As with Peter Capaldi many years later, Colin Baker – aged 40 at the time of casting – had already appeared in Doctor Who before he was cast in the title role; he was in the Fifth Doctor adventure Arc of Infinity, playing an unfriendly Time Lord guard named Maxil. Following his regeneration, the Sixth Doctor’s resemblance to Maxil was never explained or even acknowledged; but if the Twelfth Doctor was given the face of Caecilius to remind him to always save people whenever he could, presumably the Sixth Doctor took Maxil’s face as a reminder to be a prat. Previous Doctors might have displayed arrogance, rudeness and a patronising attitude from time to time, but the Sixth Doctor took these qualities to a whole new level.
After being properly introduced in the final adventure of Season 21, The Twin Dilemma, in March 1984, the Sixth Doctor set off into the universe dressed in a painfully garish coat, and accompanied by his long-suffering companion, Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant). His first full season saw the introduction of a new villain from the Doctor’s race, an amoral scientist called the Rani (Kate O’Mara); meanwhile, Patrick Troughton made his third and final return to the show as the Second Doctor, accompanied by Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon. When the series ended, however, there was no guarantee that Doctor Who would ever return at all: ratings were down, the BBC was looking for ways to save money, and the BBC One controller at the time, Michael Grade, was no fan of the show anyway.
Ultimately, after being put on hiatus for eighteen months, Doctor Who did return. This new fourteen-episode season consisted of a story arc called ‘The Trial of a Time Lord‘, in which the Doctor was put on trial by the Time Lords for his crimes of interference, with a new character called the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) serving as prosecutor. Contained within this framing device were three more typical stories of the Doctor’s adventures, being submitted as evidence at the trial. The end of the second story, Mindwarp, showed Peri being abandoned when the Doctor was forcibly summoned for the trial, and then apparently killed. (The finale revealed that this was faked by the Valeyard; Peri was in fact alive and reasonably happy in her new home.) For the third story, Terror of the Vervoids, the Doctor drew upon evidence from his own future, leading to the abrupt introduction of his next companion, Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford). In what might be considered a prelude to River Song, the Doctor – and the audience – would first meet Mel when she had already known him for some time; their first encounter from her point of view would never actually be shown onscreen.
It was eventually revealed that the Valeyard was actually the Doctor himself – or rather, a manifestation of the Doctor’s dark side, created between his twelfth and thirteenth incarnations. (So would that be between Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi, if John Hurt’s War Doctor is taken into account? Does David Tennant count as one incarnation, even though his partial regeneration in Series 4 still counted towards the Doctor’s original limit of twelve? Whatever: wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.) The Valeyard’s true intention in prosecuting the Doctor was to both eliminate his lighter side and steal his remaining regenerations – but of course, the Doctor came out on top, was forgiven by the Time Lords, and headed off in the TARDIS with Mel. The final episode of the season, which aired on 6th December 1986, would turn out to be the last regular appearance of the Sixth Doctor.
The Trial of a Time Lord had not won over BBC management, and Michael Grade was only willing to renew Doctor Who for another season if a new Doctor was brought in. Thus, Colin Baker found himself being dismissed in-between seasons, having had the shortest tenure as the Doctor up to that point. Understandably, he was unwilling to come back and film a regeneration scene in the following season – so his replacement, Sylvester McCoy, had to spend his first few moments onscreen portraying the unconscious Sixth Doctor, concealing his face and wearing a curly blonde wig.
As if anticipating how his new attitude would be received, the Sixth Doctor ends his first adventure by telling Peri (and by extension, the audience), “I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not.” Not even the first female Doctor, polarising as she was, felt it necessary to make such a declaration – and it’s certainly not the way for a hero to endear himself to his audience. Sure enough, I couldn’t really warm to this Doctor, who took his anti-hero traits well past engaging levels, to be just plain unpleasant. He does get a little nicer with time – or maybe you just get more used to him – but by then it’s already too late. This is nothing against Colin Baker, as this approach to the character was more the writers’ and producers’ fault than his; I’ve listened to one of his later Big Finish audio adventures, Peri and the Piscon Paradox, in which Six is considerably more agreeable.
We don’t get a chance to see Nicola Bryant’s real potential, either; through a combination of being around this awful Doctor who constantly puts her down, and getting thrown into terrible situations by herself, Peri Brown is stressed and miserable for most of her time onscreen, which isn’t any more appealing to watch than the Doctor himself. Then, for the last two adventures, Mel drops into the picture. Apparently Mel is not one of the more popular companions among the Doctor Who fandom, but after Peri, I found her to be a breath of fresh air; she is much better at taking the Doctor’s behaviour in her stride and maintaining a perky attitude. Of course, it is weird and jarring how we don’t get a proper introduction to her; she’s just suddenly there in the TARDIS, encouraging the Doctor to exercise and offering him carrot juice.
Curiously, even though I wasn’t a fan of the Doctor or his companion for most of this era, I actually liked the stories themselves better than in the Fifth Doctor’s tenure: they were generally both more exciting and more memorable, ranging from social satire (Vengeance on Varos) to a murder mystery on a space liner (Terror of the Vervoids). However, the Trial of a Time Lord story arc wasn’t executed very well, with the brief interruptions of each story to return to the courtroom becoming irritating, and the whole framing device seeming needless until the ultimate conclusion.
My Favourite Sixth Doctor Stories: The Two Doctors, Timelash, Terror of the Vervoids
My Least Favourite Sixth Doctor Story – The Twin Dilemma: The story itself, featuring annoying twins and a ridiculous slug monster villain, is bad enough, but it’s the Doctor himself who is the worst thing about it. Actions like trying to strangle Peri, and then force her to live in eternal solitude with him, are put down to post-regeneration psychosis but are still far from heroic – and in other ways, like constantly belittling Peri, the Doctor starts as he means to go on. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and the Sixth Doctor’s leaves a permanently bad taste in the mouth.