In Defense of Colin Baker
Guest contributor Russel McLean makes a case for 6th Doctor.
With a new Doctor on the way – in the form of Peter Capaldi – fandom is working itself into anticipation regarding the nature of Capaldi’s Doctor. What will he be like? What will define his personality? Will he be – as many suspect – a dark Doctor? Will he evoke any of his predecessors? Capaldi asks Clara whether he is a good man, and it is a question that echoes the sentiments of fandom – we want to know who this new Doctor is and whether he fits our ideal of the character. Every Doctor is different, of course, and every Doctor has both met and defied the expectations laid upon them. But none of them have caused quite so much… difference of opinion… as the man in the universe’s most retina-wrecking coat, Colin Baker.
The Big Finish audio adventures, that have now been running for 15 years, giving us new adventures with classic Doctors, have achieved many great things, but perhaps one of the most spectacular achievements was showing the Who fanbase that Colin Baker had the chops to be a magnificent Doctor. In audio, given room to breathe, and, more importantly, given scripts that were halfway decent, Baker finally started to edge his way up fan polls of “best Doctor”, something that justified his casting after years of lazily concocted character assassinations and general consensus that he was the reason Who in the Eighties started to wobble and fall from its once great height of popularity.
But I only started listening to Big Finish a few weeks ago (and, boy, am I impressed, especially with Baker, who manages to capitalise on the potential I’m about to expound upon), so have long been considered something of an oddball for daring to say that Baker was actually excellent in the role and that the Sixth Doctor was in fact one of the most daring performances given in the show (admittedly, even if it did backfire).
Now, I am in no way pretending that Colin Baker was better than, say Troughton, or even Tom at his best. No, that would be daft. But Baker’s performance was a breath of fresh air after years of Peter Davison who, through no fault of his own, always made me think of a slightly concerned primary school teacher trying to coral a bunch of disobedient toddlers through time and space (something that had changed only marginally by the time Peri came on board). There was something in the writing of Davison’s Doctor that was just too… nice. Even when he got irritated you felt as though it was something that would pass. On the plus side, of course, he neatly got set up the Cybermen so that they could get rid of Adric without the Doctor getting his hands dirty (oh, come on, was there anyone in the world really that upset by the death of the world’s most irritating traveller through time and space?).
Colin Baker’s Doctor, on the other hand, arrived with a bang that echoed throughout most of his run. The idea that something went wrong with his regeneration and that he could not control his emotions (resulting in that near-strangulation when he believed Peri to be an alien spy) was brilliant, and of course there was initially a plan that he would soften over the course of a few years, coming to terms with who and what he was. A great idea in practice, but apparently not one that the writers of the time were able to signpost or properly build into the accepted narrative arc of Who. At that time, who had heard of multi-season plotting? Even the much vaunted Key To Time was merely a selection of standalone stories with an ever-so-slight fetch-quest connection between them. And so Baker appeared to the viewing public at large to be a much more violent Doctor for no apparent reason. This is probably what set forth the myths about his apparent continuing violence, something that greatly upset audiences and critics at the time.
But Baker is more subtle than that when you watch the stories more closely. His Doctor is loud, brash, egotistical and vainglorious, yes. But the Doctor has always been so to greater or lesser degrees in each incarnation. These qualities are merely turned up to 11 with his sixth regeneration, resulting in a character who – like Matt Smith would be many years later in comparison to the preceding David Tennant – appears far more alien than some of us are comfortable with. There are some great scenes at the beginning of the Two Doctors where he tries to tell Peri how he sees the universe in different terms, how there really is a bigger picture. Much like the beginning of Pyramids of Mars where Tom Baker’s doctor reminds Sarah Jane Smith that he is “…a Time Lord. I walk in eternity.”
Doctor Number Six is fascinating in his unpredictability but he is no more or less violent than his predecessors (people conveniently forget that Pertwee employed Venusian akido on an almost minute-by-minute basis and indulged in sword play with the Master during the Sea Devils when there was no earthly – or universally – good reason for him to do so at all). But he does react differently. The infamous acid bath scene in Vengeance on Varos does not show the doctor in such a bad light as people say. In fact, one could say that the death of the guard is a result of self-defence and as such unavoidable. Had the doctor not defended himself, he would have been killed. He is also unaware of what the guard is about to fall into. His apparent lack of remorse is not because he doesn’t care but because he knows there is nothing left for him to do. Unlike Davison before him, Baker’s doctor does not stand around hand wringing and fretting and letting events fall apart while he does practically nothing. He knows that he has to act and quickly. Although his haste is often his undoing, he acts with purpose and unerring self-belief. And his propensity for bad jokes means that at moments such as this, he seems more callous than perhaps he might otherwise be.
If you want to see Baker at his finest, you watch Revelation of the Daleks. His pomposity is tempered by his compassion when dealing with the mutant that Peri accidentally kills , but more importantly we see, towards the end of the story, his willingness to understand a situation. He may seem harsh to us in the way that he allows Orcini to explode his bomb (he did, earlier, state that, “I wish to explode it”) resulting in death and casualties throughout Tranquil repose, but he is a Doctor who has become aware of the bigger picture. Almost compensating for his previous incarnation’s inability to pull the trigger on Davros when he had the chance. It is an overcompensation, of course, but that is part of what makes Doctor Six so fascinating: he is a more morally complex man than he has been before. He disapproves of violence almost as much as his previous incarnations and yet he is reluctantly aware of this power.
In today’s Who, Baker would be granted scripts that explored his Doctor’s personality and quirks, allowing them to develop over time and in planned and appropriate fashion. Back in the 80’s, Baker had to bring more to the role than the scripts allowed and indeed he often managed in subtle and strange ways to do this. His time on television is often an example of the show at its worst, but when it shines – and most of the time it shines through Baker himself – you can see a Doctor with the potential to be one of the most intriguing, unsettling and yet still-Doctorly Doctors of them all.