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  • Peter Davison
  • Deborah Stanish (bio)

The choice when examining a media property decades after its creation is either to view it as a quaint relic, filled with cultural markers that place it within a specific context, or to dig deeper and strip away the layers of nostalgia to find the soft underbelly of cultural truth. A charming testament to the excesses of the 1980s, Peter Davison’s era of Doctor Who is rife with expected awkward fashions and dated special effects. However, on a more critical level, this era reflects a world poised on the edge, filled with conflict and fear.

Davison’s Doctor entered a world stage fraught with turmoil both on a [End Page 230] national and global scale. At home, Margaret Thatcher’s government was changing the face of the United Kingdom with drastic policy implementations. Globally, Ronald Reagan and the United Nation’s showdown with Russia over Afghanistan pushed the arms race into overdrive and the doomsday clock ever closer to midnight. Despite this grim reality, the early 1980s also saw a world giddily caught up in a new British invasion: the New Romantics were changing the face of pop music thanks to the visual medium of music videos; and an estimated 750 million people across the globe battled time zones to watch the seemingly fairy-tale wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer.

A reflection of these times, the fifth Doctor is a study in contrasts: a softer, prettier Doctor whose costume could only be more British if it were emblazoned with the Union Jack rather than question marks. His stylised Edwardian cricket gear seems a reflection of a time when the Empire was peaceful and prosperous, yet his incarnation is anything but. In comparison to the cocksure bluster of Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor, he is more questioning and a bit less sure of himself. As tempting as it is to wrap this in the symbolism of a fallen empire struggling toward a new identity, sometimes a good costume is just a good costume.

More evident during Davison’s short run are the nods to the upheavals, social and political, outside the studio doors. Uncaring, totalitarian regimes have long been tropes in speculative fiction, but seen within the context of rising unemployment and crippling recession, the oppressive totalitarian government in ‘Four to Doomsday’ (18–26 Jan 1982) takes on an even more sinister undertone. The shifting sands of imperialism and classism are examined in stories such as ‘Kinda’ (1–9 Feb 1982), ‘The Black Orchid’ (1–2 Mar 1982) and ‘Enlightenment’ (1–9 Mar 1983). And what is ‘The Caves of Androzani’ (8–16 Mar 1984) if not an allegory of faceless, nameless corporations putting profit and greed above all else? These stories traded on gentle nostalgia with pointed social commentary and felt right in a world both fascinated and horrified by the over-the-top pomp and circumstance of a royal wedding and sabre rattling in the Falklands.

And then we hit 1984, when no matter how loud the music or how fast we danced we couldn’t keep the spectre of nuclear war from our doorstep. Pop culture reflected our fears while, at the same time, fuelling the fire. WarGames (Badham US 1983) was an international box office success as we unknowingly teetered on a knife’s edge thanks to false missile reports (Hoffman) and misconstrued NATO exercises (Doward). We were a generation that, in the US, watched Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After (29 Nov 1983) while school counsellors and parents prepared for fallout of the emotional kind. In the UK, [End Page 231] Mick Jackson’s Threads (23 Sep 1984) stripped the rhetoric from the idea of survivable nuclear event and finally shook loose the BBC’s long embargo on Peter Watkins’s 1965 The War Game (31 Jul 1985). We were a world obsessed with the possibility of our own destruction and it was inevitable that that fear would creep into Doctor Who.

With the nuclear wolf at our real-life door, it is no surprise that season 21 is the most grim and violent of Davison’s era. This season gave us the highest on-screen body count...


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pp. 230-232
Launched on MUSE
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