A Modern Woman’s Guide to Classic Who: THE FIFTH DOCTOR YEARS (1982-1984)December 30th, 2010 at 16:51
Summary: The Fifth Doctor was, as with all recasts of this character, something different! At 29, Peter Davison because the youngest actor ever to take the part, a record only broken recently with the casting of 26 year old Matt Smith. While several previous Doctors had long, established careers behind them, Davison had the distinction of already being a popular heart-throb, thanks to his role as Tristan in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small. Rather oddly, the show itself went out of its way to make Davison’s Doctor appear as sexless as possible, to the point of not even wanting the character to touch any of his companions, for fear there might be some (gasp) spark of chemistry between them. The new producer, John Nathan Turner (JNT) who had started with Tom Baker’s final season, began to put his own stamp on the long-running show. In particular, he had a knack for handling the media and making a splash in the newspapers. The companions all appeared in glam poses and sexy pouts… everywhere except the show itself, where for several years they were covered firmly from neck to ankle, and madly avoided eye contact with each other.
The first season and a half of Davison’s run is generally regarded by fans as the “crowded TARDIS” phase – with three companions, many script writers apparently found it hard to give everyone something to do, to the point that many stories found an excuse to write out one or two of the three, due to excessive napping or being stuck in an air vent for several episodes. The first season is also notable for the companions wearing the same costumes with little respite: the joke being that the costume department got so exhausted with coming up with something beautiful and creative for Romana each week that they rebelled when it came to the next generation of companions.
For the first time, Doctor Who moved from its traditional Saturday teatime slot to weekday evenings, and towards the end of the Davison run, began to incorporate more adult content, particularly violence in some stories. This was to continue beyond the Fifth Doctor Years into the Sixth and ultimately would be one of the sticks wielded against the show (though complaints about violence dated back at least as far as the early Fourth Doctor Years).
The format remained the same despite the time change – stories made up of half hour episodes, apart from the Five Doctors special which aired as a single movie-length story.
Things You Need To Know: after a post-randomiser spell of being rather good in the steering department, the TARDIS became erratic again, with a particular blind spot when it came to getting Tegan to Heathrow airport. For the most part, however, the TARDIS was reliable/unreliable when convenient to the plot, with little logic. The sonic screwdriver was destroyed rather comprehensively in Davison’s first season, because it was felt that it made life too easy for the Doctor. (the same argument had been made about K9 – funny how writers always find SOMETHING to make their writing lazy…)
It’s generally believed that the death of the sonic screwdriver was more upsetting to fans than the death of Adric a few stories later… and there is an urban myth that they received more letters of complaint about the former than the latter. Unless I just made that up. Did I just make that up?
Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) – as I said in the Fourth Doctor Years, Adric has been loathed by large swathes of fandom for decades. He is pretty irritating. More importantly, he just didn’t work that well with Davison’s Doctor – as a chatty urchin, Adric made a good contrast to Doom n Gloom Tom, but there’s little positive chemistry between him and the Fifth Doctor, and any scene which contains both Adric and Tegan is generally pretty awful because they grate terribly against each other. He is at his most likeable in Black Orchid, mostly because he acts more like a big kid than like someone trying to impress everyone else. His swansong, Earthshock, is a pleasingly excellent episode, even if Adric himself is irritating and WRONG right up to his dramatic death scene. Yes, I know that’s a spoiler, it was 1982! Knowing what happens in certain stories is part of the Classic Who experience…
Tegan (Janet Fielding) is a tricky one for me. I mostly disliked her when watching the show as a child, and am starting now to reconcile to her as a character – even to appreciate her. But sometimes I still have to work at it. My main complaint was one shared with many others: the constant bitching and moaning about getting home. I think children in particular are entirely lacking in sympathy to people who get keys to the magical kingdom and spend all their time worrying about getting back to sepia Kansas. Looking at it now, I kind of want her to get back to her job and her safe life! I don’t blame her for being suspicious at how the Doctor mysteriously forgets how to fly the TARDIS whenever its her turn to pick the destination. She has totally been abducted.
Tegan gets more character background than any previous companion: we meet several members of her family (and not all of them end up dead!). She also has the rather interesting transition of going home at the end of one season, and choosing to return at the beginning of the next, without the same baggage as before. (I lost my job, hooray!) Her friendship with Nyssa is one of the joys of her character (there haven’t been two women in the TARDIS since the Hartnell years) and their scenes together are very enjoyable.
As an adult, I look at Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and wonder why I used to like her so much when I was younger. She was pretty and nice, which probably did it. There was so much potential in Nyssa – her interest in science and her tinkering skills are fabulous, but we rarely see them in action. She also had a hugely tragic backstory, which was used to great effect in Logopolis and then largely forgotten about. I do love scenes with Tegan and Nyssa working together, as they did in Castrovalva, and having fun together, as in Black Orchid. We actually get to see other rooms in the TARDIS during this era, including bedrooms of the companions! Sadly they don’t hang around and chat in them nearly enough, but there is a bit of it. I like the development that Nyssa got in the second Fifth Doctor season, and particularly her kick-arseness in Arc of Infinity, running around on Gallifrey threatening people with weapons because her Doctor is in danger. While I love the Nyssa-Tegan friendship, I do think it’s a shame Nyssa was mostly there as part of a crowd, because she makes a very good solo companion. At least when she was written out it was in the name of SCIENCE and not some soppy fake love story. Not that I mind love stories but let’s face it, at this point there had only been 2-3 decent ones in twenty years, the odds weren’t good for her.
I wonder how the New Who writers and TV style of today would have handled these characters – I like to think that they learned from the mistakes of 80′s Classic Who.
Turlough (Mark Strickson) was one of my favourite companions, not because he was more likeable than Adric or Tegan, but precisely because he was supposed to be unlikeable. He is brought into the TARDIS crew as the Doctor’s would-be assassin, and after the arc in which he decided not, after all to kill the Doctor, he was allowed to remain. His more prickly, wary character was a nice contrast to the Fifth Doctor’s open friendliness – I adore that the Doctor’s way of dealing with Turlough’s traitorousness was basically to be lovely to him until he gave in and agreed to be friends forever. And I wonder why it is that I enjoyed Turlough’s crankiness and sarcasm while being annoyed by it in Tegan…
Tegan and Turlough were paired as the Fifth Doctor’s companions for the second half of his run, and while my memory is that they sniped at each other all the time, I’m not so sure that’s true. Part of the trouble with watching Classic Who in every which order, as I and most fans have done over the years, is that you often miss out on what little character development we are offered, because of watching stories out of order. The Tegan and Turlough stories I have watched as an adult are a lot more appealing to me when I was younger, and I find myself sympathising a lot more with Tegan’s bolshy attitude and her willingness to bitch at the Doctor when he screws up. Which probably means I have to check all my preconceptions about Classic Who, right? I do enjoy Tegan-and-Turlough in Frontios, and I also rather like the opening scene of the Five Doctors, which shows them all at peace instead of bickering. The absolute best story featuring them both is Enlightenment, though they rarely appear in scenes together.
(as a side note – fans roll their eyes about how much Janet Fielding goes on about her hair and costumes in the DVD commentaries but OMG HAVE YOU SEEN HER HAIR AND COSTUMES? That poor woman. No wonder Tegan was cranky all the time)
Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant) is largely known as a Sixth Doctor companion – though like Tegan and Nyssa last time around, she was brought in two stories before the end of the Fifth Doctor’s run. I wonder why they did it that way – transitioning characters really only work with great effect when those characters have known the Doctor for a while. They might have done better in both instances to do a Pertwee/Eccleston/Smith – relaunch the series by introducing a new companion and Doctor in the opening story.
The ‘hands off’ policy had ebbed by this point, with the female companions dressed more sexily in the latter seasons of the Fifth Doctor – Nyssa famously dropped her skirt for no apparent reason in her final story, and once Tegan got out of her ugly uniform she was squeezed into tinier and tinier outfits: all boob tube and mini-skirt. It’s pretty clear that the character of Peri was being presented very cynically as a sex symbol – in her first few episodes she spends most of her time in a bikini, and Nicola Bryant herself tells the story about how she was asked to wear something tight to the audition, and lacking a skimpy outfit herself, turned up in a leotard and shorts, which ended up being used as Peri’s signature outfit…
Having said all that, Peri’s introduction in Planet of Fire is excellent from a plotty point of view, and really made me like her relationship with the Fifth Doctor. I was sad that this was also the story in which Turlough was written out, because the combination of these three characters was fresh and appealing, and I would have happily watched far more of them. We see a very relaxed relationship between Turlough and the Doctor in this story – they get to be friends rather than, as usually happened in this era, the companions sitting at the kiddie table together while the Doctor goes off and does Important Things. Yes, another season of Fifth Doctor, Turlough and Peri, or just Fifth Doctor and Turlough OR Peri would have been rather fine. But instead… sigh.
More on that later.
Not quite a companion (no matter what the programme guide says!) we have shapechanging robot Kamelion, a tool of the Master, who appears rather gorgeously in the medieval two parter The King’s Demons, is invited to join the TARDIS crew as a companion, and then is not mentioned again until Planet of Fire, in which Kamelion is written out. The official story there is that the robot (yes they had an actual animatronic robot) was almost impossible to use, and that the original operator died, leaving them with an expensive, useless prop on their hands. Kamelion did benefit from one of the best leaving stories in Planet of Fire, where his shapechanging abilities are used to great effect.
That brings me to the Master, who becomes a running/recurring character here for the first time since the Third Doctor years. He turned up a handful of times during the Fourth, mostly as a wobbly half-dead bubble-wrapped thing, though he recovered a dapper existence towards the end of the Fourth Doctor’s era (cough, actually bringing about the end of said era). Anthony Ainley was MY Master – I only discovered Delgado retroactively – and however hammy he is in some stories, I will always adore him. There’s an argument that he was used too much in this era, especially with all the constantly turning up in disguise as someone else whose name is an amusing anagram, but that’s AUTHENTIC, that’s just how the Master is, and I’m pretty sure you can never have too much of him. Just look at that beard.
Feminist Heroes: Tegan and Nyssa (if you squint sideways at them)
Best Stories To Watch:
Title: Castrovalva (1982)
Featuring: the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa, Adric, the Master
Why Watch: This overly clever adventure shows off Peter Davison to great effect, even if the Doctor he was to become only really turns up at the end. He plays up the idea of a failing regeneration, and (this is something I realised only recently) actually impersonates several of his former selves as part of what appears to be a total mental breakdown. We spend a lot of time in the various rooms and corridors of the TARDIS, which I always enjoy, and when we emerge it is into a landscape based on classic Escher artwork, including a recursive city on a clifftop. Adric is kidnapped by the Master and spends most of the episode out of everyone’s way, while Tegan and Nyssa roll their socks up and get on with saving the day. At the end, there’s celery. What’s not to love?
Category: Just Plain Batty
If You Like This You May Like: Kinda, Black Orchid, Earthshock
Title: The Five Doctors (1983)
Featuring: the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough, Romana II, Sarah Jane Smith, the Brigadier, Susan, etc.
Why Watch: Okay, I swore I wasn’t going to recommend this, because it’s totally NOT the one to watch if you’ve never watched any other Classic Who, or even if you haven’t watched any for some time. The story makes NO SENSE if you pay attention, and every single character is given embarrassingly short shrift. But… It’s a classic, and if you have fond memories of any of the characters or old Doctors, you will probably enjoy it.
Or Not: it’s really not very good! All ambition and little substance. But if you have the newest edition, do try to find the David Tennant easter egg commentary.
Title: Planet of Fire (1984)
Featuring: the Fifth Doctor, Turlough, Peri, Kamelion, the Master
Why Watch: I know, I know. This is where I’m supposed to recommend The Caves of Androzani, which as we all know is the BEST DOCTOR WHO OF ALL TIME. Sorry and all that, but I don’t like it all that much. I also don’t think it’s one that has aged particularly well, given its focus on action. Meanwhile, Planet of Fire has gorgeous visuals from sunny Lanzarote, it features some mad cultists which is always nice, there’s the Master and a chilling use of the new companion’s family… there’s a doomed robot, and did I mention the Master? and, well, both the Doctor’s companions get wet in swimsuits, so there really is something for everyone.
Category: Lost Civilisations with Aliens
If You Like This You May Like: Frontios and yes, all right, Caves of Androzani IF YOU MUST.
Marathon: The Black Guardian Trilogy (1983) is definitely a good investment if you want to get to grips with the Davison era. It features key transition episodes Mawdryn Undead and Terminus (Turlough’s first and Nyssa’s last stories respectively) and not only brings the Brigadier back for a strong (if slightly inane) reunion with the Doctor but follows Turlough on his dark journey in service to the Black Guardian. Also it culminates with Enlightenment, one of the most lavish dark fairy tales ever told in Doctor Who: the story of Eternals sailing through space, colliding with Turlough’s final decision. Tegan gets a pretty frock, and a creepy godlike being falls in love with her. If City of Death is the closest that Classic Who can get to an RTD story, then Enlightenment is the closest we get to a Moffat.
Or Not: Terminus is really, really bad. No one would blame you if you skipped it.
Extra, extra: Thanks to Big Finish, we have some fantastic audio plays which have gone a long way to picking up some of the lost opportunities of the Fifth Doctor era, featuring the original actors but with scripts and stories far more in tune with the modern Who audience.
Big Finish offers many stories which make the most of Nyssa, Turlough and Peri as solo companions. Nyssa in particular makes an excellent companion with just the Doctor! I enjoyed her in Creatures in Beauty, and Turlough in Phantasmagoria among others. Peri has been joined by Erimem, a winsome former Egyptian Pharoah, in several adventures beginning with Eye of the Scorpion. More recently, Janet Fielding relented and joined the group of former Doctor Who performers at Big Finish, which allowed them to do a trilogy of stories (Cobwebs, The Whispering Forest, Cradle of the Snake) featuring Tegan, Nyssa and Turlough. The conceit of these stories is that the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough meet Nyssa again, fifty years after she left them in her time, though only a short time to them. All three plays are excellent, and I particularly liked how age and confidence has developed Nyssa into something closer to the Doctor’s equal, and how uncertain Tegan is at the robustness of their friendship now that so much time has passed for her friend. It’s also nice to see Nyssa and Turlough getting to perform together, when they had little opportunity in the original show.