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The Handbook: The Sixth Doctor

by David J Howe, Mark Stammers & Stephen James Walker

Book review by Paul Scoones

In spite of spanning little more than two seasons, the Colin Baker era has given rise to perhaps more controversy and dissension than the rest of the series' history combined. That the authors of this, the second in The Handbook series, have managed to present a reasonably balanced perspective on the subject is no mean feat given the minefield they must have had to traverse.

The solution to the problem of getting two season's worth of material to fill the same page count as the previous volume's seven has been to provide an even more in depth perspective. So much so, one is left regretting that the Tom Baker volume wasn't accorded the same level of detail.

As this era is comparatively recent, there is presumably a greater accumulation of information, some of which hitherto unknown - I now know for instance why it was that continuity was botched in The Two Doctors.

Perhaps reflecting the nature of the era, the authors have elected to write separate reviews of the stories, rather than combine their views. Vengeance on Varos is unanimously given the thumbs-up by the trio; conversely, opinions differ radically over the worth of The Mark of the Rani.

The chapter entitled 'Cancellation Crisis' provides the most complete overview of this turbulent period that I have yet read. Here, and indeed throughout the book, the authors have skillfully handled a rather delicate subject without shying away from some of the less than complimentary revelations which have surfaced about the programme's production staff. Another chapter, entitled 'Being the Companion', is also particularly revealing in this respect.

The behind-the-scenes disputes during this era have resulted in certain people no longer talking to each other, and whilst two of the prime candidates - Eric Saward and Colin Baker - have contributed their memories and views to this book, John Nathan-Turner declined to participate.

Fans have long held Nathan-Turner to blame for the short-comings of the Sixth Doctor's era. Where it is apparent that the producer was actually responsible such as in the inexcusably sexist attitude towards Peri - the authors acknowledge this, but also point out that Nathan-Turner's skilful manipulation of the press helped to ensure the show's survival.

New Zealanders will no doubt be surprised and delighted to learn that the one sentence summary of transmissions in this country served up in The Handbook: The Fourth Doctor has been more than compensated for this time around. Nearly three pages are devoted to documenting NZ's Doctor Who screenings, for which the authors acknowledge the assistance of Jon Preddle and I. The NZDWFC and TSV receive a second mention in coverage of the original The Trial of a Time Lord season, when the David Halliwell interview from TSV 28 is quoted.

Fandom will probably always be divided on the Colin Baker era. Many of the stories are widely regarded to be among the worst in the series' history, and the Sixth Doctor is often rated as the nadir of the seven incarnations; although it has to be said that in recent years, support for the actor (if not the character), has shown a marked increase. Regardless of where your view on the matter lies, this book is a thoroughly worthwhile read.

Fans of Colin's Doctor will love it, and others less enamored with the era will come away from reading The Handbook with a greater understanding of what went wrong and why. I know I did.

This item appeared in TSV 36 (November 1993).