Home : Archive : TSV 41-50 : TSV 49 : Feature

Time's Chump

The Degradation of Virgin's Sixth Doctor

By Peter Adamson

'Tell us. What became of the fellow in the apron of colours?'
'Cut off in his prime, poor chap.'

Big Mother and the Doctor,
Zamper by Gareth Roberts, p228

In the beginning there was the trial of the Sixth Doctor ... well, actually this wasn't the beginning, but one of the ends of the Sixth Doctor which became the beginning of the Seventh Doctor. This article focuses on the depiction - notably the misrepresentation - afforded the Seventh Doctor's immediate predecessor in Virgin's two ranges of new Doctor Who fiction.


[Sixth Doctor]

When Virgin Books took over the license to publish new original Doctor Who fiction it was their intention to inherit with this the whole of the Doctor Who canon, clashes and contradictions altogether, and with this create a new future for the Seventh Doctor in the New Adventures. Their brief was to honour the traditions set by the television series, whilst providing the Doctor with new further adventures longer, more complicated, and more adult in content than the programme had been able to produce, to quote the early cover blurb: 'too broad and too deep for the small screen'. For most of the first books in the series this was achieved without much fuss, and early aberrations in the eyes of the fans (Timewyrm: Genesys' sexual content, Transit's expletives) were ironed out, but it was inevitable as established fan writers entered into the pool that some other original themes would be introduced which would either have to be dealt with editorially, in future novels or taken on wholesale. Paul Cornell's 'Time's Champion' motif was one of the earliest and most controversial of these.

[Seventh Doctor]

'The way I bargain with you I should entertain every life of every cat! You only have thirteen to give me, Time Lord!'
'I gave you my sixth life for wisdom -'
'Don't lie to me! You sacrificed the colourful jester because you needed to be born! Time would have her champion, and he was just the compost for your blooming. You ran your TARDIS into the Rani's beam joyfully. Hah! Your sixth self hates you for that, he will become the Valeyard for that-'

Death and the Doctor,
Love and War by Paul Cornell, p80

The motif made its introduction almost off-stage, entering the New Adventures in a dream sequence during Love and War, where Ace dreams of a meeting between the Doctor and Death, an Eternal god of the Time Lords. Through this meeting it is intimated that a change had occurred within the psyche of the Seventh Doctor at some point previous to Dragonfire and noticeable in most of the future episodes through to the New Adventures themselves. The idea was that in order to defeat Fenric and many more of his future adversaries (including the Timewyrm and the Hoothi) the Doctor had made a pact with the Eternal Time, and had been 'given knowledge' - perhaps insight into his future foes and their weaknesses, in exchange for a particular sacrifice. In ensuing stories this change and the nature of the Doctor's own manipulations were made more clear - in Head Games and to a lesser extent Just War, there is the reaffirmation (suggested as far back as The Curse of Fenric) that the Doctor's own companions, in particular Mel and Ace had played their own part in this change. By far the most striking of the Doctor's sacrifices however, was that of his life, or at least one of his past lives, to Death, before he became her sister Time's avatar. In doing this Cornell provided a resolution to an unresolved and somewhat embarrassing episode in the programme's television history - namely the vague and unconvincing regeneration from the Sixth Doctor into the Seventh. This idea was quite original and inspired; but like the Seventh Doctor's own deal it came at a high price.

'You influenced my mind, made me leave the TARDIS and go with Glitz - Glitz, of all people. I'm surprised he didn't jettison me straight out of the nearest airlock!'
'I thought it was best.'
'For who? Me?'
'For everyone. I had my mission ... he shouldn't have chosen you.'
'Your past self, you mean?'
'Another of his mistakes.'

Mel and the Doctor,
Head Games by Steve Lyons, p176

While the new Adventures were in their own right a progressive, forward-looking set of stories according to Virgin's policy of original fiction, it was inevitable that from time to time strong links would be made within the series to programme history. While this would make good sense in attracting traditional fans and pleasing the wider readership, there exists an undeniable difference between the past TV series, aimed at a general audience and tailored for family viewing, and the New Adventures with their adult themes, complex plot lines and structure and sophisticated audience. To attempt a marriage between these two extremes was ambitious and worked well on some levels, but noticeably by the time Steve Lyons' Head Games was published, the gap between the screen and the book was open to exploitation.

Head Games was an intriguing case because it carried on Lyons' interest in the Time's Champion story arc. This had been alluded to in Lyons' earlier Missing Adventure Time of Your Life, but in the later book this was less of an allusion than a striking example of the growing abyss between the sentiments of the old series and the new. Specifically, the TV character of Mel was 'brought back' to face the New Adventures versions of the Doctor and Ace, and Benny, the new companion who had also been created by Cornell and had been widely regarded as the best companion ever in terms of her appeal and complexity. Having been an integral part of the New Adventures, both Benny and Ace could boast strong character definition and had great audience sympathy, Benny in particular, who as a mature woman and a conscious echoing of the psyche of modern New Adventures readers was virtually a mouthpiece for her creators and readers and their view of Doctor Who. It was a confrontation that Mel could never win. Despite Lyons having made her more experienced, older and wiser than before, it was necessary that Mel remain the recognisable figure fans had known and widely disliked during Bonnie Langford's tenure playing the companion of the Sixth and Seventh Doctors. Though her presence was a striking reminder of how the Doctor had himself changed and distanced himself from his past, Mel herself was still the naive, old stereotype companion, tailor-made for the television series. It was no secret that she was also one of the companions most despised in the fan community, and Head Games did not shy from equating her with the era of the Sixth Doctor, even though in episodic terms Mel had accompanied the Seventh Doctor for a longer time. In fact, being present at the Doctor's regeneration, an opportunity to set the facts straight about the cause of the Doctor's change could have opened itself in the story, but this instead descends to further ridicule when Benny asks Mel what had been the cause; Mel's answer 'apparently he hit his head on the console' draws understandable laughter from Benny. The most despised companion and the least liked Sixth Doctor were, in the light of the sophisticated New Adventures, a polar opposite of the ideal Doctor and companion. Compared to this grittier, more mature series, the chosen representatives of the show's past were hardly in the best position to defend themselves.

The link with the Doctor's past in Head Games was made more concrete in Lyons' other adoption of Paul Cornell's vision of the Doctor. In Timewyrm: Revelation we are introduced to some of the Doctor's past selves 'sleeping inside his head' (an idea most likely linked with the Doctor's mention of his family in The Tomb of the Cybermen). It was made out in Cornell's books that in some way the Doctor's previous incarnations carried on their lives beyond their regeneration and indeed continued to grow, learn and develop within the Doctor's mind. This made sense to the Love and War dream sequence, because the Sixth Doctor (whose phantom self is unseen and unmentioned in Revelation) could likely be aware of his successor's plans and activities, the matter of his own 'death' and the resulting guilt the Seventh Doctor would feel in Head Games for this action. Conceivably he could 'become the Valeyard' in his bitterness; and in Lyons' book he did just that.

'I want my life back.'
'You can't have it.'
'You owe it to me!'
'I had to take it ... You were unstable. You were travelling the road that leads to the Valeyard.'
'I was trying to avoid it!'
'But you still met Melanie, you still destroyed the Vervoids. You might have delayed our future but you couldn't avert it ... I had to come out and stop you.'
'And kill me!'
'And terminate your regeneration.'
'So that you could live!'
'So that you couldn't make any more mistakes!'

The Sixth Doctor and the Seventh Doctor,
Head Games by Steve Lyons, p241

The version of the Sixth Doctor as represented in the New Adventures he 'visits' is therefore foremost a bitter, dejected failure; a shadow of his future self, which could be said to echo popular fan opinion of Colin Baker's tenure as the Doctor. As unfair as this is, what opportunity the Sixth Doctor could have to defend himself could not be taken to great length if it were to prove the seventh Doctor wrong in any of his judgement or actions. The New Adventures were after all the locale of this latest Doctor, and despite the maturity of the writing in his adventures, to suggest that the seventh Doctor was a "murderer" for any other reason than necessity would be to threaten the sound readership the New Adventures had gathered. Better that the past remain in the form that Virgin had created; the Seventh Doctor was right to have ended his previous life, the Sixth Doctor was destined to become the Valeyard because he was a failure, beyond saving himself.


[Sixth Doctor]

By the advent of the Missing Adventures, the Seventh Doctor had nearly two years' extra life beyond his TV persona. As far as Virgin Books were concerned, the New Adventures were a success story in fulfilling their ambitions to break free of the mould that had constrained the TV series. Virgin's Doctor was more than an extension of his former self; he was self-knowing, self-assured, an even greater manipulator than he had been on screen, playing on a chessboard so vast it seemed at times to be limitless. Hopes were high for similar yet faithful adventures for his former selves, but they would be rarely met for a number of reasons, the most obvious and best acknowledged being that whereas the New Adventures had their fixed origins in the TV series and could take the Doctor virtually anywhere from there, the Missing Adventures for each former Doctor had explicit boundaries and traditions. The Seventh Doctor had the potential to be anything at any time. For each of his predecessors to stray from the familiar and well-beaten path of continuity, they had to have very good reason.

So much of this was good in theory, and it seems that the Missing Adventures had their hardcore regular writers as did the New Adventures, with a few regular crossovers, but the fact remained that as a writer one could do a great deal more and go a good deal further with the endless Seventh Doctor than any of his self-contained, restrained predecessors. Perhaps a degree of snobbery existed around this. However, technically the character of the Sixth Doctor could have been a spanner in the works. Here was a Doctor who had a fixed point of origin in The Twin Dilemma, but no one would lay claim to The Ultimate Foe being his last adventure, this being refuted within the series' own continuity (which clearly points to a future adventure where the Doctor meets Mel). In addition, the opening scenes of Time and the Rani gave no indication of the Doctor's personality before his regeneration (though credibly it couldn't have changed much, and certainly as a barometer Mel had changed little since the events of the Vervoid adventure). Practically, the tenure of the Sixth Doctor could have been as vast as the New Adventures promised to make the his successor's, only certain elements in the TV series and the New Adventures had already conspired to limit such a possibility. The most obvious was the Valeyard, who was seen most blatantly to have survived at the end of The Ultimate Foe. It was well established in Virgin's Writers' Guidelines that the use of the Valeyard was expressly forbidden, and in any case, the matter of the future of the Valeyard had been already covered quite neatly in the events suggested in Love and War. What this would imply was that the Sixth Doctor indeed had a definite end which had involved the Valeyard, but in such a way that the Seventh Doctor would be driven to intervene and bring about his own incarnation; ergo, in Virgin's universe the Valeyard was essentially a manifestation not of the Doctor's entire self per se, but explicitly of the Sixth Doctor, resolved at the end of his life by the Seventh's intervention. Already for the Missing Adventures a good deal of the Sixth Doctor's potential had been undermined. If he was to have any character change as his successor had, then inevitably it would be from hero to anti-hero.

There were other problems associated with Missing Adventures of the Sixth Doctor. He had had only two screen companions, neither seen to have had much depth - certainly not the potential of either Ace or Benny, and in the case of Mel the animosity directed toward her was almost universal. Writers were apparently reluctant to write for this team, and although this was resolved later with Steve Lyons' creation of Grant Markham, it was Lyons alone who would use him. The Trial of a Time Lord episode had done a lot to demarcate the character of the Doctor: pre-Trial he was erratic, bombastic and outrageous, at times antagonistic and tending towards fallibility; and as eventuated within Virgin's model, post-Trial the Doctor was broody, obsessed with the Valeyard, notably irresponsible at times, and still fallible. Any potential heroism from this version of the Sixth Doctor was extracted at great cost, and most of his victories were of the Pyrrhic variety.

The first Sixth Doctor Missing Adventure was Christopher Bulis' State of Change. There isn't much to be said for this book. Essentially this was a reasonably faithful version of the Doctor pre-Trial in a story executed in Bulis' now traditional workman style. The most controversial aspect of it was a nude scene for Peri, but on the whole it presented a nice model for a slight, understated early Sixth Doctor; so inoffensive that the revelation of the identity of the villain was of little consequence. Far more significant was the second of the Sixth Doctor's new outings, Steve Lyons' Time of Your Life, set post-Trial with the Doctor travelling alone, conscious of some of the events of his recent trial, and desperate to avoid the future that will shape his downfall and the Valeyard's birth.

'I'm an inveterate meddler. I find peril wherever I go, and I invariably endanger other people in the process.'
'And you're running away from a red-headed computer programmer?'
'No! Well maybe, yes. I can't remember, the Time Lords wiped my mind of most of it. It's dangerous to know too much of the future.'
... 'So you came here.'
'To become a recluse. To give up interfering, live a different life. To cheat my destiny. I've seen my future, and I don't wish to live in it.'

Angela and the Doctor,
Time of Your Life by Steve Lyons, p13

Despite the introduction of two would-be companions (Grant Markham and the doomed Angela) in this novel, Time of Your Life is essentially a solo Doctor outing. There are so many supporting characters interacting with one another and not the Doctor that the one person who ought to be the centre of attention, the Doctor himself, comes across as a vague cipher, uninvolving and uninviting in his initial refusal to become entangled in the action of the story. The most significant aspect of Lyons' book is that it sets up the pattern for future post-Trial Missing Adventures: an angst-ridden, Valeyard-fearing Doctor reluctant to take any situation in hand lest he bring about his own doom through his interference. To its credit it is an interesting idea, but with such a closed end (the constant reminder of the inevitable resolution through the New Adventures Seventh Doctor) it could go no further than that, being bound to repeat the formula with every novel. By far the most disappointing aspect of Time of Your Life noted by readers was the seemingly senseless sacrifice of Angela, the would-be companion, to be replaced at a very late stage of the story by the two-dimensional Grant. It was no accident that Angela is described as resembling, to the Doctor's eyes, Peri, another would-be victim of his own erratic past. To boot, the Doctor's offer of a place in the TARDIS for Grant is evidence of more of his manipulation, a non-too subtle attempt to further avoid future catastrophe. It is not as if the Doctor specifically wants Grant as a travelling companion, more that he knows who he doesn't want:

'You're a computer programmer, aren't you? Is your memory like an elephant's?'
'I've forgotten the question.'
'Well you certainly don't have Mel's sense of humour.'
'What's this all about?'
'I'm trying to change my future.'
'Can you do that?'
'No. It's a physical impossibility and in absolute contravention to the First Second, and Every Law of Time.'

Grant and the Doctor,
Time of Your Life by Steve Lyons, p276-7

Time of Your Life presented a violent scenario for the Doctor that would carry obvious echoes of the televised story Vengeance on Varos, notorious for its violent content and the Doctor's apparent lack of strong reaction to it. That such a comparison be implied and at the same time pass without comment is odd, suggesting perhaps that to this incarnation such violent events are second nature and of lesser consequence. Whereas Vengeance on Varos' lack of moral judgement on the Doctor's part was surprising and sat uneasily with the screen Doctor's established morality, a repeat performance in Lyons' Missing Adventure could only cement claims that the Sixth Doctor could be at times less than heroic; less of his traditional self.

The next Sixth Doctor Missing Adventures was Millennial Rites by Craig Hinton. Hinton's second Missing Adventure, Millennial Rites proved to be a brave and innovative book, notably in its very good use and reconstruction of Mel (who would also appear simultaneously in the book's unofficial companion, Head Games). At the time the novel also succeeded in tying together the established myth and continuity surrounding Virgin's version of the Valeyard. In nearly all of Craig Hinton's books there is a conscious extension of the established ideas of previous authors - here was a writer who was not only interested in continuity references to the series, but to the New Adventures as well. In the case of Millennial Rites, the Valeyard is presented once more as the absolute antithesis of the Sixth Doctor, and near the book's climax the dichotomy is blurred as the Doctor himself undergoes a series of brief lulls in character whilst he attempts to shrug off the seemingly inevitable possession the Valeyard would have over his mind and body. It is to the events in this book that the Seventh Doctor in Head Games refers to his past self. In Lyons' New Adventure the Seventh Doctor is able to claim this adventure as one of many close escapes of the Sixth Doctor, a near disaster. Hinton's novel may have had the Doctor emerge triumphant with companion intact, boldly refuting the Valeyard's presence, but as established in the Doctor's 'future' according to Virgin, such claims would be premature and ill-founded.

Steve Lyons returned to the Sixth Doctor after Head Games with Killing Ground, potentially his strongest work since Conundrum. Along with bringing menace back to the Cybermen from one of their weakest versions (straight from Revenge of the Cybermen), Lyons compounds the relative threat of this enemy by setting the book's action in the 'middle' of a traditional story model. Killing Ground begins with the Doctor already a prisoner of the enemy's agents and Grant involved with a resistance movement fighting the same force on his home world. The invaders have already succeeded in converting two generations of Grant's people, and are part way through a third - the Doctor has arrived late, but is it of his own plan? The problem with Killing Ground is that contrary to his claims, the Doctor doesn't appear to have much of a plan at all, and while he refuses to join the rebels in their most desperate scheme yet (to beat the invaders at their own game by crudely making their own cybernised troops), he distances himself from a greatly sympathetic and morally crucial part of the story, leaving Grant to the reaction, the action and the judgement. Once more the Doctor is above or beyond such a position. This seems to be in accordance with what Colin Baker himself has observed to be a trait of his version of the Doctor: that things do not have to be 'good, happy or beautiful, but that they should [instead] be right'; but this is played, as all of the Missing Adventures have been since their inception, against a more confident Doctor in the New Adventures, who can boldly claim 'no one will die tonight' in Human Nature, and very nearly get away with it. The fact that in Killing Ground the Doctor has allowed so much to have passed before his intervention, and becomes free at a point where even he cannot save those next bound for conversion, seems to suggest that crucial to the story is the idea that the Doctor has failed in his duty, already having lost a great deal of the fight, not to say his capacity to put things right 'in the nick of time'.

In place of the heroism typical of the Sixth Doctor's predecessors and successor is the most worthy aspect of Lyons' book - the Doctor's returning notion of self-sacrifice and determination to the point of death. The story's climax recalls the events of both the Third and the Fifth Doctors' last adventures when the Doctor is ravaged by radiation, and in a weakened state, must continue to repel the oncoming threat of the Cybermen alone. Killing Ground has the Sixth Doctor at his most heroic, emerging from his previously selfish existence to a point of interference bravely defying his future premonition. As with Millennial Rites however, the future is already cast in stone and can not be undone, and as with the previous Missing Adventure, some of the tension of the book's climax necessitates the involvement of that future, when the Doctor, himself near death and literally hanging on to life by a slender strand, contemplates the future he has sworn to avoid:

He had been right to cease his interference, to settle on Torrok. His sin had been in not making that retirement a permanent one. There was one way left to do so. A way to ensure that the Valeyard, his premonition of an evil future self, never came to pass. One way to end it all for good; quite possibly for everybody's good. Just let go of the rope.
Killing Ground by Steve Lyons, p234

What robs Killing Ground of its status as possibly the best Missing Adventure not only of the Sixth Doctor, but possibly of Virgin's entire range, is what has already gone before. The reader, familiar with the Time's Champion motif, knows that for all the grand achievements, all the good done at such high cost, the Sixth Doctor can never triumph utterly, never match his successor, and in having his future already laid before him must be content with the momentary victory of emerging himself once more, to face the future he is incapable of avoiding:

He would survive. There was too much left for the sixth Doctor to do - and he was ready to do it despite the spectre which hung over his future. That too could be overcome. 'I'm still the Doctor: he muttered to himself through cracked and parched lips, 'whether I like it or not!'
Killing Ground by Steve Lyons, p242


There are two books remaining in Virgin's schedule that could have an effect on the depiction and reputation of the Sixth Doctor. The first, Dave Stone's Missing Adventure Burning Heart, features Peri, and presumably is devoid of any Valeyard revelations. Like State of Change it could prove to be a good work simply by being a tale told without the restraints of retrospective continuity. The second book is Marc Platt's New Adventure Lungbarrow, the last of the Seventh Doctor's exploits, and the book that promises to resolve the Time's Champion theme. It seems unlikely that much attempt will be made to focus on the Sixth Doctor in this last New Adventure. One can only hope that he doesn't make a cameo appearance as one of the Doctor's eccentric family. In the meantime there is the new future the (now) seven previous Doctors face in the BBC Books line of stories. With its editorial policy already shying from some of Virgin's more controversial experiments, the hope remains that in this future at least the Doctor's previous selves can be afforded a respectfully full and worthy span of adventures.

This item appeared in TSV 49 (November 1996).

Index nodes: Head Games, Time of Your Life, Millennial Rites, Killing Ground