The Sixth Doctor – The Wrong(ed) Doctor?

The cat who walks alone

I don’t really enjoy the process of declaring my big birthdays (although my work colleagues, unfortunately, have thought otherwise much to my embarrassment) but Colin Baker celebrated his 75th birthday a couple of months ago so I have to say hip-hip hooray for making it thus far and many more years to follow. I saw him at a DWAS (Doctor Who Appreciation Society) event a couple of years ago when there was an unveiling of a blue plaque for Jon Pertwee and he is always an enthusiastic ambassador for the show despite the fact he got treated very shabbily for his original TV run. Looking at the 6th Doctor era I realise that I have hardly ever gone back to this doctor since I stopped watching videotapes. Season 22 wasn’t preserved on my VHS tapes and I never really felt a need to go back to the era until recently. Why? It’s difficult to pinpoint just one thing.

Is it that he was such a deliberately physical and character contrast to Peter Davison’s doctor?  Peter represents when I became a super fan as opposed to just enjoying the programme with Tom Baker. The 5th doctor was a sensitive, curious, genial (young-looking) scientist interested in fair play, cricket and had the air of an Edwardian. He became conflicted if he had to consider the responsibility of an immoral act such as killing Davros. The 6th doctor, however, was different, a volatile character right from the start: He wasn’t entirely predictable, He dressed completely bizarrely, Pompous and boastful he had a manner prone to sarcasm. His era was characterised by a Doctor more than willing to get stuck in physically, criticised for its ‘violence’ and he was the doctor that went on hiatus. It felt time that I should confront my mindset about the 6th Doctor and reassess his era again.

Colin Baker
Colin Baker

A characteristic of this doctor is he is very much the explorer and I like that the 6th does actually travel in space and time taking Peri and Mel to different planets and locations and doing general discovering. This is part of the fun of the classic series for me. There isn’t an overemphasis on being on Earth which the Davison era indulged in a fair bit.

“I’m perfectly proud of the work I did- Colin Baker “

It takes a few episodes to warm to his Doctor, but you can see Colin Baker working really hard. He leads from the front and I don’t think lets up on his energy at all through his time. What has really surprised me rewatching the 6th Doctor is that Colin Baker is a good actor especially in the earlier stories, far better than Sylvester McCoy in my opinion if we are only comparing their first seasons.

Eric Saward has said on the DVD special features that the series always came out of drama not the children’s department, that he admired the stories under Philip Hinchcliffe and that he wanted stories to be darker. This is mostly done in two ways with the personality of the doctor being more alien and the use of more graphic blood and horror in Colin Baker’s first series especially in “Attack of the Cybermen” and “Vengeance on Varos”. Colin’s Bakers first full season didn’t do poorly in the ratings which were roughly around the 7 million viewers mark despite the ‘violence’ complained about from moral guardians such as Mary Whitehouse. Is the violence unsuitable for the show? Personally, I think it’s okay. Here’s why.

Season 22 offers a timely issue driven set of stories exploring different dystopias.  Nodding discreetly at the themes of the George Orwell book 1984 the season is about rallying against violence, dictators and the suppression of the strong individual. The horrific conversion of Natasha’s father into a Dalek surely highlights the ultimate conquest of the individual by the Daleks. The Great Healer then tops it by making dead people into protein food! “Vengeance on Varos” has a strong anti-violence message which went unnoticed. To show the violence as people enjoying torture for its own sake in a Big Brother-style event and to fight against it is surely the point. The killing of Shockeye in ‘The Two Doctors’ by the Doctor, with arsenic, whilst unexpected, seems somewhat deserved if you consider Shockeye killed Oscar in cold blood. He would have also killed Peri or Jamie without a qualm. The violence is for the most part in context to the story although I would agree with comments from the Doctor such as “Forgive me if I don’t join you’ after the acid bath in ‘Vengeance’ or after the death of Shockeye the ‘just desserts’ comment is probably a callous note too far. But it presents for a more challenging Doctor that contrasts with the 5th Doctor’s hesitation.

The doctor’s personality – Modern and old parallels?

The thing is the character of the Doctor, like fashion trends, does go in cycles. In many ways, the arrogance of the 6th Doctor mirrors the haughtiness of the 1st Doctor before being with Ian and Barbara softened him. The 1st had that self-important attitude in the first few stories considering the Timelords a mite more advanced, than the infant in timescale, the human race, just starting out (from the primordial swamp) on the journey of crawling towards the stars. If I were to find a modern parallel, the Peter Capaldi era probably bears the most similarity with Colin Baker’s. Both Colin and Peter followed the youngest Doctors of their eras and they were both coincidentally actors who first appeared in Doctor Who playing secondary characters who then became the Doctor. Colin Baker played Head of the Gallifreyian Guard Maxil in ‘Arc of Infinity’ and Peter Capaldi played Caecilius in ‘The Fires of Pompei’.  The prospect of following the youngest actor does seem to have meant both times that there was a shift to a less ‘cuddly’ persona. Colin Baker joked that he shot the previous incumbent (Peter Davison) to be able to take his role!

Fashions change but the attitude was similar - the 12th and the 6th Doctor
Fashions change but the attitude was alien – the 12th and the 6th Doctor

The 6th and the 12th have shared characteristics in that they both played Doctors with a rather acid humour initially unlikable, who were designed to get softer as they went on. Capaldi’s Doctor by his third series had gone through a character arc to become a much less alien persona from the one who started, a man more knowledgeable, more at ease with himself from the ‘am I a good man angst’ of his first series It was a flawed journey admittedly for the actor, due to poor writing flip-flopping his doctor from series to series but eventually he settled down. The 6th Doctor doesn’t feel to me like he reached his full potential on TV. Whilst he isn’t the shortest running Doctor on television (that is the eight Doctor now) he only did twelve stories which seem hardly anything nowadays and it’s not enough time in classic Who to see a complete character arc.

Any dream will do?

The appetite for a more alien doctor was probably there and a brave idea, however, it was poorly executed with some decisions within the production team which don’t make sense to me. The most obvious is that awful garish multi-coloured coat which seems like a big pointy arrow above Colin Baker’s head yelling ‘don’t even bother to take the show seriously anymore ‘. In my head every time I see the coat it morphs into Jason Donovan, he of Joseph and Neighbours fame, who breaks into ‘Any Dream Will Do’ song moment. Do you visualise that as well? Maybe it is only me. It detracts and distracts from the main actor’s performance. I know it was the 1980’s, the era of leg warmers and parachute pants but that John Nathan Turner desired that multi-decorated monstrosity and deliberately had it made the worst design it could be is a little unforgivable really.

Forgive me if I don’t join you

I understand the coat is probably a representation of the 6th Doctor’s boisterous personality but I do rather wish they had kept the blue cape worn in ‘Revelation. Daleks’ or used Colin Baker’s preferred black velvet suggestion.

Be my best friend?

Another decision I do question, which is probably going to make me unpopular but was Peri really the right companion for the 6th?  This is definitely nothing against the actress Nicola Bryant but more about the characterisation of Peri. The 6th’s brash personality seems to foster bickering and the antagonistic nature of the exchanges between Peri and the 6th Doctor became so tiresome in their first season. The 6th doctor can be arrogant and pompous but having Peri constantly snipping at him cynically just doesn’t add anything to the stories. The relationship felt unstable, not always a comfortable one. I understand why it was written that way as Peri had to try to keep him grounded but as a viewer, it’s not really enjoyable or entertaining to watch them arguing.

Peri Brown - never very happy in the Tardis?
Peri Brown – never very happy in the Tardis?

Peri, it feels doesn’t always enjoy her adventures and I did wonder why she didn’t just stay on Earth after ‘Attack of the Cybermen’. She seemed to work better with the 5th Doctor where he felt a more protective connection to her. Peri and the 6th Doctor’s relationship really doesn’t improve until ‘The Mysterious Planet’ and Peri leaves in the next story ‘Mindwarp’. In ‘Mindwarp’ the doctor was shown to turn on a captive tied Peri, partially affected by Crozier’s mind probe and is pulled then away by the Timelords before he can make any amends and save her which adds a slightly bitter end to their friendship.

The doctor and Peri's relationship hit the rocks
The doctor and Peri’s relationship hit the rocks

Introducing Mel in “Terror of the Vervoids” gives a refreshingly different dynamic that I do enjoy. The Doctor seems much more relaxed in himself, content to just be travelling. Bonnie Langford was yet to grow into a naturalistic’ actor and she is quite theatrical let’s be honest. Too exaggerated for television. But despite all her highly vocal ‘screamer’ credentials she brings with Mel an inquisitiveness that works really well with the 6th Doctor’s natural curiosity. Mel brings a positiveness just lost with Peri and it’s a shame she doesn’t get more time for us to understand who she is with this Doctor. This is one of the weaknesses of Colin Baker’s era that the companions are underdeveloped. This is really redeemed in Sylvester McCoy’s era with Ace as we get a much more thought out deliberately well-rounded person.

Scheduled to fail?

Looking at the 6th Doctor’s personality there is nothing to say a regeneration has to be easy and I liked  ‘The Twin Dilemma ‘ as a concept. The initial sharpness of his character which brings back the alienness after the charming and amiable 5th Doctor is refreshing. But where the 6th Doctor is written as almost psychotic trying to strangle Peri feels like a misstep. Perhaps the mistake is then compounded to allow that forcefulness of his character to go on past the first story. It doesn’t give the viewers a character back, by the end of that story, that they know and recognise. Hindsight is a great thing and if the production team could go back they would probably change the decision to have the Twin Dilemma at the end of the 21st season. The Twin Dilemma came’ straight after one of the best-regarded stories by fans ‘The Caves of Androzani’ and let’s be honest the ‘monsters’ are poorly realised as a design (giant slugs who look a bit hokey in design). As the 21st season closed it left a lasting initial impression of this Doctor and viewers had to wait ten months for the next series to see the character again where he was still arguing with his companion.

“What precisely do you do in there?”  “Argue, mainly.”

The 22nd season was overshadowed by Michael Grade’s decision to cancel the series. Due to public outrage, this was then changed to putting the series on hiatus for 18 months but at that time, I think as fans we were all stunned. The potential was there for good stories with new interesting villains, Sil, the Borad, the Rani, Mentors and we had the twist of a sharper alien doctor but the production values, unfortunately, didn’t match the advances in media technology. Micheal Grade recently appointed new BBC1 controller, despised science fiction generally and the show saying that it was ‘awful, outdated and a show for ‘a few pointy-head Doctor Who fans’. The show made the most of location filming, but the studio work suffered a general feature of 1980’s Who which was bright lighting and static set-ups and it did look cheap at times.

Michael Grade acknowledges he wanted to kill the show off at the time. He had cancelled John Christopher’s Tripods production and had tried to cancel Blackadder after its first season when the viewing figures were low as he had very definite ideas of what he wanted to spend BBC money on in what was a financial crisis for the Corporation. EastEnders had just started and was a huge commission of episodes to produce. Michael Grade also felt the money, which came out of the drama budget, could be better spent on other productions. Many reasons were given why the show needed to be cancelled. The move to a mid-week slot and 45-minute episodes hadn’t worked, it was as a show too violent, the production team had stopped striving for excellence etc. Not all true in my opinion.

Was the series showing a lack of imagination after twenty-two years? Maybe relying on the show’s past glories with stories covering Cyberman and Daleks, old doctors and companions could be seen as weak writing as the series wasn’t catering for new or casual viewers. Attack of the Cybermen is probably the worst example of being for the fans requiring some understanding of what occurred on Telos in ‘Tomb of the Cybermen ‘twenty odd years previously. As a fan, I enjoyed the references to the past even if the script is a meandering hotchpotch of separate storylines which take ages to come together but for the less invested viewer, I could see how it could be a turnoff.

By the 23rd season where you could see shoots of a warmer Doctor emerging it was too little too late for the career of the show for reasons that were mostly political than due to the performance of the main actor. The hiatus had happened leaving a bad taste in the mouth. Eric Saward and John Nathan Turner also fell out behind the scenes. Eric Saward hadn’t agreed with Colin Baker being made the new Doctor or the look of the doctor and it has been suggested maybe took out his frustrations through the writing making the series violent. Perhaps a fresh approach, with a new team, should have been ushered in but the show wasn’t being supported by BBC management. The 23rd season was cut back to 14 x  25 minutes episodes and the format of a trial was a little too close to real life events and quite risky. It is a series that gives me mixed feelings. There are definitely parts to enjoy in Trial of a Timelord but it was clearly beset by problems at times with changes in the writing style making it feel inconsistent. The Valeyard is written as a pantomime villain on a par with the Master although Micheal Jayston adds as much menace as he can muster. Some of the court scenes at times with the Doctor calling the Valeyard ‘the Stackyard, the Brickyard’ seem so juvenile and underdeveloped that it pulls the concept of what should be the battle of equally matched rivals down a deep hole and never really recovers.

Terror of the Vervoids is a perfectly serviceable story although the logic of the Doctor improving is a little odd when he is seen to consider genocide as a solution. The finale of ‘The Ultimate Foe’ had to be quickly re-written by Pip and Jane Baker, as Robert Holmes died and his final segment was unfinished. Eric Saward had had enough and quit Doctor Who refusing to share what he had written. I have to be honest the ending written doesn’t do anything for me. The fairground atmosphere and a gigantic machine to defuse at the end of an epic 14-episode story is such an anti-climax and poor payoff for the dedicated viewer who sat through every episode. Colin Baker couldn’t save a hastily written conclusion even with his usual energetic performance. Every doctor has a moment that defines his character i.e. Tom Baker has his ‘do I have the right’ moment in Genesis, the 1st has his speech after Susan leaves in ‘Dalek Invasion. Colin Baker’s doctor due to his forced departure never gets his moment. His deserved moment I mean (not being only remembered for trying to strangle his companion) Although I enjoy the speech in ‘The Ultimate Foe’ when the Doctor discovers the secrets around Ravalox and rails against the Timelords as nothing happens to them as punishment it becomes a missed opportunity for any plot development going forward. It is meant to be the revelation of the series alongside the identity of the Valeyard but doesn’t really work. Peri was given a happy ending and Colin Baker was removed leaving a clean slate.

Reviewing the sixth doctor’s era has been more enjoyable than I thought it would be, despite the flaws. His era came at a time when the show was under scrutiny from management and one can only imagine how he might have been developed further but for the forced decision to get rid of him. He will always be the Doctor who went on hiatus on TV and never came back for his regeneration. I must admit I never was quite sure if I liked his performance on the first transmission but sometimes these things grow on you. If you choose to dismiss the Sixth Doctor you are missing out on watching an interesting performance. He is a challenge to like at times but never boring.  I really appreciate Colin Baker a lot more as the 6th Doctor now than I ever did. His era isn’t perfect by any means but as the Doctor, he really gives his all to the programme which is all you can really ask for.


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