Category: Colin Baker

moonbase01For my most recent reviews of Doctor Who Classic at The A.V. Club, please visit Click on season numbers to browse individual episodes.

To see the reviews in publication order, it’s easiest to start at my staff page at The newest material is at the top of the list.

TV Club: Doctor Who, Revelation Of The Daleks

“Revelation Of The Daleks” (season 22, episodes 13-14. Originally aired March 23-30, 1985)

The thing about Eric Saward, who wrote this script and helped set the tone of Doctor Who overall as script editor during much of the Fifth and all of the Sixth Doctor eras, is that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether he actually liked Doctor Who at all. The worldview he brings to the show is so grim and bleak, so full of pointless violence and brutal ugliness and repugnant imagery, and so insistent on presenting the Doctor and his companions as incompetent and basically useless, that it can feel like he was deliberately trying to torpedo the whole concept of the series from inside.

And I think to some extent that’s true: Especially in Britain, early-‘80s sci-fi was full of dark, nilihistic, punk-influenced satire that spit on the utopian idealism of the 1960s and sneered at the future, which a lot of us thought was disquietingly likely to end in nuclear holocaust. Uncomplicated heroism and optimistic outlooks weren’t fashionable, and even though Doctor Who had never been merely that kind of simplistic adventure show, it always changed with the times, and it makes sense that it should have gone in the direction of Terry Gilliam, Repo Man, The Road Warrior and 2000 AD when that was the trend.

And so in season 22, we got a Doctor Who replete with black-comedy elements like “Vengeance On Varos,” which skewered capitalism, violence-crazed media and the passive complacency they create in their citizens; the pro-vegetarian “The Two Doctors,” which briefly turned Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor into a cannibal; and the season-ending “Revelation Of The Daleks,” which takes aim at consumerism, fear of death and the hypocrisies they create in us—the shoddy way we sometimes treat the memory of the deceased, and our tendency to ignore the unpleasant side of how our food and the other things we buy are actually made. (In other words: Meat-is-murder cannibalism again.) And it has a twist ending that, at least as an idea, is truly shocking and puts a knife in the heart of one of Doctor Who’s core concepts.

Sounds great, right? Yeah, not so much. The problem is that Eric Saward is simply not a strong enough writer to pull this off, failing to provide the clever dialogue, well-thought-out underlying concepts or basic plot mechanics that might have made this work, and also apparently actively hostile to the notion that anyone in Doctor Who, or watching it, should be having any fun. (Quite literally: At the end of the story, Peri begs the Doctor to take her “somewhere fun,” and he reacts as if he thinks it’s the stupidest idea he’s ever heard.) Like far too much of the series during this period, “Revelation Of The Daleks” is a grim, depressing slog. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this was the last serial broadcast before Doctor Who was forced into an 18-month hiatus by BBC executives who had grown hostile to it.

Originally published June 25, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club, Doctor Who: “Vengeance On Varos”

“Vengeance On Varos” (season 22, episodes 3-4; originally aired Jan. 19-26, 1985)

Well, I’ll say this for a start: “Vengeance On Varos” is better than “The Twin Dilemma.” Which is almost the faintest praise you can give a Doctor Who serial, considering how embarrassingly bad “Twin Dilemma” is. (It’s also more entertaining than stabbing yourself in the hand with a fork.) “Vengeance On Varos” has the dubious merit of being the best show from season 22. That doesn’t make it a good show, and at one point in my notes, I stopped trying to keep up with the plot points and just wrote in all caps, “GRIM SLOG.” But it does succeed better than anything else from this period of the show in making use of the otherwise awful, awful, awful concept of the Sixth Doctor by sticking him in a world suffused in the spirit of early-1980s punk nihilism, offering up a dark, cynical parody of the whole concept of Doctor Who itself.

One thing that’s been endlessly fascinating to me in going back through all these vintage Doctor Whos is the way the program constantly changed to reflect the popular culture around it, and especially the popular trends in sci-fi. If that meant Doctor Who was almost always more of a trend-chaser than trendsetter, it’s also a major reason it lasted for 26 years. And that goes a long way toward explaining the otherwise mystifying decision to make the Sixth Doctor such a repellent character and his adventures so dank, grim, and depressing. Because look at what else was going on: Terry Gilliam’s brilliant but horrifyingly bleak Kafkaesque satire Brazil was just about to be released; his previous movie was the comparatively lighthearted Time Bandits, which ended (spoiler for a 31-year-old story) with the boy hero’s parents killed just so Gilliam could close with a nasty, shocking, macabre joke. And in Repo Man, 2000 AD, Heavy Metal, The Running Man, The Terminator, Max Headroom, and the grimy spaceship setting of Alien—seemingly everywhere in science fiction except in Steven Spielberg movies—life was harsh, cities were falling apart and burning, and the message was that the future was going to be worse than what we had now.

Originally published Feb. 5, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Twin Dilemma”

“The Twin Dilemma” (season 21, episodes 23-26; originally aired 3/22/1984-3/30/1984)

Every regeneration story in Doctor Who is, in a sense, a twin dilemma: Who’s the new guy, and how will he pick up the torch? They carry the double burden of (re-)introducing the much-changed star to potentially skeptical fans, and getting him out interacting with the universe where he can play the hero. “The Twin Dilemma,” which introduces Colin Baker as the mercurial Sixth Doctor, is legendary for its excruciating failure on both those counts, routinely ranked dead last in fan polls and widely considered the start of the careening path to cancellation a few years later. Part of its bad rep was just bad timing: It had the ill luck to follow directly after “The Caves of Androzani,” Peter Davison’s final and most well-received story. But there’s not much else that can take the sting out of this one: “Twin Dilemma” is just an unpleasant, tacky, dull affair starring an obnoxious, overbearing bully. The best that can be said for it is that the idea behind the Sixth Doctor’s unlikeable character wasn’t terrible; but the actual presentation was not just terrible, but toxic.

Originally published July 10, 2011 on Read the complete article.

Primer: Doctor Who

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: The rise and fall and rise again of Britain’s venerable science-fiction series Doctor Who.

Doctor Who 101

An icon of modern British culture and the longest-running science-fiction TV show in history, Doctor Who has never been more popular than it is today, thanks to producer Russell T. Davies, whose revitalization of the series returns this month under the aegis of new producer Steven Moffatt. Matt Smith, taking over the title role from David Tennant, will become the 11th actor to officially play the time-traveling wanderer.

The original series ran for 26 seasons, each consisting of several feature-length serials broken into half-hour episodes with cliffhanger endings. No matter who’s playing the lead, the basic premise has been essentially the same since the show’s debut: A mysterious, eccentric alien known only as The Doctor (not “Doctor Who,” in spite of the title) travels through time and space having adventures and fighting evil. He’s usually accompanied by one or two humans picked up along the way. They journey with him in a time machine called a TARDIS, which looks like a blue phone booth. If grievously wounded (especially by that fatal condition “actor-quits-itis”), he can regenerate his entire body, gaining a new face, a new personality, and a new name at the top of the cast list in the credits. This has also given the show an easy way to make more sweeping stylistic changes to evolve with changing times, and a way to correct elements after they go stale or otherwise become unworkable. In fact, it’s become expected that a regeneration of The Doctor will also regenerate the whole show. (Fans generally know each Doctor by the order in which they were introduced, so William Hartnell, who originated the role, is the First Doctor, and newcomer Matt Smith is the Eleventh.)

Originally published on April 8, 2010. Read the complete article.

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