The Sixth Doctor: A Colourful Past

As has been widely reported, there is an interview in the latest edition of Doctor Who Magazine with Colin Baker, in which he calls for a re-evaluation of his tenure as the Doctor, in light of comparisons with Peter Capaldi’s portrayal. You know what? He’s absolutely right. Like the Twelfth Doctor’s inaugural innings, Baker’s debut season was dark, divisive and often controversial. Like the recent Series 8, it has its gems and is well worth another look.

Season 22 represents a sea change for Who in the Eighties. Back in its traditional Saturday night slot after four years and pitted against action-filled US imports like The A-Team and Knight Rider, it is very much a product of its environment. The experiment a season before with double-length episodes to work round the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics, and the popularity of harder-edged stories like The Caves of Androzani paved the way for a run of stories different in format and tone to the more concept-driven tales of the Davison era.

Two words that always spring to mind when considering this season are ‘macabre’ and ‘unsettling’. It’s not horror in a Hinchcliffe era way, doffing its hat to the output of Hammer or Amicus, the violence and action are far more earthy, akin to not only the shows that Who was up against in the schedules, but also the market for ‘video nasties’ that had emerged during the home video boom of the time. Whereas there was a literary tradition to fall back on when fighting criticism of people being chased and dispatched by mummies or menaced by monsters made of body parts, Season 22 has no cultural leanings to hide behind when hands are being bloodily crushed or shot off, people are biting throats out of rats and hapless guards are falling into acid baths. Not bad going for teatime on a Saturday.

Attack of the Cybermen

What’s particularly unsettling is the role the Doctor plays in all this. Jon Pertwee is the acknowledged ‘action Doctor’, but it’s handbags stuff compared to the Sixth Doctor’s contretemps. By the end of Attack of the Cybermen Part One alone, he’s beaten up Lytton’s policemen, threatened to shoot Russell and stabbed a Cyberman in the chest. By the end of the season, he will have gassed Shockeye (The Two Doctors), survived being graphically throttled by a mutant (Revelation of the Daleks) and is debatably culpable for the second of the acid bath deaths mentioned earlier.

When Peri sums up what she and the Doctor do in the TARDIS with: ‘argue, mostly’, she could equally be describing the relationship between the current incumbent and Clara.

An extreme set of stories need an equally extreme Doctor to be able to tell them. Certain sets of circumstances have seen many Doctors resort to violence to defeat their enemies, but none have had the ready recourse to it as the Sixth Doctor. This moral ambivalence is where the closest comparison to the latest incarnation comes in. The Doctor that readily sacrifices those around him in Inside the Dalek or Mummy on the Orient Express has his beginnings in one that thinks nothing of putting his companion in an unstable time machine to prove a point. When Peri sums up what she and the Doctor do in the TARDIS with: ‘argue, mostly’, she could equally be describing the relationship between the current incumbent and Clara.

Everything about Season 22 is extreme. Almost self-referentially in this gory season, the show tackles video nasties in Vengeance on Varos, a story oddly prescient in its portrayal of audience interaction and media saturation. Eric Saward cites Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One as an influence on Revelation; not your average Who source material, but Waugh’s dark world view is perfectly at home in this tale of commercial cannibalism set amongst the sort of grotesques that push the world toward war in Vile Bodies or exploit it in Scoop. The great Robert Holmes, too, has a field day once the gloves are off. The Two Doctors is a dark romp, full of gallows humour, unsympathetic characters and some very messy set pieces. From a visual perspective, in an era of outré pop acts making equally outré videos for the nascent MTV, neither Sil’s sparsely clad attendants nor the Rani’s heavies would have looked out of place in a Frankie Goes To Hollywood promo.

dw-sn22-revelationdaleks

Either by accident or design, the Sixth Doctor was not easy to warm to. For clarity’s sake, this is no slight on Colin Baker himself. He worked well with the material he was given (in both senses) and was a composite professional in doing so. Like the latest Doctor, Baker’s portrayal was very different to his recent predecessors, and as things went on, we, like Peri, got to see a different side to him. He is, in the space of thirteen episodes, a volatile action man (Attack), a flamboyant hero (The Mark of the Rani), a sleuth (The Two Doctors) and a protector and righter of wrongs (Revelation). As Capaldi’s Doctor starts to ‘get’ us, we started to ‘get’ the Sixth Doctor. And then he was gone.

Well, sort of. Eighteen months later, the Doctor and Peri were back, but things had changed. The show and its makers had been hauled over the coals for the content of the previous season. The Season 23 Doctor was a changed character, still bombastic but somehow muted at the same time. Off-screen, the lead actor was unfairly held responsible for the failure of the experiment and relations between JN-T and script editor Eric Saward broke down irretrievably, leading the latter to walk out during the making of the season. When the Doctor and Mel headed into space at the end, this previously explosive period of the show fizzled out in a cascade of carrot juice.

So, will it be a case of plus ça change for the Twelfth Doctor when he comes back in September? Apparently Steven Moffat has requested that writers ‘write him (the Doctor) funny’– is this an attempt to lose some of the abrasive edge? Let’s hope not. We’ve just had two energetic, funny Doctors – the more acerbic, distant portrayal is a breath of fresh air and the less predictable, less humane approach to problem solving is an interesting counterpoint, just as it was thirty years ago. If it helps newer fans discover an oft-maligned period of classic Who, so much the better.

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13 Responses

  1. Doctor Moo says:

    Totally and utterly love the Sixth Doctor so thank you for such a positive article about him. Colin Baker is great as the Doctor (my second favourite of the classics behind Sylvester) and you can clearly see how Peter Capaldi’s 12th has taken on some of the 6th’s character traits. I think people looking back on Colin’s Doctor nowadays are pleasantly surprised to see he’s so much better than they’ve heard.

    I recommend every single one of his stories (except his debut) but in particular I point people towards Vengeance on Varos, The Two Doctors, Revelation of the Daleks, Mindwarp and Terror of the Vervoids. With better production values that lot could be easily comparable to the best of the revived series.

    • FrancoPabloDiablo says:

      Well said! Can’t really add to that! Though, got to say that Timelash isn’t an easy watch along with Dilemma – but it is Baker that makes even them both watchable at least.

      • Doctor Moo says:

        I actually enjoy Timelash but in the same way that I enjoy Fear Her or Paradise Towers. The trick is to embrace the madness and go with it, lower expectations accordingly. But I can’t say I recommend any of them.

  2. TimeChaser says:

    I didn’t have a lot of Colin’s stories to watch as a kid (we only ever recorded The Mark of the Rani, The Two Doctors, Timelash and Trial of a Time Lord), but since his return via Big Finish, like many people I have come to re-evaluate his Doctor and find him to be among the best.

  3. bar says:

    Like the comparison, but have to pick you up on one point:
    12 did NOT sacrifice anyone in ‘Into the Dalek,’ let alone ‘readily.’
    Ross was already dead/unsavable when the Doctor used him to save the others, and Gretchen Alison Carlyle offered herself. Capaldi’s reaction made it very clear he didn’t accept her sacrifice ‘readily.’
    Much like Colin Baker, I believe a lot of Capaldi’s first season is misunderstood.
    Or maybe I like them both so tend to see the better interpretation of any of their actions.

  4. Rick714 says:

    I think the deliberate contrast between Davison and Colin was also a factor. 5 was sweet, rather bland as well, in both personality and attire, so I can understand why JNT went the directions he did with 6 and as I say, I was a huge fan, liking season 22 more than any other in the 1980’s easily.

    I think, especially for the British fans, the change was just too much, especially after three years of Davison and last 4 years of Toms’ run which was either slapstick (Williams) or dry science (Bidmead). And the costume was simply the straw that broke the camels’ back.

    I’m glad to see more and more people coming around to appreciate what the season had going for it and perhaps embrace it.

  5. K Doctor Who News says:

    I tell you what, I’m certain we’ve never had THREE seperate images of the Sixth Doctor on the front page of Kasterborous.

    I think I may need to go and see my optician… 😉

  6. Planet of the Deaf says:

    The difference between 12 and Clara and 6 and Peri, is that while he may not be outwardly so kind and friendly as 11 say, deep down 12 really cares for Clara, and in Mummy his heartbreak at Clara leaving was clear.

    • Doctor Moo says:

      Well that’s not entirely fair! It’s clear that 6 cared a lot for Peri, which he demonstrates on numerous occasions most noticeably in Varos, Revelation and Mindwarp.

  7. AndrewStreet says:

    I’m just about to start watching this season – for the first time! Yes, that means begining with the much maligned Twin Dilemma, but then I get Cybermen, so hopefully things should pick up. My childhood (well, adolescent) memories of Colin Baker are of hammy pantomime-level acting and clown clothes. I was too busy going out chasing girls, of course (exhausting!), and wasn’t watching or reading things too deeply. Perhaps this time, middle-aged and wiser, I will find more to like.

  8. Derek Der King says:

    I absolutely despise the stigma against the Sixth Doctor (I think, at the very least, people agree that Colin Baker himself is a great guy) as it is completely unfounded when you look at it in context.

    Many complain he is far too arrogant. Maybe, but then why do so many people love the doubly arrogant 10?

    Many complain about his strangling of Peri. This was a stupid move, but it was the worst case of PRT in the series, and he showed no violent tendencies towards any of his allies again.

    However, you may reply, but he was prickly with Peri for the majority of S.22. This may be true, he was snarky, but knew when to encourage and motivate Peri. Contrast this to 10’s pathetic treatment of Martha Jones all in the name of “companion favouritism” and the absolutely attrocious behaviour exhibited by 4 against companions like Leela and K-9 and how prickly he was all the way through S.18.

    All of the negative traits of dear old 6 have been exhibited in ways a lot worse by the 2 most beloved Doctor.

    Conclusions and facts: When it comes to the negative traits of the Doctor, 6 is the fall guy. Made worse by the fact that this stupid stigma actually makes it “cool” to like him.

    P.S. Regarding the stories and acting capabilities of Baker. Much like Capaldi is now, he was given utter mince, and gracefully held his ground and gave us an incarnation which I often judge all future Doctors by, similarly, with Capaldi, a bad script always highlights his talent.

    Compare and contrast this to Tom, Tennat and (especially) Smith. When they had a clunker, Horns of Nimon or anything else other than CoD from S.17, Love and Monsters (with that damned Scooby Doo corridor chase) and anything from NuWho S.6 and S.7A they very rarely came out it smelling like a rose.

  9. Rick714 says:

    Re watching Colin’s run again and as always, so very impressed with his tour de force during season 22. Easily the best season of the 1980’s.

    I’m however now in the middle of Trial of a Time Lord. Boy….a.though I love Robert Holmes, it’s clear that his health was failing him because Mysterious planet was not one of his better stories. It gets along ok and does lead into the one superb hilight of the season, Mindwarp.

    Truly, a magnificent story and seriously, is the actor who played Sil still with us? Because I would LOVE to see him come back in the new show. He was easily the best villain of the 1980’s! The Rani comes a close second. King Yikanos, played by the great man himself, Brian Blessed, so great.

    Then that’s when the wheels come off. Terror of the Vervoids chucked us into the deep end with Mel, carrot juice, an incredibly boring story by Pip and Jane Baker and Colin Baker on an Exercycle who somehow seemingly managed to gain another 20 pounds in the future. Also, since he had to curb the acid tongue, his lines seem forced and unnatural. Not even sure if I can finish this one this time, especially knowing what I’ve got to look forward to afterward….

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