Sunday, July 21, 2013

Doctor Who: 1986

After episode 653 (The Trial of a Time Lord, part fourteen)
18 December 1986
<< back to 1985
The Doctor on trial again
Tomorrow's World, 18 December 1986
On 6 December 1986, the Doctor was found not-guilty by a jury of his peers in the final - and fourteenth - episode of The Trial of a Time Lord. Twelve days later he faced a new challenge on BBC One, the Tomorrow's World Christmas quiz.

Broadcast live in prime time, it pitted the Doctor, astronomer Heather Couper and Neil Cossons, then director of the Science Museum, against the studio audience, trying to guess the purpose of a bunch of new gadgets. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube but for a flavour of the tone, here's how presenter Howard Stableford introduced our hero:
The nominated captain of our expert panel is Colin Baker, Doctor Who. Good of you to find the right time to join us.

It's nice to be back again because I was on the 50,000th edition when the TARDIS - the prototype - was shown.

Was I still on the show?

No you were pensioned off.

Replaced, was I?
This achingly BBC banter feels a bit odd when we know that Colin Baker was in the midst of being replaced. He'd been told that his contract as Doctor Who was not to be renewed some six weeks earlier on 29 October, between the broadcasts of parts eight and nine of Trial of a Time Lord. That news seems to have been reported in the press in early December, just before the quiz was broadcast (though I've not found a source).

Doctor Who's producer still hoped Baker would appear in one more story to hand over to his successor: four days after the Tomorrow's World quiz, he commissioned that story and the writers,
"were asked to write their scripts for the Sixth Doctor and include a climactic regeneration sequence ... Any hope of Colin Baker appearing in Strange Matter was lost on January 6th, 1987, when the first installment of an interview with the actor appeared in The Sun. In it, Baker expressed regret at his dismissal from Doctor Who, and spoke scathingly of BBC1 Controller Michael Grade."
The Tomorrow's World quiz was Colin's last appearance as the "current" Doctor.

Colin wasn't sacked but the decision not to renew his contract seems like a judgment on his time in the series. The show was in trouble - it had been taken off the air for 18 months in 1985, and then Trial was not brilliantly received by the public - but that was hardly his fault. As the star, he was just the most visible, recognisible person in the frame.

How much control or choice does a Doctor have over the show? We know David Tennant said no to a story set inside JK Rowling's head. Patrick Troughton battled the production team about the burden of the production schedule and got shorter episodes in his final season. Jon Pertwee had the original actress cast as Sarah Jane Smith replaced. In each case, that Doctor had been in the role for some years which gave their opinions more weight.

But generally, interviews with Doctors suggest that while they might have set the tone in the rehearsal rooms and while filming, and put cast and crew at ease, they didn't have the time or clout to affect the programme being made. They weren't involved in commissioning or editing scripts, or the tone or direction of the series. Perhaps their biggest say over their time in the progamme is what they wore as the Doctor; Colin didn't even have that. Few - the Second, Fifth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors - got to choose when they left the series.

That's not to say they were victims. The Doctors all clearly worked very hard to make the most of the material. Like most actors, they'd query their characters motives, reactions and dialogue. They might have rephrased lines, added jokes or asked what the emphasis should have been, or what their character knew or was thinking at a particular moment. Some incredible moments in the series are the result of an actor playing against the apparent meaning of the lines, or playing them in an unexpected way.

So I'm not arguing that actors should necessarily have more say and involvement in the material they appear in. It's not a bad thing in principle, just not always practical - or desired. Rather, I'm interested in the trust that has to exist between the lead actor(s) and those running a show. I've worked on productions where actors haven't liked or understood what we were making, but threw themselves into it anyway (usually after I'd listened to their doubts and tried to answer their questions). The key thing is the right kind of open, creative environment where people can ask questions and suggest improvements, but whoever's in charge has the final say and keeps everything on course.

That clearly wasn't happening at the end of Colin's time in the show: the producer and script-editor - the "showrunners" at the time - weren't talking, the latter left after an argument and the final episode he wrote was dumped in favour of something else. In the confusion, Colin was left asking fundamental questions about his final story - how much of what we see on screen is a lie, how much has the Doctor turned evil and is his companion really dead? It's bad enough that he had to ask, but I think the answers given in each case were the ones needing least effort to work in, not that made a better story.

All he could do - all any actor could do - was show willing and make the best of what he was handed. He did, and lost his job.

Doctor Who continued with a new actor in the lead, a new script-editor behind the scenes and a new, lighter touch. I've heard people wonder how the series might have been if Colin had stayed on. His work for Big Finish has been extraordinary, reinventing the Sixth Doctor, making him quite brilliant. But if he'd stayed in the role back then?

I think we can tell. Watch him in the Tomorrow's World quiz: smart, benign, trading terrible jokes with good humour. Making the best of it anyway.

Next episode: 1987


Elvisomar said...

That second and final year for Colin Baker really is the nadir of Doctor Who in my eyes, not least for the behind-the-scenes bickering you talk about here. As you strongly suggest, everything I've learned clearly underscores the fact that Colin Baker is decent, upstanding, likable, and most certainly professional. I've grown enormously fond of him by way of the Big Finish series of adventures, as well as stories from behind the scenes, so I no longer refer to him as the annoying one in the ugly coat as I once did. Now, of course, I think of him as the distinguished gentleman in the ugly coat.

You list the actors who chose when to leave the series and I would have put Eccleston on that list with Troughton, Davison, Tennant, and Smith. Would it be possible to give me a two-sentence explanation of the timing of his departure? I know the story he tells regarding why he left. I gather it's the whys of the when that I didn't know.

Thanks for the countdown, Mr. G. I have been finding them very interesting and entertaining.

0tralala said...

Hullo. I'm afraid we don't know the particulars of Eccleston leaving - there are lots of different accounts, but none of the people who were actually involved in the decision (Eccleston himself, Russell T and Julie Gardiner) have said exactly what happened. It may have been his choice but we don't know.