A Modern Woman’s Guide to Classic Who: THE SEVENTH DOCTOR YEARS: 1987-1989

Summary: After the mixed reactions to Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, and viewing figures continuing to hemorrhage, you would think the most important thing about the Seventh Doctor was that he be likeable. This at least was achieved with the casting of stage actor Sylvester McCoy, who presented an entertaining and harmless figure at the beginning of his run. Producer JNT was still handcuffed to the sinking ship, and rather than learning from past mistakes, he fell back on old habits when launching a new Doctor: a bright, gimmicky costume featuring less-than-subtle question marks, and a personality that could be summed up in sound bytes.

The Seventh Doctor began less than promisingly, with a truly awful regeneration sequence. Colin Baker quite reasonably refused to come back to the show he had loved to film a two minute getting-killed sequence and so the viewers were treated to the sight of the TARDIS under attack by the Rani, a renegade Time Lady introduced in a previous story, and a man in a curly Sixth-Doctor wig falling over in the console room, and immediately regenerating.

Yes, all of you who complain that Ten fell off a long drop in End of Time and didn’t die like Four did, take note! Every time the Doctor FALLS OVER without regenerating, he is having a good day.

The first season of the Seventh Doctor was full of bright, pantomimey stories. There was far less of the gritty violence that had started edging in during the late Fifth and early Sixth Doctor, though several stories still had fairly adult themes behind the candy cane palette and extreme shoulder pads. Instead of a personality, the Doctor displayed a tendency to roll his ‘r’s and quote aphorisms wrongly…

But it got better. Rather dramatically better. Over the three years McCoy played the Doctor, the character became increasingly subtle, interesting and dare I say it? Crunchy. He showed a darker, more manipulative side, and started to take some responsibility for his own feckless past while at the same time pushing his companion to confront her own demons…

Possibly the hardest thing the fans found to forgive was that Doctor Who was cancelled just as it was getting good again. Really, really good. Damn it.

I have my own biases here. While I was raised, as were many Australian kids of my generation, on a steady diet of repeats of Pertwee and Baker, McCoy was the first Doctor whom I watched live – whose stories were new rather than already having their plots known and written down in a little book. I remember being shown the fiercely orange and pink first episode of Time and the Rani on someone’s dodgy pirated VHS and then not getting to see the rest of the story for months, maybe years. It may be that this is (and my mother’s refusal to watch the Sixth Doctor when I was young) is the reason that I find even the most wince-making Seventh Doctor stories eminently rewatchable, whereas I have to deeply psych myself up to even look sideways at most of the Sixth.

Or, you know, it could be that the stories were just better!

Things You Need To Know: Sylvester McCoy plays the only Scottish Doctor, despite David Tennant’s highest hopes in that regard.

The Companions:

Mel (Bonnie Langford) didn’t really change or develop in her transition to the Seventh Doctor – she still spent most of her time being very perky, putting her hands on her hips and screaming her head off. But as I alluded to last time, I did like the fact that her role in many of the stories was to befriend people, especially other female characters. Even those two ladies who tried to eat her. And her role as companion is completely made worthwhile for the scenes in Time and the Rani in which the very melodramatic and fiercely evil Kate O’Mara has to impersonate kicky, bubbly Mel in order to fool a post-regeneration-befuddled Doctor. Really, you had to be there.

I liked Mel best in Delta and the Bannermen, a truly batshit crazy 1950’s romp with aliens, and she does her best to keep the story grounded – the only person, for instance, who openly mourns the death of a busload of people. I also liked her very much in Dragonfire, finding the Doctor a new companion in stranded, cranky teenage waitress Ace so that Mel can hop aboard Sabalom Glitz’s mighty vessel instead (oh yes, I went there). Though Mel’s manner of leaving is as casual as her arrival, I do rather love her line “Who said anything about home? I’m got much more crazy things to do yet.” There’s something very empowering about a companion who chooses to leave the Doctor and move on… to more adventures. I rather hope that when Amy and Rory go, it’s something along those lines.

Ace (Sophie Aldred) was a completely new kind of companion. While we saw glimpses of the modern companion arc in Jo, Tegan and others, it was only with Ace that we finally got something of a satisfactory emotional arc. When the Doctor meets Ace, she’s a mouthy, rebellious teenage girl who likes to blow things up, and ended up stuck on a space station after a home-brewed chemistry experiment went really, REALLY wrong.

Which is of course, complete rubbish. Much like those big empty rooms in Amy Pond’s house, the Doctor can see right away that there’s something wrong with Ace, something that doesn’t add up, and over the next two years, he takes great pains in investigating every corner of her life and her past: her grandmother’s past, the haunted house that haunts her still, even why she’s afraid of clowns. Rather fittingly, the final story of the Seventh Doctor Years had him returning Ace to her home – not to put her back there, but so she could confront her issues, and move on.

It’s… not always done well. There were some fantastic ideas in the stories of this era, and that whole previous paragraph is indicative of the kind of credit that Seventh Doctor fans tend to give the production team of that time. It all sounds terribly clever – but half the time, it didn’t work. There was a lot of dramatic pontificating, a lot of moody staring into the distance, and a lot of over-editing that left several stories making little to no sense despite awesome spooky atmosphere. And what the hell was the deal with taking Ace back to her childhood home and not having us meet the person who most screwed her up, her mother?

But the heart of it – the chemistry between Aldred and McCoy, the lovely character scenes and culture clashes between them, the fond rather than grating snark, the bold story ideas and alien planets and the splendid conceit that, in another universe, the Doctor is Merlin (“I hate good wizards in fairy tales,” says River, “they always turn out to be him.”). It’s as special as the the other most dynamite Doctor-companion pairings, such as Four-Sarah, Four-RomanaII, Three-Jo, Two-Jamie, or One-Susan-Ian-Barbara. It’s magic.

For the first time, and this is why these stories still resonate with me even though I can now spot the storytelling failures a mile off, it really felt like this was the companion’s story, not just the Doctor’s. Ace pointed the way towards Rose and Martha and Donna and especially to Amy Pond. The seeds of New Who were planted in 1989.

(though apparently they had some bizarre ideas about turning her into a Time Lord in her next season, so it could be a good thing the plug was pulled when it was)

Feminist Heroes: Ace, Ace, Ace and Ace. She’s sixteen wears a bomber jacket, she invented her own bombs (nitro-9!) in deodorant cans which she carries around in her backpack, and she beat a Dalek to death with a baseball bat. OH YES SHE DID.

Best Stories To Watch:

Title: Delta and the Bannermen (1987)
Featuring: the Seventh Doctor, Mel
Why Watch: this is a loopy space adventure that packs six episodes worth of plot into three episodes of banter, glitter and 50’s music. We get intergalactic bus tours, a blonde space princess on the run from sinister leather-clad warlords, and the whole thing smashes delightfully into the middle of a Welsh holiday camp. With an emphasis on camp. There’s songs, romance and green babies. Billy and his Vincent! (that’s a motorbike, not Van Gogh) Rae and her inexplicable Welshisms! I love this story with the power of a thousand suns and you cannot take it away from me no matter how many plot holes you point to.
Or Not: This one’s an acquired taste, I’ll admit. And the taste is 1950’s cherry cola! Welsh cherry cola!
Category: Historical with Aliens
If You Like This You May Like: Dragonfire.

Title: Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)
Featuring: The Seventh Doctor, Ace, Daleks
Why Watch: This isn’t the first time that the Doctor went back to Totters Lane, the junkyard where the TARDIS was parked back in 1963, but this is the time he got it right. It’s a lovely period piece, and Ace’s first real trip in the TARDIS. The Daleks get a seriously creepy human component, and Ace wields her baseball bat. All this and a story that doesn’t shy away from emotional connection as well as action. Probably the best Seventh Doctor story ever.
Category: Historical with Aliens. Well, you know. Daleks.
If You Like This You May Like: The Happiness Patrol, Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Title: The Curse of Fenric (1989)
Featuring: The Doctor, Ace, haemovores
Why Watch: Another of those atmospheric period pieces this era does so well, this one gives us World War espionage, codebreaking machines, vampires and extreme creepiness. Apart from being a great character story for Ace, and having lots of female characters in it, this also has a rather marvellous explanation about why vampires can be held at bay by a cross, regardless of whether they believe in the Christian mythos.
Category: Historical with… something
If You Like This You May Like: Battlefield, Ghost Light, Survival. Battlefield’s the Arthurian one with the return of an elderly Brigadier & Jean Marsh as Morgaine; Survival’s the one in Ace’s home suburb with the Master teaming up with a planet full of cat people.

There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace. We’ve got work to do.
The Doctor, Survival (1989)

Extra, extra:

The Seventh Doctor has had several leases of life beyond the TV show. In the licensed Virgin New Adventures (1991-1997), a host of great writers continued the adventures of the Doctor and Ace, later adding other companions such as Bernice Summerfield, Chris Cwej and Roz Forrester. Given a fairly loose reign, and with an adult reading audience, these novels became renowned for being of far greater interest and quality to just about any other media tie ins – mostly because they could distance themselves from the limitations of their source material, and they were allowed to develop and change the characters rather than hitting the reset button. Under the ministrations of such writers as Paul Cornell, Russell T Davies, Kate Orman, Gary Russell, Ben Aaronovitch and Mark Gatiss, among others, the Seventh Doctor explored his dark side, and Ace grew up.

Bernice “Benny” Summerfield – a hard drinking 30 something archaeologist with a bad taste in men, created by Paul Cornell – broke the mould of the Doctor Who companion all over again, proved to be such a popular and iconic character that she continued in her own series of books and later audio plays even after Virgin’s license for publishing novels set in the Doctor Who universe ran out. It has been pointed out by many that she bears quite a resemblance to River Song, and there’s certainly an argument for that if you only look at their character profiles.

After a brief appearance in the 1996 TV Movie in which Sylvester McCoy reprised his role as an aging Seventh Doctor in order to meet his death and regenerate into the Eighth, his character continued only a little longer in the Virgin New Adventures, and the final volume of this series showed Benny Summerfield coming face to face with the Eighth, newly regenerated Doctor. The BBC then chose to use the publishing rights themselves, copying the format that Virgin had created of one line of continuity with the current Doctor (now 8 rather than 7) and a second line of Past Doctor Adventures. Now officially a Past Doctor, the Seventh appeared in several of these, mostly with Ace. These were presumed to take place in between the TV adventures, and so the continuity and character development of the Virgin series was lost, though readers could still pretty much fit the “canons” of all the books together, even though it was getting quite suspicious that quite so many adventures had happened “offscreen” if you thought too hard about it.

In 1999, Big Finish audios began, doing much the same as the book series had done: a regular line of stories in a single continuity featuring the “current” (still 8th) Doctor and a whole lot of past adventures featuring those Doctors whose actors were still alive and willing to return to the part: predominantly 5, 6 and 7.

In the Big Finish plays, which began as one off stories here and there, whole new lines of continuity began to emerge. Most notably, as touched on before, the creation of new companions. Peri and the Fifth Doctor travelled with Erimem for years, Turlough and Nyssa both got long stretches as solo companions as well as with occasional others, the Sixth Doctor not only travelled with Mel and Peri but also with Evelyn, Charley and Jamie… and the Seventh Doctor and Ace, after many audio adventures on their own, themselves picked up a fellow traveller called Thomas Hector “Hex” Schofield.

I’m a huge Hex fan – he’s one of the reasons that I’m (damn it) now following whole lines of continuity as I purchase (damn it) so many Big Finish plays. A Liverpudlian nurse from the near-future, he rounds out the TARDIS crew nicely, and while Ace’s growing-up-curve isn’t quite as dramatic as it was in the New Adventures, we are definitely getting a more mature, experienced version of the character. Hex and Ace have some lovely banter, but at the same time there is an undercurrent that suggests that she is becoming more like the Doctor (alien traveller with a hint of manipulating) than like her fellow human. I am really excited to see how far their story goes together. My favourites so far are The Harvest (Hex’s debut) and the really excellent Live 34.

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5 replies on “A Modern Woman’s Guide to Classic Who: THE SEVENTH DOCTOR YEARS: 1987-1989”

  1. The seventh doctor along with highlander 2&3 and the star wars prequels never happened

  2. Norville says:

    Tansy — just to counterbalance the above snotty comment, I thank you for writing something acknowledging that the Seventh Doctor and Ace were a good team, even when everything else in the production screwed up. It’s rather charming that McCoy and Aldred remain close friends to this day.

    Sean, hush. Some people disagree with you about the Seventh Doctor, and they’re not even stupid or crazy (which is what I heard endlessly back when I participated in fandom). I can’t stand David Tennant, but that’s my problem; I don’t have to make it everyone else’s.

  3. Willfullcookie says:

    You reach Angel of Scutari yet, has to be one of my favorites for hex’s line.

  4. tansyrr says:

    I did, I have sadly now listened to ALL THE HEX and there is no sign of when there will be more. The Angel of Scutari was brilliant, I loved the structure and what it did with all the characters, especially the lad himself. And Florence Nightingale was wonderful!

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