Wednesday, 23 June 2010

THE REGENERATION GAME (Round 3) - Bohemian Cricket! (Part 2)

The Fifth Doctor marks something of a turning point in classic Doctor Who history with the new Jon Nathan-Turner broom sweeping aside the certainties of the past. No longer was the show part of the BBC’s Saturday night killer line up, the now classic format of the Doctor travelling with a single glamorous assistant was gone, and it was clear that the old theme and titles weren’t coming back. And in the popular consciousness, all these changes are remembered as the point when the show started to go downhill. The era of the much maligned Doctors is upon us.

As we saw while tracing the evolution of the role in the Tom Baker years, the character and the tone of the show was in need of a shake-up. And the Fifth Doctor was to be a marked contrast to the Fourth; Baker’s alien bohemian was replaced a much more vulnerable cricket lover. Davison was a kinder, softer Doctor; less sure of himself and more thoughtful, haughty Time Lord arrogance giving way to sympathetic understanding. Far less authoritarian than any of his previous incarnations and more reserved about wading into a situation, the Fifth Doctor is the most indecisive, always looking to find an accord rather than take the lead.

After the long reign of the Fourth Doctor and Tom Baker’s huge popularity, Peter Davison had a very steep hill to climb. And the change in the character’s attitude and reactions has not always played well with viewers – even among fans the Fifth Doctor is often dismissed as the ‘wet vet’ - an allusion to Davison’s previous well know role as Tristan in All Creatures Great And Small. Now the concept of a Doctor who is more fallible and takes his decisions very seriously is an interesting one. While Baker strode about the cosmos with a “I’m the bloody Doctor, so watch it cock!” gleam in his mad eyes, Davison was a quieter presence, and although he could take the hard line when necessary, the Fifth Doctor was always more sensitive to the costs and consequences.

As the show had scaled back the sillier humour and was still cautious of venturing too far into horror territory, the emphasis was much more on scientific accuracy, and this shifting of weight from the fantasy of the Williams/Adams period to greater realism would lead to all manner of moral dilemmas for the Fifth Doctor to agonise over. The days of the Doctor lashing up some gizmo from super convenient tat in his pockets and manifesting unexpected new abilities were over. Thinking things through and weighing up the right decisions were to be the order of the day now. And this new approach was exemplified in the Davison’s fourth outing The Visitation which saw the sonic screwdriver not only destroyed, but not replaced. From now on, there will be no magic wand in the Doctor’s capacious pockets, and the screw driver will not return until the Eighth Doctor takes the TARDIS controls (apparently he finds a spare in the depths of the TARDIS according to the BBC novels).

And Davison’s performances as this more down to earth Doctor are full of interesting subtlety. While he appears even younger than ever before, his portrayal is full of nods to the fact that he is actually a very old man in a youthful body, with shades of the First Doctor’s crotchetiness on show. However for some, he was just too young for the role – while there had been much muttering about Baker’s age, this was compared to the debates about Davison’s casting. However his boyish good looks aside, many felt he was lacking the necessary gravitas to play the role. Therefore the new direction the show was taking the Doctor in did seem to some like a watering down of the character.

And although this is more than a little unfair to Davison, who acted his cricket pads off in the role, it has to be said there are problems here. While there is nothing wrong with the revised conception of the Doctor himself, or the casting of Davison for that matter, the trouble is the show itself didn’t always deliver a decent showcase for the new Doctor.

The first problem is that for much of the Fifth Doctor’s time, he was operating in a very crowded TARDIS. With Adric stowing aboard in the Tom Baker’s final season, we saw the Nathan-Turner production team taking the cast numbers back to the Hartnell days. It was a deliberate break from the Doctor and sexy assistant set up which at the dawning of the 1980s and political correctness, was looking somewhat chauvinist and sexist.

Now at the time, I welcomed the change. Having absorbed the lore about the early days contained in the pages of the Radio Times 10th Anniversary special, for a good while I’d wanted to see the Doctor gain a few more members for the TARDIS crew - I wanted another Jamie, Ben or Harry in the show. However what we got was Adric and very soon I and many other viewers were wishing the Doctor would boot him back to E-Space pronto.

Now the Adric character underlines a recurring misconception about child characters in stories with adult heroes – namely that audiences will like them. But the truth is generally we don’t - such characters are only second to funny robots and cute animals in the annoying side kicks that “ruin it” stakes. Indeed, characters like Adric constitute the only time most people would condone the disembowelment of children with a rusty meat hook.

While it is true that children like to watch children having adventures, it only really appeals when said adventures are completely enclosed in a child’s world; where a gang of kids are at the centre of the action and the only grown-ups are adversaries and well meaning but stupid parents. Classic children’s fiction from The Famous Five to all operate on these principles. However, stick a child character next one of their grown-up heroes and the reaction is very different: the only child the average younger viewer wants to see by their hero’s side is themselves. This is why audiences may love Jonathan Le Kwan in The Goonies but loathe him as Short Round in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. And for adult viewers, the introduction of a juvenile sidekick smacks too much of infantilising the property and leads to feelings that perhaps they shouldn’t be watching.

But aside from this basic misunderstanding of the dynamics governing child characters in adventure fiction, Adric is not helped by the fact that he is an insufferable smart arse. Originally he was conceived as a kind of Artful Dodger in space, but what we actually got was the school swot – having a badge for doing sums didn’t exactly endear him to the audience. Evidently this was a move to making him a worthy addition to the TARDIS crew, but while they built up his intellect they still tried to portray the character as acting his age. And the result? The unappealing combination of whining and precociousness, the perfect recipe to annoy viewers of all ages. Interestingly, Star Trek made exactly the same mistakes when conceiving Wesley Crusher, another very ill regarded character, which just goes to show that this misconception about youthful sidekicks is a widespread one.

And so, when they decided to take the very bold move and actually kill a companion - in Earthshock, Adric got smashed into the prehistoric earth along with a freighter load of Cybermen, wiping out the dinosaurs and probably many Silurians - rather than the gutters overflowing with tears, round our way the sky was black with hats. Not quite the intended result I’m sure.

But Adric annoyances aside, the main problem in Davison’s first season is that he’s sharing the TARDIS with three companions. With Tegan, Nyssa and Adric all vying for screen time, and this new Doctor’s tendency to discuss and debate a plan of action rather than assume leadership of the team, he often appeared sidelined in his own show. And script-wise, the stories too often struggled to find enough for all four characters to do.

In the Fifth Doctor’s second season, with Adric now sleeping with the ichthyosaurs, wisely JNT didn’t introduce another third companion. However as a common solution to the four leads problem had been to leave Nyssa in the TARDIS, her character was underdeveloped and so she still didn’t get a lot to do. Understandable actress Sarah Sutton was not at all happy with being treated like K9 and despite Davison gallantly arguing with the production team to see that the scripts served her character better, things did not improve and Sutton decided to leave.

However some lessons had been learnt, and replacement Vislor Turlough (Mark Strickson) came complete with not only a properly developed character but a story arc. This played out as the fondly remembered Black Guardian trilogy, which had the daring concept of a companion working as a mole for a returning arch villain. However after this plot thread’s conclusion, frequently Strickson wasn’t being given an awful lot to do – for example, he spends much of Resurrection of the Daleks skulking in corridors. Although Turlough had a clear back-story and a fleshed out persona, I think the problem really was Tegan.

Now I have nothing against this character played by Janet Fielding, or her performances. Tegan was an interesting companion – an Australian airhostess who was forthright, strident and very quick to challenge the Doctor if she didn’t think things were right. But the trouble seems to be that Tegan was such a strong character, and such fun to write for, that the script writers automatically gravitated to her and tended to leave little for other TARDIS crew members to do.

But there is also another problem with the crew dynamics in this era. Throughout the Davison years, we had three companions who all will frequently argue the toss with our Time Lord hero. Looking back over it now, it seems that in the Fifth Doctor’s time, the TARDIS was a very fractious place to be, with Tegan, Turlough and Adric all bending his ears while he was trying to get one with saving the day. And while I can appreciate that the move to a larger cast was a logical move away from the perceived sexism of sharing the TARDIS with a sexy damsel, putting to bed the idea of any hanky panky in the TARDIS, the creation of a team with an almost family atmosphere perhaps tipped too far the other way. Maybe it was part of the keeping-it-real ethos of the show at the time, but this family squabbled a lot and showed little cohesion as a team of adventurers. All of which didn’t exactly give either the Fifth Doctor or his companions a setting in which to sparkle.

In addition to the crowded TARDIS syndrome, there are also cosmetic and tonal problems surfacing. While Doctor Who had moved with the times, becoming more sci-fi in sync with the Star Wars boom, the Davison years saw the show moving more in tune with a different strain of science fiction. Whereas Star Wars popularised a return to Golden Age space fantasy, Who was mining the deeper seams of speculative fiction; all the playing with big science concepts and exploring moral quandaries was more in keeping with the SF of the New Wave than the antics of Lensman or Flash Gordon. But visually, this is what Doctor Who at the time was showing us.

For example, the Silurian/Sea Devils story Warriors of the Deep was supposed to look dirty and dark; Sea Base 4 was meant to be a lived in and broken environment like the Nostromo in Alien. And consequently, the sets in were designed to be seen in low light. However when it was actually shot, the sets were drenched in light giving it the gleaming white control panels looks of classic SF. And this mismatching of the story’s tone and the visual aesthetic is a recurring factor in the Davison years. Often it seemed that the sets, lighting and wardrobe were pulling one way and the scripts in another.

While the stories, particularly under Eric Saward’s tenure as script editor, were often gritty affairs, under JNT’s instructions the main cast were bundled into costumes that were almost uniforms. The idea here was that each character was to have an iconic stylised look. Now while many sci-fi properties do feature eye catching uniforms for their casts, Doctor Who is not one of those kind of shows. It’s quite the opposite, the Doctor is not part of an organised team like the Tracey family in Thunderbirds, nor part of a government sanctioned body like the various Star Trek crews; he’s a free spirit and the point of the companions is taking ordinary people on adventures in space and time. So putting the TARDIS crew into what were effectively uniforms made no sense to the viewers at home - it just looked like the characters just couldn’t be arsed to change their clothes.

And aside from inspiring cracks about personal hygiene, this overt branding of the characters’ wardrobes poses a more serious threat to the show. When you place the Fifth Doctor in a bleak bloodbath of a story like Resurrection of the Daleks or Warriors of the Deep, his wardrobe just screams “costume!” rather than blending in with the realism the story is attempting to build. And it’s hard to be a credible hero when you are strolling about in what looks like fancy dress.

The Fifth Doctor’s apparel raises also other issues. His new found love for cricket is apparently so great that he adopts the looks of an old school umpire. Now previous Doctors had picked up some odd affectations in their regenerations – for example, the Second liked to play the recorder and the Fourth had a love for jelly babies – but this fondness of cricket is somewhat perplexing. Now I have nothing against this most English of sports, and as the most English of aliens, an appreciation of this summer pass time is not out of keeping for the Doctor in the slightest. Rather what bothers me is the manner in which it was done, and in particular the ensuing costume decision – it just felt too heavy handed. When they unveiled the new Doctor to the public, it was like this was the only selling point they could think of - here’s the new guy, and like 10CC, he doesn’t like cricket, he loooooves it!

Now thankfully the actual stories revealed a greater depth to his character, and they didn’t resort him making references to Dr W.G. Grace every other episode. But visually it was a small aspect of the character becoming the defining template, and in my book a step in the wrong direction; The Fourth Doctor may have loved jelly babies but he didn’t feel the need to dress as Bertie Basset to underline the new quirk. This heavy focus on the cricket took the magic out of the regeneration process, almost downgrading it to a mere change of hobbies.

Similar the Fifth Doctor wore a stick of celery on his lapel. Apparently this was because this particular incarnation, for reasons that were never elucidated, was vulnerable to gases in the Praxis range (whatever they are - don’t ask me, I’m not Walter White). In the presence of these personal toxins, the celery would react by changing colour, and then the Doctor would eat the celery which now presumably contained a cure. All well and good, but these reasons for wearing salad on his coat weren’t actually revealed until his final story. So then for three years, we had a visual quirk that served no other purpose other than to be a quirk; a means of giving the Doctor the style but not the substance of an eccentric character.

And as alluded to earlier, the costume itself was simply too stylised. I think the look may have worked better if he had been wearing some more authentic Edwardian cricketing garb; togs that actually looked old and vintage. Instead we got an overly designed ensemble based on antique sports gear but filtered through the lens of ‘80s fashion. Where previous Doctors looked like they dressed eccentrically, the Fifth Doctor looked artificially theatrical. And Nathan-Turner’s idea to try to give the Doctor his own superhero style symbol, with the addition of question marks to the outfit didn’t help either. The Doctor maybe an iconic hero, but he’s nothing like your usual super hero; he’s a man of mystery and as such doesn’t really need a special sign or a set costume to tell us what he’s about. Fortunately the question marks never really caught on, although JNT still persisted with them until the very end, with the rogue punctuation marks turning up in both the Sixth and Seventh Doctors’ wardrobes. Again this is showing a clash between the house style the production team was bringing in and the actual content of the show.

However although it is easy with the benefits of hindsight, which is always 20/20, to decry the stylistic decisions JNT made back then, you have to consider the context of the times. He was attempting to keep the show up to date and his design choices were very in keeping with the tropes of the new decade – clean lines, bright colours and highly stylised. And rather than just keep everything as was, he knew that Doctor Who had to change with times. He showed a willingness to experiment with the format, but at the same time, a reverence for the show’s past. For all the new elements he brought to the show, he also resurrected classic villains like the Master, the Cybermen and the Black Guardian. And all the while he was hampered by tight budgets and struggled against the post Star Wars shift in the public’s expectations of what special effects could achieve.

The Fifth Doctor’s era may have been beset with such difficulties and some of the experiments may not have paid off, but you have to give credit to the cast and crew for trying to create original adventures and taking risks. But it should be noted that not all the experiments failed – when everything pulled together we got memorable and complex stories like Kinda and The Caves of Androzani. And in spite of all the constraints, Davison still made a worthy Doctor, and is still winning fans to this day – he’s proving very popular with the ranks of younger viewers who have go into Who through the new series and are now going back to view the old school Doctors.

So finally then, we must address the questions this series began with to. The first thing we should note here is an interesting reveal in The Five Doctors. This was another anniversary bash, and just as The Three Doctors was a special team-up adventure to celebrate a decade of Doctor Who, The Five Doctors was a feature length episode to mark the show’s twentieth birthday. In this adventure, we journeyed to the Death Zone on Gallifrey, where the tomb of Rassilion lies. And we learn that in his role as founder of Time Lord society, it was Rassilion who decreed that their regenerations were to be limited to twelve.

Now this clears up the long standing question of whether their ability to regenerate was a natural biological ability or achieved by technological means. And this point is reinforced by the fact that the High Council of Time Lords are prepared to offer the Master a new regenerative cycle if he will help the Doctor in the current crisis. So then, there is a way for the Doctor to carry on when he runs out of regenerations – remember with Matt Smith we are up to Doctor Eleven so this crisis is looming now. Of course, how he could get a new cycle with both the Time Lords and Gallifrey gone is another matter entirely…

But the possibility that the Time Lords award a second cycle of incarnations in exceptional circumstance could explain the Morbius Doctors. Perhaps they were his first cycle of regenerations and the fact that he was somehow earned a second cycle was stricken from the record. After all, technically this is breaking the revered rules as laid down by Rassilion, and considering how hidebound the Time Lords are as a society, it’s highly likely that such a deed would indeed be covered up and hence in the The Three Doctors they believe Hartnell to be the first.

Alternatively, it should be also be noted that in The Caves of Androzani while the Doctor is dying of Spectrox Toxaemia, he remarks that he doesn’t know if he will regenerate or not, and as the process starts claims “it feels different this time”. Could it be possible that the Morbius Doctors were his previous incarnations, and so he is actually the Thirteenth Doctor and has run out of proper regenerations? Well it’s possible, but there is a rather large fly in this ointment as we shall see when we examine the Sixth Doctor’s career.

However we do have another regeneration anomaly to resolve here. Throughout the Fourth Doctor’s swansong Logopolis there’s a mysterious fellow following the Doctor about, dressed all in white with vague, almost unformed features and swathed in what appear to be cobwebs.

Known only as the Watcher, this enigmatic being can fly the TARDIS, rescues Nyssa, speaks with Adric and imparts some information to the Doctor himself eventually. And when the Fourth falls to his death and begins to regenerate, the Watcher approaches and merges with him. The Doctor appears to transform into the Watcher, and then the white features slough away revealing the new Fifth Doctor.

Now the story itself gives no real explanation for these events, but I’d add in a good way. It’s clear that the Watcher is part of the magic of regeneration; as he is dying and the mysterious figure draws close, the Doctor beckons and say ‘the moment has been prepared for’. Essentially it’s enough for us to know that the Doctor knows exactly what is doing on even if we don’t. However as ever there is a fan theory about the riddle of the Watcher, and in this case, one that does bear up to close scrutiny.

Rewind to Planet of the Spiders. In this story, the Third Doctor’s finale, we are introduced to a powerful Time Lord, K’anpo Rimpoche, formerly the Doctor’s mentor and who helps him in his regeneration. We also see this Time Lord regenerate too but there is a twist to the usual process. Rimpoche’s new incarnation has been running about the place independently as another monk Cho Je BEFORE he regenerates. Now he explains that Cho Je was actually a psychic projection; the exact details are vague but it would seem that Rimpoche has prepared the shape of his future incarnation ahead of time.

So then, it has been suggested that the Watcher is the Doctor’s attempt at the same procedure. And this makes a lot of sense in the context. The Doctor does not posses the same degree of power as Rimpoche, who is powerful he can apparently travel time and space sans TARDIS, and additionally he does not have the same amount of time to prepare for his death. Hence the Watcher is a vague and only semi-formed figure which the Doctor transforms into before regenerating fully into Peter Davison.

Now although some have counted the Watcher as an apocryphal Doctor, if we take the above explanation to be true – and it does fit the facts nicely, so I suggest we do – then clearly he doesn’t count as an incarnation proper - the Watcher is just a kind of psychic cocoon for his next self.

So let’s have a look at the scores on the doors!

Right then we have nine actors in the roles of the Doctor now – five are the ones everybody knows: Davison, Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell, plus Richard Hurndall playing the First in The Five Doctors and John Culshaw playing the Fourth in The Kingmaker, and finally two alternative Apocryphal Doctors with Peter Cushing and Trevor Martin as alternate versions of the First and Fourth respectively.

The total for the number of incarnations is a trickier beast. We definitely have two alternate continuum Doctors, and either five or thirteen incarnations depending on whether you count the Morbius Doctors or not…

- Should I lose the coat?
- No, I think you should burn it! If you just lose it you might find it again!

Didn’t he do well!

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