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Feature: Doctor Who

Children in Need: Time Crash

Two Doctors, Peter Davison and David Tennant

Twenty-five years after his first season as the Doctor, Peter Davison is back aboard the TARDIS... but why is his incarnation so well loved?

As Peter Davison’s Doctor crashes back on to the screen for an all-too-brief encounter with his successor four-times-removed, David Tennant, it’s sobering to realize not only that his Doctor now belongs to the first half of the series’ history, but also that it’s more than 25 years since he first reached our screens. When he left the role in 1984, Davison remarked that he’d perhaps been offered the part when still too young to do it justice, and that he wondered how he’d have played the Doctor at 50. In the Children in Need mini-episode Time Crash, he’s resuming the role at 57 – older even than William Hartnell was when he quit as the Doctor back in 1966.

It was undoubtedly Davison’s age that made his casting controversial at the time. “I was appalled when he was cast,” future Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat (who’s scripted the Children in Need mini-episode) wrote for the story-by-story analysis of Doctor Who, In-Vision, back in 1995. ‘I announced to my bored and blank-faced friends that he was far too young, far too pretty and far, far too wet to play television’s most popular character (as, I deeply regret to say, I described the Doctor).’

But Moffat was soon to eat his words. ‘Little did I realize that Davison was about to do something almost never before seen in the role of the Doctor. He was going to act.

‘Let’s get something straight. Davison was the best of the lot! Number One! The Man! It’s not a coincidence or some evil plot that he’s played more above the title lead roles on the telly than the rest of the actors put together.’

Ohers took longer to adjust to Davison’s new approach, and it’s fair to say that when he left the series after three years (recalling former Doctor Patrick Troughton’s advice that this was the best moment to call it a day, as he had done), newspapers tended to hint that his tenure had been a bit of a disappointment, with the BBC actively seeking an ‘older, more eccentric’ Doctor who might dominate the show in the way Tom Baker had. But as the years have gone by and younger Doctors have become the norm, Davison’s portrayal of the Doctor – not quite the ‘Old man trapped in a young man’s body’ that Christopher H Bidmead, the script editor at the time of his début, had intended, but one of the more thoughtful and compassionate interpretations of the character – has grown in stature with the passing of the years. After all, the series largely retained its audience during his time, despite the arrival of Channel 4 and a shift to twice-weekly weekday transmissions, whereas ratings went into a steady decline under his supposedly more Doctor-like and eccentric successors. In addition, his Doctor seems to be a frequent favourite of the people who were inspired to go into television by their childhood love of Doctor Who. The first Missing Adventure, Goth Opera, was a Davison tale, rather than one for the supposedly more iconic Tom Baker, and the Fifth Doctor remains a favourite of its author, Paul Cornell. The DVD release rate for Davison stories was deliberately stepped up as they proved to be reliable steady sellers while the range was establishing itself, prior to the series’s triumphant return turning anything Who-related into a must-have.

by Diane McGinn

Read more about Peter Davison's Doctor in
TV Zone #222

Photo © BBC
Feature © Visual Imagination 2007. Not for reproduction

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TV Zone #222
December 2007
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