If the story of the Doctor is anything, it is the story of the individual against the State. The Daleks are the ultimate statists – the uniformity of command, the need for unquestioning obedience and the crushing of individuality. The Cybermen too are avatars of sameness, uniformity – and ultimately, a state enforcement of beigeness. One thing the Doctor has always despised is that beigeness.
The Doctor’s clothes have always made or defined the man – just look at the way he’s remembered most immediately in the public imagination: frock coat, hobo, dandy, hat and long scarf, cricket and celery, THAT coat, question-mark sweater, Lord Byron, leather jacket, geek chic, tweed, magician. The outfit is always the second thing to be waited for after the name of the actor, the second big touchstone with who the Doctor is going to be next. So the idea that a costume choice could make or break a Doctor’s tenure is perhaps not as ridiculous as it might otherwise sound. But the reasons given for that connection make somewhat less persuasive sense.
The First Doctor dressed – as New Who has intimated – like a man trying to be taken seriously, trying to be older than his years and assert his authority in a society he rejected. The Second Doctor’s outfit was ultimately a disguise, the baggy trousers underlining the idea he cultivated of a well-meaning buffoon, a hobo, a scruffbag who simply wandered into situations, the better to hide his brilliant, and more often than is generally remembered, his manipulative, brain. Add to that his propensity for hats of every description and you get an outfit that matches disguise with an effervescent inner need to show off.
It was a need that found a much fuller expression in the Third Doctor’s (admittedly initially off-the-hook, necessity-based) choice of clothing – all velvet jackets, capes and ruffled shirts. This was the much-vaunted Dandy Doctor, a Doctor who strode into every room and announced “Look at me, I’m so much cleverer than you.” And that, by the time Jon Pertwee left the role, was a fundamental facet of the Doctor’s nature: the peacock, who drew attention with his clothes as a way of establishing both his otherness and his potential authority.
Tom Baker was of course an actor who needed little in the way of affectation to establish his otherness or authority, but yet his outfit is always remembered as that of the quintessential Doctor. Granted, he was in the role for almost twice as long as most of the other Tardis-owners, but his outfit – the hat, the coat and the long, long, lonnnnnnnng scarf gave him that instant look of a natural rebel (it was largely inspired by the Bohemians of artistic Paris, fantastically counter-cultural as they were) and it gave him an air of being able to fit in anywhere, but also of being credible as a representative of authority in a universe far less buttoned-up and frilled than that of the elegant Jon Pertwee. To use a contemporary example, you felt the Fourth Doctor could find himself quite at home in the Mos Eisley cantina of the Star Wars universe, something you couldn’t really say about any of the previous Doctors.
Then, suddenly, the unbuttoned exuberance of the Fourth Doctor was replaced by what was, bless his little Doctoral heart, a symphony in beige, in which Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor was swathed. The candy-striped pyjama trousers were a nod back to the first and second Doctors, the sweater an avuncular but striking touch, and the celery… yes, well, apparently the celery was a gas-detector, though it served as a subtle indication of something not quite normal about the fair-haired young Doctor. Indeed, the whole costume was a visual avatar of the performance: very, very restrained, with just underlying hints of alien oddity. This Doctor’s costume, like his face and manner, fitted in anywhere, but found it hard to command the attention his actual years and experience demanded.
That was the sound of the Sixth Doctor. He exploded on screen in a technicolour regeneration, and immediately gave the impression that there would be no more Mr Nice Guy. The paint-factory explosion outfit was the ultimate in reaction to what had gone before, and so was the Doctor’s character. This was a Doctor who strode into situations far more than most of his predecessors – only the Fourth Doctor had ever managed a proper, self-assured stride before – and he wore his commanding presence not only on his sleeve but in every inch of mis-matched, test card cloth on his body. He was also the antithesis of the Fifth Doctor in terms of restraint. Where the Fifth Doctor had almost sidled into situations, and coughed politely before simply using his advanced knowledge, the Sixth Doctor had an edge of tantrumming toddler, who’d been trussed up in his best church clothes for too long and now wanted to wear his princess costume, flippers and magician’s coat, and was quite prepared to hold his breath and turn purple till he got his way.
Colin Baker and others have argued that the costume was the wrong decision for a traveller who wanted to pass incognito in the universe. And indeed it would be, if the Sixth Doctor ever wanted to do that.
He rarely did. Most of the time, he wanted to be seen, to be heard, to be listened to, as a direct reaction to the Fifth Doctor’s relative invisibility. And when he did want to go undercover, the brassy bravado of the Sixth Doctor vanished in an instant – in Mark of the Rani, he ditched the bright coat for a coal-covered jerkin. When mourning dress was required on Necros in Revelation of the Daleks, he didn’t hesitate to swathe himself in shades of blue. The tantrumming toddler wasn’t insensible to the demands of universal fashion, he simply stood his ground for what he personally found suited his ebullient personality.
And while that coat, that glorious, demented coat, embodied his explosive, colourful new personality to a nation of viewers, it’s naïve to think that the outfit is what caused people to turn off or turn over during Baker’s era. To blame the coat would be like saying Joseph is an annoying musical because of the technicolour dreamcoat, that the Pied Piper is dangerous by virtue of his patchwork costume, or that Willy Wonka is creepy by virtue of his hat.
No. The reasons people turned off in those days are more complex – fandom was relatively immature and did not largely understand the idea of a Doctor whose nature was a work in progress, who would mellow and change over time, and senior executives at the BBC had no background in or understanding of either science fiction generally or the unique place Doctor Who had in the hearts of the nation, and so the show floundered both in terms of its own fan base and in the general, more occasional viewing public. The costume had nothing to do with that.
Of course, several Doctors have had more than one outfit in their time in the role – Jon Pertwee began the trend of the mid-or-late-run tweak, and Tom Baker followed suit, as did Sylvester McCoy (who himself said he felt much more comfortable when the darker outfit came in than he ever did in the Doctor’s second symphony in beige and the question-mark pullover), Paul McGann, and Matt Smith. David Tennant and Peter Capaldi of course had two outfits right from the off – brown suit, blue suit in the first instance, and white shirt, twinkly thin jumper in the second (really helping with the Magician thing there, Peter…). The Sixth Doctor has also had a late-run makeover, and now, in audio, wears a blue interpretation of his original costume. Check out The Wrong Doctors from Big Finish for the best example of how the costume mellowed with the man, and the course the Sixth Doctor’s evolution could have taken on screen.
Finally, if you look around, there are now attempts to reclaim the Sixth Doctor’s outfit on the internet. Inspired fans have colour-co-ordinated the costumes of the Third and Fourth Doctors, along with Doctors 8 through 12, and they are brilliant, seeming to encapsulate the ultimate essence of the peacock-Doctor.
Matt Smith in particular seems to suit the Sixth Doctor’s colour palette better than Colin Baker did, and better than anything Smith ever actually wore in the role. It would also have perfectly suited his Doctor’s approach to children.
The message is clear: Leave the coat alone, it’s a thing of 80s beauty and a design classic.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk