The Doctor is In
Thoughts on Peter Davison's First Season

I’m about to disappoint some of you, and make a few of you very happy.

You may be aware that the 30th season of Doctor Who started up this week in Britain. It’ll be a couple of weeks before the new episodes start airing stateside, and being the geeky fanboy that I am, I can’t wait that long. So I’m downloading the episodes as they become available on torrent sites. (Don’t worry, I’ll buy the DVD box sets too. I always do.)

The 30th season kicked off with an episode called Partners in Crime, and I enjoyed it so much, I watched it three times. And it’s inspired me to finally get back on the horse and talk Doctor Who in this column. To make up for lost time, I’m devoting the lion’s share of this week’s missive to Peter Davison’s first season as the Doc.

Oh, be quiet. It’s a slow music week, and next week is pretty significant, with new ones by Ours and Phantom Planet. I haven’t forgotten I’m running a music column here, though, so before we get to cheap and wonderful British television, here are some capsule reviews of new CDs I like:

The Black Keys, Attack and Release. Much as I liked Magic Potion, the fourth Black Keys album, you could hear this guitars-drums blues-rock duo hitting the limits of their sound. They shake things up on their fifth, hiring Danger Mouse to produce it and incorporating loops, keyboards, and more soulful songwriting. The results are smashing, a great example of adding color to a black-and-white world. Dig the single, “Strange Times,” and the wonderful “So He Won’t Break.”

Moby, Last Night. A definite improvement over the dismal Hotel, Last Night finds Moby returning to his clubby roots, and thankfully keeping away from the mic. It’s still not quite up to the level of Everything is Wrong, and while some of the tracks are great (“”), some are less so (“Sweet Apocalypse”). I do love the comedown section of the record, especially the ambient title track. Good, but not great.

The Foxglove Hunt, Stop Heartbeat. I love this record. The Foxglove Hunt is Ronnie Martin of Joy Electric and Rob Withem of Fine China, and together they’ve made a kitschy, glorious ‘80s synth-pop revival record. Great melodies, watery clean guitars, cheesy programmed drums, burbling keyboards, and Withem’s oh-so-‘80s voice. It’s like having your own time machine. Get it here.

Colin Meloy, Colin Meloy Sings Live. The solo debut from the Decemberists’ frontman is an acoustic live record that finds him digging deep into his band’s catalog. The new arrangements truly shine, bringing out new details in songs like “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect.” Meloy’s on-stage presence is warm and friendly, and he does a terrific solo version of my favorite Decemberists song, “The Engine Driver.” Even if, like me, you didn’t quite like The Crane Wife, this is well worth picking up.

Sun Kil Moon, April. Saving the best for last. Mark Kozelek has essentially sounded the same for his whole career – he doesn’t evolve as much as refine. Oddly, though, I don’t mind, because his work is so beautiful. April is his second album as Sun Kil Moon, full of long Neil Young-esque guitar workouts and equally long, sparse acoustic pieces. Kozelek’s even, warm voice is hypnotic, and though these songs sound exactly like ones he might have written for Red House Painters, they’re all gorgeous. If I had to pick a highlight, it would be the 10-minute “Tonight the Sky,” but everything here is excellent. Love it.

And now, the Doctor is in…

* * * * *

In the seven years and change I’ve been doing this column, I’ve discovered that there are some bands that strip me of my critical faculties. Mostly, they’re bands I’ve loved since my teen years, like the Alarm and the Choir – I will always treasure their old records, and will eat up anything new they release. I know, intellectually speaking, that the Alarm has been putting out the same kind of fist-pumping Clash-meets-U2 anthem-pop for as long as they’ve been around, but I don’t care – I will never dislike them.

I’m finding I feel the same way about Peter Davison’s Doctor. I see the flaws in his episodes, certainly, and in many ways there are more such flaws in his era than in that of any previous Doctor. But I don’t care. I love the Davison years. I remember the Tom Baker era, but I practically memorized the Peter Davison run. With each new DVD I buy and watch, I’m remembering what it was like to be 14 years old, watching these crazy adventures for the first time.

A big part of it is Davison himself. In some ways, his more reserved performance was a reaction to Tom Baker’s over-the-top silliness, but Davison carries an air of authority with him that simply convinces. Whereas Baker sometimes failed to take the silly aspects of the show seriously, Davison never poked fun – he followed the example of original Doctor William Hartnell, infusing the rubber monsters and rolling pepper shakers he faced with real menace, just by reacting to them as if they were frightening. His Doctor is vulnerable and brave, tetchy and protective, young and old at once, and unfailingly captivating.

I mostly remember Davison’s first two seasons. I recall the third – the last line of Warriors of the Deep has stayed with me, and I remember the stone face in The Awakening and the miniature Master in Planet of Fire. (I’ve also just watched Resurrection of the Daleks, so that one’s fresh in my mind.) But I don’t have too many of these stories on my old VHS tapes, labeled in pencil and degrading by the day. I do have the entirety of the first two seasons, and The Five Doctors, and watching the available episodes on DVD is like remembering a dream.

After Castrovalva, the opening story of Season 19, Davison and his very full Tardis (Adric, Nyssa and Tegan) wound up on a spaceship full of frogs in Four to Doomsday, and a primitive jungle inhabited by a snake god in Kinda. Neither of those have made it to DVD yet, but the fourth story of Davison’s first season, The Visitation, has. And it’s great.

In many ways, The Visitation is a classic Doctor Who story. Trying and failing to return Tegan to 1980s London, the Doc ends up in 17th Century England, during the plague. He soon stumbles on an alien plot to wipe out humanity with a virus, and confronts the dangerous Terileptils in an attempt to stop it. There’s some good old-fashioned running around, a wonderfully cheap-looking android dressed as the grim reaper, a couple of significant moments, and a nice tie-in to history at the end.

My problems with it are the same ones that (forgive me) plague the John Nathan-Turner era. First, there is the plastic, synthesized music, which sort of works for futuristic stories like Four to Doomsday, but doesn’t quite fit in a historical piece like this one. Everything looks sort of plastic, too – the lighting is bright and harsh, exposing the limitations of the sets. And then there is the Terileptil costume, an obviously rubber contraption that looks ridiculous, particularly when well-lit.

But I can’t fault Eric Saward’s writing here, or Davison’s performance. (He acts so well that you barely even notice he’s wearing a stick of celery the whole time, as he does throughout his run.) There’s an extended conversation between the Doctor and the Terileptil in part three, and it could have been laughable (well, more laughable), but Davison takes it so seriously that he carries the scene. It’s a guy in a cricket uniform talking to a guy in a rubber suit about morality, and it works. Honestly, it does.

The best performance, besides Davison’s, is given by Michael Robbins. He plays wandering rogue Richard Mace, an out-of-work actor and highwayman with a flair for the dramatic. His delightfully over-the-top line readings are a joy to watch, and he steals nearly every scene he’s in. (Admittedly, when his competition includes Matthew Waterhouse and Sarah Sutton as Adric and Nyssa, respectively, stealing scenes isn’t all that tough.)

There is a significant moment in The Visitation that affects the rest of the original series’ run – the sonic screwdriver is destroyed. Fans of the new series may be surprised to learn that the original screwdriver was used mainly just to open doors. The new model can apparently do anything, getting the Doc out of one scrape after another, and in fact that was the reason Nathan-Turner and Saward did away with it – after 15 years on the show, the screwdriver had become an all-purpose way out for the writers. So after the Terileptil blasts it in part three of this story, it never reappears again – until the new series.

So The Visitation is a lot of fun, an old-time classic Doctor Who story. But the fun starts to dissipate with Saward’s next script for the series, Earthshock. In many ways, Davison’s run as the Doctor is a crescendo of death and madness, the writers putting this nicest and most noble of Doctors through the wringer. (The climax of the run is arguably Resurrection of the Daleks, with a higher body count than most war movies.) It is misery and death, and Davison trying to keep faith as the bodies pile up.

And the first bodies come in Earthshock. The Doc and his companions find themselves underground, in a cave system on Earth hundreds of years from now. Little do they know, they’ve stumbled on a murder scene – an entire archeological expedition has been killed in a particularly grisly way. Military troops find the Doctor and, of course, blame him, until a pair of faceless androids attacks. The Doc defeats them, but their trail leads to a space freighter headed for Earth, and carrying an army of (wait for it…) Cybermen.

Earthshock was the first Cybermen story in seven years, and Nathan-Turner evidently kept their appearance a closely-guarded secret. Their reveal at the end of part one is pretty awesome – they’ve been redesigned again, but they still look like Cybermen. And they’re menacing as hell. Davison doesn’t even have to fake it this time – the Cybermen are genuinely frightening.

The rest of Earthshock is impressively dark and foreboding. Director Peter Grimwade turns in a feature-film-worthy effort (well, an ‘80s feature film), and he gives the final two episodes an unsettling mood of creeping doom. The Cybermen, it turns out, are planning to crash the freighter into Earth, killing a group of visiting interplanetary dignitaries and launching an invasion force. The ship is crawling with Cybermen, and there’s a lot of death as the military troops attempt to keep them from breaching the bridge.

But breach it they do. And for the first time in his run, Davison’s Doctor is frightened and out of control. It’s a pretty great few scenes. In the end, the crew members overpower the Cybermen, but the freighter is still headed for Earth, its controls locked by a logic puzzle device. (I know, I know…) The crew abandons ship, but Adric stays behind, certain he can solve the puzzle.

He can’t. In what was, honestly, one of the most jarring moments of my young TV-watching life, Adric becomes the first companion to die since the show’s third season. (And so far, the last to die in the program’s run.) As a young teen, I was stunned by this – until the last seconds of part four, it really seems like the Doc is going to be able to save Adric. But no. There’s a big explosion, and then credits, rolled silently over Adric’s smashed badge for mathematical excellence. (Okay, it’s silly, but it was moving when I was younger.)

Earthshock is, for my money, the finest story of Davison’s first season. Writer Saward was also the script editor at the time, and he used this story to begin exploring his recurring theme – the world (nay, the universe) is a cold, dark place, and sometimes horrible things happen to good people. How, then, do those good people keep going, when faced with the futility of their actions over and over? It’s heady stuff for a so-called children’s program.

Earthshock also shows Matthew Waterhouse the door, which wasn’t altogether a bad thing. He’s a pretty awful actor, although on the commentary tracks he seems like a very nice guy. But there were just too many companions in the Tardis at the time, and one had to go. Nathan-Turner and Saward gave Adric a terrific death, though – perhaps better than his character deserved.

So after Earthshock, you’d expect the bar to have been set for the season finale. You’d be wrong.

If Earthshock is the best story of Season 19, Time-Flight is easily the worst. In fact, Time-Flight may be the worst story of the program to this point. That’s a bold statement, but Time-Flight lives down to it.

There are some stories in which everything comes together. The script, the acting, the direction, the effects, the editing, all coalesce to create classic Doctor Who. And then there are some in which absolutely nothing works. Time-Flight is one of those. It’s such a complete failure on all levels that it’s nearly unwatchable, and tests even my affection for Davison’s Doctor. It is 100 minutes of sheer inexplicable awful.

It actually starts out promising. The Doctor finally gets Tegan to Heathrow Airport, and gets wrapped up in the investigation of a missing Concorde. He determines the plane vanished down a time contour, and rousts up another Concorde to follow it. The second plane, with the Tardis aboard, trails the first back to prehistoric Earth, where the Doc finds hypnotized passengers under the thrall of a cackling Arabian mystic.

Okay, maybe it isn’t all that promising. But it probably could have turned out better than it did, if not for the fact that the production office ran out of money. This is a story that required not one, but two Concorde jets to land in prehistoric Earth, and it was made almost entirely in the studio, on a shoestring. It’s so inept, it’s almost funny – like, The Web Planet funny. You have to see prehistoric Earth. Polystyrene rocks on a studio floor with a painted backdrop behind them. And some smoke. It’s hilarious.

So the Doc and his two remaining companions (and they certainly don’t seem to miss Adric at all) join the most wooden, boring, bland actors imaginable as the Concorde’s crew in tracking down Kalid, the sniggering, gibberish-spouting wizard at the heart of the mystery. And they beat him, pretty soundly, at the end of part two. Even as a teen, I was relieved – Time-Flight was shaping up to be a two-parter, and hence much easier to forgive.

But no. Kalid whips off his rubber mask at the end of part two, and turns out to be the Master. And, um, what? Why was he dressed as a fat Arab mystic? Why did he continue his chanting and cackling even when he was alone? This makes no sense, and the following two episodes make even less. There’s something about the Master’s Tardis, and something about a race of aliens that live in a box and fight with each other, and a bunch of technobabble I can’t be bothered to understand. It’s just terrible.

The budget clearly trickles to nothing by the end as well. In episode four, there is a dramatic shot of the second Concorde. Or, it would have been dramatic in any other production – the director would have hired a crane and shot the actual airplane from above. But not here. To create this shot, the model workers bought a plastic Concorde toy and painted British Airways logos onto it. And it looks like it.

Really, this thing is terrible. Astonishingly, it was written by Peter Grimwade, the director of Earthshock – here’s a guy who knows how tiny Doctor Who budgets often are, and he scripts a complex, incomprehensible epic requiring feature film money to pull off. That’s almost as difficult to understand as the plot of Time-Flight. And it’s really not worth trying to figure out.

So Davison’s first season ends with a whimper. (Well, more like a stink bomb.) His second, if I recall correctly, was much better – we get Omega’s return in Arc of Infinity, the Mara’s revenge in Snakedance, and the Black Guardian Trilogy, which I remember, but not vividly. I do remember thinking Enlightenment is genius, the best of the Davison stories, and when the Trilogy makes its way to DVD, I’m excited to find out if I was right.

Who knows when I’ll do another one of these, but when I do, I’ll have the last three Davison DVDs to discuss. And that’ll be five Doctors down, two to go for the original series. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to download The Fires of Pompeii, the second story of Season 30. Popcorn at the ready.

Next week in music, Ours, Phantom Planet, Nine Inch Nails, and maybe Unwed Sailor.

See you in line Tuesday morning.