Doctor Who: a celebration of Tom Baker

Andrew’s look back over Doctors past continues with the fourth, and for some, the most memorable — the incomparable Tom Baker…

There are three versions of the Fourth Doctor. There were also three production teams during Tom Baker’s seven years, and with each new team came changes to the way he played the role.

When Philip Hinchcliffe was producer, Tom Baker played the Doctor with an aura of gleeful, natural eccentricity, giving way to bursts of morose introspection and bouts of unsettling behaviour. Then Graham Williams was producer, and Tom Baker played the Doctor as the eternal student. Easily distracted, quite happy to indulge himself in laziness and indolence.

Finally, under John Nathan-Turner, the Doctor became a universe-weary, brittle version of himself, with an aura of morose introspection giving way to bursts of gleeful eccentricity.

Ad – content continues below

These are generalisations, however. There’s a lot of overlap between the Hinchcliffe and Williams versions, eventually culminating in Tom Baker at his most flippant in Williams’ final season. The next time the Doctor appears on telly, Baker’s excesses are toned down, the actor’s own moods noticeably affecting his performance.

What is consistent throughout his reign is that the Doctor is a bewilderingly charismatic alien, never likely to take life seriously unless things are catastrophically bad. His voice is uniquely commanding, able to instantly bring levity or drama to a situation. Similarly, his clothes make him look like a dishevelled bohemian, but he still looms large over situations like a shadow.

It helps that Tom Baker is an utterly compelling screen presence simply by virtue of his stature and his vocal ability, but there’s more to the Fourth Doctor than Baker simply playing himself. If that was the case, they’d never have got away with broadcasting most of it.

It’s fairly obvious there’s more to being a great Doctor than simply being funny, but it certainly helps an audience to cope with any outlandish characteristics. The fact that Baker revelled in finding comic moments in a script, combined with a manic physicality, abetted by willing accomplices in Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter (as friends Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan) meant that Doctor Who was more outlandishly funny than it had ever been before.

Ad – content continues below

This probably helps Baker get away with violently twisting someone’s neck in The Seeds Of Doom, as we’ve previously seen him lambast a civil servant with the line, “It will be the end of everything. Everything, you understand? Even your pension.”

When Leela came on board the TARDIS, her intelligent but savage character was well-placed for comedy. My favourite moment (and there are many to choose from) comes from Horror Of Fang Rock, where Leela tells an annoyingly hysterical posh woman “You will do as the Doctor says or I will cut out your heart.”

What makes this scene even funnier is that the camera immediately cuts to the Doctor, who bursts into a massive grin. This isn’t isolated to the Hinchcliffe era, famed as it is as the Mary Whitehouse-baiting pinnacle of the show. Baker’s Doctor, for one whose most famous scene is pacifism personified, is ready to get out there and batter it when presented with a threat. Baker’s sheen of wit and whimsy glosses over this moral murkiness in a way that renders him more immediately palatable, but with sufficient depth and shade.

From this we go into the occasional excesses of an indulged Tom Baker, culminating in lines such as ‘My arms! My legs! My everything!’ from Nightmare Of Eden (another story with some very good lines in it). This comes from a season script-edited by Douglas Adams, who gave the scripts an overall tone that encouraged a great deal less seriousness than he intended. Given that another Python cameos in City Of Death, there are moments in Season 17 where it wouldn’t be surprising if Graham Chapman appeared on screen to say, “Stop that. It’s silly”.

Season 18 saw a new production team take over. John Nathan-Turner, the producer, wasn’t an entirely serious man, but he and incoming script editor Christopher Bidmead felt the show needed to get away from the silliness. As a result, Baker’s final series goes too far in the other direction, with a much drier tone and an attempted focus on harder sci-fi.

Ad – content continues below

That’s not to say it isn’t without merit. Warriors’ Gate is as perfect an example of lyrical science-fiction as you could hope to witness. A strange and intoxicating combination of Samuel Beckett and Arthur C Clarke, the story managed to be intriguingly complex, darkly comic, visually ambitious and entirely watchable.

The division between production teams sometimes overshadows the fact that, throughout his seven years, Tom Baker wasn’t simply remorselessly strange. Sometimes his morality is entirely alien to us, most famously in Genesis Of The Daleks or Pyramids Of Mars, but this is largely due to the work of Robert Holmes. Whether script-editing or writing for the Fourth Doctor, Holmes seemed to relish making the character morally dubious, his heroism less clear cut.

The Deadly Assassin (yes, it’s a tautology) outraged fandom at the time, as Holmes took hints from previous stories and reduced the Time Lords from godlike beings to the inhabitants of the universe’s most Machiavellian old folks’ home. Set against that, it makes the Fourth Doctor’s spinning moral compass more understandable.

From his lines about fortune telling in Masque Of The Mandragora, to his sudden, impassioned cry of “But what’s it for?” in The Pirate Planet, there’s almost a perverse pleasure in seeing the Fourth Doctor being pushed close to the edge. Many of the great moments in Doctor Who consist of the Fourth Doctor losing it, because when Tom Baker portrays anger or fear you are left spellbound. Whether he’s shouting with barely controlled rage or whispering in a shocked, empty voice you are left in no doubt as to what he’s feeling.

Ad – content continues below

That’s the reason for the Fourth Doctor’s popularity. You want to watch him.

At best he’s a commanding presence, capable of turning a middling story into a quotable romp. At worst he’s wearyingly silly. He’s occasionally gleefully violent, yet he refuses to destroy the most evil race in creation. After witnessing fratricide he barely seems to care, but only because he’s being ruthlessly pragmatic. He’s acting, but at the same time he’s not. Tom Baker does put a lot of himself into the role, and most of the time it’s the right amount.

It’s then that we get the right balance between comedy and drama, between hero and anti-hero, between silly and serious. There, on screen, is a startling combination of wit, passion, intellect and energy that isn’t necessarily easy to love.

Sometimes the Fourth Doctor is aggressive and impenetrable, sometimes he’s simply obstinate and unfriendly. The Fourth Doctor is actually a mixture of what’s gone before, put through the unique perspective that is Tom Baker’s. That’s the little bit extra. That’s the turbo-charger.

Sometimes its hard to tell whether you’re seeing the Doctor or Tom Baker titting about, but what Tom Baker gives to the role is himself, completely and utterly. When the duality between the Doctor and Tom Baker is distinct you have some of the most memorable moments of television ever. And that’s worth any amount of Tom Baker titting about.