Davison: The Honourable Assassin

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By the time Castrovalva came along, I was a father and my first son ( then 2) reacted very favourably to the Doctor Who theme tune and so my memories of the Davison era are indelibly linked to him sitting on my lap, pointing at the screen, burying his head in my chest or calling out “Doc-Doc Whooooo”.

I was ready for change, had been really since Armageddon Factor. Tom Baker stayed too long and people seemed to think he WAS the Doctor.

He wasn’t.

And Peter Davison, quietly but forcefully, showed precisely why.

To digress, when he was announced as the Fifth Doctor, my heart sank. At first when told it “was the vet from All Creatures Great And Small” I assumed they had cast Robert Hardy and was momentarily thrilled beyond measure. Hardy is an actor’s actor – and a force of nature. He would have given it a fantastic whirl.

But, no, it was Tristan. Too Young. Too pretty. Too bland. I confess to being appalled and worried. With Tom Baker overstaying his welcome and Davison as a wet passive type, what hope was there?

Boy, was I wrong.

Firstly, and this is often ignored, Davison reverted to type. His Doctor assumed a persona and stuck to it. Like Hartnell and Troughton, he chose an outfit and stuck to it. Unlike Pertwee and Baker, he did not change his sartorial style. Which was cleverer than it sounds – because it meant you focused on the performance rather than the trappings.

Secondly, he was blessed with Anthony Ainley. I hope you can understand my meaning: Ainley was appalling as the Master in every possible way, and his constant appearances during Davison’s time helped shore up Davison as the solid, reliable and mercurial actor that he is.

Ainley made Davison good just by showing  up: in a kind of reverse-the-polarity-of-the-neutron-flow way, Ainley ensured Davison’s success by his incompetence as an actor, in much the same way Delgado had ensured Pertwee’s success because he was such a good actor.

Thirdly, he was blessed with terrible companions ( mostly ) and this, too, made him the focus.

But mostly – he was just a good guy. He was the Time Lord you would invite for tea and never be afraid of his behaviour; the one you would lend money to; the one you would call when the kids needed a sitter; and the one who was colder and meaner than his youthful good looks suggested.

And he was wry and witty. He did not revel in his alien qualities, but he did not try to be an Everyman either. He managed that rare feat – scientist, dabbler, fusspot, sex symbol and teacher.

He could also put up with Tegan – which, in his first season, was really quite a feat. She was, unique of the companions to date, a tiresome whinging busybody. Yet, Davison found the good in her, focused on it and made her better. He made an effort with her when the Fourth Doctor could not be bothered.

It made for a fascinating interaction – and despite the age of the programme, a quite unique one. You could not have had the glorious Kinda without the investment Davison’s Doctor gave to the development and calming of Tegan.

In that first season, Davison had three excellent stories ( Visitation, Kinda and Earthshock – that first episode of Earthshock is the best first episode of any Nathan-Turner produced story in my view), two odd ones ( Castrovalva and Four To Doomsday) and one of the all time turkeys: Time Flight.

As Tom Baker might have said: There were three types of stories in that first Davison season: the great, the good and the bad…and then there’s Black Orchid…

But, the one thread through it all, even in the dross that was Time Flight, was the exemplary talent of Davison. His Doctor was the perfect blend, really, of the first, second and third Doctors. In hindsight, what Davison did was incredibly brave and intelligent: he did his own thing, while fitting in with the past in a way that his immediate predecessor had entirely eschewed.

Adric: there is no way to escape discussing Adric when reflecting on Davison. After all, Davison killed him. No Doctor had overseen the death of a companion in quite the way Davison oversaw Adric’s death.

But, who could blame him? Adric was an interesting character, but played badly, impossibly badly, by Matthew Waterhouse who had no business being in Doctor Who. Nathan-Turner’s worst decision, however motivated, was casting Waterhouse – because denying the character of Adric a proper actor ensured two things- that Tom Baker’s Doctor would be unnecessarily diminished by him and that Davison’s Doctor would have to kill him.

Because, actually, the kindest, nicest and best thing the Doctor could ever do for Adric was to let him die a hero. Because unless the Doctor let that happen, Adric would have amounted to nothing.

People say that Davison is not as alien as Tom Baker, not as dark, not as dangerously unpredictable. Perhaps. But Tom Baker did not walk away and leave a companion – not much more than a child really – to die. Tom Baker would not have let Adric take that stand: Davison did.

And not from self-interest; but because it was the best thing for Adric – a tormented, lost, lonely and difficult child would just would not learn, grow or assimilate. Letting him become a hero was both the best and worst thing the Doctor could do.

But, dear God, it was dark…

In his second season, the Curate’s Egg pattern continued with the adventures Davison got: Snakedance, Terminus and Enlightenment ( all great ), Mawdryn Undead and Kings Demoms (okay, but slightly troubled) and Arc of Infinity (ghastly).

And then there was Five Doctors – where, compellingly and without effort, Davison walked away with the programme; not even Troughton could dim his light. He did not make Pertwee’s Three Doctors mistake – the programme was not skewed to him; he just let everyone have their moment, and that grace, that dignity, that style defined him more than pretty much anything else he did. He was THE Doctor; the others, including the magnificent Hurndall, were the past. Nothing could have been clearer.

To me, Davison’s best companion, and the one that Nathan-Turner had no idea what to do with, but who was the best actress and whose character had the best potential, was Sarah Suttom’s glorious Nyssa. She stuck me as a fusion of Susan to Hartnell, Victoria to Troughton, Jo to Pertwee and Romana 2 to Baker – she and Davison worked perfectly together and complemented each other magnificently.

Davison was the first Doctor since Pertwee not to have a single female companion – and it is both his strength and a lost opportunity. If he had one series where he was just with Nyssa, I think time would look differently, more approvingly, on him.

I had dinner with Davison just after Five Doctors was aired and before his final season started. He told me that night he was going to leave because he did not think that Nathan-Turner would ever let him be “free of the boys that he thinks brings viewers”. He was melancholy about it – because he loved the programme, but he did not feel like his opinion was taken seriously enough. He felt, probably rightly, that Nathan-Turner would not make the mistake that had been made with Tom Baker in the latter years – the concept was the star, not the actor.

He was unhesitating that Nyssa was his favourite companion. He liked Fielding and Strickson, but felt, again rightly in my view, that the chemistry was there with Sarah Sutton – but the writing let them both down. After some serious alcohol, I had the courage to agree with him. He said  “You didn’t need to say it, your eyes told me I was right about two hours ago”. (And my career as a spy was abandoned there and then) ( And I felt like I had just met THE Doctor)

I tell that story for only one reason – you would never know that Davison was leaving if you look at his final season. In Every moment of every story – no matter how badly written or directed – he delivers. Not since Troughton had the programme been so well served by its star. Just as Troughton rose above Dominators, Davison rose above, well, everything except his final glorious tale. And there he more than met the challenge.

The 21st season is not good: Warriors of the Deep sets a new low ( You would have thought they would have learnt about Ingrid Pitt in Time Monster but no…) and the Myrka makes one long for the Drashigs; The Awakening is utterly pointless and possibly the most boring Doctor Who story ever; Frontios tries to capture the Kinda magic but fails spectacularly; Planet of Fire is notable only because never before have companions been so clearly and unambiguously reduced to sex objects ( and no one will ever convince me that Peri’s outfit was merely a cover for what Nathan-Turner made Turlough do there). Four repellant adventures with a damn decent Doctor.

Turlough – one of the great missed opportunities of Doctor Who. Mark Strickson was a good actor – he would have been a sensational Adric in my view – but the scripts gave him nothing. There was no defined arc for his character. He was in the TARDIS so that the Mary Whitehouses of this world would not complain about orgies in the TARDIS – I always found this odd. Why did people think that two attractive men and one/two attractive women might not have an orgy? Nathan-Turner’s logic was, well, illogical.

Especially as Davison went to great pains to be an entirely sexless Doctor.

Peri was a disaster from the start. I loathe her more than any other companion who has travelled with the Doctor. She made Tegan seem affable. Irksome, dumb, whiny and petulant – she may have been the perfect English conception of an American but she was wrong with a capital WRONG!

Resurrection of the Daleks was really the first story since Genesis to try to take either the Daleks or Davros seriously. It did not work entirely, but it gave it a good damn try.  And, as @JimTheFish rightly says, Tegan’s departure was both surprising and shattering – and a profound indictment on the Doctor. It was, and is, the only departure of its kind – and in that moment, Fielding gave her very best performance. It took me utterly by surprise, the way she went – and it was profoundly affecting. Tegan found her brave heart at the very end.

Then there is Caves of Androzani…a Robert Holmes masterpiece. No Doctor, apart perhaps from Troughton, has had a better swan song. And just as well, really, because Davison deserved to go out with a bang.

And, entirely fittingly, his Doctor sacrificed himself to save his companion. Just as the right thing for Davison to do was leave Adric to his heroic death, the right thing for Davison to do was to save Peri – he did not know then what a complete waste of space she was and so he gave her the benefit of the doubt and saved her, unsure whether he actually could regenerate. Those final scenes in Caves are as harrowing as anything ever in Doctor Who.

Indeed, Caves of Androzani is in the top five best ever Doctor Who adventures – entirely because of the sheer strength of Davison’s performance.

No wonder, then, that David Tennant thought of him as his Doctor.

Because he was an exceptional Doctor – and one who rarely got the chance to shine as he might have because of bad writing, ghastly production values and conceptualisation and the worst motley TARDIS crew in the history of the programme.

As I have said elsewhere, my anger about the final scene in Caves Of Androzani, the one that introduced Colin Baker to an unsuspecting public, was unbounded. It was so disrespectful, so rude, so bewilderingly inappropriate as to viscerally shock the audience coming to terms with the passing of the Fifth Doctor. It is the single most ill-judged moment in the entirety of Nathan-Turner’s era, an era not known for its wise decisions.

But all it did was make Davison’s light glow brighter – and amen to that.

In Twin Dilemma, Colin Baker would label Davison “effete”. In so misjudging his predecessor, Baker set the stake in the ground for the entire misjudgment of his incarnation.

Davison had done what many thought was impossible – he successfully replaced Tom Baker. In a way, he did the second hardest job in the history of the series, Troughton’s being the hardest in taking over after Hartnell.

In another way, Davison did something no one else had done – redefined the parameters of the role by drawing on the past and being his own self simultaneously – something that each of the Nu-Who Doctors would go on to do in varying degrees, both in aspiration and achievement.

But Davison did it first.

And as Caves of Androzani proved, wearing that celery was an inspired idea.


2 comments

  1. I had left home by Davison’s tenure so I have barely seen any of his stories. though from what I saw it was obvious that he was let down by the scripts and other actors. I enjoyed his performance in the Five Doctor’s and found Black Orchid curiously enjoyable though not really Dr Who. I liked “Kings Demons, but what became of that robot? I thought it had the potential to become an interesting new companion.

    thank-you for the informative review.

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