SYLVESTER McCOy

SYLVESTER MCCOY TELLS PETER RAY AL­LI­SON HOW HE TOOK THE TIME LORD TO THE “DARK SIDE”

SFX - - Contents -

We’re chat­ting with the Sev­enth Doc­tor. Alas we didn’t have a chance to go into the whole fer­ret-down-the-trousers busi­ness.

Find­ing fame as the sev­enth doc­tor, sylvester mcCoy more re­cently ce­mented his sf credentials with roles in Sense8 and The Hob­bit – but it’s his time in the TARDIS that’s made him an en­dur­ing geek icon.

mcCoy played the doc­tor for three in­ven­tive sea­sons, be­fore the show’s can­cel­la­tion in 1989. dur­ing that time, his in­car­na­tion of the time Lord pit­ted his wits against clas­sic Who en­e­mies the daleks, the master and the Cy­ber­men – along with mem­o­rable new foes fen­ric and the gods of Rag­narok. ini­tially light-hearted, he soon blended darker themes into his por­trayal of the doc­tor, cre­at­ing an in­trigu­ing master ma­nip­u­la­tor, play­ing a vast game of chess across all of time and space.

“i thought the mys­tery had gone,” he tells SFX. “so i wanted to bring that back.”

HOW DID IT CHANGE YOUR WORLD TO BE CAST AS THE DOC­TOR?

in all sorts of ways. i had no idea how big it was or what it meant to the Bri­tish na­tion. Work­ing in the theatre, there is no tele­vi­sion and [Doc­tor Who] wasn’t re­peated, so i lost com­plete touch with it and didn’t read much about it. to my sur­prise it was al­ways talked about in the tabloids, but in the pa­pers i read it was never men­tioned, which al­ways sur­prised me as i thought it should have been the other way around.

HAV­ING PLAYED THE DOC­TOR FOR 30 YEARS, YOU’VE WIT­NESSED THE CUL­TURAL SHIFT IN DOC­TOR WHO’S AC­CEP­TANCE.

[steven] mof­fat once said to me that my doc­tor changed it. Un­til then it was more car­toon­like, and mine got darker and more mys­te­ri­ous, and changed the way the jour­ney could go on. i did not know what the pre­vi­ous doc­tors had done. i had no bag­gage. an­drew Cart­mel, the script edi­tor, and my­self were both, in a sense, ig­no­rant. he was in Canada and had not seen much of it, so we ap­proached it brand-new and i did not re­alise that we had changed it un­til steven mof­fat told me.

YOUR DOC­TOR COULD BE THE CLOWN PRINCE ONE MINUTE AND A MASTER MA­NIP­U­LA­TOR THE NEXT. WAS IT DIF­FI­CULT COM­BIN­ING THESE TWO EL­E­MENTS?

it was ex­cit­ing try­ing to achieve the two, be­cause when i did the first cou­ple of episodes of the first sea­son, it was comedic be­cause that it what i thought they wanted, but then i re­alised that there was much more to it and that you could mine this role for so much. so, we started min­ing it for darker. We brought the mys­tery back by start­ing to ques­tion whether he was good or bad and make it un­cer­tain what he is and who he is. at the same time, we never lost that comedic el­e­ment. i think that was al­ways part of it. some­one asked the other day what i want from the new doc­tor, played by Jodie Whit­taker, and i said ec­cen­tric­ity. that, i think, is what the doc­tor must have. if she has brains and ec­cen­tric­ity, then i think she will do well.

DID YOU HAVE AN ARCHETYPE IN MIND WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED PLAY­ING THE DOC­TOR?

Patrick troughton was the doc­tor i first saw, but he was a vague dis­tant mem­ory as it had been 20-odd years be­fore. that was where the comic el­e­ment came from, as his had been a hobo and was light-hearted at times, but i also wanted to play with the dark­ness a bit – the dark side of the moon.

HOW DID YOU BRING THE DARKER EL­E­MENTS INTO IT?

an­drew Cart­mel and i would have meet­ings at the start of a sea­son with the other writ­ers. We’d have cock­tails, and we would chat about these things, about want­ing it to be about some­thing rather than just an en­ter­tain­ment. i re­mem­ber quite clearly that in the ’60s the BBC was known as aun­tie, and for a good rea­son, as it was but­toned-up and prim and proper. Doc­tor Who was rebellious and was ques­tion­ing all sorts of things like author­ity and ask­ing ques­tions that were not al­lowed on the BBC, and other ar­eas, ex­cept for on That Was The Week That Was. [so­ci­ety] was go­ing through that change and Doc­tor Who was part of it, and i wanted to have that in my doc­tor. “Re­mem­brance Of the daleks” was about race, “the hap­pi­ness Pa­trol”’ was about thatcher and the Con­ser­va­tive line that we were all go­ing to be happy, whether you liked it or not. then there was the one about hous­ing

[“Par­adise tow­ers”]. it was all light. it was never heavy-handed, it was just there, and if peo­ple wanted to find it, they could find it.

DID BE­ING LA­BELLED “SCI­ENCE FIC­TION” HELP DOC­TOR WHO HIDE THE SO­CIAL COMMENTARY?

i think so. also, the BBC was not re­ally aware of what was hap­pen­ing. We could sub­vert it, be­cause they were not keep­ing a close eye on us, so we got away with that.

IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT YOUR TIME AS THE DOC­TOR IN­FLU­ENCED OTHER POR­TRAY­ALS

Yes, that is a de­light­ful thing. Back then, peo­ple were a bit nega­tive about it be­cause they did not want change. We can be a bit con­ser­va­tive in our small coun­try and we do not like change. although we are about to go through the big­gest change you could come up with, with Brexit, but that is by-the-by. nor­mally, we do not like change. We were not chang­ing it for change’s sake, we were chang­ing it be­cause we did not know what had gone be­fore, but peo­ple didn’t like that.

THE DOC­TOR’S FRIEND­SHIP WITH ACE SEEMED NAT­U­RAL­IS­TIC

that’s be­cause it was nat­u­ral­is­tic. i got on so well with so­phie from the be­gin­ning. When she first came into the stu­dio we had this chat and she started laugh­ing at my jokes. thirty years later she’s still laugh­ing at them. We just hit it off and found we had the same per­spec­tive on life.

ACE ALSO FELT RAD­I­CALLY DIF­FER­ENT TO PRE­VI­OUS DOC­TOR WHO COM­PAN­IONS. WHY WAS THAT?

i in­sisted that [my com­pan­ion] was not to be a screamer. in the dis­cus­sions, i was say­ing, “this is what i would like, some­one who isn’t like the other com­pan­ions”. i was af­ter a more fem­i­nist take on it. it came from my phi­los­o­phy that, when i first did Doc­tor Who, i thought that the doc­tor was an alien from an­other place who was highly in­tel­li­gent and there­fore he didn’t need the use of vi­o­lence. i was quite sur­prised to learn that vi­o­lence had been used by other doc­tors, but i didn’t re­alise that un­til i saw some videos of them. i thought that was re­ally im­por­tant, but – sadly – en­ter­tain­ment must have vi­o­lence in it. there­fore, in a way, so­phie fit­ted the bill. they gave me a bazooka once to blow up a dalek, and i said that my doc­tor would never use it. i, per­son­ally, would have had great fun let­ting off a bazooka. so, i gave it to so­phie, and she blew it up. that’s how it started, where she did the ac­tion that this doc­tor could never do.

HOW MUCH IN­FLU­ENCE DID YOU HAVE OVER YOUR POR­TRAYAL OF THE DOC­TOR?

i was given a lot of free­dom in many ways and could change things. the direc­tors found it frus­trat­ing as i would never stop work­ing. there was one scene, which i wrote, dur­ing the 25th an­niver­sary. dur­ing the re­hearsal i said what we need here is a chess scene, like the “sil­ver neme­sis” one, and they said, “We’ll do that.” then when we came to film it i sud­denly re­alised the chess scene had never been writ­ten. Luck­ily my sons were there, and they had a lit­tle Chil­dren’s Book Of Chess, so i got hold of that and wrote the scene us­ing things from the book. there was an­other time [in “Re­mem­brance of the daleks”], when so­phie was in the board­ing house in 1963 and on the win­dow, there was a no­tice. in the scene, so­phie turned it around and it said, “no ir­ish, no Blacks, no dogs.” the di­rec­tor said, “i don’t think we need that.” But, luck­ily, i was there, and i said, “that is what this whole story was about, about dif­fer­ence and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion.” i in­sisted that we keep it in. there were other things, such as when we fi­nally got on set, af­ter hav­ing re­hearsed around tables, and i found that i could do some­thing with all this, and this would drive the direc­tors mad as i would never stop adding bits right to the end!

Sylvester McCoy’s take was darker than pre­vi­ous Doc­tors. Bon­nie Lang­ford and Ken Dodd starred along­side McCoy. The Doc­tor comes face to face with the Kandy­man.

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