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.
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.
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.