Is the Sixth Doctor the worst incarnation of the Time Lord, or just the most misunderstood? For years I would have said the former, but my recent exploration of the Seventh Doctor’s extended adventures in book and audio form made me decide to give Colin Baker’s prickly egotist a second look. After reading two novels, listening to a trilogy of adventures, and re-watching some of his strongest episodes, I came away with a newfound respect for the Sixth Doctor.
First, some background: Colin Baker inherited the role from Peter Davison, whose very likable Fifth Doctor was the first one I’d watched from beginning to end. Needless to say, I was very attached to the Fifth Doctor and found the transition jarring. I wasn’t the only one. Combined with an aggravating companion, the worst costume imaginable, and some really bad scripts (“The Twin Dilemma” and “Timelash” come to mind), the Sixth Doctor was not well received. The powers that be at the BBC were looking for any excuse to axe the series, and they found it in the Sixth Doctor. The show was put on a lengthy hiatus, only to have its next season of scripts scrapped in favour of one season long arc (“The Trial of a Time Lord”, which was only occasionally entertaining). Then the show was taken off the air again, with Colin Baker fired before it returned in 1987.
All told, Colin Baker only had eleven stories to develop his character (and that’s only if you count “Trial of a Time Lord” as four separate but interconnected stories). He had hoped to play the role for many years, and in all likelihood thought he had several seasons to develop his character. In fact, interviews show the death of Peri was intended to be permanent and mark a turning point for his Doctor. Baker’s firing kept that from happening — at least on television.
Over the years, books and audio plays have explored the Sixth Doctor’s later years. Although he’s seen leaving Gallifrey with Melanie at the end of “Trial”, she’s actually a companion from his future (plucked out of time by the Time Lords). The Doctor must have parted ways with her to ensure their first meeting could occur in his personal future. This gives the Sixth Doctor a period of time where he is traveling alone or with previously unseen companions.
"Killing Ground", the first book I read, features one of these companions. Introduced in an earlier novel (which I skipped due to abysmal reviews online), Grant Markham is not the traditional companion. He isn’t adventurous or heroic, and the Doctor doesn’t like him very much. In fact, the only reason the Doctor took on Grant as a companion was to change his normal pattern of behaviour and hopefully avoid becoming the Valeyard (the personification of his dark side).
That being said, Grant isn’t so bad. “Killing Ground” has him and the Doctor separated for much of the narrative, and as part of the resistance on a planet invaded by the Cybermen he does his best to help out (in a nice touch, Grant worries that he attracts trouble and thinks that the Doctor must have had a quiet life before they met). And because Grant’s past is directly tied to the events of “Killing Ground”, it isn’t a situation where you could just replace him with Peri or Mel from the show.
The real stars of this book are the Cybermen. It’s been a long time since the Doctor’s second oldest enemies were scary, but Steve Lyons nails just what makes them so terrifying by giving readers a close look at the conversion process and what happens to the mind of a human being as they become a Cyberman.
As for the Doctor, his depiction here isn’t that different from the television version. He’s still pompous, sarcastic, and unpleasant to his companion. But given that this story takes place shortly after “Trial of a Time Lord”, that isn’t too surprising. And there are moments, especially in one sequence towards the end, where you can see the Doctor’s nobility shining through his harsh persona. So while “Killing Ground” might not offer a dramatic shift in the Sixth Doctor’s portrayal, you can definitely see the beginnings of a new approach to the character.
While I was reading “Killing Ground”, I started listening to a trilogy of Sixth Doctor Big Finish audio plays. These take place later in the Doctor’s life, which is evident in Colin Baker’s much less abrasive performance. It helps that the first story, “City of Spires”, reunites the Doctor with one of his favourite past companions: Jamie McCrimmon.
Older and hardened by battle, this Jamie has no memory of the Doctor — not even their first adventure together (which was the only one not erased by the Time Lords at the end of “The War Games”). This puts the Doctor in the position of having to prove himself to one of his oldest friends all over again, as well as providing a good hook for their continuing adventures throughout the trilogy as the Doctor hopes to discover who tampered with Jamie’s memory.
"City of Spires" is a strong introductory story, and the rest of the trilogy is entertaining. "Wreck of the Titans" keeps listeners guessing, and its cliffhanger ending is fantastic. "Legend of the Cybermen" is good, but there are certain plot elements that didn’t really work for me. These are tied too closely to the twist ending of "Wreck of the Titan" for me to say more without spoiling both stories, but my issues with them are more a question of taste than anything actually wrong with the story.
The Doctor presented in these stories is very different from the one seen on the show. He can still be verbose and full of himself, he is no longer prone angry outbursts or acts of violence. During “Wreck of the Titan”, he expresses genuine heartbreak when he believes Jamie is dead, blaming himself for once again pulling the highlander into his dangerous adventures simply because he wanted things to be they way they were in the old days. The final scene in “Legend of the Cybermen” is a sad one, and it’s hard to imagine the televised Sixth Doctor pulling off the tone.
The other Sixth Doctor novel I read was “Millennial Rites”, which takes place closer to the end of this incarnation. This was one of the first “Doctor Who” books I ever saw in a store, and I remember wondering why anyone would want to read a book featuring the Sixth Doctor and Mel. Had I read it all of those years ago, I might have had a slightly different opinion of both characters.
Don’t get me wrong, Mel is still pretty annoying. But, unlike on the show, she actually has a purpose in “Millennial Rites”. The reason the Doctor takes the TARDIS to London on New Year’s Eve in 1999 is so Mel can attend a school reunion, and her background as a computer programmer factors heavily into the plot. Mel’s unseen first adventure with the Doctor is referenced, as is their eventual meeting with the Vervoids (which the Doctor seems to consider a mile marker on his journey towards becoming the Valeyard).
The first half of the book is a sort of sequel to “The Web Of Fear” and involves an older Anne Travers trying to prevent the Great Intelligence from returning to Earth. Meanwhile, a computer mogul named Ashley Chapel has made contact with another alien consciousness in hopes of remaking the world. These forces collide, transforming London into a fantasy world ruled by magic — one that can only be undone by a being known as the Dark One.
I wasn’t that interested in the fantasy kingdom story at first, but once it started to delve into the idea that the Doctor (who is obviously the Dark One mentioned in the prophecies) is slowly being transformed into the Valeyard I got more invested. I’ve always considered the Valeyard an interesting one-and-done villain, but I never really thought about the long term potential for the character. Having him out there, not just as a threat like the Master but as a potential future version of the Doctor, could have distinguished the Sixth Doctor era. In “Millennial Rites”, it’s stated plainly that of all the incarnations of the Doctor the Sixth has the most potential to become the Valeyard (there’s also some nice foreshadowing of the Seventh Doctor, with the Valeyard telling the Doctor that to become Time’s Champion he’ll need to be willing to make tough choices, potentially sacrificing his own companions in service of a greater good — an idea the Doctor laughs off as completely implausible).
Reading and listening to all of these stories got me interested in revisiting stories from Colin Baker’s era. I re-watched “Mark of the Rani”, “The Two Doctors”, and “Revelation of the Daleks”, three of his stronger episodes, and found all to be very entertaining. More importantly, I found Colin Baker to be very entertaining. In fact, I’d argue that his version of the character is much more watchable than David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. After all, what’s so interesting about a handsome, heroic, adventurous lead in a science fiction series? Those are a dime a dozen. But a moody, unpleasant, deeply flawed central character? That’s worth watching.
So don’t write off the Sixth Doctor based on the garish costume and short tenure. He’s a fascinating incarnation of the Doctor, one who wasn’t afraid to be unlikable. I’d like to see a bit of the Sixth Doctor worked into Peter Capaldi’s take.