My Favorite and Least Favorite Televised Sixth Doctor Stories

The Sixth Doctor sitting on a bridgeAfter completing a Doctor’s era I like to go back and review my thoughts and compile a list of favorites and least favorites. In the case of some long-running Doctors, it is hard to remember or even parse nuances between what makes two great stories (or horrible stories) just a little better or a little worse. Oddly, I have a new problem with the Sixth Doctor stories, namely that there are so few of them. A typical top five and bottom five list would encompass the entire era (depending on how you counted Trial of a Time Lord. So I have limited myself to standouts on either side of the favorite/least favorite divide.

For the era as a whole, it was a disappointment. There are some instances in art where antagonism sparked creativity. One such example is the band The Police. The members of this band were in a constant struggle for artistic dominance. This led to an amazing alchemy of post-punk energy and angst. Unfortunately, Doctor Who did not capitalize on its own alchemical antagonism. The conflict between BBC oversight, Jonathan Nathan-Turner (producer), and Eric Saward (script editor) did not lead to great art; it led to inconsistency and lack of vision. This almost served to enhance Saward’s bleak vision of science fiction, causing a tone of hopelessness and oppression to flow subtly through the Sixth Doctor era.

The Sixth Doctor era was also the closest complete vision of a Sawardian interpretation of Doctor Who. (I say “closest” because, again, there was a LOT of creative conflict during this era.) Where the Fifth Doctor years were a struggle between a Bidmeadian re-creation of Doctor Who and a Sawardian reproduction of Holmesian Doctor Who, the Sixth Doctor years was firmly Sawardian. Every script was filtered through his lens, and given his singular vision for the show (and his assertion that JNT hired inexperienced writers as much as possible), his fingerprints are on every episode, his voice in every scene. If a viewer appreciates Saward’s vision, this can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I have no particular dislike of Colin Baker’s Doctor or of Peri or Mel; I have enjoyed many of the Sixth Doctor audios from Big Finish. But I do not care for Saward’s vision of Doctor Who . . . or at the very least, the vision he crafted under intense artistic conflict.

For me, the Sixth Doctor era has a few gems, but far more mediocre or outright dull stories. As a result, I find far more satisfaction reading the era as a text about Doctor Who rather than a series of entertaining stories. That said, from a pure entertainment standpoint, here are my lists of favorites and least favorites.

Favorite

  • Revelation of the Daleks. Despite being critical of Saward, I think Revelation is wonderful as his ultimate expression of Doctor Who, which is ironic since the Doctor is largely ineffective in it. The story is dark and bleak but it also manages to be funny and downright interesting. It has so many elements that should not work, and yet it does.
  • Vengeance on Varos. In addition to being a thought-provoking story on entertainment, Varos also signposts one of the recurring motifs of the Sixth Doctor era: Doctor Who as television. This is the first of many stories which show characters watching the Doctor on television screens and commenting on his actions. Thus, it provides many interesting meta moments.
  • The Two Doctors. My personal theory is that The Two Doctors is the most-complete Robert Holmes script under Saward’s script editorship. Caves of Androzani had Holmesian moments, but it felt more like a Saward script in tone. The Two Doctors is far more indicative of Robert Holmes’s style and voice. It is funny, vicious in its social commentary, and it reunites us with the Second Doctor and Jamie.

Least Favorite

  • Timelash. Perhaps the main crime of this story is that it is so bland and by-the-numbers as to be uninteresting. In another era, under another script editor, Timelash would not have stood out as bad. Here, it is glaring.
  • The Twin Dilemma. Another story that could have been something more than it was (the pieces are there), but I can’t overlook the implicit undertones of domestic violence in this story.

What do you think? What are your favorites of the era?

The Doctor and Peri

Doctor Who – Trial of a Time Lord

Doctor Who Story 144, 145, 146, 147 – Trial of a Time Lord

Written by

Robert Holmes, Philip Martin, Pip and Jane Baker

What’s It About?

The Doctor is pulled out of time and space by a jury of Time Lords. A Time Lord called The Valeyard is acting as prosecutor trying the Doctor for transgressing the First Law of Time: non-interference. At stake: the Doctor’s life. Citing evidence from the Doctor’s past, present, and future, the Doctor must prove his innocence, all the while determining who the Valeyard is and why he has targeted the Doctor.

Great Cosmic Protector of Grifters and Dissemblers, save me!

The courtroom as the Doctor faces the ValyardAs a story, I do not enjoy Trial of a Time Lord. As a historical document, I am fascinated by Trial of a Time Lord. During their time on the show, Jonathan Nathan Turner and Eric Saward shifted the primary focus of Doctor Who away from telling interesting, fun stories and toward telling self-referential stories about Doctor Who as a phenomenon. Or, put another way, Doctor Who became about Doctor Who. The show was about itself, about referencing the past, about exploring the question of what made Doctor Who great. But it was rarely about telling good stories. Good stories did get told during the Colin Baker era, but I think, on the whole, this era was too focused on itself as a part of Doctor Who rather than focusing on finding its own voice, its own drive, its own storytelling agenda. By focusing on itself, it did eventually find all these things, but more by accident rather than intentionally.

Oddly, one of the recurring motifs in the Colin Baker era is the image of people watching TV: Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks, and now Trial of a Time Lord. Each of these stories features characters watching other characters in stories, watching the Doctor. Trial goes to the unfettered end of this meta-imagery by giving us a Doctor watching episodes of Doctor Who.

Now, in many ways, Trial is a brilliant piece of post-modern conceptualization. It works as a metaphor for the behind-the-scenes turmoil going on at the time. The ultimate question in this case is whether or not Doctor Who deserves to continue being made. This commentary is not so subtle. And through this commentary, the show is able to evaluate and criticize itself. The only problem is that it is handled so sloppily, almost making the critique on its own. “The Mysterious Planet” segment is so effectively by-the-numbers old-school Doctor Who that it is incredibly dull. The banter between Glitz and Dibbler are yet another example of the Robert Holmes double-act, but the story is unbearably dull at times. Thankfully, it is punctuated by Glitz and trial scenes.

“Mindwarp” gets more interesting with each episode, but I just can’t bring myself to get past Brian Blessed’s over-the-top portrayal of Yrcanos. The story never quite reaches the amount of self-parody needed to contextualize such a performance. The ideas are what save this story, but even then it is almost not enough.

Oddly, “Terror of the Vervoids” was the most watchable segment for me. I enjoyed the idea of killer plant life, and Pip and Jane Baker did a good job of subverting expectations (even when the dialogue was atrocious). And despite knowing that “The Ultimate Foe” was incomplete when Robert Holmes died, it seemed better paced than much of what we were given throughout the season.

But overall, even Trial was not spared from the inability of JNT and Saward to create good stories. All the potential in this season was wasted by not taking advantage of the 18-month hiatus to start from square one. There was no real attempt to rebuild the show; instead it seems they merely take a clever idea and did the same old thing. It is full of flaws and grossly illustrates the deficiencies of the current form of Doctor Who. Thankfully, change is coming, but it is disappointing that Colin Baker’s era would remain unredeemed until Big Finish began producing stories. And I also hate that Michael Jayston was so interesting and turned in a great performance as the Valeyard. This makes the conclusion even more unsatisfactory. I want to know more about the Valeyard. I just want other people writing it.

My Rating

2.5/5

 

Doctor Who – Revelation of the Daleks

Doctor Who Story 143 – Revelation of the Daleks

Written by

Eric Saward

What’s It About?

The Doctor and Peri arrive on Necros to visit Professor Stengos, an old friend of the Doctor. Necros is also the home of the Great Healer, a savior who found a solution to a galaxy-wide food shortage. But what the Doctor doesn’t know is that the Great Healer is Davros, and this old enemy has been recreating Daleks in secret.

Consumer Resistance

The Doctor and Davros share a moment.By all accounts, I’m not sure “Revelation of the Daleks” should work. But after three or so seasons of watching Eric Saward attempt to capture that Robert Holmes magic, he has done it and put his own spin on it. And all he had to do was write a story in which the Doctor and Peri were largely irrelevant. Most of the story involves the leads wandering around, failing to do anything of importance while other people progress the plot and reveal the secrets. In a way, it is fascinating. And while the Doctor and Peri are hardly significant to the plot, the story is actually compelling and darkly entertaining.

It is the irrelevance that interests me about this story. It is somewhat subversive in that it sidelines the Doctor and Peri, but I almost think it reflects the attitude at the time, namely that Saward and JNT are not entirely sure what this show is about anymore. I read much of the Davison era as a conflict between Bidmead’s vision and Saward’s vision. In the end Saward won out. His vision looked at past successes of the show with particular emphasis on the Robert Holmes approach (specifically a Fourth Doctor approach). With “Revelation” he has nailed it with the dark humor (almost out doing Holmes in this area); the story is overflowing with double acts. Saward and Graeme Harper (who brilliantly directed this story) even play with meta-commentary via the DJ, who flips back and forth between the different plotlines, which are almost different genres in themselves. In this story, the TARDIS doesn’t take us anywhere in time and space, it is the DJ and his cameras that do this. In some ways the central conceit of Doctor Who is laid bare, the idea that Doctor Who is entirely about television. (A box that is bigger on the inside which takes you anywhere in time and space . . . if you substitute TARDIS for television, the metaphor becomes obvious.) We are watching the DJ watching the Doctor. The show has been increasingly self-referential in recent stories, but now it handles this brilliantly and does something interesting with this rather than just patting itself on the back.

“Revelation of the Daleks” is, for me, the story where Saward finally got it all right. He finally wove his voice and ideas into a compelling story. It would have been the perfect story to go out on. But somewhat troubling about this story, and it has been growing throughout this era, is the realization that the best moments of Doctor Who have become less and less about the Doctor. The Doctor and Peri are the least interesting things to watch in this and many other stories of the era. And so the question must be asked, especially given what the next season holds, just how important is Doctor Who to television if the most compelling story we have had in a while sidelines him? And given that this story takes place on a planet of the dead, a planet of corpses, a place where the Doctor has a monument representing his death, I can’t help but wonder if the death of Doctor Who was an unconscious theme of this season.

My Rating

4.5/5

Doctor Who – Timelash

Doctor Who Story 142- Timelash

Written by

Glen McCoy

What’s It About

While investigating a time corridor, the Doctor and Peri arrive on Karfel, a world the Doctor has visited before. But it seems things did not improve after his interference.

I don’t know whether to be impressed or disgusted

The Doctor joyfully enters the timelashWhat can be said about “Timelash” that is worth saying or is in any way redemptive?

There are two really good ideas at the core of “Timelash”: (1) The Doctor revisiting a location he had once helped, only to find said location wasn’t helped at all by his intervention, and (2) a Doctor Who tribute to H.G. Wells. Neither of these, however, are handled well.

A story of a return, while done a couple of times in the past (“The Ark,” “The Face of Evil”) would have been most effective if it had been a return to a location we have already seen. How fascinating to see a later Doctor arrive somewhere a previous regeneration had helped, but to see unintended consequences! The Doctor might question himself. He may question his previous self and feel the need to right wrongs that he never saw at the time. This could have been so much better. Instead, we have a planet we have never seen and are given the story in exposition. This feels like a story with a returning villain or setting (and in the last few years we have seen a lot of returning villains and characters), but it never quite pays off because it is new. The trajectory of the era up to this point has been deceptive and actually hurts this story. Again, every episode has seen a reference to the past, but here, where a reference to the past is explicit in the story, there is none. Instead, we get a couple of references to Jo Grant and the Pertwee Doctor, but no actual return to a Pertwee-era story.

As for H.G. Wells, Doctor Who owes much to him. His approach to sci-fi has been extremely influential to Doctor Who. In fact, there is a good documentary on “The Ark” DVD about the influence of Wells. But in this story, the tribute to Wells is incidental. There are a few references through character names or monster names. Wells appears as a character halfway through, but his identity is left unknown until the end of the story. There doesn’t seem to be anything distinctly Wells in his portrayal. Worst of all, he is entirely forgettable, which is not what you want in a tribute. At least new Who makes their historical tributes memorable. They distill the historical figure into identifiable traits and struggles. They humanize them. In “Timelash,” Wells is just a plucky male assistant. His identity doesn’t matter. There is nothing in the story that prompts the viewer to want to pick up a Wells novel, nothing to compel the viewer to go deeper. What use is a tribute, then, if it doesn’t inspire the viewer?

So, on both counts that I have looked at, “Timelash” is a failure. But all Doctor Who stories have a fan or two somewhere. Let me know if you like “Timelash.” And even if you don’t care for it, how can we look at this story differently so as to redeem it? What interpretive lens improves this story?

Doctor Who – The Two Doctors

Doctor Who Story 141 – The Two Doctors

Written by

Robert Holmes

What’s It About?

The Second Doctor and Jamie are sent by the Time Lords to Space Station Chimera to investigate time experiments. The Doctor is captured because the masterminds behind the experiments need a Time Lord so they can unlock the secrets of TARDIS technology. Meanwhile, the Sixth Doctor develops a sensitivity to his past self’s abduction and realizes that if he is not able to save his past self, his present may be irrevocably changed.

Primitive Creatures Don’t Feel Pain in the Way We Would

Shockeye and The Doctor out on the town.It is always a joy to see Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines reprise their roles in Doctor Who. For me, however, this story is less about Troughton and Hines’ return and more about Robert Holmes. Yes, he was back a year earlier with “Caves of Androzani,” but “Caves” was somewhat atypical for Holmes. It lacked his humor and witticisms. It was Holmes as dark cynic; “The Two Doctors” is Holmes as biting, witty cynic.

Like “The Sun Makers,” “The Two Doctors” is harsh in its commentary, but instead of focusing on the British tax system, Holmes unleashes his disdain on people who eat meat. Holmes was a vegetarian, and his use of Androgums as a stand-in for carnivores leads to some wonderful dark comedy. The only problem is that by making Androgums a stand-in for a group, a viewer could choose to try other readings instead of the vegetarian reading. In such a case, statements referring to Androgum nature being savage, lesser, debased, and primitive can take a decidedly racist tone. Attempts to modify Cessini to a more civilized existence have certain Imperial overtones. But it is clear that the author’s true intent was to excoriate meat eaters. This is probably the best lens to read “The Two Doctors” through.

Some criticism has been levelled at this story due to the cruelty exhibited in the story: the Doctor delivering a one-liner after killing Shockeye, the death of Oscar, cannibalism. Some of this serves the social commentary, but with Oscar’s death I think the story veers too far toward the grim. Oscar was played as a thoroughly ridiculous character up to this point. He was absurd. His death is filmed as tragic, but I almost wonder if it was meant to be in the absurd, comic vein in which he was written. Indeed at times, as Oscar waxed of Shakespeare, I anticipated his death was being deliberately over-played, melodramatic, his injuries a mere superficial wound and revealed as such with great embarrassment. But no, he died. The bleakness of this moment threatens to distance the viewer from the story.

In spite of this, “The Two Doctors” is a very good story. There are things to be critical about, but the storytelling is quite good and the directing creates effective mood, even when I disagree with the mood chosen.

My Rating

4/5

 

Doctor Who – Mark of the Rani

Doctor Who Story 140 – Mark of the Rani

Written by

Pip and Jane Baker

What’s It About?

The TARDIS materializes near a coal mine in the 1800s as the Luddite rebellion is breaking out. But the Doctor and Peri soon discover that the Luddites bear an odd mark on their necks. And it is soon revealed that the Doctor isn’t the only Time Lord on the scene.

You’re unbalanced

The Rani is disgustedPip and Jane Baker are, as I understand it, a hated writing team among Doctor Who fans. This was the first story I have watched by them. While I don’t think “Mark of the Rani” is the worst Doctor Who story I’ve ever seen, I do see why some fans may not like it. I think the worst thing I can really say about the story is that the two 45 minute episode format is a huge stumbling block for this era of Doctor Who. “Mark of the Rani” would probably be fine if it was just 45 minutes and no more. There seems to be a lot of padding or at least a large amount of unevenness. But are those due to the script or the directing. I don’t really care, however. For some reason “Mark of the Rani” was fun. I really enjoyed it, and I think that was largely due to Kate O’Mara. The Rani is a fascinating concept. She is a Time Lord who rejected Time Lord society and set herself up as ruler of some other planet. But her people need chemicals to help them sleep, and humans have those chemicals, so she uses her scientific knowledge to extract what she needs from humanity. She doesn’t care about the consequences.

Since I am at the end of the semester (which is why this post is later than I have usually been scheduling them), I want to briefly reflect on actors who brought to life poorly written or otherwise uninteresting roles.

  • Kate O’Mara as the Rani. For some reason, this performance me. She is a Time Lord villain with a decently plausible motive for her nefarious deeds. O’Mara’s performance is wonderful and really stands out against Ainley’s Master and Colin Baker’s Doctor. She’s caught in the middle, but just wants to be left alone.
  • Roger Delgado as the Master. With as much reverence as Delgado is held in by fandom, I expected his Master to be amazing and brilliant. Unfortunately, he had incomprehensible plans, made all sorts of unusual decisions, and had no consistently discernable motive. But Delgado’s Master is still fascinating to watch because Roger Delgado brought class and villainy to this role. It could have been played camp (and by Ainley it was), but you would never know it because of Delgado.
  • Philip Madoc as anything, really. Madoc was brilliant because he managed to balance absurdity with believability. His masterwork in this regard is Dr. Solon in “The Brain of Morbius.” This character was extremely strange and morbid and could have failed miserably. Philip Madoc turned this role into something you couldn’t stop watching, and he threatened to upstage even Tom Baker.

I’m sure

I’m sure I could name many more. What are some of your favorite roles? What actors really made something memorable when they could have easily not bothered?

My Rating

3.5/5

 

Doctor Who – Day of the Doctor as Seen Through the Lens of Vengeance on Varos

Doctor Who Story 139 – Vengeance on Varos

Written by

Philip Martin

What’s It About?

The Doctor needs Zeiton-7 to repair the TARDIS and the only planet where it is mined is Varos, a planet under strict corporate control. The Doctor and Peri suddenly find themselves running for their lives in a torture dome which broadcasts death and dismemberment as entertainment.

When did they last show something worth watching?

vengeanceonvarosLawrence Miles has said that Steven Moffat has the best job in the world, by which he means show runner for Doctor Who. At the same time, I sometimes wonder if Steven Moffat has the most thankless job in Doctor Who, by which I also mean show runner.

The current position of show runner embodies a role that was divided between two people in the classic series: producer and script editor. The former oversaw the production aspect and acted as a liaison to the BBC, the latter commissioned stories and set the path for each season. In modern Who, the show runner does both by varying degrees. Thus, when Doctor Who is a success, one individual gets a good amount of credit; when it is not successful, one individual gets the blame. And since 2009 that individual has been Steven Moffat.

But Steven Moffat is not alone in the history of Doctor Who production. He is the latest in a long line of men (and one woman) who oversaw the show. He knows that there were people before him and there will very likely be people after him. Fans of the show are also quite aware of this, each having his or her own preferred production team: Lambert/Whitaker, Hinchcliffe/Holmes, Russell T. Davies, JNT/Saward, and so on and so on. But increasingly in this show that has a large fan following, a show that gave a strong voice to fans in the 1980s and still depends on the devotion and evangelism of fans, balancing the needs of show production, market viability, and fan service has to be a thankless job. I’ll put my cards on the table (as a preview of sorts to when I finally get to the New Who era): I loved Moffat stories from RTD’s run, I enjoyed series five, but everything since then has been inconsistent for me. I think Steven Moffat has certain personal tropes he relies upon, some which work very well and some which are annoying and don’t. And so in his current position as a show runner, I sometimes wonder if these tropes become his way of staying on schedule while dealing with the myriad other duties his job requires. Sometimes his stories annoy me greatly (every appearance of River Song since season six), but I love it when I can give him full credit for stories that stretch him beyond his tendencies, in this case, Day of the Doctor. The 50th Anniversary special out-and-out worked for me. I loved 98% of the thing and I can’t wait to watch it again. But Day of the Doctor aired after a year of hype and expectation, after a season which has seen the greatest criticism of Steven Moffat and his approach to Doctor Who, storytelling, and gender. And while there is genuine criticism to be had, there is also hatred for the sake of hatred. For some segments of fandom, Steven Moffat can do no good. Make no mistake, there is an opposite segment of fandom for whom Steven Moffat can do no wrong. And, as with all things, many people fall in the middle, acknowledging highs and lows and just hoping for a good story week after week.

Some of the criticism of Day of the Doctor is baffling to me as it seems Steven Moffat played to his strengths, stretched himself as a writer, and turned in a story that, pacing issues near the beginning aside, worked as a celebration of old and new and managed to fit quite well in the trajectory of all Doctor Who, from Lambert to Davies. I was seriously impressed.

Which brings me to Vengeance on Varos, which I can only read (during this viewing) as a metaphor for Doctor Who production. The Governor is the show runner, whether JNT from the era in which this show was produced, or Steven Moffat in our current era. The citizens are the two extremes of fandom, the critic for whom the show runner can do no good and the optimistic fan for whom the show runner can do no bad. (Statements such as “I like the one in the funny costume” elevate this reading as the superficial becomes substance.) I think it is telling that the two citizens spend all their time watching television, watching the Doctor and his companion go from one danger to another, enjoying different aspects and cringing at the ones they don’t. Sil and the Chief Officer represent the business concerns of Doctor Who (production cost, overseas marketing), recognizing the value of what they have but not wanting to give credit to it. Quillam, as the program manager who oversees the tortures, is the script editor from the classic Who model, and his love of the gruesome and violent leads me to see him primarily as an avatar for Eric Saward.

And so, Vengeance on Varos becomes a meta-textual criticism of Doctor Who itself in which the Doctor materializes inside his own show and attempts to redeem it. The Sixth Doctor is not as harsh as he was in the previous two stories; he is actually Doctor-like—unique but still of the traditional mold. In this story more than The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen we see what the Sixth Doctor can be, rather than how he was written at the time. And the final moments of the story are a strong critique of the blind-fan mentality, emphasizing that while Doctor Who as an entity will not cease to exist (as Zeiton-7 is still in production, but more valuable than ever), it must go away for a while and redefine itself. (A prescient observation if ever there was one. What more compelling image in this era of the show than two fans sitting in disbelief as the screen goes blank?)

JNT and Steven Moffat are, in many ways, in the same struggle. Both must balance business and production interests with storytelling and fan criticism. Both were also fans of the show, and each has his own view of what Doctor Who should be. And both enjoy baiting the fans. But Vengeance on Varos as with The Day of the Doctor is Doctor Who at its most self-aware. It recognizes its place not just as a story, but as a production. And where Day of the Doctor celebrates the show, Vengeance on Varos criticizes it. It proposes a different attitude and approach. It asks fans to find a middle ground.

And, bottom line, Vengeance on Varos is a great story with a lot of depth and the story in which Colin Baker finally became the Doctor.

My Rating

4/5