Tom Baker, 1974-81
Prior to the series’ return to television in 2005, when the classic years were overtaken by BBC Wales’ all-conquering juggernaut of a franchise, there was one man who was more widely identified with Doctor Who than any other. For years, from his debut series that culminated in 1975, through to the beginnings of the twenty-first century, Tom Baker was Doctor Who for the vast majority of the public. If you went up to an average passer-by in the street, and asked them what they knew about Doctor Who, they would tell you it was about a Time Lord who wore a long scarf, and travelled in a TARDIS with his robot dog. If you asked them who played the Doctor, most people would name Tom Baker, with a handful of stalwarts remembering Pertwee or Davison. The man in the scarf played the role – no, inhabited it – for a record seven-and-a-half years, give or take, giving a performance that overshadowed his predecessors and successors for years afterwards.
So, yes, Tom Baker remains the quintessential Doctor for millions who caught the show in the twentieth century. Looking back, then, it is surprising just how bewildering his casting must have been for viewers at the time. By now, people were becoming used to the idea that the Doctor changed his face and dress sense every few years, but Jon Pertwee had already set a record with his five year tenure and was closely identified with the role. Anyone who followed him was going to have some pretty whopping shoes to fill. Early casting attempts had centred on older actors, very much in the mold of what had come before, only later stretching to include younger men. (A list of actors approached for the role includes Fulton Mackay, Peter Sellers and Jim Dale, showing that, while the production team were casting their net wide, they were looking for a well-known face.) While forty is now roughly the average age for an actor starting out as the Doctor, in 1974 it was very young; indeed, the transition from Pertwee to Baker marks a drop of fourteen years in the age of the lead actor.
Tom Baker, former monk turned stage actor, had begun to carve out a career playing larger than life characters on film. However, by 1974, he was famously working on a construction site, even as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, in which he played the main villain, was showing in cinemas across the UK. While not quite an unknown, he could hardly be said to have been a star like Pertwee. In the style of performance, the difference is even more marked. Watch Planet of the Spiders and Robot back-to-back. The change in the character of the Doctor is sudden and vast, the dashing leading man being replaced by a gangly, goggle-eye eccentric . The potential for audience alienation is huge, and wisely it’s played for laughs, easing the audience in with a recognisable UNIT adventure before the new lead actor and production team take the series in a new direction.
Baker is hardly the most talented actor to have ever played the central role in Doctor Who. “I can’t even come through a door convincingly,” he once said, “but perhaps one can come through a door interestingly, dare I say amusingly…” While Pertwee had before brought much of himself to the character of the Doctor, never had an actor been so perfectly suited to the role. Viewers must have been bewildered faced by this grinning loon. It’s as if the BBC had managed to hire an actual alien to play the role. Other actors played up their eccentricities to become the Doctor. Tom Baker had to tone it down.
Immediately following his regeneration, the Doctor is erratic and unpredictable. He babbles nonsense before regaining his wits long enough to escape his sickbed, mugging his physician and making straight for the TARDIS, his responsibilities and relationships on Earth seemingly forgotten. Once he’s cornered, he makes his excuses and tries to escape, only to suddenly register the presence of Sarah-Jane and the Brigadier, shaking their hands and beaming at them like he hasn’t clapped eyes on them in years. Watching this performance, the viewers – and the characters – are never sure just how much the Doctor is being serious (in his own warped way) and how much he is taking the mick. There’s a wonderful moment when he catches himself in a mirror for the first time, leaving him aghast at his new face (no doubt how many of the viewers were feeling too). He tries on numerous outfits, from Viking battledress to a Pierrot costume, surely just to wind up the Brigadier, before finally settling on his recognisable style.
It’s easy to call the fourth Doctor a Bohemian based solely on his boho look, but the term has connotations that fit his character well. Bohemianism is a late 19th and early 20th century term denoting those social dropouts who occupied the fringes of polite society, living unconventional lifestyles and dressing. Wikipedia suggests that bohemians “may be wanderers, adventurers or vagabonds,” and it’s hard to think of a better description of the Doctor than that. The bohemian movement was populated by a number of wealthy individuals who had shunned their family ties and chosen to live in relative poverty. The fourth Doctor, who has moved on from the patrician lordliness of his former persona, fits this characteristic well, as does the Doctor’s wider character, having left the mighty society of the Time Lords for a life of exploration. Nonetheless, he’s still very much a lord who has deigned to join the lesser people. While the bohemians were also characterised by their, for the time, shocking sexual freedom, the Doctor’s apparently sexless nature would have been equally unconventional in a society that valued marriage and family life. The fact that the Doctor’s clothing fits the bohemian style is no coincidence. The bohemian fin de siècle style, and the 21st century boho-chic recreation, combines all manner of clothing styles in new and eccentric ways. The fourth Doctor’s clothing varies considerably during his tenure, but always retains a particular style, combining an attractive scruffiness with a dash of dandyism, plus that ever-present scarf. The Doctor was, in his fourth life, still very much a character type of the Victorian/Edwardian era, but one who was far more of a dropout than ever before. Even his anarchist second self wasn’t this removed from polite society. From cosmic hobo to caustic boho…
Walking in Eternity
The fourth Doctor calms down a bit after his debut appearance, but remains erratic throughout his life. His style of character does vary somewhat, along with the genre of the stories in which he appears. The Tom Baker era can be divided into three distinct periods, by production team. There’s the Hincliffe/Holmes period of the first three seasons, the Williams period of the next three, and the Nathan-Turner/Bidmead period of the final season. That earlier period, produced by Phillip Hinchcliffe, with Robert Holmes as script editor, is for many fans the golden age of Doctor Who. The defining feature of the era was a spooky gothic bent, often with lashings of violence, a dangerous universe inspired by Hammer Horror tropes but filtered through a sci-fi lens. Following an inaugural year in which he faced off against familiar foes such as Cybermen, Daleks and Sontarans, the Doctor then went on to meet such entities as robotic mummies, an Egyptian god, Frankenstenian stitched-up monsters and the Loch Ness Monster (in actuality alien cyborg livestock).
While there is a general change in the fourth Doctor’s demeanour across his tenure, from intense through silly to sombre, his mood changes drastically and alarmingly from story to story, and often from scene to scene. While he can easily be the most humorous and absurd of the original series Doctors, he can also be the most serious and grim. There’s a sombreness to him throughout his time in the TARDIS, and underlying resoluteness that he masked with humour. I once, in a similar article along the lines of this one, suggested that the fourth Doctor might be bipolar, and while I retract that as being an idiotic oversimplification of a serious condition, there are elements of it in his character. He flips from manic activity to sluggish doldrums and back again. Often there are good reasons for him to become serious; Pyramids of Mars is a perfect example of story in which he remains determined and detached throughout, with only a sort of gallows humour getting him through a situation with potentially deadly consequences for all of creation. Other times the reasoning behind his mood and actions is not so clear; regard his cheeriness in the face of the vengeful Time Lord emperor Morbius, or his fantastically odd humour when dealing with the threat of the Rutan at Fang Rock. Yet he can quite viciously snap at someone when they, for example, interrupt him reading a book. His reactions and responses are wholly unpredictable.
The Doctor’s fourth incarnation perhaps sees him at his most alien, at least since his Ian and Barbara’s humanising influence early in his travels. While he is often charming and friendly to people he meets, his is distant from those who he once considered his friends. After his debut, he makes but one trip back to his colleagues at UNIT at the Brigadier’s behest, treating both the Brig (the man who is still his employer) and Benton like unwanted encumberances. He is a little friendlier with Harry Sullivan, the naval MD assigned to look after him; having only just met the man, perhaps it’s easier for him to forge a new relationship with him than with his predecessor’s colleagues. Even so, he frequently berates and insults the poor man (“Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!”), and is more gratuitously derogatory than his former self ever was. The only person he seems to genuinely like is Sarah-Jane, with whom his friendship grows deeper than ever – and even she gets a good few insults thrown at her from time to time.
Even after three years of travelling together (screen time, at least), the Doctor maintains a distant from Sarah-Jane. The Hand of Fear is an especially traumatic adventure for the young woman, an alien intelligence taking over her body and using her for her own ends – and it’s not the first time this has happened. While there are some touching moments between the Doctor and his companion (“Well, I worry about you,”) by the end of it Sarah is ready to give up and go home. She unleashes a tirade at the Doctor, but never expects him to actually take it seriously. However, the Doctor has just received a summons from Gallifrey, and that’s it. He bids Sarah-Jane goodbye and dumps her back on Earth. Yes, he has a perfectly good reason to leave her behind, what with Gallifrey barring aliens from its shores, but this isn’t the random wanderer of the sixties. The Doctor is now able to pilot his TARDIS with impressive accuracy, barring the occasional 30,000 year overshot. There’s no reason at all that he can’t go back and pick Sarah up once his business on Gallifrey is done. And yet he doesn’t, preferring to travel alone. Admittedly, his solitude doesn’t last long, but it’s clearly the way he’d prefer things to be. With the exception of Sarah (and arguably Harry, who he more or less abducts), the fourth Doctor never chooses his humanoid companions – they are all forced on him in one way or another. Only K-9, who is a rather different kettle of circuitboards, is actually accepted on board the TARDIS, and he isn’t actually invited. Indeed, some of this attitude may have bled through from Tom Baker, who continually insisted that he didn’t need a companion to share his limelight.
The Oldest Civilisation
The Doctor’s return to Gallifrey in The Deadly Assassinis a milestone for the series, the first time that an adventure was set wholly on the Doctor’s homeworld and his civilisation thoroughly explored. The version of the Time Lords presented there is rather different from the godlike entities we saw in The War Games, or the space-time overseers we met in the third Doctor’s period. The stuffy old men of this musty college, with their arcane rituals and petty politicking, was a departure from the Time Lords we’d glimpsed before, but came to become the enduring vision of the culture of Gallifrey. It fits the fourth Doctor perfectly, or rather, clashes with him perfectly. The fourth Doctor is the ultimate college dropout, and this stately collection of cardinals and scholars is precisely the sort of society he can be imagined to have dropped out from. There’s also the sense, with its cardinals and chapters, that the Time Lords represent a form of galactic priesthood. The idea of the Doctor as a fallen priest is an intriguing one, and matches Tom Baker’s lifestyle rather well (and also that of Sylvester McCoy, another monk who became an actor). Whether you view them as stuffy dons, conniving ministers or austere priests, the Time Lords are not the sort of people who tend to live exciting lives. No wonder the Doctor got so bored there.
The Doctor displays a rather contemptible attitude to the Time Lords throughout his fourth incarnation. While he had become thoroughly rehabilitated during his exile, upon his regeneration he abandons his link to Gallifrey in much the same way he does his link to the Earth. He is alien to both worlds. While he identifies as a Time Lord, usually, and often talks of his responsibilities as one, he clearly stands apart from their number. This is a Doctor who has had the opportunity to go home – to either his old home of Gallifrey or his new home of Earth – and has discarded it. It is clear that he resents, as he puts it, the Time Lords’ “continual interference in his affairs,” but he inevitably undertakes the tasks they give to him. He has a duty to the universe, and while he might rally against the Time Lords assigning him missions, he won’t let that stop him when Morbius or the Daleks are threatening peace.
In fact, the Doctor’s attitude to his enemies has also become more serious since his regeneration. Yes, he openly mocks Morbius, Davros and Greel, but this is the best way of showing them how much contempt he has for their methods and goals. He might give the occasional moralising speech as did his previous self, but nothing hurts a monomaniacs ego like someone refusing to take them seriously. (If any Doctor was to meet Hitler, it should have been Tom Baker, not Matt Smith. He would have ripped the piss out of him.) Yet for all his mockery, he takes his enemies very seriously indeed. There’s a distinct respect between him and Davros, behind the open loathing on both their parts. He recognises exactly how dangerous Morbius or Sutekh will be if they are allowed their freedom. It’s his attitude to the Master that illustrates is best, however. On Gallifrey, they meet for the first time in subjective decades, and in three years in screen time, both as changed men. The Doctor has regenerate, but the Master has been totally reinvented, now a horrifically disfigured ghoul on the verge of death. The affection and banter between them is long gone, replaced by, particularly on the Master’s side, true hatred.
Be Childish Sometimes
The Deadly Assassin marks a definite halfway point in the fourth Doctor’s era, for it was this story that truly drew the ire of moralising busybody Mary Whitehouse after several years of brickbatting the series. As well as the Tom Baker era divisions mentioned above, Doctor Who can be divided into two halves, before and after Assassin. So incensed by the violence on offer in the Matrix of Gallifrey, and such was her influence at the time, that Whitehouse was able to alter the parameters of the series. Assassin represented the end of a gradual shift towards the darker end of the fantasy spectrum; after this, the series was forced to tone down the horror. Following the series’ fourteenth season, the scary stories were rapidly phased out, with only the sublime Horror of Fang Rock and the creepy Inage of the Fendahl representing this element of the series. A crippling blow had been struck that Doctor Who never quite recovered from. Chancellor Goth wasn’t the deadly assassin; Mary Whitehouse was.
Under this new constraint, Graham Williams took over as producer for the fifteenth season. With scares no longer an option, the series had to find a new style and content. The obvious solution was to up the humour. This seems to have suited Tom Baker perfectly well. While he can be remarkably unnerving as a serious-minded alien, Baker revels in the comedic, and often ad-libbed jokes on set. Indeed, it’s often hard to be sure which of the Doctor’s lines were scripted and which were Baker’s own additions. Immediately after The Deadly Assassin, the Doctor found himself lumbered with Leela, a noble savage from the distant future, played with charm and subtlety by Louise Jameson. Although not initially at home to yet another travelling companion, the Doctor took Leela under his wing, proceeding to show her humanity’s history. In his role as teacher, the Doctor regained some of the patrician character of his previous self; the increased humour softened this. There was a definite chemistry between Baker and Jameson (even if Baker was, by all accounts, a bastard to her on set), but there was a third element to be introduced.
May the Fourth Be
While it’s a mistake to view the introduction of a robotic companion to Doctor Who as a direct reaction to Star Wars (the dates make plain this error), K-9 certainly came to the series at the right time. The Doctor’s mechanical hound, originally designed for just one serial, became his faithful companion for several years, and has become an enduring icon of the series. K-9 is one of the elements of the series that is simultaneously embarrassing and lovable to its fans, and that the fact that he managed to finally get his own series in 2010 is testament to his popularity. Indeed, the two characters to have returned to Doctor Who in its modern iteration and go on to receive their own series – Lis Sladen’s Sarah-Jane and John Leeson’s K-9 – are iconic figures of the Tom Baker era, further proof, if any were needed, that this is the period of Doctor Who that is best remembered.
With Holmes leaving his post as script editor and Anthony Read taking over, season fifteen was a return to a kid-friendly format of the show, with colourful science fiction adventures bolstered by humour. After Leela was unceremoniously written out during a mediocre return trip to Gallifrey (Jameson had wanted her to be killed defending the Doctor; instead they married her off in the most unbelievable way), there was room for a new companion to join the Doctor and K-9. With the Time Lords now firmly established as a central part of the Doctor Who universe, the logical next step was a Gallifreyan companion. Romanadvoratrelundar – Romana for short, Fred for shorter – was a young Time Lady, a high achieving academy graduate with little practical experience. Played with cool detachment by Mary Tamm, Romana couldn’t have been more different to Leela. The sixteenth season tweaked the series’ format once again, with the Williams-Read masterplan of a season long arc providing a unifying element for the disparate adventures. With the Doctor now in full control of his TARDIS, it was becoming harder to get him into adventures at all. Having been sent on several Time Lord missions, it was time for a new, overarching mission for the Doctor. We already had the Time Lords – now it was time for a higher power to step in.
The White Guardian, half of a diarchy of vastly powerful but constrained beings, selects the Doctor as his agent to find the segments of the Key to Time, and to reassemble them in order to restore balance to the universe. of course, only the Doctor could be selected – it’s his show, after all – but it shows just how much the Doctor’s status in his series has grown. He’s gone from being a mysterious wanderer from an unknown world to the prodigal son of Gallifrey, able to set himself up as Time Lord President and follow it up with a mission from God. The Doctor, by now, is a legendary figure not just in British television but throughout his fictional universe. He’s still a rebel though; he might be cowed in the presence of the Guardian but initially refuses to work for him, only accepting when he’s threatened with non-existence. Then, when his mission is accomplished, he sticks it to both the White and Black guardians and goes on the run, his TARDIS set to random.
Once more, the Doctor was adrift in the cosmos, knowing not where or when he would wash up. For all of five stories. The Randomiser deposits the Doctor and the newly regenerated Romana on Skaro and Earth, the two most obvious places to look for him in the entire universe. Given a chance for a return to the ‘lost in time’ adventure of the original run of episodes in the sixties, the production team chose to reverse their own decision and have the Doctor continually override his Randomiser. Once given control of his destiny, he couldn’t let it go. The seventeenth season saw silliness take over completely, perhaps not surprisingly with Douglas Adams as the new script editor. Very clever, very witty silliness, but silliness nonetheless. The season kicked off with a comedy scene which saw Romana flicking through new bodies to regenerate into, and this level of humour was present throughout. However, Williams and Adams did give us City of Death, quite simply the funniest, most sublime Doctor Who serial ever.
Romana – the new Romana – is a case in point for our lonely fourth Doctor. While the Time Lady might have been foisted on him, he developed a strong bond with her. Perhaps he reminded him of his younger self, when he had just left Gallifrey and was still green and naïve. Perhaps he liked having a more equal partner aboard the TARDIS at last. Whatever the reason, there’s undeniably a frisson between the Doctor and this new Romana. He does take her on a romantic trip to Paris, after all. So much of this chemistry comes from the off screen romance between Baker and his soon-to-be wife Lalla Ward, but even during those episodes filmed when they were at each other’s throats there’s an undeniable ardour between them. Perhaps the walker in eternity just needs someone who could engage him at his own level.
However, the series needed reigning in. Baker was becoming more over-the-top by the story. Watching the panto antics of the final story of the seventies, The Horns of Nimon, it was clear that Baker was no longer taking his show seriously. Indeed, it’s Romana who does all the Doctorish stuff, while the Doctor prats about in the background. (That said, I really enjoy The Horns of Nimon. I never said I had any taste.) It was clear it was time for a change.
Entropy Sets In
Tom Baker’s final season heralded a new look for Doctor Who. A complete revamp of the series had taken place, a new glossy sci-fi show for the eighties. New producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Christopher Bidmead took the series away from the humour that had driven it lately and recrafted it around cutting edge science and high concept ideas. In practice, the science was so obscure and outlandish that is might as well have been Adamsian technobabble for all it emant to the audience. At the end of the day, creating matter through the use of words is magic, no matter if you call it block transfer mathematics.
Still, there was a definite change in the feel of this series, as well as the aesthetics. It seemed as though the Doctor and Romana had been away for a long time. The Doctor seemed distinctly older – Baker was forty-seven by now, and had been suffering considerably ill health. The Doctor was a quitter, more sombre figure than he had been for many years, seeming to drift through his adventures. His costume had been redesigned, a rich burgundy affair that kept the essence of his earlier outfits but made them richer and more extravagant. It also swamped him, making the Time Lord who had once seemed like an unstoppable force a good deal slighter. (It also included question marks for the first time, a JNT branding exercise.) The overarching theme of the eighteenth season was one of entropy – perhaps running on from the universal imbalance of the Key to Time sequence – and it felt as if the Doctor’s universe was powering down.
After a short excursion beyond the confines of the universe itself, into the pocket dimension of E-Space, the Doctor was left alone but for an awkward adolescent called Adric (the legendary Matthew Waterhouse). Romana and K-9 had left to pursue their own adventures, the Time Lady having finally graduated from companion to time-travelling adventurer. While he was still capable of compassion and righteous anger, the Doctor seemed more detached than ever, just going through the motions.
It’s the End, But…
Eventually, of course, time was going to run out. Even after seven years, having become the face of Doctor Who for a nation, indeed the world, Tom Baker moved on. The final story, Logopolis, has all the pseudoscientific excesses the Bidmead scripts are known for, but it works, underpinned by a powerfully funereal atmosphere. The Master was reborn, in the stolen body of Anthony Ainley, and with him he brought both madness and charm. But while the Master celebrated his ghoulish new life, the Doctor had to face the end of his. Logopolis sees the Doctor, for once in his fourth life, staggeringly out of his depth, making a series of bad decisions that lead his situation from bad to worse. Lumbered with three companions not of his choosing – two pyjama-clad aliens and a stroppy Australian – he travels to Logopolis to get his TARDIS recalibrated, knowing full well that the Master is on his tail. Yet Logopolis is, fundamentally, the centre of the universe, for it is the Logopolitans work that keeps the universe running. Not only has the endless, inevitable effect of entropy doomed the universe to an eventual death, we learn that is actually passed the point of no return aeons ago (a wonderful conceit). By introducing the Master into this delicate world, the Doctor dooms vast swathes of the universe.
If he was going through the motions earlier in this season, the Doctor here is simply bowing to the inevitable. He follows the instructions of the Watcher, a mysterious ghostlike being who prefigures the events that will end the Doctor’s life. The Doctor knows full well who this wraithlike figure is, and has little choice but to follow him. And because of this, he must face the Master, to save the universe from his madness. In that final battle, the Doctor goes on through a grim determination to see things through to the end. Hanging from a transmission tower, the Doctor looks back over his long, fourth life (our first pre-regeneration flashback sequence), and it’s seems clear that he sees this as a death. There’s no humour on display now, no ready quips, no bag of jellybabies. He finally slips (or does he let go?) He falls. This is the end, but…
“He was the Doctor all the time!”
In the most bizarre of the Doctor’s transformations, the Watcher, seemingly a phantom of the Doctor’s former self, merges with him, and he slowly changes, the Doctor’s face fading to ghostly visage of the Watcher, and his to that of a younger man. Perhaps his whole life had been leading him here, to endanger the universe and then to save it. Perhaps it is the Doctor who is the centre of the universe, but is no longer Tom Baker.
The Moment Has Been Prepared For…
Of course, no Doctor is ever truly dead. Their adventures live on, and sometimes, they are added to. Tom Baker held out for a long time, refusing to film new footage for the twentieth anniversary get-together The Five Doctors, and eventually taking part only in charity dregs like Dimensions in Time or in-character presenting work. Eventually, however, he would return to the role. While Big Finish, in 2012, finally signed Baker up to appear in their range of audioplays, they seem content to produce faithful nostalgia pieces for the most part. It’s the slightly earlier BBC productions, written by Paul Magrs, that have taken this version of the Doctor somewhere new. Since the Hornet’s Nest series in 2009, a new era of the fourth Doctor’s life has begun, one that fits somewhere in amongst his earlier adventures, like an unexpected gherkin in a sandwich. These are strange adventures indeed, lyrical stories in which the Doctor sits back and tells his own tales. He now counts Mike Yates among his closest confidants – quite unlike the Doctor who shunned Benton and the Brig in Scotland – and has a housemaid with her own strange story. This more avuncular fourth Doctor might be intended to fit somewhere within the televised adventures, but he comes across very much as an older, mellower version of the character. He even lives in a cottage in Sussex, much like the man behind the character. The fourth Doctor lives on, but now he really has become Tom Baker.