The Sixth Doctor is sadly the least popular, for reasons thoroughly explored in this excellent editorial by James Bow. I like Colin Baker, but I think he drew too much from William Hartnell’s haughty arrogance and short temper. It worked for Hartnell because he was a wizened grandfather and a mysterious character, but generally seemed unjustifiable coming from the now young and familiar Doctor. As HJames Bow explains, Colin Baker didn’t have a fair chance to prove himself on the show, but has been given better material since – fan productions, and official Big Finish audio. I’ve listened to The First Sontarans audio with him and Peri; it was great. In fact I think it’s one of the best Doctor Who experiences I’ve ever had.
Season 22, Story 2: Vengeance on Varos
Lauded as a prescient condemnation of the scourge of 21st century reality TV, this serial is set on a mining colony which appears at first to be an Orwellian dystopia, whose citizens are kept subdued by a steady TV broadcast schedule showing people going through deadly mazes, torture, and executions. But there’s more to it than that; the governor is not Big Brother, but rather was forced into his office, and makes policy proposals to the citizens on live TV, which they can then vote on using buttons on their television sets. If the measure is defeated, the governor is subjected to life-draining torture, and after a few failed measures, it kills him. Then another leader is forced to take the office. The current governor poignantly observes:
“The theory being that a man scared for his life will find solutions to this planet’s problems. Except that the poor unfortunate will discover there are no popular solutions to the difficulties he will find waiting for him here.”
The flaw here is that the Doctor is written too callous toward human life, directly killing a hapless guard, and later, disturbingly, allowing two men to be eaten alive by boiling acid, without a second thought. This certainly would have alienated viewers. Yet oddly, despite all the misery, I liked this story, perhaps because of the truth it conveys.
Season 22, Story 3: The Mark of the Rani
This historical story finds the Rani, a renegade Time Lady scientist, at work in the time of the Industrial Revolution. She is taking “the chemical that causes sleep” from people’s brains, driving them mad, and exacerbating the problem of the Luddites, who were smashing technology which they feared would take the place of their jobs. (Assuming the chemical is melatonin, it doesn’t make sense that this would cause permanent harm, since it is produced continually.) The Rani needs it to pacify the unseen denizens of a planet she’s taken control of, which is not a great motivation. Then the Master shows up for no good reason, and the Rani plants mines that turn people into trees. There are some cool parts in which the Doctor meets inventor George Stephenson, developer of trains, and both the location and the Rani’s TARDIS are praiseworthy, but this is the weakest of the few Sixth Doctor stories I watched.
Season 22, Story 4: The Two Doctors
This was not an anniversary special, but merely a ploy by JNT to cash in on the popularity of prior Doctors, in this case Patrick Troughton, along with his companion, Jamie McCrimmon. It was written by Who veteran Robert Holmes, and the wiki notes that “As a vegetarian, Holmes wrote The Two Doctors as an allegory of meat-eating, hunting and butchering.” This agenda resulted in an exceedingly strange story, in which the two lead villains are members of a barbaric alien race which values the pleasure of eating meat above all else. One is a chef who lusts to prepare and eat a meal of human flesh; the other is a woman who has received gene therapy that has made her a genius – curbing, but by no means eliminating, her natural tendencies. She is working with the Sontarans to crack the Time Lords’ secret of time travel.
This serial is long and bizarre, but enjoyable, thanks to the Doctors and the Sontarans, who are naturally hilarious at times without ever being reduced to nonthreatening comic relief. Certainly recommended.
Season 22, Story 6: Revelation of the Daleks
Another of the best serials from Colin Baker’s short time on the show, it’s a borderline-surreal story set on the “mortuary planet” of Necros, whose cutting-edge facility houses not tombs, but cryogenic preservation units – thousand of them. People nearing natural death or dying of incurable illnesses are sent there to await advances in medicine. Instead, many of them are being turned into the Whoniverse equivalent of Soylent Green, under the supervision of the “Great Healer.” And some of them are being turned into Daleks. The Great Healer is Davros.
Apparently the frozen residents are somehow conscious, because the facility employs a DJ to entertain them and keep them informed about the outside world. This leads to Davros giving his Daleks the order, “SILENCE THAT PRATTLING DJ!” Which is clearly the greatest thing he’s ever said. There are more memorable characters in this story – a knight and his squire on an honour mission to kill Davros, and Clive Swift, known to me as long-suffering husband Richard Bucket from BBC’s Keeping Up Appearances, playing a narcissist mortician.
Near the beginning, Peri has what I consider not only her best moment on the show, but the single most powerful moment of the entire JNT era, at least what I’ve seen of it. She and the Doctor meet a victim of Davros’s experiments, who has been horribly mutated and is subject to bouts of insane violence. He attacks the Doctor, and Peri hits him with a stick, fatally wounding him. He briefly regains his sanity long enough to tell Peri that “In many ways, you’ve done me a favour.” “I killed him,” Peri laments, “And he forgave me! Why did he have to be so nice about it?”
In the hallowed halls of Who history, Revelation of the Daleks may be the greatest conjunction of absurdity with quality. I absolutely recommend it.
Season 23: The Trial of a Time Lord
This season was postponed, as the BBC attempted to cancel the program. Fan campaigns brought the show back for a final four years, but Season 23 became a single 14-episode serial, containing four sub-stories. I quickly became aware of its notoriety when I first started researching classic Who, and the situation is described admirably well in the documentary “The Last Chance Saloon,” written by Nev Fountain:
“Doctor Who was like some political prisoner held inside Television Centre: too annoying to live, too popular to kill. So, what does anyone do with political prisoners they’ve detained but can’t get rid of? They have a show trial, of course. Like most British trials, it went on far too long. Silly costumes were compulsory, and it was far too complicated for the average man in the street to understand.”
Again, I highly recommend this article by James Bow for an in-depth explanation of what was happening at the time. Although he recommended Mindwarp, I decided to wait to someday watch the whole season; for now, I watched only episodes 13 and 14, The Ultimate Foe, in which the Doctor enters the Matrix to face down the Valeyard. And the Master hacks the Time Lords’ flatscreen TV.
The Valeyard is a mysterious figure, described by the Master as a by-product of the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration into the then-final Thirteens, containing all the Doctor’s dark and evil inclinations. Not merely some sort of clone, the Valeyard still is the Doctor, at least according to the Master. It was recently pointed out to me on Google+ by Tom Olson that “the Time War pretty much invalidated the Sixth Doctor’s Trial of a Time Lord arc,” and due to the dubious reputation of this period of Who, I highly doubt that the Valeyard’s existence will ever be acknowledged in the revival show, let alone his exact nature explained, even when the twelfth regeneration does occur.
Despite having jumped in at the end, I quite enjoyed The Ultimate Foe, mainly because it was interesting to see that fabled figure, and to watch the final appearance of the Time Lords in the classic series. Again I recognized an actor from Keeping Up Appearances – Geoffrey Hughes, popularly known as the magnificent Onslow.
Nev Fountain continues in The Last Chance Saloon:
“By the end of the trial, the jury had voted with their remote controls. Audience figures were down by over thirty percent from the previous season. Doctor Who, it seemed, was ripe for the axe. But surprisingly, the BBC didn’t take that opportunity to cancel it once and for all. Quite the reverse, in fact. It was in the autumn of 1986, while the trial series was transmitting, that Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell made their one and only effort to improve the show….”
Following a not-so-triumphant exit at the end of this season, Colin Baker was ordered to be fired from the show by BBC management. The BBC contacted Sydney Newman, the original creator of Doctor Who, for ideas on how to reinvigorate or reboot the show. Unfortunately, his ideas were bizarre, and reveal just how unaware he was of the strengths of what his creation had become, in the hands of hundreds of other creators over the years. Screenshots taken from The Last Chance Saloon:
You can’t take away the ability to control the TARDIS. That just wouldn’t jive. Then there’s this:
In the end, the show remained more or less on the same course. Sylvester McCoy (recently known as Radagast the Brown in The Hobbit trilogy) became the Seventh Doctor, and, though mysterious and initially clownish, did win back some of the Whovians’ affection which had been alienated by choices made in the last couple of seasons.