Doctor Who: Not The Real McCoy

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So far throughout January we've been revisiting and often praising the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who. However, not everyone feels the same way about the Seventh Doctor. Enter Tom Pheby...


Opinion on Sylvester McCoy's Doctor Who varies alarmingly in the kingdom of Whodum. Some think he was the best Doctor ever, better than Tom Baker, Patrick Troughton or William Hartnell. Some think his era as the Time Lord was awful and that he was single handily responsible for the Doctor's demise back in 1989, even though that's simply not true.

Where do I stand on this? Well, McCoy is one of my least favourite Doctors to occupy the big blue box but he's not quite at the bottom of the list. That dubious honour belongs to Colin Baker, who's hammy acting and fart expressing features are embedded deep within my subconscious. But is McCoy as good as Hartnell, Troughton or Tom Baker? No, not even close.

Firstly let's talk about the things I didn't like about the McCoy era. Things that weren't McCoy's fault.

Well, where do I start! How about the indecisive character outline, the lack of direction, the scripts which were often as weak as dish water, the lengthy monologues, the naff hat, the tank top and braces. What about the nauseating question marks on everything, the theme music, the terrible tartan trim coat (as if we didn't realise the actor hailed from Scotland). Last but by no means least, the unforgivable Bonnie Langford, who deserved to be covered from head to foot in question marks! She had an annoying exuberance that made your skin ripple and a voice that grated on your ears to such a degree that you wanted to thrust your head down the nearest toilet and flush it repeatedly.


So with all of that in mind, anyone coming in to replace the hastily dispatched Colin Baker would need to be nothing sort of exceptional if they were to win over both myself and the millions of other Whovians watching that September night in 1987. There, dressed in Colin Baker's outlandish garb, was Sylvester McCoy. It wouldn't be long before he'd be playing the spoons. Because nothing says Doctor Who like spoon playing.



From the offset, I wondered how McCoy had got the part. At the time he was still relatively unknown, picking up jobs as and when. He had a bit of children's television on his resume and could be seen performing in the odd cabaret slot which involved him putting nails up his nose, setting fire to his head and stuffing ferrets down his trousers. Yes, I know what you're thinking - all perfect Doctor Who material.

Yet none of the above seemed to deter the BBC hierarchy who were so impressed by this theatrical pet-smuggling performer that they offered him a three series contract and turned him into the Timmy Mallett of space. One has to wonder if there was an ulterior motive behind McCoy's casting as he was appointed at a time when the BBC had lost faith and interest in the series, secretly wishing that the Tardis would disappear into a black hole, never to return. They starved the show at the production level, adding to the loss of identity and direction. Initially it fell just short of including a glove puppet called Norman and a female presenter dressed in Lycra with purple hair called Astra Delta.

Honestly, though, it would not have surprised me if they'd done that!



There were many other factors that contributed to my obvious dislike of the McCoy reign. The debut season was an uneven, messy affair, with no clear definition of what the new incumbents character was. The  production had become increasingly patchy, as if the show had been placed in the hands of an amateur film maker with limited resources to make a parody of 'Dr Who', the sort Comic Relief have done in the past - only Comic Relief did it better.

Looking back I almost expected Sylvester to burst into song about the Moon having a cheeky face, or for him to turn to camera and demonstrate how to make a model spaceship out of a washing up liquid bottle,  ping pong balls and some tin foil.

Exaggeration? A little, but I'm not sure I'm that wide of the mark.

"Here's one I made earlier"

Behind the scenes the show was being harmed irreparably by a group of insufferable idiots who were more concerned with producing stuffy period dramas and a soap opera full of depressing cockneys bent over a fruit stall shouting at each other in 'Cockaneese'. There had been numerous rumours of dissatisfaction within the colourless corridors of the BBC, and it would appear that those in charge didn't know what to do with Doctor Who. It was no longer deemed viable and had become something of an embarrassment, it couldn't even secure a decent spot in the schedules.

McCoy's years were shoehorned into slots up against the likes of ITV powerhouse Coronation Street. Mums were hardly going to let little Johnny watch some blithering idiot in a box when she could tune in to see how high Bet Lynch could stack her hair and what crime against fashion she had squeezed herself into.

It's also well documented that Doctor Who had taken considerable flack for its darker tone and violence during the Colin Baker years. So it was decided that his replacement should be more whimsical and eccentric, an almost reworking of the Patrick Troughton Doctor, but without two key ingredients - Troughton himself, and any decent scripts.


Doctor Who had also become a bit of a gravy train for micro celebrities. Any aspiring performer could get a slot on the show. You didn't need any talent, not back then, you just needed to be reasonably cheap PR, or so it seemed.

Doctor Who was on a path that would result in a hiatus, but McCoy was not responsible for that. He acted as best he could with what he was given, but at times he must have yearned to go back on the stage of a shabby working mans club in Barnsley to reacquaint himself with those claustrophobic ferrets. His early stories prompted harsh criticism, and as a result a hastily arranged creative meeting took place. One which probably lasted about 10 minutes. That's when it was decided to turf out the impish buffoon brief and convert the character of the Doctor into a troubled, mischievous, secretive, manipulator who dabbled in betrayal and abused the trust of those around him.

One of those involved in the re-shaping of the character was Andrew Cartmel, who was script editor at the time. He was one of the team that decided that the Doctor needed to be less jester and become more mysterious and unpredictable, not too dissimilar to the change from Smith to Capaldi in Moffat's vision of the Doctor. But for me, this earlier attempt didn't work, and the public agreed as many viewers felt it was a step they were unprepared for. All the excessive tinkering made McCoy's Doctor less likable. This, coupled with the lack of effects and substandard hit or miss stories, led to a dip in viewing figures. Again, I freely admit that this was not McCoy's fault.


The show lumbered on, new writers with political agendas were drafted in, and that reflected, not very subtly, in the scripts. Season 25 presented us with Cybermen, Daleks and such. I honestly can't recall a single original villain that had gravitas. McCoy had to make do with aliens made out of stiffened toilet rolls and a pile of loose buttons. He didn't stand a chance really.

However, as the show went on and was approaching its end, oddly, the scripts suddenly became more creative and imaginative. As a result McCoy put in some solid performances, but it was a case of too little, too late.


I have sympathy for Sylvester McCoy to some degree. His last series was his best, he'd finally found a level with the character but he wasn't able to continue to build upon it. The fact that he soldiered on with all the destructive disagreements was amazing, and he did this without grumbling whilst still maintaining his enthusiasm. All credit to him for that.

But having acknowledged that the actor was hindered greatly by his paymasters, I have to say that regardless of that I never liked either version of McCoy's incarnations (buffoon or man of mystery). I found he as an actor lacked presence. It's not something physical, it's a case of a round peg in a square hole. Hat or no hat, braces or not, he will remain on the list of who's Who, but not very high up the list.

I'm sure I'll outrage a great number of fans who will declare how brilliant the Seventh Doctor's era was. But put it up against almost any other era in the history of the show, and the truth is, it wasn't.

Script Writer, Poet, Blogger and junk television specialist. Half English, half Irish and half Alsatian, Tom is well known for insisting on being called Demetri for reasons best known to himself. A former film abuser and telly addict who shamefully skulks around his home town of Canterbury after dark dressed as Julie Andrews. Follow Tom on Twitter

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