Sunday, May 9, 2010
Doctor Who: The Colin Baker Years
When we last left the Doctor, he was dying from spectrox toxemia in the end of "The Caves of Androzani." It was 1984 and Peter Davison had decided his third season in the role would be his last. The question again became who would play the eponymous time lord. Producer John Nathan-Turner decided to cast character actor Colin Baker, who had actually played a supporting role in an earlier Peter Davison story. The thinking behind the regeneration this time 'round was to give the fans an entire story at the end of season 21 to get to know Colin Baker before the season break. Thus began arguably the most turbulent time in the show's history.
The idea was to make the sixth incarnation of the character a sharp contrast to the amiable, fatherly, and all-around likable fifth; to make Baker's Doctor one that audiences, and other characters, weren't sure about and then eventually, over the years and years he'd play the part, peel away the outer layers until he becomes more or less what people were used to. The story, titled "The Twin Dilemma," introduced audiences to an arrogant, bi-polar, and ultimately unstable lead character, an attribute given within the narrative as a regenerative crisis. The instability of the character was expressed visually be a loud, clashing costume that is by all accounts the least attractive piece of clothing ever worn on a human.
The rest of the story follows this post-regeneration weirdness, and at one point The Doctor actually physically attacks his companion Peri, only to become aghast at himself when he sees his reflection in a mirror. He then decides to exile himself, and Peri as a result, to a distant rock planet to atone for his ways. The rest of the story is unimportant and frankly pretty bad, as it has something to do with twin boy geniuses who are brainwashed into helping a giant slug move the planet into the path of another planet... and it just goes downhill from there. It is the coupling of the sub-par script with the shocking new direction of the lead character that have caused many to deem this one of the worst episodes in the series' history. In fact, in the Doctor Who Magazine poll of the 200 stories broadcast to that point, "Caves of Androzani," as I mentioned last time, ranked as number 1, "The Twin Dilemma" which immediately follows is ranked 200.
The first full season with Baker 2 saw a change in format, going from four 25-minute episodes to two 45-minute episodes comprising each story. While this difference did offer a great deal more time to develop individual characters or ideas, it cut down the episode-ending cliffhangers which had been a staple of the series since its inception. Another change was that the level of violence was upped considerably. Blood was actually shown in a few scenes, which was very limited prior, and The Doctor himself actually causing the demise of some enemies. This fit the new characterization Baker was employing, with a much more passionate Doctor often leaping before he looked, but this did garner even more concern from censorship groups claiming that the show was too scary for children and should no longer be allowed to be so.
This season also saw a marked lowering in both production cost and quality of scripts. John Nathan-Turner continued his decree that established Who or sci-fi writers should not be commissioned and new, fresh writers be given a chance, much to the chagrin of script editor Eric Saward who had been with the show since Davison began. A show always known for its low-budget effects was now at its lowest which, even to fans of the show and the genre, makes it increasingly hard to stay committed to the premise. Saward tried everything to make the season worth watching, bringing back old favorite villains like the Cybermen and the Daleks, and even an appearance by second Doctor Patrick Troughton. Even so, the ratings started to slip slightly, and the network brass desired to make new programs. So, despite still being quite popular, the BBC decided to cancel Doctor Who at the end of season 22 in 1985.
That is until JNT and the fans started petitions to keep the show around, leading to the eventual agreement that the show be placed on an 18 month hiatus, after which time it would return to its 25-minute format and the number of episodes be cut from the usual 26 (or 13 longer episodes) to 14 episodes, making it the shortest season of Doctor Who ever. The shakeup more or less stopped for the moment, though, as neither Saward nor Nathan-Turner, nor any of the cast, were fired or replaced. This very much seemed like a short reprieve rather than a full pardon, and Saward and company decided to depict the show being on trial for its life with a season-long saga of the Doctor on trial himself.
"Trial of a Time Lord" ran the length of season 23 and consisted of a frame story wherein the Doctor is taken out of time by his people, the Time Lords, and put on trial as a menace. The story-proper was split into three with each normal adventure being played as evidence at the trial. The final two episodes would tie up the trial storyline and wrap up the season. Longtime Who writer and script editor during the best period in the show's history, Robert Holmes, was brought on to write the first four episodes and help Saward write the last two. Unfortunately, Holmes took ill before the script for the final episode could be written. John Nathan-Turner did not agree with Holmes' idea of ending the season with a cliff-hanger and forced Saward to change it. As he was very good friends with Robert Holmes, who actually passed away during the skirmish, Eric Saward refused to change anything and subsequently left the series in a huff of bad blood. Nathan-Turner asked husband-and-wife team of Pip and Jane Baker to write the last episode, having just written the third story of the season.
The ending wrapped up the season in a lovely little bow and ensured Doctor Who would remain on the tv schedule at least for another year. However, the BBC decreed that Colin Baker should not return to the role for a third season. It was believed that much of the backlash the series had received over the passed two years was due directly to Baker, which is unfair to my mind. While he isn't my favorite Doctor, he does grow on you and he is quite good at playing the arrogant yet honorable blow-hard the character became. I thought full-well before I started that Colin Baker would be my least favorite Doctor, and while he doesn't rate nearly as highly as Davison or Pertwee, he served the purpose necessary and did so admirably.
As stated, the Colin Baker years were pretty light on good stories, in fact only one was ranked in the top 100 in the DWM poll, but still I will recommend three with the caveat that they are not probably for people unfamiliar with the show. Watch some Davison first, then check these out.
First, "Vengeance on Varos," wherein the Doctor and Peri arrive in a cave-world on which the people vote for everything by watching television. They vote whether political prisoners should live or die, and indeed if the president proposes new legislation, he is himself executed via public electrocution if he is voted down. It hearkens back to Roman times with gladiators subject to the whim of the people, and public shows of violence were common entertainment. There's also a really great villain in the form of Sil, a small reptilian slug creature who has the real control of the city.
Second, "The Two Doctors," the only three-part story of the bunch. It features the return of Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor and his longtime companion Jamie McCrimmond, played again by Frazier Hines. While the actual story is a bit thin here, with genetic reassignment and alien conquerers, it's great to see Troughton again as the Doctor. He's a personal favorite of mine and I will discuss the Second Doctor at length in my next "Who-Review."
The third, and best of the bunch, is "Revelation of the Daleks," written by Eric Saward himself. It is a twisty story that sees two rival factions of Daleks, one ruled by the Dalek Emperor, the other by their mad-scientist creator Davros. The Doctor actually takes more of a secondary role in this story as there are many many side characters, including a pair of assassins, an all-seeing DJ, and the dastardly proprietor of a funeral home. The plot is pretty hard to describe without going on for awhile, but needless to say, it's good fun with the Daleks and probably the best writing of the entirety of C. Baker's run.
Poor Colin Baker was in the role for such a short time that all of his episodes have been released on dvd. "The Trial of a Time Lord" set includes some really great commentaries and documentaries that both enlighten and entertain.
Next up for me with Doctor Who... I don't know. The Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, has barely any stories released and I don't feel it prudent to write a review based on having not seen everything available. So, next we're going back to the Second Doctor, who also saw some unfortunate happenings with his output, though not in the same fashion as the Sixth. Until next time.