A Modern Woman’s Guide to Classic Who: THE SIXTH DOCTOR YEARS: 1984-86

Summary: This is the point where a lot of Doctor Who fans walked away. In all fairness to Colin Baker, there are a lot of reasons why this era just… isn’t very good, and despite many fans blaming him, it has little to do with his performance. A few very bad scripts, however, and equally bad production decisions (such as an awful costume, and the ‘edgy’ concept of the new Doctor starting out by trying to strangle his companion) got the Sixth Doctor Years off to a very bad start.

After one very awkward and uneven season, Doctor Who was put on a hiatus for 18 months. Forces at the BBC were working hard to cancel the show. When it returned with season long arc based around the theme of the Doctor on trial, much had been improved from the last disastrous season, but in many ways it was too little, too late. Colin Baker was pushed out, and there were calls for a recast in a last ditch effort to save the show…

Things You Need To Know:
Colin Baker did not choose the outfit.

The Companions:

Introduced only two stories before the end of the Fifth Doctor’s run, Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant) was understandably shocked when her sweet, affable Doctor turned into a snarky, pompous bully. Also, though the actress was British, the choice had been made to make her American, in the hopes of appeasing overseas viewers (seriously, take it from an Australian who had little time for Tegan, this is always a bad idea). Mild conflict between Doctor and companion had often worked well – with Ian and Barbara, Liz, Sarah, Romana… and had already been overdone with Tegan. With the Sixth Doctor and Peri, it was just unpleasant to witness, like two people who really didn’t like each other, forced into each other’s company.

Peri, supposedly a botany student, was given little development after her first story, and there was no follow through on her family or point of origin. Nicola Bryant (who personally won my heart when she played Blackadder’s shrill niece in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol) was given very little to work with.

Apparently the gentler, more amiable tone evident between the Sixth Doctor and Peri during Trial of a Time Lord was a conscious choice by the actors, and it paid off – their scenes together in The Mysterious Planet are rather adorable. Also, Peri was allowed to wear grown up clothes! Sadly, it was the beginning of the end. Peri was written out under shocking circumstances in the second Trial story Mindwarp, murdered so that her body could be inhabited by another character. Even worse was the skeezy retcon a few episodes later so that instead of being killed, she actually ended up married to King Ycarnos, the freaky barbarian warrior brute who had been licking his lips over her the whole time, and whom she had shown no romantic interest in whatsoever. Sure it’s nice that Peri’s not dead and all, but I personally was furious the Doctor’s first response wasn’t to go rescue her the hell away from that blatantly stockholm syndrome relationship. When I was TEN I could tell there was something seriously wrong there.

Mel (Bonnie Langford), the companion introduced in the second half of the Trial of a Time Lord season, has perhaps inspired more fan-induced bile and dislike than any other companion… yes, even Adric. From what I can make out, this was largely due to Bonnie Langford’s prior work as a stage musical star and child actress specialising in obnoxious tykes. There was also a lot of the ‘oh god she’s not going to sing, is she?’ vibe that we also heard when Billie Piper and Kylie Minogue were cast.

Personally I always rather liked Mel. Sure, she was terribly peppy, and reeks of every 1980’s cliche you can imagine (she’s an exercise freak with a high toggled pony tail who listens to electronic music and wears polkadots) but that worked a lot better with Colin Baker’s Doctor than Peri’s world-weary snark. She transitioned very well to the Seventh Doctor, despite having some truly awful stories, and had a pleasant habit of befriending other female characters in her stories. Revolutionary! Also, her scream came second only to that of Leatherlungs Victoria.

Mel was a computer programmer, a detail almost never referenced on screen, and she has the rather odd distinction of being the only companion (apart from Susan) who does not get an introductory story. We first meet her when the Doctor presents a case in court from his own future, in which Mel is already settled as his companion.

There are two other regular members of the cast in the Trial season: Lynda Bellingham as the wise and elegant Inquisitor (ie the judge) and Michael Jayston as the Valeyard (counsel for the prosecution). Both give brilliant performances, and the interplay between the two of them and the Sixth Doctor makes the framing narratives far more interesting to me than the stories they are meant to introduce.

Feminist Heroes: The Inquisitor

Best Stories To Watch:

Title: The Two Doctors
Featuring: The Sixth Doctor, Peri, The Second Doctor, Jamie
Why Watch: while this one has a rather gross premise, it also has its marvellous moments. The Second Doctor and Jamie cross paths with his future self and the gang romp around Spain, avoiding some icky gourmand aliens who fancy eating themselves up some delicious humans… or Gallifreyans! Apart from the pretty Spanish countryside, this one is especially enjoyable for teaming up the Sixth Doctor and Jamie, and the return of Patrick Troughton being awesome. Jacqueline Pearce also guest stars as the villainous Chessene – don’t know about anyone else, but after Servalan I find it hard to take her seriously with hair!
Category: Contemporary
If You Like This You May Like: Eh. Maybe Vengeance on Varos? Or you could just skip ahead to…

Title: Trial of a Time Lord (The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp, Terror of the Vervoids, The Ultimate Foe)
Featuring: The Sixth Doctor, Peri, Mel, The Valeyard, The Inquisitor, The Master
Why Watch: the best of the Sixth Doctor, this season has its highs and lows but viewed as a whole is an interesting and epic journey. The Mysterious Planet has the benefits of a Robert Holmes script, Mindwarp has… Brian Blessed shouting, Terror of the Vervoids has… Honor Blackman and some aliens who look like genitalia…. oh, who am I kidding? I loved the final two parter as a kid, with all its Dickensian surrealism and the return of Sabalom Glitz, a character I really enjoyed in Mysterious Planet, but I admit looking back on it with adult eyes, it doesn’t actually make any sense whatsoever.
Or Not: Yeah, seriously, no one will judge you if you go back and watch the The Green Death again instead.
Category: Space Opera, Mad Science, Robots and Murderous Plants and Surrealism, Oh My
If You Like This You May Like: Lying Down Until It Goes Away.

Extra, extra: Here’s where it gets good. In the Big Finish audio plays, away from the strange tastes of John Nathan Turner, the awful suit and anything to do with the scrips of Pip and Jane Baker, the Sixth Doctor actually gets a chance to be… good. More than good. Something akin to awesomecakes. Big Finish made some great choices including the selection of some interesting, different companions, witty dialogue, and… well, you know, it’s amazing the difference it makes to not have to look at that coat all the time. Some particularly brilliant Colin Baker plays include Jubilee, Arrangements for War, and Davros, and the more recent trilogy beginning with City of Spires. I particularly like the stories that feature Evelyn Smythe, the first time we have really had an old companion – her relationship with the Doctor is splendid and crunchy. City of Spires and the plays that follow it reconnect the Sixth Doctor with Jamie, and they make a great combination. I haven’t yet listened to the season which paired the Sixth Doctor with Charley Pollard, formerly an 8th Doctor companion, but I love Charley so I’m sure they’re great too.

In short, though it took twenty years to get there, the Sixth Doctor has found his redemption. And he’s not stopping…

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2 replies on “A Modern Woman’s Guide to Classic Who: THE SIXTH DOCTOR YEARS: 1984-86”

  1. Colin Baker I could stand. It was the ferret smuggling McCoy that really did it.

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