Like all of us, no Doctor is born fully-formed. The lifespan of a Time Lord’s incarnation is one marked with gradual change, his personality shaped either by encounters with adversaries old and new, or the shifting relationships between companions and colleagues. Off-screen, this change is brought about by show runners or (in the classic series) producers, script editors and in most instances on record at least, the lead actor himself. In the instance of Sylvester McCoy’s tenure this is certainly the case on record, and in the short lifespan of the Seventh Doctor, this change is probably the most abrupt yet; superficially a gear shift from quirky, bumbling tramp-clown to murmuring inter-dimensional schemer in the space of the season gap between 1987 and 1988. As the Doctor says in Delta and the Bannermen there may indeed be “many a slap between a cup and a lap”, but the radical shift in tone that would usher in its follow-up bar one, Season Twenty-Five’s opener Remembrance of the Daleks, would also firmly establish for many fans the definitive Seventh Doctor, fittingly set against his oldest and deadliest foes.
We attribute much of this change to the popularly-termed ‘Cartmel Masterplan’, a loose set of threads guiding the Seventh Doctor through his remaining eight UK-made stories and, via Masterplan alumni Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt, into Virgin’s New Adventures as well. As the era of Sylvester McCoy also marked a coming-of-age of would-be future fan writers in the New Adventures, it’s important too to see where they took their cues from in McCoy’s televised stories. To this end, perhaps more weight has been added to some spurious material than was initially intended (for example, Delta’s Stratocaster scene, championed in The Discontinuity Guide as a sort of proto-Cornellian signifier; not to mention the infamous deleted scenes from Remembrance) and, I‘d argue, maybe too much was heaped also on Dragonfire as an Ace story. And yet, from these simple moments, a great and diverse run of novels sprang, solidifying the form of an incarnation which is still being portrayed in Big Finish audios to this day, the Seventh Doctor now a master of manipulation, setting even his next incarnation’s future up ahead for him before his own time runs out.
This piece, however, is not about those stories, or what followed the TV series and its cancellation, but what came before. The passage of time has, it seems, been a little less kind to the era of Sylvester McCoy, with Twenty-first Century eyes casting unforgiving appraisals upon its trappings of Eighties Who; the raucous synthetic soundtracks, video format and shrill theme music. Once the top cat of DWM surveys, the Seventh Doctor now languishes with his predecessor in the lower leagues, and yet this reversal of fortune can be a useful thing in itself. Twenty-five years on from Remembrance of the Daleks and all it seeded those New Adventures are not so easily come by, and their recasting of the Seventh Doctor is less ubiquitous outside a Big Finish subscription. Inadvertently, the consigning of Virgin’s fan baton to deeds past has forced a review of the Seventh Doctor as a screen incarnation first and foremost, and despite DWM polls and forum drubbings on balance that’s really not a bad place to start at all. There are stories within the McCoy Era – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Battlefield, Ghost Light, Survival, The Curse of Fenric, The Happiness Patrol, which have the capacity still to surprise and intrigue with this mercurial incarnation, and which are now stripped of the off-screen series and their adherence to repeated memes. Granted new eyes, the brave and bold conceits of the Cartmel and, indeed, the McCoy Era, are available once more to be experienced.