Big Finish - The Best and Worst of the Sixth Doctor

Nowadays it's a bit of a cliche to say that Big Finish have almost completely rehabilitated the Sixth Doctor's once dreadful reputation, but one that bears repeating nonetheless. Before Colin Baker started appearing in the audios back in 1999 his Doctor appeared with monotonous regularity near the bottom of most “Best Doctor polls” conducted, with only a few hardy or avant garde souls (including Big Finish’s Gary Russell) citing him as one of their favourites. Now, ten years later, it’s a very different story; while it wouldn’t be fair to say that his audio adventures have completely eclipsed his TV ones, the fact that in 2001 he won Doctor Who Magazine’s poll as Best Actor shows how far in fandom’s esteem he has come in the past decade, almost entirely due to his renaissance in BF. From the start Russell was determined to make the Sixth Doctor more as Baker himself had originally conceived him, eliminating his less attractive qualities like his bouts of petulant selfishness as well as toning down his more self-indulgent grandstanding. The audio Sixth Doctor still loves the sound of his voice, is an inveterate show-off, and demands to be the centre of attention wherever he happens to find himself, but these facets are now tempered by an explicitly drawn humanity, an emotional intelligence and sympathy that makes him, of the four Big Finish Doctors, the one you would be most likely to go to in times of stress. Just as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor became at times indistinguishable from the actor, so now has the Sixth Doctor melded with Baker’s personality so that the two, more so than any other Doctor still alive, are quite often indistinguishable. Anyone who has seen Baker in full force at a convention knows what a showman he can be, as witty and grandiloquent as he reportedly was at the party when JNT decided to cast him in the role, but equally both actor and character give out a sense of common decency, a sympathy and inveterate moral centre, which helps make it understandable why even the most fervent Sixth Doctor haters have had their minds changed towards him.

A lot of this change has come about thanks to the new companion BF created for him, Dr Evelyn Smythe. Very early on Russell decided that the Sixth Doctor’s fractious relationship with Peri would not help the softening of the character he intended, leading to her being paired off with the Fifth Doctor far more often. To fill the gap Smythe, a fifty-something university history professor, was created, the idea being that the Sixth Doctor would benefit far more from having a travelling companion more his intellectual equal, rather than being stuck with a whiny brat. This worked better even than I suspect Russell and co could have hoped for; played with warm affection by Maggie Stables, the pair quickly struck up a relationship not unlike that of a middle-aged couple, occasionally bickering but more generally revelling and thriving in their friendship. The Sixth Doctor delights in showing Evelyn the wonders of the past and the cosmos, while she never fails to bring him down to earth with a bump when he threatens to go off on one of his grandiloquent diatribes or upbraid him when that selfish streak is in danger of reappearing. Over the course of the range's first two to three years the pair’s audio adventures firmly established the Sixth Doctor as a far less caustic character than his television incarnation, so much so that Russell and co felt confident enough to introduce a note of dissension into the pair’s relationship, propagated both by a potentially lethal heart condition Evelyn kept from her friend and her growing concern over his occasionally callous attitude to some of the people they met in their travels. Although this arc ended not with a bang but a whimper, in Paul Sutton’s deeply boring pair of stories Arrangements For War and Thicker Than Water it was generally an effective storyline, and a good example of how Big Finish is able to write in far more emotionally mature terms than the television series.

This is not to say that Evelyn has been the Sixth Doctor’s only companion. Peri has popped up from time to time, and starting later this year the pair will appear in seven out of eight of Big Finish’s eagerly awaited “The Lost Stories” season, comprising a collection of stories originally developed during Baker’s era but never brought to fruition and including The Nightmare Fair and Mission to Magnus. Thankfully the pair bicker far less, although in the absence of said tension the audios inadvertently reveal the paucity of their relationship, and how ill-conceived it really was. Mel, the Sixth Doctor’s companion in the latter half of The Trial of the Time Lord has also featured in a handful of audios, although again it’s clear that as a companion she works better (if you can call it that) with the Seventh Doctor. Most recently, the Doctor has unexpectedly found himself alongside Charley, another Big Finish-created companion who previously had appeared in nearly thirty audios with the Eighth Doctor, the twist being that Charley knows who the Sixth Doctor is but the Sixth Doctor not having a clue she has already travelled with his future self. Quite why the Eighth Doctor in turn doesn’t recognise her when they first meet has been a topic of much discussion since this particular arc began last year in The Condemned and we are promised explanations in the forthcoming Blue Forgotten Planet a story originally pencilled in for a year ago but which was pushed back when feedback regarding how well Charley and the Sixth Doctor worked together convinced new Executive Producer Nick Briggs and his Script Editor Alan Barnes to prolong the arc. Personally I’m not sold on the pair – while they undoubtedly do have a rapport, Charley as a character had already been run into the ground in the Eighth Doctor audios, and I can’t find myself being particularly interested in hearing much more of her. The one regret, as far as companions are concerned, is that the early “Side-Step” of The Holy Terror which starred the Sixth Doctor alongside Frobisher, his companion from DWM’s comic strip has not been repeated; Baker and Robert Jezek, who played the shape-shifting Whifferdill, worked well together, but sales of the story were such that it was felt listeners just weren't interested, with the consequence that Frobisher has only appeared once since, in the subscriber freebie The Maltese Penguin. A shame.

The Sixth Doctor’s stories have been among the range’s strongest, but of course there have been some less-than-sterling efforts along the way too. Here, then, is our guide to the ten best, and five worst, audio adventures...

The Spectre of Lanyon Moor by Nicholas Pegg
Number: 9
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor, Evelyn and the Brigadier
Released: June 2000
As soon as their Who range was up and running, BF’s thoughts inevitably turned to how they could persuade Tom Baker to come onboard. Gary Russell decided to commission three different scripts for the Fourth Doctor in three different styles – one traditional, one modern and one “wacky” – so that hopefully whatever mood the mercurial Baker was in when he read them he would find something of interest. Unfortunately this tactic didn’t work; Baker’s infamous public raspberry to the company’s overtures at a convention, in which he said to great laughter that the scripts somehow slid off his knee and into the bin, has become the stuff of legend. However, you can’t help suspecting that Baker had reasons other than the quality of the scripts for turning the company down as all three of the “Baker” commissions, subsequently reworked for one of the BF Doctors, are superb, and all feature in these articles’ recommendations. The "modern" story, The Stones of Venice, became a Paul McGann adventure, while both the “wacky” The Holy Terror and the "traditional" The Spectre of Lanyon Moor were turned into Sixth Doctor audios. It’s very easy to tell that Lanyon Moor was originally meant for T rather than C Baker; its tale of alien shenanigans on a lonely Cornish moor comes across as a deliberate homage to Terror of the Zygons, individual enough not to be a direct copy but certainly in the same vein. It even features the Brigadier, with Nicholas Courtney reprising his role for the first time since Dimensions in Time and, that bit of nonsense aside, sees him meeting the Sixth Doctor for the first time, something of course he never got the chance to do on screen. One can’t say that the pair share a particularly strong chemistry, but they work well enough together, and while as a whole the story offers no great surprises, it has a suitably foggy, chilled atmosphere as familiar and comforting as sitting around a warm fireplace on a cold winter’s night and listening to ghost stories. Good listening, although admittedly not in the same league as...

The Holy Terror by Robert Shearman
Number: 14
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Frobisher
Released: November 2000
The “wacky” story which is actually anything but, Tom was a fool to turn this down, as not only was it the best story by far that Big Finish had produced up to that point, but it still remains, nearly nine years after its release, one of the highpoints of their entire output, and a classic worthy to stand alongside any televised adventure. Rob Shearman, consistently one of BF’s finest writers, began his association with the company here with a Shakespearean story of medieval kings in echoey castles doomed by their own flaws, mixing a dark wit with a savage taste for the macabre. Controversially, for the Doctor’s companion he chose not Peri or Mel, but Frobisher, the Whifferdill shapeshifter from Doctor Who Magazine’s comic strip, thus adding an extra layer to the “Are BF canon?” debate, but there was good reason for the choice within the story, which I’m not going to spoil here. Judged from a latter day perspective, the tale feels more like a Steven Moffat tale, complete with an incredibly scary villain and brilliant last episode twist, and is beautifully structured, its first scenes, which feel more Discworld than Doctor Who, slowly suckering the listener into a false sense of security before things get more and more warped. It’s said that the presence of Frobisher meant that this still remains one of BF’s poorest selling stories, which is a travesty; this is a tale every Doctor Who fan should hear at least once.

The One Doctor by Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts
Number: 27
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Mel
Released: December 2001
Before its transmission one of the main rumours circulating around last Christmas’s The Next Doctor was that it was based on this audio. In the end it would have been far better had that turned out to be true; whereas RTD’s story of a fake Doctor ended up as an unconvincing, poorly contrived attempt at publicity this pantomime from the pen of the then-editor of Doctor Who Magazine Hickman and future writer for the TV series Roberts is a gloriously silly, over-the-top pantomime that, with a few modifications, would have made for perfect Christmas Night telly. (Indeed, it was originally scheduled to be released earlier in 2001 but put back for the December release just because it was in that spirit.) The story, little more than a series of sketches strung together, follows guest star Christopher Biggins’s conman Banto Zane (which sounds like...) who, in the far future, has taken to masquerading as the Doctor. His trick is simple: he fakes some kind of alien invasion, turns up in his “Stardis” (actually a portaloo), saves the day and claims a hefty reward. Somewhat inevitably as the story opens he has managed to stumble into a real invasion and hasn’t a clue what to do; fortunately for him the real Doctor manages to turn up and, after getting over his indignation, joins forces with his faux doppelganger to save the day. They then set off on a Keys of Marinus style romp, collecting a series of items around the cosmos needed to defeat the aliens, including getting involved in a lengthy game of The Weakest Link (years before Bad Wolf), encountering what sound suspiciously like the Smash robots who, in the far future, have become obsessed with DIY furniture, and a large, lonely jelly creature, played by a pre-fame Matt Lucas, who has been patiently waiting millennia for delivery of his home entertainment system. Fantastically entertaining, this is the funniest Doctor Who since City of Death – why, oh why couldn’t Biggins have been the real Next Doctor last Christmas?

...Ish by Phil Pascoe
Number: 35
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Peri
Released: August 2002
A real Marmite release this one, you’ll either love Pascoe’s wordy, erudite story or loathe it for its Pip'n'Jane-esque verbiage and deathly slow pace. Even at the time director Nick Briggs admitted he wasn’t sure that he could make Pascoe’s central conceit, a sentient word, work but for me he and Pascoe manage to pull it off with aplomb. Perfectly geared to Baker’s love of long speeches peppered with choice bon mots, it’s true that there are elements to the story that don't gel, but the idea itself, and Baker’s evident relish in the script, make this a winner.

Jubilee by Robert Shearman
Number: 40
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn
Released: January 2003
Saying that Rob Shearman is one of BF’s finest writers is a bit like observing that the Daleks are one of the show’s most popular enemies or that Tom Baker wasn’t bad as the Doctor. We’ve already highlighted The Holy Terror above, but this is perhaps his most mature, focused work for the range. Annoyed both at the sight of Daleks selling Kitkats and, more generally, Hollywood’s habit of turning the likes of Nazis into comedy villains, he penned a story which examined the dangers of trivialising and even finding humour in truly evil events and people. An intricate, thoughtful play which rewards multiple listens, this features Martin Jarvis and his wife Rosalind Ayres as the dictatorial rulers of a future Britain, keeping a lone Dalek as a prisoner to torture as they please and trying to cash in on the deeds of others far better than themselves. When he first began planning his revival, one of RTD’s first thoughts was of this play, asking Shearman to adapt it the first series’s Dalek, but this version is far, far superior.

Doctor Who and the Pirates by Jacqueline Rayner
Number: 43
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn
Released: April 2003
Avast, me hearties! I spy on the horizon a jolly roger of a story, soaked in grog and timbers being shivered, all wrapped up in a saucy tale of treasure hunting and skull-duggery. And, erm, Gilbert and Sullivan. Rayner’s script, which uses as a framework the story of the Doctor and Evelyn comforting one of the latter’s grief-stricken students with a story of the high seas, has a whale of a time hamming up the idea of the Unreliable Narrator while paying tribute to the comic operates of Misters G & B (the third episode consists entirely of parodies of their standards, rewritten with a more Time Lord bent), while guest star Bill Oddie is perfectly cast as Red Jasper, Scourge of the High Seas. It’s even, at the end, unexpectedly poignant. One of the cleverest scripts BF have ever done, and brought to life with all the gusto and enthusiasm it demands, this is virtually unmissable.

Davros by Lance Parkin
Number: 48
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor
Released: September 2003
In the Best and Worst of the Fifth Doctor last week we highlighted the first of 2003’s trilogy of Villains Plays, Omega. This was the second one, pitching the Sixth Doctor against the creator of the Daleks, with Terry Molloy reprising his role for the first time in fourteen years. A long, lengthy examination of the two men, while Parkin’s story of Davros and the Doctor ostensibly working side by side for a galactic business corporation isn’t quite a two-hander it might as well be, the secondary stars (including Wendy “Zoe” Padbury) are very much bit players in this battle of wits. For the first time ever Davros is given complete centre stage, with not a Dalek in sight, and both character and actor prove themselves more than worthy of the increased focus, Parkin getting under the skin of one of the Doctor’s greatest adversaries more completely than anyone since Terry Nation back in 1975. A tour de force for the two actors, this is a gripping play, not the most action-packed admittedly but still a fine example of what Big Finish, when it’s firing on all cylinders, does best.

The Nowhere Place by Nick Briggs
Number: 84
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn
Released: July 2006
At some point while he was writing this play Nick Briggs was struck by a nasty case of Writer’s Block, but it doesn’t show. Briggs loves telling stories about space fleets and mercenaries and this is one of the finest examples he has written for the range, a straight forward tale that aims to thrill and scare in equal measures. Notable for a wholly unexpected left turn in episode three, the story is only slightly let down by a mildly dodgy explanation for what was going on, but when the proceeding three episodes have been so atmospheric and intriguing, this surprisingly doesn’t make much of a difference. Seemingly little remembered now, this is a bit of a hidden gem.

The Condemned by Eddie Robson
Number: 105
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Charley
Released: February 2008
Eddie Robson is generally recognised as one of BF’s finest writers currently working, and although I don’t believe he has produced a classic yet he has produced some of the most consistently entertaining stuff over the past couple of years, with The Condemned perhaps his finest play to date, a modern-day urban horror story set in a Manchester council estate. This was the first story to pair the Sixth Doctor with Charley and there’s no denying they work well together which, coupled with some genuinely spooky moments, made this one of the highlights of last year, leading to a swiftly commissioned sequel featuring some of the same characters, The Raincloud Man.

The Ultimate Adventure by Terrance Dicks
Number: NA
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor, Jason, Crystal and Zog
Released: September 2008
Okay now look. In all honesty, this has no place at all on a list of the Best of Big Finish. By all conventional measures it’s a load of rubbish, coupling a script which would put Irwin Allen to shame with a series of set pieces designed for the stage rather than audio that as a consequence don't really work at all. But to complain about such thing misses the point; Terrance Dick’s adaption of his own 1989 stage play sticks rigidly to his original script, which was written not to be consumed and studied with deadly seriousness by television viewers but as a simple, knockabout pantomime for the kids during the Spring of 1989, full of sword fights and chases and broad humour. I was lucky enough back in the day to see both Jon Pertwee and Colin Baker in the show, and can attest to it being quite the most exciting thing I’d ever seen in my short life up to then – hell, I even got to meet the Cyberleader himself, David Banks, after one of the show! This version captures the mad inanity of it all, and although it’s true that a large part of the charm of the original was in the slapstick visuals which don’t translate at all well to the audio medium, this new version is daft and silly enough to get away with what in any normal audio would be the most horrendous of crimes. Coupled with a marvellous documentary about the original show, this is probably not one for anyone who didn’t see the live versions – but is pretty indispensable for those who did.

And the Worst...

Real Time by Gary Russell
Number: Special Release II
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn
Released: December 2002
At the time it was difficult to believe that any subsequent webcast could be as misjudged as Death Comes to Time but the second, the first the BBC commissioned from BF, was almost as bad. Instead of writing a nice, simple straight-forward story of Cybermen invasion Gary Russell took it upon himself to construct a tortuous time-paradox tale, difficult to follow even when listened to as a whole but utterly unsuited for a format of short ten minute episodes. Coupled with some poor performances (Yee Jee Tso, from the McGann movie, for one) and a cliffhanger ending which to this day hasn’t been resolved, and indeed has essentially been written out of official BF canon, it’s very difficult to find a single reason why this would be worth your while checking out. So don’t.

Arrangements for War by Paul Sutton
Number: 57
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn
Released: May 2004
Always trying to explore the possibilities of the format and relative freedom they had (at least before the TV revival) this was a mini-experiment from BF in trying to tell a story covering a period of months rather than hours or days. The problem is it didn’t really work, and ended up being both boring and totally uninvolving. Having had a falling out, the Doctor and Evelyn find themselves split apart on the planet Vilag as they try and negotiate their way through a tricky political situation twinned with the imminent threat of alien invasion. Time moves slowly both for the characters and listeners, this is a noble try to do something different which unfortunately falls flat on its face, not helped by a somewhat turgid romance between two of its bland guest stars. Fortunately its sequel, Thicker Than Water was somewhat better, if still less than stellar.

Catch 1782 by Alison Lawson
Number: 68
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Mel
Released: April 2005
In which Mel is transported back in time, captured, drugged and, as far as we can ascertain, raped repeatedly over a period of months before being rescued by the Doctor and going on with her adventures apparently none the worse for her ordeal. I need say no more.

Pier Pressure by Robert Ross
Number: 78
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn
Released: January 2006
A notoriously poor story, Pier Pressure’s main problem is that it is a very long story in which almost nothing of any interest happens. For long periods of time Ross’s script feels like nothing more than an exercise in indulging guest star Roy Hudd’s portrayal of Max Miller, with scene after scene apparently existing solely to highlight his impersonation of the famous music hall comedian as he spouts not terribly interesting or amusing dialogue (one infamous scene consists entirely of Miller and Evelyn playing I Spy – I kid you not.) Perhaps some judicious script pruning would have helped matters, although in fairness this was one of the first BFs to suffer from Cardiff’s control; reportedly there were concerns about the original draft’s overtly demonic overtones which were subsequently diluted to such a point as to make homeopathic remedies look concentrated in comparison. It’s not quite as heinous as legend has it, in that there are some BF that commit far greater crimes, but it is almost totally uninvolving and tedious.

100 by Jacqueline Rayner, Robert Shearman, Joseph Lidster and Paul Cornell
Number: 100
TARDIS Team: The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn
Released: September 2007
The 100th release was originally going to be a six-part adventure by noted author Stephen Baxter, but for reasons unknown this fell through soon after Gary Russell left the company. Its replacement was this hurried, cobbled-together title, in which four of BF’s most noted writers were each invited to write a single episode story which somehow incorporated the number 100. Unfortunately the results are patchy; Rob Shearman’s My Own Private Wolfgang, in which John Session plays Mozart, is reliably witty, but both Jac Rayner’s misjudged 100BC, in which the Doctor and Evelyn try to encourage the conception of Julius Caesar, and Joe Lidster’s typically miserable Bedtime Story, fall flat. The final, 100 Days of the Doctor, by Paul Cornell, is not so much a story as a celebration of BF’s Who range, with the Doctor and Evelyn observing his fellow BF Doctors in action and alluding to the many spin-offs. Overall, this feels just so insubstantial, with only one story of any real merit, and a real let down, hardly doing justice to the range’s fine output so far.

All of the Sixth Doctor's audios can be purchased directly from Big Finish's website. Next week we turn our attention to the Seventh Doctor, as he becomes a radio star, battles a warped cuddly toy and suffers a strange case of deja vu. Join us then!

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