The most recent issue of Doctor Who Magazine has proven to be one of its most controversial, due to it including their first interview with Colin Baker since DWM’s ‘Mighty 200’ poll in 2009, which saw The Twin Dilemma being voted as the worst Doctor Who story ever.
The debate is better shown on the respective parties twitter pages, but has thrown up interesting questions - Is there value to ranking stories? And is old ‘Sixies’ era unfairly maligned in them?
While many have pointed out that the Sixth Doctor’s Big Finish audio adventures frequently score extremely highly, the stories fared poorly in the 50 years poll. The highest was Revelation of the Daleks in 70th place, with all the others being in the bottom half and his debut story, The Twin Dilemma, again being rock bottom of them all.
Here at WarpedFactor we've debated the merit of the polls already, so this article will instead attempt to defend the Sixth Doctor’s sadly short television era. Many fans view this as one of the series weakest ever periods, full of bad stories, an overly aggressive Doctor and heaps of pointless violence. Perhaps I am in the minority, but on rewatch the quality of the serials in the period may come as a surprise to some of the naysayers. Sure, there are one or desperately poor adventures (Timelash, for example) but even these are not without their merits, and some of season 22 provides some of the best of 1980’s Doctor Who.
A perfect example of this is Revelation of the Daleks, an underrated classic which seems far low down in 70th position. Despite a lack of Doctor and Peri action, Eric Saward populates the serial with some of the finest guest characters ever on the show - particularly the wonderfully creepy Jobel and the two brilliant double acts of Kara/Vogel and Bostock/Orcini. Hell, even Alexei Sayle is pretty good as the doomed DJ! Saward’s script is a delight throughout with a delicious sprinkling of black humour (evidenced in the clip below) and some very dark ideas - Natasha seeing her father as a dalek in the glass case is one of the series’ most disturbing moments.
The rest of season 22 is a lot stronger than the polls would suggest. The Mark of the Rani is superbly directed by Sarah Hellings, with an imaginative plot. Kate O’Mara is one the best villainess’ to grace Doctor Who, with her brilliantly catty remarks on the Master's continual obsession with the Doctor. The Two Doctors is far from perfect, but to see Troughton and Hines together again is an absolute delight, and Jaqueline Pearce is, as always, wonderful as Chessene. Excessive violence is often levelled as a criticism for this season and perhaps it does have some justification, with the crushing hands scene in Attack of the Cybermen and the notorious acid bath scene in Vengeance on Varos seeming a little too far. Yet this draws attention away from the fact these are actually two very good stories. Varos is a brilliant parody of the reality television shows which are now so common, and boasts one of the series best ever villains in the highly disturbing Sil. It’s fair to say that Timelash is bad, but even then there are occasional glimmers of hope especially with the magnificent Borad mask.
The Sixth Doctor’s second full season sees one of Doctor Who’s most ambitious stories ever, in the form of the 14-part epic Trial of a Time Lord. Widely seen as a disaster which led to Colin’s (unfair) sacking, the story languished down in 168th place in the poll. Watching it in one go does take a fair amount of practice, with the trial scenes becoming more and more intrusive, but there are moments of utter magic. Glitz and Dibber in the Mysterious Planet are another of Bob Holmes’ fine double acts, while Mindwarp is just wonderfully bonkers, with one of the most heart-breaking endings to any story (as shown below). Terror of the Vervoids is probably the weakest of the run but still boasts some incredible cliff-hangers, while episode 13 is simply brilliant - the highlight being the reveal of the Valeyard’s true identity, a truly shocking moment. In short, Trial was probably the wrong decision at the time but now should be viewed for what it is - a surprisingly fine piece of Doctor Who.
And now we come to the defence of the story that is sat right at the foot of the poll - Colin’s debut, the universally maligned Twin Dilemma. Now there is no way I will argue that this is a great story - it’s not even a good one. It has some major, major problems but is it the worst Doctor Who story ever? No way, it’s vastly superior to The Dominators, The Sensorites and most of season 24 to name just a few. There are moments of magic there - it’s actually a pretty interesting plot, while Azmael is played delightfully by Maurice Denham. The highlight of the show is Colin Baker, who despite a ghastly coat and some badly misjudged writing at the start of the show still manages to put in a great performance.
It seems incredible that we have got this into discussing the merits of the Sixth Doctors era without even mentioning how brilliant Colin Baker is. In the DWM interview, Colin compares his Doctor to Peter Capaldi’s brilliant current incarnation, and it isn’t without merit. The Sixth Doctor is great because he is just so different - he seems to view humans as an annoyance, uses violence surprisingly freely and seems to be basically grumpy for a lot of the time…... hang on!
When you put to paper a list of the Sixth Doctor's personality traits it surprisingly reads very much like that of the much loved Third incarnation, which again makes it clear why the Sixth Doctor and his era need a re-evaluation as a whole.
When Colin is allowed away from his grumpy exterior he shows some wonderfully ‘Doctory’ moments - the flower magic trick in Terror of the Vervoids, his game of ‘snap!’ against his former self in The Two Doctors and his whole relationship with Peri in season 23. The best moment probably comes in Attack of the Cybermen with this wonderful line:
THE DOCTOR: I shall beat them into submission…with my charm.It’s sad that an interview over polls has led to more interest in Colin Baker’s work, but if you are still a major critic of his era, I urge you to dust down your DVDs and give it another try. Seriously, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised!
In the meantime though: Colin Baker (and the Sixth Doctor era as a whole), you are really rather brilliant!
William Egan studies archaeology by day, frees the universe of evil, injustice and cold tea by night. Walks in an eternity of cult BBC science fiction series and Big Finish. Follow him on twitter.