The 6th Doctor: What Worked & What Didn’t
Guest contributor Elliot Durwood examines the difficult Doctor.
I have to admit something that could get me exiled from some factions of the Doctor Who fandom: the Sixth Doctor is my favorite. Lower your pitchforks for a moment; let me explain! I love Six because he was so wildly different from all the others, and yet remained, at his core, the Doctor; he is unique amongst the rest, and introduced a new spectrum of emotion to the Time Lord. As we near the era of the Twelfth Doctor, it is important to look back on the past, but especially Six – there is much to be learned from him.
The Doctor – The Sixth is quite unlike any other man, in no small part because he isn’t one. He’s an alien. The Doctor seems human, but the fact of the matter is that Time Lords aren’t humans – they hide vast power and knowledge incomprehensible behind human faces. It stands to reason, then, that they should not always act as humans do. While all Doctors have had their tawdry quirks, Six wasn’t human at all. He was completely and utterly unpredictable. Despite this, he remained the Doctor. Though he could be harsh to foe and friend alike, he was always, without question, on the side of good. Earlier on, he seemed to act only in self-interest. However, as time progressed, seemingly malevolent behavior was revealed as simply how this strange man related to the world. His shouting matches with companion Peri were merely how he communicated with someone he perceived as a friend, uncomprehending of how they might seem to her. Buried under the Sixth’s overly passionate alien surface is the same Doctor we’ve always known. Unraveling that disguise is extremely exciting. In his second season, he is a much kinder Doctor – though his character development was rushed, it worked. If Colin’s time hadn’t been cut short, his character arc likely would have been far better received.
The Companions – The Sixth Doctor’s first companion came in the form of the aforementioned Peri. Peri was, as far as companions go, not terribly unique – she couldn’t have been. Her duty was to remain normal in the face of so dramatic a shift. She had become a companion under the Fifth Doctor, the polar opposite of his successor. More than ever, the companion was needed as an audience surrogate. Peri’s job was to expose all of the Sixth’s idiosyncrasies. Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker had excellent chemistry, whenever they actually stopped to be friends, making both their animosity and friendship believable. Six would do anything for her – the Doctor was still there. Peri was followed by Mel, who is widely regarded as shrill and useless. This may be because she was shrill and useless. However, under Mel, we saw a future Six – calmer, less contemptuous or bellicose, content simply to wander the universe as a more standard Doctor. Sadly, we never got to see this Doctor or how he got there – not on television.
The Twin Dilemma – The Twin Dilemma killed Doctor Who, simply put. The Sixth Doctor’s first story is what everyone immediately jumps to when describing his character. Within his first few minutes, he has dawned the Satan-Clown’s Nightmare Rainbow-Coat and attempted murder. Always endearing. He proceeds to spend a good portion of the serial as an utter coward, a complete perversion of the character. On paper, it seems like a good idea – a regenerative episode where the trauma is so severe that we can’t be sure if the Doctor is still there. Unfortunately, the story itself is rather poor, especially in comparison to the much beloved Caves of Androzani. The application of the Doctor’s trauma seems less like trauma and more like the Sixth being an utter psychopath, which couldn’t be further from the truth. A Doctor’s first episode should show us what he is actually like. Compare Dilemma to the far superior “The Eleventh Hour”, which shows the Eleventh at his best, and you see where it fails – this is the Sixth at his worst. Not only that, but it was positioned awkwardly at the end of Season 21, and it would be ten months before a proper look at the Sixth Doctor would be given. Thus, for nearly a year, this is the image that sat in the head of the viewing public. When we meet Six in Attack of the Cybermen, he hasn’t much improved, still suffering from regenerative trauma, killing a man in cold blood. The Sixth Doctor would settle over the course of the season, but the damage had already been done.
Season 22 – There is no denying that the majority of the Sixth Doctor’s run was, well, “Love and Monsters” bad. At least, on its own. Colin Baker’s amazing performance makes it quite enjoyable, but a lesser entertainer certainly couldn’t have pulled it off. Attack of the Cybermen is a horrid, campy mess starring the 1980s’ god-awful excuses for Cybermen, ridden with plot holes, logical errors, and awkwardly-inserted attempts at call backs. None of this is the Sixth Doctor’s fault, of course, but the failings of script editor Eric Saward, who wrote unnecessarily dark and impossible-to-emphasize-with Who. Vengeance on Varos is better, but darker. In combination with the darker Sixth Doctor and the public’s idea of the Sixth’s nature as a craven killer, it’s a volatile combination that got Who put on hiatus out of fear it had grown to be too dark for children.
The rest of this season’s stories were maimed in other ways. Executive producer John Nathan-Turner was averse to bringing back old writers, so the end roster was made up mostly of newcomers. The results were the nonsensical The Mark of the Rani and Timelash, both of which are excellent examples of what the Sixth could have been had he come to act simply as the Doctor, but this is because neither display much ingenuity or creativity in any facet whatsoever. Robert Holmes returned for The Two Doctors, which brought back Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines. However, despite the talents of all three, the story is a thinly-veiled excuse to film overseas and the two Doctors barely have any time together. At the end of this limping mess of a season, Doctor Who was ailing.
The Trial of a Time Lord – It was the idea of the production staff, when Doctor Who returned, to reflect the environment behind the scenes on screen. As such, the Season 23 that had been planned was scrapped for a story arc reflecting the “trial” environment and incorporating A Christmas Carol-esque peeks at the past, present, and future of the Doctor, presented as evidence. It fell apart. The writers weren’t told how to handle the fact that the Doctor was looking into his own timeline, and the actual trial scenes were written by Saward himself without any discussion. As such, they’re difficult to make sense of in a linear fashion, especially as Saward incorporated the idea that the wicked Valeyard was doctoring evidence. It’s impossible to say what actually transpired – is Peri really dead? Why did the Doctor act so vilely in Mindwarp? Does the Doctor remember the trial in his future, when dealing with the Vervoids? Then we come to the Valeyard himself, the antagonist of the piece. Despite Michael Jayston’s amazing performance as an evil mastermind on par with the Master, laugh and all, his evil plan doesn’t make any sense. The Valeyard is a future version of the Doctor, a byproduct of a regeneration gone wrong and the accumulation of all of his negative traits. However, the Valeyard cannot regenerate as the Doctor can, so his plan is to… go back in time and steal five of his own regenerations? The end product of Trial is a confusing mess, which garbled some potentially good stories. At the end of the season, the BBC demanded Colin Baker be fired – despite the fact that none of this could really be blamed on him.
Despite marking the end of the Classic series, the Sixth Doctor’s reign is not without good qualities. Colin is truly a fantastic Doctor, and his character would see greater success under the banner of Big Finish. The idea that the Doctor didn’t have to be likeable was unprecedented and echoes in every Doctor since. When Series 8 comes around, as long as it is made clear that the Doctor is still there, the production staff can give us a new take on the character. Twelve should be nothing like Eleven. As we’ve been promised a darker Doctor by Moffat himself, I hope he looks back at Seasons 22 and 23, at ol’ Sixie (as Colin calls his Doctor), and I hope Moffat can learn from it. The Sixth Doctor does not need to be shunned and forgotten, because in doing so you only deprive yourself of a great performance and a better understanding of what Doctor Who needs to do to secure its future.