While browsing through the endless rows of vintage magazines in a giant used bookstore called Bookman’s while visiting my hometown of Mesa, Arizona, I stumbled across a Doctor Who fan’s version of a bizzaro Rosetta Stone: an issue of Doctor Who Magazine dated December 1986!
Featuring an exclusive interview with departing incumbent companion Nicola Bryant and complete with fan letters, original comics and retrospectives on previous eras, this random piece of cultural history gave me an idea on how to predict—crystal ball style—what the future holds for Doctor Who.
Not surprisingly Doctor Who Magazine (Not be confused with the flash-in-the-pan North American Doctor Who Insider) holds the Guinness World Record for longest running magazine associated with a television series. And despite going through several different names and owners throughout its long run (Doctor Who Weekly, Doctor Who Marvel Monthly, The Doctor Who Magazine, et al.), it has weirdly never been out of print, even during the show’s long absence. This means the issue I picked up, No. 119, is in the same line of magazines being published to this day. (2008 saw the publication of the 400th issue.)
So what did I, an American Doctor Who fan/critic discover was happening in 1986? Well, it’s exactly the same as it is now. Fans are extremely enthusiastic about certain storylines, very picky about dialogue, and always unsure as to which incarnation of the Doctor is their favorite. Like today, everyone seems really into one specific Doctor, but still has a fondness for whoever the new guy is. Something I found particularly amusing about the various discussions around Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor was how seemingly unapologetic everyone was about him. These days, a casual or new Doctor Who fan would likely try to forget Colin Baker all together. But, you know what? This guy was the Doctor, and hardest of all, there was a huge hiatus between his initial appearance and the show’s return in “Trial of a Time Lord.” After nearly 18 months, Colin Baker’s Doctor was back and the true fans seemed happy.
Nicola Bryant, who at that point was exiting the show as Peri, also had nice, kind things to say about Colin Baker. Why, reading this you wouldn’t think this was the Doctor that time forgot at all! Instead, you’d think Doctor Who was heading into a brave new fun era with Colin Baker at the helm. Bryant is particularly vocal about how she felt her character was treated in a sexist way initially, but improved as her tenure went on. Don’t forget: she was the companion when Peter Davison regenerated into Colin Baker. And Davison was the youngest Doctor ever in the role—that is, until the casting of Matt Smith.
Peri was of course not the first of Davison’s companions, as he previously traveled with an ensemble of others, also not unlike Matt Smith’s Doctor. Finally, Colin Baker, was at the time, the only actor who had previously played another character on Doctor Who before being cast as the Doctor. That is, until Peter Capaldi! (Who was in both “The Fires of Pompeii” and Torchwood: Children of Earth.)
So, if Peter Davison=Matt Smith, Peri=Clara, the return of Gallifrey=“Trial of the Time Lord” then it follows that Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor=Peter Capaldi’s twelfth! Could the past of Doctor Who prove there are certain patterns, ripples in time and space dooming the impending Peter Capaldi era to equal the poor quality of the Colin Baker era?
Or was the sixth Doctor era simply not as bad as everyone claims? Has Doctor Who always been different for different eras, and perhaps some are just remembered more fondly than others? Right now, a general enthusiasm and approval of Peter Capaldi seems to be the overwhelming majority, but is it unfounded? Could Capaldi turn out to be a terrible choice for the Doctor and has Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner come to an end? Will this Doctor be the first unpopular one after a run of successful and fan-adored choices?
If history repeats itself, the answer to all these questions is totally a big yes. But it’s possible that’s not exactly a terrible thing. Colin Baker demonstrated the Doctor’s ability to be extremely dark, flippant, and possibly destructive. Without him, the mythos of the show might not have had a Time War, an angsty Doctor, or any of the other redemptive qualities the show and character have demonstrated since returning in 2005. The pages of this magazine don’t didn’t show me a fan base that was trouble or worried. They were excited.
It also featured what is perhaps my favorite secret companion of all time: a shape-shifting alien creature named Frobisher whose default form is that of a talking penguin. (though he can shape-shift into a dinosaur too!)
So, if you take a peek back to 1986, when the show was in transition, the fans loved still loved the Doctor. Which one? Baker, Davison? Baker, again? Maybe Clara was right in “The Time of the Doctor.” Maybe it doesn’t matter what his real name is at all.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.