Friday 29 August 2014

The Grand Redemption of Peter Davison

There was a time when this was considered high drama.
That time was in the producer's office, not on transmission.
(SPOILER WARNING for Doctor Who: The Fifth Doctor Box Set: Psychodrome and, I suppose, Earthshock).

Last night I listened to Psychodrome, the first story in Big Finish's The Fifth Doctor Box Set, and it really drove home how much Big Finish and others have done to actively rehabilitate the Fifth Doctor era.

In a way this has happened with every Doctor Big Finish has worked with. Their Sixth Doctor is less abrasive to his companions than he was on TV whilst still retaining his hard edge; with the Seventh Doctor stories push the boat out on his scheming and questionable morals; their Eighth Doctor has darkened to flatter Paul McGann's talents; and their Fourth Doctor series benefits greatly from a less arrogant Tom Baker who doesn't feel the need to steal every scene.

A lot of that is character, though, whereas with Peter Davison I feel what's being rehabilitated is the whole era.

Take Psychodrome: the elevator pitch on this one was to create a new second story for Peter Davison. The story is set right after Castrovalva and a lot of it is about the four regulars and their impressions of each other after having been together a very short time. As Tegan points the two stories she features in before this point take place over less than two days and she hasn't had a moment to stop and mourn the death of her Aunt Vanessa. Nyssa's whole world was destroyed and the Master is walking around in her father's corpse. Adric has seen “his” Doctor die shortly after Romana left them and the TARDIS is no longer the same environment he “signed up” to travel in.

None of this was dealt with on-screen. These four characters skipped from Castrovalva Part Four to Four To Doomsday Part One with little continuity. Nyssa does have another encounter with the Master in Time-Flight with no mention is made of the whole “Dad's corpse” business and Tegan meets several members of her family over the years with no mention of poor Aunt Vanessa's fate.

This is the era, lest we forget, that sold itself on its “soap opera” elements and continuity yet never really invested in a sense of character. The season this story is set in ostensibly has one “focus” story for each companion but they aren't focus stories as we understand them: Tegan's story sees her possessed by the villain; Nyssa's has Sarah Sutton playing another character more than she plays Nyssa; and Adric's story gives him little to do beyond die dumbly.

Psychodrome makes liberal use of elements from the stories it takes place between: the unreal environment of Castrovalva gets the added twist of being influenced by everyone's perceptions rather than being under the Master's control. The opening scenes are also reminiscent of the exploration phase of a Hartnell first episode that was used in Four To Doomsday and this is really my point:

With the other Doctors characters get reworked using modern techniques but for the Fifth Doctor stories from his era are actively re-written. One of the most acclaimed Fifth Doctor audios is Spare Parts, in fact it was (very, VERY) loosely adapted for television as Rise Of The Cybermen/Age Of Steel. Spare Parts used the same basic idea of Earthshock: a Cybermen story hugely bound into their on-screen history but instead of re-enacting old set pieces its a story about the history of the Cybermen, even going so far as to re-use the singsong Cyber-voice from The Tenth Planet.

Its not only Big Finish, either, one of my favourite Doctor Who novels is David A. McIntee's The Lords Of The Storm. This book is very much Warriors Of The Deep but done with Sontarans and done well. McIntee uses elements from every Sontaran story, including the fan made VHS story Shakedown, but does it with fidelity and also thinking about how the concept could be modernised. Like Warriors, Lords features a future society but McIntee gives it far more depth than the one from Warriors and uses it as more than a background for the monster story to happen against.

(The actual ultimate example of this pattern I would love to recommend but since the villain of the piece and therefore story it “replaces” is a huge revelation I really, really can't because the internet would hate me forever. It really is one of those twists fandom swears you to secrecy over. Its one of the Fifth Doctor Lost Stories, that's all I can say, and don't read the copyright blurb on the back cover).

Now, I love the Davison era but I have to admit it is one of Doctor Who's most flawed runs. It crackles with potential but that potential never truly breaks through. Turlough is a great idea for an untrustworthy companion but aside from Barbara Clegg and his creator Peter Grimwade everyone just writes him as a coward; killing a companion was a good dramatic idea but using it as an excuse to get rid of the unpopular one was cheap; the Black Guardian trilogy was a good idea but needed a middle story that actually said something relevant to the overarching plot; and why the hell does it matter that the robot prop doesn't work properly when the robot is a bloody shapeshifter?

So I'm grateful, is what I'm saying. The wasted potential of those three seasons is a huge bugbear of mine. You can point to just about every regular character and say they were wasted and that we can finally see how Turlough and Tegan and Nyssa and Peri would work if written well and directed patiently can only be a good thing.

And yes, if Psychodrome is anything to do by, there's hope for Adric yet.

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