Thirty years ago, the most controversial and contentious era of Doctor Who came to an abrupt end with the inapt words: Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice…
It was to be an ill-fitting epitaph for Colin Baker’s capricious incarnation of the Doctor, as he retreated into the TARDIS and dematerialized into television history.
The Sixth Doctor had premiered with much fanfare in March 1984, shining brightly in a coat of many colours. He would encounter Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, The Master and even Dynasty’s Kate O’Mara. Over two years he would also shoulder diminishing audiences, changes of format, a reduction of episodes, questionable creative decisions, political infighting within the production team, an 18-month hiatus and ultimately a stone-cold sacking by BBC bosses.
Thirty years after Colin Baker unceremoniously departed from the role, we look back at two turbulent seasons and present six reasons to revisit one of the most fascinating, erratic and daring eras of Doctor Who.
1. An unconventional Doctor
His clothes define bad taste. He’s bold, brash, moody, violent, manic, doleful and topped with a Harpo Marx mop. This is the Sixth Doctor; whether you like it or not.
In 2016, we live in a time where every comic strip character has a dark side. It’s fashionable to ditch the clean-cut honesty of Superman and push the moody and broody agenda of Batman. Viewers of the rebooted Doctor Who series readily accept a darker, acerbic Doctor as their hero. But audience expectation was very different in the mid-Eighties. When Colin Baker followed the mild-mannered Peter Davison in 1984, producer John Nathan-Turner wanted an instant counter to the warmth and reliability which had previously comforted audiences.
Gone was the affable, even-tempered and boyish vet who babysat half-a-dozen whining undergrad companions. In Colin Baker we discovered a larger-than-life persona; a booming authority who would deliver a different Doctor with bravura and pomp. Doctor Number Six would be independent, abrasive, confrontational, occasionally depressive and totally self-absorbed. Doctor Who was now a show focused firmly on the Doctor – and you could hardly miss him.
Looking past the ludicrous clown outfit, here we have a Doctor who is a touch unpleasant, echoing the hidden nastiness which William Hartnell originated in the role. Despite his outward Technicolor cockiness, there is an underlying sadness and depression in this incarnation, often sporting an unfinished smile and hidden sensitivity. The Sixth Doctor would ultimately be a constant performer; a show off; a master of distraction; who masks his fragility and darkness with pomposity and arrogance. There was nothing quite like Colin’s Doctor before and there hasn’t been the like since. Vive la difference.
2. In with the new and back with the old
Whilst the 1985 season made some bold changes with its leading character, the year also showcased recurring characters and traditional villains. We love that, don’t we? That’s what makes Doctor Who so great.
The Cybermen return in an ambitious tale which harks back to the very beginnings of Cyber lore, whilst the ever-popular Sontarans reappear in a confrontation with the Second Doctor and Jamie in Spain. The Daleks are also revealed in a troubling story, penned by Script Editor Eric Saward, which reunites the Doctor with Davros at his most compelling and devious.
Plundering Doctor Who’s past for classic foes is but one rewarding grace from this era. In Timelash, the Doctor finally meets HG Wells, whilst in Vengeance on Varos, audiences are introduced to Sil the Mentor, one of the most memorable adversaries who would also return in next season’s Trial of a Time Lord saga. Sil, irreplaceably realised by Nabil Shaban, became an instant favourite with children for his arch villainy and inimitable cackle. Today, he’s a standout character in the Doctor Who canon.
2. Reaching new depths of horror.
In 1985, Doctor Who ensured that kids would again be watching in terror from behind the sofa. For several years, the show hadn’t been nearly as chilling as the early Tom Baker years, when the production team regularly overstepped the mark and had their wrists slapped by BBC bosses. With Eric Saward seated as Script Editor, the young writer emulated many of the techniques and influences which his mentor, Robert Holmes, had brought to the show so successfully in the mid-Seventies. The result was a ramping up of violence, black comedy, gore and close-up body horror.
Perhaps Doctor Who became too ghoulish in the mid-Eighties; violence was cited as one of the major reasons the programme was placed on hiatus by concerned BBC bosses, pending a major review of the show’s diminishing audience and suitability for children. Was Doctor Who suddenly being made for an older audience? Quite possibly. Fans who had grown up with Tom Baker were now in their late teens and steeped in the video-nasty era of all-out action and ultraviolence. In return, Doctor Who began to answer the needs of its mature audience with content which no other programme would dare show at teatime.
The Sixth Doctor’s first season opened with Attack of the Cybermen, a story which brutally demonstrated torture by crushing the bloodied hands of screaming victims. In return, the Cyber Controller was fatally stabbed in the chest by the Doctor. In the following story, the Doctor would force a man into an acid bath and later, chloroform a cannibal within a net bag. Other characters would succumb to equally grizzly fates, such as a hypodermic needle to the heart, blunt trauma to the head, strangulation, matricide, electrocution, surgical brain death and… transformation into a tree.
Before the series was put on an 18-month hiatus, it climaxed with Revelation of the Daleks, arguably the darkest Doctor Who story of all time. A cryogenic suspension facility is hijacked by Davros to harvest a new generation of Daleks, forged from human remains. He recycles the leftovers into the food chain; feeding the needy with the flesh of their own relatives.
In one of the most shocking scenes in the entire series, the stolen remains of Arthur Stengos are discovered by his daughter. He has been augmented, revived and grafted into the shell of a glass Dalek. As the Dalek conditioning begins to take hold, he pleads: “If you ever loved me Natasha, kill me… Kill me!” Remarkably, this was aired at 5:20pm.
When Doctor Who returned after its break, it would be a tamer and friendlier show. The programme would never, ever, be as chilling or unsettling again.
4. A galaxy of guest stars
Producer John Nathan-Turner was a grand master of publicity. Aside from his fiscal talents in ensuring every penny of his budget made it onto the screen, he would also court attention from the press and public by hiring established and famous actors. Often, his casting would defy type, redeploying names from light entertainment into serious roles.
Between 1985 and 1986 a host of famous stars appeared, including Brian Blessed, Laurence Payne, Jacqueline Pearce, Patrick Troughton, Alexi Sale, Elanor Bron, Clive Swift, William Gaunt, Martin Jarvis, Jason Connery, Joan Sims, Michael Jayston, Linda Bellingham, Honour Blackman, Brian Glover, Maurice Denham, Frazer Hines, Geoffrey Hughes, Kate O’Mara, Terence Alexander, Faith Brown, Sarah Green, and of course, Bonnie Langford.
Today we expect stunt casting to raise the profile of our favourite shows. In the mid-Eighties, Doctor Who was a veritable trove of new and established acting talent, providing big-budget names to a relatively small, neglected programme. Re-watching this era today, it quickly becomes a who’s who of celebrated stars from stage and screen.
5. Experimental music
Doctor Who’s incidental music remains one of the show’s standout features, influencing a generation of contemporary musicians. Throughout the Eighties, the soundtrack was scored by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and several independent composers, offering a diverse pallet of experimental music.
Throughout 1985, Peter Howell’s celebrated 1980 arrangement of the signature tune bracketed the episodes and remains the perfect accompaniment to the series’ iconic title sequence (itself heavily influenced by the titles credits of 1978’s Superman – The Movie).
Each Doctor Who serial at this time offered a unique incidental score from individual composers. These include a definitive Dalek theme from Roger Limb, Peter Howell’s intense Sontaran March offset by Spanish guitar solos for The Two Doctors, and a soothing, almost symphonic arrangement from Johnathan Gibbs for Mark of the Rani. For Attack of the Cybermen, Malcolm Clark provides a unique soundscape with a range of pop-influenced samples. A year later, Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration album would evoke similar motifs.
For the following year’s Trial of a Time Lord season, young musician Dominic Glynn would provide a unique arrangement of the signature theme, which to this day polarises fans. With a minor tone and mirroring the mystery of the early years of the series, it again demonstrates the show’s determination to experiment with new talent. Glynn’s bold and broad incidental score for the season also reaches orchestral levels, delivering a grand sense of scale and breadth to the programme.
6. Ambitious special effects
Often criticised in hindsight for its patchy effects work, in many ways Doctor Who was a pioneer of modern visual effects techniques. Regularly adopted as a test bed for prototype processes, the programme’s use of greenscreen and motion control set the precedent for how effects would later be rendered in a digital environment.
Colin Baker’s era was blessed with some truly outstanding visual effects photography, including the most expensive model sequence featured in the classic series. Utilising the same motion control methods established in Star Wars, a sequence where the TARDIS descends on to a Gallifreyan space station offers manoeuvres never before seen in a BBC production. Accompanied by Dominic Glynn’s epic score, the swooping opening shot outshines most of the lifeless CGI of the new Doctor Who series.
Despite Doctor Who’s relatively small budget, the BBC of the Eighties remained heavily-resourced with a highly-skilled Visual Effects Department, including an outstanding team of Makeup Designers. Dorka Nieradzik’s visceral realisation of Arthur Stengos is horrifically convincing, as is her work with Cecil Hay-Arthur in the conversion of humans into birds for Vengeance on Varos. Equally, the full-body transformation of Nabil Shaban into a Mentor remains unmatched in terms of skill and innovative design.
Finally, let’s not forget the ambitious paintbox effects which transformed the skies of alien worlds to lime green whilst tinting seas a luminous pink. These efforts were fearlessly pioneering, if not always wholly successful. However, with all the resources available to productions today, one must acknowledge the incredible progress the backroom boffins made, ensuring Doctor Who appeared totally unique next to the programmes which surrounded it.
A consequence of good intentions and plenty of bad decisions, nothing that came before, nor that followed, was quite like Colin Baker’s era of Doctor Who. At once colourful and camp, the next dark and violent, Doctor Who’s tone was wildly inconsistent and constantly unpredictable. For just two seasons between 1984 and 1986, Doctor Who was anything but dull.
Doctor Who had defied convention and dared to produce something new, stretching itself into new realms. Thirty years later, these episodes continue to sell on DVD with countless reruns across the globe, whilst spawning a whole catalogue of merchandise and toys. Still watched and hotly debated by new generations of viewers, the Sixth Doctor’s era remains one of the most contentiously debated periods in the Doctor Who canon. For that reason alone, this fascinating chapter in television history requires urgent reappraisal.
The entirety of Colin Baker’s era is now available on DVD from BBC Worldwide. You can follow Colin Baker (who continues to play the Doctor in audio for Big Finish Productions) on Twitter at @SawbonesHex.