Whovians still in recovery from Dr Who’s golden anniversary have an extra reason to keep on celebrating. Actor Sylvester McCoy, better known as the seventh doctor, is on his way to the Malta Comics & Pop Culture Expo. This interview first appeared on The Sunday Times of Malta’s Culture Section.
His name is firmly established in geekdom as the man who gave Dr Who – the timelord with the 12 lives and counting – a darker edge.
More recently, he was the actor for whom director Peter Jackson got the role of Radagast, in The Hobbit, rewritten, practically creating it from scratch and making thousands of Lord of the Rings fans very happy in the process.
Sylvester McCoy’s is a name that is well respected on television, in Hollywood and even in the more elite theatrical circles.
And now, he is on his way to Malta to take part in the first edition of the Malta Comics & Pop Culture Expo taking place over Halloween weekend.
I catch up with The Doctor, as many of his fans still call him, for a quick chat about how the role changed his life. McCoy took on the mantle of the seventh Dr Who between 1987 and 1989, which is when the series was shut down (only to make a triumphant return last year).
The actor’s tenure was a controversial one; although in the first episode his interpretation was almost comedic, McCoy later imbued the character of the doctor with more depth and complexity.
However, McCoy was also plagued with heavy criticism – although it was acknowledged in later years that this was mostly due to script-writing and direction.
How did all this affect McCoy on a personal and professional level?
“When I took on the role, some 26 years ago, little did I realise that today I’d be celebrating The Doctor’s 50th anniversary. And yet, here we are. It’s been great; taking on that role took me all over the world and opened doors for me from a careers perspective,” he says.
So getting referred to as The Doctor never actually got around to be annoying?
“Put it this way. Having the role of Dr Who on my CV gave it an extra notch, especially when it came to theatre work. This included better wages. The only downside that I can think of is that during my time on Dr Who I could not take part in other television series. At the time there were no crossovers from one show to the other, unlike today,” says McCoy.
On taking up the role, McCoy found that he had quite a bit of catching up to do on the series. Although he had initially followed the episodes back in the 1960s, theatre work soon interfered with any television-watching schedule.
“Well, rehearsals and shows were invariably held in the evenings, when Dr Who would be aired. They took precedence. So when I joined the cast it was almost to a clean slate. I started researching the character, trying to find out what makes him tick.”
And it was here that the realisation hit him – although The Doctor had, so far, been portrayed as a pretty straightforward character, McCoy realised that for someone to have lived over 900 years, necessarily lost a number of friends in the meantime and seen no end of terrible things, a straightforward, lily-white portrayal was just not realistic.
“I discussed it with direction and they agreed with me. In the previous seasons, The Doctor had become somewhat cartoon-like. I wanted to change that and give him the character he deserved.”
And thus, a darker, more manipulative, less innocent doctor was born. McCoy recalls director Steven Moffat pointing this out to him in later years.
“He told me that I had given more meaning to the character and that future actors would take that and use it. Steven’s words gave me great pride and satisfaction,” he says.
Today, he still follows the series when he can and when theatre work isn’t taking up all his time. His is quick to point out that, even when the television series was stopped, for him Dr Who never really died.
“We did continue. We did a lot of audio shows because we felt that fans wanted more. That’s why we were so happy when The Doctor was brought back to the small screen with new episodes.
“We felt vindicated. It was definitely a time for celebration.”
Does he have a favourite season from the three he starred in?
“Probably the third one. It felt like the writing and direction were really good.”
And what about having a favourite doctor?
“You know what they say, the first Dr Who you see is always your favourite. In my case that would be William Hartnell.”
But of course, life didn’t stop with the regeneration of the seventh doctor into the eighth. Since that role, McCoy has held numerous other roles, the most recent blockbuster appearance being in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit as Radagast.
“I had actually been up for the role of Bilbo Baggins in Lord of the Rings, but didn’t get it. Peter then promised that he’d write me a bigger part for The Hobbit … and he surely did.
“When he told me that I’d be taking on the role of Radagast I have to confess that I went back home to brush up on the book. When I looked up my role, I could barely find it in there. Peter certainly kept his promise.”
Working with Jackson, he tells me, was an experience, with the director often requesting “take, after take, after take”.
“He knows what he wants. He’ll tell you to do one more take for good luck – that’s his phrase and it usually means that you’ll need to do 10 more takes. He gets you to give all your emotion and then he takes what he wants from it and brings it all together.”
This, McCoy says, is the difference between theatre and film. He feels that theatre is principally closer to the audience; the actor is right there, telling a story to a live audience. He describes film as being part of a jigsaw puzzle.
“With theatre you get an intense satisfaction when it works out because it is happening right there, you are seeing the audience in front of you. It’s almost orgasmic, you might say. With film it is completely different, but nonetheless rewarding, of course.”
McCoy is, right now, in the middle of production on John Byrne’s Three Sisters in Glasgow, Scotland. In Byrne’s adaptation of Chekov’s tragi-comic classic, McCoy takes on the role Dr MacGilivery, a very different doctor to the one we’re used to seeing him portray. After that?
“After that, more conventions and, of course, Malta. I’m so keen to experience the historical aspect of Malta. I read up on all the heritage and historical aspects and now I just want to see everything first-hand.”
Sylvester McCoy will be doing a Q&A session during the Malta Comics & Pop Culture Expo which takes place between October 31 and November 2 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta. More information is available online.