When Peter Davison took over as the Doctor, he was in a similar spot to Peter Capaldi. Like our Twelfth Doctor, Davison was taking over after a wildly popular run. He also gamely admitted to watching the show as a child; indeed, he was the first actor every cast in the part to actually be young enough to have fond schoolboy memories of Doctor Who. Unlike Capaldi, he was one of the youngest people ever hired to play the centuries old Time Lord. Until Matt Smith — cast at 27 — Davison was the baby of the bunch, being hired at age 29 to replace Tom Baker. The outgoing Fourth Doctor was leaving after an unprecedented seven-year run that damn near defined what people thought Doctor Who was: an alien with floppy hair and an absurd scarf talking circles around his enemies.
In 1980, producer John Nathan-Turner, he of the bad taste, took over the show from outgoing producer Graham Williams (who will get a proper lashing in another Doctor Who post some day). When Baker chafed at the changes JNT wished to make to the program, the producer seized on the opportunity not to renew his lead actor’s contract and find someone new. He didn’t have to look far.
In contrast to the relative obscurity William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Baker emerged from to play the Doctor, Davison was a rather well-known face to British TV watchers in 1981. He’d just come off several years of All Creatures Great and Small where he played Tristan, a boyish veterinarian. JNT worked on All Creatures and knew the actor would not just a give him a Doctor more to his taste, but serve as a truly sharp contrast to Baker. Also, there was an instant publicity boon in hiring a face TV audiences enjoyed to play a well-established character they enjoyed.
This is one of those times JNT had the right idea, but as often happens, the execution was muddled.
That isn’t to say Davison was terrible. In fact, he’s a really great Doctor. The Fifth Doctor is an unusually human and vulnerable persona. Unlike the flippant Fourth, Five was often hurt — physically and emotionally — by the situations he and his companions faced. He was also often in a hurry; moreso than any Doctor since the Second and his pace would not be seen again until the modern series. The stories of his era are really held together by the quality of Davison as a TV actor.
So where did JNT muddle it up? With the stories and the companions. Arranging to completely change the nature of the series, JNT had the Fourth Doctor’s companions, Romana and K-9, written out and introduced the alien math wiz, Adric, as their replacement. He traveled with the Fourth Doctor for a short time before introducing Australian air hostess Tegan Jevanka in Baker’s final story, “Logopolis.” But before that final story was produced, JNT decided to add a third character, Nyssa, from Baker’s second-to-last story as a companion. She was not initially designed to appear beyond that one story and I’m still not entirely clear why he added another character at that stage, but it suddenly left the console room overstuffed.
And if you ask Davison about it, he’ll tell you there were just too many companions. Several of his first year stories straight up have a companion captured or incapacitated for most of their runtimes because the scripts were commissioned before Nyssa was added to the cast. There simply wasn’t enough story to go around and by the season’s end, JNT knew he had to remove one of them. Guess which one as I tell you about them:
Nyssa was an inquisitive young scientist from the aristocracy of the planet Trarken. She was always curious about how the technology, cultures, and underlying principles of the people she encountered in her travels with the Doctor. Though thin on character development, her curiosity complimented the Fifth Doctor’s enthusiasm. Davison has gone on record saying he thought she was the best fit for the show, but I’m going to disagree with him.
Tegan, on the other hand, is the best fit for the Fifth Doctor. She’s never impressed with him, calls him on his bullshit and is generally, as she once described herself, “a mouth with legs.” Played by Australian-born Janet Fielding, Tegan was an attempt by JNT to court more Aussie viewers and maybe a few free plane flights from Qantas, but Fielding imbued her with just the right amount of standoffishness to be the exact sort of companion the Doctor needed at the time.
Oh, then there’s Adric. Poorly designed, poorly acted, and just poor all around. Current showrunner Steven Moffat once described him as “a fan who wandered onto the set.” He is reviled in fan circles and generally gets a bad rap; he is a boy genius on a sci-fi show, after all. Unfortunately, actor Matthew Waterhouse takes the brunt of it despite being as shackled by JNT’s concept for the character as anyone else. But yeah, he wasn’t much of an actor, either, so you can guess who was let go.
And boy, did they let him go with a bang!
Davison’s second year happened to be the 20th anniversary season and noticing the viewing figures had an uptick whenever an old enemy came back, JNT stacked the season with return appearances from the Cybermen, renegade Time Lord founder Omega, the Guardians of Time, the Brigadier (not a villain, but always a welcome face) and the Master. It all culminated with the 20th Anniversary special, “The Five Doctors,” and would serve as the show’s highpoint in popularity.
Unfortunately, trouble was brewing in the office. After a revolving door of script editors, Eric Saward took over the job and found it difficult to secure scripts from competent writers who also got the mechanics of the show. The overall mediocre script quality led Davison to hold steadfast and leave after three seasons; advice given to him by Second Doctor Patrick Troughton.
And though JNT solved his crowded TARDIS problem, he walked right back into it by introducing actor Mark Strickson as Turlough. He was yet another alien boy, but unlike Adric, he was hellbent on killing the Doctor. Both Davison and Strickson noted that aspect of the character shackled writers and performers with a storyline that could never be resolved. It was shortly abandoned and soon after, Nyssa departed from the TARDIS. Finally arriving at a manageable number of companions, Saward was free to build the quality of scripts and, hopefully, make the show attractive enough for Davison to sign on for another year.
Unfortunately, Davison remained firm and before “The Five Doctors” aired, JNT was already looking for another actor to play the lead part. But that’s a story I’ve already told.
While the scripts made Davison flee, there are a handful of fantastic stories during his run; at least one of which I’ll eventually showcase on Tread Who Safely, but here’s quick run down:
1. “Black Orchid” was one of two attempts to revive the show’s early “historical” format, but with a slight injection of the fantastical. It’s not well-loved in fan circles, but I think it’s the most representative of JNT’s overall vision for the show. Set in the 1930s, the Doctor and crew meet a look-a-like for Nyssa who is being stalked by a deformed man during a quaint summer holiday weekend. Because it’s set in the past, the production values are very high and should’ve set a standard for the show to follow.
2. “Earthshock” is Adric’s swansong and the return of the Cyberman after a seven year absence. Parts of it might remind you of Alien, but I think that’s part of the charm. Also, special credit goes out to actor David Banks, who breathed arrogant life into the usually lifeless role of the Cyber Leader. He would continue to play the part in every Cyberman story for the rest of the classic series.
3. “The Arc of Infinity” sees the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey and trouble at the very top of Time Lord society. I think it’s a fun story, but it’ll give you some idea why New Series instigator Russell T. Davies killed off the Time Lords.
4. “The Caves of Androzani” is a taught little gem. It’s also Davison’s last story. He once said that if the scripts had always been at the level of “Androzani,” he never would’ve taken off his cricketing gear.
Oh! The costume! Early on, Davison suggested the Doctor might be inspired by cricket gear. JNT ran with that and had the costume designers create a costume Davison found “overly designed.” He intended the cricket clothes to only be a starting point, not the end all be all, but we know how JNT does fashion. The Fifth Doctor also had a stick of celery attached to his lapel. Davison, who hated celery, just asked that it be explained before he left the program. It’s purpose is finally revealed in “The Caves of Androzani,” but I won’t spoil the surprise.
Though there’s plenty to be critical about during the Davison Era, it’s still quite classic Doctor Who and the very era Tenth Doctor David Tennant, writers Paul Cornell and Mark Gastiss, and Steven Moffat experienced as wee lads. There’s much to enjoy for those who are willing to make the trip to the 1980s and experience what happened when Doctor Who met hairspray, highlights, and running shoes.