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Who's Stranger

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Celebrating the 30th anniversary, Colin Baker recalls life in time & space.


"With any other part I finished seven years ago, I would probably have grave difficulty answering questions about it now," declares Colin Baker, referring to his former role in the long-running British SF series Doctor Who.

Baker was the sixth actor to play the eccentric Time Lord from Gallifrey, leaving Who in 1986, but his memories of the character and the work he did remain quite clear. "In the intervening time, I've been to conventions, and I've done other interviews, so in a sense, that has kept it fresh," he explains. "Otherwise, it would have receded into the dim mists, with most of the other jobs I've done."

At this particular point in time, it's difficult for the actor (who previously discussed Who in STARLOG #105 and #132) not to think about the series that once made him famous in SF circles. Only a few weeks earlier, BBC Enterprises, the BBC's marketing arm, had announced their plans to produce Dark Dimensions, a 90-minute 30th anniversary special to feature the five surviving actors who have played the Doctor: Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy.

Those plans turned out to be short-lived. Internal conflicts between BBC Enterprises and the BBC Drama Department led to the special's cancellation. The official reason given for its demise was a lack of resources, which would have made it impossible to finish the project in time for a 30th-anniversary release (circa November 1993).

Unofficially, the reasons cited for the cancellation were quite different. Rumors began to circulate that the Dark Dimensions script, which had been heavily weighted towards Tom Baker's Doctor, dissatisfied the other four actors. The British press began running stories that it was the "angry Doctors" who were actually responsible for sinking the special—ignoring the fact that except for Tom Baker, none of the others had been given the opportunity to reject or accept the script before the cancellation.

For Colin Baker, whose agent never received a formal offer from the producers of Dark Dimensions, the idea of being a scapegoat for an internal BBC power struggle is less than amusing. "There were lots of rumors," he observes. "I received a copy of an E-Mail sent to the States, which said the reason the special had been cancelled was because of my refusal to be in it! I should be flattered by that, to think my refusal to play the tiny part offered to me would cause the whole project to grind to a halt.

"I had to point out to the person that Tom Baker's disinclination, for whatever reasons, to take part in the 20th anniversary special didn't stop it from happening, so I can't imagine that if I had said no, it would have stopped it. I think there were other reasons that had nothing to do with the actors.

"My part in the script was a trial scene, and what did I do for all 13 episodes during my last season? A trial scene. In this case, it added nothing to the story, it didn't take the part anywhere, and I could have done it in a couple of days maximum out of a five-week shoot. It wouldn't have been interesting, and I probably would have said no to it, but I don't think that's why it was cancelled. Somebody might have gone back and looked at the script with a bit more intelligence and said, 'Hang on a minute, they're not going to do this!'

"They had 30 years to think about it, and as I keep pointing out, the 30th anniversary didn't pop up after the 17th. It's 30 years, and this was really sad, because it was a missed opportunity."

Not the Stranger

While the 30th-anniversary special never reached fruition, Baker did become involved in Mother multi-Doctor reunion of sorts: The Airzone Solution, a SF video drama which also featured Pertwee, Davison and McCoy in non-Doctor roles. The project was the brainchild of director Bill Baggs (STARLOG #188), who had previously worked with Baker on The Stranger videos.

In Airzone, the actor plays Arnie Davies, a TV weatherman who stumbles across a corporate scheme to destroy Earth's environment. Baker is joined by Davison (an investigative reporter killed after discovering the plot), Pertwee as Davison's Walter Cronkite-like mentor, and McCoy as a flaky environmentalist. The video also features Baker's former Doctor Who co-star Nicola Bryant, who also joined him in the three Stranger videos and appears in Airzone as Elenya, a TV newswoman and Arnie's girl friend.

With a Doctor Who special in limbo, The Airzone Solution was the perfect opportunity for Baker to work with his fellow Doctors, albeit in different roles. "I enjoy working with Bill [Baggs], and he had this idea of getting Jon, Sylvester and Peter in it, which struck me as good fun, and struck them as a good idea too. I know Peter quite well, because we live near each other, and I've met Sylvester at conventions, and we got on fine, but instantly working with someone, you develop a different sort of relationship. It's very nice to have this opportunity, because it now means when we meet up at the next convention, we're more than just people saying hello at a con. There's an element of distance and suspicion until you actually know someone, and this gave us the chance to work with each other, sit around telling jokes and generally have a good time."

Baker's participation in the three Stranger videos came about after his untimely dismissal from Doctor Who, giving never made any secret of the fact that he believes the Sixth Doctor was a bit too arrogant, a bit too loud both in costume and personality.

In contrast, the Stranger was somewhat closer to how Baker might have played the character if given the chance. While the obvious legal complications prevent any definite link between the Doctor and the Stranger, fans have always known what was going on: The Doctor is a mysterious wanderer in time and space, as is the Stranger. The Doctor's companion was named Peri Brown; the Stranger, Miss Brown. Other than that, they're completely different. Right.

Surprisingly, Baker maintains that any similarity between the two enigmatic time/space travelers is, in fact, purely coincidental. "I approached the Stranger series genuinely as a separate project, and I don't see them as the same character at all. I suppose comparisons can be made. You can compare Inspector Morse with Inspector Clouseau if you want to—they're both detectives.

"In the same way, there's the implication of alienness to the Stranger, and there is a certain alienness in the Doctor, and since m playing both parts, I suppose there is a comparison, but it's like comparing John Thaw's two roles as Inspector Morse and in A Year in Provence. He looks the same and sounds the same, but he's playing different characters. Ditto with me and the Stranger. I liked doing The Stranger, but The Airzone Solution is something different, and it reflects Bill's progression as a director."

While Baker has enjoyed his work on the first three Stranger videos, Summoned By Shadows, More Than a Messiah and In Memory Alone, he's quick to point out that his involvement wasn't a matter of cashing in on his Who popularity.

"I don't often have the luxury of saying yea or nay to anything," he explains. "unless something is a wrong career move. One doesn't want to be associated with something that's going to endanger your career, but a project like this one, which is for sale on video to a limited outlet, barely impinges on that. The series is worthy of wider release, but I would think that 99.9 percent of the profession doesn't know I've even done them.

"They're good stories. I got to work with Nicola Bryant again, and in the second, I got to work with Sophie Aldred. It was nice. they were done on lean budgets, and ingenuity and enthusiasm compensated for lack of money. In a sense, that smacks of Doctor Who, when invention was all because budgets were small—that's rather poetic, isn't it? Throwing money at problems rarely solves them. Throwing brains at them does, and Bill showed great ingenuity in setting up the projects, and what he lacks in organizational ability, he amply makes up for in an artistic and directional sense. He's a strong director who knows what he wants."

Not the Peacock

When Baker took over the titular role of Doctor Who nearly a decade ago, longtime viewers discovered that the sixth incarnation of the Time Lord was going to be markedly different from his predecessors. The new Doctor was abrasive and loud, not only in demeanor but also in his choice of dress. (Many fans, seeing Baker's multi-colored costume for the first time, joked that "it looked like a peacock had thrown up on it.") This Doctor was just as likely to insult an alien monster as he was to outwit it, and frequent mood swings in times of stress were commonplace.

From the outset, Baker was slightly uncomfortable with this characterization, preferring a more mysterious, less bombastic Doctor, and given more time, he would have pushed for those changes. But that time was never available. After his first season. Doctor Who was put on an 18-month hiatus to rework its formula, making it. in the words of BBC Controller Michael Grade, "more humorous, less violent."

When the series returned in fall 1986, an entire season's worth of stories had been scrapped, in favor of 14 episodes linked together by the umbrella title "Trial of a Time Lord." It was a gamble that didn't pay off. Viewers were unimpressed by the "Trial" storyline, and the ratings reflected that disinterest. In November 1986. the BBC, needing someone to blame for Who's lack of success, dismissed Baker.

Looking back at that time on Doctor Who, the actor finds that the last seven years have largely erased most of the shock and frustration he felt about his abrupt departure. Still, the occasional feeling of unfinished business crops up from time to time. "I would still quite like to know what happened to the sixth Doctor. We do know—he turned into the seventh, so it's kind of objective now. I really don't have any kind of subjective interest in it at all."

Baker's memories of Doctor Who came flooding back recently after preparing for the as yet-unreleased Colin Baker Years video. To remind himself of that three-year period of his life, he sat down and watched virtually all his episodes. discovering that the process led to a few surprises. "It liberated all sorts of long-forgotten memories, because what happens after hundreds of interviews and convention appearances is you get triggers; someone triggers a story you've told hundreds of times before, and even, I suppose, things that never happened creep in, and they become part of the story as well. It's rewriting history, and it might well be that some of the stories I tell aren't 100 percent true, but I think they are."

The actor has fond memories not only of his fellow actors on Doctor Who, but also of the people behind the camera. Most of his directors, for example, made working on even the most ridiculous Who script enjoyable.

"I didn't know most of them before I worked with them. I had never worked with Peter Moffatt, who did my debut ["The Twin Dilemma"], and then I found out he was coming back to do 'The Two Doctors' [which guest starred former Doctor Patrick Troughton]. That was smashing, because Peter was such a nice man. I like two almost contradictory qualities in a director," Baker says. "I like them to be challenging in the sense that you don't necessarily sit on your laurels. Sometimes you get directors who leave the leading actors to get on with it, and then direct the subsidiary actors. I like the ones who say to me, 'Maybe you shouldn't do it like that; try this.'

"At the same time, they understand that a light and pleasant working atmosphere is better than a tense and unpleasant one. During my time on Doctor Who, the mood was relatively nice and pleasant, which I think I helped create myself.

"The leading actor has a certain amount of power, and I wanted it to be fun, so when people are relaxed in between and taking a Mickey [poking fun] out of each other, it's a shorthand way of saying, 'I feel comfortable, and I want you to feel comfortable so we all can do good work.' "

Not the Doctor

In the writing department, two names immediately leap to Baker's mind: The late Robert Holmes, widely regarded as the best script writer in the history of Doctor Who, and Philip Martin, who wrote three stories during the Colin Baker era, including "Mission to Magnus," one of the scripts replaced by "Trial of a Time Lord." "They were the two I remember," says Baker. "I did the first Martin story, 'Vengeance on Varos,' and when I heard he was doing another one, I thought, 'Oh, that will be good.'

"Ditto Holmes, because I knew his work from before, so I felt the same way as soon as one of his came along. The other writers I hadn't heard of before, so I didn't know what to expect. There wasn't really enough time to get a feeling for all that."

Most Doctor Who stories are the combined effort of an outside writer and the show's script editor, whose job is to fit that story into the established continuity. "It's a collaboration. I found out a long time after the end that a script I thought had been written by one person had been hugely rewritten by [former script editor] Eric Saward, such as 'Attack of the Cybermen,' which had Paula Moore's name on it. I never saw her, and rumor had it that she didn't even exist. I gather that a significant portion of that script had been written by Eric.

"I don't think that he did too much of that with people like Robert Holmes. Eric got on very well with him, and I think Eric would admit that a Holmes script didn't need too much attention. I think Philip Martin was another one who wouldn't need that much, although there were areas in Nicola's final story ["Mindwarp," episodes five-eight of "Trial"]. All the stuff to do with the trial scenes came from Eric.

Since leaving Doctor Who, Baker has spent most of his time away from television. He has appeared in numerous stage productions, including Corpse, Death and the Maiden and, strangely enough, Doctor Who: The Ultimate Adventure, in which he assumed the costume and persona of the sixth Doctor once more, replacing Pertwee after his initial run.

On the video front, Baker hopes his work on The Stranger series, as well as The Air-:one Solution, will pave the way for future projects of his own. "I have a production company, now called Visible Ink Television, and we're submitting lots of ideas to the broadcasters. At the same time, we're doing video projects for people, most of which I won't talk about, because as with any good idea, someone will come along and nick [i.e. steal] them. We've done a corporate video for a computer company, and there are others in the pipeline."

Although Colin Baker's involvement in Doctor Who may be over, his adventures in time and space continue. He wouldn't mind playing the Stranger once again, along with his companion Miss Brown, and whatever old friends—Doctor Who or otherwise—choose to come along for the ride. "I would like to do more of them," he enthuses. "What has been a joy in the past is that Bill has scheduled them around my availability, and that's when we shoot. On The Airzone Solution, because he had a better budget and it involved more people, we had to have an actual schedule, and it was a full-scale production. It reflects Bill's progression as a director, and he may go back and do other Stranger stories. I would like to do the Stranger again."


Captions:

His Doctor Who tour ended in 1986, but Baker has kept it alive through conventions and fan interaction.

Have TARDIS, will travel: Though he has moved on to other things, Baker is still recognized as a Time Lord.

Teaming with other Doctors is natural. Baker worked with the late Patrick Troughton at cons and brought others together for a Solution.

Working with Nicola (Peri) Bryant again in The Stranger videos was a pleasure for Colin Baker.

Sophie Aldred (bottom) and Bryant join Baker in the Box.

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to whovian@cuttingsarchive.org

  • APA 6th ed.: Nazzaro, Joe (number 201 (April 1994)). Who's Stranger. Starlog p. 54.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Nazzaro, Joe. "Who's Stranger." Starlog [add city] number 201 (April 1994), 54. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Nazzaro, Joe. "Who's Stranger." Starlog, edition, sec., number 201 (April 1994)
  • Turabian: Nazzaro, Joe. "Who's Stranger." Starlog, number 201 (April 1994), section, 54 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Who's Stranger | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Who%27s_Stranger | work=Starlog | pages=54 | date=number 201 (April 1994) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=13 December 2019 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Who's Stranger | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Who%27s_Stranger | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=13 December 2019}}</ref>