Doctor Who Project: Peter Davison Retrospective

While Peter Davison might have been the youngest actor, at 29, to take on the title role in Doctor Who when he became the Fifth Doctor in 1981, in many ways he stands as the most adult of the Time Lords to grace our screen. From the very beginning, in “Castrovalva,” Davison’s Doctor shepherds his copious flock of companions to safety, and while they certainly support him in turn, the overall effect throughout his twenty-story run feels very much like a beleaguered teacher on an intergalactic field trip, hoping to get all the kids back on the big blue box bus.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions survey the Urbankan spaceship

In part, this sense of heightened responsibility for his youthful charges—Tegan notionally being oldest, somewhere in her early-twenties—dovetails with producer John Nathan-Turner’s increasing focus on the Doctor being old, not just in terms of having a massive well of off-screen experience to explain whatever might be needed to move the plot along, but also bearing the emotional scars from those hundreds of years of regeneration-fueled existence. And at its best, Davison’s ability to harness this reservoir of painful knowledge imbues his version of the Doctor with a depth of character that transcends the often uneven scripts. For the Fifth Doctor, more than any other, fails.

The Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa, realizing Adric is dead

Three stories in particular—”Earthshock,” “Warriors of the Deep,” and “Resurrection of the Daleks“—highlight (for lack of a better word) the ways in which the Fifth Doctor faces the limits of his power and the limitations of his belief system. Like many a person in middle age, he comes to terms with his regrets. It’s no longer a series aimed at children…

The Doctor leaves Adric behind

Most obviously, in “Earthshock” both the Doctor and the viewer must confront the death of Adric, who perishes when a space freighter commandeered by the Cybermen hurtles through time, inadvertently yet of necessity bringing about the cataclysm that wipes out the dinosaurs on Earth far in the past. The Doctor, under threat from the Cyber Leader, leaves Adric behind in order to save Tegan, and though he believes he can still save the boy from e-Space when he makes the decision, the rescue does not come to pass. A quibble might be made as to whether Adric’s demise is the first time a companion has died, with claims being made for Sara Kingdom and Katarina, but “Earthshock” marks the first time an established companion perishes. Gone, too, is the audience’s certainty about what will happen on Doctor Who, as big a shake-up as any that Nathan-Turner introduced to the series. This time, the Doctor does not save the day, a realization made more compelling by the fact that Adric always, in a sense, dies here to bring about an established historical event, the kind of fixed point the Doctor insists on protecting.

Icthar (Norman Comer) conversing with the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) as Sea Devils and Tegan (Janet Fielding) look on

Drawing directly on past losses, “Warriors of the Deep” gives the Fifth Doctor the chance to do better by the Silurians and Sea Devils whom the Third Doctor failed to save. Alas, dear viewer, he does not, and utter carnage ensues, with all the humans and reptilians on Sea Base 4 dead, not just at each other’s hand but, for the Silurians, at the Doctor’s hand as well. The look on Davison’s face as the Fifth Doctor stands amidst a carpet of bodies vacillates between horror and futility, as though there’s almost no point in trying. As the opening story for Season Twenty-One, it sets the tone for the final set of stories to follow.

Confronting his decision

The tension between needing to act to prevent an immediate wrong and a dogmatic insistence on non-intervention has informed Doctor Who since the very beginning. “But you can’t re-write history! Not one line!” shouts the First Doctor, and each of the Doctors in turn has confronted events that should be stopped but must not, to allow history to proceed not as it should, but as it did. For the Fifth Doctor, he encounters not so much an unchangeable situation as one he regrets not changing in the past, in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” where he rues the Fourth Doctor’s hesitation in wiping out the Daleks once and for all at their birth. Davison portrays the Doctor with the beginnings of a mania of sorts that will persist through his regeneration story, and we see that the Doctor no longer holds to his longstanding beliefs. He will kill, proactively, to protect and to save, where before such actions would only take place in the direst of circumstances. More pointedly, he sets out to eliminate Davros, and by all the evidence on screen—and in Davison’s eyes—the Fifth Doctor would have pulled that trigger, had circumstances not intervened to save the audience from seeing him cross that line.

The Fifth Doctor confronts Davros

His decision to murder Davros costs him not just a philosophical cornerstone of pacifism but Tegan as well, his most faithful and long-serving companion, when the Dalek dust settles. Rare amongst companion exits, she leaves not for love or homesickness or to pursue a passion but because she’s tired of the death and the danger and, in the end, the Doctor’s way of life. “It seems I must mend my ways,” he laments, but in the very next story, “Planet of Fire,” he allows the Master to die and directly kills Kamelion, a change in ways probably not in keeping with what he has in mind.

The situation heats up for the Master

Indeed, the Fifth Doctor’s long arc from guardian to avenger comes in fits and starts as producer Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward wrestle with the very concept of the series. Technically the first producer/script editor duo to oversee the entirety of a Doctor’s run—Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks hold those roles for all but one of the Third Doctor’s tales—they nevertheless seem to be adjusting things on the fly with the Fifth Doctor, and in Season Nineteen in particular, there’s no real direction for the character beyond that of being custodian to a large group of companions, up until “Earthshock” undoes everything viewers thought they knew about the series.

A broken mathematics badge

Given Nathan-Turner and Saward’s attempt to draw more heavily upon the Doctor’s backstory, making concerted efforts to name-drop canonical moments and figures from prior seasons, it’s striking that the Daleks and Cybermen show up just once each, not counting their cameos in “The Five Doctors.” More typical of their efforts are the aforementioned return of the Silurians/Sea Devils and the surprise appearance of Omega as the antagonist in “Arc of Infinity,” whose cast list also includes the future Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, as a Gallifreyan flunky. “Arc of Infinity” and “The Five Doctors” point out the limitations of going back to Gallifrey time and again (no pun intended), though, as the political squabbles between Castellans and Chancellors and would-be Lord Presidents fall rather flat, unlike the Fourth Doctor’s own intrigue-laden stories on the Time Lord homeworld. Those at least had the benefit of initially revealing the inner workings of the Time Lords; Davison’s Gallifrey stories lack both nuance and insight.

Hedin holding Nyssa, Lord President Borusa, and the Fifth Doctor captive

The Master, of course, has no time for such subtleties, and Anthony Ainley brings the Doctor’s arch-foe back for five separate stories during the Fifth Doctor’s run, each with a more elaborate and implausible scheme than the last. From a recursive trap powered by Adric’s mind through to a stolen Concorde and an android replica of King John who will undo the development of democracy on Earth, the Master tries to get the better of the Doctor unceasingly. Seeing Ainley on screen remains a pleasure each time, the Master’s braggadocio and bluster matched only by his limitless incompetence. It’s a shame, though, that this iteration of the Master, with the sole exception of Terrance Dick’s script for “The Five Doctors,” never leans into the odd, hesitant camaraderie that the Third Doctor shares with his old chum from the Time Lord Academy. Absent that tiny glimmer of redemptive hope, the Master becomes another black and white pantomime in a series that seems to want to explore the more grey areas of moral ambiguity.

Anthony Ainley as the Master

The bespoke villains in the Fifth Doctor’s time on screen fare much better, most notably the Mara, rare for being a recurring foe in a pair of linked stories—”Kinda” and “Snakedance“—separated by almost a year. “Snakedance,” the best story of Davison’s run, leans heavily into psychological horror, as the mental snake creature returns to its ancestral home of Manusa by hitching a ride in Tegan’s subconscious, whence it lodged during the events of “Kinda.” Both Davison and Janet Fielding provide careful acting, never going too far into extremes while portraying the mental battles between the Time Lord and the Mara once it has possessed Tegan fully. One did not expect this kind of taut, mature narrative surrounding a creature whose first appearance in “Kinda” is as a somewhat woeful papier-mâché beastie.

Martin Clunes and Janet Fielding as Mara-Lon and Mara-Tegan

Another of the standout stories, “Black Orchid,” features no monster at all, save the human kind. One of three two-episode stories in the Fifth Doctor’s era, its strength derives greatly from the compressed plot; the characters, rather than the setting, become paramount, and the decision to narrow the scope of the threat to the quotidian helps rebalance the scales. The universe isn’t in danger, the planet isn’t about to explode; it’s just a simple tale of the Doctor being confused for someone else and getting wrapped up in a murder mystery. Well, that and a deadly orchid and a presumed-dead brother locked in an attic and an exact duplicate of Nyssa, but for Doctor Who, a simple tale…

A tidy ending

Not counting Turlough or Peri’s introductory stories, nor Kamelion at all, fully seven of Davison’s twenty stories feature three companions, with a further eleven featuring a duo. The two stories with only the Fifth Doctor and a single companion come right at the very end of his run. But the list of companions remains at a relatively slender six, and that is with the hesitant inclusion of the android from Xeriphas:

  • Adric (Matthew Waterhouse)
  • Nyssa (Sarah Sutton)
  • Tegan (Janet Fielding)
  • Turlough (Mark Strickson)
  • Kamelion (Gerald Flood, voice)
  • Peri (Nicola Bryant)

The Fifth Doctor is very much defined by the initial trio of Adric, Tegan, and Nyssa, who guide him through his regeneration across “Logopolis” and “Castrovalva,” and he takes his role in loco parentis towards them rather seriously. Initially fairly dismissive of what they bring to the table, over time the Fifth Doctor appreciates their talents, all the while bemoaning their precociousness. They seem an inseparable team, with the companions having bridged the year-long gap between Doctors owing to the need to delay Davison’s initial season due to his other television commitments. And then Adric dies, and the series changes.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions at a railway station

Overall the Fifth Doctor’s run is a long tale of loss, in obvious ways like Adric’s death but also in the Doctor’s more subtle failures. He cannot find a way to save Omega’s life at the end of “Arc of Infinity,” the Silurians perish because he cannot convince them of his sincerity in “Warriors of the Deep,” and Tegan rejects him and who he has become in “Resurrection of the Daleks.” Little wonder, then, that in “Planet of Fire” he no longer even tries to save everyone, focusing on those who want to be rescued instead of those who need to be rescued (Kamelion, the Master, the elders who choose to die to honor the false god Logar). By Davison’s final story, “The Caves of Androzani,” all the Fifth Doctor cares about is protecting the life of Peri; two planets spiral into chaos while he focuses solely on a single life, which he saves at the cost of his own—and countless others besides.

The Fifth Doctor, desperate to save Peri

The loss pervading the Fifth Doctor’s overarching story, ultimately, is his own. Other Doctors have failed, the Third Doctor in particular, but none have taken such a harrowing journey of struggle and sacrifice. It is to Peter Davison’s immense credit that one can watch the progression of the Fifth Doctor’s descent from idealist to pragmatist. There’s even a sense, in the Fifth Doctor’s final moments before regeneration, that Davison is attempting to return a bit of hope to proceedings with a beatific stare into the distance, as though the Doctor has returned to a state of equanimity.

Peter Davison's last moments as the Fifth Doctor

That’s not a state that John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward are seeking, though, having spent over two and a half years essentially breaking down the Fifth Doctor—and, by extension, the series as a whole—in order to introduce a harder, more flippant and distant title figure in Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor. It’s now entirely Nathan-Turner’s series, with nary a soul left from the time before he assumed the helm.

Introducing Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor

Peter Davison’s Doctor stands as the most adult figure in the role yet, owing to the heavy mantle of responsibility he bears and the concomitant consequences for that burden, and his run marks a turning point for the series, from one aimed at children with an adult audience to the reverse, an adult-themed show watched by a very large cohort of children. But the changes made by Nathan-Turner to bring about this shift do a grave disservice to the Doctor, and to Doctor Who. By the end, the Fifth Doctor loses hope. He loses the belief that he can succeed no matter the odds; and possibly worse, so does the audience.

The Doctor, defeated

A Doctor who fails is certainly a more mature, developed, narratively-rich character than one who always triumphs, and that change is to be commended. But the truly adult version of the Doctor is the one who stands back up after failure and keeps trying to save everyone. Failure might be an option, but futility is not. Such is the essence of the Doctor, at least until now.

Post 141 of the Doctor Who Project

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