Thursday, 4 July 2013

Doctor by Doctor #6


Loud, Proud and Dangerous to Know


Colin Baker, 1984-86

If ever there was a Doctor who pulled the short straw, it’s Colin Baker. A self-professed fan of Doctor Who, he thought he’d lost his chance of ever starring in the lead role when he appeared as Commander Maxil, a Gallifreyan guard, in the fifth Doctor story Arc of Infinity. However, shooting the current star didn’t harm his chances, and perhaps thankfully, he was not available to resume the role in The Five Doctors. By the time the anniversary special went out, Baker had been announced as the sixth actor to take the show’s starring role.

Colin Baker came into the show stating a desire to outdo Tom Baker’s seven year tenure. Sadly, this wasn’t to be, for Baker the Second found himself in the series at quite the wrong time. He would keep the role for less than three years, filming only two full seasons and being forever associated with the nadir of Doctor Who. This is quite unfair.

Famous at the time for his role in The Brothers, Colin Baker was not, perhaps, an obvious choice to take over from Peter Davison. Tall and broad with a mane of curled hair, he was a physically striking actor, and he came to his roles with an arch and strident style. Having followed the dominant Tom Baker with the more reserved Davison, John Nathan-Turner swung the dial the other way and cast a loud, boisterous sort of actor in the role. The writing only played up these tendencies, positively requiring Baker to give an over-the-top performance. What’s more, Nathan-Turner came up with the intriguing, but misguided, idea of having the new Doctor be unstable following his regeneration, and to, initially at least, have him frankly unpleasant and unlikeable.

It is, on reflection, an idea with a great deal of potential. The Doctor had frequently been thoroughly unlikeable in his many lives, particularly in his more arrogant moments. He had begun as a deeply untrustworthy, almost villainous character back in 1963, so it was not an entirely foolish idea to try to bring some of the unpredictability and danger back to the character. In practise, though, the idea was fumbled, and this damaged Baker’s performance as the Doctor. When combined with some of the weakest stories of the series’ long run, Colin Baker was faced with a losing battle for acceptance.

“I shall beat it into submission… with my charm!”

This is such a shame, for there is so much to love in the sixth Doctor. The arrogance he displays, though aggravating, is not greater than his first, third or fourth incarnations at their most self-important. And, of course, he is entitled to be arrogant. He is a genius, after all, and a man who has stormed through the universe righting wrongs. Why shouldn’t he be full of himself? Of course, the sixth Doctor considers himself a paradigm even among his own incarnations. He famously dismisses his predecessor immediately after his regeneration, he insults his second incarnation to his face and considers himself to have “improved immeasurably” since his third life. He struts about, proclaiming his genius to all with poetic quotes and sesquipedalian vocabulary. He may be a nightmare to live with, but he’s a joy to watch.

His costume is an immediate indication of his character. While the hotch-potch horror is indicative of a programme produced at the height of eighties excess, it is also a perfect match for this Doctor’s personality. While such a visual commotion is quite unnecessary – the blonde-maned Baker is quite striking enough as it is – it does cause the Doctor to immediately stand out, and this is quite what he would have wanted. Yellow trousers, an amazing Technicolor dreamcoat, a garish waistcoat with a polka-dot cravat – no one could miss this colourful character. In some ways, it’s a continuation of the tactic used by his second and fourth incarnations, using their foolishness and unlikely appearance to put their enemies into a false sense of superiority. No one would suspect such a garishly clad individual to be capable of being, potentially, the most dangerous man they have ever encountered. He does adopt alternatives on occasion – his rather natty summer version of the costume during his visit to Spain in The Two Doctors, and his long blue cloak for the snow-clad planet in Revelation of the Daleks – but he keeps coming back to that dreadful ensemble. While he picked it out during the throes of post-regenerative trauma, he never lets it go, so he must like the bloody thing. (Colin Baker, for the record, wanted an all-black outfit, but I think he looked rather dashing in the Pertwee-esque velvet jacket he tried on.)

This Doctor seems, at first, fully formed and healed after his regeneration. He sits up, berates Peri – becoming the first Doctor to get a line at the end of his predecessor’s farewell story – and immediately gives us an indication of his new personality. However, things are not running as smoothly as they appear, and before long it becomes clear that this Doctor is dangerously unstable. We’ve seen him suffer such instability before, of course, but never like this. He swings between mania, depression, paranoia and aggression, threatening and even attacking Peri. He suffers from periods of severe melancholy, choosing to isolate himself, and moments of complete apathy. It’s quite unlike the Doctor we know. Even once he has somewhat stabilised, and despite his protestations to the contrary, it’s clear the Doctor isn’t quite right yet. By the time of The Two Doctors, he’s admitting he hasn’t felt quite right since his regeneration. Still, he is improving, and despite his continual arrogance, he is – slowly – becoming better company.

It’s not clear that Peri thinks so. Whiny, stroppy Peri, though ably played by the talented, and gorgeous, Nicola Bryant, is perhaps the worst companion for any Doctor, particularly the sixth. Tegan could complain just as much, but she never originally wanted this life. Peri asked to travel in the TARDIS, with that sweet, handsome man in the cricket jumper. He gave his life to saver hers, and suddenly she’s left with this brash, pompous individual who no longer puts her feelings first. The sixth Doctor wants to stride into adventure,
determined to fight the evils of the universe. He blatantly ignores Peri’s fears, dismissing them when he even bothers to acknowledge them. In his defence, though, this is his life, and Peri knew that right from the beginning. All she seems to want to do is play it safe. Considering how little they get on and how little she seems to enjoy this lifestyle, it’s a wonder she doesn’t just get off and go home.

“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and the privilege of wisdom to listen."

Now, I’m not a hater of this era. I would count The Two Doctors, grim and violent as it is, among my favourite stories. Vengeance on Varos is an intelligent script, years ahead of its time in its attack on reality TV and desensitivity to violence. Revelation of the Daleks is a frankly bizarre black comedy, a strange and successful experiment in a different sort of Doctor Who, and Attack of the Cybermen is a guilty pleasure. I find a lot to love in this era of the show. But it really does have its problems, and it’s not surprising that its popularity began to wane during this period.

Take Baker’s first story, The Twin Dilemma. It is worth noting that the previous story, The Caves of Androzani, was voted the best ever in the most recent DWM poll, while The Twin Dilemma was voted the worst. Now, I don’t think it is the worst story, but by god it represents a staggering drop in quality, virtually overnight. A poor script combined with shoddy direction and atrocious design, it’s inclusion at the end of the twenty-first season meant that viewers and writers alike were left with the impression that this was what the series was going to be like when it returned. Despite that, the opening episode of season twenty-two, part one of Attack of the Cybermen, got very respectable figures. However, the combination of obsessive continuity references, excessive violence and a hard-to-like Doctor drove viewers away. There was better to come later in the year, but the damage had been done. At the end of 1985, Doctor Who was cancelled.

There have been a number of causes given over the years, but one of the primary reasons given for cancelling the series in ’85 is the violence it was portraying. Accusations of inappropriate violence and horror have haunted the series since the Pertwee era, but there’s an argument that it had got out of hand by this point. Cybermen crushing their victims’ limbs, Sontarans dissolving into green gore, Androgums chewing bloodily on rats - there was some nasty stuff on offer here. The transformation of Stengos into a Dalek in Revelation, and his begging to be killed, is something I find genuinely disturbing, and there’s a good argument that the series was no longer suitable for children in this period. And yet… it’s a nasty, dangerous universe out there. Doctor Who has never pretended otherwise. From its very inception, it has dealt with death and destruction.

The other angle to this criticism is that it’s not the violence of the series in general that’s at fault, but that it’s matched by the violence of the Doctor. Now, again, this is a valid point, but it has to be said, the Doctor has always been capable of violence. While there is a strain of fan who blindly insist that the Doctor is a pacifist, he never has been and never will be. The first Doctor was quite prepared to murder a caveman, the second wiped out alien fleets without a qualm, the third was constantly spoiling for a fight, the fourth wasn’t averse to punching his foes or twisting their necks, and the fifth packed a gun more than once. What’s different about the sixth Doctor is simply that he is more honest about it. In effect, this is the Doctor toughening up. He’s seen enough death in his travels, often as the result of his own inaction. This is the Doctor putting his foot down; there’s to be no more hesitation when lives are on the line.

There are times when this Doctor has been accused of being worse than he really is in this regard. He does not murder two guards on Varos by pushing them into an acid bath meant for him, but then he displays little more than a wince when they accidentally fall in the struggle. He does not hunt down Cybermen, but in fact defends his TARDIS – his home – from invasion, using their own weapons against them. Yet, it’s true, he does murder Shockeye, the voracious Androgum who is pursuing him through Spain, with a handy jar of cyanide, dropping a sub-Bondian quip as he does so. It’s not the violence, then, that marks out this Doctor, so much as his seeming lack of remorse.

“I no longer know if I’m coming, have gone, or even been.”

The original season twenty-three was scrapped, after some considerable work on its production. From what little we’ve heard of the plans, including the adaptation of several scripts for audio by Big Finish, it seems that it would have been more-or-less season 22a; more continuity-fuelled over-the-top adventures. Season 22 brought back the Daleks, Davros, the Cybermen, the Sontarans and the Master, and introduced new foes such as the slimy, avaricious Sil and the slinky, amoral Rani. Season 23 would have brought back the Autons, the Ice Warriors and the Celestial Toymaker, not to mention return apearances by the Master, the Rani and Sil again. In the event, fans had an eighteen-month hiatus, during which time they had to make do with the fairly dreadful radio serial Slipback, and Doctor Who’s first mini-adventure, “Doctor Who in a Fix with Sontarans,” as part of Jim’ll Fix it (but we don’t talk about that anymore).

Once the twenty-third season arrived for real, things were rather different. A lot of time had gone by for the Doctor, it would seem, just as it had in real life. Despite his conversion to vegetarianism after the bloodiness of The Two Doctors, he had put on a fair bit of weight, and the make-up people had done something terrible to his hair. The Trial of a Time Lord started with the most impressive effects sequence the series had ever given us, as the TARDIS is drawn to a Gallifreyan space station and the Doctor is brought to trial. Deposed from the presidency for neglect of office, he is put on trial for his interference in the affairs of others. The last time this happened, it didn’t end well for him.

The Trial of a Time Lord is an odd beast, though. For starters, no one can agree on whether it’s one story (as advertised), three (as produced) or four (as written). It’s a peculiar hybrid, a serialised narrative in which the various Time Lord characters sit back to watch Doctor Who stories on a big screen. It contains some fascinating ideas, not least of which is the decision to put the Doctor on trial for his life while his show was essentially experiencing the very same. It is also a complete dog’s breakfast, marred by behind the scenes disagreements, and quickly quashed any good will that a fresh start for the series might have gained.

Yet, what potential… The Doctor, defending himself against the Time Lords, in the process laying bare the worst of their corruption and the blood on their hands. The Master, purely an insane villain now, no longer a hint of friendship there, stepping in to save him simply because the alternative is worse. And the Valeyard… ah, yes, the Valeyard. Now there’s a thorny subject. Played with understated menace by the sublime Michael Jayston, yet another addition to the rapidly expanding roster of Doctors. Exactly who or what the Valeyard is has still never quite been explained, but he s, to some degree at least, the Doctor. The original intention on the part of writer Robert Holmes was that he was the final incarnation, old, corrupt and terrified of death. Due to the loss of Holmes during the writing process and the production team bottling it, this was toned down, leaving the Valeyard as, in the Master’s words “an amalgamation of the darker sides” of the Doctor’s personality, from “somewhere between [his] twelfth and final incarnations” (not twelfth and thirteenth, we must note). So it seems that the Valeyard, while a version of the Doctor, isn’t a future incarnation proper, more of an aspect of him. (The Dream Lord, seen in the eleventh Doctor’s era, would seem to be something similar.) 

"There is some evil in all of us, Doctor, even you."

The Valeyard both represents and attacks the worst things about the sixth Doctor: his arrogance, his lack of clear morals, his self-centredness. Yet, the Doctor’s defence – that he improves – cannot be denied. Even in the flashback adventures we see, the Doctor seems a more mellow figure, and although he still often ignores Peri, striding into danger and eventually getting her killed (or so it seemed at first), even their relationship seems rosier in this period. Once we see the Doctor’s future – travelling with Mel (played by Bonnie Langford), he seems an altogether more restrained and well-adjusted character.

This is the central tragedy of the sixth Doctor. The bombast, the arrogance, the anger, they’re only part of the story. Even in the beginning, in The Twin Dilemma, we saw evidence of another side to him, as he mourned his old friend, the Time Lord Azmael. There were those quiet moments of contemplation in The Two Doctors, when it looked like things might just be over. His immediate decision to help a man waiting for execution, and to dismantle unethical experiments. The Doctor’s compassion was still there, just expressed differently. We now know, of course, that the unstable, unlikeable sixth Doctor was only the beginning, and that, over time, the character would stabilise and come to terms with himself, and whatever it was that was driving him forwards. In the event, this was not to be. Colin Baker was sacked, made a scapegoat for the series’ shortcomings, and kicked off the programme. Offered the chance to appear in one last story in order to play the regeneration, Baker understandably declined, and the final episode of Trial was his last appearance as the Doctor.

Except, of course, that is no longer the case. The expanded universe of Doctor Who in other media was often kind to the sixth Doctor, from the fantasy-tinged extravagance of the DWM comic strips to the continuing, post-trial stories of Virgin Publishing’s Missing Adventures range. It was in 1999, however, that this Doctor finally came into his own, when Big Finish picked up the rights to create new Doctor Who audio dramas. While Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy also returned to the role of the Doctor, it was Colin Baker who really grasped the opportunity. Finally, he had a chance to show how the sixth Doctor could have been portrayed.

The sixth Doctor of the audios is still the same man, but far better expressed. While he still has adventures with Peri and Mel, the open-ended nature of his tenure has allowed Big Finish to extrapolate and expand his character in new directions, with a series of new companion. Most notable is Dr. Evelyn Smythe, an elderly history lecturer played by Maggie Stables, and exactly the sort of companion we could never have got on TV in the eighties. More than any other character, Evelyn had a stabilising effect on the sixth Doctor, a true friend who travelled with him for the joy of it. In her introductory story, The Marian Conspiracy, we even hear the Doctor confess his sins, spilling his heart to a young woman of Tudor England and admitting to the guilt he carries with him for his actions. Finally, the other side of the sixth Doctor was allowed to come to the fore, and although he could still be rambunctious, pompous and downright unlikeable, he was a happier, more balanced character, more at peace with himself. Even his dress sense has improved – the audio Doctor, as odd as it may seem, has his own costume, a striking blue ensemble introduced for his illustrated BBC webcast, Real Time, in which he and Evelyn face the Cybermen. Indeed, after fourteen years of audio adventures with such characters as Evelyn, Frobisher, Charlie, Jamie and Flip, the Doctor is hardly recognisable to his own earlier self, as we heard when both an early and a late sixth Doctor met in the recent the Wrong Doctors.

“Nothing can be eternal.”

Which brings us to the end of this Doctor. The almighty fudge of his televised regeneration – Sylvester McCoy lying face down in a blonde wig, the TARDIS hit by some “tumultuous buffeting” was hardly an adequate way for the character to be signed off. Better they had left the regeneration unseen altogether. Unsurprisingly, fans have never been happy with this version of events, and have long posited a more fitting end for the sixth Doctor. Gary Russell, one of Sixey’s greatest fans, gave him a fine sendoff in the BBC novel Spiral Scratch, in which the Doctor sacrificed himself to defeat the Lamprey, a vastly powerful entity that threatened all of reality (and leading directly into the televised Time and the Rani). Later, Chris McKeon, working from Craig Hinton’s notes, wrote Time’s Champion, a follow up to the Virgin novels, in which the Doctor proved to me more heroic still, while the New Adventures themselves hinted that the sixth Doctor was sacrificed by his nascent seventh incarnation…

It’s fitting, perhaps, that this Doctor, with so much unrealised potential, has more than one ending. In reality, a regeneration isn’t an ending at all, since each Doctor’s adventures continue in other media once their TV tenure has come to a close. Perhaps we will see another, definitive end for the sixth Doctor, some day. Until then, Old Sixey, Baker the Second, continues to show us that he is, truly, the Doctor…

…whether you like it or not.

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