions. So far I have posted on the subject of:  
In last week’s post, I noted that having the Doctor regenerate at or near the start of a season is not without precedent and there are both positive and negative consequences for such an action. I noted, however, that the worst idea was having new Doctor come in early before the season is through.  

Today we’re going to talk about the time that did happen and how it began the downward spiral that killed Doctor Who for a decade and a half.  Today we’re going to look at classic Doctor Who and season 21. 

Going into his third year, Peter Davison felt it was time to bring his time as the Doctor to an end, acting on the advice and precedent of Patrick Troughton who played the 2nd Doctor. Further nudging Davison into this direct, he was dissatisfied with the quality of the scripts and the limits imposed on developing his version of the Doctor. 

Following the previous actor to play the Doctor, there is an impetus to be different from that version of the Doctor. However, Tom Baker’s Doctor was a bohemian eccentric uncle; the different direction for Davison to go in was perfectly nice older brother. Which may have worked just fine if Davison didn’t have to compete with a crowded TARDIS (3 companions) and wobbly scripts. 

Perhaps producer John Nathan-Turner who had cast Peter Davison as the Doctor saw the shortcomings of a nice guy next door Doctor and was looking to for a new and brash personality to contrast with Davison’s Doctor. Nathan-Turner felt he hit pay dirt with that goal when Colin Baker was cast as the 6th Doctor. 

In fact, John was so enraptured by this new, daring, larger than life Doctor that he couldn’t wait to unleash him on the public. In fact, he was so confident of his choice of Colin Baker as the new Doctor that John had the following idea: why not end the season with the new Doctor and people would be so freaking wowed by this new Doctor that they would be chomping at the bit for Season 22 to start? 

So Peter Davison’s grand exit for the role of the Doctor was the next to the last story of the season. It was also by almost any measurement the best story of the Peter Davison era. In fact, The Caves of Androzani frequently ranks at the all time top of classic Doctor Who episodes and remains competitive with the best of the New Who era that began in 2005.

The last story of Season 21 was Colin Baker’s first full adventure as the 6th Doctor. That story was The Twin Dilemma, frequently cited as the absolute worst Doctor Who story of all time. Yes, worse even that The Gunfighters, Time and the Rani and Love and Monsters.  Yes, it’s really that bad. 

Final Doctor stories have traditionally been epic affairs. The War Games, Planet of the Spiders, Logopolis, The Parting of the Ways, The End of Time, Time of the Doctor. There’s a lot of pressure to go out with a bang. And there was no reason to think that Peter Davison’s last story would not be a momentous occasion. Having the best writer of classic Doctor Who, Robert Holmes, on board to write it just adds more fuel to that fire. The new Doctor’s first story may be a bit unsteady as the new guy figures out how to make his take on the Doctor work. By comparison, the last story for the outgoing Doctor is likely to be stronger than the first story for the incoming Doctor. (The Eleventh Hour being a notable exception to that rule.)  

In short, the odds of Colin Baker ending Season 21 with a bang with his debut as the new Doctor were against him.  

Also lost to Colin Baker and the production staff was the time needed to thoughtfully consider what kind of Doctor his Doctor would be. There was no downtime between seasons to really reflect on Colin’s approach to the role as an actor or for the writers to work around his character. That’s probably why the 6th Doctor keeps giving in to insane episodes of post regenerative madness (including one time where he tries to strangle companion Peri on the floor of the TARDIS!). They weren’t sure what exactly to do with this new Doctor.  

And most egregiously of all, the 6th Doctor’s costume was the result of a rushed and ill-conceived idea that the outfit should be tasteless as possible. Colin himself hated the outfit but he had no say in it and there was no time to argue. 

Think about this: if Matt Smith had come into the role of the 11th Doctor under circumstances similar to Colin Baker’s, we would’ve had a Doctor dressed like a pirate. Honestly, one of the first costume designs for Matt’s Doctor outfit was pirate themed. Thankfully, everyone had to time to reconsider that idea. 

So a new Doctor was brought in early to round off one season instead of waiting to launch a new one. The upshot was a very powerful exit episode followed by a very weak entry episode, transitioning from 1 reasonably well liked Doctor to a not so sympathetic new Doctor. Instead of people anxiously waiting the days for another new episode of this daring new version of the Doctor, Season 22 of Doctor Who was awaited with a sense of dread. It is my opinion that having a new Doctor’s debut adventure at the end of a season was an unnecessarily risky move that harmed the Doctor Who franchise going forward. If Peter Davison could have ended Season 21 in triumph and a better prepared Colin Baker could have had a stronger start with Season 22, the history of Doctor Who would’ve been quite different. Perhaps Colin Baker would have had a longer and better regarded tenure as the Doctor. Perhaps Doctor Who wouldn’t have sputtered to a close in 1989. 

Transitioning from one Doctor to another is fraught with tension for both producers and viewers. But one element that can help alleviate that tension, ironically enough for a show about a time traveler who thinks his way out of trouble, is time to think. 

OK, there's a new post up tomorrow on something or another. And another Doctor Who post back here next Sunday. Thanks for dropping by and until next time, remember to be good to one another.

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