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Doctor Who for Newbies: The Sixth Doctor

The Peter Davison era of Doctor Who had breathed new life in the series and had solid viewing figures, despite the show being moved from its traditional Saturday night time slot to a twice-weekly one on Monday and Tuesday. Davison announced that the third series would be his last and producer John Nathan-Turner thought it would a good idea to leave the entire final story from season 21 to introduce the new Doctor. Many actors were considered for the role of the Sixth Doctor, but in the end the producer went with an unlikely choice.

Colin Baker was a veteran character actor who had in fact already been on Doctor Who. He played Time Lord Security commander Maxil in the story “Arc of Infinity,” the adventure that began season 20. Based on this, Baker himself thought he’d never be considered for the role of the Doctor, but fortune would smile on him. Legend has it that Baker and Nathan-Turner were guests at the same wedding and the producer was impressed by the actor’s charm and charisma in the conversational setting. Now, I’ve had nice casual chats with people and I didn’t immediately think they’d be good as the lead of a popular television show, but then again I’m not a producer. Still, whether the stories are to be believed or not, Colin Baker was cast to take the place of Peter Davison. John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward wanted to make the Sixth Doctor very different from the amiable, friendly Fifth Doctor.

SIXTH DOCTOR
The Sixth Doctor was a loose cannon. He was egotistical, brash, arrogant, and moody. He had an eloquent speech pattern and was prone to long diatribes peppered with glib remarks. His costume, a hideous mixture of patterns and colors seemingly pulled from forty-five other costume ideas, reflected the character’s volatile nature. At the same time, however, the Sixth Doctor was one of the most moral and empathetic incarnations. He was supremely confident in his abilities, which made him eager to jump into the thick of things. Unlike his predecessors, this Doctor seemed to have no qualms about violence, though only as a last resort. Given the problems this era of Doctor Who suffered from, it’s easy to blame Colin Baker and his drastically different portrayal for all of it, but I think that’s largely unfair. I liked Colin Baker’s portrayal for the most part and thought he was a good addition to the canon. The real problems I had with his run came from the lackluster scripts.

Colin Baker’s run as the Doctor lasted only eight stories (or eleven if you want to be pedantic – I’ll explain later) and all of them are on DVD, already making him the only completed Doctor. The problem with this is that maybe three stories I would consider actually good, and maybe a couple others are watchable for various reasons. “The Twin Dilemma” falls firmly in that second category.

The kinky games of the Doctor and Peri

Story 136 – The Twin Dilemma
4 episodes
Two genius twin boys, Romulus and Remus, receive a visitation from a mysterious old man called Professor Edgeworth.  After making niceties, Edgeworth abducts the boys and takes them to a spacecraft in deep space where he contacts his superior, a slug-like creature called Mestor who instructs Edgeworth to take them to Titan 3. Meanwhile on the TARDIS, not everything is peachy keen. After his regeneration, the Doctor begins behaving erratically. He goes to the wardrobe to pick out a new outfit and takes a shine to a loud and garish ensemble and finishes it off with a cat button on his lapel. Peri tells him he can’t go outside looking like that, which offends him deeply. Later in the control room, the Doctor becomes playful and quotes a poem about the word “Peri” meaning a good and beautiful fairy in Persian mythology, but that they were once evil. Turning on a dime, the Doctor accuses Peri of being evil and suddenly attacks her, throwing her to the floor and choking her. He catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror and drops her, cowering aghast in the corner. When Peri says the Doctor tried to kill her, he initially denies the whole ordeal, but seeing how frightened Peri is of him, decides he is a menace and should become a hermit in deep space, with Peri in tow of course. Back on whatever planet that was, the twins’ father contacts the authorities about his sons’ kidnapping and Commander Lang begins the investigation. Lang finds a suspicious ship that is said to have been stolen and when he tries to make contact, it goes into warp drive. On Titan 3, the Doctor is contemplating a thousand years of solitude, something Peri objects to, when they hear the crash of a spaceship. They go to investigate and find a concussed Commander Lang among the wreckage. They bring Lang onto the TARDIS, but the Doctor is not very interested in treating him. Eventually, Peri persuades him. Elsewhere, Edgeworth yells at Romulus and Remus for not doing Mestor’s work. Later, Mestor himself threatens the twins that if they do not comply, their minds will be destroyed. Following the trail of the twins at Commander Lang’s request, the TARDIS arrives on the planet Jaconda and discovers Mestor and his giant gastropod brethren subjugating the bird-like Jacondans and later find out that he’s using the twins to move planets to create a weapon to enslave the galaxy.

Why it’s important:
“Important” is an interesting word to use for this story. It’s always good to see the first story of any Doctor, and I stand by that. Despite the Doctor being completely erratic and irritating in this one, it’s something we don’t normally get to see from the hero so that’s worth watching. Colin Baker’s performance is solid and is believable as a schizophrenic. It’s also important because it’s roundly considered the worst in the storied history of the show. In fact, most of Colin Baker’s tenure is ranked incredibly low on the Doctor Who Magazine top 200. I think it’s hysterical that Davison’s last story, “The Caves of Androzani,” is ranked at number 1 and “The Twin Dilemma,” the very next story, comes up at 200. It’s not a great story by any stretch. The plot is weak, the creatures are silly, and the eponymous twins are really poor actors. In fact, really the only bright spot in the whole thing is Baker himself. At the end of the story, and the season, we’re left very much unsure of the hero we’ve grown to know and love over the previous twenty years.

The audience’s confusion and mistrust of the Doctor was only heightened by the fact that the season was over and they’d have to wait for it to return. In fact, it was a full ten months before season 22 of Doctor Who would be broadcast and things were different. The show had returned to its Saturday once-weekly timeslot and each story was split up into 45 minute episodes as opposed to the traditional 25, meaning most stories in this season were two episodes long, with one in the middle being three. Season 22 is also known for being very dark and quite violent, much of this due to script editor Eric Saward’s belief that violence is good.

The governor displaying how much he wants his MTV

Story 138 – Vengeance on Varos
2 episodes
On the planet Varos, the public torture of the rebel Jondar is being broadcast worldwide. Old married couple Arak and Etta watch the proceedings from their room. Arak complains that there’s never anything new to watch. In addition to the lack of new programming, they have to deal with food rationing and a mandatory punch-in vote ordered by the governor. The governor is negotiating with Sil, the tiny slug-man representative of the Galatron Mining Corporation. For years, Galatron has been vastly underpaying the people of Varos for the right to mine their ore and to make matters worse, the governor’s chief officer is in league with Sil. The time comes for the people to vote on the governor’s proposition, that his people hold out for a higher wage for their precious ore. The motion does not pass, and so the governor is subjected to Human Cell Disintegration Bombardment, a process that slowly kills the target. This is the third time the governor has had to endure it. Bax, one of the governor’s guards, suggests he execute Jondar to appease the citizens and to allow him time to recover before the next vote. Meanwhile on the TARDIS, the Doctor is making repairs to the console while Peri complains about all the damage the Doctor has done in the short period of time since their last adventure. The TARDIS unexpectedly stops and they are left adrift in deep space. The Doctor knows what the problem is, however: they need more Zeiton-7 ore to realign the power systems. Wouldn’t you know it; Zeiton-7 is extremely rare and only comes from one planet: Varos. The Doctor manages to repair the TARDIS enough to make it to Varos just as Jondar’s public execution is to take place. The Doctor and Peri free Jondar with the help of another rebel, Areta, and as they make their escape, they are cut off from the TARDIS. Peri is captured and the Doctor, who appears to have died, is taken to the acid bath for disposal. Little do the guards know, the Doctor is not dead at all and stands up, causing one of the guards to jump and push the second into the acid bath. During the ensuing struggle, the first guard tries to escape his fizzy doom and pulls the second guard in with him. The Doctor strolls out, making a wry quip at the morbid scene. It is decided that the Doctor and Jondar should be executed “the old fashioned way” while Peri and Areta are to be mutated using cell manipulation. The Doctor has to find a way to escape, save Peri, stop the poor governor’s cells from being disintegrated, and figure out how the people of Varos can get out of the mining corporation’s control. Whew.

Why it’s important:
It’s a very dark story, but with excellent allusions to society even today. The use of horrible things as entertainment hearkens back to the Roman Empire, but having it broadcast via television draws a very direct parallel to modern society. A government controlled by a corporation is a key to most dystopian fiction, but it’s drawing ever closer to reality these days. This story also introduces Sil, one of the better villains produced by this era of the show. He would return later on. This is probably the second best Sixth Doctor adventure and one of the first DVDs in the range to be released. As such, it isn’t quite up to the standard of later releases and seems ready for a special edition, which I’m assuming will come out within the next year or so.

Enough plaid to clothe fifty naked Canadians.

Story 140 – The Two Doctors
3 episodes
This story is too long and frankly too confusing for me to try to summarize. Suffice to say, it involves the Second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon, on assignment from the Time Lords, caught in a plot by the Sontarans and forced by hairy humanoid Androgum to do…something bad. It’s not super clear to me. But they eventually cross paths with the Sixth Doctor and Peri on their vacation in Spain (yes, that’s right, they actually filmed on location in Spain) and the Sixth has to keep the Second from getting tortured to death so he can still exist. The story itself is strange and not particularly good, which is surprising given that it was written by the excellent Robert Holmes, but it’s always fun to see Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines running around in their old Doctor and Jamie get-ups. Their presence also perpetuates the “Season 6b” theory. Season 6 was the last to feature the Second Doctor and at the end of his final story, “The War Games,” he is forcibly regenerated and exiled to Earth by the Time Lords. However, in both “The Five Doctors” and “The Two Doctors,” he has knowledge of things that he wouldn’t, shouldn’t, or couldn’t know prior to the events of “The War Games.” This and the fact that we never actually see Troughton turn into Jon Pertwee has lead some to speculate that the Second Doctor had adventures after the end of “The War Games” and before the beginning of “Spearhead From Space.” While this is an interesting theory, and one that has given us some good spin-off material, I just think it’s a matter of the writers not paying attention to continuity or having a clear sense of the concept of time travel. If the Second Doctor had these adventures, shouldn’t the Sixth Doctor be aware of them and remember what happened? Anyway, the story is weird and the depiction of the Sontarans is pretty bad, but if you like the Second Doctor, this is worth a look as it’s also the very last multi-Doctor story (not counting any “Children in Need” specials that have been done).

I'm only a evil scientist's head in a guilded glass jar

Story 142 – Revelation of the Daleks
2 episodes
After the loathsome story, “Timelash,” the TARDIS lands on the planet Necros, location of the funeral home Tranquil Repose. The Doctor and Peri have come to visit a deceased scientist acquaintance. The Doctor is attacked by a mutant and Peri is forced to kill it to save him. Before it dies, the mutant says that the Great Healer used him as a genetic experiment to which his appearance and hostility were a direct result. At Tranquil Repose, a disc jokey plays songs and talks as a form of entertainment for those in suspended animation. He keeps them up to date on current events, but doesn’t share that cures for some of the afflicted have been perfected decades ago. A couple, Natasha and Grigory, are searching for her father, Arthur Stengos, the friend the Doctor has come to visit. They arrive at his suspended animation chamber to find it empty. Shocked, the couple investigate deeper into the bowels of the facility and come across a dark room filled with pulsating brains and other ghastly experiments. Grigory walks passed a glass Dalek shell with a red mass of matter inside. The matter opens its eye and says Natasha’s name, revealing himself to be Arthur Stengos, in the middle of a Dalek-conversion. Kara owns a company which distributes food to the galaxy. As rich as she is, she is in actuality a pawn of the Great Healer, who is none other than Davros. Davros takes all the money she makes for his insane and inhuman experimentations. In order to dissolves this arrangement, Kara has hired the mercenary Orcini and his squire Bostock. Orcini, the last in a long line of noble galactic warriors, accepts the jobs for the honor of killing Davros alone. The mutant Stengos explains to his daughter and her husband that the brains of everyone in Tranquil Repose is being used to create a new breed of Dalek, ones loyal only to Davros. Natasha kills Arthur at his request, only to be captured and put in jail. The Doctor and Peri, investigating the grounds of the complex, find a large statue of him and as they gaze upon it, it falls on him. The chief embalmer, Mr. Jobel, tells Peri that the Doctor is most assuredly dead from the statue, but the monument turns out to be a lightweight fake and the Doctor is unharmed. As they travel with Jobel into the complex, Peri is intrigued by the DJ, whose American accent reminds her of home. She goes off to meet him while the Doctor investigates the statue. Elsewhere, Orcini has destroyed a Dalek, which notifies Davros. He is sure Kara has double crossed him and sends a Dalek to capture her. The Doctor is captured by a Dalek as well and is put in the same cell as Natasha and Grigory. Orcini arrives and apparently kills Davros, but he knows it was far too easy. Indeed, that was a decoy and the real Davros appears with a group of Daleks who easily subdue Orcini and Bostock. Davros then kills Kara for her treachery. The Doctor must stop Davros’ horrible creations, which won’t be easy now that Daleks loyal to the Supreme Dalek have just arrived from Skaro.

Why it’s important:
They just knew how to do Dalek stories in the ‘80s. This script, written by Eric Saward, is full of rich characters and interesting ideas. True to form, he also includes some of the series’ most stark and troubling images, not least of which is a deformed and mutated human being forced to become a Dalek. The story is an ensemble piece, which works surprisingly well considering the Doctor is not in it nearly as much as he usually is. The Doctor, by this time, has also shed much of his harsh exterior and has begun to truly care for and protect Peri out of more than just obligation. This is also the first time a Dalek is seen to hover above the ground, something heretofore thought impossible. “Revelation of the Daleks,” stands as Colin Baker’s best story and one of the best of the series.

It was at this time in the series that things started to go bad for everyone involved. While the numbers were still good, Michael Grade, the head of programming at the BBC, hated the show and wanted to see it ended. He decided not to bring the show back for a 23rd season, but officially it was placed on “hiatus.” Because of this, stars Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, still under contract, were not allowed to do other film work with their downtime, though they still were receiving a salary. A “We Are the World,”-inspired song called “Doctor in Distress” was written and sung by a number of mid-level celebrities as a way of garnering interest and outcry for the show to return. The single was universally panned and if you get a chance to listen to it, don’t. It might make you hate Doctor Who. In the end, however, after an 18-month production halt, the show was given a stay of execution, conditionally. The show would return to its previous 25-minute length, and only 14 episodes were to be produced, making it the shortest Doctor Who season ever and approximately half the length of the previous fifteen seasons. The show from here until the end of the classic series was shot entirely on video, forgoing the previous practice of shooting exteriors and locations on film. Script editor Eric Saward wanted to exploit the show being put on trial for its life in reality by having the Doctor put on trial for his life in the story. The result was season-long arc under the banner title “The Trial of a Time Lord.”

The Doctor and Valeyard in a staring contest for the ages

Story 143 – The Trial of a Time Lord
14 episodes (4+4+4+2)
Pulled out of time without any recollection of what has been going on, the Doctor is put on trial by his people for breaking the First Law of Time: interfering with alien civilizations of the universe. The High Council sits as both judge and jury and the mysterious Valeyard acts as prosecutor. Using the Matrix, the Valeyard presents events from the Doctor’s past as evidence of his guilt, while the Doctor uses events from his future as evidence of his innocence. Each piece of “evidence” takes up several episodes, making them almost individual stories but for the recurring theme of the courtroom cut-ins to break up the action. The Valeyard produces his evidence first.
Parts 1-4 – The Mysterious Planet
The Doctor and Peri, having now traveled together for a long time and become very close friends, travel to the distant planet of Ravalox, millions of years in Peri’s future. The actual appearance of the planet is nigh identical to Earth, and they even find a tube station and a copy of Moby Dick. In fact the only thing differentiating it from Earth is its astronomical position in the cosmos. Meanwhile, rogue smuggler Sabalom Glitz is attempting to obtain hidden secrets and advanced technology that are being guarded by a very specialized robot. The Doctor is forced to deactivate the robot’s unstable power supply to avoid a chain reaction that threatens the entire universe, but in the process destroys the hidden secrets and technology. As he leaves Ravalox, the Doctor wonders why Earth appears to have been moved several million miles from its original position. In the courtroom, the Valeyard declares this as evidence enough of the Doctor’s illegal activities, but the Doctor believes the visions being presented have been tampered with in some way, though he cannot fully remember the actual events.
Parts 5-8 – Mindwarp
The Valeyard presents the Doctor and Peri’s activities on Thoros Beta immediately before the trial. The Doctor is investigating arms sales and encounters old Sil. Sil’s race, the Mentors, have been supplying primitive, warlike King Yrcanos with advanced weaponry. Elsewhere, a scientist, Crozier, is prepping for surgery on Kiv, a powerful and influential Mentor whose brain is expanding and can no longer fit in his head. During the events, the Doctor comes across as self-serving and unconcerned with the welfare of Peri and is seen knowingly putting her in danger and helping Crozier and the Mentors. This convinces the Doctor that the Matrix has been tampered with, but he still cannot prove it. When he learns that Peri has been chosen to be the new host of Kiv’s brain, the Doctor sides with Yrcanos to kill the Mentors. However, before he can attack, the High Council pulls him out of time and space, resulting in Peri’s death.
Parts 9-12 – Terror of the Vervoids
The Doctor is allowed to present evidence to his defense. He is still reeling from learning of the death of his friend, but proceeds with the trial. He chooses events from the future in hopes that it will show he has been reformed. During the presentation, the Doctor notes that some of the actions depicted were not the same as those he’d reviewed beforehand, furthering his suspicions of a traitor. In the evidence, the Doctor travels to the year 2986 with his new companion, the incessantly upbeat and shrill Melanie (played by Bonnie Langford). They are answering a distress call from the large starliner, Hyperion III. The ship has been sabotaged and the people aboard are dying at the hands of the Vervoids, humanoid plants that have been genetically engineered to be slaves. The Doctor and Mel are able to defeat the Vervoids, but none of the species survives the ordeal. The Valeyard declares that the Doctor has just incriminated himself and amends the charges to genocide.
Parts 13-14 – The Ultimate Foe
The Doctor claims the Matrix has been altered and they call the Keeper of the Matrix as a witness. Moments later, the Master appears on the viewscreen, proving that it can indeed be infiltrated. Sabalom Glitz and Mel have been called as witnesses for the Doctor’s defense. It is learned that the secrets Glitz sought were stolen from the Time Lords, and Earth was ravaged and moved to preserve them. The Doctor was used as the fall guy to cover up the incident and the Valeyard (an evil amalgam of the darkness inside the Doctor) was offered the Doctor’s remaining regenerations. To ensure a guilty verdict, the Valeyard tampered with and falsified evidence. The Valeyard then retreats into the Matrix, followed by the Doctor and Glitz. The Doctor attempts to stop the Valeyard from killing the high council, but his efforts are stopped by the Master who has used this opportunity to dispose of the Doctor and seize power. The Valeyard is thwarted by the Doctor, who causes the destruction of the Matrix archive. The High Council clears the Doctor of all charges and offers him the position of Time Lord President, which he roundly refuses. He also learns that Peri has not in fact been killed, but has married King Yrcanos and is living safely and happily. The Doctor and Mel go off in the TARDIS for other adventures. The Valeyard, however, has not been destroyed and laughs maniacally as the story ends.

Why it’s important:
It’s season 23. Rarely has a single season of the show been this linked or been this uniformly watchable. While not up to the standard of some of the show’s earlier stories, all of “Trial” is enjoyable and makes for a good time. The trial portions do tend to interrupt the flow of the actual stories being presented and Baker’s constant petulance toward the Valeyard gets fairly irritating, but as a whole, it’s a great season. The first portion of the story, “Mysterious Planet,” was the last full story to be written by Who legend Robert Holmes, who was working closely with Eric Saward on the final two parts. However, Holmes passed away before a rewrite could be done on part 14 at the behest of John Nathan-Turner. Saward refused to rewrite the episode, which he felt would dishonor his friend and mentor, and so quit the series, leaving Nathan-Turner himself to act as unofficial script editor. He employed writing couple Pip and Jane Baker, who had written “Vervoids” and the previous season’s “Mark of the Rani,” and the saga was finished more in tune with what JNT wanted. “Trial” acts as the swan song for both Holmes and Saward on the show, a somewhat underwhelming departure for two of the series’ best script editors and writers. This season also saw the departure of Nicola Bryant as Peri Brown and the introduction of Bonnie Langford as Mel, who would be the companion for the next full season. It also, sadly, was the last to feature Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, though he clearly did not regenerate at the end of the 14-parter.

Despite being a return to the story style of some of the earlier Who, “Trial of a Time Lord” got some of the lowest ratings in the show’s storied history. Much of the blame was placed on Colin Baker by the BBC brass, who decided he had fulfilled his three year contract, despite having only filmed two years’ worth of episodes. To my mind, the one part of this whole period in the show’s history that made it decent was Colin Baker himself, and even though some of the stories aren’t good, his performance is always strong. Indeed, no one was more excited to play the part, nor more proud of his part in the legacy of the character. The entire sad story of Colin Baker’s era is discussed in depth in documentary material on the “Trial of a Time Lord” DVD box set. The extras alone in this set are worth the purchase and they shed some not-always positive light on the goings-on behind the scenes of the show.

John Nathan-Turner was desperate to leave his position as producer but was told by the management that if he left, the show would be cancelled outright. Feeling the fate of one of the longest-running series in BBC history was resting on his shoulders, JNT begrudgingly stayed on as producer, cast Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, and replaced Saward with Andrew Cartmel as script editor. The McCoy era was markedly different in both look and tone from the previous six generations. It would also prove to be the last era in the classic series and create a seven-year break in the production of “Doctor Who.” But, as always, more on that next time.

Colin Baker deserves some consideration, just be cautious which stories you pick. Get ready for McCoy, surely the shortest Doctor of them all.

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8 comments

  • I never really liked the sixth Doctor’s era very much as a kid, but in recent years Baker has actually become one of my favorite Doctors, and his take was unique, but still rang true to the overall character of the Doctor. There’s no denying that he had some bad, bad stories to deal with though, which are not helped by either That Costume or Saward’s fascination with leather daddy mercenary types who swan in and take much of the action of the stories away from the Doctor. But the sixth Doctor himself, yeah, he was pretty cool.

    And if you ever get to meet Colin Baker in person at a con, do it, he’s such a friendly guy. At least part of me can accept that wedding story as true, because he’s a hell of a charming guy.

  • Revelation is awesome – and it gets better with age. Try comparing it to some of the RTD era dalek stories (except “Dalek” which was very good). I always thought Colin did a very good job.

    I think it was the BBC and in particular, JNT who was holding things back. There was also a bit too much focus on the “gore” aspect of horror instead of the atmosphere of the Hinchcliffe years.

    As for trial, I’m probably the only person who really enjoyed it coming back to the trial room for a bit of banter. I wish they’d kept the original ending though because then at least they’d have a decent excuse for Colin’s regeneration.

  • I really enjoyed Colin Baker’s bombastic style as the Doctor, but I have a really hard time rewatching his stories because I can’t stand Peri. She’s just so shrill and whiny. To me, the companions are as important to my enjoyment of the show as the Doctor himself.

    It’s a shame that Colin was treated so shabbily and ousted before his time was truly up. I’ve been contemplating picking up some of his audiobook adventures (and McGann’s) from Big Finish to see what might have been had he been allowed to finish out his contract.

  • A great summary of the best of Colin Baker. Came in useful when I decided to dip in to the TV episodes of a Doctor some call the worst of all (along with Paul McGann).

    I came to both the Sixth and Eighth Doctors via the Big Finish Audio Adventures, before I saw them on screen and can thus forgive two of the least liked Doctors any issues with their work. I can honestly say that they are two of my favourite Doctors.

  • Like Vic Noir above me (and two years in the past), I came to Six and Eight by way of Big Finish, and I think that’s the best way to experience them. Thanks to BF’s efforts, they’re my favorite Doctors (particularly good old Sixie!), and they’ve both more than proven that they deserved so much more than circumstances ever allowed them. I hope Eight’s surprise appearance in Night of the Doctor last year draws a lot of people into Big Finish’s work; as much as I’m a fan of the show, I think Big Finish have been producing better, more consistent Doctor Who stories than the TV show ever has, classic era or modern.