Doctor Who Project: Tom Baker Retrospective

In the eyes of the world, Tom Baker is Doctor Who. And also the Doctor, there being a difference between the two, at least most of the time.

That Fourth Doctor smile

Despite Tom Baker’s final story airing over forty years ago, and despite the cultural reach of the new series since 2005, pop culture still references Doctor Who through the lens of the Fourth Doctor: the long, variegated scarf, the floppy hat, the curly hair and broad smile. More than that, though, Tom Baker’s presentation of the Doctor hews closest to the stereotypical understanding of the enigmatic Time Lord. He’s quick with a quip, slow to anger but ready with intensity, all-knowing but a bit fuzzy on the details, indefatigable when confronted with impossible odds, and given to action over excessive reflection. A hero, in other words, not just for our time, but for all time.

Tom Baker as Meglos-Doctor

Doubtless, much of this persistent identification of the Doctor with Tom Baker comes from his incredible tenure as the Fourth Doctor, a run of forty-two stories, spanning 178 episodes, if one includes the un-broadcast “Shada,” as one should. (William Hartnell, the next longest tenured Doctor, featured in 134 episodes as lead actor.) Baker’s tales stretch from December 28, 1974, the opening episode of “Robot” in Season Twelve, through to March 21, 1981, the final episode of “Logopolis” to end Season Eighteen, well over six years in the role.

Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor in Logopolis

But longevity alone cannot account for just how entirely Tom Baker made the part of the Doctor his own, particularly on the heels of Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, who was no slouch in terms of personality and strong characterization. Much has been made of the star’s temperamental insistence, towards the end of his time on the series, that the scripts provide more scope for humor, spontaneity, and levity—centered, naturally, around the Doctor—but the entire tone of the Fourth Doctor’s run points in that direction from the very beginning. Producer Barry Letts and script editor Robert Holmes had to know what they had in Tom Baker right away, as evidenced by the sequence in “Robot” where the newly-regenerated Doctor tries on multiple outfits, including a harlequin costume. Shades of things to come…

Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor in Robot

Tom Baker’s comedic timing stands out through the entirety of his run, shifting from an initial, quite alien (and alienating) insouciance when stuck on Earth with UNIT, wondering why he should even bother with these boring humans and their petty travails, through to fourth-wall breaking asides in “The Invasion of Time” and straight-up slapstick merged with over-the-top melodrama by the time of “The Creature from the Pit.” When handled well, as in “The Pirate Planet,” from Douglas Adams’ pen, this comedic bent adds much to the series, providing a needed counterpoint to the action and increasingly realistic violence, which became intense enough during Baker’s run to elicit public complaint (albeit from the easily-ruffled Mary Whitehouse). But when overdone, particularly in stories lacking in sufficient plot coherence, the humor only magnifies the absurdity of the events on the screen rather than adding to the overall effect.

Would you like a jelly baby?

In keeping with this tonal shift from the Third Doctor, a decided lack of consequence also pervades much of Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor. While Jon Pertwee certainly never missed an opportunity to gurn on cue or get dragged around screen by a tentacle, his Doctor came face-to-face with the ramifcations of his actions, and inactions, far more frequently than the Fourth Doctor. It’s notable that the Fourth Doctor never really fails, and scarcely suffers. There are no pained conclusions where he drives off, alone, into the night after bidding a fond companion farewell, nor blank stares into an indeterminate distance because he could not stop a species from being annihilated. To be sure, this lack of emotional heft for the character comes not from Tom Baker but from the scripts commissioned (and edited) for him by a procession of production teams; on the evidence of “Logopolis” alone, there’s little doubt that Baker could have portrayed a Doctor who struggled and occasionally failed. The pained resignation on his face as he confronts his impending demise in a steadfast manner makes one wonder what could have been for the Fourth Doctor, given the right stories.

Tom Baker as a pensive Fourth Doctor in Logopolis

Rather, there seems a conscious intention, from producers Barry Letts through to Philip Hinchcliffe, Graham Williams, and finally John Nathan-Turner, aided by script editors Robert Holmes, Anthony Read, Douglas Adams, and Christopher H. Bidmead, to pull the series in a less introspective, and frankly less serious, direction. This is not to say that they attempted to “dumb down” Doctor Who, but instead sought to return it to a series with immediate attraction to a younger audience, a streamlining that perforce required less textual nuance and more visual panache to compete with the American science fiction imports being aired opposite the show on ITV, to say nothing of the explosion of effects-heavy science fiction films in theaters at the time. Indeed, Doctor Who during Tom Baker’s run hit the very heights of viewership for the series, even surpassing at one point the audience numbers of Dalek-mania in the early 1960s, but also began a very steep decline that would culminate in its eventual cancellation.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana

Tellingly, Baker’s record popularity comes without an overreliance on Doctor Who’s “traditional” foes. Where the First Doctor can scarcely step out of the TARDIS for all the Daleks he encounters, the Second Doctor suffers from a surfeit of Cybermen, and the Third Doctor mostly meets the Master, the Fourth Doctor mixes up his showdowns with a wide range of baddies, monsters, villains, and the like. The Sontarans, introduced in his run, make a pair of appearances, as do the perfidious pepper pots from Skaro, while the Cybermen deign to grant a scant solo appearance. Season Twelve, Baker’s first, sees the Sontarans, Daleks, and Cybermen in successive episodes, as though insurance to glue eyes to the screen with an untried Doctor helming the series. Eight stories then pass before the return of The Master, who features three times total, twice at the very end of Baker’s run—again, ostensibly to help bridge viewers into a new Doctor’s era.

The real foes: the Sontarans

The lack of reliance on the old rogues’ gallery stands as one of the most refreshing aspects of Baker’s run, allowing the introduction of some wonderful one-off foes, as well as a few who will make appearances in later years. The shapeshifting Zygons, along with their pet, the Loch Ness Monster, reintroduce the notion of body horror to Doctor Who, while the soul-devouring Fendahl brings psychological horror back with some of the most atmospheric and downright creepy scenes in the series for some time. Neither, though, can outdo the Jagaroth, a be-tentacled yet quite urbane foe split through time by a massive explosion responsible for all life on Earth, who just happens to have a cellar full of Mona Lisas.

Behold the Jagaroth

The stories from Tom Baker’s run that stand as the most successful, like “City of Death,” featuring the Jagaroth, combine a bit of playfulness with a high concept grounded in a well-realized setting—contemporary Paris, in this case, with a dim brute of a private investigator providing some comic relief while the Doctor and Lalla Ward’s Romana run through arrondissements and through time, hand in hand. Likewise, “Horror of Fang Rock,” taking place entirely in and near a secluded Edwardian lighthouse, focuses attention on the dwindling cast of characters while the Doctor and Leela (Louise Jameson) confront the Sontarans’ sworn enemy, a Rutan scout, turning the constraints of a single location into a taut thriller. No story does setting better, however, than “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” which vividly recreates Victorian London in a tale that stretches all the way to the fifty-first century, a story marred only (and significantly) by its facilely racist presentation of the Chinese.

A foggy Victorian night.

The finest Fourth Doctor story, one which encapsulates the best features of Tom Baker’s time on the show, can only be “The Ribos Operation,” written by series veteran Robert Holmes and directed by George Spenton-Foster. The opener for Season Sixteen, “The Ribos Operation” also starts the Key to Time arc that links all six of the season’s stories together in a connected narrative, and the presence of the larger story—end of the universe, time collapsing, dogs and cats living together, that sort of thing—allows this smaller tale of greed, petty larceny, and court intrigue ample room to breathe and grow. In some ways, it is the most complete story in the series to date, with action and adventure coexisting neatly with humor of the verbal and slapstick variety, all wrapped up in a science fiction bow with a “primitive” planet being routinely visited by merchants from more advanced cultures. Tom Baker in particular shines in “The Ribos Operation,” and while the Fourth Doctor’s attitude towards Mary Tamm’s Romana could use some improvement, he makes the most of the smaller stage, filling it with his smile, wit, and bonhomie. That the rest of the Key to Time arc is a bit uneven takes nothing away from this story.

Mary Tamm as Romana and Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, having a stop and chat in The Ribos Operation

As for other tales, perhaps the less said about “Revenge of the Cybermen,” “The Invisible Enemy,” “Underworld,” “The Creature from the Pit,” and “The Leisure Hive,” the better. In each case, the plot strains the abilities of the special effects teams, who valiantly work within their technical means and time and budget constraints, but the best green-screen/CSO work imaginable could not make up for a lack of narrative coherence or interesting character development. Baker, too, has some stories where he doesn’t perform to his best, and much of Season Eighteen in particular, when he was preparing to leave and John Nathan-Turner had set in motion his grand plans for the future, features a broadly disinterested Fourth Doctor, his bravura turn in “Logopolis” notwithstanding.

The true visage of the Seers, from Underworld

The Fourth Doctor rivals the First in terms of his number of companions, topping out at nine if you count both marks of K-9 only once and Romana twice (and you should). In order, they are:

  • Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen)
  • Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter)
  • Leela (Louise Jameson)
  • K-9 (John Leeson, voice, and David Brierly, voice)
  • Romanadvoratrelundar, aka Romana I (Mary Tamm)
  • Romanadvoratrelundar, aka Romana II (Lalla Ward)
  • Adric (Matthew Waterhouse)
  • Nyssa (Sarah Sutton)
  • Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding)

Of the companions, four in particular are emblematic of Tom Baker’s time as the Fourth Doctor: Sarah Jane Smith, Leela, Romana II, and K-9.

Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith stands in as the traditional viewer identification figure, an intelligent, current-day journalist from Earth whose travels with the Fourth Doctor are tempered by her journeys with the Third Doctor—just like the audience itself. Her exhortations to the Doctor to eliminate the Daleks in the proverbial cradle in “Genesis of the Daleks” represents her own hard-earned experience of the creatures’ capacity for evil, and the Fourth Doctor finally deciding to alter history and wipe them out goes a great way towards defining the character, even if the script takes the easy way out of the dilemma and has a Dalek accidentally trigger the cataclysm instead. Eventually, though, the Fourth Doctor becomes just a bit too alien for even Sarah Jane Smith to temper, with the series leaning heavily into his background as a Time Lord and desiring to finally leave Earth behind after the UNIT years. Sladen plays the role with exceptional grace and ability, and her final story, “The Hand of Fear,” showcases her talent by having her possessed for long stretches, to say nothing of her heartbreaking departure, which is perhaps the most touching since the First Doctor locked Susan out of the TARDIS on a Dalek-ravaged Earth (which, in retrospect, was about as bad as it sounds).

Not South Croydon

A more active Doctor requires a more active companion, and Louise Jameson’s Leela fits the bill entirely. Her background as a warrior from a planet ruled by a computer that thought it was the Fourth Doctor stands her in good stead as the Doctor’s foes become just that little bit more bloodthirsty. Too, her relative lack of technical sophistication gives the Doctor leave to explain quite a bit more than he would have needed to with Sarah Jane, a boon for writers eager to spool out exposition about their lovingly crafted settings. Compared to the Doctor’s slipping pacifism, Leela’s lethality makes him look a saint, another narrative tool much used during Jameson’s fairly brief spell as companion. Her departure, via an absurdly sudden romance with a Gallifreyan guard at the end of “The Invasion of Time,” remains an unsatisfying coda to what was otherwise a strong showing for Leela of the Sevateem.

Louise Jameson as Leela

While Mary Tamm continues to receive far too little appreciation for her time as Romana’s initial form—her crisp demeanor and inherent unwillingness to countenance the Doctor’s excesses rate Tamm’s Romana amongst the most “equal” of all the companions—focus nevertheless rests on Lalla Ward’s rendition of the first (and only) Time Lord to serve alongside the Doctor as companion. Baker and Ward’s on-screen chemistry cannot be denied, even as their off-screen connection waxed and waned and waxed and waned. Their interactions, particularly in “City of Death” and “Shada,” transform the series from one focused on a single character to one starring the pair of them, a trait some writers lean into and one which, perhaps, caused a bit of tension on a show that was already shifting its attention under John Nathan-Turner away from the Fourth Doctor. While her departure, along with K-9, at the end of “Warriors’ Gate,” is signposted as far back as “Meglos” some three stories prior, it, too, feels rushed, as though no more time should be spent on this character who is no longer in the series’ plans.

Lalla Ward as Romana

The treatment of that much-maligned metal mutt, K-9, serves as a handy weathervane for the series during Tom Baker’s time. Introduced with much fanfare during “The Invisible Enemy,” in which it (later gendered as he) holds off scores of foes with a very handy stun gun, K-9’s tendency to imbalance any narrative that puts the Doctor into physical danger soon becomes apparent, and successive writers take pains to run down his batteries, fabricate an impassable water obstacle, or otherwise render K-9 inoperable, the worst offender being David Fisher in “The Leisure Hive,” who simply chucks the duraluminum dog into the sea and blows him up. The robot was ostensibly introduced to appeal to a younger audience, and though John Leeson (supplanted briefly by David Brierly) tries to interject some degree of character and pathos into the modulated voice, there isn’t much K-9 can do beside roll around, shoot things, and beep. K-9 works best as a mobile computer, able to provide exposition on a moment’s notice, though more than a few writers and directors take advantage of K-9s firepower to avoid having to choreograph fight scenes. As time went on, K-9 simply no longer served a function on the show, with the need to explain away his absence taking time away from other narrative needs.

K-9 hunting in the tall grasses

Tom Baker’s run as the Fourth Doctor, beyond its record-setting tenure and popularity, sees Doctor Who mature into a series acknowledging its rich heritage, its convoluted lore, and leaning into that history—particularly with the strong focus on Gallifrey and the Time Lords—without scaring away more casual viewers. It’s a delicate balance. Baker manages to convey both the weight of the Fourth Doctor’s many years of life and the eager excitement of someone who is just getting started exploring the stars.

Resplendent in Prydonian orange

During his time in the role, the series changes, shifting away from an overt focus on serious themes; while “deep” topics are alluded to, there are no out-and-out confrontations with racism or environmental catastrophe as in prior Doctors’ runs. A lighter touch is employed in Tom Baker’s stories, with the emphasis being not on education or exhortation but on entertainment. Far from damning his time on the series with faint praise, instead the slightly breezier fare should be seen as a corrective, getting audiences engaged with the series once more. No matter the message, if no one is watching, the message is lost.

Aboard a spaceship in hyperspace

People watched Tom Baker, and still do. His version of the Doctor is, for all intents, the Doctor: likable, affable, brave, optimistic, determined, and just a bit alien, all wrapped up in a multi-color scarf too long for him, but long enough to wrap around us all.

Post 120 of the Doctor Who Project

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