By Beth Axford
Sylvester McCoy is in New York. ‘I’m watching the sun bounce off the tall buildings’ he explains. He goes on to gush about the beauty of his view and the tall, shining buildings surrounding him. It’s wet and dark here in London, we sigh, which is received by an iconic seventh Doctor chuckle that fills our hearts with joy.
This Boxing Day, BBC/ITV owned streaming service BritBox will bring classic Doctor Who back for anyone to access and enjoy. How does it feel to Sylvester, for his stories to be watched an enjoyed by a new generation of fans? ‘Well, it’s wonderful really, such a joy!’
‘I’ve been experiencing it for a few years now. When the 21st century Doctors arrived, a whole new generation of fans came from that. They decided they loved it so much that they started searching through the backlogs and discovering the old, classic Doctors. It’s a privilege.’
There are plenty of ways for younger fans to engage in the Seventh Doctors era; last year, video streaming service Twitch aired every episode of classic who back to back. People of all ages got to discover the origins of the show and celebrated by creating memes, jokes and even fan art.
If someone was new to the seventh Doctors era, which story would Sylvester recommend? He jumps straight to an old favourite; Remembrance of the Daleks. ‘It’s got everything in it!’ He exclaims. ‘It’s got Daleks, it’s got Doctors, it’s got explosions.’ Almost a recipe for a perfect Who story. ‘It’s also about something – it has some depth in it. It’s about race and division.’ Remembrance marked Doctor Who’s 25th anniversary in 1988. The story heralds a tradition seen throughout the show’s history; debating political and cultural issues and presenting them through the lens of aliens and spaceships.
‘I didn’t feel like I was a real Doctor until I took on the Daleks.’ Sylvester tells us. He has a point – every Doctor has faced the Daleks on screen – apart from Paul McGann. ‘Oh, poor fellow!’ He chuckles. ‘I’m actually seeing him tomorrow. We’re going to the museum of modern art in New York. It’s very exciting – the two Doctors!’
2019 marks 30 years since Sylvester’s final series of Doctor Who and the cancellation of the show until its return with the TV movie (1996) and the eventual revival in 2005. Becoming one of the most well-loved characters on TV is a massive undertaking – did Sylvester and the team know how important their work was? Did they have any inkling that it would still be so huge over 30 years later? ‘I had no idea. When I took over, VCR’s were just coming in. Up until then, I had lost touch with Doctor Who because you couldn’t record it, so I never saw it!’ It hardly seems believable in today’s Netflix and Blu-Ray world, but if you missed Doctor Who back in the 80’s, it was almost impossible to catch up until years later.
‘When I got the job, I had a faint memory of Patrick Troughton (Sylvester’s first Doctor) but that’s all I knew about it.’ Perhaps then, it might have felt daunting, not knowing what was to come? ‘It was actually a blessing because it didn’t have any baggage. Andrew (Cartmel – Script editor at the time) didn’t know much about it either – we just made it up. Not knowing that all these years later it would still be going.’
Coming to Doctor Who with fresh eyes meant Sylvester, Andrew, and the team could give it something new that hadn’t come before. ‘It was a blessing that we were that ignorant. When I started filming my first story, Time and The Rani, I brought my comedy tricks. Because that’s what I was, a comedy actor. I realised very quickly that I had been given one of the greatest television roles. You can go anywhere with it. The freedom I was given!’ Sylvester tells us about the process behind his Doctor and what he wanted to do with this gift of a role. ‘I felt like the mystery of the character had gone. I wanted to bring that back. The ambition was to bring back the question mark. The ‘Who?’ question.’ Sylvester and the team certainly did that – all the way down to the Doctor’s costume!
It’s no secret that late 80’s Doctor Who influenced the show’s 2005 revival. ‘When they brought it back there were so many echoes of what we did’ Sylvester says of the shows explosive return. Show-runner Russell T Davies took inspiration from the contemporary companion and political undertones that came before. He wrote the Doctor as the last of the Time Lords, making the character more mysterious than ever. Was there anything that Sylvester wishes he got to do that his future incarnations did?
‘They twisted my arm into doing a full season – and then it went on hiatus! It was very frustrating’ he recalls. We were going to hint at so much more. That the Doctor was more than just Doctor Who from Gallifrey – we were going to hint at much more power for the Doctor.’ It seems that there isn’t so much that Sylvester wishes he could have done from future seasons, more so that he wished his series continued on its path. ‘In The Curse of Fenric (1989) Sophie ends up holding her mother as a child. In Christopher Eccleston’s series, wonderful Billie Piper had a similar sort of story (Fathers Day, 2005). There were echoes all over the place.’ He states proudly. Most of the writers who brought Doctor Who back were fans who grew up on the 70’s and 80’s serials. Sylvester beams; ‘It is glorious!’
In 2019, we’re at a point where a female actor is playing the role of the Doctor. There had been female Time Lords before in the show, but the Doctor had never regenerated into a woman until 2017’s Twice Upon a Time. Is this something that Sylvester and the team ever considered during their time on the show?
‘No, not at all really. There were whispers that perhaps, maybe one day (it could happen). But nobody really thought it could work. I was one of those people! When it was announced she was going to do it, I thought ‘Wow, I better think about this seriously.’ And then ‘Why not?’ And then I sat down and watched her – I was blown away. After the first few minutes, she was the Doctor! There was no doubt at all. It didn’t matter what sex she was.’
Did Sylvester give her any advice on taking on the role? ‘I wrote her a message. It said, ‘one small step for woman, one giant leap for womankind.’ What a leap it was. She is about to launch her second series as the Doctor after the success of her first in 2018 and doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon. The sincerity and passion in Sylvester’s voice dulls a little as he finishes; ‘(She’s been) Overusing her sonic screwdriver though!’
Finally, we set the seventh Doctor one last question: Can he describe his era of the show in 3 words? ‘Mystery, question mark, Who.’ He replies instantly. Well, technically that’s 4 words, but we’ll take it.