TV Lists

Doctor Who: The Sixth Doctor – The Best and Worst

These days Jodie Whittaker often takes the spot for most commonly disliked Doctor, but before 2018 Colin Baker was the one with that title. Lasting for only three years, with two seasons and a whole multitude of behind the scenes trouble, Baker had perhaps the worst deal a Doctor has been dealt to this day (bar maybe Paul McGann only getting one movie).

Brash, loud, rash and impassioned in his rainbow coat of many colours, the Sixth Doctor was admittedly hard to like. He argued relentlessly with Peri, which created perhaps a toxic relationship in the TARDIS (his debut story being infamous for this) and had only a few stories to his name, but there’s still lots to love about him.

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It’s such a shame that Baker fell victim to the hiatus, the Season 23 rejig, and remains the only Doctor to have been forcibly outed from the role by BBC executives. That’s not to say Ol’ Sixie didn’t leave a lasting legacy though. The first actor to have appeared in the show pre-Doctor (a trend that Peter Capaldi later carried on), the first to have a run of forty-five minute episodes as standard (ignoring ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’’ last minute troubles, mentioned in the Fifth Doctor list) and going on to be one of the cornerstones of Big Finish and the Doctor Who audio adventures along with his immediate predecessor and successor.

It’s very often said that Big Finish redeemed this incarnation from his raw deal on the screen, and it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment. Colin Baker was allowed to take the reigns and develop the character into one of its kindest iterations, with some absolute fan favourite companions such as Evelyn Smythe. But while his audio run may be highly regarded, focusing solely on his TV run does sadly reveal a fairly lacklustre era of the show for many fans, and the beginning of the end of the classic series.

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Having eleven stories to his name, (counting ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ as four separate adventures with an interconnecting story arc), we’ve shaken things up this time and chosen to make this list a ranking, as it feels silly to mention all but one of his stories. So, without further ado, let’s see how we view the Sixth Doctor’s TV run.

11) ‘The Mysterious Planet’ (1986)

© 1986 BBC Studios.

Not the most expected choice for the bottom slot. The first four episodes, or story, of ‘Trial’ is a story I just cannot gel with. There is a lot to love here: The Doctor and Peri finally having a friendly relationship, the introduction of the Valeyard, Glitz and the Inquisitor, the beginnings of the iconic ‘Face-Zoom’ cliffhangers for ‘Trial’, and a great twist that once again reveals the dark side of Time Lord society (even if it’s parroted almost exactly in 2020’s ‘Orphan 55’ ).

The interactions between the Doctor and Drathro are a definite highlight of events but it’s such a shame that the surrounding material on Ravalox is just very dull. Glitz and Dibber provide some comedy but in the end I just don’t have fun with it. The ‘Trial’ segments are always great across the season, but the core narrative of ‘Planet’ just doesn’t do it for me. A shame then that this was the last script by veteran Who writer Robert Holmes before his untimely death that year. One I often skip if I’m wanting to rewatch Season 23.

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10) ‘The Mark of the Rani’ (1985)

© 1985 BBC Studios.

Time Lord mania! There’s a reason that the Rani is a character that will likely never return, and isn’t looked on too fondly by the fans, despite the potential the character offers. Here she’s just squandering the Master at every opportunity, relegating him to a stooge who likes dressing up as… scarecrows. Let the man have fun; why shouldn’t he be allowed to cosplay when he likes? It’s a shame that Colin Baker and Anthony Ainley didn’t ever get a solo story for the two of them to spar off, the Valeyard taking up space in their other encounter, but for what we do get, they work well together.

Baker and Kate O’Mara also have some fun interactions and a dynamic that elevates this story somewhat but not by much. The Sixth Doctor’s only historical story on TV, the industrial revolution isn’t a particularly thrilling setting and just adds to an already dreary story. The format change for Season 22, as mentioned before, can either work wonders or be highly detrimental to a story, and here it ends up the latter. Couple this with one of the worst cliff-hangers of the show (not even one of those funny ones like The Floor of Doom or “Face it Tegan, He’s Drowned!”) and there’s barely a saving grace. The Rani’s TARDIS interior is very cool though, and the landmines turning people into trees is a fun and bonkers idea only Doctor Who would do, plus allowed for a very amusing anecdote from Baker about filming the story.

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9) ‘The Twin Dilemma’ (1984)

© 1984 BBC Studios.

The one I’m sure many of you were surprised hadn’t turned up yet. Twin is not as bad as people say, but it’s also not a great story. It’s become infamous for a number of reasons, from the Doctor’s chaotic and brash post-regeneration trauma, the horrific acting from the twins and that moment in the first episode –  and yet, look past that and there’s still a story here.

Mestor and the Gastropods are harmless enough, and Baker still delivers a good performance amongst all the snarling, cowering and theatrics, and the first few scenes of him in the TARDIS offer some comedic fire (‘A Noble Brow’). Overall though, it’s easy to dump on this story, and I won’t say some of it isn’t deserved – it’s just not horrific. Shame that the brilliant Season 21 ended on this rather than ‘The Caves of Androzani’, especially as the novelty of seeing the new Doctor immediately led to a first impression that sealed Baker’s fate.

To introduce a new Doctor in such an unstable and unlikeable way and then leave audiences with only that for months was a dangerous move and one that did not pay off. To leave the audience with the line “I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not” was awful, and this era paid for it. That aside, it’s just not terribly interesting despite some less infamous iconic moments (VILLAIN! MURDERER!). Give it a chance at least, although the writer’s excuse of his typewriter blowing up does not excuse the script.

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8) ‘Mindwarp’ (1986)

© 1986 BBC Studios.

The second segment of ‘Trial’ is at least interesting in some ways. There are some gorgeous visuals from the shores of Thoros Beta, and Brian Blessed is always a joy, but there are also a lot of issues. The fact that the Doctor is brainwashed for most of the story leaves you feeling cold in a sense of isolation from the main hero, which is interesting in concept but in practice leaves a bad taste in your mouth, especially just as this TARDIS team had finally settled into a lovely dynamic and then it’s gone.

Sil is as great as ever, but the most notable thing is obviously the ending. It’s a shock that raises the stakes of the season and allows Baker to deliver a genuinely brilliant performance, shades of his eventual Big Finish personality shining in, while Michael Jayston takes great glee in the Valeyard’s taunting of the Doctor. It’s just such a shame that this story is a bit miserable (but that’s to be expected from Philip Martin) and is such a canonical pain in the fate of Peri. Seriously, there are like five sequels to this and even more stories dealing with the fate of Peri – it’s a nightmare.

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7) ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ (1985)

© 1985 BBC Studios.

‘Revelation’ is not a bad story. It’s got some great themes, terrific performances by Terry Molloy and Colin Baker, the DJ is great, and there’s some truly brilliant body horror to it while also continuing the subtle set up of the Dalek Civil War arc that would come to a head in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ (1988).

What really ends up squandering it, is the fact the Doctor is barely in it. Doctor-lite stories can be great (‘Blink’ (2007)) or met with an awful reception (‘Love and Monsters’ (2006)) but the issue here is the fact that the Doctor is still around, just not doing anything. The first episode is just him and Peri walking through snow, talking, while the main plot goes on with the side characters and once he eventually arrives there’s a silly cliff-hanger.

Thankfully his interactions with Davros are as top tier as any interaction between these characters are, but it’s a bit of a slog to get there. The evident dislike of Baker from higher ups is truly evident in the script’s treatment of him and it’s a true shame. As with all stories in this era, it seems, there’s that infamous moment at the end which could have been followed up on. Having listened to the Big Finish adaptation of that lost season, it’s a good thing some of those stories were lost to time, although others really would have been great. ‘Revelation’ is still worth a watch, but a glass Dalek only gets you so far.

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6) ‘Vengeance on Varos’ (1985)

© 1985 BBC Studios.

Often regarded as one of the best (even the best of the Colin Baker run), Varos is not the most fun you’ll have with Doctor Who. The show is often at its best when tackling commentary or being a silly sci-fi romp, and this is the former, quite literally.

Possibly Baker’s best performance on the screen, there is so much to love, from that performance to the gruesome and nasty Sil making his debut. The video-nasty commentary creates a murky layer within proceedings and for the better, although it is a shame that the Doctor and Peri don’t arrive on Varos for quite some time. It’s often infamous for that acid bath scene, but look past that and there’s an iconic Doctor Who story on offer here. It’s just a shame it’s corridor surfing, Philip Martin body horror mutilation of companions, and that scene. Still, one of the best cliffhangers of the 80s coupled with some delightful imagery and it’s well worth a watch. Just listen out for the moment Nicola Bryant’s accent slips out of American.

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5) ‘The Two Doctors’ (1985)

© 1985 BBC Studios.

It’s awfully rare to have a multi-Doctor story not as an anniversary of the show, but that’s exactly what we have here. There’s again some quite gruesome imagery, as is commonplace with the era, but it all adds to the effect.

Shockeye is horrifically watchable as a villain, while Chessene and Dastari play the conventional villain roles, but the Sontarans do appear a little wasted and tacked on to the story to add another familiar element. Baker and Bryant are always a delight, as is Frazer Hines as the returning Jamie, which adds a new layer to this TARDIS dynamic that shows we perhaps needed an extra companion during this time.

Patrick Troughton once again shines as the Second Doctor, it’s just unfortunate that he spends a lot of the story either unconscious, tied up, or an Androgum but his eventual interactions with the Sixth Doctor are a joy. There’s some gorgeous location filming on offer but it’s a bit marred by an entire first episode set on a space station, and then the repeated murders that happen in the other episodes (the restaurant scene being a little overboard), culminating in that uncomfortable cliff-hanger to episode two and the infamous chloroform scene of the Sixth Doctor straight up murdering Shockeye. Still, it’s worth a watch just to see Troughton’s final performance as the Doctor, and for those who hate the rainbow coat, a chance to go without it for a few episodes.

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4) ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ (1985)

© 1985 BBC Studios.

It’s slightly ludicrous how every story in this era seems to have an infamously violent moment, and ‘Attack’ is no different. Finally a chance to see the new Doctor without that unstable attitude, and to see the format change properly debut. This is a very good story.

It’s undeniably a nostalgia fest of past Cyberman appearances, returning characters and locations (Totter’s Lane has no bearing on events whatsoever), but it’s still a great watch and allows Lytton to properly redeem himself in a shocking and sombre finale. Baker begins to prove his mettle as he wanders through the sewers and meets Black Cybermen and Cryons on Telos, facing up to the Cyberleader with greatness. Bryant doesn’t have a whole lot to do, sadly, but that’s not a huge detraction, and there’s that weird side-plot of the two guys on Telos, but for the most part this is a great watch. Grim, again, and once again has this Doctor murdering an enemy but it’s well worth checking out, even if no-one can seem to agree who wrote the thing.

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3) ‘The Ultimate Foe’ (1986)

© 1986 BBC Studios.

For the most part, the courtroom scenes are my favourite of Season 23, so it’s great to see the grand finale properly focus on that rather than intercut with a random adventure. There are some delightfully surreal moments, iconic lines, and one of Baker’s finest performances as he lambasts Time Lord society.

Sure, it’s a beast to the canon of the Doctor’s timeline, but that’s easily forgiven as you have tons of fun. The Master’s inclusion is admittedly a little random, but still welcome as he goes around the story having fun and manipulating Glitz once more. It’s a shame that Mel has very little to do and again spawns a sore wound with her canonical timeline, but there’s just so much fun to be had.

Michael Jayston gives his best performance and ends the season on a high, sparring off against Baker with repeated aplomb. It’s a true shame that Baker’s last line is relegated to something as trivial as Carrot Juice three times, but other than that it’s a worthy end to an admittedly mixed season. (Although I do have a friend who names this as his favourite season of all time, so make of that what you will.)

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2) ‘Timelash’ (1985)

© 1985 BBC Studios.

I’m sure many of you were wondering where this little guy was at the bottom of the list. Along with ‘Twin Dilemma’ it’s one of the most hated stories of the show, but it’s got a whole lot to offer.

Paul Darrow may be a bit OTT but he still clearly relishes his role, and Baker really stands out against the white corridors of Karfel and gets to have a lot of fun. The inclusion of H.G. Wells is great and adds a comedic element to the story, which is much needed and almost feels like a spiritual successor to Adric in some ways. Bryant, again, has little to do, which is a shame, but it’s very much Baker’s story as the Doctor faces off against the Borad twice, is increasingly exasperated with Wells, and enters the wonderful visual of the Timelash itself (giving us another face zoom cliff-hanger).

It’s always interesting to have a story be a sequel to an unseen adventure, as ‘The Celestial Toymaker’ (1966) was, and the Borad is a decent villain. The ending is admittedly a little drawn out and clashes with ‘Terror of the Zygons’ (1975) in terms of an explanation for a well known monster, but for the most part this story is a lot better than it’s ever given credit for. It’s inexcusable, however, that the only explanation given to how the Doctor survives a missile fired at the TARDIS is “I’ll explain someday”.

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1) Terror of the Vervoids’ (1986)

© 1986 BBC Studios.

The third segment of ‘Trial’ is just such a delight. I’m a sucker for a good old fashioned murder mystery, courtroom drama and space cruiser setting. so to have all three mixed into one package already reeks of perfection.

There’s a great monster in the Vervoids (although their design has caused some issues over the years, notably for Doctor Who Magazine), and the side cast are all great. Bonnie Langford delivers a brilliant debut as Mel and already brings out a new side of this Doctor.

It’s interesting to learn that events may not appear as they happened, and that the version of this story we see is the edited version, but it’s still brilliant. Some true body horror, such as episode two’s cliff-hanger, some truly great performances and a stake raising cliff-hanger to the final episode really cements ‘Vervoids’ as the best story Baker got on the screen. It’s such a fun watch, a great way to spend a couple of hours, and proves just how good Colin Baker could have been had he been allowed to continue in the role.

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As with all Doctors, the Sixth has an abundance of stories in other media (with one or two written by the man himself), the audios in particular being full of some of the best Doctor Who stories there are. It becomes very difficult to pick just one for this incarnation but onwards we go.

Best Book: The Quantum Archangel

A sequel to ‘The Time Monster’ (1972), this book has it all.

The Master; a strained Doctor/Companion falling out; returning characters; and the return of the Chronovores in a huge stakes adventure that really tests the Doctor and Mel.

It’s a great book in its own right, but as a Doctor Who story it’s easily one of the best offerings. If you can find it, I implore you to read it!

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Best Comic: The World Shapers

If you want to talk about canonical nightmares, look no further.

This three-part comic is full of huge additions to canon for Marinus, the Voord, the Cybermen, ‘The Invasion’ (1968) and Jamie McCrimmon. This story is absolutely wild and completely recontextualises the Cybermen from the ground up, even offering a supposed ultimate fate for them in millennia. Featuring a shocking conclusion with the death of a huge character (which has never since been decanonised as such), it’s even referenced in ‘The Doctor Falls’ (2017). It’s hard to find these days but if possible it’s well worth it.

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Best Audio: The Middle

There are so so many choices for the best audio of the Sixth Doctor.

A huge number of stories, companions, and writers, but ultimately The Middle takes the top spot. Chris Chapman is easily the best writer for this incarnation, with so many of his other Sixth Doctor stories being favourites of mine, but this story is just so good.

A dark concept ,beautifully realised with emotional and high stakes, which never slows down over the four episodes, there is actually nothing wrong with this story. One of the best TARDIS teams, of 6/Flip/Constance, this is easily my favourite Sixth Doctor story there is. I can’t give it enough praise. Go buy it!

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