The sixth Doctor's era


Colin Baker


People Rate his Stories, Not His Persona by Daniel Coggins 25/7/98

The thing is, most people hate his stories and the way he was portrayed. There was tremendous potential in the Sixth Doctor, as exemplified by the superb BBCB's Business Unusual and Mission:Impractical. The characterisation in these books is marvellous. But one small comment.

Why couldn't the terrifying early 6th Doctor meet up with the equally scary Mel? Possibly because the regulars would be scarier than the monsters. Instead we had the 6th Doctor terrifying Peri before being terrified himself by Mel.

Most people hate the 6th Doctor era because the contains The Twin Travesty and TimeLash-up, probably the two worst Who's ever. But, looking at Timelash again, I realise that the main baddy, the Borad, is probably the most well-designed monster anyway. The main problem with Timelash is the traditional Doctor Who blooper. Once or twice is fine in a story, but in Timelash there are far too many. To paraphrase someone or other, One blooper can be excused. But this many plot bloopers make a completely awful Doctor Who." Sortof.

An era of extreme controversy by Michael Hickerson 30/7/98

The shortest era of any Doctor (outside of McGann, that is), the sixth Doctor's era is one of extreme controversy. Many long time fans point to Colin Baker's era as the time when the show began a long downhill slide from which the series never recovered. Others point to it as having a great deal of potential but never quite living up to it. But one thing you'll never hear said about the sixth Doctor's reign--it wasn't controversal.

It all started with The Twin Dilemma, which had the unenviable task of following up one of the best Who stories ever, The Caves of Androzani. It was probably a mistake. The idea of having the new Doctor featured in one story to end a season sounded like a great idea. Only problem was that it had to be a great story that really established the Doctor well. The Twin Dilemma was not a great story nor did it established the sixth Doctor that we'd come to know and love later. Instead, it sent fans running for the hills.

But give him credit--Colin Baker endured a lot in his reign as Doctor. He stood firmly by his guns to play the Doctor as a role and not as an extension of his own personality. The sixth Doctor was swaggering, over-the-top, and at times completely alien. And Colin Baker is remarkably convincing in the majority of his stories, rising above some rather pedestrian, tired material to turn in a good performance. Even in the universally panned Timelash, Baker tries his best to restore some semblance of decency to a dreadful script.

And that's the main problem with the Colin Baker years--the scripts. They either relied on an intricate knowledge of Who's past (which they often time got wrong or stomped on continuity for the sake of the story) or they were of such poor quality that it was hard to watch them. Timelash even went so far as to combine the two--with a non-existent reference to the past and a horrific script. A lot of the blame for the eras failings has to be placed firmly at the feet of Eric Saward, who had run out of steam in Davison's second season, but yet continued to chug along as script editor until the middle of season 22. Scripts lacked any the tight clarity or cohesiveness fans had come to know or expected. It's hard to believe that the likes of Robert Holmes, Terrance Dicks, or Christopher H. Bidmead would let such drivel as Timelash or Mindwarp get past the first stages of submission, much less to the screen.

And the person who suffered the most was the actor in front of the camera. Doctor Who suddenly fell from favor and only a quick response by the fans saved it. I think given just a few seasons with Andrew Cartmel as editor, the sixth Doctor could have become one of the best remembered Doctors in the show's history.

Instead, we are left with two short years that saw flashes of brilliance but were mired down in repetitive, at times tedious, storytelling.

And that's a shame.

An Overview of Colin Baker's era by Ronald Mallett 17/3/03

The 44 episodes that constituted the TV era of The 6th Doctor (46 if you include the last episode of The Caves of Androzani and the faked regeneration sequence in the first episode of Time and The Rani) were effectively only a brief taste of a well conceived and executed character. Peter Davison's time had seen some strong stories wasted on a meek Doctor. The 6th Doctor was formulated to take the show back to its roots in that the Doctor was to once more be the irritable, partly inaccessible Time Lord with a heart of gold that William Hartnell had first established so well. The last three TV Doctors had the unenviable task of trying to overcome the problems caused by Tom Baker's tenure. Tom Baker's seven year stint did irreparable damage to the show and his own career as he was to remain fixed as the Doctor and only as the Doctor forever more. Tom's interpretation was almost too good and went on for far too long. He became an almost impossible act to follow! Tom's era also just happened to coincide with the greatest production era (namely Hincliffe/Holmes) that produced some of the best stories. Certainly the most unappreciated performance has been that of Colin Baker. I would argue that of the last three TV Doctors, Colin came the closest to matching Tom's magic.

When Colin entered the role the production team of Nathan-Turner/Saward was in full swing. Following the awful Williams/Read or Adams years, Nathan-Turner pulled the show screaming and kicking into the 80's. From the very start of Tom Baker's final year everything improved. Davison's Doctor was charming but had little presence. Colin Baker's Doctor was like a breath of fresh air and for a year or so it seemed that Nathan-Turner was enjoying a creative second wind. Season 22 was by far the best season since number 18. However there had been complaints about a perceived increase in the level of violence in the show and this was used by the BBC as an excuse to cancel the show in order to save money (which is a fallacy as the show made much more than it cost to make so it would be more accurate to say that it was cancelled to divert money away to other mostly forgotten rubbish like Eastenders). It is interesting to note that on the day the show was cancelled, it was revealed that the BBC had paid 500,000 pounds for Kane and Abel an American mini-series it hadn't viewed and on which the new BBC1 Controller Michael Grade had a credit as executive producer! (The Handbook: The Sixth Doctor, Howe-Stammers-Walker, 1993, p. 198) Doctor Who clearly had its enemies in the BBC hierarchy.

I have watched season 22 many times and the only truly inappropriate scene I can find is when the character Lytonn's hands are crushed to a bloody pulp in episode 2 of Attack of the Cybermen. That was an oversight on the part of the production team but no worse than the infamous drowning scene in The Deadly Assassin under Hincliffe or the scissors scene in Edge of Destruction under the great Verity Lambert. Oddly enough at the time of writing this I've just seen a Jonathan Creek Special titled Black Canary - also produced by Lambert - in which a woman is quite literally sawn in half and you get a good look at the blood stained blade, and I've never read a word of criticism. The acid bath scene in production 6V has been totally misinterpreted like most of Vengeance on Varos itself as, even as a 12 year old watching it I could understand that it had an anti-video nasty theme. I'm afraid the moral minority had never liked Doctor Who full stop. Mary Whitehouse and her like despised any form of thoughtful entertainment that dared to be meaningful. Doctor Who was never a children's show it was a FAMILY show! There is a difference. A family show can be taken on many different levels, just like the American series Star Trek. But while Star Trek and its imitators explored more universal themes the focus of Who was more personal, dealing more with ethics and the empowerment of the exploited and such issues - subjects any ruling elite finds easy to target. I find it interesting that probably the best Who producers of all Hinchcliffe and Nathan-Turner were constant victims of this kind of attempted censorship and thought control.

The damage having been done and an 18 month hiatus endured, the show returned, albeit with a much reduced episode rate and budget. One can almost sense the broken spirit as the revamped theme for the Trial series begins. The music like the show itself had been watered down! Colin Baker to his credit never allowed it to affect his performance. Very few instructions were issued to John Nathan-Turner in a short interview with his superiors, instructing him to minimize the violence and inject more humour. A task that hardly warranted an 18 month break! Sadly it has been Colin Baker who has carried the blame for the problems with the series at the time. First impressions count and he was originally seen as a violent, raving lunatic in The Twin Dilemma. Colin had to contend with a lingering distrust of his portrayal - the image of him throttling Nicola Bryant having imprinted itself on the national and international consciousness. This had been a rather brave production decision and therefore out of his control. All kinds of rubbish has been bandied from claims that he couldn't act to the extreme of blaming him for the actual cancellation of the series.

The BBC showed some confidence in Colin as he made another whole season of Doctor Who before being unceremoniously fired! The real reason of course was ratings. But as Colin Baker later stated it increasingly became impossible to maintain, let alone increase, the popularity of the show for some very simple reasons: its format was changed arguably for the worse for his first whole season, the scheduling was often less than kind, after the hiatus it returned with a much reduced number of episodes which meant it was still out of the public eye more often than not, the format of season 23 was almost tailor made to fatigue even the die-hard fans. While obviously not enjoying the level of popularity experienced during Tom Baker's peak (about 10 million viewers a week), the ratings for Colin's season 22 had been very respectable, hovering around 7.12 million. Ratings figures were actually grossly inaccurate during the mid-eighties as the new practice of video taping favourite shows while one goes out on a Saturday night or watches another channel were not taken into consideration. It is very likely the ratings for seasons 22 and 23 were actually much higher than what was recorded. During Tom Baker's last season the ratings for the show were only around 5 million on average and this was before the ownership of video recorders had become mainstream. The show had therefore actually been enjoying a resurgence in popularity - something often overlooked by the historical revisionists. But for the reasons previously mentioned, the trial season was a bit of a disaster in that respect. Colin Baker was told he was to leave in order to give the show a "lift" and three years was considered to be the optimum period in the role (despite the fact they'd only been shooting for half that time!). However McCoy seemed set to play the Doctor for a fourth season before the entire show was slyly shelved once and for all so I find it difficult to put any trust in anything the BBC states.

While Sylvester McCoy was a talented successor, his 42 episode era was to prove that the true problem with the show in its last three years on television was that Nathan-Turner had creatively grown stale and needed to be replaced. It seems ridiculous that Colin wanted to stay and was fired while John wanted to leave and was made to stay. In some ways I'm glad Colin Baker did not make such turkeys as Time and The Rani (yawn) or Paradise Towers (yuk!), although if he had been granted his wish to play the Doctor for another season, Dragonfire by promising Ian Briggs (who later wrote The Curse of Fenric) might not have been such a bad finale.

Often when I'm watching episodes from the McCoy era I wonder if at times the production team was not trying to make it as bad as possible. The public backlash over the initial cancellation may have given the BBC no choice but to run the program into the ground to get rid of it. The only way to kill it may have been to make it unwatchable as I eventually found it to be myself in my late teens. However there are the odd sparks of brilliance and to assert such conspiracy theories may be more than a little unfair.

When you consider that a whole season of Who during this time was made with less money than it took to record a single later episode of Red Dwarf, many things come into perspective. Historical revisionism took full advantage of the blame the victim mentality in society and Colin Baker's era has been almost universally vilified from every angle since his dismissal. The show was cancelled only a year after Colin took on the mantle of the Doctor ergo it was his fault! However in the very recent past with the end of the 7th Doctor's era and the advent of the 8th Doctor, a more truthful atmosphere has evolved without fear perhaps of alienating Sylvester and his team. Colin has been the most successful Who actor in the Big Finish audio series, claiming himself that it's the same Doctor with better scripts! Perhaps it points to the fact that the character of the 6th Doctor was ahead of its time in many respects and had the show not been cancelled in 1985, we might now be looking back on season 22 and others that sadly never were, with a more universal sense of nostalgia... makes one think... doesn't it...?

The Time for Turning the Other Cheek is Over by Thomas Cookson 27/8/06

Having given it a lot of thought I think I'm ready to tackle the Colin Baker era. Overall, outside of the Christopher Eccleston era, the Colin Baker era is the only Doctor Who era where I've seen nearly everything of it. All that's missing from my viewing is Timelash. The rest of his era I have seen in its entirety... well admittedly I didn't watch all of Twin Dilemma; no I haven't even seen most of it, I only watched episode one and then turned it off because I couldn't stand any more of it. Actually add The Mark of the Rani to the list of unwatched- I did watch that, but with the sound turned low and I was half asleep at the time, so perhaps I should watch it again when it comes out on DVD. I didn't think I'd ever write my own review on the era, since the Mike Morrises and Rob Matthews of the Ratings Guide site seemed to have already taken the words out of my mouth quite eloquently and have even expressed a spot-on clarity about the era in describing feelings that were mutual to my own, though I didn't quite know how to express them. But to sum up, their points are spot on about the era: it was torn between being nasty and half hearted, straight for the jugular and unfocused, horrifying and funny, dark and technicolour.

In continuation of my line of thought about what if Doctor Who had ended earlier, it makes sense to come to the very era that probably quite a few fans wish had never been made. The notion of disowning particular eras of Doctor Who is an entertaining and amusing one. Some fans may disown all Doctor Who from 1977-1989 (and the nineties telemovie), and pretend that the series ended on a high with Horror of Fang Rock, and in the advent of the New Series, they can even pretend that Season One of the 2005 Series is the proper continuation from Horror of Fang Rock. They can pretend that Davros was never resurrected, that Gallifrey never got boring, that there was no Adric or Mel or the Sixth Doctor (okay Season Two does force them to accept that K9 happened, but that's lasting public iconography for you).

But by the same token the new generation of fans can disown the old series completely from the New Series. In fact, someone could watch City of Death and appreciate and embrace its standalone independence and disown all the rest of Doctor Who from it.

But I come to the Colin Baker era with my passion on the subject of disownment all spent. I suppose its something to do with reading these reviews on the Ratings Guide that have quite passionately urged fans like me to re-evaluate some of the stories we hate or find problematic. To write about cutting Doctor Who off past a certain era has an attractive ideal to it - to chip away Doctor Who into a more close-to-perfect sculpture - but when I actually watch the stories of the era that I'd dismissed, I find myself won over by them, or at least left with a feeling that either in whole or in part, that that was a season that deserved to be made. I suppose it's through considering Warriors of the Deep as being part of a season that I'm able to appreciate and even like it more as a story. In a standalone viewing I can easily dismiss it as a pointless bloodbath, but in the context of Season 21 it isn't pointless because it sets the Season's theme in motion.

It is important to consider the 'theme' of Season 21, since in many ways the Colin Baker era was meant to provide an answer of sorts to that theme. Yes it was about a nasty universe getting on top of a Doctor who was more naive, passive and vulnerable than his predecessors. I'd argue that this theme probably first crystallised in The Five Doctors, where the Death Zone provides a microcosm for the dark universe with specimens of its various savages, and represents a corrupt Gallifrey at the centre of it. It also showed that the Fifth Doctor probably would have failed if it were not for the more ruthless actions of his earlier selves.

But there's something else: Season 21 could have potentially killed off Doctor Who. If Season 21 had been Doctor Who's last season it would have ended the show with a finality far more ultimate than that of the Cartmel Masterplan and its 'unfinished business' of the McCoy era. In fact, it would have rendered any continuation of Doctor Who in the New Adventures range or the 2005 revival series next to impossible. Season 21 saw the Doctor's work to vanquish his greatest enemies finally done. It left the Master dead and the Daleks virtually extinct, but in their absence the Universe that they had once threatened had gone to the dogs all by itself (maybe in demonstration of the Doctor's argument in Genesis of the Daleks and the Key to Time storyline that the universe needs the threat of evil for the sake of unity), and this corruption of mankind seemed to point to a Doctor who had lost his noble cause, no longer moved to protect an irredeemable human race.

The Twin Dilemma, which opens Colin Baker's era but closes Season 21, seems to pretty much put the nail in the coffin in that regard as it corrupts the Doctor into a violent and debased psychotic who has finally succumb to the darkness and madness of the universe. It may stabilise him at the end but by then the damage is done.

Just to give a brief review of my impressions of Twin Dilemma from the little I've seen of it, I remember raising an eyebrow when I saw that the father of the twins was none other than Gharman himself. I remember thinking that Colin Baker's dizzy collapsing fits seemed over the top, and there was too much ham in the moment when the Doctor went berserk and tried to strangle Peri. But more than that the scenes had a static directing and dreary delivery of inane dialogue that really irritated me in a painful way. When we got to the cliffhanger, with the Doctor bickering with Peri over the wounded man they brought in, I just found it utterly hateful and the cliffhanger itself was just pathetic.

I've seen the final line of the story, "I am the Doctor whether you like it or not" and I just found it terribly talking-down, the whole "You must consider that I'm from a different culture" load of pants: he's behaved like a psychotic and this is as much eloquence he can come up with to reassure his frightened companion. Ultimately it did end Season 21 on a whimper. Actually Twin Dilemma, in the context of the regeneration did add a certain note of tragic irony to the Fifth Doctor's dying words in The Caves of Androzani, "It feels different this time", but Mike Morris was very right that as soon as Peter Davison regenerates into Colin Baker, he comes on with an air of bullish smugness and didacticism and kills the whole sadness of it.

Then came Season 22.

All those points about Season 21's theme considered, for all the faults of Season 22, I have to take my hat off to it for doing the impossible by following up a downbeat journey's end. It actually gave Doctor Who a future beyond Season 21. Maybe it did the impossible by breaking the rules and by throwing the importance of solid plotting out of the window. Certainly the only way it could bring back the Master was by cheating death, and ergo cheating the audience, and in the process of bringing back Davros and the Daleks, it put them both to some quite dodgy use. I don't quite believe that given the history that humanity has with the Daleks, that any humans would shelter Davros. I can't quite buy that we'd have become that corrupt or naive, and I don't believe that the Daleks have a judicial system either. But regardless of which, it worked. The Master and the Daleks were still on the scene, and in their respective stories of Season 22, their ultimate fate was that bit more ambiguous: does the Master die in the Rani's shrinking TARDIS? Are the Daleks still dying out from the Movellan virus and will they execute Davros? Doctor Who could continue or end from here. More importantly the season had managed to redeem the universe. Season 21 had established Saward's universe as a nasty one, but whilst Season 22 continued with that perspective, it did at last let us see some of those shady characters of Saward's world doing the right thing in the end, such as Takis and Lilt, Orcini, Lytton and the Governor of Varos. Indeed a fair number of those Season 22 stories, particularly Attack of the Cybermen, Mark of the Rani, The Two Doctors and Revelation of the Daleks were particularly concerned with evil plots to turn humans into savages or monsters, which emphasised that there was a limit to how low humanity had really sunk, and allowed us to care when the Doctor thwarted these plans and allowed people to remain human, because being human isn't that bad.

I would also argue that the Season did go some way towards redeeming the Doctor too. On the simplistic level, the violence that the Doctor exhibited in The Twin Dilemma was still there but was being used in the cause of good. After trying to strangle Peri in a paranoid fit, the Doctor's hearts were back in the right place.

However it does indeed seem that the character of the Sixth Doctor and his violent actions can only really be appreciated if taken with a pinch of salt. In Attack of the Cybermen, he exhibits his usual comical demeanour and talent for eccentric theatrical mannerisms, and humorous seems the best way to take this episode with its convoluted continuity, its rather failed attempt at the tragedy of having the Doctor misjudge a former enemy, and the sight of the Doctor being at his most trigger happy in the carnage of Cyber-Control. The last point deserves special mention because it's the very thing that made the Sixth Doctor so problematic. In that scene really the violence is so extreme and over the top with stabbings and geyser squirts of green blood and the Doctor throwing himself about the floor whilst shooting away at writhing, screaming and furious Cybermen that comical is only the real way to take the scene without feeling uncomfortable.

Of course a trigger-happy and more violent Sixth Doctor was in some ways what Season 21 had called for in the failings of the Fifth Doctor when he failed to save the Sea base crew because he couldn't bring himself to gas the Sea Devils, and who had let Davros escape again to cause more suffering. In this corrupt, belligerent and reactionary universe it seemed like we needed a Doctor who was a fighter and a killer - someone who could gun down legions of Cybermen without breaking a sweat, and who could bring down corrupt regimes by arbitrarily assassinating the tyrant (as in Vengeance on Varos).

As has been said before, this shouldn't really be problematic, since we've seen the Doctor use violence and even manslaughter before. Patrick Troughton shot down plenty of Ice Warriors, Tom Baker killed all the Zygons and he poisoned Solon, and even Jon Pertwee shot the occasional Ogron and blew up the Sea Devils. But it was all down to presentation. When Peter Davison shot the Cyberleader in Earthshock, the directing and editing gave the scene a sense of urgency and desperation which allowed us to accept the Doctor's violence as being borne out of necessity. The quickness of it as the Doctor keeps pumping lazerbolts into the Cyberman's chest unit almost makes the death a compassionate and merciful one, almost as if the Doctor is trying to make the kill as quick and as painless as possible. Something about the pratfall way that Attack of the Cybermen was directed didn't allow it that sense of urgency and, as other reviewers have pointed out, the lack of solid plot backbone in many of these stories denied it that kind of dramatic momentum as well.

That Cyber-shootout scene in particular felt unsure of what it was trying to convey. The Doctor was about to leave Telos to its destruction (by means of one of the show's worst plot devices, the Cybermen locking a prisoner in a cell that is full of explosive powder) but he goes back to Cyber control to save Lytton, and then initiates the carnage that actually gets Lytton killed, but then Lytton said he wanted to die anyway rather than be Cybernised, so did the Doctor do Lytton a favour by getting him killed? (which to my mind drifts the show into a very cold blooded kind of macho heroism- "I'll kill you to put you out of your misery. No really I insist!") Well not really because Lytton was about to die in the explosion anyway. But the directing really botches the effect by cutting away from Lytton during most of the action, even in the middle of his struggle with the Cyberleader, and he dies offscreen denying the supposed 'tragedy' its climax. The scene was probably meant to show the Doctor fail, and in the context of Warriors of the Deep, it showed that even the new and improved Doctor that ruthlessly vanquishes his enemies can still fail to save innocents in the process. But the slightly-annoyed-with-himself delivery of Colin Baker's "I don't think I ever misjudged anyone quite as badly as I misjudged Lytton" leaves that afterthought to go cold. And yet in a sense it did redeem the Doctor immediately after Twin Dilemma: it did show that this Doctor would go a distance to save people and always responds to a cry of distress, and even his handling of the killer policemen from Resurrection of the Daleks suggests that his mercy is not all spent yet. It's just a shame that the plotting and directing isn't so clear all round.

Vengeance on Varos is a shocker of a portrayal of a corrupt regime and sadistic treatment. By all accounts this should be one story where we'd be behind the Doctor's violence: the Doctor is practically a terrorist in this story, but it could have worked on that level of desperate circumstances calling for desperate measures, but somehow it didn't. The Doctor spends most of episode one being a sulking and obnoxious jerk to Peri before landing on the planet and getting involved, and when he does, he gets involved blindly. There's precious little strategy for the Doctor to tackle since it's a plotless runaround and it's all resolved too easily at the end to create that sense of urgency or mitigated violence. Even when the Doctor is in a kill-or-be-killed situation, the directing lets it down again. Some of the action in that story is bloody awful; no-one seems able to shoot straight and the fight during the infamous acid bath scene is done terribly.

It's not the first time that bad plotting and a lack of urgency has made the Doctor's untypical decision to resort to violence doubly inaccessible. The Invasion of Time is one such story outside of Colin Baker's reign to leave me with that uncomfortable feeling.

On my note above about the macho-heroism, Vengeance on Varos too has such a moment; actually such material in TV and Cinema abounded heavily during the 1970s-80s. When the Governor of Varos (played superbly by Martin Jarvis with great gravity and dignity; I can't believe he sunk so low in his painfully whiney and over the top performance in Jubilee) is about to die and pleads for his personal guard to have mercy on him, he actually asks the guard to kill Peri as a kindness, and the moment cries out for Peri to say something along the lines of "Excuse me, don't I have a say in the matter?", but as it is it just remains as an attempt for the scriptwriters to be macho and cool in embracing the death-wish notion.

To clarify what I'm trying to say a bit more, there is a moment in the series Survivors in one of the early episodes where we first meet one of the male protagonists who has come to his ex-wife's home to find that she has fallen dead to the plague, and his line is "I thought you'd survive just to spite me!" and it's a line that could have been delivered with a sense of shock, disbelief and sadness, as if he is saying it with full sincerity and that he really didn't expect her to be dead, but instead it is performed with vindictive coolness, almost as if relishing his own begrudging manly disaffectedness in the midst of the deaths. And that is pretty much how I see that scene between Peri and the Governor. It's as if morality and debate has been replaced by desensitised masculine moral arrogance.

Actually I ought to point something else out about Vengeance on Varos. The bodycount isn't actually that high, and yet to me it sums up a sense that Doctor Who has immediately lost the kind of innocence and class that characterised its earlier years. Somehow Doctor Who had never depicted such base and perverted villains before. In the past they'd always had something about them that elevated them: the connoisseur suaveness of Salamander or the Master, the keen intellect of Davros, the pitiful desperation of Magnus Greel or Morbius. With Sil and the Mentors, Doctor Who suddenly entered a more sleazy world of perverse sadism and characters who had a genuine hardon for death and suffering. Sleazy was never really a term I could have applied to Doctor Who beforehand. But nonetheless it served a purpose of sorts as Sil was a caricature of the banality of snuff-TV viewing. The viewers of Varos portrayed this population of viewers in a more realist and superficial way, but Sil represented everything sick and ugly that they had become. Steve Cassidy pointed out to me that one of the more favourable features of Season 22 was that it did bring in memorable villains, such as Sil and Shockeye and treated us to a very good Doctor/Davros confrontation just to cap the Season off.

The sleaze element continued somewhat in The Two Doctors where we were faced with Shockeye, and that cliffhanger where he looks set to actually rape Peri. I view The Two Doctors roughly along the same lines as I view Attack of the Cybermen. I enjoy it on a superficial level as mindless entertainment, and where Colin Baker's charisma allowed me to enjoy Attack of the Cybermen, The Two Doctors has Patrick Troughton's presence to add to the charm and interplay ("I've come a long way for you!"; "Naturally. Don't expect any thanks...") plus it's got the Sontarans attacking a spaceship. Incidental to the plot of course, but I've always been a sucker for seeing the graphic and cinematic action of Star Wars, but involving Doctor Who's aliens. I'm one of the few people who would have loved to see The Apocalypse Element done on TV. Yes I accept that the criticism of both Attack and Two Doctors is valid: it's all superficial, style but no substance, a plotless runaround and replaces its potential for grit and tension with self mockery and dreadful cop-outs. Still at least we only have to endure one cavalier moment from the Doctor when he kills Shockeye, and it's a quite well-directed moment.

But still even that moment feels rather uncomfortable, at the backdrop of the 'racism' element, something that's been debated hotly whenever the Doctor appears to live by double standards when it comes to violence. Namely, that he can happily destroy Daleks over and over again, but somehow can't kill their humanoid creator as though non-humanoid life matters less somehow. Here we learn of the Doctor's apparent hatred for all Androguns. But its when he kills Shockeye that he seems to be putting that racism into murderous action. Of course the assertion is that the Doctor kills him because Shockeye is a savage character who cannot be redeemed or reasoned with and will only ever kill if he is allowed to live, and he is also far too physically strong for the Doctor to overpower and somehow imprison, so the Doctor kills him to ensure that no one else dies. But following that hypothesis, why then didn't the Doctor ever dish out similar treatment to the Master? Or is it because the Master is a Time Lord and a brother to his own race, whilst Shockeye is 'Androgum scum' and therefore deserves less mercy?

Speaking of which, the Master returns this season. I'll give that proper analysis when I get to the Trial of a Time Lord bit. But anyhow, Mark of the Rani didn't capture my attention, and I never expected it to. Somehow watching other Season 22 stories, I knew to expect a certain feeling of disengagement in most of the stories of that time. I haven't seen Timelash, but I've seen two clips from the Colin Baker years video. One clip, the confrontation with the Borad, looked somewhere between intriguing and terribly stilted, and the scene where the superstitious man tries to exorcise the Doctor just looked plain embarrassing.

Then of course there was Revelation of the Daleks which wipes the floor with everything else that season. It is probably the only story of Season 22 to match up to the engaging intensity, grit and tension of Season 21. The scenes centring particularly around the bodysnatchers breaking into the complex really does have terrific, hold-your-breath suspense, and the scene with Stengos' head being transformed into a Dalek really does reach out and grab you by the shoulders. It is in many ways the saving grace of the season, showing the Sixth Doctor at his best and certainly at his most Doctorish, whether holding the dying mutant's hand or expressing his moral outrage at Davros' plans. This moral outrage was the most consistent quality of the Sixth Doctor; he was aggressively moral at best. Whether his relishing delivery of "I've never found it difficult to despise people like you" in Attack of the Cybermen, or his very eloquent speech in Vengeance on Varos where he voices the silent outrage of the entire population, or in more subtle moments, like where he physically bumps into the Master and then recoils himself from his enemy's touch with such reactionary disgust, silently says everything about how sour the Doctor/Master relationship has become. It's interesting that whilst the Big Finish audios have heavily softened the Sixth Doctor's character, they have retained this moral vindictive quality, and seem to especially chose him for the 'sympathy for the devil' type of stories like Davros and Jubilee.

All things considered, Season 22 was the better of Colin Baker's two seasons. It did bring some kind of meaningful development to the Sixth Doctor's character and it did redeem him after Twin Dilemma.

Oh damn you Michael Grade, you were nothing but a menace.

Michael Grade really didn't like Season 22, or to be more precise he didn't like Doctor Who as a whole, or sci-fi for that matter. Reading around the 1980's period of the show and the behind the scenes events, from both the Ratings Guide and the new Doctor Who critical analysis books, Inside the TARDIS: A Critical History and Kim Newman's BFI Doctor Who A Critical Analysis (both well recommended by the way if you have a spare 26 pounds) and it is frankly angering to read about how the show was driven into the ground. Season 22 had generated fairly good audience figures, and then Michael Grade came along and snidely cancelled the show out of personal judgement with no diminishing audience figures to back up his decision at all. He simply told the makers to rethink the show, to do less violence and more comedy, and the result was Trial of a Time Lord, which apparently drove away roughly half the audience, and who could blame them after they waited eighteen months for... that!

I must say at this juncture that it's actually very rare for a season of Doctor Who to actually deliver what the previous season seemed to promise. The greater Cybermen action of Season 5 is the possible exception. Think about it. Season 7 provides the UNIT setup and during that season it looks as though we're in for one of Doctor Who's most mature and challenging eras, but it quickly becomes more dumbed down and cozy in the next season. On that note Season 8 introduces us to Roger Delgado's Master and in those early episodes he actually seems dangerous and quite prepared to kill the Doctor, but in the following seasons he's become too fond of his old friend to ever be that much of a threat to him. The same is true of Anthony Ainley's Master: in Logopolis he's at his most dangerous, but beyond that he's simply an annoying pest with little believability in his boasts or threats.

Even in the golden age of Doctor Who this was often the case. Season 12's Genesis of the Daleks leaves the fate of the whole universe hanging in the balance, but from seasons 13-16 we never hear so much as a peep out of the Daleks again. Finally in Season 17 they return, looking worse for wear whilst off-screen events have already underfooted any potential the Daleks once had as bringers of universal armageddon.

But even so, Trial is such a poor followup to Season 22. Trial of a Time Lord really does give me enough ire to think that Doctor Who would have been better off not coming back from its mid 80's hiatus at all, but should have ended there and then. Okay I've gone overboard with that line of thought already, but really to think that Michael Grade thought that this season was somehow an 'improvement' on the Doctor Who that had preceeded it just shows how fickle and pig-headed and unfit for BBC controller he really was.

Let's see, I first watched Trial of a Time Lord when I was 12 and had got the newly released 30th Anniversary tin box set as a Christmas present (I got the Daleks box set too). I had no idea what it was about, but since it had Doctor Who on the title, I wanted it. Some kind of nostalgia makes me occasionally warm to it; nostalgia is a wonderful thing really, it's probably why I'm one of the few fans who quite likes Battlefield. Watching Part One of Trial does occasionally bring me back to the first time I watched this and felt a wonderful sense of awe at how far into the future this story was taking me, and the impressive opening model shot really seemed to add to the epic sense of it. Even the court setting and undercurrent of political paranoia in that first Trial scene still makes me feel that this could have been promising. But all that said it is a mind-numbingly bad piece of television, and thanks to Michael Grade's draconian interference, humour has become so overstated that no-one in the cast seems allowed to take it seriously. Apart from Michael Jayston who performs excellently as the Valeyard, and I must say I felt sorry for him, desperately trying to inject some gravity into the self-mocking and suspenseless juggernaut, whilst Colin Baker seems at his most uncontrolleable. I refuse to believe that Tom Baker was ever this bad, even in Creature from the Pit.

The Mysterious Planet segment is reduced to crud by a lack of suspense or gravity, populated by villains and mercenaries that are far too cartoonish to be engaging. Mindwarp brings back Sil and another hefty dose of sadism and sleaze. It does actually manage to hark back to the grit and suspense of Season 21, but something goes wrong and it's all to do with the Doctor suddenly turning into a complete bastard; he betrays Peri, has her persecuted and tortures her out of sheer hatred and indirectly causes her death, and it seemed that the Doctor had indeed become the centre of the episode's sleaze and sadism. To be perfectly frank, it was - in my eyes at least - the death of Doctor Who. When people describe the Colin Baker era as an unpleasantly manipulative period of the show, this is the story that comes to mind: one that seemed to delight in generating my feelings of shock and outrage and a sense of betrayal by the program. Suddenly this was no longer the Doctor who held Victoria's hand in the London Underground, or who had visible tears when he thought that Sarah and Harry were dead when the Kaled dome got nuked. Of course it made me watch the rest of Trial in the hope that I'd get answers as to why the Doctor turned so evil. But I think I will forever despise that story for how it manipulated me and made me feel so disillusioned.

Let me say more on that topic. To me the 1970's and 80's did see a trend towards more cynical, exploitative and scab-picking films. Sometimes in very inspiring views of the dark side of the human condition and the ills of society, but more often it was just hopelessly negative and mean spirited. To my mind seeing the Doctor succumb to sadistic misogyny out of the blue was as unpleasant as seeing similar material in A Boy and His Dog and Beneath the Planet of the Apes, almost as if the sleaze and perversity of Sil had contaminated the Doctor too. I must also say that it is because of watching those scab-picking films and how they portrayed masculinity in such an ugly light, followed now by the converse of inept male characters who are always in the wrong, that I really value Doctor Who as providing one of the few (if not the only) positive male role models out there. This is why Russell's recent media-controversy savvy statements he's made about the possibility of turning the Doctor into a woman have left me pretty angry that he would try to manipulate fan outrage this way simply to get him talked about in the papers, but if he ever did it for real I would never watch the new series again, no matter how good its stories were. I'd feel betrayed of the last hope of a positive male character in modern TV. But that is exactly how I feel about Mindwarp; even now I can't stomach it as being the Doctor Who I know and love. It was different to Warriors of the Deep, where I didn't want to believe that this could be the Doctor as he became so stuck in his principles that he ended up letting everyone on the sea base die, but at the end of the day that was the Doctor when he was having an off day of misplaced compassion and incompetence, but Mindwarp just revolts me completely and I see nothing redeemable or tragic about the Doctor here. Yes there is a follow up conclusion later in the Trial that explains that events didn't really occur this way and the Doctor didn't really turn into a bully, (and the scene where Mel shows her faith in the Doctor in that "The truth cannot harm me" moment was wonderfully done) but this is explained so vaguely that I still don't know who to believe, never mind what really happened. It's no surprise to me that in the McCoy era they worked so hard to build a well-rounded character as a companion for the Doctor to play against with a newfound compassion just to try and resalvage that sense of trust, and thank Rassilon it worked. For that I am quite grateful that Colin Baker's reign was cut short so that we could get to a nicer Doctor more immediately.

Anyway the trial must go on. Then there was Terror of the Vervoids, and I vividly remember Yolande Palfrey who played the onboard stewardess being my very first TV crush, and how overpowering it was. I remember desperately hoping that she'd survive at the end and how if she died I probably would have been reduced to tears. I must say I quite like Mel as a companion. Okay she has her irksome moments indeed and plenty of moments where the script seems to be deliberately trying to trip her up, but something about her spunkiness, easy-going attitude and smothering motherly concern for the Doctor's health and her overall child-like innocence wins me over, particularly in the middle of a decade like the 80's that produced such belligerent and bitter characters from Rambo to Yosser Hughes. Much like Colin Baker, Bonnie Langford as Mel has been given a second chance to make a good impression through the Big Finish audios and has been superb. I did quite enjoy Terror of the Vervoids actually, and come The Ultimate Foe I think it was the best part of the Trial, because at least it got us out of that tiresome 'brickyard', 'backyard' trialroom tyrade. Beyond the superficial entertainment, it was bollocks of course, but for various reasons it was most watchable. It was partly because it got the Sixth Doctor to be more actioneering which is what he was brought in for really - to be a more ruthless fighter who would succeed where his predecessor had failed. And the Master was admittedly one of the most fun things about it.

I should say that there was something wonderfully sad about the Master's 'death' in Planet of Fire. Up until this point the Doctor had used more merciful methods to vanquish the Master, to imprison him in Castrovalva or exile him to Xeraphas. Even after all the Master had done, including destroying Traken, the Doctor was still prepared to deliver humane justice, just like he was with Davros in Destiny of the Daleks. When the Master reacts with such shock and anger to the Doctor's refusal to save him from the fire, it really leaves a haunting and tragic impression of the evil villain, who was arrogant and ignorant enough to not see how he was inviting his end and who believed that he could still exert power and vengeance even whilst he was dying. Just like with Davros's death, that was a poetic end that unfortunately was not allowed to actually be the end. But in Mark of the Rani he was resurrected for a more ambiguous fate, and then came back here and threw all development out of the window by helping the same Doctor he had sworn vengeance against in his dying moments. Like I said it's not good, but it's watchable, but it sadly doesn't redeem Trial.

For all the ambitions of Season 23, it's got to be Doctor Who's most completely hollow season. It's most ambitious aspects reduced to moot. The Time Lords destroying Earth is enough to provoke the Doctor's moral outrage in one scene (and "ten million years of absolute power - that's what it takes to be really corrupt!" is the most pivotal part of it) only to be completely forgotten afterwards, with no justice handed out and the Doctor no longer holding a grudge over it. The Doctor turning on Peri and letting her die comes out of the blue, never qualifying as characterisation since we're told that it didn't really happen, but we're told this so vaguely that we still can't help seeing the Doctor in an ugly light.

Some might say that it was the out-of-the-blue aspect of this that made it so unpleasant. If the Sixth Doctor really had been mad, bad and dangerous to know in most of his stories, then at least it would have felt like a more natural progression and would have felt easier to take by being wholehearted. But Colin Baker felt dangerous in off and on bouts in Twin Dilemma which we put down to post-regeneration instability, and possibly the trauma of his former self's accumulated tragedies. And when it fades we carry on with his next season and he seems okay. He seems too clownish and pompous to ever be a likely threat again, and so that's how it should have stayed. If, on the other hand, they wanted to bring back this psychotic edge again for Mindwarp, they should have given him a succession of stories in which he felt dangerous, but this was never the case.

When Tom Baker occasionally played the role of the more dangerous Doctor, in the first few episodes of The Invasion of Time and in the scene in The Armageddon Factor where he considers just how powerful he's become by owning the Key to Time and briefly drifts into manic megalomania, it worked brilliantly. Tom Baker did it with such gravity that it worked at being a shock to the system and one that commanded your attention. The key to it was that it was never played for laughs, In fact, Tom Baker's Doctor actually demanded to be taken seriously, he shrieked at you if you tried to sneak away from his power. If you laughed at him it seemed likely that he'd get really ugly about it. That, for me, is one of the most frustrating things about The Invasion of Time, between Tom Baker's performance and moments of cleverness in the script, there's quite a lot to suggest that it could have been really good if only it had been glued together properly and had some kind of momentum.

Unfortunately that wasn't the case with Colin Baker's characterisation of the Doctor. There are incidental ways that his Doctor could have emphasised having a genuinely nasty or controlling streak (as opposed to being a bit rude now and again just to pander to dwindling audience interest), if he was more like a character from Dangerous Liasons, if he spat out his boasting words a bit more quickly, if he carried a fierce stare in his eyes, rather than simple disinterest, if he really seemed emotionally impenetrable and then shook with outrage when he really was burrowed into by shocking events - and there's vague suggestions in the bickering scenes, particularly in Revelation of the Daleks, that the Doctor is slightly dominating and interrogating - and if they'd played it with an undertone of this Doctor being a bit of an Othello, a bit of a poetic soul with a Victorian upper class sensibility (coupled with a huge dose of chauvinistic snobbery) but still liable to turn into a domestic tyrant. It wouldn't have been pretty but at least it would have been consistent, but even then the events of Mindwarp would need a far better denoument to save his character.

When it comes to the question of bad Doctor Who stories, perhaps a case could be made that the "Doctor Who was good because it was crap" argument is correct if taken out of context: that the reason the show has had its greats is because it was allowed to do any old pap for a long period, and thus occasionally got it right. Or, to draw an even better illustration, it can be seen that the New Doctor Who Series is a success because it's had 27 years of experienced learning of how to do good Doctor Who, and its frequent mistakes and short-sighted decisions and outright travesties have lasted as examples of how not to do it. In a way, the New Series is the 80's years of the show done right, blending the mystical story-arc of a fully developed companion character with a modern, streetwise background, occasionally done the damaged and dangerous Doctor (in Dalek), and also a focus on emotional vulnerability that seems inspired by Peter Davison's sensitive portrayal. But I don't entirely buy that. I don't believe that Doctor Who had ever really sunk so low before, and I say that it was behind-the-scenes events that conspired to make Doctor Who into the turkey that Michael Grade said it was.

That's right- I've decided to blame Michael Grade for Trial of a Time Lord. Hey he's labelled me and my ilk a bunch of weird social misfits over quite a long term period, why should I cut him any slack in my judgement of him? If Doctor Who hadn't been put on hiatus, Robert Holmes might have had the time to make his last story something refined (actually there are some moments of the story that lean towards Robert Holmes' richest and most succulent dialogue, but alas when it's bad it's bad. People have said the same thing about Russell T. Davies' writing but I'd venture that here the contrast between good and bad is far wider). I also feel that if Michael Grade's demands that the series should have less violence and more humour hadn't been taken so much to heart it would have had more gravity and hopefully less of those tedious and intrusive courtroom comical banter scenes, and indeed maybe if criticisms of the Doctor's violence hadn't been taken so seriously, then just maybe we could have moved on from it instead of dwelling on it and making the Doctor more horrible than ever. I must say that in many ways the production, special effects and choreography of the story is pretty flawless for once, and yet strangely enough this is the one story I'd feel most embarrassed at showing to a non-fan, knowing they'd think I was an idiot for believing that this bloated bad comedy was even remotely good, or even watchable.

(Actually as a matter of sheer morbid curiosity, I'm kind of interested in giving Time and the Rani a look, just to see if Doctor Who really could sink any lower. As a matter of fact I'd probably much rather see the worst of any other Doctor than Colin Baker, because at least I wouldn't have to endure such mean-spiritedness on top of everything else)

And there it is: the unfulfilled promise of the Colin Baker era, which to my mind honestly killed Doctor Who. He could have been the great hope of Doctor Who and sometimes he was, a humoured Doctor who brought hope with him into Saward's dark universe, but also the physical finesse and radicalism that saw him vanquish his enemies ruthlessly. On paper, that's actually the kind of Doctor I always liked, a pragmatic kind of Doctor who wasn't averse to proverbially killing the disease of the universe so that it could take hold no longer and so that the innocent could be saved. Not unlike Tom Baker when he showed a ruthless streak: remember when he tried to blow up Davros? A Doctor who lived by the words of New Model Army's "Vengeance" and wasn't averse to a bit of vigilanteism or even terrorist tactics if the situation called for it, but always done in the cause of good. But it had to be thoughtful as well: Christopher Eccleston sums up that thoughtful take on a Doctor who's a borderline terrorist. He was treated to plots that were frenetic and desperate and which justified his rashness, and to an emotional sensitivity that made his inflamed passion felt (if he were insensitive in one episode, he'd develop into someone more compassionate by the end of it), and it was a thoughtful approach that allowed him to have mercy on the Dalek when he recognised it as a victim like himself, and allowed him to take hostages but to hand over his gun when his bluff was called, letting it be known that as radicals go, he'd sooner be a martyr than a killer. With Colin Baker it seemed like they just decided to follow the advice of 'make him offensive' and as if they didn't give it any thought and quite frankly didn't seem to know when to stop either. The bottom line is that one badly thought out season of this kind of hostile Doctor would have been enough, and even had its moments, but two was two too many.

The cat who roared through time by Robert Smith? 26/3/07

The sixth Doctor was the self-described "cat who walked through time". In the series' forty years, there has never been as troubling a period as that when the sixth Doctor briefly held the reigns. Which is quite a feat, given that the series was off television for 15 years. His flame burned brighter than most, but burned for half as long.

Or did it?

The cancellation meant that the sixth was actually around for three years, precisely the same time as three of his predecessors and his successor. We as fans don't view time in the same way; we measure it in seasons and see only two and a bit seasons, one of which was half the length anyway. But when the BBC bosses announced that three years was long enough for a Doctor, there's a sense in which they were probably just stating the facts as they saw it. By the time he was gone, Colin Baker as the Doctor had been in the public view longer than Peter Davison was.

The sixth Doctor's television life was like that of one of those celebrities who dies tragically young from an overdose. It's a life that began in the spotlight, as the first Doctor to have a full story at the end of his predecessor's season, one that led to fans feeling abandoned and betrayed even before they'd seen the episodes, was widely accused of being too violent, pandering to the American audience, foregoing sartorial taste, getting the series cancelled, putting itself on trial, massive behind-the-scenes meltdowns, and then getting the lead actor sacked for its crimes. All in the space of a little over two seasons.

Even today, there are few things in the Doctor Who universe that divide fandom like the sixth Doctor's era. Fans still bitterly debate the cancellation crisis, the violence in Season 22, the attempt to replace it with humour in Trial of a Time Lord, the deficiencies of both companions and Colin's acting. It's viewed by some that the decline of the classic series started here and that's something which fans find very hard to forgive.

Supporters of the sixth Doctor praise the boldness and brashness of the era. Suddenly here's a Doctor who isn't likeable, who you don't necessarily believe will save the day, who is just as nasty as the villains. It's an era that wasn't afraid to tackle the implications of violence and which, like the Doctor's coat, went boldly in its own direction, no matter what its detractors said.

Personally, I don't think either position is true. I think the sixth Doctor's era was basically business as usual for Doctor Who.

There's actually not that much that's qualitatively different about the sixth Doctor or his era. It's true that the Doctor wasn't a reliable hero any more, which is shocking and radical and disturbing... unless you happen to have seen the early episodes of the first Doctor, of course. The Doctor was always supposed to be the anti-hero, which he is at every stage except the third Doctor's era. In fact, because the source material for the character is the very roots of the show itself, the sixth might just be the least radical Doctor yet.

Peter Davison drew on exactly the same source material for his interpretation of the fifth Doctor, making him tetchy and irritable just like William Hartnell (which he is, he just isn't remembered for those qualities). This means that Colin's actually more of a retread of his predecessor than is usually the case. Yes, there are obvious departures from his predecessor, but again that's also business as usual. Every previous Doctor was a complete inversion of his predecessor and the sixth is no different.

By the end of the fifth Doctor's era, the universe was a dangerous place and although all the snide anti-Davison comments in The Twin Dilemma leave a nasty taste in the mouth, you can't really argue with them. The fifth Doctor really was deeply out of his depth in a hostile universe and his rather fey attempts to maintain a moral core were almost universal failures. (This, incidentally, is the brilliance of the tragedy that is the fifth Doctor's era.)

The Eric Saward universe needed a Doctor to arise who could deal with it on its own terms and that's exactly what we get with the sixth Doctor. He's nasty, he's petty, he's self-absorbed, but he gets the job done. He's also exactly who you would posit to deal with that universe, no more and no less. Not only is the sixth Doctor not qualitatively different from his predecessors, he's inevitable.

Similarly, his era is not significantly different from any other, broadly speaking. Every previous era was a product of its times, from the grooved-up early sixties wackiness of the first Doctor's multivaried adventures, to the seventies Bondian Pertwee era and the undergraduate humour of the Williams era. The sixth Doctor's era embodies the mid-eighties flare for primary colours, video nasties, the Me generation, television that was allowed to be unsettling and whiny Americans in leotards (although that last one might depend on the social circles you move in). And the further we recede from that time, the less stark the differences look.

The sixth Doctor's era underwent something of a revival with the Missing Adventures. Unlike, well, every other Doctor except the first, the sixth Doctor's MAs managed to capture the character and tell interesting stories. Part of this was because of the era getting cut short: there was actually room to develop story arcs that took off after the Trial and continued to tell an ongoing story, which simply couldn't happen in the other MAs.

However, another part of this was the character of the sixth Doctor himself. Colin was always an actor's actor. He did what he was told and read his lines and didn't interfere with the script overly much. This frees the character from the actor in significant ways, making the transition to actor-free media significantly easier (the comics also had considerable success with this Doctor). The other element was the overblown nature of the character. Where the other Doctors had subtlety of acting or character, the sixth wore his brash-but-insecure-underneath hearts on his sleeve. His peaks and troughs were much, much easier to replicate on the page.

However, this changed once Colin Baker turned up at Big Finish. Suddenly he was able to have some directional control and he very quickly requested that his Doctor not be the same unlikeable character we saw in the eighties. This led to a mixed revival for the sixth Doctor. Many fans who disliked the original character have now taken a shine to this new one, lending further fuel to their arguments that Colin the actor wasn't the problem back then, it was the series. The BBC Books dutifully followed suit, making the character in many sixth Doctor PDAs largely innocuous and unrecognisable from the character we saw on TV.

In Colin Baker's favour, he's no longer at the bottom of the Favourite Doctor polls and often at the top. On the other hand, there's also a sense to which the sixth Doctor has lost his teeth. Which is a particularly ironic fate for the cat who walked through time.