Sylvester McCoy: Travelling Light

Have you ever had a gift for something, knew you could do it and were good at it? Well at the age of 22, after an interesting but eventually useless jaunt studying packaging design down south, I enrolled at university to take up a degree course for my first love – graphic design.

As I began, new surroundings, new people and new ideas began to alter my perception of what good graphic design was. Now the first year was spent getting to know the surroundings, dealing with less than taxing design briefs from the tutors and using some difficult materials to work with. Year two was a mixed bag of highs and lows, of wanting to quit because I’d had enough, for ultimately failing in my grades that year and having to do a load of extra work to pass and go on to year three, where I finally got my head down and blossomed, and achieved the work I knew I was capable of doing.

What has this to do with Sylvester McCoy? Well, whenever I think of McCoy I think of my stint at University. I remember the canny Scotsman’s inning as the maverick Time Lord like it was yesterday, he’s only the second doctor I had followed religiously on television after Peter Davison as for me Colin Baker was an on and off affair. Born James Kent – Smith on 20th August 1943 in Dunoon, Strathclyde, most of his early years where spent training as a priest and selling insurance before he joined the Ken Campbell Roadshow later changing his name to Sylvester McCoy. A natural showman, he was adept at juggling (as witnessed on the odd occasion as the Doctor) playing the spoons and the xylophone which led to him being a part of a circus-based act lead by Ken Campbell. Fast-forward to 1986 when he was spotted by JNT in a theatre production of ‘The Pied Piper’ and the rest is history – except it isn’t just yet as I get back to my comparison.

Yes, McCoy arrived underneath a blonde mop of a wig, only he wasn’t what I was expecting. After the huge disappointment of seeing my idol Peter Davison replaced by the colourful, yet mad Colin Baker, McCoy again disappointed. He looked like a Doctor, he had the costume of a doctor but acted like a comedian…yet I still watched week in week out and persevered with it (unlike the C. Baker years – I was a young kid at the time, my opinions changed a lot). Season 24 was a fairly low key season. The stories were at the time and still are some of the poorest seen in the Doctor Who. Odd celebrity casting notwithstanding, however (with the exception of Don Henderson) the scripts just didn’t help McCoy. It was clear that the scripts were written without any foreknowledge of the seventh Doctor’s characteristics. To me, Dragonfire was the only possible shining light of that season due to its introduction of Ace (Sophie Aldred) and its arch villain Kane portrayed by Edward Peel. McCoy himself later admitted his struggle with the character in various interviews:

“In the early days there were some bad moments because some fans…especially in Britain…became very critical…before they’d seen a shot I’d done. In a way Doctor Who is a strange role, because normally you don’t have that comparison. The only other similar kind of roles are Shakespearean roles – you [have people talking about] good Hamlets and…bad Hamlets, [saying one’s] not as good as another and so on. It was a bit of a problem to deal with at first”

He was also not helped by the fans condemnation of the shows direction and the falling ratings, with the show being pitted against of all programmes the long running soap favourite Coronation Street.

But then something happened. Ben Aaronovich’s action-laden script Remembrance of the Daleks landed and gave McCoy the perfect platform for establishing his Doctor. Aaronovich gave McCoy’s Doctor an edge – a manipulative player, knowing what was going on, pulling the strings – and it worked splendidly as McCoy grasped the concept well, bringing back some of the mystery that has always surrounded the Doctor, an aspect that had been missing from the Colin Baker and even Peter Davison eras.

This and the relationship between the Doctor and Ace had for the first time in what seemed like years gave the show a bit of solidity, so much so that the quality of the distinctly average 25th anniversary was forgiven. Silver Nemesis was an obvious rehash of Remembrance, again featuring the Doctor manipulating events, with two factions of Daleks being replaced by three parties all vying to unlock the power of Nemesis. It was around this point that the background story to Ace was given focus, and at last the Doctor had a companion comparable to Liz Shaw. Although the initial execution of Ace was touch and go, as viewers we were given insights into her background (Survival, The Curse of Fenric), her fears (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Ghost Light) and her rogue nature ( Remembrance of the Daleks) and her on/off relationship with the Doctor. This final aspect of their relationship was so important – there’s the feeling there that no matter what happens they are there for each other – that it formed the basis for the majority of the Seventh Doctor’s adventures in print. With the mixed Season 25 over, and the promise of better things to build from, the writers of Season 26 and Sylvester McCoy offered us a tantalising insight into the Doctors past with the idea of making McCoy’s Doctor darker and in stark contrast to Season 24’s performance. Again it offered another layer to McCoy’s character, a mysterious traveller, a being who knows what’s going on and who is prepared to play the game, even at the risk at the people around him. We see the Doctor pursued and confronted by Fenric and are given a glimpse into his Time Lord past, having met and defeated Fenric before and using Ace in the game to manoeuvre his enemy into position. We hear threats from Fenric suggesting the Doctor has a questionable past and we learn just a little more about the relationship between the Doctor and the Master in Survival, which became a fitting and unexpected final story for Doctor Who on TV. Survival allows the cast to shine, Sophie Aldred plays her best performance, becoming the best companion in the series for me; she’s real, she has character and background. Sylvester McCoy is outstanding and shows his breadth of talent, whether playing the Doctor jovially, menacingly or fallible, he carries it off superbly.

The only regret I have was that this relationship was cut in its prime when the BBC decided the show was to be axed, and a crying shame that we never got to see a fourth season of McCoy’s Doctor; I believe the opportunity to show us more of what or who the Doctor is was too good not to be missed and would have been a very exciting and successful era in Doctor Who. We can only be thankful that the Doctor’s seventh life achieved such a long run in print – a low-key end to one of my favourite Doctors to date who proved despite a shaky start that he possessed the qualities for a memorable and capable Doctor.

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