‘A waste of the licence fee’: how Colin Baker almost finished off Doctor Who

Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor - PA
Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor - PA

In February 1985, the Doctor made the Six O’Clock News. “Doctor Who,” announced Sue Lawley, “is to take a rest.” By that time, the Doctor had been a BBC fixture for more than 21 years. He had stepped out of the Tardis and into the much-trumpeted arena of “British institutions”. But the “rest” was in fact a Beeb-enforced 18-month hiatus – a perilous time known among Doctor Who fans as “the suspension” or, rather more dramatically, “the cancellation crisis”.

Doctor Who making headlines was not unusual. Its ratings dipped in the 1980s, but the Doctor, then Colin Baker, was good tabloid fodder. Even Colin growing a beard got column inches – as did calls by Labour MEPs to make the Doctor a woman. Baker’s time as the Sixth Doctor – from 1984 to 1986, including the 18-month suspension – was a swirl of enthusiastic publicity for the series: a Terry Wogan interview, photo calls, panto, Children in Need, charity parachute jumps, fan conventions (all the way from Swindon to Texas) and a one-off sketch on Jim’ll Fix It (the less remembered about that the better).

Baker loved the role; he was – and remains – an ambassador for Who. He had planned to peel back the layers of his complex, braggadocious Doctor over a lengthy tenure. But he ultimately took the blame for what even Doctor Who Magazine later described as “perhaps the most unloved and certainly the most troubled period in Doctor Who’s long history”.

BBC bosses in 1985 were targeting Who: part cost-saving measure, part disdain. The show was, in many ways, out of time. It was brought back from its hiatus in late 1986 with a daring defence: The Trial of a Time Lord, a season-long story in which The Doctor is prosecuted by an evil version of himself. It was ambitious, flawed and deeply unsubtle. In the show, the Doctor stands trial for meddling in events (a Time Lord no-no); in real life, Doctor Who was on trial for being hokey nonsense.

“As a metatextual comment on the state of the show – within the Corporation that made it – it’s a superb idea,” says actor, writer, comedian and Who fan Toby Hadoke. “‘The show’s been on trial, so let’s put the Doctor on trial!’ But in terms of getting the public back on board, it was a damp squib.”

Baker with Nicola Bryant, who played his assistant Peri - PA
Baker with Nicola Bryant, who played his assistant Peri - PA

The Trial of a Time Lord was the beginning of the end for the classic Doctor Who. Now, however, it feels oddly in tune with modern Who. The latest series, which began last night on BBC One, returns to one continuous season-long story.

When Colin Baker debuted as the Sixth Doctor in March 1984, the show was already in flux. Its schedules and running times were messed around – from a snappy 25 minutes to a less-than-snappy 45 – and soon it was being pummelled in the ratings by The A-Team. Dwindling viewer numbers were compounded by complaints about Doctor Who’s violence.

Hadoke is a lifelong fan, and performed the one-man comedy show, Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf. “The argument that it was too violent is a fair one,” he says. Such gruesomeness included rat-eating, acid baths, cyanide, a blown-to-bits Sontaran, and, says Hadoke, “stabbings galore”.

Rumours quickly reached the production team and the upper echelons of Who fandom: that Doctor Who was about to be permanently cancelled. Michael Grade, who became controller of BBC One in September 1984, has since made few bones about wanting to “kill” the show at the time. “I thought it was rubbish,” he said in 2004 as he condemned it to Room 101 calling it “pathetic” and “a waste of the licence-payer’s money”.

The news that Doctor Who would be suspended for 18 months caught producer John Nathan-Turner and his team off guard. But tabloids rallied behind The Doctor, and took the opportunity to include a saucy snap of then-assistant, Nicola Bryant. The Daily Mirror branded Michael Grade – who also canned Dallas and beauty pageants – the “Axeman of Shepherd’s Bush”, and The Sun pledged a campaign to save Doctor Who. When fans bombarded the Who production office with calls, former Doctor Patrick Troughton mucked in and answered phones. There was even a Band Aid-style novelty record, Doctor in Distress (which reached, ahem, no 130 in the charts).

The BBC was shocked by the response. “I think the plan was to cancel the show, but they were surprised by the uproar,” says Hadoke. Michael Grade sneered at campaigns by what he called “pointy-head” fans. “When newspapers get a lot of letters on a subject, they think it’s a hot topic,” he said on Room 101. “They got thousands and thousands of letters from the three fans who were up all night writing thousands and thousands of letters.”

The BBC dealt another blow: the show would return to its traditional 25-minute run-time, but now with only 14 episodes – around half the overall run-time of the previous season. Word leaked out when the BBC mistakenly sent a fax about the schedule to the Doctor Who Fan Club of America. The Who team was also told to tone down the violence and dial up the humour.

A scene from The Trial of a Time Lord - BBC
A scene from The Trial of a Time Lord - BBC

The stories that were already developed for the suspended Season 23, a year’s worth of planning and pre-production, were scrapped at a significant cost. The “lost” episodes would have included a jaunt to the Blackpool Pleasure Beach and the return of the Autons. Script editor Eric Saward thought they needed a single theme for the now-reconfigured season. He credited his partner, production secretary Jane Judge, for the trial concept: “Well, you’re on trial, aren’t you” she told him. “Why don’t you take that as your theme?”

The Trial of a Time Lord now seems like a standard season-arc, but back then it was a fresh idea: an overarching story, consisting of four serials, all linked by the Doctor’s trial. It took some inspiration from A Christmas Carol, with adventures from the Doctor’s past, present, and future playing out as evidence for both defence and prosecution. (In simpler terms: a couple of regular Who stories, loosely connected by scenes of Baker getting all blustery in court, with a bit of running around at the end.) The show had attempted something similar in 1978, when it sent Tom Baker’s Doctor off in search of The Key to Time across a whole season.

The Trial, however, continued to cause turbulence for the Tardis’s crew, as they battled both the BBC and their own behind-the-scenes problems. “The original Doctor Who was always made in conditions of being on the edge of catastrophe,” says John Smith, who hosted the appropriately named Trial of a Time Lord Podcast. “But this season was probably the most dramatic, behind the scenes. The script editor isn’t talking to the producer, the writers aren’t talking to each other, and the writer who’s supposed to pull the whole thing together [Robert Holmes] dies before he’s written the end.”

The Trial of a Time Lord’s greatest creation is its prosecutor, the Valeyard, played by Michael Jayston. The Doctor believes the evidence has been tampered with, and he’s quite right: the Valeyard is in fact an evil version of the Doctor – an amalgamation of his darker instincts, from somewhere between his “12th and final incarnation”. The Doctor is merely a pawn in a Time Lord conspiracy. It’s strange that the Valeyard would never re-emerge in the TV adventures, though he’s almost the blueprint for the modern Master, who’s now (says John Smith) a “dark reflection of the Doctor”.

The veteran Who writer Robert Holmes had been charged with writing the first and final stories of the Trial: The Mysterious Planet and The Ultimate Foe. Holmes’s first script got a scathing report from head of drama Jonathan Powell for its level of humour – despite his having been told to dial up the humour. Other scripts were lined up and abandoned, and a rift developed between John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward. “Saward was an Eeyore type of figure,” says Hadoke. “And John Nathan-Turner was flamboyant – Hawaiian shirts and clubbing until the early hours – but could also be waspish and prone to swinging his weight around when he felt like it.”

Nathan-Turner was unpopular with some fans, too; he was arguably too embedded with hardcore fandom. Under his watch, Doctor Who became obsessed with its own history. Crammed with obscure details, past characters and contradictions, it turned off casual viewers. Foreign sales and merchandise, however, were lucrative.

Nathan-Turner was also good at nabbing publicity through, against typecasting, well-known British B-listers. “He was a light-ents producer making a science-fiction show,” says Hadoke. The Trial of a Time Lord would see Carry On star Joan Sims presiding over a primitive tribe of future humans, Brian Blessed bellowing out gibberish while dressed as a space samurai and Honor Blackman tending to some plant monsters.

The boldest casting was Bonnie Langford as a new companion, Mel, who joined halfway through The Trial of a Time Lord – a precursor to Billie Piper, Catherine Tate and Matt Lucas as the companions in the modern Who.

Production on the Trial was rocked again when Robert Holmes died before the script for the final episode was written. Saward, shaken by the death of his friend and mentor, finished the script based on a storyline he and Holmes had already hashed out. It ended on a cliffhanger: the Doctor and the Valeyard lost in the Time Lords’ Matrix, like Sherlock and Moriarty tumbling down the Reichenbach Falls. But Nathan-Turner wanted it changed – he didn’t want to give the BBC any excuse to end the show. Saward quit and withdrew his script, forcing Nathan-Turner to call in Pip and Jane Baker (who wrote another instalment of Trial) to knock up a workable final part in three days.

Bonnie Lanford (left) with Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy - PA
Bonnie Lanford (left) with Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy - PA

It’s one of the ultimate unanswered questions about Doctor Who. “If they had gone with the original ending,” says John Smith, “would the BBC have taken the opportunity to cancel the show?”

Saward caused a notorious Who scandal with an interview in Starburst Magazine; he called Doctor Who “pantomime-ish” under Nathan-Turner and slated his behaviour – such as falling out with a director because the director didn’t invite him to lunch – and Nathan-Turner’s obsession with American fans. (A biography of Nathan-Turner by Richard Marson whipped up further controversy in 2013, alleging that Nathan-Turner and his partner used their position to sleep with teenage fans.)

The Trial of a Time Lord began on September 6 1986. “After being off-air for 18 months,” Hadoke says, “you would hope that when it came back, especially as it had been in the papers, there would be an appetite for it. Doctor Who sold newspapers – the new Doctor always got headlines – but would people watch it?”

But the public outcry to save the show didn’t translate into viewer figures: just 4.9 million for the first episode, and an average of just 4.8 million across the entire series. Those that did watch had to keep up with 14 weeks’ worth of legal wrangling. The first serial, the four-parter The Mysterious Planet, is notable for introducing the recurring character Sabalom Glitz, a cheeky Cockney space geezer, played by Tony Selby. Most significant, however, is Baker’s Doctor – more sardonic and self-aware than viewers may have known at the time. “There’s a robot following me who isn’t in a very friendly mood,” he says in one scene.

Much has been said about the pompous, difficult Sixth Doctor, a personality prescribed by producers and sometimes at odds with the actor, his companions and his audience. And though poking fun at his patchwork costume is as clichéd as gags about hiding behind the sofa, it is impossible to look past. (The Valeyard even uses it in his prosecution, calling it “that… outfit”.)

Yet Baker’s Doctor really does span time: the prickliness of William Hartnell’s First Doctor, the alien unknowability of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, and a hint of something lurking beneath the surface – a staple of later Doctors. “I think Colin Baker is a lot easier for us to take in a post-Eccleston, post-Capaldi era,” says Smith. “The Doctor [now] doesn't have to be a cuddly uncle.”

There’s real nastiness, too, in the second adventure, Mindwarp, in which Nicola Bryant’s cutesy companion Peri suffers the double whammy of losing both her hair and her brain in experimental surgery – a gutsy, harrowing demise. Most enjoyable is the third adventure, Terror of the Vervoids, a murder mystery set aboard a luxury space liner. The Vervoids, a race of plant monsters, look – to adult eyes, at least – positively obscene. The final serial, The Ultimate Foe, is a lot of back and forth as the Doctor and the Valeyard duke it out inside the Matrix – a supercomputer that stores all Time Lord knowledge and experience.

Watched now, however – specifically scenes of Colin Baker bantering with a couple of green slug men – it’s easy to see how Grade thought the show was old, shonky twaddle. The problem is largely the trial itself, a dull interjection that serves as an excuse both for the Valeyard to pile up the charges, escalating from general busy-bodying to actual genocide, and for dramatic Colin Baker faces.

“I think it was a lot to ask of the audience at the time,” says Hadoke. “I think now, divorced from its circumstance, it holds up as a noble attempt to do an epic story. It’s got that X-Files, Line of Duty, conspiracy element.”

The Sixth Doctor defeated his evil self, but he was no match for the BBC: Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell decided Baker had to be replaced. John Nathan-Turner, conversely, wanted to leave but was trapped in the show. “Colin Baker was a fall guy for all the criticisms levelled at the show, which had nothing to do with him,” says Hadoke. “The fact they preserved with the producer who didn’t want to do it, but didn’t persevere with the actor who did, seems like petty mismanagement.”

The BBC asked Baker to return for one more story in order to regenerate; he offered instead to return for an entire season and then regenerate, but this was refused. When the character did regenerate, the departing Sixth Doctor was briefly played by Sylvester McCoy (the incoming Seventh) in a curly blond wig.

Michael Grade kept his sights on the Doctor. There was a creative renaissance in the next few years, but Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989. It would not be relaunched until 2005. Looked back on now, the Sixth Doctor needed a better defence. As Hadoke says: “Colin Baker deserved more, and better.”