The Trials of Colin Baker

At the top of this Sixth Doctor week, Jonathan Appleton uncovered the internal BBC turmoil that underpinned Season 23 in his article, ‘When Doctor Who went on trial’. But, after the season ended, with the Valeyard’s laughter still echoing in the courtroom, the BBC took the decision to sack Colin Baker…

In a particularly devious move, the BBC sold the firing of the Sixth Doctor to the Press as Colin refusing to come back and fulfil his final episodes and regeneration. A cynical anonymous spokesman  stated the BBC was ‘sorry’ Baker would not appear in the next series.

So, it is clear from the verdict that Doctor Who the programme was not on trial. It was Colin. When the show returned for Season 24, little else had changed. All the key players: John Nathan-Turner and his production team stayed, even the unpopular (in some fan circles, anyway) Bonnie Langford stuck around for the next run. The 14-episode videotaped season format remained unchanged, as did key writers, Pip and Jane Baker and director, Chris Clough.

Besides Mr Baker, the only other casualties were script editor, Eric Saward (who stormed off long before Colin’s canning) and veteran writer, Robert Holmes who – in an unrelated incident – permanently bequeathed his bio data extract to the great Matrix in the sky.

Given the way he was treated after his first season – an attempted axing, then an 18–month suspension – Colin stoically fought long and hard to promote Season 23 by appearing on multiple BBC shows often wearing THAT costume which we know Colin himself had little affection for.

Let’s take a look back at how Doctor Who was promoted mid-1980s style, taking in Wogan, Roland Rat, Blue Peter, and Tomorrow’s World...

Colin on Wogan, Monday 25 August 1986

A couple of weeks before Trial debuted on BBC1, Colin appeared on the popular prime time TV chat show, Wogan. Modern TV viewers used to the bombastic, raunchy, attention-grabbing style of chat show hosts such as Graham Norton, Graham Norton (sorry, did I type Graham Norton twice, I meant to write Graham Norton the second time… sorry, I meant Alan Carr) and of course Graham Norton (sorry, Paul O’Grady), may find Terry Wogan’s genteel approach a little subdued.

After an embarrassing interlude with a 1979–vintage Mandrel (I was going to say ‘dusted off for the occasion’ but the Wogan prop team didn’t even bother doing that), Terry and Colin settle down for a cosy conflab. Given the public turmoil that had engulfed the show over the preceding 18 months, it’s extraordinary that Doctor Who’s near cancellation and the fan outrage that ensued is not even touched upon…

Instead, Tel’s opening question is the sort of inquiry Who fans expect from a jovial aged uncle at a family barbecue, ‘What I never understood is why Dr Who flies about in a telephone box? Eh? Ha, ha!’ Following Colin’s patient and informative answer, Terry’s deeply satisfying reply is, ‘I never knew the historical antecedence of it.’ I can’t imagine Graham Norton uttering something as eloquent as that, unless while wielding a sonic, uh, toy surrounded by sexy Cyberchicks…

Despite Colin being charming, gently witty, and self-effacing throughout, he is given little encouragement from the studio audience who appear to have the same enthusiasm levels as a geriatric Ogron after a dose of the Mind Probe. Colin and Terry’s chummy banter is greeted with rounds of audible indifference…

Colin (and Cast) on Blue Peter, Thursday 18 September 1986

You can perhaps tell the level of esteem in which Doctor Who was held in 1986 by the Radio Times summary of this episode of Blue Peter which showcased the Trial season:

Bonnie Goes to School

Now she’s taken over from her famous mum as the new Blue Peter dog, seven-month-old Bonnie has to be on her best behaviour every Monday and Thursday! Like all golden retrievers, Bonnie’s eager to learn and did well at her ‘summer school’ when top trainer Richard Duckworth put her through her paces. There were some useful tips for Janet, too, as she and Bonnie got to grips with ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘heel’ and even retrieving. See how many marks out of ten you’d give them!

Now don’t get confused here: the ‘Bonnie’ referred to above is the Blue Peter pet pooch, not the incoming companion actor, Ms Langford. But it’s strange that in the RT preview, the Who cast – Colin, Bonnie, and Sil actor, Nabil Shaban – all play second fiddle not only to a ‘celebrity pet’, but also to ‘top trainer’ Richard Duckworth.

Sadly, whoever made this video only records 20 seconds of Bonnie the dog frolicking about in the park with Dickie Duckworth before employing the pause button, and instead dedicates a whopping seven minutes of precious E-180 magnetic tape to some obscure sci-fi show. Big shame for younger viewers who may still want to know whether Bonnie got to grips with ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘heel’, and even retrieving.

What the footage does reveal is that Janet Ellis’ daddy (and Sophie Ellis Bextor’s granddad) operated the fearsomely-named L1 robot in Trial Episodes One to Four. But it’s Drathro-operator Paul ‘Six foot four and very skinny’ McGuinness who steals the show when describing the help he needs to take a pee: ‘I’ve got to have about four people to prise me out with screwdrivers and tin-openers!’ Damn those ’80s button flies… ‘You find out who your friends are at times like that,’ exclaims Janet. Well, quite.

Colin’s appearance is brief, and you can feel ol’ Sixie biting his tongue hard so as to not unleash a tirade when Janet asks him, ‘It’s been a jolly long time since the last series, what’s special about Trial of a Time Lord?’ Never has the phrase, ‘It has been a long time hasn’t it?’, been loaded with so much subtext…

Colin on Roland Rat: The Series, Saturday 20 September 1986

Self-styled ‘Superstar’, Roland Rat was an ’80s phenomenon, an irreverent kids puppet who first popped up on ailing ITV breakfast show, TV–AM. In a somewhat surprising development, the introduction of the cockey cockney Rodent caused the show’s ratings to soar. Three years and two hit singles later, Roland was pinched by the BBC to make his own series.

Colin is in fine company for his cameo appearance, introducing the show just before Trial Episode Two aired. Other stars prepared to be upstaged by the rat and his gang include Brian Blessed, Alexei Sayle, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Nicholas Parsons, and Wendy Richard. IMDb even lists Tom Baker as one of the featured stars but I can’t confirm this from my jaded memory or from YouTube evidence. Anyone with total recall?

Although a Children’s BBC show in a Saturday teatime slot, with scriptwriters including John Langdon and Steve Punt, Roland Rat: The Series always managed to slip in a bit of age-inappropriate humour. This is possibly the only time you’ll hear the Doctor talking about ‘…strange orifices that leak unpleasant liquids’.

Colin is magnificent here, in character as the Sixth Doctor, remaining deadpan but with a knowing look to the audience that confirms he is ‘above all this’. He does a great Roland Rat impersonation too. It’s worth sticking with this clip until the end for a teeny glimpse of Scragtag, a puppet feline who’s disturbingly dishevelled appearance would qualify him to star in a hard-hitting RSPCA cruelty to cats campaign…

Colin on Saturday Superstore, Saturday 22 November 1986

Colin Baker 6th Sixth

Stored safely and securely for future generations in the BBC archive – in exactly the same way that Marco Polo, The Power of the Daleks, The Underwater Menace aren’t – this episode of the children’s magazine show, Saturday Superstore is unfortunately absent from YouTube. BooTube, say I.

So it’s difficult for me, even though I probably watched the show 30 years ago, to recall exactly what happened. Sadly the infamous ‘Simon’ didn’t call in and describe the TARDIS team as ‘a bunch of w@^&£#s’ or it would definitely be on all video-sharing sites and ’80s retrospective TV shows (that unflattering description is what Simon bestowed on an unsuspecting Matt Bianco).

My pre-teen memories of Saturday Superstore (Matt Bianco baiting aside) have been somewhat sullied by the lead presenter, former Radio 1 DJ Mike Read’s endorsement and membership of UKIP. He even went as far as recording a ‘song’ for the far-right party, called the UKIP Calypso. Read insisted the song, which he performed in a cod-jamaican accent, was ‘not remotely racist’. Here’s a taster of some of the ‘not remotely racist’ lyrics:

The leaders committed a cardinal sin

Open the borders let them all come in

Illegal immigrants in every town

Stand up and be counted Blair and Brown

Everyone’s a little bit Matt Bianco, it seems. Thanks to some self-induced hypnosis using a spare Metebelis crystal I found at the back of a UNIT filing cabinet, I will attempt to summon up a verbatim transcript of the Mike Read/Colin Baker Superstore interview, which took place back in those innocent ’80s days when UKIP was just an itch in Farage’s bum hole. Here goes, I’m looking deep into the crystal… deep into its blue light… Trouble is, I’m a man of character and determination. The Rock of Gibraltar would be more easily, more easily…

Mike (After VT): Well, that’s a bit of Doctor Who which you can see tonight. The Doctor himself, Colin Baker, is here and we’re going to pick up the telephones and take some calls. There should be one behind you…

Colin (picking up the phone): There is indeed.

Mike: And we should have Adolf on the line… Hello Adolf?

Adolf: Hallo.

Mike: Hello, you’re through to the Doctor Who team.

Adolf: I vould like to sprechen de Colin Baker, bitte.

Mike: ‘Course you can.

Colin: Hello Adolf…

Adolf: This Doctor Who show haben many aliens, yah? Are these aliens illegal?

Colin: Sorry, Adolf, I don’t really understand what you are getting at…?

Mike: Well, it’s a reasonable and not remotely racist question, Colin.

Adolf: MEINE DEUTSCHEN VOLKSGENOSSEN UND GENOSSINNEN!–

(Phone line goes dead)

Mike: Sorry, we seem to have lost Adolf there. Over to line two. Hello Simon? You’re through to Colin Baker.

Simon: Hello. Can I speak to Mike?

Mike: Yes, but…

Simon: Mike Read, you’re such a–

…more easily influenced than I would. I have a will of iron. What the Dickens am I talking about? Sorry, just broken out of the hypnosis. I hope it was enlightening…

Colin on the Tomorrow’s World Christmas Quiz, Saturday 20 December 1986

Clearly the Tomorrow’s World team didn’t get circulated the December 1986 BBC memo which stated, ‘Please refrain from featuring the actor and personality Colin Baker from now on in all BBC television programmes as we are about to unceremoniously hang him out to dry.’ Because just a day-or-so after news of the demise of Doctor Six hit the headlines, Colin was a panellist on the BBC’s populist science show’s festive special. D’oh ho ho!

Although recorded, as all Crimbo specials are, far in advance of broadcast, naive viewers who believe all shows go out live may have been somewhat puzzled as to why Colin was cheerfully taking part in the programme despite being given the axe, expecting him to break into an uncontrolled rage at any moment…

Even now this remains uncomfortable viewing. Not just because of the cruel irony of the scheduling, but also because – in the name of Logar! – what kind of K9’s cornflakes is this show? Is this what passed as popular entertainment 30-years ago? It makes Look Around You 2 look like a John Pilger documentary.

Besides Colin, the undoubted star of the show – eclipsing special guests including Roland Rat, Ray Reardon, and Kenny Everett – is regular presenter Maggie Philbin. Her interaction with the audience is a hoot. Here are some of Maggie’s out-of-context off-the-cuff quips to demonstrate: “The horse bum prettyfier”, [referring to the audience] “They’re all looking pretty bemused. Or drunk, I’m not sure…”, “Are we going to go for the cow’s bottom? Only one way to find out of course…”

Maggie is comedy gold compared to fellow presenter Howard Stableford (who will set you back between £2,000 and £5,000 for an after dinner speech). His scripted gags clang like Paul McGuinness in his Drathro suit falling down Hyperion III’s spiral staircase. The ultimate cringe moment is his intro to special guest weatherman Ian McCaskill: “Someone who works in a high-pressure area and, if he does get into a depression, can always find relief at the… isobar.” Cue audience indifference far in excess of the Wogan/Baker scale…

But the most telling, ironic and strangely poignant moment is when Colin is asked to guess the function of a small triangular cylinder which emits a thin beam of light. Colin quips that it may be “a device for looking at the small print on a BBC contract.” Oh, Colin, please don’t be watching this at home with the wife and kids…

The Verdict: Guilty?

Sixth 6th Colin Baker Peri Brown Nicola Bryant Two Doctors

So that’s it then. Despite his determination, Colin Baker was found ‘wanting’ and was ‘removed’. The BBC can safely claim that his contract was not renewed but the forced 18-month hiatus and the reduction in episode length mean Colin was denied his agreed span of episodes. But the Sixth Doctor still got a fair crack of the whip. Far more screen time than McGann or the War Doctor, double the Eccleston run, and about the same length as McCoy.

Despite this, 30 years later, there is still an overriding sense that the Sixth Doctor era was a failure. But, congratulations Colin, failure is one of the basic freedoms…

And the Michael Grade pronounced ‘failure’ gave Colin his greatest freedom. He was still the Doctor, whether you like it or not. Colin took his rightful place among the official TV Time Lords and, as history attests, no one – not even the Controller of BBC1 – can take that away from you.

“The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life… You don’t just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say ‘no.’ You have the guts to do what’s right when everyone else just runs away…”

– Rose Tyler, The Parting of the Ways

Less than three years later Colin was back in costume and character as the Sixth Doctor in the stage show, The Ultimate Adventure. Then in 1999, he joined Davison and McCoy in the initial line-up of Doctors for the Big Finish range of audio adventures, and has been playing the Doctor ever since. I’m sure I don’t have to detail here the huge acclaim and affection in which the Sixth Doctor’s audio adventures are held.

The way he was treated throughout and particularly at the end of the run, you could have expected Colin to give up. He had a successful stage and TV career before Doctor Who – why would you put yourself through it? But Colin didn’t give up, he didn’t just let things happen. He had the guts to do what’s right when everyone runs away.

“I suppose what sums up the Doctor is an essential belief in the ‘rightness’ of things. And if things aren’t right then he feels compelled to do something about it. And ‘right’ doesn’t always mean ‘beautiful’ or ‘happy’ or ‘pretty’, but right. It’s got to be right.”

– Colin Baker, More than 30 years in the TARDIS, 1993

I think that pretty much sums up Colin Baker too.