Peter Davison’s Doctor Who: Violence & Vulnerability

If it wasn’t for Davison, I’m pretty sure that I would not have been illustrating or designing Doctor Who merchandise. Indeed in all honesty I probably would not have as much affection for the show as I do.

Although I remember Tom Baker vividly (Destiny of the Daleks is one of my very first recollections of Doctor Who), unlike many I was never upset when one day I tuned in to see the curly-haired traveller fall off a radio telescope to his death.

However what followed completely changed my view on the show, developing from passive interest into addiction.

In 1980, newly installed Producer John Nathan-Turner was widely criticised by many for some of the major changes he introduced to the show, including the removal of K9 and the Sonic Screwdriver.

Then he cast Peter Davison as Doctor number five.

Known primarily for his role as Tristan Farnon in ‘All Creatures Great & Small’, Peter Davison was seen as a bit of a gamble by JN-T for such a hugely popular role.

Many felt Tom Baker was an irreplaceable Doctor. I can’t imagine how daunting it must have been, as well as a challenge for Davison, to take over from such a cult figure – as popular a Doctor today as he was back in the seventies!

Born Peter Moffatt in April 1951, after a spell working in a tax office in Twickenham Davison landed his first TV roles, which included appearances in ‘The Tomorrow People’ and as the popular Tristan Farnon in ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. It was in this late seventies show, that he caught the attention of JN-T, who immediately earmarked him as the next Doctor. It took several attempts to lure him to the role, mainly because of Davison’s own doubts about his suitability, but it was announced finally in November 1980.

Davison’s Doctor presented a more human hero, gone was the air of alienism, replaced with a more general concern for all life. Some may argue he was oversensitive, but Peter Davison played the role more akin to Troughton’s Doctor with a very English attitude, quite similar to Pertwee. Of course the Fifth Doctor would later die from poisoning, a similar fate to that of his bouffant-bonced predecessor.

Season 19 was a fairly stable introduction for Davison’s Doctor, helped in large by the previous season’s behind-the-scenes changes. The season boasted stories such as Black Orchid a classic whodunnit, serving up a terrific fare utilising the BBC’s excellent period wardrobe, Earthshock a twisty space shocker introducing a modernised version of one of his oldest foes and Kinda a Buddhist themed and quite complex tale about the mind.

Not only did the show begin to deviate away slightly from the core children’s audience (with complex storylines and characters in Kinda and Castrovalva) the show also moved to a midweek slot, further proof that the show was trying to hit some middle ground among children and adults.

JN-T also brought the Doctor’s character back to his thinking roots which allowed Davison more slack in his portrayal of the Doctor. Out went the sonic screwdriver in The Visitation, destroyed by the Terileptils; it gave the Doctor a chance to flex his problem-solving muscles again after years of get out clauses, K-9 being the other prominent clause.

This move also allowed vulnerability to become a facet of the Doctor’s character. The Doctor would find himself suddenly under pressure to do the best thing he could, often with dire consequences; this is shown to full effect in Earthshock, with the Cybermen using emotional blackmail against the Time Lord threatening him with Tegan’s life at one point, and of course the loss of Adric, aboard the doomed freighter.

Such moves rippled through the Doctor Who community, not used to expecting such dark adventures. This reinforces what I have always believed: Doctor Who is best when he’s vulnerable and not everything goes to plan. Consider the brilliance that is Robert Holmes’s The Caves of Androzani.

From realising the worst of his and Peri’s condition to hijacking a shuttle craft to find the raw Spectrox nest, the Doctor has no chance. He knows this, but will do anything he can in his power to leave Peri as a survivor, even if this regeneration kills him. It almost does.

Unfortunately we were only given a short reign for Davison’s Doctor. Following advice from Patrick Troughton to stay just three years, Davison made his mind up in 1983 that he should bow out of the show, a decision taken on the back of a frustrating season 20. By the time of the superior Season 21 , Davison considered reversing his decision.

Highlights include Frontios, Resurrection of the Daleks and of course The Caves of Androzani. Frontios offered Davison the chance to play the character as he saw him, against the odds, thrust into a tough situation, and this all round well written story really shines and is possibly one of the most underrated gems of the shows tenure.

So with the show moving into a new decade, with a new producer and with new ideas, it was nothing short of a masterstroke casting the talented Davison. It was always emphasised, even by Peter Davison, that the Doctor should not be a Luke Skywalker figure, but that’s exactly what he was in my eyes at the age of 6.

The old, forlorn and weary Doctor had suddenly become a youthful, heroic Doctor which to me meant a little more action and parity with Buck Rogers, Starbuck, and Luke Skywalker. A mention must also go to the costume designers who came up with the most impressive identity (to date, in my opinion) for Peter Davison. The mix of cricketing jumper, pinstripe trousers and Edwardian frock coat gave the Doctor a refreshing look away from the previous incarnations of frilly shirts, dark coats and dark coloured scarves, announcing Doctor Who to a bright new era.

Importantly for the new Doctor this era saw a change in character. We had a Doctor just as intelligent as previous incarnations but very vulnerable too, a Doctor who made mistakes, who didn’t always think before rushing into danger and of the dire consequences of his actions. We had a show that also had added violence, and a show, still with wit, but with a serious underlying morality and a show that carried Doctor Who forward in a fantastic modern way.

When Doctor number five drew his last energies feeding Peri the Spectrox antidote and began the change for Doctor number six a small part of my appreciation for the show died; I knew I had seen and grown up with my favourite.

My feelings remain the same today, all these years later. Peter Davison was MY Doctor.

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