For a huge variety of reasons that it’s probably best not to linger on here, the years during which Colin Baker played the irascible Sixth Doctor were not uniformly happy ones for his character or for Doctor Who.
But if you look at what was attempted in this era, you’ll see that there are a lot of interesting precedents set, fresh ideas thrown in, and old certainties re-established.
First of all — and this not a side of the Doctor that is usually emphasized — he’s not always a very nice man. The pompous and self-righteous tones that came out of the latter Tenth and earliest Eleventh Doctor stories — and was directly referenced in “Hide” as “a sliver of ice in his heart” — are a throwback to the Sixth Doctor striding about imperiously with that look on his face.
And before this is cited as proof that this was an unwelcome new development in the Doctor’s character, it’s important to bear in mind that even this wasn’t new. The First Doctor had the same basic personality. It’s just in his case it was more acceptable because he was old and hawkish and physically vulnerable. The appearance of extreme age and wisdom (despite the First being the younger Doctor) soften the blow a bit.
The Sixth Doctor, in marked contrast, is barrel-chested, confident, just as bumptious as the Fourth, but as frosty as the Third, and without the redeeming charm of the Second or Fifth. There’s nothing there that wasn’t there before, but somehow, especially just after his regeneration, the Doctor has a colder personality than he had been before.
And scary too:
This is after he’s raided the TARDIS dressing up box and come out looking like a patchwork parachute. You can see why he’s a hard man to love at first sight. What should come across as a whimsical regeneration wardrobe choice hardens under his basilisk gaze. He’s wearing those clothes because HOW DARE YOU PRESUME TO CRITICIZE?, that’s why.
By the time the post-regeneration blues has ebbed, and Peri has learned to trust this new version of the Doctor (which takes most of a season), there’s the hiatus, and when he returns, rather than exploring his softer, more conciliatory side — which was the original plan — he’s in a Gallifreyan court, on trial for “conduct unbecoming a Time Lord,” and breaking the First Law of Time.
The prosecuting council is a Time Lord called the Valeyard, who, it turns out, is a future version of the Doctor himself, seeking to discredit his younger self by rigging the trial, partly to prevent him from uncovering a future crime the Time Lords commit against humanity, and mostly to gain the power of this subsequent regenerations for himself. Suddenly, in comparison with this malevolent and selfish figure, the Sixth looks positively cuddly.
Needless to say, he’s in his element in court:
So, we have an overarching story, told over various different episodic adventures, in which the Doctor is revealed to be looking back on his own time stream to solve a riddle, is in open conflict with cruel Time Lords, and relies upon the Master for assistance. All of which have happened again, more recently.
Because they’re all good ideas.
Once the trial is over, there’s a regeneration, and the Sixth Doctor is replaced by the more whimsical Seventh. We never get to see him soften, to drop his guard or, y’know, change his clothes, and that’s a shame. The audio adventures have done a lot of work to fill that void, and the Sixth now has a far better reputation among Whovians than he did at the time.
Nonetheless, of all the Doctors, the Sixth remains the flintiest, and in some ways the least loveable. And that’s an incredibly useful character note for all future actors in the role. The Doctor is an alien. He will never properly fit in, wherever he is, even on Gallifrey, and in the Sixth Doctor you can see — for all that he needs to be around people, and he’s a lonely Time Lord — that he doesn’t really want to.
Find out more about the Sixth Doctor on BBC AMERICA’s Doctor Who Revisited, Sunday, June 29 at 8/7c.