Even Time Lords aren’t immortal. That’s a notion that recurs throughout the decades of Doctor Who, and most strongly perhaps in The Five Doctors when President Borusa is punished for his temerity in attempting to live forever (by Rassilon who, hypocritically, shows no sign of buggering off into that good night anytime soon).
But the Doctor’s had a good run. Two thousand-odd years (depending on which of his incarnations you listen to, and when, and in what timeline) is a fair innings by anyone’s reckoning. And, of course, his show has been going for over fifty years in our timeline and that, by any standards, is a fantastic run. Only the most popular mainstream soaps can dream of living that long.
My Doctor had, arguably, the best run of all. Well, he didn’t, he had a bloody awful run in many ways, but he had a long run. Indeed, as a notorious incident on a ludicrous quiz show proved, he had the longest run of all. He wasn’t on television for most of it, but if you count New Adventures, he probably had more stories than any as well.
My Doctor was Sylvester McCoy and, despite all the odds stacked against him by timing and the notorious malfeasance of BBC management towards the end of Doctor Who’s first televisual run, he succeeded far better than could have been expected. Yes, when he first faces the Rani he hasn’t much acting experience and he’s all stagey and weird; and yes, the thing where he keeps mangling popular idioms is a right royal pain in the giblets. But by his second series he’s undergone a transformation; Bonnie Langford has cleared off in favour of the ever-popular Sophie Aldred; and the Cartmel Masterplan is kicking in.
That last series of Doctor Who is the one I grew up with. The real Sylvester McCoy series. The Doctor as master manipulator, the alien with the eyes of steel. This is the Doctor the Time Lords should have sent back to the genesis of the Daleks, the one that would have blown them to atoms and bedamn to the ripples in time. This is the Doctor that cares so deeply for people, he’d kill for them.
Everything that makes nu-Who what it is stems from this series. Is the Doctor a good man? Ask Sylvester. Is he a killer or a coward? Ask Sylvester. Is he the blood-soaked general who fashions his friends into weapons? Ask Ace.
Speaking of Ace: we all know that young boys think girls are crap. A young boy who’d been exposed to Melanie Bush would probably only have had that opinion reinforced. But for me, aged nine, the birthing pains of my eventual heterosexuality were midwived by Ace McShane. You don’t know what a first crush is unless you’ve been a prepubescent boy watching a teenage girl attack a Dalek armed only with a shiny baseball bat. In the words of Leslie Philips: cor.
That was the perfect Doctor Who experience: a great Doctor and a wicked companion. So when they sailed off into the sunset – and print-only media – together, there could have been worse ways to end. And they popped up again in Dimensions in Time, which wasn’t altogether rubbish; I was really intrigued by the Doctor’s new power to swap between incarnations by blowing his nose. Then they left again, and Sylvester was still the Doctor, and in the end he went on for about a decade, making him officially the longest-standing Doctor of all time, regardless of what Zoe Ball thinks.
In the end, we got the TV Movie. Sylvester was back for one last hurrah, though he was on his own, with no Ace in sight (boo). He seemed calm, sitting in his antique console room reading his way through the vortex, like he’d found time to take a break in his constant war against the terrible things bred in the darkest corners of the galaxy. So, naturally, it was time he made way for someone fresher and hungrier.
But even so, it made me cross at the time. Such a stupid way to die. Gunned down in the street by a common thug was bad enough, but to be killed in a surgical error was an insult. It still makes me angry to this day, the idiotic manner of Sylvester’s death – especially the utterly moronic way the doctors pronounce the X-ray of his twin hearts “a double exposure”. If it were a double exposure, it wouldn’t have a bloody perfect ribcage on it, would it? Don’t talk mince. Thank god for the NHS.
Of course, it didn’t occur to me then how well it worked thematically. Humanity has always been the Doctor’s weakness. It was kind of appropriate, given everything Seven put Ace through, that it should be a companion that killed him. And the Keatsian nature of the Doctor’s romance with Doctor Grace Holloway – “for many a time I have been half in love with easeful death” – fits the Byronic figure of Doctor Eight, even if he is too nice and too kissy and not really the Doctor at all yet and also half-human in a stupid decision that will NEVER EVER BE MENTIONED AGAIN.
It just rankled. Seven was the Doctor who had got Davros to wipe out his own army of jelly mutants using the device that built the Eye of Harmony. He deserved to go out in some massive, stellar way, not lobbed in a fridge in the basement of a hospital in the wrong flipping country.
I suppose it could have been worse. The First Doctor died of old age. The Second was killed by bureaucracy. Number Three got radiation sickness, Four died the same way as Rod Hull for god’s sake, Five died because his celery got poisoned, Six – poor old Six – wasn’t even around when he copped it owing to an exercise-related headache, Eight got drunk, the War Doctor died of old age again, number Nine – the hardest Doctor to date – died of being kissed, Ten cried all the water out of his own body, Eleven died of old age again and Twelve just sort of died because his actor was leaving. Death by medical negligence isn’t so embarrassing in this frankly foolish parade of mortal causes.
Still, it’s not the long-haired Sylvester gurning his way to regeneration in a morgue drawer that I think of when I remember my Doctor. It’s the younger Sylvester with the cold steel eyes, fleeing from a Dalek up a basement staircase, staring down Davros, chasing haemovores away with the power of faith alone, playing chess with gods. Above all, when my Doctor comes to mind – just like, I think, when your Doctor comes to mind – I picture him, hand in hand with his companion, with a Dalek close behind him, and the corridor stretched endlessly out in front of him…
…having a bloody good run.