This is a post in the Tor.com Twelve Doctors of Christmas series. Click the link to peruse the entire series.
In his first story, “The Twin Dilemma,” Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor proclaims, “I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not!” It was hard to like the version of the Doctor who burst onto BBC1 in 1984: he was arrogant, pedantic, and sporadically violent, and wore a costume so hideous and brightly colored that it’s been known to cause migraines. It didn’t help that his opponent in that story was a giant slug, a production decision that affected the image of Doctor Who enough for Ricky Gervais to riff on it nearly a quarter-century later.
“The Twin Dilemma” was an ignominious start. But judging the Sixth Doctor by that first appearance is like judging Tom Hanks’ dramatic talents based on an episode of Bosom Buddies.
Producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward intended for the Sixth Doctor to have a genuine dramatic arc, for the alien and irascible figure gradually to become warmer and more sympathetic. For his part, Baker announced that he hoped to stay in the role longer than his namesake Tom did.
Unfortunately, this plan was derailed when BBC bosses put the show on “hiatus” for 18 months, and then, after a season in which both the Doctor and the programme itself were on trial, told Nathan-Turner that the show would be renewed only if he replaced Baker. Baker, understandably, declined to return for a regeneration scene, which meant that the Doctor appeared to regenerate because he fell off an exercise bicycle.
But although that was the end of the Sixth Doctor on television (leaving out Dimensions in Time, as we’d all like to), it was not the end of the Sixth Doctor. Given his treatment by the BBC, one might have expected Colin Baker to consign Doctor Who to his past and politely decline requests to return to it. But that’s not what happened.
Baker returned to the role as early as 1989. Appropriately for this most theatrical incarnation, his next appearance was on stage, in Doctor Who: The Ultimate Adventure. This was more or less a Doctor Who version of a Christmas pantomime: a fun, frothy and silly spectacle, complete with songs. (I imagine that the Sixth Doctor’s costume might have worked on stage in a way it never did on television.)
The Ultimate Adventure wasn’t the first time Colin Baker played the Doctor in a medium other than television: during the 1985 “hiatus” he starred in “Slipback,” the first Doctor Who story made for radio. After Doctor Who was canceled, he starred in The Stranger, an unlicensed spin-off series made for video that began as “Doctor Who with the serial numbers filed off”. In 1994, Baker even wrote a 96-page Doctor Who comic book, Doctor Who: The Age of Chaos.
And, of course, since 1999 Baker has appeared in over 60 audio plays from Big Finish Productions. Audio drama works particularly well for the Sixth Doctor, and not just because you don’t have to look at that costume. These audio dramas have given Baker a chance to develop a mellower version of his Doctor, sometimes verging on cuddly. (This is partly due to the medium, since audio is more intimate than television; the loud, brusque version of the Sixth Doctor seen on TV just wouldn’t work when you’re listening with headphones.) Baker has also had some of the best scripts in the Big Finish range, most notably “The Holy Terror” and “Jubilee,” both by Rob Shearman. (The latter was loosely adapted for television in the 2005 episode “Dalek.”)
On television, the Sixth Doctor traveled with two companions, both of whom were engaging but potentially irritating. As Perpugilliam Brown (Peri), Nicola Bryant affected a not-always-convincing American accent, and seemed to spend most of her time with the Doctor whining; by contrast, Bonnie Langford’s Mel was annoyingly upbeat. These characterizations meant that when the Doctor wasn’t facing down monsters and megalomaniacs, he was usually bickering with his companion. It’s not the fault of the actors, but the television characterizations of the Sixth Doctor and his companions didn’t give the audience much reason to want to spend time with them.
But on audio, the Sixth Doctor has been paired with two of Big Finish’s most engaging creations: the intelligent and affable Evelyn Smythe, and the self-styled “Edwardian adventuress” Charley Pollard. With Evelyn, the Sixth Doctor was finally given a sympathetic foil who is his intellectual equal. And with the time-tangled Charley (who had previously traveled with the Eighth Doctor), the Sixth Doctor was simultaneously presented with a sympathetic friend and an engaging mystery. In his most recent set of audio plays, the Sixth Doctor has been reunited with Highlander Jamie McCrimmon, (who traveled with the Second Doctor and met the Sixth on television in “The Two Doctors”).
And even Peri and Mel have been given richer characterizations than they had on television. In The Reaping by Joseph Lidster, (a story which owes a large debt to Russell T Davies’ interpretation of the role of the Doctor Who companion), we meet Peri’s mother and begin to understand why she travels with the Doctor. And, less seriously but no less brilliantly, writers Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman played to Bonnie Langford’s comedy strengths in “The One Doctor.”
Colin Baker was treated abysmally by the BBC, but he’s never given up on Doctor Who. And if you count his 11-plus years with Big Finish, he’s met his goal of playing the Doctor longer than Tom Baker did. No Doctor has shown more joy in the role than Colin Baker has. He is the Doctor, whether we like it or not—and speaking for myself, I like it.
Josiah Rowe has been a Doctor Who fan ever since he saw Tom Baker wander out of the mists of Skaro on his local PBS station. Two years later, at the age of 12, he knit himself a Doctor Who scarf, which currently resides in his closet; he has’t knit anything since. Nowadays he’s one of the editors of the Doctor Who News site, which does what it says on the tin.