An Appreciation of the (Colin) Baker Era

So, with the announcement of a new Doctor played by an actor who previously appeared on the show before becoming the titular Time Lord, I thought it might be a good time to talk about a previous actor who appeared on the show before he was given the key to the TARDIS and the Doctor’s wardrobe. See, it’s funny because Colin Baker is infamous for his Doctor’s dress sense.

Okay, this is going to be rough. It’s also going to be about fashion … but let’s talk about the Sixth Doctor.

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The 1980s started as a high-time for the show. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 1983, Doctor Who enjoyed a level of popularity it would not see again until, well, now. Producer John Nathan-Turner entered season 20 knowing that in a year he would need a new Doctor as Peter Davison, following the advice of Patrick Troughton, would leave at the end of his three year contract. Casting the net in the secretive way one does when looking for the Doctor’s new persona, JNT (as he’s known) found actor Colin Baker in two places: a garden wedding and on Gallifrey.

C. Baker appeared in the season 20 story, “The Arc of Infinity” as the delightfully annoyed Commander Maxill, head of the Gallifreyan guard. At the end of episode 1, he shoots the Fifth Doctor in a surprising and now curiously framed cliffhanger. Maxill is a fantastic character. In fact, he has too much character and this led JNT to nickname Baker “Archie” because the producer thought the performance was “a little arch.”

JNT would encounter Baker at a garden wedding just as he began his search for the Sixth Doctor. Baker entertained some of the wedding guests and it was there that JNT saw the possibilities.

And these possibilities, eventually, killed the show.

But before all that, let’s discuss the primary change JNT and Baker introduced with the Sixth Doctor: instability. The two, along with script editor Eric Saward, planned a character arc for this incarnation. Barely surviving a traumatic regeneration, the Sixth Doctor would emerge unraveled and attempt to strangle his companion. The plan was to mellow the character out as Baker’s run progressed, leading him back to a gentler, if still arrogant portrayal that would mirror the unintentional change in William Hartnell’s performance back in the ’60s.

Coming off Davison’s affable Fifth incarnation, though, the audience recoiled in horror as the Sixth Doctor strutted around in an ugly patchwork quote and announced, “I am the Doctor … whether you like it or not.”

JNT had an interesting sense of fashion. Okay, that’s understatement. He had spectacularly bad taste. Under his watch, the slightly more naturalistic Doctor costumes gave way to very designed uniforms with question marks on the lapels. Y’know, in case you forgot the Doctor is a mystery. To his credit, JNT initially managed to make the show’s meager budget look like a great deal more and engineered an overseas trip to Holland for that very same story Colin Baker appeared in before getting the lead. By the time Colin became the Doctor, JNT’s coarser angels wrestled control, being the unquestioned impresario of all things Who,  which led to cheap looking shows and the Sixth Doctor’s infamous patchwork coat.

C. Baker decided it was best to be the one wearing it and looking out.

C. Baker decided it was best to be the one wearing it and looking out.

According to legend, JNT told the designer assigned to Colin Baker’s first story that he wanted the sixth incarnation to have a tacky style. Producing several designs that the producer disliked, the designer finally scribbled a hideous collage of colors and patterns together as a lark. JNT loved it and the look was born.

I think he let that lapse of judgement extend into the writing. Though JNT and script editor Eric Saward generally produced scripts during the Davison run that ranged from serviceable to excellent, these senses seemed to leave them in season 22. The format changed from 4 25-minute part stories to 2 48-minute part adventures. It was an attempt to modernize the show,  but I think Saward’s stable of writers never quite figured out how to do it properly. On top of this, the tackiness of the costume infected the writing (and, indeed, nearly all levels of production). Dialogue was rarely memorable and the plots saw the Doctor’s companion Peri turned into a chicken-lady, the Second Doctor (making a special appearance for one story) morphed into cannibalistic gourmand, and a rogue Dalek faction setting up shop in day spa/funeral home while an off-site DJ played Jimi Hendrix.

To their credit, the show did introduce a fantastic villain in the alien businessworm Sil. A representative of alien race utterly consumed with maximizing profits, Sil was a broad corporate raider stereotype, but in the face of all the other tacky lunacy of the C. Baker Era, he actually made the most sense. A great deal of the credit should go to actor Nabil Shaban  who brought the reptile executive to life. He debuted in the same story that saw Peri become a chicken, “Vengeance on Varos,” and he is, without at doubt, the best thing to say about that story.

Oh, right, I should mention Peri.

"Something for the dads."

“Something for the dads.”

She premiered in Davison’s penultimate adventure wearing a bikini and wore little more than that for the bulk of her time on the show. I suppose she’s the ultimate expression of the idea that the companion should be “something for the dads” as viewed through JNT’s increasingly tacky style. She is undeniably attractive, but she was forever stuck in hideous costumes that accentuated certain aspects of her rather shapely shape. Performance-wise, she was hampered by JNT’s edict that Peri be American as part of an acknowledgement of the show’s increasing popularity Stateside. She tried to make the best of it, but the whole thing added up to one of the least popular companions ever to travel with the Doctor.

For what it’s worth, she could’ve become a great character. Peri stuck it out when the Doctor appeared to go mad, but the show never acknowledges the courage that took or the sort of growth that could come from it. Granted, companions rarely had that much thought put into them, but it didn’t stop Sarah Jane, Jamie, or Romana from becoming beloved by fans old and new.

Hell, even the Doctor seemed to hate Peri most of the time.

So, in the midst of this onslaught of neon, patchwork and overall 80s excess, then BBC 1 controller Michael Grade ordered that the show be cancelled, stated as part of a shuffling of money during a budget downfall. Given the slow decline in audience figures and quality of the program, you think this would’ve been easy.

Little did Grade know just how ingrained Doctor Who had become. The fans came back swinging with uberfan Ian Levine unleashing the tackiest thing ever associated with the program: a charity song to save the Doctor.

Yeah …

Grade reversed his decision, but the show took an 18 month leave. When it returned, it was as “The Trial of a Time Lord” — a 14 (25 minute format) episode tale in which the Doctor is summoned to Gallifrey to stand trial for um … yeah. I’ve watched this season-long story several times and lose sight of the goals almost immediately. Part of the problem was its structure. Each phase of the trial consists of three 4-part stories as the prosecution lays out its case and the Doctor offers a defense of his actions. The final two parts were intended to reveal the entire trial was a lie concocted by prosecutor known as “The Valeyard.”

Because of this set-up, the trial and the stories it presents are lackluster. The first story entered into evidence, “The Mysterious Planet” is competent enough and introduces the doofy anti-hero Sabalom Glitz. The second story, “Mindwarp” is a utterly confusing mess despite the return of Sil. As for the third …

And the the third story is ... no, it's too painful.

No, it’s too painful.

The wrap-up  became its own drama as the commissioned writer — former script editor Robert Holmes — was in ill-health and passed away before he could deliver his scripts. Around this time, the partnership between Saward and JNT unraveled. The script editor quit the series and denied JNT the use of his original ending for the trial. JNT’s replacement story, “The Ultimate Foe,” cast the Valeyard as an “amalgamation  of the Doctor’s dark side somewhere between his 12th and final regeneration” returned from the future to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations and become a rogue Time Lord more fearsome than the Master.

Or something. The Master even showed up to explain all this, but it happened in a tacky, awful way and left fans debating just what the hell the Valeyard was really meant to be. At the very least, he was played by actor Michael Jayston with enough panache that I kind of wish they’d found a way to bring him back.

While the story of the trial was a muddled, tacky mess, it’s purpose behind the cameras was a success and JNT was told the show could continue with two provisos: 1. He would remain as producer. 2: The Doctor had to be recast.

From tales told out of school, it seems Grade’s hate-on for the show had a lot to do with C. Baker himself and some sort of personal problem, ex-wives, and dumb grown-up stuff that shouldn’t matter. I have no idea what’s true, what isn’t and what matters. Nor do I care. Grade apparently attempted to prevent the 2003 revival as well, so he may be the Valeyard in a boring TV executive disguise.

Hmmm …

Now here’s where another part of the tale gets muddled. According to Colin Baker on the JNT produced retrospective home video The Colin Baker Years, the actor claims he was offered “a short regeneration scene” at the beginning of season 24. From documentaries on the recent release of “Time and the Rani,” the Seventh Doctor’s debut, incoming script editor Andrew Cartmel and writers Pip and Jane Baker all mention the story was initially conceived as the Sixth Doctor’s swansong with the Doctor regenerating in the midst of an explosion. It’s unclear if this was ever communicated to C. Baker or if the changes were made before he was asked to come in and shoot the regeneration. Sensing the offer to be the slight that it really was, Baker declined and incoming Doctor Sylvester McCoy briefly played the Sixth Doctor to regenerate.

So while I’ve derided the production realities around him, I actually like the Sixth Doctor as played by Colin Baker. It was a bold choice to have the Doctor relearn his warmth and humane characteristics. In the hands of modern writers, that could be some powerful stuff. Sadly, the entire broadcast entity that was the BBC in the mid-80s was built in opposition to the idea. As soon as it proved disastrous with the fans, it was the crack in the ribs that would lead to the show’s demise in 1989. Sadly, the situation overshadows Baker’s willingness to play the part this way and do it with gusto. Sure, the Sixth Doctor is arrogant, abrasive, obnoxious and in love with the sound of his own voice, but Baker embraced those character traits. By committing to the concept, he also managed to bring some charm to it, even in stories considered to be some of the worst ever connected to the series. In the midst of all the fails, though, is a curly haired actor in a crazy, tacky coat who is still, whether we like it or not, the Doctor.

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About Erik

Erik Amaya is the host of Tread Perilously and the former Head Film/TV writer at Bleeding Cool. He has also contributed to sites like CBR, Comics Alliance and Fanbase Press. He is also the voice of Puppet Tommy on "The Room Responds."
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One Response to An Appreciation of the (Colin) Baker Era

  1. Pingback: An Appreciation of the Davison Era | The Satellite Show

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