The following article was originally published in Baz! No. 1
It could be said that we get the Doctors we deserve. We certainly seem to get the man for the age – each Time Lord to date has been, unavoidably, a fair representation of his creators’ and audience’s times – the Sixties hobo, the Seventies Soho, the Noughties Emo. But spare a thought for the early-decaders, the cusp-trippers who have one foot in each decade; is Pertwee truly indicative of the era that kicked off just as he did? Isn’t Hartnell more a symptom of repressed post-war Fifties UK than fellow traveller to his swinging successor? And didn’t fan necromancy make the seventh Doctor more a Nineties antihero than an Eighties one? Indeed, it was as recently as January that next-up honcho Steven Moffat described Colin Baker as ‘The Eighties’. There’s no denying Tom was The Seventies – he nearly spanned the decade, but where does that leave Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor? Well…
I’ve come to believe that some Doctors are less spectacle than place-keeper. For better or worse and surely not with intent, their lot is to warm the benches – Ecclestone will soon be all but forgotten, McGann now exists almost purely as a fan construct. Pity the poor sod who had to follow Tom Baker’s reign of tenure – and yet for the Fifth Doctor much of what went before is what makes this incarnation. He is the deliberate antithesis of what came before, stripped of colour and anarchy, studied and mannered, lost in a crowded TARDIS. His regeneration begins, fittingly, with an identity crisis and the unravelling of his predecessor’s visual touchstones, and we’d not see a frock coat, big hair or shouting until his innings were done and the next man was up. He is the rest between gulps, the smoothing of the pitch.
There’s an unsure quality built in to the Fifth Doctor, as if the man doesn’t quite believe he is who he is supposed to be. Likely the actor wasn’t entirely sure, employed to be ‘not Tom’ and soon to discover that contrary to expectations he was also to be ‘not Bill’ and ‘not Pat’, and so we are left with a performance which never takes off, never finds itself for three years. There’s little to pin on this Doctor; no wonder what he got literally was virtual celery, the calorie-less vegetable. He also got swamped – by companions (the mouth, the nerd, the skirt), by attempts at sexed-up science, by his predecessors and in the case of his new script editor, by his guest stars. The caricature of most Doctors, the early ones at least, is usually a scene stealing, attention grabber; but that’s not the case of the Fifth Doctor – he is incapable of stealing the show, it isn’t in his nature. So we get the other caricature – the Wet Vet, the reactor rather than the achiever. Bad things happen and people suffer or worse.
Still, perhaps blending in with one’s surroundings can be the smartest thing to do – it certainly never hurt the actor’s career to be identified less with the role. But try as I might I can’t get ‘behind’ this Doctor. He is age-wise my Doctor, of course, but I could never claim to be entraced, frustrated, entertained by this quite inoffensive and powerless version. And I can’t shake a feeling of unease every time the man who portrays him falls back on the easy head shaking mock weariness when discussing or contemplating his garish replacement. I don’t want to say I don’t like this incarnation, but I do find him unremarkable, a strange idol for the manic man-child of the hour. Edwardian in dress and manner, he is Eliot’s Prufrock at the TARDIS helm. On the cusp of something, perhaps, but defined as in his fate by the things over which he has the least control.