Sunday, September 1, 2013

50WHO: Remembrances of the McCoy

This is the eighth part of a series of articles celebrating the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. Over the years there are certain stories that mean a lot to me either from personal memories or involvement I had in fandom through the years. These articles are not meant to be close examinations of the plot or production but more about what these stories mean to me on a personal level. Enjoy.

I know for many fans, especially in the UK, the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who might be some of the worse in the entire history of the series. I would like to respectfully disagree. By the time McCoy joined the series, it needed help. Colin Baker had been unceremoniously fired from the role he so loved and Eric Saward publicly resigned from his role of script editor. This was all after a rocky return to the air after an 18 month hiatus. Things needed to change.
When McCoy joined the series, there was still one old-school story left to be made which was Time and the Rani. In some way, the series was starting over. There is a difference in tone between the end of The Trial of a Time Lord and the start of Time and the Rani. Of course a lot of that can be traced down to visual and musical difference but I really felt that JN-T wanted to give the series a new start. Leave all the negative behind-the-scenes problems behind him and focus on a fresh start.  So many people believe that a real fresh start would have been his resignation but there appears to be all kind of reasons why this wasn’t going to happen.

It’s funny because with every point I make with what I like about the era, I can hear in my mind people from who posts in discussion boards who hate this era countering why the point I made is crap. For example, Andrew Cartmel. I really think that Cartmel was a breath of fresh air to the series and came at the right time. The series worked very well before with traditional storylines but the landscape of television story telling was changing.  Cartmel had a pretty strong idea from the start with what he wanted to do with the series. I think a major example to show how the times had changes is the fact that JN-T allowed these changes to happen at all. It would appear that JN-T held a pretty tight leash on Saward but Cartmel was able to do some very different things. Cartmel wanted to provide an arch to seasons but not like The Trial of a Time Lord where the arch was really strong throughout all of the stories. The story archs would bring more mystery back to the character of the Doctor and lay foundations that would be further explored in the Virgin books series.
When I read fans who hate this era speak to it, they generally say it’s shit or rubbish. I wonder how many of these fans hate the new series too? I could see a lot of new series fans who have never watched the classic series identify more with Season 25 & 26 than some of what many people believe are the more classic seasons. Amongst some of these fans is pure vitriol towards the McCoy era. I rarely come across anyone who is OK on the McCoy years. This may be a little controversial but I feel many of these fans who hate and I choose the word hate very carefully would prefer the series never evolved from the Hinchcliffe era (or insert your favourite era here). The music is shit because it is not Dudley Simpson who I personally felt lost the touch around Season 15. When Doctor Who changes for these fans (and this really covers any era), their childhood gets stripped away from them. There goes their security blanket. Now keep in mind, I am talking about the fans who will purposely respond to a fan who says they enjoy something of the McCoy era only to remind them it’s shit. There are plenty of people who do not like the McCoy era simply because they don’t like it. The difference is they are not holding anti-McCoy parades in their neighborhoods. I think there is nothing wrong with not liking every single aspect of Doctor Who but the way some fans act when the name McCoy comes up is ludicrous.

I feel, at least at the time, the McCoy era was very well received in the US. Of course the same fans who hate McCoy will also tell us that JN-T was pandering to the US market. Perhaps he was but the series never felt more accessible to me. This came at the right time as I was about to get into the life of fandom in a way I have never done before and nothing was ever going to be the same for me again.
As I mentioned many times before, I got involved with a fan club called The Whoniversity. I joined the club in January of 1986 but I got more involved with them in September of 1988. That previous July I took part in the convention Time Festival which was amazing fun and I never quite got over it. All these years later, I still look at it as one of the greatest events I have been to in my life. It was a ton of fun for me. When I started to take an active role in The Whoniversity, it was at a time of leadership change within the club. So I started to get involved when new people were taking over. These people seemed to be pretty cool and our shared interest went further than just Doctor Who.

Lowry Library
Even though he wasn’t the President of the club he still basically ran it, his name was Roger. You may remember Roger from previous articles such as this one. He had a real strong (and correct) idea of how to get more people involved with the club. To start with, we would do monthly meetings at a library. To make it accessible to everyone, we would alternate the meetings at two separate libraries in different parts of town. The first of these meetings would be held at the Lowry library. The first meeting/party was held in November of 1988. We weren’t sure how many people we would get to this party. Things are so different now than they were back then. Doctor Who is infinitely more known now.
Roger thought a major draw to the party was having some videos that no one would have seen. This would have been at the time Season 25 was being broadcast. If you have ready any of my other articles, such as The Tape Traders, I talk about a “friend” that I had back in the day. I write about him here. This “friend” was one of a few people in the Twin Cities to get copies of some of the rarer video items. The quality of his videos back in the day was just about better than anything available but that doesn’t mean it was great. To him, video trading was a way to make money. He came to an arrangement with Roger that if he could get free ads in The Whoniversity newsletter for selling some of his Doctor Who collectibles, he would provide videos for our parties. It seemed like a fair deal but my “friend” soon started to not like this arrangement. Who knows why? I really don’t know why.

This party took place before I was included on the staff for The Whoniversity. Eventually I joined the staff as the guy who would get all the videos for the parties and etc. Like I said, for this party I wasn’t on the staff though I wanted to be a part of things very badly.  Roger took care of getting the videos for the party and from our “friend”. Thinking back on it now, Roger did an awful lot for the parties, in fact everything. I am sure other people joined in to help in some way but Roger really was the driving force in this and I don’t think many of us really appreciated the work he did on these parties.
We had a real scoop for our first party. It was showing Remembrance of the Daleks. This was a huge deal because it was only November and we had a copy of it; it was only shown in September on BBC1. That was an amazingly short time at that point. I suppose it is hard for people to remember or some people realize now in the age of digital downloads how long it would take to get these episodes via the tape trading circles. It was considered really good to have a copy of something that aired in the UK a few months after it was broadcast. That was certainly better than the broadcast of the stories on PBS. I don’t think we got the broadcast of Season 25 & 26 until 1990 on KTCA. By that time, I had seen the episodes hundreds of times from my episodic copies from BBC1. If someone would have told me in 2013 we would be getting new episodes of Doctor Who on a national cable network the same day as the BBC broadcast, I would have said you were insane. That’s science fiction!

Our copy of Remembrance of the Daleks wasn’t the best but by no means was it the worse. It was a few generations down from the original PAL tape but it was much better than my copy of Season 24. By the time we get to Season 26, I had my own contacts in place where I would be getting episodes directly from the PAL tape that was sent to the US for some friends. I should probably throw in a disclaimer now that although those copies of Season 24 & 25 were not great,  I was thankful to have a copy of those stories and thankful that friends wanted to give me copies.
Speaking of copies, I have also talked about in the past how I hated making copies of videos for anyone else. Someone kept bugging us for a copy of Remembrance of the Daleks and to fill the tape with whatever else rare we had. They kept bothering us so we made a copy of the story. By that point we had Silver Nemesis too. To fill out the tape (going from VCR to VCR) we played the opening title sequence of Silver Nemesis in real time but as soon as the actual story started up, we hit fast forward search on the VCR. So the episode was being copied but everything was in fast forward. Everyone was moving very quickly with no sound. As we get to the cliffhanger we revert back to regular speed just in time for the end credits. We laughed our asses off. What a bunch of jerks!

Anyway back to the party, I met people there I continue to know to this day. Even one of them often posts comments to this very blog! Hi Dave! Even though Roger got a copy of Remembrance of the Dalek, he wouldn’t show it to me until the party because he wanted to keep the surprise. Of course I desperately wanted to see it but I waited. It was worth the wait. Season 24 to me was experimental; Remembrance of the Daleks was kick ass. Ben Aaronovitch messed with everybody with what they knew about not only the Daleks but Doctor Who. There were a ton of Dalek props in the story. More than I have ever seen in any previous story. The Imperial Daleks were gorgeous looking. I love the gold & white colour scheme. They sounded great and we got a look at one of the coolest Dalek props ever, the Special Weapons Dalek. It could blow up multiple Daleks at once!  Really bad ass! Aaronovitch also confused us with who Davros was in the story plus bringing back some proper mystery to the character of the Doctor. “And didn’t we have trouble with the prototype.”
Everyone at the party was suitably impressed. I was also able to create a trivia contest that people could take part in for some prizes. Someone questioned me on one of my questions on the quiz but they were wrong and I was right. In their face!

It was around that time, as I was taking a more active interest in The Whoniversity in that I wanted to be able to do a review of a story and provide content to the club’s newsletter. I was a fan who wanted to get involved! It was at the party that the editor of the newsletter, Mike, said it would be OK if I wrote a review of Remembrance of the Daleks especially as I had just seen it at this party. I had never written anything public before, I was only 14 and this was a big deal for me as it felt like a lot of responsibility. I wrote it and sent it to him. I admit it wasn’t anything great but he sent it back to me; I was in for a shock. I had typed the review, it was very short probably around 500 or words. What I got back had so many colours of revision lines on it. Mike went through and destroyed it. Apparently I broke every law there was for grammar. Like I said, it was my very first review and probably better written than the other reviews on this site but he was merciless. I never forgot it and decided not to write for the newsletter again apart from one other time. We didn’t have people lining up to write for the newsletter so I thought this was a little much. Mike did it because he thought he was helping me. Roger, who basically ran the club or at least guided the direction of it, thought Mike’s revisions to be extreme. Like I said, I wrote one other piece for the newsletter and that was a review for the local convention PolarisCon which, coincidentally had Sylvester McCoy in attendance.
Waiting for the local convention put on by Time Space & Fantasy over the 4th of July every year was pretty special. The work that went into it up to the event was fun and seeing it all come together was really great. Some of my best memories were from this second convention (the first for all intents and purposes was Time Festival). I could write a whole article on this convention alone. The Thursday before the start of the convention, we were preparing The Whoniversity poolside cabana suite for the convention. Everyone else in the room went off to get supplies and I was left to kind of watch stuff. Suddenly Sylvester McCoy strolls up and I was in awe. I didn’t know what to say or do. I knew my friends were coming back so I wanted to try and keep him at the cabana. We had some small talk, as one does, and he was telling me about wrapping up production on The Bestiary which would eventually be named Ghost Light. Little did I know that this was the final story. Finally my friends came back and we basically forced him to watch one of our music videos.

We had this off-shoot of The Whoniversity called Whoniversal Productions. We made videos. We had a music video collection that we would call Hi-Fi Sci-Fi where we would take clips from episodes and put them to music. This sort of thing is popular with the kids on You Tube these days. It was the Sammy Davis Jr. track “The Candy Man” cut to clips from The Happiness Patrol. There is a scene in the story of the Doctor singing “As Time Goes By” which we included in the video. McCoy hates that scene and tells us how awful an experience it was and somberly leaves the cabana suite. This is the first of a few awkward experiences we had with him over the weekend.
As a club, we interviewed him on video outside our suite later in the weekend. We have him hold my question mark umbrella which he picks at throughout the entire interview only to take a huge chip of paint out of it. His reaction is great when he realizes what he had done. Later that night, we go to the Cabaret which is where the guests of the convention and other people with talent ranging from some to none come together and try to entertain a brutal audience. McCoy comes on stage to do some act where he plays the spoons on the breasts of the female emcee and does some trick with hot dogs. The culmination of the trick is that the hot dogs are thrown into the audience with Roger catching one. Roger thought, and I concur, to have fun with this. So after the Cabaret, Roger goes up to Sylvester McCoy  with the hot dog and asks him to sign his wiener. Of course, as I am typing this I am still laughing. McCoy wouldn’t have any of this at all. He quickly said no and turned away from us. Awkward experience number 2 done and dusted.

The final night of the convention after everything wrapped, my friend Peter suggested I go with him to the hotel restaurant while he gets a meal. I already ate but decided to go along to keep him company. After about a half an hour, Sylvester McCoy comes into the restaurant with his “handler” for the convention and sits with us and we all start to chat. As often is the case at conventions, when a guest appears it isn’t too terribly unusual for more convention goers to appear and join into the conversation. A woman joined us who I had known for a little while and stuck around. Sylvester decided he had enough of all of us and took his leave. I was grateful for the short time we had together. This woman thought he was amazing which I thought was fair. He seemed pretty nice. So, the woman took her leave of us too.
Peter and I went to the bar where some of my other friends like Roger joined us. Other people I knew pretty well joined us too. Suddenly Sylvester McCoy appears. I thought this was great, he changed his mind! He even offered to buy us all drinks. Because I was a minor, I only had a coke. There were maybe 8 to 10 of us. More the merrier because the same woman from earlier also came back. McCoy decided to excuse himself for a second time and left. Little did I realise the woman left again too. He came back by himself and told us that the woman had been following him everywhere all weekend as well as the anniversary cruise that past November. She had an obsession with him. Once again she came back and McCoy took off.  A few minutes later, McCoy returned with the woman trailing right behind him. Finally in a very loud voice he says to her, “Would you stop following me around, you are making me very uncomfortable!” All conversation in the room stopped and everyone stared at them. The woman started to cry, apologized and then ran off. McCoy made his apologies to us and decided to end his evening because he was also upset over the incident. That was number 3.

As it transpires, she went on the 25th Anniversary cruise and was enamored by McCoy. So much so that she felt that was the highest moment of her life and was going to jump from the ship to her death. She had to be talked down from jumping by many people including McCoy. McCoy only said he would do the convention if security could keep her away from him which they didn’t. There were incidents all weekend culminating into him blowing up at her. I know who this woman is and she is a very nice person. It seems like she is now happy and she, herself, is in a better place than she was in July of 1989.

Sylvester McCoy receives a Whoniversity T-Shirt. He was genuinely happy about it.
I have seen McCoy many times since then. We never spoke again but I couldn’t help thinking that those few conventions after PolarisCon I would see him at that he would remember me by sight and he was reminded of that terrible evening. I know I was every time I saw him.

Next 50WHO article: I look at the original Doctor William Hartnell. There are so many stories that cement Doctor Who during this period it may be puzzling that I actually choose The Tenth Planet to write about for this article. Yet, for me, it was an obvious choice!
Next week: A review for Prime Suspect and for the newest Doctor Who DVD release, The Ice Warriors.

Have a great week!

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Dave G said...

Ahh, the Lowry Ave library. I was never very fond of that site. You were and are much less likely to be killed at Southdale.

I seem to remember the prize for something at one of those early meetings (may have been the aforementioned trivia contest, but I can't be certain) was a "blank" tape upon which may have been recorded Remembrance.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Oh, c'mon, Dave. The Lowry library wasn't that bad back then. Today, however, you may take your life into your hands going there.

I also remember the "blank" tape scheme. I think were afraid of the illegal propagation of videos. In addition to the trivia contest, we also held raffles.

I also remember McCoy muttering something about "...following me to the bathroom..." at the end of the night.

Greg said...

I do remember the blank tape thing now. That was at the time that we heard Lionheart was cracking down on showing Doctor Who videos at conventions.

I now also remember the "following me to the bathroom" line too. What an odd night.

Unknown said...

Great article Greg. McCoy what can I say about him I was afraid to try him out when I first got into Doctor Who back in 1999 because I saw a lot of haters for him on the internet. Not as many as Colin, but they were up there. It was actually Michael Lee and yourself who introduced me to the 7th Doctor. What I noticed immediately was that the bond between 7th and Ace was something that had been missing in my opinion since SJS and the 4th Doctor. Don't get me wrong I love Leela and Romana I, but that relationship is just not there. It was a relationship that I had only seen happen 4 times in the series altogether. Jo Grant and the 3rd Doctor, Liz Shaw and the 3rd Doctor, Ace and the 7th Doctor, and SJS and the 4th Doctor. I had to see more quickly I picked up all I could of McCoy and watched them all. Here is what I think of his era after watching everything out of context with Doctor Who. As far as ranking Doctors for Classic Doctor Who he comes in second place for me.
1. Jon Pertwee
2. Sylvester McCoy
3. Tie between Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton
5. Colin Baker
6. Peter Davison
7. William Hartnell
As far as last place for Davison and Hartnell I just don't like a crowded Tardis and in Hartnell's case I have a problem with pacing in his era. Nothing to do with the actors themselves now back to McCoy. What makes McCoy standout for me is season 25 and 26. I will not talk about Season 24 other than I think it is a stinker, but trust me every Doctor has one in my book not to say there are not individual good serials in those seasons. Cartmel took over in 24 essentially brought in all new writers for the most part and started developing a character arc for Ace that would loosely travel from one serial to the next. I would argue to say Ace is the prototype for the New Series companion. The other thing is the number of Earth bound stories he did instead of doing all outer space. He was able to deliver good stories with believable special effects. Season 25 was good a season. As far as Season 26 goes what can I say, but it is amongst the best of Doctor Who. I rank it in second place on my list of Doctor Who seasons.
1. Season 7
2. Season 26
3. Season 13
4. Season 8
5. Season 12
Watching the series out of context the way let me choose which I like the best and not be biased. As a result McCoy is number 2 on list and I find myself sticking up for him more than any other Doctor. Yes there are a lot of McCoy haters out there. The number 1 reason people seem to hate McCoy is because the show was cancelled with him on it. Its not McCoy's fault the show was cancelled with him on it the head of the BBC changed and didn't like the show. Lets see that happens to alot of shows I have liked from the BBC one that comes to mind is Bottom. Its all politics and rarely the actors fault when a show goes off the air.

Cal said...

I've been told that I'm something of an unusual fan in that despite my favourite Doctor being Jon Pertwee, I have an extremely soft spot and indeed a lot of respect for the McCoy era. I got into Doctor who in the 90's when I first started school, of all the Doctors I chose McCoy as my favourite. I remember spending many hours trailing through his pages on the BBC Doctor Who Website. A great article, extremely entertaining!

Greg said...

Cal, thanks for taking the time to read my article. Especially at the time this article took place, for many of us Sylvester McCoy was THE Doctor. It felt like the show was getting better and better and coming out of its hole. Then it was cancelled.

Those conventions are some of the best memories I have.

Take care,

Ian said...

Who fandom can be a very tedious place. My three favourite eras seem to be the ones that come in for the most stick - the McCoy era (crap in general, though little reason is ever given other than their own lack of imagination), the Williams era (too silly - in other words, they've no sense of humour) and the Hartnell era (too dated/dull - in other words, they've no attention span). By contrast, the ones that seem to be get the most widespread praise (post-season 7 Pertwee, Hinchcliffe and New Who in general) I frequently find wanting (with a few exceptions - NO era is all bad).

But fandom conventional wisdom was basically defined by the generation who grew up with Pertwee and early Tom, and woe betide anything that does anything differently to them. Tedious people that often make Who fandom seem a very tedious, sneering insular place to be.

Greg said...

Hi Ian,

I agree. No era is bad. I love the series and I know that I am not going to love everything that other people love but I don't go on tirades about it. For example, I hate the word squee.

The funny thing is that even though we all think of Doctor Who to be capable of any kind of storyline, I think a lot of funs don't want to see it change at all from how they first saw it.

Take care,