If you were anything like me, you hated the Sixth Doctor. Well, maybe hate is a strong word. I don’t know that I ever actually hated the Sixth Doctor. There were actually some stories with him I quite liked, but I was certainly not a huge fan of that Doctor. I just wasn’t really a fan of the Colin Baker years, and I wasn’t particularly troubled to see him exit the role of the Doctor no matter how ingloriously the manner in which they had him removed.
I, of course, did what many did and still do. I blamed Colin Baker for my lack of enthusiasm for those years in Who history. My opinion back in the day was that he just wasn’t a good choice to play the Doctor. His take was erratic, uneven, and not very Doctorish. I wasn’t alone in that assessment. While I had often heard back then that it was “impolite” to talk about who your favorite Doctor was in some circles of Who fandom, many who said that back in the day had no issue telling people who their least favorite Doctor had been- #6.
Then Big Finish happened.
Big Finish, for those of you who don’t know, is a great little company that’s being doing original audio dramas over in England for quite some years now. Their big break came when they landed the license to do original stories with the Doctor Who license, stories using the remaining living actors (and even one that was dead in a bit role) who had played the Doctor (other than, at that time, Tom Baker for reasons entirely Tom Baker’s) set in between the established Doctor Who television adventures.
Following the path of my interest in television Doctors, I was happily on board with everyone’s new stories- except for Colin Baker’s. Others in my circle of friends and family who knew I loved Who but not that I didn’t love you know Who grabbed some stories for me one year as gifts. I got a few of his stories for Christmas and somewhat happily let them sit in their cases without listening to them for quite some few months. Then, for whatever the reason that struck me at the time, I put a CD in the player and started listening to the story while doing chores around the house.
I was somewhat surprised by the fact that I was actually greatly enjoying the story by the end of the first disc. To my even greater surprise, I was absolutely enjoying Colin Baker’s performance as the Doctor. That was over a decade ago. Baker has since become one of my favorite Doctors at Big Finish, and his work there made me start to look back at his work on the show.
By that point it had been years since I had watched just about any of the Colin Baker stories. Rewatching them again after both the passage of time and the new appreciation for his ability to play the Doctor eventually led me to a new perspective on the Colin Baker era. The Sixth Doctor is a compellingly good Doctor who was just let down by some just okay to horrible stories and apparently by some less than focused behind the scenes creative decisions.
Looking back on Baker’s work now, you see a powerful, and more than just a little bit risky, performance. It’s also one that might have worked better if the path of the character’s arc had been laid out better and done in a way that was other than the seemingly random nature Who’s creative let it develop.
Baker’s Doctor was angry and occasionally more than a little bit alien in the way he interacted with others. He wasn’t the genial Doctor who preceded him. It was an approach that took guts. It was an approach that could have worked amazingly well with Colin Baker in the role. But the problem was, again, it also took the proper storyline and arc guidance, and he wasn’t given either of those things.
When you watch the Sixth Doctor on the screen, you see an unevenness in the performance. Baker’s Doctor would act in a way that would lead you to believe he was going in one direction in a particular story, but then there would be moments in the same story where he played the character in a way that went counter to what was seemingly being set up in the other scenes. The performances came across as Baker’s interpretation of the character being off or his instincts as an actor being wrong. I would later learn in looking into that era that it wasn’t his interpretation that was off, it was the behind the scenes direction.
You can only do a job as well as the leadership lets you do it. Baker had horrible leadership. The stories were some of the weaker ones from that period of Who as it was, but they could have been elevated. The problem was no one seemed to know what was supposed to go up on the screen. Baker and the other actors of that era would even occasionally ask what they were playing in a scene- asking for example if a scene was meant to be them fooling someone else, being themselves, or something being fabricated entirely by the villain of the piece –and informed that they should play it however they wanted. Combined with the rushed working conditions they were dealing with, it may be a small miracle that some of the stories seemed as coherent as they ultimately did.
It’s kind of a shame. Baker working on Big Finish stories set in between his original stories from that era gives us a taste of what his Doctor could have been on television. The combination of Baker, good stories, and consistent direction produce performances that lead one to believe the Colin Baker era could have been one of the best in classic Doctor Who. But, for better or for worse, we got what we got back then. But thankfully, at least both he and the fans finally found his Doctor as it should have been.
The Colin Baker television era will never be one of the high spots in Doctor Who history. No amount of going back and looking again after years away will change that. But the Sixth Doctor himself is an entirely different story. Colin Baker is a great Doctor despite the televised stories he was saddled with. Judging his Doctor through only those performances and not seeking out the Big Finish work he’s been doing does both his ability to make the role great and your own enjoyment of Who as a fan a great disservice.
Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC, Adrenalin Productions. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.