Over the past few weeks Twitch has been airing a giant Classic Doctor Who marathon, from An Unearthly Child to Survival, presumably to allow new fans to catch up on the old show before Jodie Whittaker makes her debut this October. It’s been a great time for me, as whilst I’ve seen the episodes before it’s great talking to other Whovians on Twitter and through Twitch chat and seeing new fans discover the joy that is the classic series. Ian Chesterton is a meme, Patrick Troughton has a legion of new followers and it’s great seeing Elizabeth Sladen’s legacy being continued even today through her stories. Today sees the Peter Davison era start with his first three stories airing today. His Doctor is generally well liked (particularly by a certain Whovian called David Tennant) but his era is often seen as the beginning of the end of Classic Who, with story quality dropping and the once large audience fading. Sound familiar? That’s because we’ve just seen this happen as new series fans, with Peter Capaldi. Annoying companions? Check. Reliance on the past? Check. Audiences leaving and viewing figures dropping? Check, check and double check. These two Doctors are about as different to each other as you can get, yet the eras have so much in common. What makes the weakest era in the classic series similar to the weakest era in the new series apart from the leading men being called Peter? Let’s find out.
For starters, there’s an argument to be made that David Tennant and Matt Smith are the new series equivalent of Tom Baker. With Tennant, we have the show at huge, popular heights with amazing consistency and pop culture impact. This is the equivalent of the Hinchcliffe years of Tom Baker’s Doctor. With Smith comes continued audience interest, a widening global appeal and an era that divides fans more than the previous one. This is similar to Graham Williams’s time on the show, where the show got slightly more inconsistent and humour based with Tom Baker still playing the role yet still remaining popular. Tom Baker and Matt Smith regenerate and along comes our two Peters. Two very different yet very similar sets of events play out.
Season 19/Series 8
“It’s a new era” says John Nathan-Turner in 1981 and Steven Moffat in 2013. Our new Doctor has been announced to replace a wildly successful and popular Doctor. Both are established actors who are well respected in the industry. We have new companions (or in the case of Capaldi just one) introduced at the tail end of the previous era. The show rides the hype waves into the new series and audiences…. well, I can’t speak for the reaction of Season 19 at the time, but Series 8 was definitely met with scorn and dislike by a large number of fans and a huge number of audiences. Funnily enough, both eras jumped the shark at the exact same story number, story seven, with Time-Flight and Kill the Moon. Although I would still watch four episodes of a Concorde advert then sit through Kill the Moon again. What went wrong with the first impressions?
I think we can boil the big issue with both Season 19 and Series 8 down to the companions and the lack of character from the Doctor. In Five’s case, he’s stuck with three companions, none of whom want to be in the TARDIS and who are obviously JNT’s attempt to recreate the original Hartnell crew (and don’t think Moffat isn’t guilty of missing the point of Hartnell’s era either). The issue is that Tegan and Adric are horribly annoying and Nyssa, whilst being a decent character and great on Big Finish, has no personality on television, leaving Davison stuck in the middle with not much to do. His Doctor gets very little to do in his first season- he’s sleeping for most of Castrovalva (unlike Christmas Invasion, the characters we’re stuck with in Castrovalva aren’t interesting) and does nothing in Four to Doomsday, Black Orchid or the aforementioned Time-Flight. The only stories that give him personality and interesting things to do are easily the best in the season- Kinda (without question the best Davison story in my eyes, and one of my all time favourite stories) sees his active mind and optimism be put to the test, The Visitation sees him actively battle the Terileptils and Earthshock sees him pushed to the edge with the Cybermen. Unfortunately it’s too little too late, and Season 19 ends with an audience having no idea who this new Doctor is outside of “being nice”. Leaving an audience with Time-Flight did not help matters.
Series 8 is even worse in this regard. We once again have a Doctor constantly overshadowed by his companion, and in this case it’s only one which is amazing because you would think having two regulars would allow both to share the spotlight. Not with Clara. Her character is unlikeable, annoying, inconsistent and grating- Tegan and Adric combined. And the Doctor? I understand what Moffat was trying to do here but it didn’t work too well. Capaldi is questioning if he is a good man and having an unsure Doctor is a fascinating idea, but the stories do nothing with this idea. Twelve is either in the background yelling at people and having Clara hog the spotlight or he’s not the Doctor, instead being Space Tucker. Think about it, what did the Doctor do in Series 8? You can take him out of half the stories and there would be no change. We are left with even less of a clue than with Five about who this new Doctor is. Is he a Hartnell-esque figure? A Pertwee-esque action hero? Dark and alien like the Bakers? Manipulative like McCoy? You could argue that’s the point, but in order for us to sympathise with this incarnation we need some defining traits to latch onto and some forms of identifying this Doctor from the others. We also need some redeeming features, which is hard to achieve when every other line makes you hate him. There’s nothing here yhat makes him interesting or stand out from the other eleven incarnations aside from what Jamie Matheison does in his double bill episodes, which is promptly forgotten about in favour of TREES! By the end of 2014 the show was a shadow of what it was literally a year beforehand, mainly due to poor execution and of course, Kill the Moon.
So, two Doctors with mixed reception are getting a second year. In Davison’s case it’s the 20th anniversary year, whereas Capaldi has yet another run with Clara (joy?) Did Nathan-Turner and Moffat learn from fan criticism of the first year? Nooooooooo…
Season 20/Season 9
Two seasons that I view as being roughly equal in quality, being quite inconsistent and not offering anything new. Here, we have the producers of the show take criticism the wrong way, and prevent both eras from having identity.
Let’s look at Season 20. Do you want to know who fans didn’t want to see come back? Tegan! Yet here she is for no reason. The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa have had great audio stories on their own so why weren’t they allowed to be a TARDIS team in 1983? All of Davison’s best stories (with the exception of Earthshock) have him with two or solo companions. Here, Nathan-Turner perceives criticism of Season 19 to mean audiences want more of the past. Herein lies the problem with the Davison era- it takes from the past and lacks an identity of its own. Season 19 was experiment after experiment of tried and tested formats with nothing original. Season 20 is allowed to take from the past due to it being the anniversary series, but it has weird choices to bring back. Omega? Sure it makes sense because he was the villain for the 10th anniversary, but the story doesn’t do a good jump of explaining who exactly he is. The Mara makes sense because it was in the previous season (incidentally, I do like Snakedance quite a bit) whilst the Black Guardian is a weird choice. In order to make head and tail of Mawdryn Undead (a story I do like), a viewer has to be familiar with the Key to Time and the Brigadier, and in the 80’s this wasn’t easily possible for new viewers. The best Fifth Doctor companion arrives in the shape of Turlough, and the fascinating potential he has is wasted just as soon as his story arc is over. Remind you of anyone in Series 9? The season peaks in the genius Enlightenment, before fizzling out with The King’s Demons. At least The Five Doctors is there to end the otherwise disappointing anniversary year with style.
Now let’s look at Series 9. Clara had a perfectly decent ending (TWICE!) and yet she’s back here and does nothing for all the stories before promptly dying then not dying. Urgh. In this series, Moffat doubles on the references and homages to the past for absolutely no reason, giving the Capaldi era even less of an identity and confusing audiences even more. The opening two parter needs knowledge of Genesis of the Daleks. The Girl Who Died requires having seen Fires of Pompeii. The finale has so many unneeded and contradictory changes to the show’s past that viewers who don’t know Classic Who will be confused and viewers who have will be angry. The Doctor has gone from being an angry character who barely resembles the Doctor to an utterly embarrassing to watch Matt Smith clone that fails to understand Matt Smith’s Doctor. How could Moffat misunderstand HIS Doctor? What is Twelve wearing in this series? Why does he have sonic shades? Why is he playing a guitar constantly? Why is he making pop culture references all the time? Is this really the series that is supposedly better than Series 1, 3, 4, 5 and half of 6? For a Doctor who is allegedly more like Classic Who, I’m mortified. I don’t recall a Jon Pertwee story that has him playing a drum kit on top of an airplane whilst yelling “Duuuude”. Moffat connects this series with Tennant’s run and Classic Who, stripping any individuality or identity away from this Doctor and giving him a different look and personality every episode. A very interesting character in the form of Ashildr turns up, only for nothing to happen to her story arc. Remind you of anyone in Season 20? The series peaks with the magnificent Heaven Sent before fizzling- no, hang on- imploding with Hell Bent. There isn’t even a multi-Doctor story at the end of it all.
So, low viewing figures, frustrated fans, a mostly gone audience. Where does this leave our Peters? This is where the paths start diverging. Whilst Hell Bent was the point of no return for many in regards to Capaldi, it was Warriors of the Deep that did the same to Davison. He gets a series immediately, whilst Capaldi waits a year for his next series. Both decide to leave- Davison decides to leave midway through filming Warriors of the Deep (don’t blame him to be honest) whilst Capaldi rather discretely announces his departure in a professional manner. This leaves us with-
Season 21/Series 10
Both Peters get their best season by far. I love both of these runs of Doctor Who. Most of the lessons have been learnt and the show is looking up, unfortunately for both eras it’s too little, too late. The awesomeness of Nardole and Bill and the strengths of Frontios and Caves of Androzani cannot justify the majority of the era.
Season 21 has a darker tone, with the Fifth Doctor finally coming into his own. This era finally gets a voice and identity- a good hearted Doctor fighting the evils of the universe and ultimately failing. Turlough doesn’t get much to do but is still good, and Tegan isn’t that annoying for once. After the terrible opening story, we get five stories of varying shades of good- Awakening and Planet of Fire are alright whilst Frontios, Resurrection of the Daleks and Caves of Androzani are all fantastic. Departures happen satisfyingly and Davison leaves the show in a blaze of glory, running across the war zones of Androzani to save Peri. Truly a phenomenal way to go.
Series 10 has the Twelfth Doctor actually get given a character, thanks to two great companions. Nardole is a refreshingly unique character and Bill is a great audience surrogate who has a fantastic arc and dynamic with the Doctor. Capaldi’s Doctor is a professor who is occasionally cold and cruel but caring to his companion and being a compassionate and fun loving Doctor akin to McCoy or Tom Baker. Ouside of the Lie of the Land sized hiccup, we get some of the revival’s best stories in the form of Thin Ice, Oxygen, Extremis and the amazing finale sees Capaldi leave the show in a blaze of glory, defeating the Cybermen to save the survivors of the colony ship. Truly a phenomenal way to go.
Except it isn’t.
How does this story end? Simple. For all the flaws of the Peter Davison era, and as much as he is my least favourite Classic Who Doctor, I still appreciate his era on the whole. His best stories are amongst the greatest of all time and his regeneration is truly staggering. Caves of Androzani deserves every bit of praise it gets. The Doctor Falls is the revival’s Androzani, with one key difference- instead of regenerating and ending his era on a high, Moffat decides to end it… on Twice Upon a Time. In which he fundamentally misunderstands William Hartnell’s Doctor and wastes everyone’s time until Jodie Whittaker turns up to make me giddy with excitement. Instead of leaving with a selfless act that defines the character, Twelve leaves by making a speech we’ve all heard before and wiping away that good feeling I had after Series 10 finished. Brilliant. I called Davison my least favourite Doctor last December in my countdown of my favourite Classic Who stories but I was still riding on the euphoria of Doctor Falls. In retrospect, I’d place him second to last, with a big gap between him and Capaldi as my least favourite.
In conclusion? It’s simple to see what these eras have in common. Both eras lack identities due to reliance of the past, both have characters who were around for too long, both have the worst stories of their respective iterations of the show, both waste great actors with only the occasional inspired story in the first two seasons before finally giving them stuff to do in their final season. However, the reason I prefer Davison over Capaldi is simple- Davison played the Doctor from Castrovalva to Caves of Androzani. Capaldi played Space Tucker in Series 8 with only a few glimpses of the Doctor. He played embarrassing Matt Smith in Series 9 with only glimpses of the Doctor. He only played the Doctor consistently in Series 10. Davison’s era has the Mara, Eternals, companion deaths, Sharaz Jek and his Doctor has a personality that whilst not amazing, was consistent. His best stories were great without “but…” attached to them. Kinda, Enlightenment, Caves of Androzani, Earthshock, Frontios, Snakedance… these stories are amazing. With Capaldi you have “Oxygen and Extremis are great, but the Monk trilogy was disappointing”, “Heaven Sent was great, but it didn’t mean anything in the end”, “Doctor Falls was one of the best stories ever, but it isn’t Capaldi’s regeneration”, “Zygon Inversion was great, but the first half could have been better”. Every positive has a negative attached, which you don’t get with Davison. Sure Time-Flight, King’s Demons and Twin Dilemma are all bad but that doesn’t take away the power from Earthshock, Enlightenment (seriously, it’s insane how good this story is) or Caves of Androzani. Kinda can be enjoyed without any baggage from bad episodes, whilst to enjoy Mummy on the Orient you need to reminded of Kill the Moon.
So, two Peters. Two eras. Two eras of the show that could have been better. I hope the Jodie Whittaker era is not the Colin Baker equivalent- whilst I love the Sixth Doctor on Big Finish and enjoy most of his TV stories, his era was the death knell for the show for many, rainbow coat sized reasons. If anything, I’m hoping this era can reverse the trend we’ve seen in the revival and go back to emulate the Jon Pertwee or Patrick Troughton eras, with one style of story being done very, very, very well. Or maybe we’ll get the equivalent of the William Hartnell era, with three companions, a return to historicals and a female Doctor paving the way to new potential and new beginnings. It’s exciting times.