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