The Colin Baker era of Doctor Who is almost without question the most slated era of the series. Certainly the most turbulent time of the show's production, it has a star that now refuses to attend conventions where its script editor is present, and a script editor who derides the entire work of the Producer. The show was placed in hiatus for eighteen months, and when it was brought back its episode quota was halved to just fourteen 25 minute episodes, a factor which would remain till the series' demise in 1989. Finally, brought back in an underadvertised Saturday slot, and placed after Roland Rat The Series, the ratings dropped drastically, and the lead was sacked. So, with all the turmoil behind the scenes, is the period really as all as bad as that, with the benefit of hindsight?
One of the most unsettling things about the era is that its star seemed to have such a good idea of what made it work. Colin suggested a black-clad, mysterious Doctor that had the characteristics of Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Or, his motivations would be discrete, and may appear to be dishonorable until the final reel. What he got was a Doctor that shouted a lot, acted like a pratt and had a carbon copy of Joseph's Technicolour Dreamcoat. Colin wasn't the best actor to take on the role, but neither was he the worst, possibly, and the vast majority of his era's faults are events which were completely out of his hands. The costume is an example. Foisted upon him by an increasingly dominant producer (John Nathan-Turner, a man whom I think could produce some decent work, and would do again for Sylvester McCoy, but completely screwed up this period of the show), its effects are readily apparent. In order for the gaudy costume to function on a camera's lens, the rest of the sets had to be upgraded in terms of colour and polish. Hence, we got a step up from the gloss of the Davison era, all tacky plastic sets and silly ray guns. Even the reliable Tardis looked the height of tack at this point in the history of the show. Apart from that, it takes away any sense of dignity for the character, or is seeing a lead with bright yellow trousers an ideal way to build mystery? Mind you, seeing him banging on about being "900 years old" and smiling like a loon in the opening titles was hardly adding to an increasingly bland characterisation, that was trying to be different in a very self-conscious way.
Taking the next logical step, the companion, Colin had foisted on him possibly the worst assistant in the entire programme: Peri. Peri, as played by the gorgeous Nicola Bryant, wasn't so bad because of her acting or her fake American accent, though both are frequently shaky. No, check out any Doctor Who site and a fair few will have irrelevant pics of her on it. I'm not knocking it, I download these images myself on a regular basis. Proof that men really do prefer larger women - Nicola was probably a size 12 or 14 - and had - I'm sorry, there's no other way to put this - a fantastic pair. With only Victoria Waterfield as a serious rival, Nicola was the most well-endowed companion. Unfortunately, this characteristic - the only companion that can really distract from a story - meant that her scripts were dreadful. Her character was a plaintive, whiny, one-dimensional bimbo whose only purpose was to show off her cleavage at every possible juncture. Revelation of the Daleks saw a pervy Clive Swift lust after her, while Timelash sees her being tied to a pole and terrorised by what is no more than a giant phallus. Check it out, no exaggeration - a Morlox with a bulbous head and the whole works. Concocted solely as an object of sexual desire, Peri took the programme back into the middle ages. Never has the show been so blatantly sex-orientated. But enough of this babbling! The era had these fundamental problems to contend with, but what of the stories themselves?
A glance through the ratings of Colin's era reveals some interesting facts, and dispels some odd myths. One is the notion of the drastically falling viewing figures for Season 23. While it is true, the viewing figures for the post-hiatus season were an average 3.8 million lower than season 22, the average chart position was a mere 0.85 of a place lower. This means that even though the actual number of people watching was lower, the proportionate amount was virtually the same. So while Doctor Who's viewing figures may have dropped, so must the figures of all television leaving its chart placing unaffected. In fact, the programme only fell out of the top 100 most-watched programmes four times during Colin's tenure, each of those during his first full season. Season 23 was shown from October-December, whereas previously the programme had been placed in a spring schedule. This sort of thing happens all the time: in the 60s television was rarer, meaning viewing figures were generally lower; the medium took a boom in the 70s, and, by and large, the 80s saw people going out again. 1986 may only have seen an average 4.8 million people tuning in to Doctor Who, but this was still virtually the same percentage of television-watching society as had watched it two years earlier.
It must be said that, for whatever reason, Colin Baker's time on the programme was not as popular as Peter Davison's. Even Peter's section of the declining season 21 saw an average 7.58 million viewers, with Colin's Twin Dilemma getting just 7.08m. His first full season improved with 7.16m viewers on average, but - going back to those lovely chart positions again - this only reached an average 85.15 on the chart, as opposed to Twin Dilemma's 71.75.
The most popular Colin Baker story was Revelation of the Daleks (7.55m/61), then The Twin Dilemma (7.1m/71.75) and Vengeance on Varos (7.1m/109). Least popular, apart from the season-length Trial of a Timelord, was The Two Doctors (6.5m/83). It could be just coincidence that the most/least popular had the least/most amount of continuity...
Colin once remarked that bits of his performances would homage past incarnations, with at least one reference per story. Lots of these - such as his Pertwee-like scratching at the end of Vengeance on Varos - are subjective, being there as "bonuses" for the fans to pick up. So all references I may list could be not references at all, and I could miss others. But for the record, in my opinion, Colin:
Impersonates Hartnell, then Troughton, 51/2 minutes into episode two of The Twin Dilemma; gives a Pertwee-like soundbyte of "for Heaven's sake, man!" in episode two of Attack of the Cybermen; A Davison coat flap, sigh and simple smile in part one of The Mark of the Rani; offers jelly babies in episode two of The Trial of a Timelord; mutters "my head hurts abominably, Sarah Jane" after waking from being concussed in part three. This is listed in The Sixth Doctor Handbook as being an impression of Tom Baker, though in truth this 'impression' could be Pertwee, or... anyone, come to that. Rory Bremner need not worry; finally, there's lots of lapel-grabbing a la Hartnell. Are there others I've missed?
Now, while some of that is still true, I watched this one again recently and am ashamed to say I really quite enjoyed it. Colin actually gives one of his best performances (compare him in The Trial of a Time Lord to this) because, while the part he has to play is over the top, HE isn't. Well, generally, anyway. The strangulation scene annoys many, but I think the thought of an anti-hero Doctor who goes off in a mardy with "Right! That's it! I'm off" is quite amusing. Admittedly, the twins are lame, the production is appalling, the slugs are pathetic and there's no sense of reality. And - perhaps most crucially, as with Attack of the Cybermen - Malcolm Clarke's music does nothing to aid the story. But you know, watch this in the right frame of mind and it really isn't that bad. It's fun, even.
Did I really just say that?
When the series returned, it was to be in experimental, 45 minute episodes...
What have the theme to K-9 and Company, Doctor In Distress (the charity single released during the programme's hiatus) and the continuity of Attack of the Cybermen got in common? The answer: they're all shite. And one man is behind them all: Ian Levine. If you've never seen this man, then he's been seen on BBC "missing episodes" documentaries and is generally one of the fans that get so enthusiastic that it makes you embarrassed to be associated with it. More to the point, his being the approximate dimensions of a couch doesn't do much for the street cred of Who fans. In the arty academic textbook released on the series, The Unfolding Text (1983), Levine, a record producer, was quoted numerous times on what does and doesn't make good Doctor Who. Oh, you might think, this is obviously an informed man who knows what he's talking about. Except he's just a fan with a bigger voice than most, who got lucky and was behind the opening story of season twenty-two. Although credited to "Paula Moore", it turns out the woman's surname was really "Woolsey", and the story was heavily rewritten by Eric Saward and continuity suggested by Levine. This continuity in only its lesser stages gave us Totter's Lane, Jamie, Zoe and Susan. In its larger phase not only did the story steal from every single previous Cyber story, but it relied on those stories for its plot. So, not only did we get a would-be traitor that turned out to be on the side of the Cybermen's foes, in a direct lift from Tom Baker's Revenge, but we also have a tale that relies on knowledge of stories nineteen years old in order to be understood. The idea that a mainstream television programme, watched by millions, should turn back in on itself and stick an almighty two fingers up to its casual viewers is staggering. The worst bit? The Cyberman that goes haywire. In The Invasion, while padding, a Cyberman goes haywire as a logical consequence of the plot. Here it does for no other reason than to seperate the Doctor and Peri. A cheap narrative tool - I mean, why would a Cyberman go crazy? (Unless it's been subjected to experiments by Tobias Vaughan).
Tack, sorry, Attack of the Cybermen also makes many of the same production mistakes as The Twin Dilemma. The incidental music is again brash and irritating, (or do you think a full-blast rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue as background music is acceptable?) while Peri wears a horrific day-glo pink leotard, designed to show off her bust. In fact, her cod American accent and constant stuttering was really becoming annoying at this stage.
Another flaw is the Doctor's mending of the chameleon circuit. Although this had been attempted once before (in Logopolis), it was with more sophistication and was relevant to the plot. Here it's just cheap comic fodder. Worse, it breaks the fourth wall. (Interestingly, this development was signposted in The Twin Dilemma, where Colin looked upon the Tardis and remarked "Hideous... utterly hideous!") The Doctor asking himself "I wonder why I didn't do it before?" brings undue attention to one of the series' more absurd, budget-saving idiosyncracies. Other inappropriate things the Doctor could say are: "I wonder why all the planets I land on look like quarries in Surrey?"; "Why do all the aliens I meet have middleclass English accents?" or "Why is this story so crap?"
The first episode with its location footage at least gives us a vague sense of realism, and one of the kindest things that can be said is that the story fits the 45 minute duration better than most, though still suffers from padding. Though this really is an example of Doctor Who as unintentional self-parody. The Cybermen, now just blokes in silver jumpsuits, are too emotional and jerky to be scary. The Cyberman played by Brian Orrell is particularly camp. And any story that features Sarah Greene and Faith Brown as tinfoil-coated aliens, along with Brian Glover in send-up mode, is doomed to fail. Also excessively violent, and, oh, the cliffhanger to episode one stinks.
NB: A previous version of this article had asserted that this was "without doubt the worst Cyberman story of all time". However, seen again, that honour is denied it by a little thing known as Silver Nemesis. While poor, with another soundtrack Attack of the Cybermen might not be that bad. But the score used here jars against what's on screen badly, and is almost certainly the worst musical score ever heard in the programme.
Vengeance on Varos is a lousy title but, in nearly every important respect, Colin's best story. The only Colin Baker story to actually have something to say, it's a savage, black-humored satire of the growing mid-80s trend for video nasties. Yet unfortunately this parody was completely misunderstood by the ever-stupid Mary Shitehouse, who slated it for depicting violence; most notably the scene where two guards tackle the Doctor by an acid bath. The Doctor taps one on the shoulder to speak to him, who turns in surprise and accidentally bumps his colleague in the acid. The guard, trying to escape, drags his companion in after him. Yet somehow an ongoing myth has been touted that the Doctor pushes them both in. Sorry - but it doesn't happen.
Notably darker, not just in tone but in lighting, this is a vast improvement. Nabil Shabin is suitably macabre as Sil, and looks very disturbing. However, I've always wondered why he has muscular black guards dressed in S & M outfits. This camp underpinning of the character was sped up for his next appearance, where... but that's another story. Political, and also post-modern, another great feature is Etta and Arak, the two characters who do nothing but watch the story unfold on a television screen, passing comment on events. There's subtler things, like Peri claiming "all these corridors look the same to me", or one of Colin's few good cliffhangers, where the climax coincides with the end of recording in Varos' execution studios. "And cut it... now!" The story is also notable for being the only one of the era not to feature references to the show's past, and being completely self-contained.
However, it's not all this good, which is why it's not quite a classic, and not quite Colin's best. Apart from the cheapness of sets and uninspired direction, acting is also lacking. As mentioned, Nabil Shaban does well, as does Martin Jarvis. But Bryant is just as stagey as ever, while Jason Connery and Geraldine Alexander are woefully wooden. Nicolas Chagrin, meanwhile, takes his villainous Quillam to the outer reaches of ham. The story, while strong, was also originally written for the twenty-five minute format, and it shows. But a more restrained performance from Baker, who gets to do a "Peri, eh?" joke and a twisted pun on poison ivy make this somewhat special, and one of the most important Doctor Who stories ever.
The Mark of the Rani is a story that should work, but somehow, sadly, doesn't. Direction by Sarah Hellings is excellent, taking in imaginative use of angles and building a sense of danger. Baker, who never used a stunt double, permanently bent his finger hanging onto the chain above the pit, while Bryant sustained a neck injury. The historical setting, as is to be expected from a BBC production, is well realised, and Peri gets a much more developed character. Colin even spends time out of that awful coat. Interestingly, the dirt he wears on his face was partly, by accident, dog shit. The interior of the Rani's Tardis is also an effective design.
However, something had to give, and there are serious flaws. Some of the dialogue is quite sharp and intelligent, other lines are uniformly bad. Seeing Ainley mincing "You jest, of course, I'm indestructible, the whole universe knows that!" is painful indeed. And the Rani's scheme to remove serotonin from the human brain is above average for the programme, though dumbed down. The word serotonin is never used, but is instead referred to as "the chemical that allows men to sleep" or "brain fluid". Anthony Ainley would later deride the producer who forced him to go more and more over the top with every performance. He's never been more ham than here, though Kate O'Mara is surprisingly effective in her first appearance as the Rani. However, what really kills the story is a preponderance of silly moments in the inferior second episode. Seeing Nicola Bryant being grabbed by a man in a tree costume and being told "Don't move, Peri, the tree won't hurt you" is enough to drag any story down to the depths. It's perhaps a shallow indicment, but this one scene - a plastic tree with a grabbing branch - is possibly the silliest ever scene in the entire series. And does the Rani really knee the Master in the goolies at the story's conclusion? Then there's Baker, O'Mara and Ainley sharing a scene, which causes all three to try to outdo each other in the full-on "acting" stakes. Still an improvement over Colin's first two stories, The Mark of the Rani nevertheless leans too far towards pantomime silliness to be truly worthwhile.
The Two Doctors is a decent story, though completely misconceived. With no respect for casual viewers, it opens in black and white with an actor who hadn't played the Doctor full-time for sixteen years. After an opening episode that doesn't explain how or why for the uninitiated, over half a million failed to tune back in the following week. The continuity behind the second Doctor, being used as an agent by the Timelords, is of course completely wrong, but allows for fan speculation as to the altered backstory. You'd think they would've dyed his hair, though. Troughton's Doctor is quite obnoxious in this one, displaying a superior attitude to the Androgums and slating Jamie's "appalling mongrel dialect". Predictably, though, he outacts Colin all the way through. Jamie, in a touch symptomatic of the season, twice stabs someone with a knife in the most graphically violent story of the year. Frazer Hines, never the best actor among companions anyway, gives by far his most wooden performance.
Baker doesn't actually appear until ten minutes in, which would have confused many. When he does appear he's with a Peri who - yes!! - is wearing a bikini top. Looking super-hot in a headband, blue shorts and midriff-revealing top, this is the most flesh (apart from her debut story) that Bryant would ever display. I don't know whether this is a good thing or not, but she does look fit. Even the Doctor cops a look in the third episode.
Virtually the equivalent of an old six-parter, this is the longest televised story since 1978. Rather a shame, as if it were a 45m two-parter it would have made for a stronger tale. Oscar Botcherby is possibly the least inspired Robert Holmes comedy character. The Sontarans, meanwhile, look and act rubbish, as well as being an unnecessary addition to the story. Direction is flat and ill-thought. The only decent moment occurs when the Doctor and Peri are shot through a mirror, which then pulls back to show the real thing. Though as this accompanied by a jingly-jangly sound effect it's somewhat ruined.
Troughton's transformation into an Androgum - complete with bright orange eyebrows - is embarrassing to watch, though generally he plays it straight, unlike the send-ups he gave in The Three and Five Doctors. Rather ironic that along with The Krotons and The Space Pirates Doctor Who's most popular writer gave Troughton his weakest scripts. Still, it is all worthwhile to see Troughton asking Colin to stay out of his way in future, and, patting his stomach to indicate Colin's considerable girth, saying "the time continuum should be big enough for both of us... just about." Like The Trial of a Timelord or Attack of the Cybermen, The Two Doctors is, by its very nature, more one for the fans. However, while the best of the three, it still barely reaches beyond average.
Often cited as the worst-ever Doctor Who story, fans like to cruelly point out that Timelash is an anagram of "lame shit". An example of Doctor Who doing the pulp-SF "arcane society with strange dress and customs", it's cheap, badly acted and appallingly written. Yet all of these elements go towards making it a tremendously enjoyable story.
Paul Darrow (Best known as Avon in Blake's 7) told how he and the producer had a blazing row over his portrayal. Darrow claimed that the script was so poor that hamming it up was the only decent thing to do, and ham it up he does, overplaying each scene to the max. When asked what the difference is between Doctor Who and Blake's 7, Paul will often remark that Blake was for adults, Doctor Who was a "children's programme".
The Doctor, meanwhile, "negotiates a kontron tunnel" (cheap special effect) by wearing seat belts in the Tardis. Colin's timing has improved by this point, and seeing him mocking the villain with "I think it's time to find your Achilles heel... or should I say 'flipper'?" is quite amusing. His inevitable dispatch of the villain - the Borad - does show a more sadistic side to his character, though, and you can't help but feel a little sorry for the guy. Peri, for her part, gets her weakest script and spends the majority of the story chained to a pole and menaced by the penis monster we mentioned earlier. A negative point is typical of poor Colin's regime - continuity. The backstory; Timelash being a sequel to a made-up Pertwee story - complete with Jon portrait and Katy Manning photo - detracts. The story is also notable for a Tardis scene in the second episode that runs for nearly six minutes... it was made up later when it was discovered the episode underran.
Yes, Timelash is that old cliche - the story that's so bad it's very, very good. Every Doctor has one, and while this is nowhere near as amusing as The Horns of Nimon, seeing a glove puppet telling a mincing Darrow "You can't just revoke an intergalactic treaty" is priceless.
Revelation of the Daleks is that rare thing - a genuinely good Colin Baker story. It's not instantly obvious, with its multitude of characters and situations being somewhat confusing. The somewhat docile (and human-sounding) Daleks also take some getting used to. However, while Genesis and Remembrance gave us shouty-screamy Daleks for a 12-year-old audience, Revelation is, like Power, a Dalek story for adults.
Graeme Harper returns to the series, carving what is arguably Doctor Who's best-ever directed story. The Daleks are shot from complimentary angles, and glide effortlessly around the studio floors. No wobbly ones here, and the white and black Daleks are very chic. For Remembrance the slight gold they possess was blown out of proportion - gold arms, gold eyes, gold lights - and looked tacky. Highlights include the moment when the picture scans down three levels, or the set of Davros' base opening out into a different perspective for the second episode. Best moment though is where Davros subtly tries to convince Tasambeker (Jenny Tomasin) to kill Jobel. All of a sudden a guard Dalek completely loses it, and goes off on one, spinning from side to side with a "HE - SHOULD - BE - EX-TERM-IN-AT-ED!" And the scene with Stengos in the glass Dalek, begging to be killed, is one of the scariest-ever scenes in the whole series.
Inspired by the Evelyn Waugh novel The Loved One, Revelation is like a warped Gothic horror novel where the Daleks are merely players. Best of all, Terry Molloy, appallingly OTT as Davros in Resurrection and Remembrance, here pitches it just right. Jobel asking a mortician "are you picking your nose?" seems incongruous for Who, however, though not as out-of-place as him forbidding "drinking, swearing and smoking of herbal mixture."
Incidental music is outstanding, and acting is at a high quality. William Gaunt, wooden as a crate in The Champions, here brings his assassin character Orcini fully to life. Clive Swift is blackly comic as Jobel, while even Baker and Bryant show they can do well under a strong director. Eric Saward, never a favourite of mine, here excels with some well-crafted dialogue. The sets are good, too.
All of the stories of season 22 were written for a 18:20 timeslot, not the 17:20 they eventually received. As a result the morbid fascination with death may seem inappropriate for a family audience, as does the violent content. Although I could forgive Davros having his fingers blown off if only he didn't go to shake the Doctor's hand afterwards. The plot, while having holes if you look closely, is a good one: high-profile citizens are placed in suspended animation until a cure can be found for their terminal illnesses. However, the politicians and businessmen of the present, not wishing to resurrect competition, leave them to rot. Taking advantage of this, Davros is converting the chilled corpses into Daleks.
The only real flaws come at the end, where the sense of anti-climax - the original Daleks come in and take Davros away, Orcini blows the place up... er... that's it; and the Doctor's almost complete lack of involvement in the story - tend to disappoint somewhat. Yes, conceptually, this isn't as good as Varos. But on every other level - acting, direction, production - it's ahead, and almost worthy of the label "classic". If nothing else, this is the only Doctor Who story where the Doctor talks into the camera to the strains of Jimi Hendrix, or a lead character is named after a popular soft drink.
The Eighteen-Month Hiatus
When the series was taken off the air for eighteen months, it curtailed all arrangements for the planned season, which would have opened with the Doctor taking Peri for a trip to Blackpool. Written by former producer Graham Williams, The Nightmare Fair (Great title, eh?) would have seen the return of the Celestial Toymaker, a character who hadn't been seen for twenty years. Another story planned to bring back Sil, making jumpers (no joke) for the Ice Warriors, last seen in 1974. This join the dots mentality would then see an exotic location (Singapore), the series' most popular writer (Robert Holmes), a new villain (The Rani), an old villain (the Autons) and possibly even the Master. This is all symptomatic of how precious little ideas the production team had at this stage. There were even subplots in some of the stories involving a race of dominant females and sentient clouds, plus the peaceful race of "Tranquelans". If this all sounds like utter crap, it probably would have been. Fortunately, the BBC pulled the plug, a decision which was sensible in hindsight, and the end of the transmitted season was edited out. (In the original version, Revelation of the Daleks ended with the action-packed conclusion of the Doctor saying: "I'll take you to Blackpool". I bet the viewers would have been on the edge of their seats waiting for THAT one to be resolved).
What was made in the hiatus was very little; one, a Jim'll Fix It appearance, and the other, Slipback, an hour-long Radio 4 play broadcast in six ten-minute instalments. An interesting moment in this story is the conclusion, where a Timelord warns the Doctor he's about to avert the Big Bang. "We have often criticised the way you interfere, perhaps this will be a lesson to you", he's told... when the series came back to TV the Doctor was placed on trial by his own people. However, with Jane Carr doing her best Sandra Dickinson computer voice and Colin's tales of health-threatening poetry, the story acts as a misconcieved love-letter to Douglas Adams. Look out too for some awful cliffhangers, the worst being five's "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" The upshot is that anyone tuning in to Radio 4 that day must have thought "I can see why they took it off the TV." Incidentally, while the BBC made many excuses about the show being postponed (too violent, too costly, falling ratings, etc...) Colin always maintained it was the result of a personal dislike from Michael Grade. I'd always though this was the ramblings of a bitter actor, but when Grade released his autobiography in '99, he did indeed say that the reason he considered taking Doctor Who off air was that "I didn't like it." The series returned, underpublicised, on the 6th of September, 1986...
When the series returned, it was back to its 25 minute format, with just fourteen episodes per season. Eric Saward had suggested that as the programme was now on trial for its future, so should the Doctor be in the show itself. Not a bad idea. The story should show an event from the Doctor's past, present and future as evidence in an allusion to A Christmas Carol. Not too bad an idea. The trial story should then run for the entire season of fourteen episodes, risking the further alienation of casual viewers. A terrible mistake. Even the BBC realised this, using a still photo and a continuity announcer to explain what the Hell was going on to a bemused (and shrinking) audience from parts three to fourteen.
In a sensible move, the series' most popular writer, yes, Robert Holmes, was drafted to write the establishing four episodes and the two-part conclusion. Arguably the most popular writer of the previous season, Philip Martin, was then to fill in the secondary story. Not so popular, the couple behind The Mark of the Rani, Pip and Jane Baker, were asked to write the third story. In fairness, Pip and Jane were far from the first choice, with even Sapphire & Steel's creator, P.J.Hammond, at one point submitting ideas.
Yet even this did not, sadly, go to plan. Holmes, who had written far from his best work towards the end, died before completing the final episode. Even though he had, due to creative disputes with the producer, resigned from his post as script editor, Eric Saward agreed to write the final part. However, the conclusion - the Doctor and the Valeyard struggling in the Matrix, with an inconclusive outcome - was rejected by John Nathan-Turner, whom, it is alledged, had previously agreed to such a downbeat ending. Incensed, Saward withdrew his part fourteen, with Pip and Jane asked to come up with a crucial climax "within the week". A vitally important finale written within a week - and you'd think they hadn't had eighteen months to plan it! Worse still, the theme music was changed to the most asinine tinkling ever, and the title - The Trial of a Time Lord - stank.
On the notable side, a 45-second opening effects shot, costing £9,000 and taking two weeks to complete, was a series high point as far as the special effects were concerned. Not that Doctor Who had ever been particularly notable in that field, that is. However, this opens out onto a four-part story that is so forgettable you almost feel you can't remember it ten minutes after it's finished. The first four parts (collectively known as The Mysterious Planet for the novelisation) aren't that bad, just plain mediocre and inoffensive. The opening episode gives us some superb mysteries, such as how the Earth could have been moved two light years off course, and what are the secrets that Glitz (Tony Selby, wonderful) and Dibber (Glen Murphy, wooden) are after? Yet as these mysteries are left hanging in episode four and don't go answered until nine weeks later, it's something of a wasted opportunity. The rest of the story has some nice ideas, though some irritatingly forced comedy (on orders from BBC chiefs) and Joan Sims is awful as Katryca. There's men wandering around quarries in false caveman beards like some Python sketch, and even though Colin has developed a softer relationship with Peri, when he meets Sims and Selby they can't help but indulge in a three-way battle of the luvvies. It looks cheap, too.
How could the writer of the compelling Vengeances on Varos write something as awful as parts five to eight of Trial? Of course, it might not be all Philip Martin's fault, as the script was so heavily edited by Eric Saward that neither of them really understood what it was about, and Colin was asked to make up his own mind as to the Doctor's motivation. In the end, it appears that "hamming it up" was his solution to the problem. He's not alone. Nabil Shaban, so brilliantly sinister in Vengeance, here sends up his role with not a trace of subtlety. The costume, previously dark brown and creepy-looking, is now a kiddy-friendly lime green and just looks like a bloke in a suit. This is where the series comes crashing around John Nathan-Turner's ears, where Doctor Who skids along rock bottom. After famously slating in print his predecessor's work for being too silly and juvenile in its humour, here JN-T is left with egg on his face after being responsible for the most witless, tacky and banal 98 minutes of Doctor Who's history. The most derivative and unsophisticated pulp SF is presented here. Not only in the woeful "mind swap" subplot, but in Sil's mocking of the lovely Peri as a "revoltingly ugly assistant". "Coming from you, that's a compliment", she replies, not exactly being a descendant of Oscar Wilde. Humour in Doctor Who, despite what the fans may think, does often have merit. Some of the wittier Hartnell historicals actually did well with the genre, and Tom's later excesses are ideal for a late-night watch with a drink in one hand. But the humour here is never funny, just childish, and the incidental music by Richard Hartley is alarmingly repetitive. Two more words: Brian Blessed. Blessed alone can make this segment not only weak, but also physically embarrassing to watch. In the story's favour, it does provide roles for a significant number of black performers. Though as every single one of those roles is a subordinate or slave it's perhaps not so commendable. Truly terrible stuff.
For "evidence", that just leaves us with the Doctor's defence, though if parts nine to twelve were his defence then hanging's too good for him. Actually, the story (the only one, apart from episode fourteen, to be written without a script editor, and titled Terror of the Vervoids for its novelisation) isn't so bad. After the death of Peri in the previous episode, we get new companion Mel, who is, surprisingly, a better companion than Peri ever was. Okay, she's no classic (I mean, this is Bonnie Langford we're talking about, for flip's sake!), but in the Colin Baker era she was intelligent, proactive, and had a real rapport with the Doc. She certainly didn't go around whining, getting her boobs out and going "what's going on, Doctor?" every five seconds. And note that when they softened Colin's Doctor for this season and dropped his arguing with Nicola, they no longer had anything to say to one another. Mel's fitness obsession is a little one-note, and the comic setpieces are contrived. But it was only during the following season when the writers stopped writing for Mel and started writing for the preconception of Bonnie herself.
However, the fact that "Terror" is the best segment of the season is not praise for itself, but damnation of the rest. For the story isn't particularly good, and only reaches the "best of" status by virtue of the fact that it, at times, touches mediocrity. There are nice touches, such as a shot of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express novel in a scene, though also some clunky dialogue and odd logic. Why do the Mogarians need translators to speak English, yet can understand it perfectly when it's said to them? The trial scenes, forming almost a quarter of parts four to eight, are here toned down, allowing the story to do the talking. Yet while the first three parts aren't too bad, if a little flat, the fourth is pretty laughable. The Vervoids - basically six-foot plants, who, as one character puts it, only need "sunlight and water", are the daftest monsters ever to appear in the series. Other monsters came and went, Mandrells, Kandyman, etc., but were largely comedic in intent. The brightly-coloured Vervoids were supposed to be taken seriously. And is this the cheapest story of the entire decade? If not of all? Its use of CSO looks even more fake than it did in the Pertwee years, embarrassingly so given that this was 1986, and as for the dying Vervoid with denim jeans...
That leaves the trial sequences, which are pretty much hit and miss, and only serve as a platform for Colin to bellow and show off. Pity poor Lynda Bellingham, wearing a very silly hat as the Inquisitor, having to say lines like "this is a court of law, not a debating society for malajusted psychotic sociopaths." Even the ads she used to do for Oxo had better lines. In fact, the preponderance of silly hats, combined with the jingly-jangly sound effect whenever the Matrix ("What's the Matrix??" - casual audience) is switched on, is what really kills the trial element stone dead. The cliffhangers are also thoroughly lousy, with no less than eleven of the thirteen cliffhangers being an uninspired close-up of Colin's face.
Yet this deriding of the trial sequences overlooks one thing - episode thirteen. For the final two parts of the season, the trial itself became the story, with the Doctor in a battle for his own survival. As stated, thirteen was Holmes' final script for the series, and it's a good one. In fact, it's the only episode in the whole season that's above average. Here the relevations come thick and fast: the secrets Glitz was stealing in the first story were secrets from The Matrix, in league with The Master (Who's hamming actually livens up events). But most importantly, Michael Jayston, excellent as the Valeyard, is revealed to be the "amalgamation of the darker sides of [the Doctor's] nature, somewhere between [the Doctor's] twelfth and final incarnation." This then rushes straight in to another two-fingers to non-fans, with a trip into the Matrix. While this development is really just a second-hand Deadly Assassin revisited, it does work, as Victorian imagery, disembodied childrens' voices and a tolling bell all produce a very unnerving air. There's some problems with dialogue ("I've thrown a pebble into the water, perhaps killing two birds with one stone" is something C.J. of Reggie Perrin could have said, not the Master) and an odd moment where the Doctor doesn't notice a huge factory with neon signs, just ten feet away, until Glitz brings him a note helpfully telling him to look at it. But this is really unimportant, as is the chronic overacting, as DW references Repulsion and surrealism with outright glee.
Unfortunately, this unexpected high-point wasn't to last. As stated, Pip and Jane Baker wrote the concluding part, with no script editor to curb their more... colourful... excursions. Proof that the BBC didn't hate the show too much is given by Jonathan Powell allowing a special half an hour episode to air. Though in fairness, he should have insisted on cuts. While a very good actor, Michael Jayston was somewhat hampered by having to wear a hat like an old binliner throughout. And how many times did he have to say "My dear Doctor" per episode? The Doctor's ridiculing of the Valeyard's somewhat silly title (As in Boat, Grave, Farm, Scrap, Knackers, Brick, Rail and Stack-Yard; The Inquisitor even suggested "Backyard" when telling the Doctor not to do it), degraded the character, in much the same way that the Doctor claiming the "evidence" was boring caused the viewer to realise the stories were dull, too. However, all this is nothing compared to the scene where the suddenly loopy Jayston chooses to teleport fourteen times in a row for no reason whatsoever. Every time he disappears, a little bit of his dignity disappears with him. And when his masterplan is finally revealed - a wooden box with flashing disco lights on it - any credibility he, and the series, had left is gone. The Master with an all-black Tardis, exploding quills, Colin's shouting... oh, it really is so bad. The final episode is only notable for a scene where Glitz claims he has secrets number "three to six", for the Valeyard to state "the primitive phases one and two have been relegated to the archives." A reference to the (black and white) primitive first two Doctors, largely wiped from the archives? It seems an odd thing to say otherwise... oh, what does it all matter? The final episode ends up how it all started... trite, cost-conscious, self-indulgent and old-hat.
The only time Colin and Bonnie reprised their roles on television was for the atrocious Children in Need Eastenders/multi-Doctor/3-D special Dimensions In Time. While absolutely awful, this travestry saw the duo give ironically their best-ever takes on the characters, with restrained performances from them both. And what little I've seen of the Stranger series (A video production about a mysterious guy who travels through... well, basically, it was just Doctor Who by any other name, okay?) shows a very subdued Baker, not prone to bursts of melodrama which characterised his time on the programme proper. Maybe if they'd got rid of that silly costume, had stronger direction, got Colin to tone it down, and, most importantly, had better stories, the era wouldn't have recieved the battering it did from the BBC. The corporation were kind enough to grant the series an extended life, though with a different lead in the role. I said kind, as, much as I hate to admit it, the Colin Baker era is the only period of Doctor Who that was below-average entertainment.