The BIG interview: Doctor Who’s Peter Davison

Peter Davison, in his home studio

by Graham Kibble-White |
Published on

Doctor Who’s got yet another anniversary coming up! 19 July, 2024 marks 25 years of the Time Lord’s audio-only adventures for Big Finish Productions. Fifth Doctor actor Peter Davison recalls that very first story – The Sirens Of Time – how his approach to the character has changed for audio… and his secret for remaining so damn employable!

Peter Davison, in his home studio
Peter Davison, in his home studio

Hello Peter! Give us a snapshot of what you’re up to today. Are you in studio with Big Finish? What's the itinerary?

I’m in the studio, yes. It's the sixth day of a total, I think, of 12. It’s a long, long piece, this one we’re doing now. I don’t know we've ever done such a long story. And of course, it's a bit like the Forth Road Bridge, in terms of my memory – by the time I get to the end of it, I’ve forgotten what the beginning was!

What kind of place does Big Finish have in your life? Does it happen in between the gaps of other work, because you remain an in-demand actor.

Big Finish have always been very clear that if anything else comes up, then they take second place. So I've had to change dates on several things I've done – much to the annoyance of Janet Fielding [companion Tegan], who complains about everything as you can imagine! I think they understand they have to fit it in around what people are doing. And they're very amenable to that. So it all works out very well.

You’ve already cautioned us about your memory, but let's rewind, if we can, to 1999 when the first Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama came about.

I can’t remember how the original conversation occurred. It was certainly nothing to do with the BBC at all. Big Finish had obviously got the rights to do them. They came to, first of all, Colin [Baker, the Sixth Doctor], Sylvester [McCoy, the Seventh] and myself and said, ‘We've got this story…’ [which teamed-up all three of them]. At the time, I think it was just meant to be a one-off. They may have had their own plans, they certainly didn't mention it to us. And I think it was called The Sirens Of Time. When I did Doctor Who on TV [1981-1984] I always prided myself on being pretty good about knowing what was going on in a story. So I quite often knew more than the director. But in this instance, I had virtually no idea what The Sirens Of Time was about – and Colin and Sylvester, even less! Ha ha ha! I remember saying to Sylvester, ‘So what's going on?’ And he said, [Scottish accent], ‘I’ve got no idea! I’ll just roll my Rs a lot!’ Ha ha ha!

L-R, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy at the recording of Doctor Who: The Sirens Of Time in 1999
L-R, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy at the recording of Doctor Who: The Sirens Of Time in 1999

A quarter of a century on, you’ve all recorded hundreds of stories for Big Finish – far more than you ever made on TV. Did you think in 1999 that these audio dramas might have legs?

I don't think I had any sense that there was going to be more… It was a sort of experiment, I felt. And I was very happy to do it. I've always been very happy to do Doctor Who-related things because I’d sort of moved on from the show in other parts of my career. So I didn't feel any nervousness about reassociating myself with it. I don’t think any of us really thought about what it would turn into. So, when Big Finish came back and said, ‘Now we want to do a story that's just about your Doctor,’ and that they were also doing them with Colin and Sylvester’s Doctors, I thought it was kind of nice…

Was it a bit ‘cottage industry’ at the start?

No, I mean, the first one we did was in a proper sound studio, albeit I think it was a music studio. But it was a proper setup, it was properly engineered. So there was no doubt it was being properly recorded. I suppose they only thing I was questioning was the appeal of it… And I didn't really even question that! I just did it because it was a fun thing to do with Colin and Sylvester.

There had been a reasonable break since the last time you’d portrayed the Doctor on screen.

Oh, a long break, yeah!

Did you have any concerns about that aspect of it? Or were you confident you could ‘find’ your Doctor again?

I made the decision fairly early on I was just going to do it as me. I wasn't going to try and play a 28-year-old me. Although, I suppose I had this vision in my head of how I used to look. So, in the recording studio, I when I was imagining myself walking down a corridor, I wasn't thinking of the nearly 50-year-old man that I was. I was thinking of me back when I played the Doctor on TV. But no, I didn't have concerns about it. My only concerns really – and I still think this – is when they take photographs of you while you’re recording. I was quite against that, because I just thought, ‘Don't give them a picture of what I look like now, just give them a picture of me as the Doctor from when I was the Doctor’. What I wanted people to envisage was me from when I first played the character, not a greying person standing around a microphone in a Big Finish studio. It might be of interest in a way, but it sort of destroys something.

Doctor Who: The Sirens Of Time REDUX
Doctor Who: The Sirens Of Time REDUX

Do you engage with the role differently on audio? Are you trying to evolve the character, or preserve and maintain what people had enjoyed before?

I have to say, I don't think I've ever made any suggestions about what it might be nice to do, because Big Finish seem to come up with the goods anyway. You know, over the years starting from the completely confusing The Sirens Of Time – if that's what it was called – they very quickly got on board good writers and they've always written variations of the character without me asking. With all of us ‘Classic’ Doctors [from the TV’s original 26-year run] we were kind of limited in what areas he'd go into. You didn't really engage with companions. You couldn't really show emotions. Those limits were imposed by the fact you were making a science-fiction action TV programme. So, inevitably, when you start doing Big Finish, they do explore other areas. And they've always done that to my satisfaction. And there are some nice scenes. We’ve just done one now, actually. Quite emotional scenes, quite sort of empathetic scenes, which there weren't a lot of, certainly, in classic Doctor Who.

But, it feels like you wouldn't be so interested in these audios if it was purely, ‘We just want to keep this character in stasis, and can you just do what you did on the telly?’

By definition, it's an audio piece, you have to fill it with more words. You can't have sequences with Daleks chasing you around warehouses. You want to expand on things that were probably there in my time as the Doctor, but were never revealed on screen, because the scenes could not be that wordy. So now we can have quite emotive scenes, sad scenes. It's a bit of both, really. You want to keep it the same, you don't want to do what they call ‘a retcon’ – ha ha! So it has to maintain the absolute essence. It has to be in harmony with what you saw on TV, but expands on the character in other ways.

Let’s talk about lockdown, because for the audio industry in particular, that seemed to be a game changer in terms of people setting up home studios. Did you do that? And once it was over, were you happy to actually be back performing with people, rather than down the line?

What I've realised is, as I get older, a large part of my social life is working So, you know, in the evening, my wife and I don't go out very much, we just sit and watch something on the telly. And we talk! So, Big Finish has always been quite important in terms of that. I missed the mixing together during COVID. But, I'm also quite – more than usual for an actor – well-technically qualified in terms of stuff. So, yes, I built a home studio, with a good microphone and soundproofed the room and was able to carry on doing these things. But, you know, it's not quite as nice to insult Janet over the internet as it is face to face, so I’m very glad that we are back in the studio.

You've been in the industry a long time, and you’re still incredibly in demand. What's gone right? There's talent. Is there luck? What's the secret?

All those things! I think the thing is that, if I had to comment on some actors as they get older, they seem to think, sometimes – and this doesn't apply to all of them – that they've learned it all. It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘I know how to do this! Don't give me notes!’ I made a decision quite early on in my career that you can learn from anyone, old or young. And so that way, you’re always moving on. You’re always looking for different things you can do. There's been a lot of luck involved – I can't deny that, in my life. But also, I think I've always tried to be as easy as possible in terms of to work with. Ha ha ha! Janet Fielding would not agree with this! I think sometimes actors don't realise that when their name comes up in connection with a new project, the people on that will ring up the last person who employed you and say, ‘What are they like?’ And if they go, ‘Oh, he’s difficult,’ Or, ‘Sometimes he's late,’ all of those things can feed into the possibility of you getting that job. Yes, there are some actors who are difficult who do get employed, because they're really good. But I reckon I'm OK. So I need to work hard at being easy to work with, and therefore people will go, ‘Oh, yeah, he's alright. Let’s have him in, then.’

To celebrate the 25th anniversary, Big Finish are re-releasing Doctor Who: The Sirens Of Time in a reduxed form! More info here.

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