Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Sixth Doctor Handbook

Sixth in the series of Handbooks by Howe, Stammers and Walker

A review by Shannon Lush

The "Handbook" series of non-fiction reference guides contained an ingenious idea, which was proudly spelled out from the start: "Doctor Who, Doctor by Doctor". This concept intrigued fans. Finally, readers could discover the minutia and facts behind their favourite era of the programs.

The series began with Tom Baker. Launching a brand-new non-fiction book line with the Fourth Doctor was akin to drawing lots and obtaining Wayne Gretzky for one's street hockey team; guaranteed success. Now that they were up and running, the series turned from one Baker to another; Colin Baker's aborted era was next.

If the Tom Baker years are considered the golden age by fans, then at the time Colin Baker's era was more like the bronze age. Dismissed and snickered at by dedicated fans, the Sixth Doctor's time was one of transition. Troubled from the start, this era was wounded by the clash of egos between the producer, John Nathan-Turner, and the script editor, the overrated Eric Saward, as well as the machinations of BBC Controller Michael Grade.

All of this comes to life in the illuminating Handbook. Beginning with a special forward by Colin Baker himself, (whatever else one may say about this man, he remains dedicated to the series and always sought reconciliation with fickle fans that never appreciated his unique talents), this Handbook chronicles the in-fighting, the viewer response, the actor's points of views, and the outside threats to the series.

It would have been simple for the writers to skew the subject matter of the interview excerpts with Baker towards his well-publicised removal from the series. While that remains one topic of discussion, it is one among many, and instead they present interesting and varied topics that help to bring this actor's career and personality to life. Clearly, Colin Baker is a passionate, brilliant, and charming person, and his thoughts upon both light-hearted matters, such as the speculation from segments of fandom regarding a hidden relationship between the Doctor and Peri, as well as those heavy ones, such as the death of his son, Jack, are afforded equal measure. This portion of the Handbook provides an excellent balance and prepares the reader for the era into which he or she is about to be immersed.

Next, the stories themselves. Here, the writers are more than a little harsh. They provide their opinions following the descriptive text of each story, and by and large they are rather picky and unkind. It is not that they don't make a few valid points regarding the relative artistic merits of such stories as, say, "Timelash", because they do. Quite rightly, they slag that particular story unmercifully. However, the writers here, like assembled fandom itself, fail to take into account the big picture; they at times seem distasteful of the majority of the Sixth Doctor's stories simply because it is generally accepted by fandom that the Sixth Doctor's era was bad. Or, more succinctly put, they knock it because it's "cool" to do so. This fails to account for the many imaginative concepts introduced during this era, and of the attempt, which was after all thwarted in it's progression, of Colin Baker and others to introduce an entirely new breed of Doctor.

The story selected to represent the Sixth Doctor's era for this Handbook was "Revelation Of The Daleks". The behind-the-scenes minutia on this particular tale, like so many other "Doctor Who" stories, provides fascinating reading. Students of television and film production in all their forms, from screenplays and props to costuming and effects, should appreciate the work that the writers put into this particular section. Actually, the "script-to-screen" sections of every Handbook are praiseworthy, and virtually worth the price of the books themselves. Perhaps the sole point of contention would be that the chosen story in this Handbook had attached to it some unsavoury actions on the part of a few people, such as the makeup designer (who refused to participate in recollecting it for the Handbook, necessitating the writers to include published comments she had previously made). This writer wondered why the authors would choose a story that would cause them more work, in the form of digging up old interviews and such. Nevertheless, as stated, this section of this Handbook is extremely well researched and enjoyable.

No Handbook about the Sixth Doctor would be complete without a blow-by-blow account of "The Hiatus". At times, reading this sordid tale puts one in mind of a soap opera. There is the noble lead actor, vainly trying to preserve his role and establish a legacy to be proud of; the somewhat noble producer, skulking about in the dark whispering of overseas sales figures and conspiracy theories to journalists; and finally, the black-hatted villain of the piece, the man behind the curtain who held the purse strings as well as the fate of the series in his hands. At times chilling, exciting, puzzling, and always intriguing, the story of the 18-month absence should be required reading for any fan, established or newborn, who assumes that the latest series will simply last forever.

There is the requisite merchandise reports, fan reactions, overseas sales, and such minutia that pleases readers. The writers clearly took the time to research their topic, and it shows on each page. Perhaps the one, true, detrimental aspect of this book is the ludicrous page-filling feature on Nicola Bryant. Granted, the Colin Baker era, in comparison with other eras, is rather bereft of material once the major subjects have been presented. However, it may have been better had the writers presented something, anything, instead of Nicola Bryant waxing poetic about character development, something poor Peri was rarely blessed with. While Peri remains a favourite companion, for this reviewer that is not due to her paper-thin character but rather to the actresses' charm and appearance.

In summation, "The Handbook: The Colin Baker Years" provides all the material one would require regarding the major and minor developments of the Sixth Doctor's era. It is well worth tracking down, especially in light of the Sixth Doctor's redemption in fan perception through the Big Finish audio plays. The Handbook is a must-have for those of us, such as this reviewer, who took the time to look past the naysayers and the harshly critical to discover a wonderful actor and Doctor that I am proud to call my favourite.
Doctor Who is copyright © by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). No infringement intended.

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