Who Marathon: Colin Baker
Well, that was fast. It’s 19 Apr, and on 20 Mar I had just started the sixth Doctor’s run, and here we are at the end. Colin Baker, the shortest run (ignoring Paul McGann) of the classic series Doctors is over. It started with such promise for me, and ended.. well. poorly is a kind way to say it.
When it started out, it was huge (to me). I loved the bluster of the Sixth Doctor. Colin made a lot of noise in the press when he got the gig that he wanted to beat Tom Baker’s record of seven years in the role. I was all for it. At the time he was new, I felt Colin was a throwback to William Hartnell as he was pretty cranky early on. The plan (as we’ve been told) was to make his incarnation cranky and unlikable at the start, and have him mellow over time and be someone much different. The only problem is we just got the first part. We never got the other part (unless you count Big Finish audios). So that tends to cloud most people’s judgement of “Ol’ Sixey”. Thing is I liked the cranky early version. I’m sure I would have loved the latter. But alas…
The problem is Michael Grade, basically. I mean it wasn’t JUST him, but when the head of BBC programming doesn’t like Doctor Who, he’s going to have it in for Colin. Now I don’t want to spend a ton of time talking about Grade, but it’s hard to talk about Colin Baker’s run without talking about Michael Grade. He’s the reason Colin was fired after Series 23. Grade’s the reason the show was attempted to be canceled in 1985, but brought back for 1986 (begrudgingly, IMO). Amusingly for the Season 22 blu-ray set released in 2022, they brought Michael Grade back to be interviewed NOW about Doctor Who in the 80’s. That was an interesting touch. There’s also a funny picture of Grade with New Who producers Russell T Davies & Steven Moffat that I had to include, as there’s no other logical place for it in these stories. Anyway, back to Colin…
One other problem is that Colin’s era started poorly. In a break from tradition, Colin’s first story wasn’t the first of the next series. It was the last one of Peter Davison’s final series (21). The timing wasn’t so much a problem (as they’d done that before, William Hartnell regenerated two stories into Series 4). But the first story for Colin was godawful. The Twin Dilemma was a mess. It followed one of the greatest (if not the greatest) story in classic Who (The Caves of Androzani) You have an unlikable Doctor in an awful story where he does rather unlikeable things (attack Peri). People are going to sour to him from the start. I know they said that was the intent with the Sixth Doctor, but did they really intend THAT?
Anyway, some facts about Colin Baker’s run:
- Number of series: 2 (full)
- Number of stories: 8 (assuming you count Trial as 1, which I do)
- Number of episodes: 31
- Number of companions: 2
One note about the number of episodes. During his first full season there was an experiment with 45 min long episodes, vs the 22 they were in every other season of Classic Who. As such his episode count is deflated. Had Season 22 come off like all the others, he would have had a total of 44 episodes. That one I blame more on John Nathan-Turner as it was his idea I understand for the double length episodes.
In Colin’s first series, we did get a lot of classic Who characters – which is good. Daleks, Cybermen, & The Master. We also got a new Gallifreyan – The Rani. I’m glad we got all this stuff, because of his early exit. The Dalek & Cybermen stories I loved. Wrote about them elsewhere on the blog, but I loved that the Cyberman story was a sequel of sorts to two 60’s era Cybermen stories.
There was one extra story that I’m not covering in this marathon, as it wasn’t televised. During the 18 month hiatus in-between Series 22 & 23, there was an audio play produced with Colin & Nicola. It was called “Slipback“. I did listen to it at the time, and I remember thinking “Well, this isn’t bad, but it’s not a TV episode”. At that time in my life I wasn’t into audio stuff, I just wanted more TV episodes. Besides, if I started down that path, I’d be stuck forever as there are a metric ton of audio only stories now thanks to Big Finish.
As I’ve done in the other sections, here’s a few words about the companions Colin’s Sixth Doctor traveled with…
- Perpugulliam “Peri” Brown (Nicola Bryant) – Nicola Bryant is someone who as a teen/early 20’s red blooded American male I well.. liked watching. Can’t lie, I always felt she was hired for her looks more than anything else. I learned better of that error in judgement later on, but when she started I was 20. And now as I write this nearly four decades later, she’s still pleasing on the eye. In fact, now that I’ve watched all of Colin’s stories in the last few weeks, the producers really worked that angle, too. Peri’s outfits in most of Series 22 accentuate Nicola’s looks. Looking back on this era, the one thing I wish Peri & Six didn’t do so much is argue. There’s really only one small segment when they didn’t argue – the first segment of Trial of a Time-Lord I wish we got THAT version more than we did. Peri has never come back to the series in proper canon, however… As part of the Season 22 Blu-Ray set, there was a trailer produced called “The Eternal Mystery” where they brought Peri back as if she was the widow of Yrcarnos, so while it might not be “TV canon”, it did follow the canon of Peri’s character, which I very much enjoyed. I met Nicola at a few conventions back in the 80’s, and she was always fun to talk to. She’s on social media too (@thenicolabryant).
- Melanie “Mel” Bush (Bonnie Langford) – And then we get to Mel. Bonnie Langford was to me in the 80’s a total unknown, but then most Doctor Who actors were. Thing is my friends from England detested this casting, as Bonnie was apparently disliked from being a kid actor all over television. I never had a problem with her, although her character was never the strongest. I’ll have more to say in the Sylvester McCoy wrap-up, but with Colin the character never bothered me. Except for the fact that she was out of order – we were eventually going to get their proper meetup story, but we never did. Big Finish took care of that, but I would have rather that happened on television. Her original character remit was that she was a computer programmer, and that only ever cropped up twice in any television episode she was in. One in Episode 14 of Trial (when she recognized the “megabyte modem” on sight), and once in Sylvester’s first story. Even my own wife wonders what my deal with Bonnie Langford was she was never the type of girl that interested me. My wife specifically said “She’s not your type”, but I always liked her, thought she was cute. I especially loved the red hair. I have a few more weeks of her as I move out of Colin’s era, so I’ll enjoy that while I have it. Mel did return to the show once – many years later in Jodie Whittaker’s final episode in the “companion support group” scene at the end of that story. She didn’t do much else than sit in a chair and have a short line or two, but still. She was there.
Both of Colin’s companions worked for him, although I did like Peri a bit more with Peter Davison. Peri did seem less combative with Davison, but then she was in one of the greatest stories of all time (Androzani). That could be part of it. But as scripted, both Peri & Mel worked with six. Probably due to six being stuck in the “gruff” version of the character during his televised adventures.
Colin’s acting worked well for me. Of course an actor is only as good as his scripts. I’ve been a fan of the show for 40 years now as I write this, and if there’s one thing I’ve seen levied at every single Doctor (maybe not McGann) is that they would have been better served if their “stories were only written better”. It seems a popular thing that when an actor is gone from the role, those complaining about them then resort to “Well, it would have been better if the writing was better”. Happens all the time. But it was particularly true with Colin Baker’s era. Some of his stuff is pretty meh. Even the stories I really liked didn’t always have the sharpest dialogue. But still. Colin was a great actor and did well with what he had to work with. He’s definitely someone I was against the sacking of back when it happened. Also
Is there an essential Sith Doctor story? In the past, I’ve defined “essential” as something that moves the mythos of the series forward and/or establishes some large piece of the Doctor’s background. I’m not entirely sure there is one in Colin’s era that is elevated to “essential”. The closest I can think of would be Revelation of the Daleks, when we attempt to get some new kind of Dalek that can reproduce. There is also the bit where Davros gets his hand shot off in that story and every subsequent appearance in the modern show has him with a metal hand. But none of that makes it “essential”. I get the feeling if we had gotten more of Colin we may have gotten one. I like quite a few of his stories – a few very much. But overall, none are what I consider to be essential to the overall show mythos.
I met Colin several times at conventions in the 80’s One of which is the source of the photo of myself with Colin where I was rocking my John Nathan-Turner Hawaiian shirt. I recall him being nice to talk to, but then again actors aren’t exactly rude to those coming for autographs or photos. I will add this – the photo with him was free. Back in the 80’s, they didn’t charge $50-$100 (or more).
Colin was asked to return for the first story of Season 24 to film a regeneration story. He said he’d return to do the entire series then leave, and neither side wanted to budge on that, so he was gone. Sylvester McCoy played the Sixth Doctor in the next story for a (very bad) regeneration. Don’t blame Colin for that at all – it was a bad scene at the time. Colin himself returned in Jodie Whittaker’s final story playing one of the “Guardians of the Edge”, and it was Colin now, not any de-aging. The Sixth Doctor did return in new footage in the Matt Smith Story “The Name of the Doctor”, but it wasn’t Colin. Pictures of all this below.
Colin has gone one to do a metric ton of Big Finish stories going all the way back to the first ever one called “The Sirens of Time” in 1999. These have fleshed out the sixth Doctor more in line with what they wanted when the Sixth Doctor was originally created. I’ve listened to some of them, and they seem quite good, but there are a ton of them, so I haven’t checked ’em all out. There was even a series of audios based on the original stories for Season 23 before the hiatus happened in 1985. Those were all fun. You can’t go wrong with the Colin Baker Big Finish output at all.
Colin also returned for the most excellent special “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot“. This was produced for the 50th anniversary special of the show in 2013. It basically stars Colin (along with Sylvester McCoy, Peter Davison, & Paul McGann) complaining about not being in the actual 50th anniversary special. It’s glorious in every regard. It’s absolutely non canonical, because they all play themselves, not their Doctors as such. It had some big name cameos too. Peter Jackson, Olivia Coleman, lan McKellen, and many MANY others.
As a side note – this really has nothing to do with Doctor Who… Both Colin Baker & Nicola Bryant made appearances in the fan series “Star Trek Continues“. I’m also a fan of the original Star Trek, and this perfectly captured the spirit of original Trek from the 60’s. If you liked TOS, check STC out. It’s free.
Here’s some photos – click on any of them for a larger version.
As I wrap this up, I wanted to say Colin’s era flew by way too fast. I mean I know it would with so few episodes, but still. It made me wish once again nearly 40 years later that we got more of him on TV. I wish they could have come to some accommodation to let him exit gracefully, but no. Thanks Michael Grade. :(
I got super excited to see Colin Baker in Jodie Whittaker’s finale. Was great to see six again after all this time. Probably for the last time.