The Classic Who Must See List
Part VI: The Colin Baker Years (1984-6)

Colin Baker as the Doctor

The image above is courtesy the BBC. The other image on this post is courtesy the Doctor Who Image Archive.

I didn’t intend to take a year-long hiatus after composing my list of must-see Peter Davison episodes for fans of the new Doctor Who (a year to the day, in fact). I’m not making any comment on the quality of the episodes during Colin Baker’s tenure as the sixth Doctor. It’s just that things get in the way, you find other things to post about, one day slides past another, and then all of a sudden you receive an e-mail out of the blue from one of your readers asking “so, when are you going to finish your list of must-see Classic Doctor Who episodes.”

A tip of the hat to the reader who brought this to my attention.

Anyway, Colin Baker is a respected actor. He embraced the role of the sixth Doctor and cares passionately for it to this day. He gave the series his all, and he deserves our respect for that. Unfortunately, the show he took on basically fell apart around him.

Colin Baker is remembered, among other things, as the actor that was “in charge” so to speak when the first blows to the series’ immortality struck. He was the Doctor of the eighteen month hiatus. He was on board the TARDIS when the season lengths were chopped in half and ratings dropped by three million. By and large, it’s not his fault. Doctor Who had led a charmed life up to this point, but its luck was about to end.

Think back to television in the 1970s, and think of how television is produced today. Gone are the days when TVOntario, the CBC and the American networks all produced their own series for viewing. Now television stations are in the business of buying television shows off of independent producers. It’s for this reason that Buffy: the Vampire Slayer was able to switch networks from WB to Paramount. During the transition, however, networks, particularly publicly funded networks, found their budgets severely constrained, and the old ways of producing network television just weren’t working anymore.

The BBC was no different. In the mid-1980s, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of Britain and interested in bringing the hostile BBC to heel. The corporation had its budget slashed, and forced to scrounge for funds through foreign sales. By this time, the network executives who had been so friendly to Doctor Who in the 1970s had moved on. The executives who remained considered Doctor Who to be an upstart children’s show with (shudder) a cult following, that was distracting the BBC from producing the television it was known for — specifically soap operas and period dramas.

The Head of Drama for the BBC, Jonathan Powell, was not interested in giving Doctor Who more than his barest attention, and he practically compelled the show’s producer at the time, John Nathan-Turner, to stay on as producer for a fifth season, even though Nathan-Turner had expressed a desire to move on to other projects. Worse, BBC1 Controller Michael Grade was interested in creating a soap opera that could compete against ITV’s Coronation Street, and he slashed the budget of other television shows in order to bring this about. (To his credit, his soap, Eastenders remains one of the most-watched television shows in the United Kingdom to this day, second only to Coronation Street, when the Doctor Who revivial isn’t in the mix)

His budget moves affected Doctor Who profoundly, as he essentially cancelled production on the early 1986 season (the 23rd) of the program. It may only have been the protests of fans that kept the cancellation from becoming permanent, but when the show was slated to return in September 1986, its normal 26 episode running length was slashed to 14, and the budget was slashed to match. The show was given very little publicity to let the public know that it had even returned to air. To this day, there are people in Britain who believe that Colin Baker was the last Doctor until the revival. That’s how low a profile the series had following the hiatus.

But the show itself suffered from a clash of styles. Any program that changes its lead actor suffers a period of creative uncertainty, and Doctor Who was no different. The sudden departure of Peter Davison (and he himself regretted leaving after only three years in the role) robbed the program of its greatest asset just as the actor and the writing staff figured out how to make the character click. Colin Baker had strong ideas about how he should handle the role, all of which were valid — he wanted to turn away from Davison’s vulnerability and play the Doctor with a more alien, bombastic air — but whereas the show used to thrive on the clash between the fifth Doctor’s clear distaste for violence and the violent events around him, the sixth Doctor’s more alien nature came across as callous at times, and distancing. The show was harshly criticized for its level of violence in its twenty-second season — indeed, it was a reason given for its cancellation — but in truth the show was no more violent than it had been the year before. The difference was that the audience no longer had a sympathetic ear in the Doctor, and the effect was alienating. It darkened the whole atmosphere of the program.

At the same time, changes to the series format complicated matters. The twenty-second season of the program was shown in 45-minute double-length episodes instead of the standard 23 minute format. Russell T. Davies proved that the 45-minute episode format could work, but for the writers at the time, it was yet another adjustment they had to make, which threw off the pacing of many episodes.

Finally, there was John Nathan-Turner’s decision to tack on Colin Baker’s first story to the end of Season 21, rather than start him at the beginning of Season 22. Not only did this prevent the show from entering its yearly down period on a high from The Caves of Androzani, fans were given The Twin Dilemma, a hastily written debut story, with which to judge Colin Baker for the next nine months until his reappearance in Attack of the Cybermen.

As a result, Colin Baker’s Doctor entered season twenty-two under a cloud, and the cloud stayed with him until his untimely departure two years later. Which is a shame because we know he can do good work, because he did good work, and when his Doctor is coupled to material which complements his character, as happened numerous times during the audio play spin-offs years later, his character shines.

Frankly, we were lucky to get a series of stories that were as strong as they were, and credit for this must largely be assigned to script editor Eric Saward, who probably was the only writer to understand how to make Colin Baker’s Doctor work, and Nathan-Turner’s stable of directors, in particular Graeme Harper. For this reason, we have four stories out of a body of eleven which stand up among the best that Classic Who has to offer. Not a bad average by any means.

Vengeance on Varos (1985)

The Doctor and Peri land on the planet Varos, a grim place where the people are kept docile by being compelled to watch violent reality television and “democracy” is twisted in on itself, such that the life of the planet’s governor is decided by popular vote. Business interests behind the scene are negotiating with a predatory corporation represented by a slug-like critter named Sil. Can the Doctor and Peri escape with their lives while the cameras look on?

This story is ahead of its time in a number of respects, as the whole reality show concept has taken off to new heights since this episode’s debut. This grim but ultimately stylish tale by Philip Martin suffers from some sloppy writing, particularly in the resolution, but it has interesting things to say about our society and our love of television violence. Ironically enough, this episode more than any other is criticized for that violence.

The Two Doctors (1985)

Robert Holmes, the writer for The Caves of Androzani, returns. Unfortunately, his story for this season is a little overburdened with stuff to work quite so well. There’s Sontarans and Time Lords, and appearances by the second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon. In addition to this, we have a story about a race of creatures that view humans as food, genetic experiments, and the mixing of the time lines.

Writer Robert Holmes makes it work, barely, and he is helped along the way by the efforts of Patrick Troughton, Fraser Hines, Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker. There is some excellent chemistry there and the dialogue is quite witty. The direction by Peter Moffatt is competent. Not as big a story as you’d expect a multi-Doctor reunion would be, but still quite enjoyable.

Revelation of the Daleks

Revelation of the Daleks (1985)

Eric Saward has confessed his hatred of the Daleks, echoing my own criticism of the one-dimensional nature of this monster’s character. However, Revelation of the Daleks shows that he is not one to simply complain. The story represents his attempt to do something different with the Daleks and, by and large, he succeeds. The Doctor and Peri arrive on Necros, a giant funeral home of a planet where rich people pay for their bodies to be frozen before they die in the hopes of being revived later. Of course, equally rich colleagues of these rich people end up paying even more money to keep their competitors stashed away. Into this, comes Davros, fleeing from his defeat at the end of Resurrection of the Daleks and determined to start a new Dalek race. He has also brought his scientific mind to bear on a number of projects to acquire considerable personal wealth, and as such is now known as “the Great Healer”, and a man who has fed a formerly starving portion of the galaxy. So what if his food bears a remarkable resemblance to Solyent Green. But whoever isn’t eaten is offered immortality inside the white and gold casing of his new Daleks.

Eric Saward’s writing style shifts around a lot. His novelizations, especially for Slipback and The Twin Dilemma bear strong similarities to the stylings of Douglas Adams. Here, we can see that Saward was deeply impressed with and inspired by the works of Robert Holmes. The script is wittier and features stronger characters than Saward’s earlier efforts (including Earthshock), and director Graeme Harper takes the script and gives it polish. This is not your usual Dalek story; it’s dark and its whimsical, and it hardly features any Daleks in it. It also is one of the best Dalek stories ever produced.

Mindwarp (1986)

You won’t find this episode’s name on its credits. The title refers specifically to episodes four through eight of Season 23’s Trial of a Time Lord. This season-long story arc, taking its cue from the feeling that the show was on probation following its 1985-6 hiatus, had started off wobbly, hamstrung by the edict to ditch the violence in favour of moments of comedy. Writer Philip Martin managed to up the intensity, however. There are shaky moments, and Brian Blessed threatens to blow the scenery down, but it all coalesces at the end into one of the strongest moments of the series, as the villains’ plot succeeds, and the Time Lords directly intervene. This is all anchored by Nicola Bryant’s performance, which gives Peri Brown a memorable send-off. It’s a shame that the producers later decided to sabotage her sterling death scene with a tacked on happy-ending.

Unfortunately, as good as Mindwarp was, the episodes around it, supposedly part of the same story, were quite uneven, suffering as they were from edicts from the BBC to dispense with the violence that had been so harshly criticized the year before. Robert Holmes died before he could finish his last story for the program, and his work was finished by Pip and Jane Baker, who weren’t a good match for his style and abilities. Despite this, the Trial of a Time Lord season does feature another significant contribution to the Doctor Who canon in the form of the Valeyard, the prosecutor the Time Lords bring up to condemn the Doctor at his trial — a person revealed to be the darker aspect of the Doctor himself. Trust me when I say that fans have been debating all aspects of this character in the years since, and it remains one of the largest loose ends of the original series canon.

Colin Baker did not have a proper regeneration story. As a result of a behind the scenes dispute between producer John Nathan-Turner and BBC 1 Controller Michael Grade, Colin Baker was essentially fired. Nathan-Turner worked hard to try and get Colin Baker four episodes at the beginning of Season 24 with which to stage a proper farewell, but the actor was upset enough by the political goings on that he refused. Thus Time and the Rani which was written to write out Colin Baker’s Doctor at the end of the story was reworked to introduce Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor at the beginning.

Colin Baker’s Doctor was never given a chance to thrive on screen, and so some of his best moments as the Doctor have come after his departure from the television show. He would go on to star in the Stranger series of videos produced by Doctor Who fan Bill Baggs, a venture that would later grow into a series of semi-official Doctor Who videos and radio plays, often employing actors who’d appeared previously in the series. Thus Colin Baker’s Doctor lived again in audio form, in stories that understood the nuances of his character. It is a shame that this actor’s abilities and ideas for the role were not to be seen by a wider audience.

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