Bigger On The Inside: A Quick Start Guide To… The Sixth Doctor
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR MEDIA BLASPHEMY.
It can’t have escaped your attention that Doctor Who is about to celebrate its landmark 50th anniversary. The world’s longest running sci-fi show began in 1963, and has run on and off to this day. After thirty-three seasons, its 800th episode or so will be simulcast to 75 countries and hundreds of cinemas nationwide on November 23rd. Clearly, there’s a lot going for it, but the sheer size and scope of the show can make it impenetrable for first time viewers.
So if you’ve never seen an episode, or you only started watching it because David Tennant was a bit dishy, here’s the first in a twelve part series giving you a quick over-view of each Doctor, each companion, big name monsters and stories to snog, marry and avoid. We’ll even throw in the spin-offs that ran (mostly) in recent years, to let you know if they’re worth a look. So get your sonic screwdriver at the ready, and delve into articles which we hope… are bigger on the inside…
THE SIXTH DOCTOR: PETER DAVISON 1984-1986
Poor Colin Baker. Cast as The Doctor off the back of his appearance in the show as Gallifreyan security officer Maxil in Fifth Doctor story Arc Of Infinity, he always intended to stay in the part for as long as possible. Sadly, he happened to preside over the strangest, and most turbulent period in the show’s history.
The blame for what went wrong during his tenure is, quite often, levelled squarely on the shoulders of the leading man – these days perhaps temporarily best known for his recent stint on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, rather than his tenure as the legendary Time Lord. This belief stems from the superfans who had grown up with the show since its early days – those children who watched in awe at the early episodes but were now in their twenties, watching a show that was still, ostensibly, for children.
Yet whilst these overgrown brats threw all their toys out of the pram, it was the power struggle of the two leading figures behind the scenes of the program, and the intentions of two further figures higher up in the echelons of BBC One which really threw the show into disarray.
Producer John Nathan Turner and script editor Eric Saward had a number of good ideas for the Doctor Who, which paid dividends during their time working on it. Yet when they failed to nip a bad idea in the bud, it would spread like poison ivy across a show under the watchful eye of the boys upstairs – BBC One controller Michael Grade, and Head of Drama, Jonathan Powell.
At the time, the drama department were knee deep in setting up new soap opera Eastenders, which was proving increasingly costly, whereas Doctor Who had kept essentially the same budget for years on end. As inflation took its toll, the show could no longer compete with Hollywood blockbusters in the slightest, and this was increasingly obvious.
So when respected stage and screen actor Colin Baker arrived in the show, it was already on borrowed time, and the decisions made around his character helped sow the seeds of his undoing. First off was the idea that this would be a difficult regeneration period, and Baker’s casual suggestion that he’d like to peel the character banana was taken a little too literally. Saward and Turner elected to make his Doctor violently unpredictable, irascible, and totally tasteless – trapped in the worst costume design concept in television history.
Tacked onto the end of Peter Davison’s final run, immediately following series highlight The Caves Of Androzani, was Colin’s debut, The Twin Dilemma. A clumsy opening story filled with poorly realised monsters, it didn’t help that the Doctor tried to kill his own companion during a violent post-regenerative mood swing, before the show disappeared for nine months, leaving audiences baffled.
When it did return, now back to Saturday nights and in new-fangled 45 minute episodes, the show was working surprisingly well despite increasingly convoluted plotting. Colin had a natural chemistry with Nicola Bryant, who played his put-upon companion Peri, and his initial series featured the return of the Cybermen, the Daleks, the Master, Sontarans and even Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines as The Second Doctor and Jamie.
Yet Grade & Powell had already decided to cancel the show, for good. Furious, JNT leaked the news to superfan Ian Levine and it spread like wildflower, and it is at this point that things started to get really messy.
Forced to reconsider immediate cancellation, the show went into an 18 month hiatus, with the intention of quietly letting it disappear in the interim. Levine and JNT then elected to make a Band Aid style charity record with a bunch of Z-list pop stars (and future Oscar winning composer Hans Zimmer) singing about The Doctor over a hi-NRG beat. The results are every bit as horrid as you can imagine, and then some.
Out of embarrassment, more than anything else, the powers that be rescinded their decision, and let Doctor Who return. But rather than replace the production team, or insist on a series of changes, or even just improve the budget a little, they simply reduced the run-time and episode count, and left JNT and Saward to get on with it, business as usual.
With the original plans for Season 23 abandoned, Saward hit upon the idea of putting the Doctor on trial. A mammoth 14 episode arc was conceived to act as an umbrella for stories set in his past, present and future. Peri would be written out as Bryant’s contract was due to expire, and she was to be replaced by well-known television personality Bonnie Langford. That her character, Mel Bush, was unfeasibly meant to be a computer programmer (who never touched a computer on screen, oddly), and that we would meet her whilst she was already on adventures with The Doctor, without an origin story of her own, didn’t seem to faze the producer – he just wanted Langford because she had star quality, red hair and a scream that could pitch perfectly with the opening notes of the end credits theme.
That last sentence should make apparent that all the production problems the show faced were still in place, and arguably intensified. The Doctor’s dreadful coat also remained, as did the baffling plot twists and references only the diehards who hated the show by now would understand. Actors continued to be cast for their showbiz status rather than suitability for the role, such as Carry On veteran Joan Sims being a tribal Queen for no apparent reason.
Worst still was Peri’s exit. Planned as a dramatic send off, it was written to see her killed horribly: her brain replaced with that of slug-like mentor Lord Kiv (Young Ones star Christopher Ryan), who was then gunned down by warrior King Yrcanos (a typically on form Brian Blessed, no less). Yet this was clumsily revealed to be a fabricated demise during an exposition heavy season finale, with Peri and Yrcanos escaping together instead for no apparent reason.
Ultimately, the Sixth Doctor’s tenure ended as it began – in a state of frenzied confusion and behind the scenes back-stabbing – after JNT refused to let the story end as Saward planned: The Doctor and primary villain The Valeyard tumbling into the abyss, giving Powell & Grade a perfect opportunity to end the show on a bum note. Furious, Eric Saward quit his role as script editor, and the finale had to be rewritten in a hurry, with predictably lacklustre results.
In the end, the under-promoted season closed on a whimper, with lower audience figures than ever before. The so-called superfans – including future Torchwood and Broadchurch writer Chris Chibnall – turned on the producer and the leading actor on national television, calling for changes to the way the show was made because it no longer fitted their narrow view of how Doctor Who must operate.
As a result, the boys upstairs did something they’d never done to a series before: they demanded a new lead actor must be found, and Colin Baker had to be fired. He offered amicably to do one last season and leave with his dignity, but they never spoke to him again, and The Sixth Doctor’s subsequent regeneration would be handled very badly indeed.
Despite his unfortunate time on the show, Baker is never less than thrilling as The Doctor, even if everything around him – from the sets and monsters, to the clothes on his back and the lines coming out of his mouth – are diabolical. That he remains a goodwill ambassador for the show is a testament to his person, and thanks to the gift of Big Finish audio productions, he’s finally being allowed to show the world what a great Doctor he truly is.
STORIES TO START WITH:
Vengeance On Varos: A brilliant morality tale from noted political writer Philip Martin, which, with its tales of deadly reality television placating a subdued civilisation to prevent them rising in revolution, is more pertinent now than it’s ever been.
The Two Doctors: Ok, it’s a bit of a mess story wise, but as one last chance to see Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines as The Second Doctor and Jamie, it’s a must.
Revelation of the Daleks: The Sixth Doctor is hardly in it, but this is one of the best things Eric Saward ever did for the show. A bleak space soap opera slash black comedy, populated by grotesques and Alexei Sayle, in which Davros is using the inhabitants of a funeral planet as Dalek cultivations. As mad as it sounds.
The Trial of a Time Lord: Cheating a little here, as this is not only four stories banded together under one title, but also represents almost a third of the Sixth Doctor’s era. Still, it’s a great chance to see a lighter version of the character, even if those moments are surrounded by some of the show’s bleakest, and most baffling plot points ever. To paraphrase his predecessor, if only there had been another way…
STORIES TO AVOID:
The Twin Dilemma will perhaps always remain the worst debut of any Doctor ever, and the fact that Timelash has been noted as an anagram of Lameshit is entirely appropriate, even if it does have its moments. This era is so short, there’s only two other stories left in its run-time, and both of them (Attack Of The Cybermen and The Mark Of The Rani) could have been so much better with a bit more care…