Jon the Second
By James Cooray Smith
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 453/4
In early September 2015 the present Queen of the United Kingdom (and various other bits of the world too, actually) surpassed the regnal length of her Great Great Grandmother Queen Victoria and became the longest reigning British monarch, and indeed, by all accounts, the longest reigning female monarch of anywhere in the world ever.
Her Majesty The Queen stopped being the Princess Elizabeth and became Her Majesty The Queen without knowing it; she was asleep in a treehouse while on a good will tour of Kenya. This is because of a key component of the general mythology of the British monarchy, the concept of the continuing crown. The throne is never empty and the country never without a monarch; even if the monarch hasn’t been informed and believes themselves to be merely the heir presumptive. The new King or Queen succeeds to the title at the moment of their predecessor’s death, knowingly or unknowingly. It’s a transfer of power, or at least title, symbolised by the phrase ‘The King is dead, long live the king!’
The monarchy is, so the cliché goes, ‘a national institution’, a term which is also liberally applied to Doctor Who, the ostensible subject of the webpage you are currenlty reading. At the risk of sounding like I’m on yet another national institution, Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, I’d like to propose that, if you think about the concept of the continuing crown for a moment, Doctor Who is a bit like that too.
There is always a ‘current Doctor’. At the time of writing it’s Peter Capaldi, who has been the incumbent since the early evening of 25 December 2013. Incumbency is relatively easy to work out for either of the two periods of Doctor Who’s continuous production, i.e. 1963 to 1989 and 2005 to date, but it’s a bit harder to make any sort of sense of for the long interregnum of 89-05 and the brief one-night restoration of 1996.
Those of you, like me, old enough to have been lurking around Doctor Who fandom in the 1990s (and if you weren’t, you didn’t miss much, it was basically our ‘Nam) will remember the moment when people started suddenly claiming that Sylvester McCoy was the series’ longest running Doctor.
This was when the combined total of days since his first appearance in the role exceeded the number of days that compromised Tom Baker’s reign as Doctor Who. That felt odd at the time, even if you were as big a fan of McCoy’s Doctor as I am, because, while McCoy’s Doctor was ‘current’ in the sense that his face occasionally appeared on the covers of books he’d not read, published by a company that didn’t pay him for using his face, he had not played the part for a long time, what with the series having been (unfairly) cancelled from under him.
Okay, he’d been in a BBC schools programme, Search Out Space, in 1990, itself years in the past when these claims were made, and had also appeared in the Children In Need sketch “Dimensions in Time” in 1993 (of which more in a few paragraphs time), but he’d also been the series’ lead in a smaller number of episodes than any of his predecessors. (Although, to be fair, whether he was behind or ahead of his immediate predecessor Colin Baker is, due to format changes, essentially dependent on exactly how you choose to count.)
What created that dissonance was that being ‘The Current Doctor’ is essentially being the leading actor of the television series Doctor Who, not the time that has elapsed since you first appeared in the role; and between the end of 1989 and the spring of 2005 there was no TV series called Doctor Who.
That claim about McCoy’s Doctor, let alone the successor claim that Paul McGann was ‘The Current Doctor’ from 1996 to 2005, looks a little like the concept of a title in pretence. This is when someone claims to be the hereditary Head of State of somewhere that no longer has one. There are, believe it or not, half a dozen Bonapartes, Orleans and Bourbons who lay claim to the vacant (i.e. abolished) throne of France, just in case anyone decides to resurrect it. (They won’t.) You can’t be the King of a country that doesn’t have one anymore, no matter how much you claim to be, just as you can’t decide that someone else is technically the star of a TV series no one is making anymore.
Except it’s not quite like that. Doctor Who came back. It was restored. It’s still in situ now. In these situations continuity is seen as important: The unbroken line of the continuing crown. Legally, as far as the state is concerned, Charles II was the King of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1649, despite not actually gaining any control over the country until 1660 and it spending most of the intervening years de facto run by the army. Napoléon III was Napoléon III, not Napoléon II, because his Imperatorship chose to retroactively recognise the existence of his cousin, a boy Emperor who was proclaimed but never ruled. Equally, Spain asserts that there was a de facto King of Spain during Franco’s fascist dictatorship, just not a de jure one (and indeed the grandfather of the present King of Spain, Juan de Bourbon, Comte de Barcelona, who never reigned, was buried as King Juan III of Spain during the reign of his son).
So maybe, if we’re continuing this analogy, and as I’ve committed to it, there’s little point in backing out now, there was a current Doctor in the early nineties?
I think there was.
But I don’t think I was Sylvester McCoy. McCoy was, in those years, stepping out of Doctor Who, re-establishing himself as a stage actor and hanging out with the President of the Czech Republic, amongst other things. He very quickly became one of the five then living ex-Doctors, rather than the incumbent.
As well as not starring in the TV series they weren’t making, McCoy was, quite understandably, no longer the public face of the series. He wasn’t the go-to guy when the media wanted a comment from or about Doctor Who.
That was Jon Pertwee.
“You what?” I hear you ask. “Surely Jon Pertwee was Doctor Who from 1970 to 1974? And then came back for ‘The Five Doctors’?” (You are my people and I know your responses well.)
That is true, of course. But the closest thing to a continuing Doctor Who series in the years between “Survival” and (as The Completely Useless Encyclopedia calls it) “The US Telemovie with the Pertwee Logo” is the two radio serials of 1993 and 1996. (They’re performed texts, made by the BBC and available free-at-the-point-of-use from BBC transmitters. The only real difference is they don’t have pictures.) They starred Jon Pertwee. So, case closed? No.
There’s more to it than that, of course.
In 1992, BBC Two repeated one story from each Doctor as a sort of celebration of the series. Except they didn’t. They repeated two Pertwee stories. “The Sea Devils” in March and “The Daemons” that November. This wasn’t deliberate favouritism. It was a side effect of the excitement about the colourisation process which lead to an additional repeat being added to the season, but it still meant Pertwee’s Doctor Who was on British television screens for a fifth of 1992. Eleven episodes. Nearly a whole post 1985 series of Doctor Who’s worth. In 1993 BBC One showed “Planet of the Daleks”, and in very early 1994 BBC Two followed it up with “The Green Death”.
Because of these choices, Pertwee featured in vastly more television episodes in these years that any of his predecessors or successors. It was Pertwee, not any of the other Doctors, who was interviewed by Radio Times concerning the thirtieth anniversary generally, and the repeat of “Planet of the Daleks” in particular, in November 1993. This was just one of many public engagements Pertwee undertook to promote Doctor Who in these years. It was Pertwee who appears in character on Radio 4 comedies like The Skivvers. Pertwee who turned up on Surprise Surprise and Red Nose Day. Pertwee who appeared as the Doctor in an advert for Vodafone that was running on TV at the time of his death in May 1996.
Pertwee was also, like McCoy and indeed all the other living Doctors, in that Children in Need sketch, but it was Pertwee, not McCoy, who turned up, in character, on Noel’s House Party to promote it. (And this despite his own, later publicly expressed, opinion that it was “poo”).
The cumulative effect of all this was to turn the Pertwee version of Doctor Who into the default version as understood by British culture in the early 1990s. Pertwee was, in effect, the series’ primary ambassador to pop culture at large, which is part of the job of being the current Doctor Who, along with appearing in the new episodes being made. Which between “The Paradise of Death”, “Dimensions In Time” and “The Ghosts of N-Space”, he was (and had Pertwee had his way, they would have made twenty, not five, episodes of radio Doctor Who in 1993).
This situation is partially the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course.
Twenty to twenty-five years had then passed since Pertwee was Doctor Who on TV, meaning that the people making the decisions about radio comedy and arranging turns on game shows were of exactly the age to see Pertwee or Tom Baker as the definite article when it came to Doctors Who. At this point, more or less entirely because of the time that had elapsed since then, the 1970s was seen as the decade in which Doctor Who peaked in both popularity and quality. Tom Baker was, at the time, still engaged in his long divorcement from the series, whereas Pertwee was more than willing to play ball, especially if he had a radio series to promote. (His portrayal of Worzel Gummidge in the 1980s had given him another notable career highlight, and this seemingly reconciled him to seeing Doctor Who as an active part of his life again; he could no longer be accused of cashing in on a single television success.)
The production file for “The Five Doctors” at Caversham contains a letter from Pertwee to producer John Nathan-Turner confirming his willingness to take part in the special and noting, neither approvingly or disapprovingly, that the general public had started to think of him as Doctor Who again, in part because of the repeats of three of his stories in 1981 and 1982. (Pertwee was sufficiently keen on being in “The Five Doctors” that he took a pay cut to do it.)
Three years later, The Times’ coverage of Colin Baker’s unceremonious ousting from the role quoted Pertwee as saying he would be interested in once more taking on the full time role of Doctor Who if it were put to him (Peter Davison suggested that he might be interested again in around twenty years) and three years after that Pertwee was touring the nation as the Doctor in a stage show spectacular, which was written by Terrance Dicks, the script editor who had worked on the TV series for the whole of Pertwee's reign during the 1970s.
Interviewed for radio by Alan Stevens in early 1996, Pertwee commented that he had, in recent years, often had to tell people that he wasn’t doing new Doctor Who for television at the time. In 1996 I found this baffling. Looking back at the repeats, the radio, the stage show and the public appearances, it makes complete sense to me.
For the fans, who know that Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor hasn’t regenerated and who see the covers of the New Adventures and the pages of the DWM strips, even if they don’t read either of them, McCoy still seems current. But to the general public, Doctor Who on TV and on the radio, in the posters on their local touring theatre and on any random game show they happen to see that mentions the series, is Jon Pertwee. Again.
With “The Ultimate Adventure” running across 1989 and “The Ghost of N-Space” finishing two months before the TVM being shown, we’re looking at a period of Pertwee pre-eminence that overlaps almost exactly with the gap between "Survival" and the TVM.
A second Jon Pertwee era. Why didn’t we see it before?
James Cooray Smith's book The Black Archive #2: The Massacre is available from March 2016 from Obverse Books