-The Doctor, Delta and the Bannermen Part 3.
Over the last couple of weeks I've had an enjoyable hour or so every day listening to Richard Herring's Edinburgh Fringe Podcast (despite it being the launch of a bit of a rant on my part it's still well worth a listen HERE, though new episodes end this coming Monday, the same time as the Fringe itself finishes oddly enough). The format's simple enough, every day nationally known comedian and 90's TV star Herring chats with a fellow comedian up in Edinburgh for the Fringe, whilst another, newer comedian does five minutes of their routine to promote their own show. And on the last Tuesday of the run the five minute spot was taken by a fellow I'd never heard off before named Steven Gribbin who introduced himself by saying he was going to do a comedy song combining his love of Doctor Who and Morrissey.
Now obviously, as a massive Doctor Who fan I was expecting a good chuckle from this. And who knows, if I knew anything about Morrissey perhaps his song would have been funny. But what got me thinking (and inspired this blog post), was him starting off by slagging off Sylvester McCoy, telling a (hopefully made up for comic effect as it makes Gribbin sound like a cock) story of going up to McCoy whilst drunk and shouting “YOU RUINED DOCTOR WHO” at him. A gag that played to pretty much silence from the audience, presumably as a result of them being much like the rest of the British public in not being entirely sure who was Doctor Who between “The One With the Scarf” and “The One With the Ears”.
What annoys (if that's not too strong a word) me is how “Sylvester McCoy was the crap one” is pretty much a widely accepted fact. Pretty much any conversation about Who I have with friends or family who weren't kids whilst he was on telly will always come round to including some variation on “Sylvester McCoy ruined it”. Perhaps surprisingly, considering his era coincided with the start of the show's fall from grace, Colin Baker rarely gets mentioned in this context at all. I would actually be able to understand that more as, even though I think Colin did as good a job with often terrible material as anyone could and has has since managed to fulfill with the audios all that missed potential, his two TV season are pretty much the weakest in the shows original run. Even if the general level of batshit insanity in them does make them more watchable for me than the more even but also far duller mid-Pertwee years.
Now, in countenance to this, I could point out that, despite being best known before Who for silly kids TV work, McCoy has had a long and extremely respected career in theatre covering everything from the Shakespeare classics (including a lengthy run in King Lear opposite Ian McKellen) through Ken Campbell. Or that he's considered a good enough actor by Peter Jackson to not only have been short-listed for the role of Bilbo in the original Lord of the Rings films but to be also currently filming a decent sized supporting role in The Hobbit, ironically giving him a bigger Hollywood career in his 60's than either of the Doctor's who've tried their hand in the States have managed (Eccleston and Tennant have between them the G.I. Joe film and a failed pilot to boast about). Indeed, Jackson is apparently enough of a fan he supposedly has one of McCoy's original Who costumes in a cabinet.
However, to really see why McCoy was so good in the role, the best place to look is season 24. The bastard love child season even fans of the era are a bit embarrassed by. Where Producer John Nathan-Turner had hardly any time to prepare and new script editor Andrew Cartmel was thrown in at the deep end with little chance to plan and the whole year is pretty much a slightly desperate effort to just get the show made whilst learning how to do it,. Before the season gap allowed some proper time to sit down and think about things, followed up by coming back with the strongest season in years for the quarter century celebrations. The season that gave us Bonnie Langford and Time and the Rani. Arguably the most like a CBBC show the original run ever came.
Now, I do have a sneaky fondness for season 24, it's the first I have any real recollection of (confusion over the appearance of a real Police Box in Delta and the Bannermen being my earliest memory). And yes, I know that like Bond or Blue Peter presenters you're favourite tends to be the one you grew up with so that might show some bias on my part. But I didn't really become a fan until the mid 90's and only have very scattered memories of certain moments of McCoy from the time, we weren't really dedicated viewers. Most of my strongest memories actually come from the later BBC 2 repeats of older episodes (lets pause for a moment to think of the big close up of Zoe's catsuit clad arse at the end of The Mind Robber Episode 1) and some of the videos my father had about the same time, including stories with Tom, Hartnell and Davison.
But even though I can get a decent nostalgic kick from it, and Delta and the Bannermen is genius, I can't ignore the fact the '87 run is extremely weak and uneven. Being basically Cartmel's on the job training broadcast to the nation. But amidst all the behind the scenes chaos, McCoy is instantly engaging. That's not the generally received wisdom, most people regard season 25 and the toning down of the more comedic elements of his take on the character as when he really got a handle on the role. But even here, all his silliest, he's far far better than he's usually given credit for.
And that was exactly what the show needed. Colin's era had been drowning in continuity, overly violent and frequently with its metaphorical head a long way up its metaphorical behind. From the moment the seventh Doctor wakes up in the Rani's laboratory (actually looking more suited to the Sixth's hideous costume than his predecessor ever managed) and starts cleaning through his memories it's like a breath of fresh air has hit the program. It's suddenly fun again.
And that's just in what's regarded as the weakest story McCoy did. From Paradise Towers onwards this impish, slightly melancholy Doctor only gets better and better. The way he confuses the Caretakers with their own rules, or is the only member of the cast to bother acting like he's walking on ice in Dragonfire, and the lovely sweet scenes of him dancing to rock and role in Delta and the Bannermen are all brilliant, fun moments that show a very talented actor relishing in being paid to have the time of his life.
In his book Script Doctor, Cartmel reprints (what purports to be) his contemporary diaries from the time, and at one point he compares the Seventh Doctor and Ace to Steed and Mrs. Peel. Now, Cartmel does come over as a egomaniac in interviews and obviously the McCoy era never had anything like the same impact, but it is true that the Doctor and Ace are one of the best TV partnerships of all time. The enthusiastic Sophie Aldred brings out the best in McCoy and their work together is a large part of the success of those last two seasons.
So if someone who has enjoyed the new series wanted to go back to the original to try it out, I'd recommend starting with the beginning of season 25 with Remembrance of the Daleks and work through to the end of the show's 26 year run with Survival. There's an arc to follow, some great stories and a frequently mesmerising central performance. Plus by this stage J N-T was so good at getting the show made within the budget there's very little that doesn't stand up to contemporary viewing, no wobbly sets and few unconvincing costumes here.
And as a small coda to this, when the special edition DVD of Remembrance of the Daleks (which for those that don't know, is the source of the quote that inspired the title of this blog entry) was released, I gave my previous extras-light disc to my young cousin. Who loved it so much she wound up watching it three times in a week, but didn't get more than ten minutes into the subsequent DVD I lent her, the all time classic Tom Baker staring Genesis of the Daleks, because it was “boring”. Which just goes to show how well McCoy's time on the program does still work for young, completely non-biased eyes.
The real shame of McCoy's run isn't that he was cast in the part, it's that the BBC cancelled it at the exact moment they suddenly worked out how to make it brilliant again.