Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Grab Bag Review: Preview

So when I dove into the Doctor Who grab bag for my next review what should show up but "Vengeance on Varos" -- a Sixth Doctor story.


The Sixth Doctor is quite possibly the most often disliked to outright hated of all the Doctors... and considering there has been eleven of them that's saying something. Here's the thing, though. Over the years things have come about about Colin Baker's tenure as the Doctor which sheds a lot of light on the situation and somewhat mitigates things. So before going into "Vengeance on Varos" I felt it was important that the background was fully explored.

Peter Davison, as the Fifth Doctor had followed the immensely popular Tom Baker. Unlike Tom Baker, who had been a relative unknown, Davison had already had quite a popular career in television despite his young age at taking the reigns as the Doctor. In point of fact, up until the casting of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor Davison had been the youngest Doctor ever.

Davison, however, had been somewhat dissatisfied with the quality of many of the scripts during his tenure and he also feared being typecast in the role so he decided to limit his time on the show to three seasons. Looking around for a replacement, producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner (J N-T hereafter because it takes too long to type the full name) latched onto actor Colin Baker.

Like Davison, Colin Baker already had a career in TV, and in point of fact he had appeared in Doctor Who rather recently as a rather nasty Gallifreian Commander named Maxil. In point of fact, Baker had rather a history of playing nasty and/or creepy and/or craven characters. The thing about Baker was that he was and remains to this day a fan of science fiction in general and Doctor Who in specific. J N-T felt that Baker would be a perfect fit since he had in mind that the show needed a little bit of a shake-up.

J N-T worried that, after Davison's rather soulful portrayal of the Doctor and Tom Baker's rather madcap one, viewers had gotten too comfortable with the Doctor. The producer wanted to make the Doctor seem dangerous, unbalanced, and much more alien in thinking. The idea was to introduce the Doctor as an unstable, unlikable personality and then have him gradually warm up. Colin Baker indeed liked this idea and added that he thought his Doctor should wear an all black suit to start with and then slowly add more elements of color to the wardrobe as the character lightened up. J N-T, however, shot this idea down claiming it might confuse viewers with the villainous character of the Master who was known for dressing all in black. Instead, J N-T ordered the costume department to design the most hideously, clashing outfit they possibly could in order to emphasize the Doctor's loud and brash personality. Baker hated the outfit but felt compelled to not air his opinions.

On the companion side -- actress Nicola Bryant was hired to help transition between Davison's Doctor and Baker's. Doctor Who had been slowly bleeding viewers and bleeding support at the BBC head office as well. J N-T had long been hoped to entice foreign investors in the show. He came up with the idea of making the new companion American in hopes that this might entice an American production company to partner with the show. Unfortunately, Nicola Bryant was British and a relatively new actress and these facts added up to her struggling with an American accent which was foisted upon her.

Additionally, J N-T had an idea of increasing the sex appeal of the series. Bryant thought, logically, since her character was supposed to be an American college student she should dress like an American college student -- sweatshirt or t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. J N-T's chase after more "sex appeal" instead left Bryant wearing tight-fitting leotards or half-shirts, shorts, and dress shoes most of the time.

On top of all of this, the script writers decided that the Doctor's new unstable personality should be displayed in the form of nearly constant bickering between himself and his companion, Perpurgillium "Peri" Brown. Neither Baker nor Bryant were extremely pleased with the scripts and when Baker wanted to move faster on warming up the Doctor's personality he was overruled and, as such, the nasty Doctor continued on far too long.

As a result of all of this the show went from bleeding viewers to hemorrhaging them. The show was put on hiatus with three stories left in the season and it was questionable on whether or not it would return. Despite his issues with the direction, Baker did not want to see the show cancelled outright and so he joined in the campaign to have it restored. It did, indeed, return and some things were certainly better. The Doctor's personality was softened a bit and his relationship with Peri was warmed up considerably. It was all still a bit too little too late, however, and Colin Baker was, sadly, made the scapegoat for the whole debacle and was released from the role of the Doctor to make way for the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. Understandably upset over his treatment, Baker refused to return to film a regeneration scene to hand the baton over to McCoy.

To be fair, some blame does have to be laid at the feet of the actors. Colin Baker played the role of arrogant entirely too well and he was already known for having a tendency to go over the top and an inability to tone down his performances. These things combines to make his Doctor more of a parody than anything else. Bryant, in her youth an inexperience, often came off as interesting as Elmer's glue.

In more recent years an audio company in Great Britain, Big Finish, has been producing audio dramas featuring several of the surviving Doctors. Baker and Bryant have been paired in stories repeatedly and have shown that their Doctor-Companion combo would have been quite good with some scripts that didn't rely so much on bickering and some seasoning on their performances.

Also, as more of the details of what went on behind the scenes during that era have come out Baker has been exonerated by fans. It doesn't hurt that he is, by all accounts, quite a funny, warm, personable man in person and one who delights in meeting fans.

So that's what was behind the scenes. Next up, "Vengeance on Varos"!

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