44-year-old Sylvester McCoy made his onscreen debut as the Seventh Doctor on 7th September 1987, initially donning a blonde wig to depict the regeneration of the Sixth Doctor, with Colin Baker having been dismissed in-between seasons. Soon, however, he shed his predecessor’s amazing technicolour dreamcoat, in favour of a more beige but respectable costume, with a Panama hat and an umbrella with a question-mark-shaped handle. The Seventh Doctor inherited the Sixth’s latest companion, Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford), and they adventured together for the duration of that four-story season. At the season’s conclusion, Mel left the Doctor almost as abruptly as she had arrived, and he took on a new companion named Ace (Sophie Aldred), a teenager fond of explosives and language such as “brill” and “wicked”, as well as calling the Doctor “Professor”.
Over the next two seasons, the Doctor and Ace would face Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, and plenty of original enemies, while also teaming up with UNIT and exploring Ace’s troubled backstory on Earth. Unfortunately, none of this was enough to improve the show’s already poor ratings or make BBC executives more kindly disposed towards it; putting it on at the same time as the ITV soap opera Coronation Street certainly didn’t help. By the time production of the twenty-sixth season – McCoy’s third – wrapped up in 1989, it had been decided that Doctor Who would be cancelled – and this time, the BBC meant it.
On 23rd November 1989, twenty-six years to the day since the first episode of Doctor Who aired, McCoy recorded a concluding voiceover, which was played at the end of Survival on 6th December. And that was it for Doctor Who.
Except not, of course. In the 1990s, following a co-production deal between the BBC and American studios, an attempt was made to revive Doctor Who with a made-for-television movie, which was broadcast in May 1996. Paul McGann starred as the Eighth Doctor (unlike Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy did return for an on-screen regeneration), alongside Eric Roberts as the Master. It was hoped that the film would serve as a pilot for a new series, but it failed to attract high enough ratings in the United States for this to materialise.
Then, in 2003, it was announced that the BBC was working on a new series of Doctor Who for the twenty-first century, with Russell T Davies as executive producer and chief writer. Production began in the summer of 2004, with Christopher Eccleston taking on the role of the Ninth Doctor, and Billie Piper playing his companion, Rose Tyler. The first episode of the revival aired on Saturday 26th March 2005….and the rest is history.
It’s a real shame that the classic series of Doctor Who was cancelled when it was; I personally think that the Seventh Doctor’s era is a big improvement overall on those of the Fifth and Sixth Doctors. Of the twelve stories that make up Sylvester McCoy’s tenure, there are a few less-than-memorable ones, but none that are truly bad. It’s an interesting reflection of the zeitgeist of the time: the Doctor would venture into some grim, industrial, heavily-policed environments (Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol), while also ending up in a holiday camp at one point (Delta and the Bannermen). There’s some really great, dynamic action in these stories; this is, for instance, the era where we see the Doctor’s companion smash up a Dalek with a baseball bat.
The Doctor himself has a lot to do with the improved quality: Sylvester McCoy is my third-favourite classic Doctor behind Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and I would have liked to see him in more adventures. He has a dignified, gentlemanly air that goes well with his outfit; he can be eccentric, mischievous and mysterious as the Doctor should be; but when things get serious, he’s forceful enough to take control of a situation, and has no small amount of cunning. Ace, meanwhile, is easily my favourite classic-series companion. She was really fun, endearing and energetic, acting like the classic 80s/90s teenager without taking it to annoying levels, loving to blow things up, and always getting stuck in with the action (see the aforementioned Dalek-baseball bat scene). Plus, anybody who wears a jacket with Space Shuttle mission patches on it is alright by me.
My Favourite Seventh Doctor Stories: Delta and the Bannermen, Remembrance of the Daleks
My Least Favourite Seventh Doctor Story: As with the Third Doctor, I don’t feel that there are any real stinkers in the Seventh Doctor’s era. The one I personally liked least was The Curse of Fenric, as I found it rather confusing with regards to Ace’s backstory (I first watched it out of order) and the Doctor referring to past engagements with an enemy whom the audience had never actually met before. There are good things about it, but it’s not a story that lends itself well to jumping straight in.