Sunday 6 October 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary - Reflections on the Sixth Doctor

Much like with the fifth Doctor, the first I ever heard of the sixth Doctor was from the cover of Doctor Who Annual—the very next one I got after the one that revealed to me the existence of the fifth Doctor. Peter Davison’s episodes had only just started airing in Canada and there was yet another Doctor staring back at me that Christmas morning. Already? I thought. I still didn’t realize just how far behind TVOntario was with airing Doctor Who episodes and had always figured we were just a little behind.

The frustrating thing was, unlike the previous year’s annual, this one didn’t have a handy article explaining all about the different Doctors. There was no mention of another regeneration having occurred, simply a bunch of short stories featuring this new Doctor and a new companion named Peri. It didn’t even mention the actor’s name! I honestly can’t remember when I first learned Colin Baker’s name. It was probably when I discovered Doctor Who Magazine, which was sometime in the next year or so, but I can’t be sure on that. Whatever the case, much like when I first learned of the fifth Doctor, I became very eager to see the new Doctor to find out what he was like.

I have to admit, I was very taken by his appearance. It screamed Doctor at me in ways that Peter Davison’s didn’t. Not that I had a problem with Peter Davison (I explained last week how baffled I was that people could so strongly prefer one Doctor over another), but there was something about Colin Baker’s face and, yes, his outfit that just said to me that this was the Doctor through and through. Looking back now as an adult, I completely understand the criticisms of the sixth Doctor’s outfit. It was horrendous and garish. And having heard Colin Baker’s original idea for his costume (which would have had him sporting an outfit very similar to what Christopher Eccleston eventually wore), I agree that would have been far, far better. However, at the time, I liked the outfit, simply because it was bad. In my head at the time, the Doctor was supposed to dress in ridiculous outfits. The fourth Doctor had a 17-foot-long scarf! The fifth Doctor wore a strange amalgam of cricket uniform and Edwardian frock coat with a piece of celery on his lapel! Of course, the sixth Doctor had to look weird. In fact, he looked the weirdest of them all, and therefore was unequivocally the Doctor.

In the summer of 1985, the choir I sang in went on a trip touring Scotland and England. After that trip, my mom took me to visit some of my family in England, and while there, I desperately hoped I’d be able to catch an episode or two of Doctor Who just so I could see what the sixth Doctor was like. So during the stay, I asked one of my cousins about watching it, and she answered something along the lines of, “Oh that’s not on anymore. I think they cancelled it or something.” I was stunned. That simply wasn’t possible. I had an annual after all with a picture of the sixth Doctor on it. It couldn’t be cancelled! My panic was calmed sometime later when another family member explained that it was just off the air for the summer and would be back. This was my first exposure to how differently television was handled in Britain as compared to North America. I was hugely surprised to learn that repeats were virtually unheard of. Programmes would run a full season and then go off the air until the next, while in North America, they just went into repeat mode. Indeed, we often got repeats mid-season (although not with Doctor Who—TVO ran seasons straight through and then repeated an earlier season until the next fall). So I was disappointed at not getting to see any of the sixth Doctor, but content that the show wasn’t gone.

Except it kind of was—at least, for a while. My family in England weren’t Doctor Who watchers (something that surprised me as I thought the show was supposed to be hugely popular in England; however, I wouldn’t discover the implications of this until Sylvester McCoy’s time). As such, they really weren’t up on the recent news about the show. My cousin had actually been somewhat right, for this was the time of the infamous hiatus that kept the show off the air until fall 1986. However, I wouldn’t learn that the hiatus had ever happened until well after the show was back on the air. That Christmas, I received my next Doctor Who Annual, and that said to me the show was still doing just fine!

The following school year, my grade seven teacher set the class a series of writing assignments. Every Friday (or it might have been every other Friday—I can’t quite remember), we had to hand in a new short story we’d written. I decided I had to write a Doctor Who story. In fact, a whole series of Doctor Who stories! Naturally, they were episodic and I handed in one part each week. I got so excited about writing these stories that I couldn’t wait for the next Friday due date to arrive and just started handing them in as soon as I’d finished them. I got so far ahead, my teacher often joked that I’d written enough to cover me through all of the next year as well (although when next year actually came around, she refused to count the previous year’s extra stories towards the new year).

Even though I had still hadn’t seen a single episode with the sixth Doctor, all these stories featured him nevertheless, along with Peri. I’m also somewhat embarrassed to admit that I also wrote myself into these stories as a new companion of the Doctor... Ahem... Yes, well, at any rate, while I described the appearance of the Doctor in these stories as that of the sixth Doctor, his personality was more of a generic Doctor. I suppose it was my own version of the Doctor in a sense. Not that I was particularly good at conveying character at the time. However, once I finally got to see Colin Baker in action, I did start putting more sixth Doctor attributes into the stories—for I kept writing these stories for quite some time after that school year. In grade eight, I had the same teacher (it was a joint 7/8 gifted class both years) and we had the same Friday stories assignment; however, she asked that I write about different things that year, which I did. She did accept one six-episode story I wrote that year, though. I finally stopped writing that series sometime in early high school, although I don’t recall exactly when.

I had always enjoyed writing. I remember writing some really silly stories as early as grades three and four, and of course, there were my “Doctor What” scripts in grade five. However, this series of stories was the first thing to actually start to develop my writing skills significantly. I learned a lot writing those stories even though after grade seven, I got virtually no feedback on any of them. No one I knew was interested in reading them. I could pester my dad into reading them sometimes, but the only feedback he ever gave was, “Yes, very good.” Despite that, I believe I did make progress. I remember looking back over the stories years later and seeing just how much my writing improved between the first one and the last one. Characters were no longer personality-less names. Dialogue was more realistic. Everything had started to flow better. The sixth Doctor even resembled the sixth Doctor on TV. That’s not to say that the final stories were masterpieces—indeed, I recall thinking even the final few stories were still pretty bad when I looked back at them that time—but there was a definite progression.

It is a great sadness to me that I don’t still have those stories. I used to keep them all in order in a large, cardboard box labelled “Doctor Who Stories”. For a long time, that box sat in a corner of the closet in my bedroom. However, my dad has always had this thing about clutter. He also had a penchant for rearranging my and my siblings’ rooms from time to time. On one such occasion, he moved that box out of my room and put it in storage in the basement. I was a bit annoyed, but accepted it. At least he hadn’t thrown them out, and I could still look at them, which I did on rare occasions. Unfortunately, some years later, I dug that box out again to take a look at those stories and discovered the box was empty. I asked my dad about it and he said that he’d thrown them out ages ago. He didn’t think I needed them anymore. I was really rather crushed. I knew they weren’t particularly good stories, but they were an important part of my personal history and they meant a lot to me. I was particularly annoyed, however, that he had left the empty box sitting in the same spot, almost as if it was meant to fool me into thinking the stories were still there—and it did fool me for quite some time.

I have written very little fan fiction since those stories. Apart from a rare story here or there, I’ve preferred to invent my own ideas, settings, and characters, but I’ve frequently had ideas for other Doctor Who stories. Sometimes they’ve mutated into their own original stories. Other times, they’ve just sat endlessly in the back of my mind. On occasion, I’ve thought of rewriting those old Doctor Who stories—well, what I can remember of them at any rate—but it’s a project I’ve never actually sat down to do. Maybe one day.

By the time the sixth Doctor showed up on TVOntario, news of a seventh Doctor had arrived from Doctor Who Magazine, which was my only real source of Doctor Who information in those days (no internet back then, folks). It was hard to get the magazine in London, Ontario, but I grabbed whatever issues I could find (my parents wouldn’t let me subscribe because they felt the subscription price was too high, and to be fair, I seem to recall the overseas subscription rate in those days really was ridiculously high). They were usually a couple of months out of date by the time they showed up, and it wasn’t uncommon that an issue or two wouldn’t show up at all. However, it kept my longing for Who news sated.

It was through Doctor Who Magazine that I first learnt the details of the 1985 hiatus, and where I first started to discover the dark side of Doctor Who fandom. The letters section often contained some rather disparaging comments about Colin Baker, ones that I just couldn’t really understand. I had encountered the phenomenon of liking one Doctor more than another. My mom never really adjusted to anyone after Tom Baker. The friend that I spoke of last week only ever liked Peter Davison and absolutely hated Colin Baker when he started. But now I was starting to learn about how awful everything supposedly had been since 1980 or how Colin Baker nearly destroyed Doctor Who.

Colin Baker did have an odd start to his time as the Doctor with his first story, “The Twin Dilemma” coming at the end of Peter Davison’s last season. And I have to admit “The Twin Dilemma” is a pretty bad story. Okay, it’s awful. But I loved Colin Baker in it, and I still do. Oddly, TVO actually showed “Attack of the Cybermen” (the first story of Colin Baker’s first full season) immediately after “The Twin Dilemma” before going to repeats that year. As such, I got to see two full Colin Baker stories before going back to Peter Davison repeats, and I think that helped me gain a better appreciation of him as a Doctor than it might have done for people who saw only “The Twin Dilemma” before having a long break before any further stories.

Although I read about it, I didn’t actually encounter much of the hatred at first. Although those first two Colin Baker stories aired while I was in grade eight, I was in high school for the majority of the Colin Baker period, and at the time it was just generic Doctor Who hatred I encountered. I had one friend in high school who was into the show almost as much as I was. I don’t think Colin Baker was his favourite Doctor, but he was fine with him. I also had a few other friends who didn’t watch the show, but didn’t hold it against me that I did. I even started a long-lasting Doctor Who Roleplaying Game campaign with one of those friends that lasted well into my university years (I never quite understood why that very good friend loved roleplaying in the Doctor Who universe but hated watching the show).

I wouldn’t really encounter Colin Baker hatred head on until university, and it baffled me. A great deal of it just seemed to be people going with the crowd and proclaiming him a bad Doctor simply because everyone else did. London, Ontario, as I’ve said before was not a good place to meet science fiction fans of any kind, least of all Doctor Who. However, while I was still in London for university (at the University of Western Ontario, now just Western University), there were lots of people there from outside London, and I finally started to encounter more than just one or two Doctor Who and other science fiction fans.

And the Colin Baker hatred spewing from most of them was astounding. Especially since the majority of those spewing the hatred had never seen a single Colin Baker episode. I knew one guy who would tell me repeatedly about how terrible Colin Baker was, despite admitting he had never watched an episode. However, he had heard it from enough people to know it had to be true. Worse than that, he would tell me the most ridiculous stories about Colin Baker as a person, stories about him punching a fan at a convention, kicking children, and all sorts of other ridiculous things—all used as proof that Baker was a terrible Doctor and I shouldn’t watch his episodes. I asked him where he’d heard such stories, since everything I’d ever heard about him was that, regardless what one might think of his performance, he was one of the nicest, kindest individuals you would ever meet and was very popular at conventions. The answer was, “On the internet.” This was the mid-90s and the internet was just starting to gain in popularity. You could read a lot of weird stuff online in those days—still can, except that nowadays, people are a little wiser about realizing that a lot of what other people say on the internet is complete nonsense. It’s possible this person really did read these terrible things online, although I never found any statements remotely similar myself. However, I also think there’s a very good chance he was just making it all up himself to try to make me waver in my defence of Colin Baker.

While that person’s stories were extreme, he wasn’t the only one with this strange hatred of an actor he had never seen before. A friend I had in university also started out stating that Colin Baker was the worst Doctor of them all. Yet he had never watched anything past Tom Baker. At the time, the show was airing on YTV (although by this point, it had been relegated to a 2:30 a.m. time slot seven days a week). My friend was recording all the episodes so that he had a complete collection of the series. Eventually, the show rolled round to the Colin Baker episodes. After a few stories had gone by, my friend admitted to me, “You know what? Colin Baker is actually pretty good.”

This same friend used to draft schematics of ships from Star Trek. Each year, he would take those schematics to the Toronto Trek convention, where he would sell them at a booth he had there. There were a couple of years when I went with him to help him at his booth in return for his paying my entry to the convention. While this was primarily a Star Trek convention, other science fiction shows did get a nod, and they usually had a little bit of Doctor Who-related events going on. I don’t remember exactly which years I was there, but they were consecutive ones and one of them was 1993 (I remember that because it was the 30th anniversary of Doctor Who and they had some extra Doctor Who stuff in celebration). On one of those years (I don’t think it was 93), I went to a small Doctor Who introductory presentation. It was geared primarily to people who had never seen the show before, presenting a slide show of pictures from the show and an overview of the show’s history in chronological order. Even though I was well-versed in Doctor Who, there was so few other Who events going on that I decided to check it out. It was held in a small room, and there were only about 20 people or so in the audience. I have no idea how many of these people were actually completely new to Who, but a few in the front row were wearing Time Lord robes, so at least some of them knew something about the show.

The presentation began simply and straight-forwardly enough, covering the William Hartnell years and all the way on eventually to Tom Baker and then Peter Davison. Throughout that time, the presentation was very facts-based with little commentary. It was basically, “This is what Doctor Who’s about. This is what happened first, then this happened.” Yet that changed quite drastically when the presentation reached the Colin Baker years. Suddenly, the presenter began adding all sorts of commentary, basically telling the audience not to watch this period of the show as this was when the show got really bad. He began adding rather tasteless jokes about Colin Baker’s weight and sexist comments about Nicola Bryant’s anatomy. On top of that, he started twisting the facts about the programme, particularly the 1985 hiatus, laying all the blame at Colin Baker’s feet.

I’m a rather shy person. As a child, I had been very good at standing up for my beliefs, but years of family telling me to shut up, that my opinions were worthless, turned me into someone utterly terrified of conflict. I freeze up and am left filled with anxiety, sometimes for weeks following an argument with someone. As such, for the longest time, I tended to avoid conflict whenever possible. I only debated controversial topics with people I knew really well and who mostly agreed with me. But this presentation really bothered me. What bothered me even more was that the audience was laughing along at the mean-spiritedness of it all, even though many of them had never seen any Doctor Who, never mind any Colin Baker. One of the robed Time Lords did briefly speak up when the presenter informed everyone that Colin Baker was a dreadful actor. She said, “But he was brilliant in The Stranger.” When the presenter shrugged that off and went on with the presentation, the Time Lord fell silent again, and the audience went on believing every word the presenter said. And so I did something I so rarely did at the time.

I spoke up. I interrupted the speaker, started correcting the things he was saying that I knew were factually wrong. For a while, the presentation became a back-and-forth argument between the two of us, as I took issue with a number of the things he was saying. I don’t know how long this went on. It felt like a long time, but it was probably no more than a few minutes. The presenter was obviously unprepared for the possibility that someone might actually defend Colin Baker and he eventually capitulated.

The remainder of the presentation was somewhat subdued. No doubt the presenter saw me as a heckler who had ruined his show, although I hope it also made him think a little about how he presented things. A few more Colin Baker jokes did show up, but it was obvious he was reading from a pre-written script, as he told them with uncertainty. They also fell flat. I can’t say for sure what the audience thought of the whole thing, but they did stop laughing at the Colin Baker jokes—indeed, there was a palpable feeling of discomfort at each joke—so I’d like to believe that I had a positive effect.

After that event, I went back to being my usual quiet self, too afraid to speak up about things. But I do think that event laid a foundation. It would take a long time to build on that foundation, but it put it in place. It really demonstrated to me just how mean and nasty some Doctor Who fans can be, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten. Don’t get me wrong; the vast majority of fans are wonderful people, but there are some vocal ones who behave in ways their favourite character would never approve of. I don’t see as much Colin Baker hatred these days (although there’s still some out there). Instead, people disparage “fan girls” or they complain about the “gay agenda”. But wherever they’re directing it, the nastiness is still there. It’s a shame. So these days, I try to speak out about it when I can, no matter how terrifying speaking out can be.

But to get away from talking endlessly about people hating things, the Colin Baker period was an exciting time for me. One important thing was that here in Canada, we finally started to catch up to the U.K.! The 1985 hiatus had one beneficial effect. It meant that TVO actually caught up a year when they started airing “The Trial of a Time Lord” season since they had not taken a year off. On top of that, TVO also purchased “The Trial of a Time Lord” and Sylvester McCoy’s first season at the same time and aired them back-to-back as one full-length season (instead of two short ones). So in just one year, they caught up two full years, leaving them only one year behind the U.K. They then lost the broadcast licence to YTV, but that’s something I’ll go into next time.

Colin Baker was in Toronto recently for Fan Expo. It was right around the time of my fortieth birthday, too. I really wanted to get out to that and meet him. I’ve never actually had the opportunity to meet any of the actors who have played the Doctor, never managed to get out to a convention that one has been attending, and I really hoped to change that this time. Having my picture taken with Colin Baker would have been the ultimate birthday present for myself. Alas, it just wasn’t possible to make it out. Maybe another time.

I’ve said before that I don’t really have a favourite Doctor, that when people ask me for one, I generally say, “Whichever Doctor I’m watching at the moment.” However, there have been periods where I’ve had a favourite Doctor. Sylvester McCoy was my favourite for a while, and there was also a time when I considered Colin Baker my favourite Doctor. I never felt he had the best stories—indeed, while he had a couple of really good ones like “Vengeance on Varos”, he was plagued with some absolutely terrible ones, too—but he had a presence that shone through even the bad stories. I consider “Timelash” one of the worst Doctor Who stories ever made, but I can sit through it and enjoy it simply because of Colin Baker. In recent years, a lot of people have “re-evaluated” their opinion of Colin Baker’s Doctor in light of his audio adventures for Big Finish (which, to my shame, I have only heard one of, though it was brilliant). It’s nice to know more people have started to acknowledge what I always knew. To paraphrase the closing line of “The Twin Dilemma”, he is the Doctor, whether you like it or not.

1 comment:

  1. Although I have been familiar with Doctor Who for ages and occasionally watched some Tom Baker and Pertwee episodes and the movie, it's not before this year I started to get into it. I've watched a lot of the new series but I've never really liked the new doctors. I took a pause from the new show and started to watch the 5th doctor which I really liked, but when I saw the regeneration from Davison to C. Baker I was absolutely intrigued. I instantly liked him, I found his very first apperance amusing, thrilling and a tad sinister. A mix that made me have a 6th Doctor marathon before watching anything else.
    Sadly I went trough the same ordeals as you that made me frighten to speak and very nervous and on edge.