Wassup With McCoy? (Part 1)

An expanded version of a Facebook dialogue exploring the tail end of original-run Doctor Who.

The question: As an aside, do you have any insight as to why there is a percentage of Who fandom that absolutely despises the McCoy era? I understand the sense of betrayal with “Time and the Rani”, I guess, but the other seasons more than redeem McCoy for me. I’ve never understood the vitriol. Any thoughts? (I’m not saying you hate him by the way.)

The response: I’ve gleaned an impression from a relatively recent re-reading of a swath of DWB back issues. It seems to be a combination of Sylvester McCoy’s acting abilities (or arguable lack thereof) and the construction of the Doctor character as master manipulator with a wholly different moral approach to his predecessors (barring very occasional exceptions). At the time, a heavier focus on the companion and more complex storytelling were also blamed, though I’d suggest these are today considered par for the course.

While I may not agree with the level of vitriol, I can understand where it’s coming from, and more conservative fans would definitely have been in for a shock at the time. By the same token, I think I can understand McCoy apologists. I know some for whom that was their first exposure to Doctor Who, so they had nothing to compare it against. For me, having grown up watching a hero with certain fundamental attitudes, it was a bit of a shock (to say the least) to see those utterly subverted all of a sudden. (More on that later.)

For my part – and I don’t loath the period per se – here are the issues. McCoy tended to put in an inappropriate or unconvincing performance most of the time, cruising a sort of breathless middle ground that rarely achieved quiet subtlety at one end and lacked a truly commanding presence at the other. I wouldn’t go as far as one DWB commentator who didn’t even like the way he breathed, but his bellowed “There will be no battle here” in “Battlefield” smacks of an actor fighting beyond his acting means, as if to say, “I’m small of stature and I can’t do imposing, so I’ll just shout a bit.”

The development of Ace was overdone to the point of transforming her into a damaged soap character, almost every serial (especially in the final season) introducing some new bit of tragic back story to try and ‘explain’ her. I take some issue with Sophie Aldred’s performance as well – and here I seem to stand in a tiny minority – which wasn’t sufficiently mature to cope with such an (at times) immature character as Ace. Not that such writing as the “Boom!” scene in “Battlefield”, for example, particularly helped her cause. Ace’s propensity for violence and a naive willingness to follow the Doctor led to one very interesting development: a willingness to take part in the Doctor’s manipulative ‘games’, to be involved in his world-changing strategies. (Take, for example, her desire to upturn Terra Alpha from the very beginning of “The Happiness Patrol”, or the fact of their arrival in “Ghost Light” as an “initiative test” taken by Ace.) That this transformed itself into an excuse for McCoy’s Doctor to exorcise the demons of her past one at a time in a string of stories – “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy”, “Ghost Light” (so much for the initiative test!), “The Curse of Fenric” – is perhaps the greatest wasted opportunity in character growth this period demonstrated. After a couple of seasons’ worth of watching Ace’s back story increase exponentially, when this suddenly and sharply relates to the present narrative in “Ghost Light” and “The Curse of Fenric” in particular there is no satisfactory examination of her relationship with the Doctor, of the blind trust she’s regarded him with until now. No longer the master manipulator of whole species and planets, he is the master manipulator of Ace herself, in ways that plainly scar her, but it’s all hunky dory as long as she can go for a swim or reaffirm her awareness that she fire-bombed a house at age thirteen. I know there were plans to write Ace out had the programme gone to another season, but equally I know they in no way involved Ace finally growing up by questioning her loyalty to the Doctor or his to her.

The Doctor’s moral shift at this time – from carefree traveller with a heart of gold to man on a mission – was essentially inconsistent and certainly far less appealing to me as the worldview of a hero character. Inevitably this reflected on the writing in ways that tend to be unavoidable under the circumstances and which signpost Cartmel’s and others’ comic book influences fairly clearly. Comic stories were getting a lot cleverer throughout the ‘80s, particularly on the British scene, and the protagonist-as-master-manipulator format is one ideal for a bunch of relatively inexperienced writers to show off how clever they think they are. What this format makes little allowance for is a protagonist who can be caught by surprise, who can learn alongside the audience. Who can himself grow in some small way over the course of a story.

All – or some – of which might have been overcome by stronger storytellers. We need to remember just how inexperienced Cartmel’s writers were: for several, this was their first or second TV commission, for others still their first paid writing work. Even Cartmel had no professional material under his belt. I understand producer John Nathan-Turner’s desire to inject fresh blood into a stagnant programme – and for this he ought to be applauded, particularly on the back of hiring a writing duo who’d been doing TV for longer than even Doctor Who had been around. But a more experienced hand than Cartmel’s – when offered the job he’d been with the BBC Script Unit a short while on the strength of two unproduced scripts and still had nothing actually made to show for his name – was sorely needed to guide writers fresh out of the Script Unit or off fringe stages.
Continued next week

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s