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  • Sylvester McCoy
  • Lynne M. Thomas (bio)

The Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who reflected a time of transition, both in production practices and in televisual storytelling methods. Doctor Who was not particularly beloved by BBC executives, despite consistently generating good money for their commercial arm, BBC Enterprises (now BBC Worldwide). Peter Cregeen, then in charge of the Drama Department at the BBC (including Doctor Who), felt that the show was in need of a rest, and Jonathan Powell, BBC Controller, loathed it outright and wanted it gone. It was pinged for looking too cheap, especially compared to slicker contemporary productions like Star Trek: The Next Generation (US 1987–94), but no one was willing to give it competitive resources. Ratings had dropped. After season 22, Doctor Who had been placed on hiatus for nearly 18 months. BBC executives only grudgingly resurrected it because they did not want to deal with the mobilised, loud fan outcry. This included a charity single, ‘Doctor in Distress’, with the chorus ‘bring him back [End Page 235] now / we won’t take less’, featuring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant among the celebrity singers.

Producer John Nathan-Turner firmly believed that his time on the series was over after season 23, but he was roped into an additional year as producer because the BBC could not find anyone else on staff willing to take over the show. Script editor Andrew Cartmel and Sylvester McCoy replaced Eric Saward (who had quit) and Colin Baker (whom Nathan-Turner was forced by BBC executives to fire), and the show entered production of season 24, where it was scheduled to air opposite Coronation Street (UK 1960–), the most popular show on television.

With a brand new Doctor and script editor, a producer who wanted to leave, overtly hostile executives, a minimal budget and abysmal ratings and scheduling, Doctor Who had nothing to lose. Arguably, it was set up to fail by the BBC just as it had been when originally put into production in 1963.9 What followed was a renewal of the series over the next three years that was not widely appreciated at the time, but in retrospect we see templates, concepts and production practices that have clearly carried over to the 2005 reboot. For example, Doctor Who’s casting during the McCoy era featured a more diverse pool of actors – ‘Battlefield’ (6–27 Sep 1989) is a particularly good example – than had been seen in the series for quite some time. This conscious choice to reflect a more diverse society of viewers in casting carries through to the reboot, both through numerous guest artists and series regulars such as Freema Agyeman and Noel Clarke.

Andrew Cartmel was looking for a feel that matched up more with the gritty, politically aware comics by Alan Moore that he so admired. This more nihilistic version of Doctor Who required a more mysterious approach to the Doctor, placed in direct ironic conflict with the often garish production values of the 1980s. Contemporary UK politics are reflected particularly in ‘The Happiness Patrol’ (2–16 Nov 1988), featuring a Margaret Thatcheresque villain, and ‘Paradise Towers’ (5–26 Oct 1987), a dystopian view of an attempt to build a utopian community, featuring cannibalistic senior citizens, 1980s girl gangs and an adorable killer robot in the complex’s swimming pool. [End Page 236]

New series’ echoes are found in stories such as ‘Silver Nemesis’ (23 Nov–7 Dec 1988), where Ace (Sophie Aldred) asks the Doctor ‘Who are you?’ – a question central to the 50th anniversary season of Doctor Who. Cartmel’s vision of the Doctor (fandom dubbed it ‘The Cartmel Master Plan’) was mysterious, dark and proactive, a portrayal central to Christopher Eccleston’s and John Hurt’s takes on the role. The ‘lonely god’ Doctor, a major plot thread in the David Tennant and Matt Smith eras, has echoes of these three seasons. ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ (5–26 Oct 1988), ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ (14 Dec 1988–4 Jan 1989) and ‘The Curse of Fenric’ (25 Oct–15 Nov 1989) hinted that the Doctor was somehow tied to Rassilon and Omega, as part of a triumvirate of powerful beings that...


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