Doctor Who: a celebration of Colin Baker

Andrew takes a look back over the era of the Sixth Doctor, played by the unfairly maligned Colin Baker…

Colin Baker is a brilliant Doctor. In his first two stories of Doctor Who, he bursts onto the screen with the energy and appearance of a million burning suns, and turns two potentially irretrievably dreadful runabouts into salvageable gawp-fests. The Twin Dilemma is one of the least popular stories ever. It’s certainly poor, but dear God does Colin Baker make it bearable.

Making the Doctor violent and unfriendly after his regeneration is an intriguing but flawed move. However funny the Doctor is initially, attacking his companion makes him incredibly difficult to like. What makes him watchable in these stories is his unpredictability, his rudeness and gusto. He literally throws himself into a fight, bluntly tells someone, “Oh you. I don’t like you”, yet offers glimpses of compassion and intelligence.

It’s entirely reminiscent of Pertwee’s ability to go into a childish sulk, Tom Baker’s manic unpredictability, and Hartnell’s initially dangerous-seeming stranger. If a great Doctor can make a bad episode into something worth watching, then Colin Baker is definitely a great Doctor.

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Then, after a promising start in two below-average stories, the Sixth Doctor calms down a bit, and isn’t always funny or manic, but remains obtuse and arrogant. If you’re going to have a Doctor who is a rude narcissist, you need to make him quick-witted and funny. It’s why David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor works: if he wasn’t charismatic, then every story would be like Midnight.

I am not, by the way, claiming that the Sixth Doctor is like the Tenth Doctor with less grinning and rubbish clothes. I’m flat out telling you he is.

I’ve mentioned before the importance of humour to make a Doctor’s negative qualities palatable, and in the Sixth Doctor’s case, he gets few memorable one liners or moments of memorable interaction. Indeed, his best quip sums up the problems in the TARDIS at the time, when he is asked about the ship, “What precisely do you do in there?” He replies, “Argue, mainly.”

The Doctor is travelling with Peri. After strangling and being generally quite belligerent and weird towards her, it is not quite clear why Peri is travelling with the Doctor (even less so than the famously combative Tegan). She isn’t, like the First Doctor’s original companions, the hero of the story, but instead the audience’s identification figure. If she doesn’t seem to get on with the hero, then how are is the audience supposed to react to him?

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Anyone still reeling from my Sixth/Tenth Doctor comparison may also be thinking, “But David Tennant is a great and popular actor. Colin Baker cannot act”.

This will be the same Colin Baker who had a successful theatre career, then spent ten years constantly on television, then had another successful theatre career? The one who won Best Audio Doctor in a 2003 poll? The one whose other famous role as Paul Merroney in The Brothers required him to be calm, quiet and controlled? The polar opposite of the Sixth Doctor. That Colin Baker?

Yeah, he can act.

There is an unfortunately large number of people who dislike the Sixth Doctor, and have therefore assumed that Colin Baker cannot act as a result of this, when a simple search of IMDb and YouTube will prove otherwise.

I mentioned clothes earlier. There’s no way around it: Colin Baker is more than capable of providing the requisite brashness for the Sixth Doctor. The main problem with his costume is that it invites people to stop treating the show as a joke. The clothes, and the violence towards Peri, provide a serious obstacle to be overcome, especially when deliberately making the character less initially likeable.

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This in itself is not a bad idea, but it was executed badly. The chinks of warmth shine through when the Doctor is allowed them, from the Doctor’s visible guilt when he hears Peri’s distress over the radio in Revelation Of The Daleks, to his brandishing flowers at the receptionist in Terror Of The Vervoids.

He is more than capable of streaking about the place with the vim, vigour and – yes – the strange suaveness of Matt Smith. More of this, more regularly, would have gone a long way to helping the character be accepted by the audience.

Now, I’m not one of the people who think the Sixth Doctor was a well-thought out meta-commentary on the show. Season 22 isn’t nearly as bad as people make it out to be, but it’s certainly not the most immediately engaging series of the show. It isn’t, I’d go so far as to say, for a family audience. It was, I believe, going to be broadcast at a later timeslot, and so was written for an older age group.

When Doctor Who was off air, it was speculated that, rather than serve as prime time telly, it would be a niche concern on BBC Two, post-watershed. I think that’s the kind of style that season 22 is aiming for. It has its place in Doctor Who, but in moderation.

The inconsistent qualities of the Davison era (overseen by the same production team) remain, but rather than a good story followed by bad, it’s more often a great scene followed by a diabolical one. After the show was cancelled then reprieved, it never really recovered, but it was by no means beyond redemption. It was, though, unloved by BBC management by 1986.

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So, after those tuning in saw a woman shoot a Dalek embryo containing the mutated remains of her father’s head, its sticky wet brain pulsing as it began ranting about genetic purity, the plug was pulled. There’s some very good Doctor Who in season 22, but there’s also a move away from mass audience appeal. I’m not talking about the crushed hands and acid baths (what eight-year-old boy doesn’t love those?), yet the overall tone of it is borderline nihilistic at times, but not necessarily with the skill to pull off the author’s intention.

The first half of the Tom Baker era pulls off a grimmer tone with popular appeal, and although a large part of this is its lead actor, it’s hardly the case that putting Baker into season 22 would have saved the show.

I know that this love of the Sixth Doctor is not shared by most members of the public. I didn’t like him much when I was young, but now I’m older, and I’ve tried to watch Timelash sympathetically.

Colin Baker was asked to leave by the BBC, after being treated fairly shabbily. It’s a widely accepted fact that he is one of the best ambassadors for the show, passionately defending his era and championing Doctor Who in general. Not many people would be so effusive about a job they’d effectively been fired from.

Even if you ignore his work for Big Finish, his work raising the profile of Sudden Infant Death syndrome, his clear fondness for his era, and the fact that he had to put up with two years of pulling different faces for cliffhangers, you should at least respect Colin Baker for his association with Doctor Who, and for giving so much more than he got in return.