Doctor Who 101: A Viewer's Guide To The Classic Series - Part 2


The outfit. You€™re looking at the outfit€ How could you miss it€? Commanding your attention like a multi-colored car crash, it€™s almost impossible to focus on anything else€ Doctor Who was neck-deep in the fluorescent gaudiness of the 1980€™s when Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) took on the mantle of the Sixth Doctor. And what a mantle it was! Certainly reflecting the times, the Sixth Doctor€™s tasteless and distracting crime of fashion was intended to illustrate his internal turmoil and disorder; but more than anything, it serves as a metaphor for the Colin Baker era as a whole, in all its clashes, conflicts and competing creative visions. Perhaps the most chaotic and tumultuous period in Doctor Who€™s long history, the behind-the-scenes battles that marked the Sixth Doctor€™s tenure were almost more dramatic than anything that made it to the screen. As the series continued its struggle to modernize and mature, production was plagued by intractable creative differences between producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, endless condemnations from media watchdogs protesting the levels of violence in the show, and outright hostility from the BBC bosses, most notably Chairman Michael Grade, who felt that Doctor Who had grown obsolete. And in the middle of it all was Colin Baker€ A successful TV actor who had made his name playing assorted villains (he had even appeared on Doctor Who as the witheringly arch Commander Maxil in Arc of Infinity), upon being cast as the Doctor, Colin Baker (in)famously announced his ambition to surpass Tom Baker€™s seven years in the role. Considering his visionary take on the character, that sort of longevity was exactly what he needed. In contrast to the noble reserve of Davison€™s Fifth Doctor, Baker and John Nathan-Turner had conceived a darker, more troubled Doctor, severely traumatized by his regeneration, whose persona reflected the negative cost of centuries of heroism and self-sacrifice: a Doctor prone to violent emotional mood swings and fits of temper, a truly alien Doctor who often viewed events from a seemingly callous remove, an arrogant, bombastic, petulant Doctor who was not so outwardly noble, but who would gradually soften and evolve, his empathy and uncompromising dedication to justice revealed over time. Unfortunately, time was exactly what they didn€™t have€ The behind-the-scenes bedlam took its toll on the program€™s overall quality, and the resultant scripts were wildly uneven, often not up to the task of presenting this robust and multifaceted Doctor in all his complexity. Audiences were suitably caught off guard by Baker€™s unconventional portrayal and, though all of the Sixth Doctor€™s more abrasive personality traits had, to varying degrees, been present in previous Doctors, many fans felt upset and betrayed. Seizing on the opportunity, the BBC made Baker the scapegoat for Doctor Who€™s difficulties, and after his first season, Michael Grade put the series on forced hiatus. Met with overwhelming and impassioned protests, Grade granted a reprieve, but after another year, ordered that Baker be replaced as the Doctor. His tenure remains the briefest and most troublesome of the classic series, and its poor perception has resulted in the Sixth Doctor being widely and unfairly derided as the Worst Doctor Ever. Though undeniably burdened by subpar writing and disastrous costuming, Colin Baker commands the role, giving a strong, layered and unpredictable performance. Erratic, theatrical and riddled with insecurities, his Sixth Doctor seems to hover on the razor€™s edge of a dark, emotional maelstrom that threatens to consume him. Contemptuous and impatient one moment, he€™d turn and softly quote a line of obscure poetry that revealed the magnitude of his pathos the next. His passion and pomposity could give way, in the blink of an eye, to heartbreaking guilt and self-doubt, which could just as quickly corrupt into maudlin self-pity. And when confronted by evil, his smug, superior intellect could explode into righteous outrage and livid fury. Unstable and uncertain, this was a Doctor whose most constant battle was not with Daleks or Cybermen, but with himself. And while there€™s no denying the substandard quality of some of his serials, Colin Baker€™s era stands as one of Doctor Who€™s most daring (if not always successful) attempts to deepen its lead character and his inner and outer conflicts. In many ways ahead of his time, quite a few of the Sixth Doctor€™s darkest and most unique traits have become essential aspects of the Doctor in the current series.

The Essentials

The Two Doctors (Season 22, Episode 4) Two Doctors The best way to gain an appreciation for Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor is to grit your teeth and sit through every uneven serial, watching his performance evolve. But if you only have the patience to sit through one, this is probably the one to choose. Often considered the highpoint of Baker's first season, The Two Doctors is, in all honesty, slightly overpraised. Overly-long, aggressively preachy, perforated by needless, irritating plot digressions (are Oscar and Anita really necessary...?), and infested by a multitude of careless continuity issues, it also boasts a lot of qualities that make it worthwhile. As the fourth serial of the season, it presents a Sixth Doctor who has, in many ways, stabilized after his initial post-regenerative trauma, but remains temperamental, pompous and largely oblivious to human sensitivities, which in turn, provides Colin Baker with ample opportunity to exhibit both the more abrasive and the more approachable sides of his character. It is also noteworthy as the final onscreen appearance of Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor. Though not terribly momentous or significant as a multi-Doctor story, The Two Doctor€™s narrative crux of the Sixth Doctor having to rescue his former self from reckless amateur time travelers in order to prevent to collapse of the universe is entertainingly creative, and the interplay between Baker and Troughton is tremendously enjoyable. Bolstered by their friendship off-screen, the obvious fun they had working together is infectious, making even the weakest sections of The Two Doctors (most of them in the third and final episode) tolerable. Though far from perfect, The Two Doctors can serve as an encapsulation of the Colin Baker era, offering a cross-section of the Sixth Doctor€™s complex persona, and displaying all the strengths, as well as a few of the weaknesses, of the series during his tenure. --> --> Vengeance On Varos (Season 22, Episode 2)


Season 22 of Doctor Who found itself on the receiving end of numerous criticisms relating to its dark and violent content. Ironically, one of the serials most frequently singled out was Vengeance of Varos, a pointed and penetrating satire of violence as entertainment. Nimbly treading a line between bleak sci-fi adventure and black comedy, it features stand-out performances by Nabil Shaban as the deliciously greedy and sadistic villain, Sil, and Martin Jarvis as the tragic and weary Governor of Varos, who is literally tortured by his electorate€™s fickle whims. The perverse politics of Varos and its disturbingly recognizable populace are vividly rendered, and it€™s the involvement of the Doctor, sadly, that provides the narrative€™s weakest link.

Baker is in fine form, especially in his early scenes stranded on the broken-down TARDIS, but while he gives his all at every turn, the story doesn€™t give him much to do. His Doctor€™s ever-evolving dynamic nature is largely backgrounded in favor of fully realizing the story€™s setting and supporting characters, which would be fine, if the standard Doctor heroics didn€™t feel so uninspired and mechanical. But while it may not be the Sixth Doctor€™s best showing, Vengeance on Varos is nonetheless a strong story, its grim tone and prescient social commentary demonstrating Doctor Who€™s progressive push towards increasingly mature content and themes.

The Expository The Twin Dilemma (Season 21, Episode 7) Twin Dilemma Even the most ardent Doctor Who fan would be unlikely to describe Colin Baker€™s debut as anything other than disappointing, especially coming, as it did, on the heels of Peter Davison€™s powerful finale, Caves of Androzani. That said, the fault lies not in its star, but in itself, that it is underwhelming. Hobbled by an irritatingly convoluted and nonsensical plot, and beaten flat by thrift-shop production value, The Twin Dilemma is an anemic, unfocused mess. The titular twins are largely incidental, insofar as their involvement in the story makes any sense at all, and the only dilemma is trying to determine which twin€™s performance is the more wooden. The villainous giant Gastropod whom the Doctor must eventually confront wields all the fearsome malevolence of Oscar the Grouch. And though the presence of Maurice Denham, as a conflicted professor hiding some not terribly relevant secrets, is not unwelcome, his character, like so many others, seems to exist only to add padding to the anorexically thin narrative. While the meager storytelling provides pitifully barren ground to introduce such a rich character, Colin Baker energetically commits to every mercurial shift of the newly-minted Sixth Doctor€™s unstable post-regenerative persona, running the emotional gamut from childish petulance, to homicidal paranoia, to simpering cowardice, to heartrending grief. Baker presents the Sixth Doctor at his most shocking, volatile and off-putting, setting the stage for the slow emergence of the more recognizable and heroic Doctor at his core. His performance carries the serial, even if he can€™t save it, and while Twin Dilemma can be laborious viewing, anyone truly seeking to understand the Sixth Doctor and his arc must start here. Trial Of A Timelord (Season 23) trial2 Baker€™s second and final season as The Doctor was a trial in more ways than one. Reluctantly brought back from hiatus by a skeptical BBC, Season 23 would decide the future of Doctor Who. In a reflection of the show€™s predicament, John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward made the decision to structure the entire season as a trial: a multi-episode arc in which the Doctor would be (once again, for those of us who remember The War Games) prosecuted by his own people for crimes of interference, with the evidence presented taking the form of four marginally connected serials. Once again, however, production was plagued by trials off-screen (creative interference by the BBC bosses, the resignation of script editor Eric Saward, the death of veteran writer Robert Holmes, who was to have penned the finale, etc.) making the title a triple-entendre of sorts. And finally, Trial of a Timelord can be a bit of a trial to sit through. Though the four evidentiary serials vary in quality (Mindwarp is a near travesty, Terror of the Vervoids is simple, but effective, despite the presence of the hatefully sunny new companion, Mel), none of them are especially good. The lighter, funnier tone commanded by the BBC only serves to make the proceedings, both within the trial and without, feel superficial and frivolous, castrating what could and should have been a seminal season. All that said, Trial of a Timelord is tremendously significant and, thankfully, not without its virtues. Baker manages to make the best of a bad situation, accelerating his Doctor€™s development and allowing us to see both his quieter and more recognizably heroic sides. Though it€™s hard to shake the feeling that he€™s been declawed, there are still some truly powerful and memorable moments, most notably, his fiery condemnation of the Time Lords in the fourth and final serial, The Ultimate Foe. Finally, there is the introduction of the Doctor€™s prosecutor, the Valeyard, played with cold relentlessness by Michael Jayston. Though the character, to date, has only appeared in this one season, the climactic revelation of his true identity and purpose are monumental in Doctor Who mythos, even earning a mention in the current series€™ most recent season finale, The Name of the Doctor. It€™s unclear whether Steven Moffat (or whoever succeeds him) will ever deal directly with the implications of the Valeyard€™s existence, but whether acknowledged or not, he hangs like a specter over every Doctor who has followed in Trial of a Timelord€™s wake.

The Execrable


Most are quick to condemn Timelash as the Worst Episode of Doctor Who Ever but, appalling production value notwithstanding, its reputation is hyperbolic. The scenes between the Doctor and Herbert are enough to make the serial worth seeing and, truth be told, I€™d rather watch Timelash again than suffer repeat viewings of Runaway Bride or Curse of the Black Spot.

Conversely, Revelation of the Daleks is often held aloft as one of the highpoints of the Colin Baker era, but despite a few really powerful moments, I find most of it dreary and grating. Added to which, it€™s another serial where the Doctor seems to wander aimlessly in the background, looking for something to do.

A Few Extras

Despite its unpopularity with fans, Attack of the Cybermen, for all its flaws, is a personal favorite of mine. But with only two seasons worth of serials to choose from, if you€™ve already watched the ones listed above and you want to see more, you might as well go ahead and just watch the rest. It€™s also worth checking out the documentary €œTrials and Tribulations€ from the Trial of a Timelord DVD set (though you can also find it on YouTube), which covers in detail the behind-the-scenes story of the Colin Baker Era.

If you€™re feeling especially geeky, Colin Baker has been given the opportunity to pursue the Sixth Doctor€™s intended character arc (and has finally been given some decent material!) in the Big Finish Doctor Who audioplays. The Marian Conspiracy and The Specter of Lanyon Moor (which also features the Brigadier) are especially good.


Matt J. Popham is an erratic, unreliable writer, an unapologetic intellectual snob, an opinionated political loudmouth, a passionate cinephile, and a near obsessive fan of Doctor Who and punk rock. I also tend to overuse commas and ellipses... If you're on Facebook and a fan of Doctor Who, go here: This is my blog that I almost never keep up with: