Anyone with the scantest of knowledge of Doctor Who history will know that Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor was the final incarnation of the character for the Classic Series. To suggest, however, that the character was the death knell for the series is an oversimplification of the various political machinations that led to its decline and eventual cancellation in 1989.
Putting aside BBC drama, the show had experienced a creative decline since producer John Nathan-Turner took charge and especially when Tom Baker left. Successive Doctors Peter Davison and Colin Baker had the misfortune of inheriting a series that no longer had a strong creative direction. Davison (for reasons best understood by Nathan-Turner) was saddled with a mostly uncharismatic group – yes, group – of companions, a dynamic that didn’t prove conducive to effective storytelling (his strongest story was his last and was tellingly the only story to feature a single companion). Davison’s performance was a little on the bland side, as the then-popular All Creatures Great and Small actor offering an ostensibly friendly but subtly – and oddly – taciturn take on the character.
Subtlety, however, was not in Colin Baker’s lexicon. The smarmy and amusing actor gave a bold, unapologetic performance as the Doctor that brought back a vibrancy that had been lacking in Davison’s years. Unfortunately, he was saddled with perhaps the worst stories in the series’ run, a tone that seemed unnecessarily nasty and a monstrosity of a costume, a culmination of factors that led to his unpopularity and dismissal.
Yet, outside of production difficulties, Colin Baker’s version had been lacking in a sense of fantastical mystery, a quality that his successor McCoy’s version exuded. Even by the non-traditional standards of Doctor Who casting, McCoy’s not your lead for an adventure series: he’s certainly lacking in the star quality that, say, Tom Baker and David Tennant naturally exude nor does he possess the gravity of an Eccleston or Capaldi. Moreover, left to his own devices, he can be an irritating presence onscreen, as his sub-Buster Keaton physical comedy will demonstrate.
Buuuuuuuuuuuut his take on the character as a mysterious and unknowable magician gelled with the general upswing in quality during his run. The series didn’t experience anything close to a golden period, but – if you squint – you can kinda see what McCoy and head writer Andrew Cartmel had intended with the character (which is ultimately close to the Matt Smith/Karen Gillan era, replete with a long-form arc centred around the companion and a general fairy-tale tone).
Moreover, McCoy was supported by Sophie Aldred’s Dorothy Gale “Ace” McShane, who was vibrant, likeable and had an edge (and a baseball bat). She was first and only Classic Who companion that would be recognisable to modern audiences: she has an agency that even the beloved Sarah-Jane Smith lacked and her backstory and characterisation was pivotal to fleshing out several stories.
It was unfortunate that Cartmell and co. never had the chance to expand these characters so I’m happy to read the first of Titan Comics’ three-part Operation Volcano. This is a collaboration between writer Cartmel and Ben Aaronovitch, who had written some of the most memorable instalments of the McCoy era (Aaronovitch is confusingly credited as “executive producer”, whatever that means).
The comic medium, ironically, offers cinematic qualities unavailable to Cartmel and Aaronovitch at the time they had worked on the series. What chiefly differentiates this new version to the older series is the variety of locations and characters that they have available to them: this mystery involving an Alien threat is set not at a London school or an English manor but in a couple of spaceships along the Earth’s orbit, the Australian Desert and Oxford. Only a film or a highly marketed episode like The Day of the Doctor would be able to provide this level of escapism and Cartmel’s writing (which could be convoluted and messy) is able to meet the opportunities available to him with a story that – so far – offers tension, intrigue and a post-colonial subtext.
The supporting characters aren’t bad, either, with a morally ambiguous Indigenous lawyer the most intriguing of the new characters. This is Cartmel and Aaronovitch at their most clear and precise, and I’m curious to see where they take these new characters and how they’ll flesh out Ace, as promised by the cold open.
The artwork also impresses. Artist Christopher Jones captures the effervescent charm and energy of McCoy and Aldred’s performance, whilst colourist Marco Lesko provides a nice dynamic range to the colour design. The best comparison between this vision and the series is Season Seven (!!!!!!) of the rebooted series, with its rich blues of night sequences and beautiful yellows of the desert.
In some ways a throwback but in others modern, Operation Volcano helps to restore the Seventh Doctor – and Cartmel’s – place within the Doctor Who canon by illustrating who the character was at his best … and he was always at his best with Ace.