Colin Baker is the only Doctor I’ve met.
It would have been way back in 1989, when the Doctor Who: The Ultimate Adventure stage play came to the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton. Colin did an autograph session after the performance, both embracing his character’s persona (“Back, hordes!”) and being a genuinely nice and accommodating person.
This was… Well, I can’t say it was a surprise exactly, as I was old enough to know that actors aren’t the same people they play on TV. But the Sixth Doctor was always something of an abrasive character. Would Colin turn out to be the same?
Colin’s era was possibly the most traumatic periods in the show’s history, a perfect storm of BBC politics, behind the scenes tensions and external pressures. Add to that some strangely unwise creative decisions and you’ve got an era that often feels problematic at least and, at times, Colin Baker has been the scapegoat for that. This is one of the show’s greatest injustices.
The concept behind the Sixth Doctor is a good one – follow the gentle, kind Fifth Doctor with a far more acerbic, less user-friendly character, someone who wore his alien-ness on his multi-coloured sleeve. It’s just unfortunate that this wasn’t always handled well – having tensions between the Sixth Doctor and Peri (who the Fifth Doctor sacrificed himself to save) makes sense, but having the newly regenerated Doctor regenerated try to strangle her sets you against the character immediately.
And so that shadow, of good ideas not executed as well as they could have been, hung over the era. This is a shame, as the Sixth Doctor has some great qualities – he’s erudite, with a terrifying vocabulary, and while that can make him (intentionally) pompous, he’s also capable of great charm and, of course, his rage at injustice can be awesome to behold. All of this sometimes gets lost amid garish costumes and angry interviews with script editors.
But fortunately Doctor Who has always been about reinvention, reappraisal, regeneration, and so, when Big Finish started producing CD episodes featuring the past Doctors, it was the Sixth Doctor who benefited the most. Taking the core of the character but knocking off some of his sharper edges, letting Colin’s warmth and charm shine through while pairing him with assistants who can compete on a more equal footing, has breathed new life into the era. It addresses the injustice of the eighties, and has made Colin one of the most popular Doctors. It’s been great to see.
So back to the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton. I got my autographed poster and it was on my bedroom wall for years. That’s not the point of the story. See, my sister also got an autograph, even though she’d only accompanied my parents to pick me up – my dad was an autograph hunter, so I guess he put her up to it.
“Did you enjoy the show?” Colin asks, and because she was about 9 at the time she doesn’t think to make something up, she just tells him that she hasn’t seen it.
The twelve-year-old me braces himself. I’m not sure why – maybe I was expecting the TV Sixth Doctor to emerge and be scathing. And sure he makes a joke about it all, but it’s in a friendly way. Everyone goes away happy. And I see the Sixth Doctor we could have had, the Sixth Doctor who is now in renaissance.
Happy birthday Mr. Baker.