What led to the departure of the Sixth Doctor Colin Baker in 1987?
The Sixth Doctor’s regeneration was mired in controversy. In the mid 1980s, Doctor Who was in turmoil after the BBC had attempted to cancel it. The backlash had been such that fans had threatened to picket the Houses of Parliament with Daleks unless the Corporation back-peddled.
And their voices were heard. The BBC quickly decided against cancelling Doctor Who, but did insist on giving it an 18 month rest. (We’ve written more about these events in this post.)
And the BBC stuck to its word. The Sixth Doctor did return in 1986 in the epic fourteen part story ‘The Trial of a Time Lord,’ which saw the return of the Time Lords, the Master, plus the introduction of an evil incarnation of the Doctor in the shape of the Valeyard. And whilst the adventure received a mixed reaction from fans, the viewing figures were low, possibly because of the muted publicity surrounding the series’ return.
In addition, Doctor Who‘s future was far from secure. The producer John Nathan-Turner had vetoed a suggestion from his script editor to end the season on a cliffhanger, not wishing to give the BBC an excuse to pull the programme from the schedules. As such, the Sixth Doctor’s final series ended with him sailing off into the sunset with his new companion Mel, ready to indulge in several gallons of carrot juice.
And whilst this seemed pleasant enough on the surface, a storm was brewing behind the scenes. John Nathan-Turner was keen to move on from the programme, but he was told that “his presence was required” on the next season of Doctor Who. Moreover, he had been given orders to fire Colin Baker – the official line being that he had played the part for three years and the BBC considered this to be the optimum amount of time.
Understandably, this decision came as a shock to many. Colin Baker met with the BBC and they asked him if he would be willing to come back in a few months’ time to film a regeneration scene. Baker explained that this would be tricky, as in casting agents’ eyes he would still be the Sixth Doctor until that moment, and it would be difficult to find work.
So he a made the BBC a counter offer – he said that he would return for a full season, and regenerate at the end. This proposal was received with some interest, and the Beeb said that it would think about it and be in touch.
According to Baker, this was the last he ever heard.
Meanwhile, John Nathan-Turner found himself in a precarious position. Filming on Season 24 of Doctor Who was only a matter of months away, and he found himself without a Doctor or a script editor, or indeed any scripts that could go into pre-production.
That being said, he did have an idea for the Sixth Doctor’s replacement – the actor and comic Sylvester McCoy. But the BBC wasn’t so sure and insisted that McCoy audition for the role alongside a host of other actors, which McCoy did. In the scene, the Doctor confronts the villainous Iron Woman (played by former companion Janet Fielding) in a witty exchange penned by new script editor Andrew Cartmel. This was accompanied by a farewell scene for Mel, which was later repurposed for ‘Dragonfire.’
According to McCoy, the audition process wasn’t all that it seemed. Apparently, John Nathan-Turner desperately wanted him for the part, and therefore had McCoy audition alongside actors who weren’t right for it. Therefore, the only person who really shone throughout the whole process was McCoy!
Of course, the Sixth Doctor still had to transition into his new body, and this was going to be a challenge. Initially, Season 24’s opening story had been written with the Sixth Doctor in mind, as the writers Pip and Jane Baker had hoped (or been told) that Colin Baker would be starring in it. The Doctor would have died in the adventure’s closing moments, as he detonated an explosion in the Rani’s laboratory.
But in reality, Colin Baker and the BBC had been unable to reach an agreement, meaning that Season 24’s opening story ‘Time and the Rani‘ would have to begin with a pre-titles regeneration sequence, which was a first for a show (unless you count the recap at the beginning of ‘Castrovalva.’) To achieve this, Sylvester McCoy dressed up in the Sixth Doctor’s costume, later commenting that the production team “lost him for a few days” as McCoy was of a somewhat smaller stature!
As for how the Sixth Doctor expired, it’s open to interpretation. His death isn’t really explained in ‘Time and the Rani’; there is the so-called “tumultuous buffeting” of the TARDIS caused by the Rani’s tractor beam, which she uses to drag the Doctor to the planet Lakertya. Thus, it’s implied that the Doctor is fatally injured in the rocking of his ship, perhaps because he hit his head against the console, or fell off the exercise bike(!)
But the Sixth Doctor is given a different fate in Big Finish’s ‘The Brink of Death’ – the final instalment in a four-part adventure titled ‘The Last Adventure.’ This specially-written tale was penned by Nicholas Briggs, and suggests that the Sixth Doctor dies as a result of radiation from the Rani’s tractor beam. Fortunately, this radiation is only deadly to Time Lords, so Mel is simply rendered unconscious.
And as the Sixth Doctor collapses on the floor of the TARDIS, he hears a soft, Scottish-sounding voice calling out to him from the future: “It’s far from being all over,” it says.
All in all, the Sixth Doctor’s departure may have been a rushed and unhappy affair for many, but in some ways it was only the beginning. Colin Baker has embraced the world of Doctor Who since his departure, and has now starred in dozens of hours’ worth of adventures for Big Finish, as well as writing his own Doctor Who comic story.
As for the Doctor Who fans of 1987, they now had a brand new Time Lord to discover, and an epic master plan was about to unfold…
Read about the Seventh Doctor’s regeneration here.
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