DOCTOR WHO INTERVIEW: Peter Davison Recalls His Time As The Fifth Doctor (Part One)

There have been few science fiction shows with a richer history than Doctor Who. The BBC series celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year and has big, albeit top secret, plans to mark the incredible milestone. There have been eleven incarnations of the Doctor during the show’s run, played by different actors over years and allowed the immortal time travelling adventurer to hop across the universe for a half century.

Peter Davison first appeared as the Fifth Doctor in 1981, following Tom Baker, whose seven-year stint was trademarked by his mop of curly dark hair and colorful long scarf. Baker’s run left a memorable stamp on the popular Time Lord that would seem like an intimidating act to follow. At 29, Davison was the youngest actor at the time to portray the role, which until then had been played only by a succession of middle-aged to near elderly Brits. His first full episode, Castrovalva, aired in 1982.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Davison at New York Comic Con shortly before he took the stage for a panel discussion and fan Q&A. For this two part interview, we covered many topics, which included Who fandom, his thoughts about following Tom Baker’s legendary stint, how the series has evolved since the era of the Classic Doctors, what he knows about the 50th Anniversary plans, and the real life ironic time warp no fan could have come ever dreamt up: his own daughter’s marriage to the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant.

We’re here at New York Comic Con, where you will be meeting fans, signing autographs and participating in panel discussions over the next three days. How do you like attending these kind of events?

DAVISION: I like it. It’s fun. I think that it’s very important. I always thought that fandom, my experience for the most part is of just Doctor Who fandom as most of things I have done has been Doctor Who, that they are an extraordinary kind of set of people. Everyone appears to be super nice.

I covered Matt Smith’s recent New York City season premiere screening in August, and looking at the attending audience really hit home how the show’s resurgence is attracting a young fan base. Have you noticed that shift as well?

DAVISON: Yeah I have. Certainly that’s true. A lot of people now that come up and go ‘I love your Doctor,’ and I go ‘How on Earth did you manage to see that? Because you’re 18.’ What’s interesting is when they get through either Matt Smith or David Tennant, then they look around and go to the Classic Doctors. And what’s interesting that over the years when I was part of the main of what is now the classic Doctor Whos, I felt almost out of place because I was much younger than anyone else. But now with the return of the series and the Doctors themselves getting younger, I feel almost more a part of the Modern Doctors then the Classic Doctors. I’m not, I know. I appreciate my place. I am a Classic Doctor, but weirdly I don’t seem out of place now.

You were the youngest actor to portray the Doctor at the time?

DAVISON: I was the youngest Doctor apparently. Until Matt Smith stole my crown. Little upstart. No I’m very happy.

Tom Baker had a memorable seven year run on the show. His particular take with the scarf, hat and long coat really provided the Doctor with a look that hit it off with the masses. Was it daunting to succeed Tom in the role?

DAVISION: It was a bit daunting I suppose. It wasn’t so daunting as it was coming over here to do a convention after. Because over here for the most part no one knew any other Doctor other than Tom. In Britain Tom was the Fourth Doctor.  My Doctor was William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton probably more so than John Pertwee. So simply I was number Five in the line of Doctors. Daunting because he had done it for seven years I suppose, but I was very happy to take on that challenge. I was a bit more worried when I came over here as the kind of upstart who replaced the Doctor who was Tom.

How long were you the Doctor by the time you made your first appearance here?

DAVISON: I think actually my first appearance here was probably before I appeared [on TV]. So no one had actually seen me in Doctor Who. I remember I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were very nice but I remember being asked weirdly a question about a Patrick Troughton story as if I was the Doctor. It all must be in my head somewhere.

Everything these days seems to finds itself on the receiving end of intense internet scrutiny. Are you happy you didn’t have to deal with bloggers, online reviews and internet spoilers during your run on Doctor Who, especially at the transition stage?

DAVISON: Hopefully I wouldn’t have read them. I think it’s a huge mistake for actors to take anything seriously in terms of what those people say. Because they are representative of a certain of the people, but they’re hugely destructive. Those people who write those things they can do so in this certain virtual anonymity of the Internet. But sadly the nature of us as human beings is that you can get 200 people saying you’re fantastic, and one person saying you’re terrible, and it’s that person you’ll take note of. You get one person that says you’re terrible and you think ‘Oh my God I’m terrible. I’m terrible. Just awful.’ And such is our insecurity. So I try to just ignore it. Its not kinda relevant. You do what you do.

Did you have much input regarding the Fifth Doctor?

DAVISON: In terms of just the practical side, as in the costume, not that much. I suggested the cricketer theme. The celery stick was something that John [Nathan-Turner] came to me and said ‘I want something. I’m trying to think of something interesting for you to wear on your lapel.’ And he came to me and said ‘I’ve got this great idea: A stick of celery.’ And I said ‘Why?’ I said ‘Well that’s fine as long as you explain it by the time I leave.’ We got to the very last story and I reminded him he hadn’t actually explained it. So they wrote a thing in there that it was an antidote to a certain gas that the Doctor is allergic to. And that is how it was explained. So it was fine. That was all John, not me.

The Doctor’s attire certainly became even that much more colorful with Colin Baker as the Sixth.

DAVISON: It was on drugs by the time it got to Colin Baker’s time.

What were you able to bring to this younger version Doctor Who?

DAVISON: You’re cast really because of who you are. So you have to look at yourself, I’m younger and I can move a bit quicker. I think what I wanted to bring to it was to bring back a kind of innocence to the character. He wanted to do the right thing. If there was an unknown in mind about Tom’s time as the Doctor, and I enjoyed it greatly, it was almost so kind of glib. You never really thought there was a threat, and I loved it for that. It was very funny. But I know that [producer] John [Nathan-Turner] wanted all of the funny bits when I took over and I didn’t want that to happen. But I did think it had lost some of its innocence a bit and maybe I just felt that was something I could bring to it. 

Was there a conscious effort to avoid re-tracing the tracks of the Fourth Doctor?

DAVISON: I couldn’t be Tom. Tom had his own brilliant way of doing it and as I say, I loved it. But I remember one episode I think he’s about to be sliced in half by by some kind of terrible device and he’s offering jelly babies around. I remember thinking that really in a way undermines the point of what’s about to happen. You can have humor in, it but if it’s at the moments when you’re in danger, maybe it takes away from it. So I suppose that’s really what I wanted to bring back to it, an innocence with all this, not power, but everything at his disposal. Just trying to do the right thing.

What are your memories of your last episode, working your way towards the regeneration scene?

DAVISON: It’s a very strange feeling knowing that, as Tom must have felt, that at some point the next Doctor comes in and you shoot the regeneration scene. I have to say generally that the last story was the best story that I did. I think it was brilliantly directed and I couldn’t have been happier with it as an enjoyable experience. Except maybe the fact that that I’ve said before in my great regeneration scene my limelight was stolen by [companion] Nicola Bryant’s chest bending over to me saying ‘Doctor, Doctor are you okay?’ And I’m thinking everyone is just going to be looking at her cleavage. No one is going to be looking at me at all.

 Check back here next week for Part Two with Peter Davison where among other things, we talk about BBC’s memorable teaming up of the Fifth and Tenth Doctor in 2007, what family life is like when it has two Doctors in the house, and what Davison knows about the Who‘s 50th Anniversary.

Jim Kiernan
Founder and moderator of Nerdy Rotten Scoundrel. Steering this ship the best I can. Lifelong opinionated geek & pop culture enthusiast. Independent television & film professional. Born & raised New Yorker. My dog Nicholas is awesome.

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