The Seventh Doctor is unjustly held accountable for the cancellation of this beloved series, but the fact is that there are a few stories and concepts here both exciting and new during his tenure—it is just that they are very effectively hidden amid a morass of bleuch. His first three serials are particularly lame—kicked off by quite the most ridiculous reason for regeneration in the history of the series—and so it is hardly surprising that by the time this incarnation found his feet and things actually started getting good again, few people still cared. (It’s like how Season 5 of Fringe was really awesome, but by then no one was paying much attention anymore, after Season 4 gave us a bunch of episodes with no Joshua Jackson in them AT ALL.)
There are many conspiracy theories relating to the demise of the series, ranging from hatred of all things Who from the BBC higher ups to a dissatisfaction with his role on the part of series exec, John Nathan-Turner. Whatever the reason, there can be no denying that this is the most uneven of all the Doctors’ terms, which is doubtless what makes it the most controversial.
For myself, I am hardly the Seventh Doctor’s biggest fan, but neither do I despise him and all his works—upon rewatch, many of these stories are, indeed, essential to an understanding of Classic Who, and quite enjoyable in their own right. Oh, nothing here is necessarily First Doctor essential, nor Second, Third, Fourth or even Fifth—though he probably does have the edge on Sixth. Still, for all that the bloom is not only off the rose here, it has been drawn, quartered and run over by a truck, there are some shining moments of greatness to be found amongst the grey twilight; some diamonds in this very, very rough.
THE SEVENTH DOCTOR
Played by: Sylvester McCoy
First Appearance: “Part One” (Time and the Rani, September 7, 1987)
Last Appearance: “Part Three” (Survival, December 6, 1989)—but with a later guest appearance.
Style: Dr. Huxtable at a Garden Party
Catchphrase: “Not this time…”
Characteristics: As he is first portrayed, perhaps the most peculiar thing about the Seventh Doctor is how tactile he is. No Doctor before the Seventh was quite as casually demonstrative, and this, added to his low-rent Rowan Atkinson demeanor and affable inarticulateness, gave the initial impression of a bumbling father figure type, kind of an Uncle Joey in space. But as his seasons progressed we were given to understand that this Doctor was, at hearts, the most diabolical (but in a good way—can you be diabolical in a good way?) of his many selves, manipulating galactic events rather than merely reacting to them, all for the greater good. Bringing the phrases “best laid plans,” “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and that thing about absolute power forcibly to mind.
A note on That Outfit. While the question mark motif was introduced in the era of the Fourth Doctor, with subtle-if-stupid pins on his collars, and was a continuing theme thereafter, the punctuation-festooned woollen sweater vest affected by this Doctor is simply inexcusable. Points for the awesome hat, though.
Companions: The shrill and generally pointless (but not entirely unlikeable) Melanie “Mel” (Bonnie Langford) hangs around for a while after the regeneration from Sixth to Seventh, but it is 1980s punk-lite teen Dorothy “Ace” Gale/McShane (Sophie Aldred) who sees out the series at the Doctor’s side, for good or for ill.
1. DRAGONFIRE, Season 24, Episodes 12-15
Written by: Ian Briggs
Directed by: Chris Clough
Setting: Iceworld, a mall on the planet Svartos
3 Episodes: “Part One” (November 23, 1987), “Part Two” (November 30, 1987), “Part Three” (December 7, 1987)
Unusually, I am sparing you the first outing of this Doctor’s incarnation here, because it was Time and the Rani, and no one deserves that. (Especially as I was similarly kind in withholding the Sixth Doctor’s The Mark of the Rani… basically anything Rani-related can, and should, be avoided.) I’m also bypassing the next two serials, lackluster and pantomime-esque as they are, and thus we come to Dragonfire, the last serial of this Doctor’s first season, most notable for the departure of the tiresome Mel—who actually doesn’t fare too badly in this one, however—and the advent of Ace, everyone’s favorite 16-year old felon. I have to confess that I never really warmed to Ace too much (though I understand her appeal: she’s a cute girl who blows up stuff!), but there is no doubt that she has a big impact on what is to come, and moreover becomes probably the most fully-fleshed out companion of the Classic era. Elsewhere in here, and totally worth your while: a fun treasure hunt, a cool and menacing ancient villain, an obvious Wizard of Oz homage and the return of swaggering mercenary Glitz (Tony Selby), late of The Mysterious Planet. And please, please, please check out and relish the cliffhanger ending of “Part One.” Way to get literal, show.
EXPLAINED! The Doctor’s tolerance for nicknames.
2. REMEMBERANCE OF THE DALEKS, Season 25, Episodes 1-4
Written by: Ben Aaronovitch
Directed by: Andrew Morgan
Setting: 1960s Earth
4 Episodes: “Part One” (October 5, 1988), “Part Two” (October 12, 1988), “Part Three” (October 19, 1988), “Part Four” (October 26, 1988)
Um. Ben Aaronovitch wrote this episode? Ben Aaronovitch, as in the author of the Rivers of London series, which I love and adore? Well, blow me down with a sonic screwdriver—I had no Earthly, or even Skaroly, idea! And it explains a lot of the tone shift evident here, in this first outing of the twenty-fifth season—otherwise known as the beginning of the (albeit bumpy) upswing. It’s a Dalek episode, of course, and a good one, with the metal menaces once again invading 1960s Earth (they really love that time period, don’t they? Maybe they were really into psychedelia?) but also engaged in a factional war against each other. It’s all a very racism-is-bad metaphor, and that is good, but more important are the callbacks to “The Unearthly Child,” the First Doctor’s first episode, as the Daleks are on the hunt for a magical talisman known as the Hand of Omega, hidden by the Doctor way back then. But even more important than all of this is the revelation that the Doctor designed this whole scenario as a trap for his old enemies, playing directly into how the rest of the series sets him up as a conniving, almost omniscient time-travelling version of The Mentalist. (Though we never really get to see the whole thing pay off, of which more anon).
EXPLAINED! That Daleks can get up stairs! (Revelation of the Daleks implied as such, but here we have concrete proof.)
3. THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY, Season 22, Episodes 7-9
Written by: Stephen Wyatt
Directed by: Alan Wareing
Setting: The Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax
4 Episodes: “Part One” (December 14, 1988), “Part Two” (December 21, 1988), “Part Three” (December 28, 1985), “Part Four” (January 4, 1989)
“So you've always been interested in the psychic circus, have you?” the well-travelled, if tedious, Captain Cook (T P McKenna) asks of young enthusiast, Whizzkid (Gian Sammarco). “Well yes, of course,” he earnestly replies. “I've never been able to visit it before now, but I've got all sorts of souvenirs. Copies of all the advertising satellites that have ever been sent out. All the posters. I had a long correspondence with one of the founder members too, soon after it started. Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be but I'm still terribly interested.”
If you don’t read in that some none-too-gentle ribbing of passionate Whovians, then I utterly despair of you. It’s like an early version of Galaxy Quest, or perhaps more like one of those Supernatural episodes where Dean and Sam encounter LARPers portraying them, or that girl who writes Wincest fanfic. And that is what makes this serial so great, and so entirely unmissable. For a show with such a storied history and such a dedicated following to let loose with the fourth wall breaking “Get a life”-esque critique of its fanbase is risky enough to warrant it inclusion here, but ultimately this story succeeds because it is just a wildly entertaining hodgepodge of clever ideas, creepy villains (CLOWNS!), and crazy direction that makes it seem almost as surreal and dreamlike as the nightmares that will inevitably plague you after you watch it. Because: CLOWNS!
EXPLAINED! The era of the “superfan.”
4. BATTLEFIELD, Season 26, Episodes 1-4
Written by: Ben Aaronovitch
Directed by: Michael Kerrigan
Setting: England 4 Episodes: “Part One” (September 6, 1989), “Part Two” (September 13, 1989), “Part Three” (September 20, 1989), “Part Four” (September 27, 1989)
UNIT meets Arthurian legend, featuring the final appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). Meanwhile, Ben Aaronovitch wrote this one as well(!). Really, that is all you need to know.
EXPLAINED! More UNIT stuff, which will later have at least some bearing on Torchwood.
5. SURIVIVAL, Season 26, Episodes 13-14
Written by: Rosa Munro
Directed by: Alan Wareing
Setting: Contemporary England and the Cheetah Planet
3 Episodes: “Part One” (November 22, 1989), “Part Two” (November 29, 1989), “Part Three” (October 6, 1989)
It’s dumb. The plot actually involves a race called “the Cheetah People,” and they look ridiculous. But it is the final episode of the Classic series and so is absolutely, unquestionably compulsory viewing, especially as it brings Ace back home to Perivale, sees the Master’s (Anthony Ainley) steady decline into redundancy fully realized, and gives us a rather poignant monologue from the Doctor which, if nothing else, pretty neatly encapsulates his reign:
There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace. We've got work to do.
Also, gotta love the irony of the title.
EXPLAINED! Why the show went on hiatus for nigh on a decade afterwards.
I know, I know. I left out The Curse of Fenric, the second to last serial, and I’ll tell you why. Yes, it “explains” Ace’s sudden transportation to Iceworld, and sure, it further illustrates this Doctor’s penchant for universe-wide, fifteen-steps-ahead meddling. It’s actually quite good, as well. But since the threads that it sows and the mytharc that it develops never really go anywhere, given the series’ cancellation, it is really only “essential” in the context of the New Adventures novels that continue the series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 style. If you plan to read those adventures, then The Greatest Show in the Galaxy can be replaced by Fenric—or, for preference, added to it. Wow, who’d have thought there were six necessary Seventh Doctor episodes?
Now… let’s have it!
NEXT TIME: The Specials!
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.