- Colin Baker
In assuming the role of successor to Peter Davison, Colin Baker’s was a thankless task. While failing to emulate the success of the mid-1970s, Davison’s tenure as the Doctor nevertheless reaffirmed Doctor Who’s popularity after a fall in ratings towards the end of Tom Baker’s era. Colin Baker inherited this fanbase, and initially succeeded in retaining it while developing a complex, iconoclastic characterisation of the Doctor – vain, egotistical and capricious – that provoked heated debate in fan circles. Audience viewing figures for season 22 were surprisingly high, exceeding those for Davison’s second season on average, and only marginally inferior to those for season 21. It was only with the airing in 1986 of ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ (6 Sep–6 Dec 1986), the story arc that constituted all of season 23, that Doctor Who suffered a catastrophic drop-off in popularity, with British viewing figures barely half those achieved at the beginning of the 1980s. This is the key development of the Colin Baker era, and it is puzzling. After all, there is little to choose between the two full seasons Baker completed in terms of quality, yet the drop in viewing figures at the beginning of season 23 was immediate, and therefore inexplicable on these grounds; nor is it satisfactory to invoke the overly simplistic argument that the programme’s competition on its return to its traditional Saturday evening transmission slot – from the imported American smash hit action show The A-Team (US 1983–7), then being screened on BBC’s principal rival channel, ITV – was solely responsible. What other factors contributed to this extraordinary downturn in popularity?
I would like to put in a good word for Colin Baker. An objective assessment demonstrates his era to be the worst in the history of the show, but Baker owns little, if any, of the blame. Though he polarised fans, he showed considerable fortitude, and created a memorable on-screen chemistry with Nicola Bryant (Peri); his portrayal of the Doctor is nuanced and never less than committed, pace his detractors, who frequently mistook flippancy for disinterest. The deterioration in quality observable during this period can be ascribed to a succession of poor scripts – a problem exacerbated by the bewildering variety of writers employed in the mid-1980s – and a failure to keep up with the times that the 18-month hiatus imposed on the show did much to bring into sharp relief among the British viewing public.
These shortcomings are most apparent in the 14 episodes of season 23, otherwise known as ‘Trial of a Time Lord’. The BBC’s then hostility towards Doctor Who is well known, as is producer John Nathan-Turner’s decision to [End Page 233] reflect the feeling then abroad that the programme was ‘on trial’ by creating a season-long story arc, placing the Doctor before a Gallifreyan court on charges of behaving in ways ‘unbecoming to a Time Lord’. Such themes had been explored in sf film and television, in (among others) Star Trek’s ‘Court Martial’ (2 Feb 1967) and Doctor Who’s own ‘The War Games’. Nevertheless, as dramatic devices, the courtroom scenes (and therefore the story arc as a whole) are failures, breaking as they do the central tenet of courtroom drama – to develop the plot and characters through the adversarial process – by including in its stead irrelevant, puerile grandstanding by the Doctor and his interlocutor, the Valeyard (Michael Jayston, Geoffrey Hughes). In the process, Gallifreyan law is shown to be maddeningly obscure and inconsistent – at one point, a request by the Valeyard to add genocide to the list of charges passes without comment! – and peculiarities in the presentation of evidence are never explicated.
That these conceits rung hollow is borne out by the reactions of viewers. Fan reviews were damning: Paul Scoones’s suggestion that ‘Season 24 doesn’t have to try very hard to be an improvement’ was among the kinder comments, and in spite of subsequent attempts at rehabilitation (Cornell, Day and Topping 332), the best that can be said about season 23 was that it was a noble failure.
More broadly, however, we may...