Four square fellow
It might be argued that current iterations of the Doctor resolve dilemmas using vague pseudo-scientific, fairytale-magical abilities far beyond those of we mere mortals – or even our ability to understand how or if the latest 45 minute mellow peril has been resolved.
But there was a time when the Doctor seemed very ordinary and all-too-easy to identify with. Not always taken seriously, often frustrated and harassed by those he was forced to work with and seemingly unable to consistently inspire confidence or even ultimately deliver for those who depended upon him: the Fifth Doctor was all too relatable to.
Part of the charm of the Doctor is that although we are often reminded that he isn’t from Earth, he can embody the best and sometimes worst of our own human foibles. Despite his failings he can sometimes give us all something to aspire to.
The famous suggestion given to Davison by a very young fan as the actor was about to embark on the role, that he should play the Doctor “Like Tristan, but brave” was good advice. ‘Young Fifthy’ breathlessly loped through his adventures with even less self- assurance than the junior Farnon brother, but was also capable of an unerring sense of right and the courage to act with few more resources than the blue box which got him into his latest mess in the first place, and the bickering ‘flatmates’ he shared it with.
Much of this was imposed upon Davison by the production team, adamant, probably correctly, that his portrayal should be as far from the humorously omnipotent Tom Baker’s Doctor as possible. But like those who had gone before, the Fifth Doctor was also very much a product of his time. The early Eighties were a time of innovation coupled with a strong sense of looking back to gentler times and in the case of the programme, ‘Neo Romanticism’ and ‘New Edwardianism’ were particularly strong examples.
Eschewing the testosterone –charged excesses of the previous decades’ various iterations of rock, the neo romantic proponents of the New Wave music scene harkened back to a more refined, gentile and, in all probability, imaginary time. “What’s a man now, what’s a man mean,” sang Joe Jackson in 1982, “Is he rough or is he rugged, cultural and clean?” If Tom Baker and Pertwee were posturing lead guitarists and stage-hogging main vocalists, Davison was a (synth) keyboard-playing crooner, or in the case of The Five Doctors, a Harpist.
The early Eighties also heralded the all-pervading success of Chariots of Fire, and on the smaller screen, Brideshead Revisited. Edwardian fashion and sensibilities were back in vogue, and as ever, our programme was at the forefront of the old/young zeitgeist. The Fifth Doctor’s pleasant, open approach might have been very much of its time, but he could as easily have been a resident of Cranleigh Hall and not a visitor from another age.
But as is the case of most embodiments of old-world values, the world changed around the Fifth Doctor, and the sadists and murderers he increasingly encountered made an old- fashioned hero seem dated and quaint by comparison. His final adventure is famously held to be his best and least – a terrific script featuring a hounded, dying Doctor who achieves nothing to affect the brutal course of the story and it’s inevitably grim ending. Unlike his previous selves, he doesn’t die saving the Earth or the entire universe… but typically goes out batting for his friend. And no-one else would ever know, or even care.
“I thought he was sweet.” Protests Peri
“Sweet? Effette! Sneers the newly-regenerated Sixth Doctor, already barging his way towards a destiny cut short by a corner of the TARDIS console. His predecessor on the other hand, had just pushed himself past the point of his fifth life, holding off his own ‘death’ while wracked with pain and exhaustion, all to save a girl he’s only just met.
Tristan had never been braver.