Britain’s number-two pub argument settled

 

From camannwordsmith.com

 

Tom Baker.

 

There.  That’s conclusively settled an argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints.  And after they’ve had their first big argument, about who is the best James Bond.  (I sorted that one out a few months ago.  It’s Sean Connery.  See here: http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6620.)

 

The argument this time, of course, is: who is the best Doctor Who?  Incidentally, I suspect it’s been raging a lot lately, stoked up by news that the most recent incumbent in the role, Peter Capaldi, has decided to call it a day and the BBC have started looking for a replacement to play the much-loved TV Time Lord.

 

It’s a tricky question.  There are essentially three types of Doctor: the crazy, eccentric ones (Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Matt Smith), the stern, grumpy ones (William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker, Christopher Eccleston, John Hurt, Capaldi) and the swoon-some pretty-boy ones (Peter Davison, Paul McGann, David Tennant).  And as people are naturally inclined towards one of the three groups, the crazy, the stern or the swoon-some, it’s difficult to judge all 13 contenders without bias.

 

Anyway, here’s my ranking of the actors who’ve played Doctor Who, from best to worst.  This is strictly an official list and I’ve avoided folk who’ve played the Doctor in projects outside the TV-show canon like Peter Cushing, Trevor Martin, Richard E. Grant, David Warner, Geoffrey Bayldon and Rowan Atkinson.

 

In descending order, we have:

 

Tom Baker

Matt Smith

Jon Pertwee

Patrick Troughton

Peter Capaldi

John Hurt

Christopher Eccleston

William Hartnell

Colin Baker

Paul McGann

Sylvester McCoy

David Tennant

Peter Davison

 

© BBC

 

To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Tom Baker is the best Doctor Who needs his or her head examined.  He came crashing into the series in 1975, with his mellifluous voice, wide eyes, curly hair, toothy grin, wide-brimmed hat and super-long scarf, and made the role his own.  When The Simpsons do a Doctor Who gag these days, it invariably features Baker’s fourth Doctor.  And when the show celebrated its 50th anniversary in November 2013 with a feature-length episode called Day of the Doctor, it was Baker who appeared as the show’s sole representative from the old days.  Actually, there was no way they could not have got the mighty Tom involved in the show’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

 

© BBC

 

Number two in my list is the second-most-recent Doctor, Matt Smith.  I have to say that back in 2009, when it was announced that Matt Smith would take the role over from David Tennant, my expectations weren’t high.  Largely this was because Smith was only 26 years old at the time, which seemed ridiculously young for any actor attempting to play the Doctor.  However, I was pleasantly surprised because I thought Matt Smith’s Doctor was delightful.  He managed to be endearingly clumsy and child-like, yet also serene and wise; compassionate and yet plausibly alien.  Smith’s unusual physique, with a face that looked like it’d been chiselled by an Easter Island stonemason, helped greatly.

 

The third actor in the list is also the third actor to play the Doctor chronologically, Jon Pertwee.  Among Who fans today Pertwee is a divisive figure.  His detractors accuse him of turning the cerebral and pacifistic Doctor into a swanky action hero.  He attired himself flamboyantly in a velvet smoking jacket, frilly shirt and cape.  He had a Jeremy Clarkson-like predilection for driving fast, if vintage, motor cars.  And he had no qualms about thumping anyone who antagonised him – which was Jeremy Clarkson-like too, come to think of it.

 

To those allegations I can only reply, who cares?  When I was a kid during Pertwee’s tenure in the early 1970s, his impact was immense.  For me and my school-mates and probably everyone else in Britain under the age of the twelve at the time, he was the Greatest Bloke in the Universe.  Not only was he unafraid of alien monsters, but he karate-chopped the bastards – wow!  (Though technically speaking, the martial art he was adept in was really an alien one called Vensuvian Aikido.)

 

He was also equipped with marvellous eyebrows that became prominent at the point in each serial when the latest, hideous alien monster revealed itself.  Pertwee would customarily respond to it with a splendid reaction shot, eyebrows climbing off the top of his forehead.  Like so:

 

© BBC

 

Next comes Patrick Troughton, who as well as being the much-admired second Doctor was also a long-serving character actor, often in British horror films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), The Phantom of the Opera (1963), The Black Torment (1964), Scars of Dracula (1970), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) and The Omen (1976).  In that last one he played a priest who got skewered by a lightning rod falling off a church, a moment that still chills me.  Movies where Doctor Who gets killed I always find hard-core.

 

Troughton’s Doctor was impish and dishevelled, part hobo and part hippy, with a fleeting resemblance to Mo in the Three Stooges.  His influence on subsequent doctors (especially Matt Smith) has been considerable and it’s just a pity that many of the episodes featuring him have been lost.  Before 1978 the BBC had no policy about archiving the tapes of its old shows and as a result they wiped much of the early Doctor Who.  Stupid sods.

 

Then we have the current but soon-to-depart Doctor, Glaswegian Peter Capaldi.  At first I struggled to accept Capaldi in the role.  His abrasively Scottish take on it put me in mind of Malcolm Tucker, the ferocious and spectacularly foul-mouthed spin doctor he played in the satirical comedy show The Thick of It (2005-2012).  Indeed, it was difficult to think of him as anyone other than Tucker.  However, in 2015, I saw him give a tour-de-force performance in an episode called Heaven Sent.  It was so good it finally purged me of all memories of psychotic profanity-spewing Caledonian spin doctors.  And on the strength of that I’ve bumped him up to number five in the list.

 

© BBC

 

Long-term fans of the show often grump about how the modern, revived version of it has cast younger actors in the title role.  But Nu-Who, as it’s nicknamed, has actually featured two older Doctors: the 58-year-old Capaldi and my sixth-favourite Doctor, John Hurt, who alas passed away last month at the age of 77.  In 2013 he turned up as a surprise version of the character called the War Doctor whom nobody had known about.  Until then, the Doctor had kept this incarnation of himself secret because the War Doctor had done something very un-Doctorly.  He’d saved the universe by ending the most cataclysmic war it’d ever known, between the Daleks and Time Lords – but in doing so he’d had to commit genocide and wipe both the Daleks and Time Lords out.  As well as being a bad-ass Doctor, Hurt, who appeared in 2013’s Day of the Doctor alongside Matt Smith and David Tenant, was amusingly curmudgeonly and he kept berating the modern Doctors Smith and Tenant for being young, silly, flirty and frivolous.  In other words, writer / showrunner Stephen Moffat made Hurt the mouthpiece of all those grumpy long-term Doctor Who fans.

 

© BBC

 

The next-best Doctors, in my view, are the two who kick-started the show in its modern and original forms: Christopher Eccleston, who took on the role when the series was revived in 2005; and the venerable William Hartnell, who played the Doctor when it debuted in 1963.  Dour, northern, working class, basically the Ken Loach Doctor, Eccleston gave the character some much-needed street cred and it’s a pity he didn’t remain with the show for more than one season.  That said, he never looked comfortable with the comedic elements of his scripts.

 

Hartnell’s Doctor was starchy, cranky, patriarchal and hard to like.  Yet there are moments from his grainy black-and-white tenure, such as the farewell speech he gives to his granddaughter Susan – “Yes, I shall come back.  Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties.  Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine” – that still raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

 

© BBC

 

And now it’s time to take a deep breath.  For I’ve put Colin Baker at number nine in the list, and not last at number thirteen as most people would – just as George Lazenby regularly finishes last in lists of favourite James Bonds.  I’ve always felt the second Baker, and sixth Doctor, had an unfair rap.  When he arrived in the mid-1980s he had some dire scripts to contend with, but those weren’t his fault; and he deserved credit for trying to steer the character back to the irascible one played by William Hartnell.  Unfortunately, for many fans, Colin Baker’s Doctor was a non-starter because of his costume.  For some unfathomable reason the then-producer, John Nathan-Turner, decided to tog him out in an awesomely repulsive multi-coloured coat – probably the worst decision in the show’s history.  Adding insult to injury, poor old Baker then had to suffer the fallout of the second-worst decision in its history, again made by Nathan-Turner, which was casting the ghastly Bonnie Langford as his travelling companion.

 

© BBC

 

Next comes Paul McGann, who played an agreeably Byronic Doctor.  Alas, with only two appearances in the official show – the lame 1996 TV movie that tried to relaunch the series for an American audience, and the 2013 ‘minisode’ Night of the Doctor, a taster for Day of the Doctor, which showed how McGann’s eighth Doctor turned into Hurt’s War Doctor – he didn’t get much chance to make an impression.

 

After McGann comes his predecessor in the role, Sylvester McCoy.  I like McCoy as an actor, but his efforts with Doctor Who in the late 1980s were scuppered by the scripts he got, which were the show’s worst ever.  Indeed, it was around then that I gave up hope and stopped watching it.

 

And now many female Doctor Who fans will shriek in horror because at a lowly twelfth place in my list I’ve put… the gorgeous David Tennant!  Yes, I know that when Tennant played the Doctor the show reached levels of popularity it’d never reached before (and probably won’t ever reach again).  Not only did he have every teenaged girl in Britain tuning in to watch, but he probably had all their mums tuning in too.  But I found much of Tennant’s portrayal annoying – not just the lovey-dovey stuff that he indulged in with his travelling companion Billie Piper (and seemingly with the main female guest star in every other episode), but also the self-pitying whininess that increased the longer he was in the role.  No wonder cynical fans started referring to him as ‘Doctor Emo’.  It’s telling how the episodes of the show that got most acclaim during his reign were the ones he was hardly in (Blink) or the ones where he played the Doctor out of his usual character (Human Nature and The Waters of Mars).

 

© BBC

 

In bottom place I have Peter Davison, the fifth, early-1980s Doctor, whom I just found young, bland and ineffectual.  At the time he was best known for playing Tristan Farnon, one of the vets in the wholesome Sunday-evening drama All Creatures Great and Small, and once he stepped into the Doctor’s shoes he sneeringly became known as ‘the Vet in Space’.   No offence to Davison – I’ve seen him, middle-aged, in more recent shows like The Last Detective (2003-2007) and Matt Berry’s hilarious Toast of London (2012-present), and thought he was good.  Back then, though, Davison was simply too young to give the role much gravity.

 

And there ends my ranking of the 13 Doctors, which has been scrupulously fair and unbiased.  Even if I did stick all the pretty-boy ones at the bottom. 

 

Have I got Whos for you 2

 

 (c) BBC

 

The 1980s began with Doctor Who regarded as a much-loved and popular British institution.  By the end of that decade, it had the reputation of being a sad and embarrassing joke, watched only by the sort of male fan-geek who still lived with his parents, had personal hygiene problems and had never kissed a girl.  Many lay the blame for this at the door of John Nathan-Turner, who became the show’s producer in 1980 and stayed in the post for the next nine years.  Nathan-Turner certainly made mistakes, though it’s arguable that by keeping the show in the headlines – he had a great talent for publicity stunts and gimmicks – he helped it survive longer than it otherwise would have done.

 

Nathan-Turner’s initial instincts were sound enough, which were to tone down the amount of comedy in the show and get rid of horridly-cute robot dog K9.  He also employed a new script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, who was keen on using stories that both explored new developments in science (e.g. tachyons) and were imaginative – indeed, one of Bidmead’s scripts was inspired by the M.C. Escher picture Castrovalva.  Mind you, on his watch, the scripts got a bit too earnest.

 

However, the list of things that John Nathan-Turner got wrong is a long one.  He scrapped the show’s wonderfully eerie theme music (which was still recognisable as the one fashioned by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in the early 1960s) and replaced it with a snazzy 1980s-style version that today sounds dated in the way that only 1980s music can.  The show’s incidental music also became dinky and garish in a peculiarly 1980s way, to the point where, nowadays, there are episodes from that era available on youtube that I can’t stomach because they’re so unlistenable.  Also, fatally, at a time when TV drama was becoming increasingly flashy-looking and cinematic, he left the filming of the show to a number of bog-standard, old-school TV directors, with the result that it often looked very flat and stagy indeed.

 

But for me Nathan-Turner’s worst mistake was to make the show more for its hard-core fans than for a mass audience.  It always had dedicated fans who bought all the memorabilia – in my childhood I owned Doctor Who annuals, models, painting kits and most of the novelisations of past adventures published by Target Books; I even pestered my long-suffering grandmother into knitting me a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf.  But the show was massively popular among casual TV viewers too.  In fact, during the 1970s, while Star Trek fans gathered in huge conventions and acquired their own nickname (‘Trekkies’), Doctor Who fans were a much less visible, much more underground tribe.  The show had an official fan club, but it was run from a bedroom in Edinburgh by a lone teenager called Keith Miller, who managed to knock out an occasional Xeroxed newsletter.  (Miller has written two memoirs about his experiences as club organiser and, amusingly, he mentions that a young, rival Doctor Who fan in Glasgow kept trying to wrest control of the club from him.  The name of this Glaswegian would-be usurper was Peter Capaldi, of whom we will hear more later.)

 

Aware that by the 1980s Doctor Who fandom was taking on the trappings of a cult, Nathan-Turner increasingly tailored the show for those fans.  At every opportunity he popped in fan-pleasing references to past Doctors, companions, monsters and storylines – often things that only diehard fans could remember.  Thus, the programme became increasingly impenetrable for non-fans, even though they made up the majority of the TV viewing audience.  And, consequently, high ratings became a thing of the past.

 

After one year with Nathan-Turner at the helm, the mighty Tom Baker left the show and was replaced by Peter Davison, who’s probably my least favourite Doctor.  Baker was always going to be a hard act, if not an impossible one, to follow, but I couldn’t understand why his replacement should be someone as young and bland as Davison was at the time.  He was best known for playing Tristran Farnon, one of the vets in the wholesome Sunday-evening drama All Creatures Great and Small, and once he stepped into the Tardis he quickly, sneeringly became known as ‘the Vet in Space’.   (No offence to Davison – I’ve seen him, middle-aged, in more recent shows like The Last Detective and thought he was good.  He was just too young in 1981 to give the role much gravity.)

 

(c) BBC

 

In 1984 Davison gave way to Colin Baker, whom I thought was a far better choice.  For one thing, the second Baker tried to steer the character back to the abrasive and irascible one played by the original actor in the role, William Hartnell.  This approach worked well in dark, satiric adventures like Vengeance on Varos (a commentary on the then-topical ‘video nasties’ scare, written by Philip Martin, who’d been responsible for the surreal crime show Gangsters) and Revelation of the Daleks (a reworking of the Evelyn Waugh book The Loved One, which for a change was shot by a talented director, Graeme Harper).  Unfortunately, my positive opinion of Colin Baker is a minority one and most people regard him as the worst Doctor ever, the George Lazenby of the franchise.  What ruined his portrayal was the decision – another misjudgement by John Nathan-Turner – that he should wear a multi-coloured and jaw-droppingly ugly overcoat.  This was intended to make him appear more alien, but it had the result of making his Doctor very hard to take seriously.

 

Meanwhile, the BBC’s upper echelons were getting sick of the show.  Michael Grade, BBC1’s Controller during the 1980s, made no secret of his loathing for science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular and he did his best to sabotage it – cutting its budget, taking it off the air for an 18-month hiatus, ordering it to tone down its violence (Mary Whitehouse had been complaining again) and making Nathan-Turner sack Colin Baker.  He also moved the show from its traditional Saturday-teatime slot and broadcast it on weekday evenings, where it ended up against Coronation Street, rival channel ITV’s über-soap opera.  Coronation Street, in fact, was the Death-star of ITV programming.

 

By this time I was at college.  I, and a number of my (male) friends, still watched the show, partly out of nostalgia for how good it’d seemed in the 1970s, partly because there was still the occasional, decent story, and partly – brace yourselves for a sexist confession – because we fancied the Doctor’s female travelling companions.  Feminists derided Doctor Who because, traditionally, the female supporting cast had existed only to look pretty, scream at the monsters, twist their ankles whilst running away from those monsters, listen to large amounts of plot exposition and tell the Doctor how clever he was.  From the mid-1970s, though, the producers had tried to introduce female companions who at least walked a line between being eye-candy and being characters who matched, or nearly matched, the Doctor in terms of intelligence or attitude: the much-loved Elisabeth Sladen, who played the smart and sassy journalist, Sarah-Jane Smith, and then actresses Louise Jameson, Mary Tamm, Lalla Ward and Janet Fielding.  By the mid-1980s, the companion was the super-bosomly Nichola Bryant.  I didn’t like her much because she was a throwback, wet in manner and screaming a lot, but her physical attributes at least kept the Dads and male students watching.

 

Unfathomably – another disastrous Nathan-Turner miscalculation – the next companion was comic actress Bonnie Langford, best known for playing shrill obnoxious schoolgirl Violet Elizabeth Bott in a 1970s TV series based on Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories.  When she joined Doctor Who, Langford’s persona was still shrill and bratty and, thanks to her stick-thin frame, she remained child-like in appearance.  All those Dads and lads switched off forever.

 

In 1987 Sylvester McCoy, the first Scottish actor to take on the role, became the seventh Doctor and at this point I gave up.  McCoy is another actor I like, but with the grating Bonnie Langford sharing the Tardis with him, with the budget now apparently non-existent and with the stories appallingly written and going for a camp approach – I don’t mean ‘camp’ as in ‘flamboyantly gay’, but ‘camp’ as in ‘so-bad-it’s-entertaining’, like in the old Batman and Wonder Women TV series – I found the show too painful to continue with.  People tell me that later the show improved, with a feisty new companion (Sophie Aldred) replacing Langford and a new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, hiring talented writers like Ben Aaronovitch, future author of the Rivers of London novels, and the Scottish playwright Rona Munro, but I’d had enough.  When the BBC cancelled the show in 1989, I didn’t even notice.

 

Incidentally, one person who’s a big fan of the seventh Doctor is Peter Jackson, New Zealand director of the Lord of the Rings movies.  Rumour has it that Jackson owns his own seventh-Doctor costume and he made a point of casting McCoy as Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit trilogy.  Jackson has even offered to direct an episode of Doctor Who, provided the BBC give him a Dalek as payment.  Nothing has so far come of Jackson’s proposition – maybe the parsimonious BBC can’t spare the Dalek.

 

(c) BBC


Ironically, just as the BBC was pulling down the shutters on Doctor Who, another big TV science-fiction franchise was returning to the small screen.  In the USA, twenty years after Star Trek had first appeared on American television, Star Trek: the Next Generation made its debut with a brand new cast.  Such was its success that it spawned three further Star Trek series, with three further casts, which extended the franchise into the 21st century.  Once Doctor Who’s blood had been wiped off the BBC’s floorboards, executives there must’ve begun to wonder if they’d actually killed a potential cash-cow – and indeed, if there was not some way that cash-cow couldn’t be revived, and of course, milked, in the not-too-distant future.  The problem was finance.  A big TV sci-fi series in the 1990s required convincing, i.e. expensive, special effects, which was going to be a problem for the always cash-strapped BBC, whose low-budget special effects for Doctor Who might have been serviceable in the 1960s and 1970s but looked positively embarrassingly by the 1980s.  If the BBC was going to re-launch the show, it would have to do so in partnership with someone who had money.

 

The first attempt at a revival came in 1996 with a one-off BBC-American co-production called Doctor Who – The Movie.  With committee-rooms of suited American executives clamouring to have their say about how the new Who should be, whilst knowing absolute zilch about the old show, it could have been abysmal.  I’ve heard rumours that Steven Spielberg, whose company Amblin International was involved at one point in the re-launch, wanted the Doctor played by Michael Crawford, famous in the US at the time for playing the lead in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical version of The Phantom of the Opera.  In the UK, Crawford was known to everyone for playing the beret-wearing, dim-witted, effeminate and utterly disaster-prone Frank Spencer in the 1970s sitcom Some Mothers do ’ave ’em; and the sight of Frank Spencer emerging from the Tardis would surely have killed off the show for British audiences, forever.  The finished effort actually starred Liverpudlian actor Paul McGann as a melancholic-faced, Byronic-looking and fairly credible Doctor and it wasn’t that bad.  It managed to get respectable viewing figures when it was shown in Britain, but it failed to make a splash in America, which destroyed its chances of earning a spin-off TV series.

 

(c) BBC / 20th Century Fox

 

The mistake made by the makers of Doctor Who – The Movie was not, as might be expected, because it strayed too far from the show’s mythology, but because it stuck too close to it.  In its first minute a voice-over managed to refer to the Master, Daleks and Time Lords, which must have mystified those crucial American TV viewers, 99.9% of whom knew nothing about the original show.  Another well-meaning nod to continuity, to keep old fans happy, was that the movie started off with Sylvester McCoy still playing the seventh Doctor and had him regenerate into the eighth, McGann, twenty minutes in.  Any Americans still watching by that point probably switched off in bafflement.

 

Fortunately, when the next attempt was made to revive the series, the person at the helm was Russell T. Davies – a man who knew what the pitfalls were and knew how to avoid them.

 

To be continued.