Violence and Vulnerability: Why I Love the Fifth Doctor

If it weren’t for Peter Davison, I’m pretty sure that I would not have created, written, or designed the DWC’s forerunner, Kasterborous. In all honesty, I probably would not have as much affection for the show as I do.

Although I remember Tom Baker vividly (I think Destiny of the Daleks was one of my very first recollections of Doctor Who), unlike many I was never upset when one day I tuned in to see the curly-haired traveller fall off a radio telescope to his death – saving the Universe never seemed so easy for the Fourth Doctor. However, what followed completely changed my view on the show, developing from passive interest into addiction.

In 1980, newly installed Producer, John Nathan-Turner (who was widely criticised by many for the major changes he introduced to the show, including the removal of K9 and the sonic screwdriver) cast Peter Davison as Doctor number five. Known primarily for his role as Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great & Small, Peter Davison’s casting was seen as a bit of a gamble by JN-T for such a hugely popular role. Many felt Tom Baker was an irreplaceable Doctor. I can’t imagine how daunting it must have been, as well as a challenge for Davison, to take over from such a cult figure – as popular a Doctor today as he was back in the 1970s!

Born Peter Moffatt in April 1951, after a spell working in a tax office in Twickenham Davison landed his first TV roles, which included an appearance in The Tomorrow People. It was in All Creatures Great & Small that he caught the attention of John Nathan Turner, who immediately earmarked him as the next Doctor. It took several attempts to lure him to the role, mainly because of Davison’s own doubts about his suitability for the character, but it was announced finally in November 1980.

Davison’s Doctor presented a more human hero, gone was the air of alienism, replaced with a more general concern for all life. Some may argue he was oversensitive, but Davison played the role more akin to Patrick Troughton’s Doctor with a very English attitude quite similar to Pertwee.

Of course, the Fifth Doctor would later die from poisoning, a similar fate to that of his bouffanted predecessor. Season 19 was a fairly stable introduction for Davison’s Doctor, helped in large by the previous seasons behind-the-scenes changes. The season boasted stories such as Black Orchid, a classic who-dunnit, serving up a terrific fare utilising the BBC’s excellent period wardrobe; Earthshock, a twisty space shocker introducing a modernised version of one of his oldest foes; and Kinda, a Buddhist-themed and quite complex tale about the mind. They are testimony to these changes. Not only did the show begin to deviate away slightly from the core children’s audience (with complicated storylines, themes, and characters in Kinda and Castrovalva) the show also moved to a midweek slot, further proof that the show was trying to hit some middle ground among children and adults.

JN-T also brought the Doctor’s character back to his thinking roots which allowed Davison more slack in his portrayal of the Doctor. Out went the sonic screwdriver in The Visitation, destroyed by the Terileptils; it gave the Doctor a chance to flex his problem-solving muscles again after years of get out clauses, K-9 being the other prominent clause. This move also allowed vulnerability to become a facet of the Doctor’s character. The Doctor would find himself suddenly under pressure to do the best thing he could, often with dire consequences; this is shown to full effect in Earthshock, with the Cybermen using emotional blackmail against the Time Lord threatening him with Tegan’s life at one point, and of course the loss of a companion (I can hear the whoops of joy right now) as Adric is left aboard the doomed freighter. They were moves that rippled the Doctor Who community not used to this sort of scenario and reinforcing what I have always believed the Doctor should be: that is, the Doctor is best served as a character when he’s vulnerable and not everything goes to plan.

My view is fully reinforced by the brilliance that is Robert Holmes’ The Caves of Androzani.

Although the pinnacle of Season 21, Androzani nevertheless sums up my feelings for Davison’s Doctor. Strong-minded yet weak, alert and forthright but not a fighter, only acting when the odds are strictly against him. From realising the worst of his and Peri’s condition to hijacking a shuttle craft to find the raw Spectrox nest, the Doctor has no chance. He knows this, but will do anything he can in his power to leave Peri as a survivor, even if this regeneration kills him. It almost does.

Unfortunately, we were only given a short reign for Davison’s Doctor. After a now infamous meeting between himself and Patrick Troughton with the former giving him the advice of only staying in the role for three years, Davison made his mind up in 1983 that he should bow out of the show. This of course was a decision taken on the back of Season 20, for Davison personally, a frustrating season as he didn’t find the material offered him enough scope to play the Doctor as he wanted, and of course by the time Season 21 had arrived and an upturn in material, Davison had already made his decision. However, it was a season that was excellently handled to go out on, with the highlights being Frontios, Resurrection of the Daleks, and of course The Caves of Androzani.

(Frontios offered Davison the chance to play the character as he saw him, against the odds, thrust into a tough situation, and this all round well written story really shines and is possibly one of the most underrated gems of the show.)

So with the show moving into a new decade, with a new producer and with new ideas, it was nothing short of a masterstroke casting the talented Davison. It was always drubbed home, even by Peter Davison that the Doctor should not be a Luke Skywalker figure, but that’s exactly what he was in my eyes at the age of 6. This older, forlorn, and weary Doctor had suddenly become a youthful, heroic Doctor which to me meant a little more action and parity with Buck Rogers, Starbuck, and Skywalker. A mention must also go to the costume designers who came up with the most impressive identity (to date, in my opinion) for Peter Davison. The mix of cricketing jumper, pinstripe trousers, and Edwardian frock coat gave the Doctor a refreshing look away from the previous incarnations of frilly shirts, dark coat,s and dark coloured scarves, announcing Doctor Who as a bright new era. Importantly for the new Doctor, this era saw a change in character. We had a Doctor just as intelligent as previous incarnations but very vulnerable too – a Doctor who made mistakes, who didn’t always think before rushing into danger and of the dire consequences of his actions. We had a show that also had added violence, and a show, still with wit, but with a serious underlying morality, and a tenure that carried Doctor Who forward in a fantastic modern way.

When the Fifth Doctor drew his last energies feeding Peri the Spectrox antidote and began the change for Doctor number six, a small part of my appreciation for the show died; I knew I had seen and grown up with my favourite and my feelings remain the same today.

(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in February 2005.)

  • ColeBox

    I was a mere fifteen year old when Davison was announced and as someone who remembered when Doctor Who had a bit more bite, I found Davison’s first series a bit dull; younger me found it a bit chatty and stand-about. But the series wasn’t a total write-off because of the Visitation and especially Earthshock. Davison’s second, and the anniversary year, was similarly lack-lustre. But that third was an absolute belter (um… the LWT lit Warriors of the Deep aside): the horror returned, the violence stepped up and we had action-adventures back. However, modern Doctor Who could learn a lot from Peter Davison’s time; especially the “I’m the Doctor! You’d better run!” cobblers we’ve been served up a few times in the last few years.

    If I have one criticism that younger and older me have about Davison’s era is the over-crowding of the Tardis. Even young me noticed that Nyssa was surplus to requirements in Earthshock.

  • The Lazy Womble

    I was 19 and a year in to my Law degree. Tom Baker had been the Doctor for ages. Too long in my opinion. I wanted a change. Peter Davison was like a breath of fresh air. My favourite Doctor since Pat Troughton. But Peter was brilliant. An old man in a young man’s body. Naive, enthusiastic and at the same time grumpy. And the “one leap and he’s free” disappeared. A wonderful time.