The Sixth Doctor. If those three words fill you with a pervading sense of ugh, then you are not alone. Of all the Doctor’s incarnations, the Sixth is the most universally despised, and while I personally now feel this to be unfair—different and challenging doesn’t necessarily mean bad—at the time of his ascension to the TARDIS, I was in no mood to be reasonable about such a leap of crazy. He was mean. He was self-aggrandizing. He was dressed like a clown, and I have never liked those creepy things. Upon rewatch, and certainly in this age of pre-eminence for the unlikeable yet sympathetic anti-hero—from House to Walter White to, in more genre-appropriate examples, Rorschach, Snape, and Sheldon—he and his general derision and superciliousness are far less jarring.
For various reasons—including said unlikeability—the Sixth Doctor’s adventures are quite limited, when compared to the First, Second, Third, Fourth and even Fifth Doctors. He only has two full seasons of episodes (plus one serial from another) to his name, and one of those seasons can be—and often is—considered one long story. To my mind, while the season that comprises The Trial of a Time Lord (the show’s 23rd, and Colin Baker’s last) is certainly a cohesive and continuing tale, it is broken up into four discrete serials that can be viewed independently (and will be judged independently for our purposes here). If the Fourth Doctor season that comprised The Key to Time is separated into chapters, then so too is this one.
Thus have I spoken.
It is also worth noting that in the long hiatus between Seasons 22 and 23 (18 months! It was positively HBO-ian), a radio serial was produced featuring the Sixth Doctor, entitled Slipback. I have excluded it from consideration here, as I have all other audio adventures, but I don’t think it would have made the list, anyway, so unremarkable does it remain.
But what is remarkable enough in this era to be considered “essential” viewing? Well, considering the ease with which I could present you a long “Non-Essential” list here (Attack of the Cybermen, Timelash, Terror of the Vervoids, I could go on), welcome to the very definition of “dubious distinction”…
THE SIXTH DOCTOR
Played by: Colin Baker
First Appearance: Newly regenerated—and already annoyingly arrogant—in “Part Four” (The Caves of Androzani, March 16, 1984), but really in “Part One” (The Twin Dilemma, March 22, 1984)
Last Appearance: The Trial of a Time Lord: The Ultimate Foe (Part Fourteen/Two, December 6, 1986)—but with a later guest appearance.
Serials: 11 (some will claim 8, considering all of Season 23 to be one long serial, but I disagree)
Style: Color Blind Willy Wonka
Catchphrase: “Aha!” Or just any three words or phrases repeated with increasing vigor, ie. “Intolerant. Intolerant? INTOLERANT!!” “Malfunctioning? Malfunctioning? MALFUNCTIONING!?” “Carrot juice. Carrot Juice? CARROT JUICE?!”
Characteristics: The Sixth Doctor is, not to put too fine a point on it, a jerk. He’s endlessly superior, unaccountably brash and has no patience for fools (which is what he considers everyone who is not, well, him). While he does mellow with time, he nevertheless remains a disdainful asshole of the first water—which is only mitigated slightly by the fact that he is so often right in his assumption of unerring rectitude. In all, a most difficult Doctor with whom to identify, let alone admire and adore. Unless you’re into contemptuous, condescending douche bags (but with a heart of gold), of course. He is smart, though. And kinda violent. So… there’s that.
Companions: He spends most of his time traveling with Fifth Doctor hangover, Californian botany student Perpugilliam “Peri” Brown (Nicola Bryant), but effervescent flame-haired computer programmer Melanie “Mel” (Bonnie Langford) comes along at the end of the road.
1. THE TWIN DILEMMA, Season 21, Episodes 21-24
Written by: Anthony Steven
Directed by: Peter Moffatt
Setting: Mostly the planet Jaconda
4 Episodes: “Part One” (March 22, 1984), “Part Two” (March 23, 1984), “Part Three” (March 29, 1984), “Part Four” (March 30, 1984)
Not only is this the first episode of the new Doctor’s era, but it is terrible, which makes it essential because it is important for all concerned to know exactly what they are in for here. Oh, it has flashes of a certain wacky charm, with the new Doctor all over the place in a state of fluctuating stability—it’s like he’s gripped by the pon farr, but without the promise of sexy times—and even the occasional enjoyable flippancy, but in the end, between the hermaphrodite slugs and the dubious science and the most ungenius-like genius kids in the history of television, The Twin Dilemma deserves its place as the “worst” (or at least most unloved) serial in the storied history of the entire series. And coming directly after The Caves of Androzani, roundly considered among the show’s best, the comparison is stark and sad indeed.
EXPLAINED! Why the Sixth Doctor is so reviled.
2. VENGEANCE ON VAROS, Season 22, Episodes 3-4
Written by: Philip Martin
Directed by: Ron Jones
Setting: Earth, in the future and the past, as well as onboard an alien freighter
2 Episodes: “Part One” (January 19, 1985), “Part Two” (January 26, 1985)
The whole of Season 22 of Doctor Who was, for some reason, broadcast in 45-minute episodes, mostly with two to a serial. This is the second of these efforts, and for all its problems, there is something stately and almost captivating about this tale of corporate greed run awry. Oh, even in 1985 the exploitative mining company and the “bread and circuses” means of dystopian population control were hardly ground-breaking science fiction subjects, but Vengeance on Varos continues to be a timely, if none-too-subtle, allegory on the evils of hegemony and reality television, and there is some amusing levity in this one, too—cherish that where you can, in this particular Whovian era.
EXPLAINED! The TARDIS’s constant state of dilapidation.
3. THE TWO DOCTORS, Season 22, Episodes 7-9
Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Peter Moffatt
Setting: Space Station Chimera, Spain
3 Episodes: “Part One” (February 16, 1985), “Part Two” (February 23, 1985), “Part Three” (March 2, 1985)
This is essential because all of the Doctor-meets-Doctor episodes are essential (yes, yes, I know I haven’t mentioned the previous ones yet, but never mind, they shall be honored in due course), and also because this one is so very important to the mind-bending fandom theory of Series 6b. I will let Tor.com poster ChristopherLBennett (from his comment on the Second Doctor’s Essential Episodes) explain:
“Series 6b” is a hypothesis used to explain some discrepancies in the Doctor’s return visits… in “The Two Doctors” a seemingly much older Second Doctor is traveling with a much older Jamie in a different TARDIS console room, and mentioning dropping off Victoria to study graphology, something that didn’t fit anywhere into her known adventures. Not to mention that in that story he’s evidently working for the Time Lords, following their instructions, which conflicts with “The War Games,” in which he’d had no contact with them since his initial flight from Gallifrey… to reconcile these discrepancies, it was proposed that maybe he wasn’t immediately regenerated at the end of “The War Games” — that instead the Time Lords sent him on special missions for an uncertain amount of time…”
Yep, that pretty much sums it up. (Thanks, Christopher!) And makes The Two Doctors compulsory viewing, even if you aren’t curious to see how Jamie aged (hint: not well) and are not eager to be utterly confounded by what may be the most convoluted Who story ever. Sure, it’s fan service, but it’s bewildering fan service, and that’s the important thing.
EXPLAINED! Sadly, The Two Doctors is unable to sufficiently explain anything, not even its own plot.
4. THE MYSTERIOUS PLANET, Season 23, Episodes 1-4
Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: Nicholas Mallett
Setting: The planet Gallifrey, the planet Ravolox
4 Episodes: “Part One” (September 6, 1986), “Part Two” (September 13, 1986), “Part Three” (September 20, 1986), “Part Four” (September 27, 1986)
This is the first of the Trial of a Time Lord mega-serial installments (welcome back, 25-minute episodes!), and really, the whole season is pretty much a rip-off of the Second Doctor story The War Games, in which he is put on trial for meddling with time, etc. It’s almost like they brought back Patrick Troughton in a clever piece of stunt casting the season before, and during their long hiatus thought to themselves: “Second Doctor, eh? There might be something in this…” As a result, what we have are fourteen episodes of flashbacks/forwards to past/future (new to us) adventures, as the Doctor must justify his actions to a court increasingly—suspiciously!—unwilling to listen. In this session, we learn that the Doctor and Peri visited a planet a lot like a future-Earth (because that never happens), except the weird thing is, it is in a very different location in space (I say again: because that never happens). There’s a planetary conflict, the Doctor gets involved, you know, the usual, it’s actually a pretty decent story—but above all this serial is notable for what is undoubtedly the best oration given by this iteration of the Doctor, and is well up there across all of Who:
“In all my travelings throughout the universe, I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here! The oldest civilization, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core! Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen—they’re still in the nursery compared to us! Ten million years of ultimate power. That is what it takes to be really corrupt!”
EXPLAINED! Why some aficionados actually quite like the Sixth Doctor.
5. THE ULTIMATE FOE, Season 23, Episodes 13-14
Written by: Robert Holmes, Pip and Jane Baker
Directed by: Chris Clough
Setting: The planet Gallifrey, The Matrix
2 Episodes: “Part One/Thirteen” (November 29, 1986), “Part Two/Fourteen” (December 6, 1986)
We never get to see the Sixth Doctor regenerate into the Seventh, because Colin Baker was fired from the series and forced to end his adventures here. And look, when viewing him with adult eyes I may no longer hate this Doctor with a fiery passion—and, indeed, even by this point in the show he had come to grow on child-me, and many of us—but that is ultimately not the worst decision the BBC ever made. (Not renewing This Life for a third season was.) And at least he got to go out on something of a high; true, not in a noble and self-sacrificing manner as should befit our hero, but in a rambunctious two-parter in which we have a zany new companion (oh, Mel: “A megabyte modem!” Bless.), we spend a lot of time in the delightfully confusing wilds of the Matrix, and a dastardly plot is foiled… or is it? The first episode of this serial (AKA, the thirteenth episode of this serial) is particularly enjoyable, which is only fitting, given it is the final Doctor Who installment written by the great Robert Holmes. True, the conclusion given is all somewhat vague, but considering the whole season is a hellish mess of plot and counter-plot, false identity and false memory, opaque motives and officious manipulation of both the facts and the rules of narrative fiction, then The Ultimate Foe’s sense of incompleteness is entirely apropos. Plus, quite frankly, any serial from this period that manages to give us not only a humanized, almost likeable Doctor but also a properly devious and megalomaniacal Master (Anthony Ainley, etc.) has to be seen to be believed.
EXPLAINED! Sometimes dead companions are actually just married to bombastic warrior kings now.
NEXT TIME: The Seventh Doctor—The Bumbling Machiavelli
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.