Who Marathon: Sylvester McCoy
I said the eras would start dropping quickly, and I was right. I started McCoy’s era on 20 Apr, and on 31 of May, McCoy’s era ended. That we got three series at all out of the show in the late 80’s is something of a miracle itself. Only this time it took all of Doctor Who with it. The show ended on 6 Dec 1989 after starting on 23 Nov 1963. That’s 26 series and 700ish episodes (depending on how you count – I wrote about that elsewhere) before it ended here.
I was watching the show as it happened for several years at this point. Followed it as closely as you could given there was no Internet to look up anything you wanted at any time. At the time it was taken off, they made a big deal out of it not being “canceled”, but “put on hiatus”. A lot of fans (including myself) took solace in the fact that it wasn’t canceled – we were just waiting for the right time for it to come back. However, I don’t think anyone thought it would take all the way until 2005 for it to appear regularly on our screens again. I know I certainly didn’t. Yeah, there were some short charity/comedy bits in the interim, and of course the Paul McGann TV movie, but I’ll get into that Wilderness era stuff in another post.
This one’s about Sylvester McCoy. When he started, I think a lot of people didn’t want him. I know I didn’t. I was mad over the firing of Colin Baker, whom I thought was quite good. McCoy’s first season was a mess, as they started production with next to nothing script wise, and his first series was written for a “generic Doctor” – including a few specific references to Colin’s Doctor (the line in Paradise Towers about his clothing being “ice hot” for example). There wasn’t a ton of characterization in that first year, although in the last story of that series (Dragonfire), we started to get pieces of what McCoy’s Doctor would evolve into. By the end, they had totally nailed it, and I put Curse of Fenric from the 1989 series up with the best Doctor Who of all time. His era was kind of all over the place. Started in chaos, muddled around in the first series, then produced some real corkers, backed by a proper direction for the show (Hello “Cartmel Masterplan”).
Anyway, some facts about Sylvester’s run:
- Number of series: 3
- Number of stories: 12
- Number of episodes: 42
- Number of companions: 2
Given the chaos of schedule regularity since Tom Baker left, this was actually the most stable era since then. Granted, the number of episodes was severely reduced, but if you look at the series since Tom left:
- Series 19 – 26 episodes (25 min), 2 per week on Mon and Tue
- Series 20 – 22 episodes (25 min), 2 per week on Mon & Tue, & 20th anniv special
- Series 21 – 24 episodes (25 min), 2 per week on Thu & Fri, change of Doctor before season over
- Series 22 – 13 episodes (50 min), 1 per week on Saturday
- Series 23 -26: 14 episodes (25 min), 1 per week on Saturday
Technically the format for Sylvester’s era started in Colin’s last year, but the Doctor was also fired then, so McCoy’s era was the most stable in terms of actor and broadcast over three seasons in a row.
As I mentioned earlier, Sylvester’s first series wasn’t the greatest. A lot of people consider it the worst overall serial of Doctor Who. I’m not going to sit here and claim it’s the best. It isn’t. However, a couple of the stories (Paradise Towers, Delta & The Bannermen) have resonated with me. 1987 was also the year I met my eventual wife, and that was also my peak geekdom in the 80’s with Doctor Who I think. My wife (then girlfriend) lived in different towns, and we would write actual letters to each other. “Build High for Happiness” was frequently used in the signoffs for our letters to each other. So while Season 24 may not be the best, it holds a place in my heart. However, not a lot can save Time & the Rani – that was pretty bad. Easily the worst “first story” for any of the Doctors. And that’s including Twin Dilemma.
As I’ve done in the other sections, here’s a few words about the companions Sylvester’s Seventh Doctor traveled with…
- Melanie “Mel” Bush (Bonnie Langford) – As I wrote in Colin’s article, Mel started with six and spanned to seven. She didn’t witness the regeneration, but she was there when it happened (unconscious). A character and actress that takes a lot of shit from fans, but I never got that. We got two SUPER SHORT references to her being a “computer expert” in this series, but it didn’t amount to much of anything beyond “Oh Mel, you’re the expert”. They made her out to be this major fitness guru on screen (exercising and carrot juice), yet she was supposed to be a computer programmer. Those two things seem opposite to each other. She continued her screaming through every story. It’s not really a deep character moment, but she was so good at it. So much so I wonder how Sophie Aldred wasn’t made deaf by Bonnie screaming next to her at point blank range in Bonnie’s last story. I tried to engage them on that on Twitter, but got no response. There was a fun extra on the Season 24 Blu-Ray set for Time & The Rani. In that story Mel was trapped inside the Rani’s “death bubble”, and there’s raw studio footage of her kneeling there spinning in a circle and screaming. it’s quite amusing to watch. ;) In the end, not the deepest character at all, but I had an affinity to her, likely around having a crush on her at the time. I was sad to see her go, but again, her replacement was excellent, so that was fine. Bonnie did return to the series once very briefly in Jodie Whittaker’s final story, “The Power of the Doctor” as one of the companions in the “support group” scene. Was nice to see her, although it as a total one line cameo.
- Ace (Sophie Aldred) – Ace’s character’s real name is Dorothy. Her surname was not explicitly stated in the show, but secondary (uh, non canon) media has said it’s either Gale or McShane. The final companion in the classic series is one that feels like it could belong to the modern show. She was a perfect companion to the Seventh Doctor, felt she fit him far better than Mel did. She was an orphan who was out of time, and the Doctor took her with him, carrying through the end of the televised adventures in 1989. Had there been a 27th series in 1990, she was to leave the series halfway through. The story goes she was going to be sent to Gallifrey to enter the Time Lord Academy – something I would have loved to have seen how it played out. She was into explosives, something that cropped up a lot using her home made cans of Nitro 9. She wasn’t afraid of anything (except her own past), and this peaked with her bashing a Dalek with a baseball bat. All kinds of funny. One of my favorite moments with her blowing things up was from Battlefield when she blew up the spaceship under the lake, and stood on the shore jumping up and down cheering. But when she had to be dramatic, Sophie had the chops too. She wasn’t just an action character. Well rounded, and easily the best developed of the companions in a VERY long time – we got to explore her past, something Ace didn’t want to do. Ace was supposed to return to the universe once before – in the unmade second half of the fifth season of the Sarah Jane Adventures. However, the death of Liz Sladen prevented that story from being made. Ace of course returned in a BIG way in the Jodie Whittaker finale, “The Power of the Doctor”. She got a scene with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor which brought some closure to their relationship.
As I mentioned earlier, McCoy’s Seventh Doctor progressed as his time went along. In the beginning he was kind of without focus, but once we got to his second series, there was a definite uptick in the way he was portrayed. The scripts were better, the production was better, basically the show figured out how to make good Doctor Who again. When it was canceled in 1990, it was annoying as the stories were great again (Fenric for sure). To some extent I get why they shelved Who after 1989, but I really REALLY wish they hadn’t. I wanted to see the departure of Ace, and what I presumed would have been where the Cartmel Masterplan went.
My opinions on Sylvester’s era didn’t change much in this rewatch except for one major one. The story Ghost Light was one that confused the F out of me ever since 1989. I never quite got it. When I got to it in the marathon, I can’t tell you the last time I watched Ghost Light in full. This time I watched – and paid attention. For the first time ever, it clicked. I got the story, and recognized the greatness behind it. That was a major surprise to me for sure. Ghost Light does demand you pay attention to it. Not the kind of TV you can watch while casually browsing your phone, or just on in the background. You MUST focus, or you’ll be lost.
Sylvester’s essential story for me has to be his Dalek story. Remembrance of the Daleks ties into several parts of the show’s history, but most importantly the original story, “An Unearthly Child”. Remembrance seems to imply that the reason the First Doctor was in England originally was to leave the Hand of Omega. It also tries to paint The Doctor as someone on equal to Omega and Rassilon in Time Lord mythos. This is the stuff I figure would have been paid off with more stories in 1990 onwards. I did also like that the Dalek story didn’t rely on Davros, which all stories from Tom Baker’s first seemed to. This let the Dalek exist on their own, and do something new (for them).
I saw Sylvester at several conventions in the late 80’s, but the single best was on 19 Nov 1988. That was a major Doctor Who day. Sylvester & Sophie were at a convention in New Jersey that I attended. I filmed their entire panel (using a friend’s camcorder), and it’s on Youtube, you can see this below. But after the convention was over, the two of them went to an NJN TV studio for their evening of Doctor Who. They were there for all he pledge drives that evening. As was I. It was a long day for everyone, but especially Sylvester & Sophie, who were “on” all day. In fact as the evening wore on, they started sleeping in between the times they needed to be on TV. There’s a picture here from the pledge drive. of Sylvester. I’m in the shot too – right above the “88” in the phone number. Sylvester & Sophie were all kinds of fun to talk to in between takes. They were fun on screen too – I captured one short segment from their appearance, you can view that here.
UPDATE: My friend Al who is also in the picture (above the 1-8 in the picture) read this story and texted me this. I had to edit this in, it was too good. ;)
You forgot to mention have cool we looked, the lasagna we ate with Sylv and Sophie, and the guy from the Jersey Jagaroth who was relentlessly hitting on Sophie. Also the premier of the NJN making of special. Ahhhh those were the days!
Sylvester has returned to the show a few times. The first (main) one was the attempt in 1996 to revive the show – the Paul McGann TV movie. Sylvester returned as the incumbent Doctor to do a proper regeneration into McGann. From a dramatic standpoint, it kinda makes no sense to kill off your lead 10 minutes into the story like that, but as a Doctor Who fan, I loved actually SEEING the regeneration. Realistically, they probably would have been better served doing what they did a few years later with Eccleston just being there. There was also his return (along with all other living Doctors at the time) for Dimensions in Time, but that was a non canonical anniversary special not in the proper timeline.
Sylvester (along with Colin & Peter) also returned for the most excellent special “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot“. This was produced for the 50th anniversary special of the show in 2013. It basically stars the living Doctors (minus Tom, who does get a voice over) complaining about not being in the actual 50th anniversary special. It’s glorious in every regard. It’s absolutely non canonical, because they all play themselves, not their Doctors as such. It had some big name cameos too. Peter Jackson, Olivia Coleman, lan McKellen, and many MANY others. I know this text is mostly the same as the same bit I put on Colin’s section, but it’s pretty much the same thing to write! :)
There was also an appearance of Sylvester and Bonnie surrounding the Season 24 Blu-Ray set. In character (but not quite canon as I understand it), there was a trailer produced called “A Business Proposal for Mel” where Sylvester appeared in full Seventh Doctor regalia for the first time in forever at that point. It was a fun little trailer seeing them together again in character for the first time since 1987. Loved that, especially as the two characters seemed to really enjoy each other.
But the biggest and best return was in Jodie Whittaker’s finale, “The Power of the Doctor”. There was a scene where Jodie’s Doctor came across several older incarnations of the Doctor, including Davison, CBaker, McGann, & McCoy. That was a great scene, but it isn’t the best part. There was a scene later on where his Doctor manifested when Ace (who was back for real) was talking to a hologram of 13 that changes to 7. It was them now, not pretending to be their younger selves. It brings closure to the relationship between the two, touching on them “falling out” after the TV series ended. If you watched the show back in the 80’s and were invested in the characters, this scene in 2022 was glorious – thanks to Chris Chibnall for making that happen. I adored it.
Sylvester has gone on to do a metric ton of Big Finish stories going all the way back to the first ever one called “The Sirens of Time” in 1999. His character was already mostly in place when the series ended, so there wasn’t as much work needed on Seven as there was on Six. Still, if you’re hankering for more Sylvester, then seek out his work with Big Finish. It’s always a good time with Big Finish.
Here’s some photos – click on any of them for a larger version.
As I wrap this up, I was sad for Sylvester personally when the show went down in 1990. He was the incumbent, and one never wants to be driving the ship when it sinks. In that regard I felt bad for him. I felt bad for those making the show as they had gotten it right. But this is nearly 40 years ago now, I suppose I should get over it. I did enjoy Sylvester’s era. I know not everyone does, but I do. I was there when it happened new in the 80’s, and I enjoyed it on my rewatch the last couple of weeks.
We’ve probably seen the end of the Seventh Doctor now with the end of Jodie Whittaker’ era. But there’s one more story with Sylvester’s to come….