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Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor
Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor
Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor

For fans of Doctor Who, a regeneration is always a tricky time. You’ve spent the preceding years bonding with this guy, becoming accustomed to his face, enjoying his little quirks and habits, only to discover that he is now dead, and there’s someone else standing in his place, and this fella does everything differently. It’s like being introduced to a new dad, seconds after the last one has taken you out for McDonalds.

This troubling juxtaposition was probably bumpiest of all in the move from the Fourth to the Fifth Doctors. The Fourth had drawn all of the dominant themes of the show together into a well-oiled cohesive unit, driven by manic charm. He’d sonic-ed and jelly babied his way through space and time, sometimes doing favors for the Time Lords, sometimes getting lost in E-Space, for seven long years. Anyone regenerating into his shoes would find it hard to leave the same kind of impression.

And the Fifth Doctor, being a less brash, less breezy, less over-confident incarnation than his forebears – and trying to overcome this by wearing uncommonly bright clothes – really struggled. We know this because we could see it on his face. He wore doubt and uncertainty on his brow, much like the Second Doctor did, only without that pretense of bumptiousness that he would use as a shield. The Fifth Doctor acted as if he was trying as hard as he could, but was not always sure of himself, like a young man in an older man’s shoes, or a newly qualified teacher. Sometimes he would even disguise this with half moon spectacles, for gravitas.

See how he reacts to what, for any Doctor, must have been a very common experience: having to save his friends from death by submitting to the will of an enemy:

Sure, he can argue passionately about the need for emotion – the eternal argument between the Doctor and the Cybermen – and sure, the other Doctors would have probably bent the knee at the same moment (although the Eleventh didn’t, when forced to open his own tomb), but somehow, faced with a Cyber-leader he seems slightly of out of his depth. And this is in a story where one of his companions actually dies. Not a happy time.

(Note: that’s not a reflection on the fine performance by Peter Davison, although again, following Tom Baker is no small task. The Fifth Doctor comes across as a junior partner because that is simply what he is like.)

So, rather than puff himself up like the Third or First Doctors, or attempt to befuddle and distract like the Second or Fourth, the Fifth Doctor tries to reach out, and relate to his friends and foes alike, like a young man would. Rather than eccentrically playing the recorder alone, he plays a team sport: cricket. Rather than waving that familiar alien tool about wherever he goes, he puts a humble celery stalk on his lapel, because, like, salad can be jewelry too, right?

He’s as charming as he ever has been, of course, it’s just that he doesn’t seem to take this for granted any more.

So yes, he’s the Doctor who tried to muck with everyone’s expectations of what a Doctor should do. He’s the slightly foppish young man who inherited the firm his forefathers built, and we get to see him struggle to modernize it because everyone likes things just the way they are, thanks. And you get a sense that he’s someone who, if he was the First Doctor, might not have run away in the TARDIS in the first place, much less lead the Time Lords into the Time War. But since he’s already doing it, why not keep going?

Of course, any critique anyone may have of the Fifth Doctor has probably already been addressed and dismissed in this little presentation here.

You can see all of the youthful vigor and human frailty of his most recent incarnations in the Fifth Doctor’s worried brow. He’s the Eleventh Doctor trying to shout his way out of trouble. He’s the Tenth Doctor seesawing between glee and self-pity, without so much as a jelly baby to console him.

But most of all he’s the Doctor that doesn’t always seem entirely sure about what he’s doing, or who he’s doing it with. A feeling that anyone that has ever been in their twenties can surely relate to.

Find out more about the Fifth Doctor on BBC AMERICA’s Doctor Who Revisited, Sunday, May 26 at 8/7c.

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By Fraser McAlpine