Nice to see Who, to see Who nice!
And so, having travelled around space and time for three seasons, Peter Davison hung up his cricket pads and handed over the TARDIS keys. But after the record breaking seven season Tom Baker run, not to mention the five seasons of Pertwee, to many viewers at the time this seemed like a very quick change-over. But actually, three series is the average lifespan for the TV Time Lord; Hartnell, Troughton, McCoy and Tennant all clock in at the three series mark. Indeed Davison’s decision to leave at this point was shaped by the Second Doctor himself, Patrick Troughton, who had advised his descendant that three series was the optimum time to spend in the role.
However by the late ‘80s, there were malign forces threatening the Doctor. Aside the usual menaces presented by Daleks, Cybermen and the Master, more deadly enemies were amassing. But these perils were not gathering in the depths of space or the farthest reaches of the Time Vortex but in the heart of the BBC itself. The Cloister Bell is chiming and, impossible as it sounds, time was actually running out for the Doctor. And not just for our Time Lord hero but for the show itself…
The Sixth Doctor
Of all the Doctors, the Sixth is perhaps the most troublesome, with his era often being hailed as the beginning of the end for the classic series. And poor old Colin Baker has frequently copped the flack for the downturn in the series’ fortunes at this point. But in all fairness, the troubles the show was to experience in this period were more down to behind-the-scenes cock-ups and external pressures than the quality of his performance.
But before we can talk about the details of the Sixth Doctor’s reign, we must first address the heffalump in the TARDIS control room – that bloody coat! Now in the restaurant trade, there is a saying “the first bite is with the eye”, and this is equally truly of the designs that grace our screens. Davison’s cricketer garb had raised a few eyebrows, but that was nothing compared to this new outfit that had so many clashing colours it was a danger to shipping. Hence the Sixth Doctor’s appalling technicolor nightmare of a costume was received with sighs of disbelief, howls of distain, and in some cases, vomiting.
In a promotional appearance on long running BBC kids TV show Blue Peter,
Baker himself as described it as “a symphony of bad taste”, and went on to explain that the new outfit reflected an alien dress sense, and that what appeared to earthlings as hideous colour coordination may appear to be the height of style to a being from another world. It was a reasonable enough rationale for the costume but that didn’t make us like it any better.
And we weren’t alone, Colin Baker himself wasn’t entirely happy with what the wardrobe department presented him with. And indeed as his run progresses, we see him looking for any excuse to shed the coat and leave behind. Apparently Baker’s own idea was for his Doctor to be dressed in black – which as we shall see would have fitted the character concept very well. However producer Jon Nathan-Turner, a man infamous for his taste in loud Hawaiian shirts - you know, the ones that look like they are printed by steam rollering parrots - plumped for the alien fashion sense atrocity instead.
In the last Regeneration Game, we discussed how Nathan-Turner was labouring under the mistaken apprehension that the Doctor should possess a distinctive costume, and with the Sixth Doctor’s fashion crimes the process reached its nadir. And this costume wasn’t just unpopular, it was pretty much unanimously seen as a big mistake and furthermore many saw it as a sign that the production team had well and truly lost the plot.
On paper, or as explained by Baker in press appearances, the concept of alien fashion sense certainly had potential. However the actual execution was simply horrid; loud, garish and ridiculous. Ironically these same adjectives also described how much of the audience perceived the show itself at the time… but we’ll get to The Twin Dilemma in a bit. But unfortunately, it wasn’t just the viewers that were forming this impression – the sound of this dropped ball had disturbed the sleep of an immensely powerful and terrifying being that was lurking in the upper echelons of the BBC itself…
And if the mad painter’s breakfast of an outfit wasn’t unappealing enough, the introduction to the Sixth Doctor himself was equally disastrous. In his maiden adventure, The Twin Dilemma, viewers met a Doctor suffering severely from post regenerative trauma – he was arrogant, brash, rude, cowardly, and even violent. And this characterisation grated severely with the audience who were left wondering what in the name of Rassilion had happened to their hero.
Even after his regeneration had finished ‘cooking’, the Sixth Doctor was still somewhat abrasive. Whereas previous Doctors had often displayed a touch of arrogance, the Sixth positively revels in it. And while Pertwee often patronised the non Time Lords around him and Tom Baker showed a lofty disregard for the various authorities and experts he encountered, the Sixth is hugely conceited – he’s not just the smart man in the room, he’s the cleverest dick in the universe and tremendously ungracious about it to boot.
And while this bold change in characterisation does work to an extent, you can understand why the audience didn’t warm to this new Doctor. The major stumbling block I suspect was the way he treated Peri – it’s all well and good for the Doctor to be angry and rude to the incidental characters he meets on his adventures but to act this way with his companion was perhaps a step too far. Throughout the majority of his first series he argues and bickers with her, appearing to be just tolerating her presence rather than having any kind of friendship with her. And the unpleasantly bombastic nature of the Doctor not only reflected badly on our hero but her too – Peri came across as whiny and nagging due to all the in-TARDIS squabbling.
Now like the costume, there was a concept behind all this jarring onscreen behaviour. The idea was to initially present a very difficult Doctor and over time peel away the layers of his harsh exterior character revealing hidden depths. In interviews, Colin Baker has also eluded to this plan involving the Sixth Doctor having a dark secret which would explain why he was so strident and forthright. However as Baker’s tenure would be abruptly cut short after his second season we never saw much of this process unfolding.
However by the final story in his first season, Revelation of the Daleks, the Doctor has mellowed a little. He’s still an unbridled egotist and prone to rapid mood swings, but his relationship with Peri has much improved and there is a warmth growing between the characters. However for some it was it seemed like too little and too late; as the old adage goes, you never get another chance to make a first impression…
...And unfortunately the Six Doctor’s first adventure was a stinker - The Twin Dilemma is one of the poorest stories in the canon and, quite rightly may I add, regularly tops fan polls for the worst serial ever. The story line is horrendously dated, even when the show started in the ‘60s this particular slice of sci-fi would have been seen as unsophisticated and old hat. And matters weren’t helped by poor performances and one of the shoddiest monsters ever, Mestor. This beast was meant to be a monstrous giant slug but what we got onscreen was an actor stuffed in a completely static mask with deely bopper antennae and swathed in what looks like a latex festooned sleeping bag. Go on, see for yourself how lousy he is!
Now although many Doctors haven't come to us with a truly classic first adventure, they are at least competent which sadly The Twin Dilemma just isn’t. Matters weren’t help by the fact it followed on from a story that is considered to be one of the all time classics, The Caves of Androzani, a serial that was adult and challenging, brimming with complex political intrigue as well as sci-fi action. However a more serious factor was that this story aired at the end of Davison’s last season, leaving its memory to fester in the memory until the show returned the following year.
With any new regeneration, it takes the audience a certain amount of time to adjust to the new face, which is why virtually every other Doctor is introduced at the beginning of a fresh season. The only other Doctor not to open a new series is the Second - but Troughton’s first outing was the third story aired with another six stories following to settle in. So considering the creative risks they were taking with the characterisation, to schedule the Sixth Doctor’s debut in this way was courting disaster. And to choose a script as weak as The Twin Dilemma is like inviting said disaster in for tea and offering it the hand of your first born child in marriage.
But the public’s affection for Doctor Who was still strong enough for droves of viewers to tune in when the show returned. And despite his inauspicious introduction, ratings for Colin Baker’s first season proper proved to be quite healthy, with the show performing well against rival network ITV’s big hitter The A Team. Certainly the move back to its traditional Saturday tea time slot undoubtedly helped, as did a change in running time. Now instead of twenty five minute episodes, Doctor Who came in fifty minute chunks and so we had two part adventures rather than the usual four chapter structure the show had settled into. Considering at this time, television was increasingly competing with home video and computer games for the audience’s time and attention, this shift to telling stories over a fortnight rather than a month, certainly made the show more accessible to the causal viewer.
Plus Nicola Bryant certainly had the dads and young men watching avidly – though admittedly perhaps for all the wrong reasons (step this way oh sweaty palmed one) But more importantly, once Baker had settled into the role, if you could see past that sodding coat, he was actually shaping up into a very interesting Doctor. And certainly the healthy viewing figures suggest that despite The Twin Dilemma, the Sixth Doctor was warming the hearts of the audience. His first season may have included Timelash, another perpetually low ranking story, and the fan annoyance that is Attack of the Cybermen (a story slavish devoted to continuity but at the same time manages to get crucial details wrong), but with strong stories like Vengeance On Varos, The Two Doctors and ending on the bona fide classic Revelation of the Daleks the sour memories of Mestor and wooden child actors were been gradually erased.
But there as this season rolled out, another problem surfaced. This Doctor proved to be more than just verbally aggressive; Vengeance on Varos saw a guard the Doctor had been grappling with toppling in an acid bath and The Two Doctors saw him smothering Shockeye. These and other incidents brought complaints about the levels of violence in the show. The major problem seemed to be not that Doctor Who was showing mayhem and horror to a young audience, but the fact that some of this carnage was being perpetuated by the Doctor himself and with a very blithe attitude – for example, both the incidents mentioned above have the Doctor making a Bond style quip after despatching his foes.
And this is born out by the fact that actually, the Fifth Doctor is surprisingly far more violent than the Sixth. In Resurrection of the Daleks, Davison’s Doctor picks up a laser rifle and storms off with the intention of gunning down Davros – and although events would intervene to avert his plans, seeing the mildest mannered Doctor pick up a firearm and head off to carry out an assassination is still a bit of shocker. Earthshock went even further with the Fifth Doctor very violently taking out the Cyber Leader with repeated shots to the chest unit. Now in comparison, the two deaths mentioned above in the Sixth Doctor’s first season were acts of self defence; he didn’t set out to murder either the guard or Shockeye. But it’s the post mortem quips that make the difference – these one liners coupled with the Sixth’s generally fractious nature seemed to show the Sixth Doctor as overly comfortable with causing deaths whereas the Fifth agonised over the violence. Hence it’s Colin Baker rather Peter Davison that is remembered as the violent one.
As for the actual levels of violence and horror in the series, Doctor Who had frequently been accused as going to far by the moral guardians of the day. But interestingly the serials that have raised these complaints – such as Terror of the Autons and Genesis of the Daleks - are often ones that are most fondly remembered by the general public because they were shocking and scary.
To return to the matter of the viewing figures, it appears that Shockeye ghoulishly relishing butchering humans for a slap-up meal and the Cyber Leader bloodily crushing Lyttleton’s hands were actually going down well with the audience at the time. By this stage of the game, being terrified by Doctor Who was a traditional part of growing up, and now the show was back in its ‘proper’ Saturday tea time slot and it was doing exactly what parents expected i.e. traumatising their children.
Also it’s worth remembering that its rival in the ratings wars The A Team, which although is fondly remembered now, was seen as many viewers at the time as a bit of a joke because its action was so toothless. In a world where kids had grown up with the melting Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Obi Wan lopping off arms, not mention sampling the video nasties in the local video shop, the A Team policy of no blood and no one dying looked at somewhat tame, even to school children. Whereas old Doctor Who was delivering cannibalism, torture and Davros’ hand being blown apart onscreen Taxi Driver style.
However the major criticisms about the violence and gore in the Sixth Doctor’s era were not coming from Mary Whitehouse or reactionary newspapers like the Daily Mail; this time around, the angry noises were coming from the BBC management. Previously the show had pretty much shrugged off such complaints with a token slap on the wrist, and kept the stronger content down for a bit before pushing the envelope again. But now the Doctor was facing his most deadly enemy of all time, new controller of BBC One, Michael Grade.
In short, Grade just didn’t like Doctor Who one little bit and has later admitted he wanted to pull the plug on the show. As Timelash and to a lesser extent Mark of the Rani prove, the series did have problems – increasingly tight budgets led to poor effects, costumes and sets plus short rehearsal periods and limited studio times meant weak performances were ending up onscreen. And in fairness, fans of the show shared these concerns and many were wondering whether JNT was the right man in the producer’s chair. But at the same time, the series was capable of producing classics like Revelation of the Daleks where intelligent scripts, good performances and direction managed to free the show from its financial limitations.
However the internal complaints over the violence in the show coupled with the public’s initial negative reactions to the Sixth Doctor’s abrasive character and that sodding coat, provided Grade with a stick to beat the show with. And so these complaints provided the excuse to ‘rest’ the series for a while. And it was a real testament to the Great British Public’s loyalty to Doctor Who,even with a stomach turning coat, that there was an immediate outcry over what was perceived as an attempt to cancel the show. Grade and the BBC management were quick to reassure everyone that the series was just taking a year off, allegedly to try and improve the show not kill it.
Now the obvious solution to many of the show’s flaws was readily apparent even to causal viewers –
simply give the production team more time and more money. We didn’t expect ILM level special effects work – television was still decades away from adopting a ‘cinematic’ aesthetic – but we did think they could do better than Mestor given improved resources. However rather than increase the show’s budget, there were further cut backs. And so when Colin Baker returned to our screens some eighteen months later in the autumn of 1986, his second series consisted of just fourteen episodes – half that of previous seasons.
However these internal pressures were taking a toll; the relationship between script editor Eric Saward and produce John Nathan-Turner was turning increasingly sour. And in these circumstances, the decision to structure Season 23 as a fourteen part story arc, incorporating three linked adventures as The Trial of A Time Lord, was both untimely and unfortunate. To begin with, the previous season had made a big success of telling stories over a fortnight, so the decision to schedule a massive long running serial didn’t make the best televisual sense. By now TV was losing the ability to sell long running serials to the public, and in a busier world fourteen weeks was too much of a commitment for many viewers.
More importantly though, the tensions between Saward and Nathan-Turner meant that the scripts themselves suffered, making an already complicated story line even more difficult to follow. Now the problems of Trial of a Time Lord are legion and legendary, an almost Wagnerian tale of behind-the-scenes infighting. However for the viewing public, the troubles were as follows… To begin with the structure was confusing and jarring – we had had a season long story arc before in the Williams days, Season 16’s The Key To Time saga, but Trial of Time Lord was a very different beast. Whereas The Key To Time was six stories, each one focusing on recovering a different segment of the titular Key and could be viewed independently, in Trial of a Time Lord the adventures were presented as evidence in a court case against the Doctor. Hence the stories kept on switching between the main story to the court room which broke the flow of the adventures. Furthermore it meant that if you hadn’t been following this season from the very start, all these court scenes made very little sense. And even if you did, the fact the three adventures came from three different times in the Sixth Doctor’s life made following it a little difficult.
For example, Peri was written out in a ham fisted fashion at the end of the second adventure and so we start the third with a new companion, Mel Bush and we have no idea who she is or how she came aboard. Now losing Nicola Bryant was always going to be unpopular with many of the male viewers, however casting Bonnie Langford as the new girl proved to be as controversial as that egregious coat. Many eyes were rolled, as Miss Langford was at that time better known for her light entertainment work than her acting, and it certainly seemed an odd casting choice.
Now personally speaking I was one of those viewers sighing dejectedly when the news was announced – as a typical teenager her casting seemed to be a sign that the show was taking a wrong turn as I associated her with ‘square’ variety shows and kids TV. However when the shows aired I thought she actually did well in the role – making the best of messy scripts and a somewhat underwritten character - as the behind-the-scenes problems and the wrangling over the scripts hit her first two stories the hardest. But some were not so open minded and saw it as a sign that the show was turning into some kind of pantomime.
And indeed along with the troublesome nature of the scripts, Trial of A Time Lord has what are in my opinion THE worst monsters ever in the Terror of the Vervoids section. Not there have been many cheaper looking beasties - for example, The Vardans in The Invasion of Time appear as sheets of tinfoil half the time. And there have been many other aliens, like the afore mentioned Mestor, that were more poorly realised. However I am not faulting the Vervoid costumes here - they are actually rather well executed. No, the problem is their design itself – at best the Vervoids may be charitably described as killer tulips , and at worst… oh dear Lord… there’s no easy way of putting this… Oh see for yourself!
Yes, that’s right the Vervoids, through a miracle of design work, manage to look both vaginal and phallic at the same time. Honestly, did NO ONE look at these and think they looked ridiculously rude? Considering the hostile climate towards the show at the time, you have to wonder whether the Vervoid design was some species of covert sabotage. Seeing Bonnie Langford being menaced by men dressed as hermaphrodite genitals wasn’t kind of the shocks were we either expected or wanted from Doctor Who.
It seemed like when Doctor Who really needed to pull itself together, it was repeatedly shooting itself in the foot. And unsurprisingly, the ratings slumped with Trial of a Time Lord struggling to pull in half the figures of the preceding season. Once again the shadow of Grade fell across the TARDIS. But rather than cancelling the show, he allowed Doctor Who to continue. However the show was to change slot again and Grade insisted a new Doctor be found – it seemed that Colin Baker was to carry the cross of the show’s failures. I will point out at this juncture, that at the time Grade was in a relationship with actress Liza Goddard, who had been married to Baker. But obviously this had no bearing whatsoever on Grade’s insistence that Baker had to go… but feel free to draw your own conclusions.
Nathan-Turner too was looking to jump ship but perhaps unsurprisingly considering the attitude of the BBC management, no one else was willing to step into the fray. And so to keep the show alive, JNT stayed on and had to find a new Doctor, a new script editor, and assemble a fresh season in a very short space of time…
All in all it was an ignoble end to the Sixth Doctor’s reign; understandably very hurt by his treatment, Colin Baker refused even to return for his regeneration scene. Baker himself is a devoted sci-fi fan and naturally saw landing the part of the Doctor as a dream role and would have happily stayed on for many, many more seasons. And since his sudden departure, he has remained a staunch ambassador for the show and his Doctor has found new life in the audio adventures produced by Big Finish. And when claims that he is the worst Doctor are aired, folks are often directed to his audio afterlife. Not only are you spared the horrors of the coat, but you can hear the Sixth Doctor finally coming into his own. Indeed one of the more celebrated stories of the revived show, Dalek in 2005, was an extrapolation of the Sixth Doctor adventure Jubilee.
So then, with the Sixth Doctor’s era all wrapped up, let’s look at the ongoing questions of this series of articles – how many incarnations of the Doctor have we encountered, and how many actors have appeared in the role.
Firstly with the Sixth Doctor’s years showing an increased awareness of continuity, his first story does neatly tidy up an old controversy. As we saw in The Regeneration Game (Round Two), there was an ongoing debate as to whether the transformation from Hartnell to Troughton was actually a regeneration as the script never uses that term. However in The Twin Dilemma, the Doctor himself refers to his change as both regeneration and ‘a renewal’ – the same term employed by Troughton in Evil of the Daleks. So then we can safely dispel any doubts on that matter now.
But where one problem is clarified in the Sixth Doctor’s time, a bigger nastier one springs up – the Valeyard, played my veteran actor Michael Jayston. In The Ultimate Foe, the final adventure in Trial of a Time Lord, the Valeyard was eventually revealed to be none other than a personification of the evil in the Doctor’s personality, originating from somewhere between his twelve and final incarnations. And furthermore it was revealed that he was framing the Doctor in order gain his remaining regenerations.
Now as you can imagine this whole Valeyard business is something of a continuity headache. To begin with it is uncertain exactly when the Trial is occurring, not to mention the vagaries of why the Time Lord Council would transfer the Doctor’s remaining regenerations to the Valeyard when The Five Doctors clearly shows that they can could just award him a new regenerative cycle anyway.
The whole business of the Valeyard being a future evil aspect of the Doctor that has taken on a life of its own is never explained in any detail. Apparently in the original Robert Holmes script, it was to be revealed that he was a future Doctor who has gone completely dark side, however due to the infighting over between Saward, Holmes and JNT, this concept had to be dropped. But as it stands, although the vaguer explanation is less dramatically satisfying, it is also much less of a continuity bomb for future screen writers to deal with. Even amid all the arguments over the scripts, the production team realised they were potentially setting up a major headache, hence the Master’s carefully chosen words that state the Valeyard is from between the Doctor’s twelfth and final regeneration – note not ‘twelfth and thirteenth’.
Indeed with this possible future problems in mind, when Virgin Books continued the Doctor’s adventures after the show’s eventual cancellation in 1989, their guidelines requested writers to steer clear of trying to clarify the continuity issues surround the Valeyard. And although the writers largely respected this, it didn't stop the Valeyard from popping up again a couple of times, and more importantly, the knowledge that he may one day spawn the Valeyard influenced the Seventh Doctor’s actions in a number of print adventures.
Interestingly, the latest season of Doctor Who story Amy’s Choice introduces us to the Dream Lord, and this character like the Valeyard is a manifestation of the Doctor’s dark side, leading some fans to speculate that this incident with psychic pollen is the seed from which the Valeyard will grow…
But the wrangles over the lore aside, the real question is does Jayston’s Valeyard count as a future incarnation of the Doctor? Taking into account not just his screen appearance but all the subsequent encounters in the books and audios, all seem to agree that the Valeyard is just an aspect of the Doctor emanating from between regenerations. Well nearly all, the novelisation of The Ultimate Foe penned by the script’s authors Pip and Jane Baker, has the Master say "The Valeyard, Doctor, is your penultimate reincarnation... Somewhere between your twelfth and thirteenth regeneration". Now while one may interpret this as going down the aspect line, but the use of ‘reincarnation’ also suggests that the Valeyard is an incarnation of the Doctor. Shall we chalk it up to a spot of clumsy phrasing? Considering that none of his other appearances in spin-off media take the incarnation line, I think we must.
So then if the Valeyard is just an aspect of the Doctor’s personality that is roving around independently, the best explanation for this is that he is a being similar to Cho-Je and the Watcher - a psychic projection with a limited independent existence. And this would make sense of his goals to gain the Doctor’s remaining regenerations – as he isn’t a proper Time Lord, or a real physical being for that matter either, he can’t just be given a regenerative cycle. And only by gaining the Doctor’s future lives could become a truly independent entity – effectively usurping the Doctor’s body. And so, as we decided in the last round of The Regeneration Game that the Watcher doesn’t count as an incarnation, neither does the Valeyard.
Now all that remains is to update the number of actors in the role. As we’ve discounted the Valeyard as an incarnation, Michael Jayston will not be joining our roll call of thespians. So then, there’s just one, Colin Baker, to add to the list, right?
Well maybe not… As Baker refused to return for a regeneration scene, the Seventh Doctor’s opening story Time And The Rani has new incumbent Sylvester McCoy donning the hideous vomit inducing garb and a curly blond wig for a tractor beam induced lie down before and regenerating. See it here if you must but be warned it’s the worst regeneration scene ever!
Now it is a brief scene that only really amounts to McCoy on stunt double duties, so should it count – after all we’ve not been counting the times Stuart Fell or Terry Walsh did stunt work for Tom Baker or Pertwee. But I think it should count for the following reasons. Firstly although McCoy is just lying on the console room floor and can hardly be considered to be performing, equally sprawling about isn’t really stunt work either. Plus many actors over the years have been credited as ‘corpse’ or ‘coma patient’, and I am reliable informed, admittedly mainly by struggling actors, that lying still does require some acting ability. Secondly, McCoy did become the Seventh Doctor which lends weight to the performance claim. And finally it’s going to count because it’s the perfect little slice of fan lore to catch out know-it-all trivia bores who think they know better. Petty I know but what the hell! Consider it a gift for reading this much on the Sixth Doctor, who would certainly embrace this point of pedantry to win an argument and show off how clever he was...
COMING SOON – The second half of Sixes & Sevens - “If you call me Professor one time I’m going to slap you!”
Find the preceding parts of this series, and archived other ramblings here.