McCoy played the part of the iconic time-traveller between 1987 and 1989. In the official list of Doctors Who – 13 in total, beginning with William Hartnell in 1963 through to Jodie Whittaker now– McCoy was the seventh actor to play the role.
When he came to the part, McCoy said he had not seen the series since the 1970s – the era of actors Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, which enjoyed enormous popularity in Australia, airing nightly on the ABC. He joined the series at the same time as script editor Andrew Cartmel, who had come from Canada with little knowledge of the series history, he says.
“So both of us were new boys, had no real knowledge of Doctor Who and the producer just said here is the key to the Tardis [the Doctor’s time-travelling blue London police telephone box] and so that’s what we did,” McCoy says. “I was handed a wonderful role, a blank canvas that you could paint anything on.
“I wanted to bring back the mystery of the first Doctor,” McCoy adds, referring to an era in the series where the character’s detailed back-story – that he was a renegade Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey – had not been been fully formed. “The Doctor Who with the accent on that question mark, who is he? And I wanted to make it darker, and I had the freedom to do that.”
In part, the enduring appeal of the pre-1987 Doctor Who serials is that they are forever frozen in time in a production era defined by analog special effects, and when the now-ubiquitous “CGI” was still in its infancy. In a curious footnote, modern science fiction series such as The Mandalorian are leaning back to the use of physical props and effects, where they can.
“It’s so easy with the computer and with this new technology, people overplay it,” McCoy says. “And now they are going back to using real props and it is much more rewarding to watch as a person. I had to watch some episodes the other day for a documentary and some of the things they managed to do [on the original Doctor Who] were amazing. The spaceships landing were bad, but there were explosions and technology that worked wonderfully well.”
McCoy notes too the resurgence of shooting on 16mm and 35mm film instead of digital video. “When I was doing Doctor Who, they had toyed with doing one of the serials, The Happiness Patrol, in black and white and using film noir shots. And I was upset they didn’t. My teenage sons grew up with colour television but I noticed they were discovering black and white, going back to that format and enjoying it.”
Though his tenure on the series was brief – just three seasons, and 42 episodes in total – like many former stars of the series, the role has never really left him. Alongside more recent work such as Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy and the stage and film Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear, McCoy also reprised the role of the seventh doctor in a series of audio plays.
As for the greatest existential question of the series itself – which villain is greater, the Daleks or the Cybermen – McCoy defers to the cultural power of the Doctor’s oldest and perhaps most famous enemies. “I didn’t really feel I was the true Doctor until I did battle with the Daleks I suppose, but I thought [the Doctor’s Time Lord nemesis] The Master was the most evil, really,” McCoy says.
He also acknowledges that reboot series executive producer Steven Moffat has created perhaps the most frightening monster in the show’s canon, the so-called Weeping Angels, graveyard statues that come to life but only when they are not being observed.
“They were pretty scary,” McCoy says. “I came out of a bookshop once at nighttime and there was a statue of an angel and the way the light fell on it, it freaked me out. In the dark, with the light shining on it, it made it even more dramatic.”
The classic Doctor Who series streams on Britbox.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.