Time And Tide Melts The Snowman: Part One
"Sylvester Stallone's the new Mister Who!".
It was with those words, uttered by a classmate who was obsessed with being the 'first' with the latest showbiz news despite apparently never quite understanding what any of the words involved in it actually meant, that I learned of the casting of the seventh - and, as it would turn out, final - Doctor Who lead actor of the show's original run.
Whatever 'Mister Who' may have been, it's entirely possible that Sylvester Stallone might indeed have considered ditching Cobra to take up the lead role in it; after all, he was always being linked around then to unlikely revivals of old Cult TV shows that ultimately (and thankfully) never happened. As for Doctor Who, however, they'd perhaps more sensibly opted for Sylvester McCoy, who on paper at least seemed an inspired choice. To younger viewers, he was already well known as the anarchic quick-talking second-stringer in a variety of off-the-wall shows including Vision On, Eureka, Tiswas and a stint as the 'tall' one of The O-Men in Jigsaw. Meanwhile, to older viewers, he was familiar from a range of more cerebral shows like the gently absurdist nostalgic sitcom Big Jim And The Figaro Club, not to mention literal careering around arts and culture shows as part of the worryingly unpredictable performance troupe The Ken Campbell Roadshow. Those somewhere in between would at least have seen him marching around on Schools' TV holding up a placard reading 'EQUAL RIGHTS FOR MCCOY'. In short he was an energetic, freewheeling, versatile performer with wide experience of non-mainstream theatre and a clear leaning towards the 'outsider'. In other words, exactly what Doctor Who needed at that point.
Alright, let's be honest about this - what Doctor Who needed at that point was a lot more than that. It needed a new and more assertive producer, it needed the showboating BBC 'top brass' to admit to themselves that there were other scheduling White Elephants far more deserving and worthy of being run into the ground, it needed fans who weren't barking mad lunatics intent on catapulting themselves at The House Of Commons dressed as The Shrivenzale in protest at something or other where nobody was ever quite sure what it was, and above all it needed a slot in the schedules that wasn't directly against bastard Coronation Street. It didn't get any of this, of course, but never let it be said that those who were left to fight the battle didn't fight it admirably, and in a way that led many of the remaining faithful to believe, just for a minute, that they might win after all. It was, in a sense, Chris Morris' Large Charismatic Biblical Chicken, which I mention purely as a way of getting a plug in for my book about Radio 1 comedy, Fun At One. Yes, alright, I'll get back to Doctor Who now.
Despite what the revisionists from both outside and inside fandom might try to insist, and regardless of whether it actually worked or not, there really was a stylistic sea change from Sylvester McCoy's arrival onwards, and a vivid determination to get as far away as possible from directionless self-referential mean-spiritedness of the past couple of series. And for the admittedly few who did stay on board for what one certain continuity announcer infamously described as "a journey to an altogether more far-flung shore", this meant a much-needed freshness, brightness and sense of fun, and - just for the briefest of moments - a genuine hope that they might finally be getting it right again, and that the lingering threat of 'cancellation' might finally recede. The irreverent pranksters behind the definitive McCoy-era overview Wallowing In Our Own Weltschermz have argued with some force that, while still some way from hurtling back to shore at a rate of knots, the production team had at least turned the ship around, whilst Gareth Roberts, one of the most perceptive analysts that archive TV has ever had, put it more simply and directly still: "suddenly, somebody opens a window, turns on the air-conditioning, squirts lemon disinfectant around with abandon, and we get Season Twenty Four".
Of course, that optimism was quickly dashed, and fans would see in a new decade with that famously inspiring Doctor Who Magazine cover featuring a dejected-looking Sylvester McCoy beneath the headline 'Waiting In The Wings - What Does The Doctor Do Next?'. Over time, this hope-dashing would lead to a widespread and erroneous belief that there was never any hope to dash in the first place; that the series really was the 'pantomime embarrassment' that self-appointed 'superfans' with their own well-known personal beefs with cast and crew went to great lengths to inform us it was every three minutes, that the sets were uniformly flimsy and the music uniformly terrible, and that Sylvester McCoy spent three years falling over while saying "twosidzzzzzz onecoin" (and with friends like that, who needed Jonathan Powell?). And yet, there were so many who watched, accepted and liked those three series on face value, who saw and felt the excitement and potential of the gradual improvement, and really did believe for one gloriously deluded moment that Doctor Who in its original incarnation still had a fighting chance in a changing home entertainment landscape and against the machinations of an incoming wave of media 'money men'. Some of them may even have penned a short article for their Local Group's Newsletter analysing the out-of-season coverage between series twenty four and twenty five and described it as 'encouraging'. Which certain erstwhile Local Group Newsletter editors had best not now dig out lest their feature about how long the whole thing took to photocopy and staple should also 'leak' online.
Sometimes, in fairness, arguments against the McCoy era have been made cogently, rationally, and backed up with thoughtful assessment. Nine times out of ten, however, they've been made by prats whose evaluation goes no further than the fact that they don't particularly think much of McCoy's debut story Time And The Rani. That, apparently, is the beginning and end of their argument, no further questions Madame Inquisitor. Is Time And The Rani even that bad, though? Surely there were a lot of viewers who quite enjoyed it when it went out, and maybe even found it refreshing and invigorating after the aimless and alienating lack of restraint and focus that had dominated the past couple of series? Well, yes there are. Hello. You're reading the stridently pro-McCoy ramblings of one of them right now in fact. And this is as good a moment as any to take another look at the Seventh Doctor's debut outing and see if any of that scoffing and snorting actually does hold any weight after all. So, fire up the black and white portable, sit impatiently through the last two minutes of Wogan, flit trepidatiously in and out of the room where everyone else is watching Coronation Street in colour to make sure you start the video just at the right moment, and let's go!
NEXT TIME: New Theme Music, New Opening Titles, New Doctor, and the problems begin...