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One of the most interesting things that Doctor Who sometimes does with its lead actors is to take a performer that is principally known for comedic roles, then make them act against type.
So, Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, rather than delivering a whirlwind of funny voices and manic energy, was a lofty and deliberate man, a gentleman scientist. And Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor showed fear and frailty, rather than the bumptious youth viewers may have expected from his previous TV roles.
So, in the midst of some concern as to the direction of the show, Sylvester McCoy was brought in as a safe pair of hands. He was a known performer to the young viewers that have always been the heart of the Doctor Who fanbase, having made his name with a series of manic turns on children’s TV shows like Jigsaw, Tiswas and Vision On. It was clear that he had the capability to bring back some of the Second Doctor’s clowning, a welcome respite from the Sixth Doctor’s haughtiness.
This sort of a thing:
And yet, if all there was to the Doctor was horseplay, he wouldn’t be the complex, dark character that we all know and love. It’s important that he can inject levity into tense situations, but not all the time. And the Seventh Doctor is someone that appears, over time, to become irritated by his own silliness.
It might be nothing more than an angry case of the tears of a clown, but it’s always compelling to watch someone who has that surplus of wit and charm suddenly lose heart, and become more terse and snarly. It’s a trick we’ve seen the Eleventh Doctor pull more than a few times too.
So, rather than being a puckish, sprightly, carefree Doctor, the Seventh slowly embarks on a hugely complicated strategic battle with the forces of evil, and is well prepared to make a few necessary sacrifices in order to win. He has to be good at making people do what he wants them to do, because he’s decided to fully renounce violence in general, and guns in particular.
The relationship between this Doctor and his principal companion, Ace, defines his tenure in the TARDIS. She provides a root for his flightier moments, while fulfilling her responsibility to get as lost and in trouble as any companion ever did. And you get the sense that he holds their relationship more closely to his heart(s) than, say, the Sixth Doctor did with Peri.
As with a lot of aspects of his tenure, things that start as jokes — Ace calls him “Professor” — often end up being more meaningful, as he solemnly assumes a mentor role to his violent charge. This allows him to forgo the equality of a more conventional friendship, preferring a more parental role, in which he knows what’s best and doesn’t always feel the need to explain himself.
And when he’s not trying to build up her confidence, he’s tricking his way into the middle of a Dalek civil war using old Time Lord technology, and then arranging the destruction of their home planet, Skaro (actions which may end up precipitating the Time War). He does a similar thing to the Cybermen too. This is a guy that is no longer whimsically wandering space and time, to see what he can see. He’s an active participant in his own adventures from the start.
And in the end, he’s right to be something of a control freak. While delivering the body of the Master to Gallifrey, he is forced to land in 1999 San Francisco, and catches a random bullet in a gang shooting. Unconscious, and therefore unable to explain the workings of his unique physiognomy and how best to treat his wound, he has to lie still while the doctors working to save his life accidentally provoke a regeneration that he could easily have prevented if he’d only been able to speak.
And when he awakes, he’s a new man entirely.
For more Seventh Doctor shenanigans, here’s the trailer for this Saturday’s Doctor Who: The Doctor Revisited, showing at 7pm/6c on BBC AMERICA: