Doctor Who Project: Tom Baker Retrospective

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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…

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Doctor Who Project: Logopolis

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Still, the future lies this way.

Season Eighteen of Doctor Who can be compared to renovating an inhabited house, as producer John Nathan-Turner, aided by script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, measures the windows, selects new carpeting, and pulls out the plumbing while the family already living there tries to get on with daily life. It is, charitably, an uneven season, with constant change from episode to episode, not all of it successful. But for the season finale—and Tom Baker’s final story—Bidmead delivers a striking tale, at once a meditative mood piece and a cracking bit of tense action: “Logopolis” (Story Production Code 5V) delivers on the promise of positive change in the series while providing Baker and the Fourth Doctor with a satisfying conclusion to over six years of adventures through time and space.

Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) and the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) in a decaying room deep in the TARDIS

The story starts in quotidian fashion, with the Doctor wanting to finally fix the wonky Chameleon Circuit on the TARDIS, allowing it to change shape into something other than a police box. He calls up the never-before-seen Chameleon Circuit panel, which pops out of the central console, to demonstrate what the TARDIS would look like as a pyramid. There’s a real sense of Bidmead wanting to add to the lore of the TARDIS, particularly with his introduction of the Cloister Bell, a staple plot device in years to come, which sounds its warning peals as the Doctor and Adric are talking in an old part of the ship overgrown with vines.

Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka and Dolore Whiteman as Aunt Vanessa

In order to repair the Chameleon Circuit, the Doctor first needs exactingly precise dimensions of the object the TARDIS is stuck externally representing, which necessitates a trip to Earth. Bidmead and director Peter Grimwade, a long-time Doctor Who crew member, go out on location to place a police box (or two) near a motorway leading to “London Airport,” a road along which Australian flight attendant Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) and her Aunt Vanessa (Dolore Whiteman) are driving before a flat tire stops them. It’s no ordinary police box that Tegan enters looking for help, though, as another TARDIS has already materialized around the box that was there.

A Police Box in a Police Box, with Adric on top

Rather than jump right into action and excitement, Bidmead slowly unspools the tension, spending the majority of the first of four episodes ruminating on the nature of the TARDIS, of the complications of dimensionality and recursive loops. When the Doctor’s TARDIS arrives at the very same police box, it lands “around” the other TARDIS, which itself landed around the real police box. After several minutes spent watching the Doctor and Adric measuring the police box and discussing the “block transfer computations” needed to reprogram the Chameleon Circuit—a type of mathematics so advanced it can only be done by the living computers of Logopolis—they venture inside the police box and find another TARDIS with a police box inside it, and on and on, a paradox caused by one TARDIS being inside another. The Doctor fears they are trapped in an infinite regression, but finally they pop out back on the motorway, where three police officers have some questions about an abandoned car with two dolls in the front seat…

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Fourteen Found: Ncuti Gatwa is the Fourteenth Doctor

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Fresh regeneration news today from Gallifrey (and, er, the BBC), with the announcement that Ncuti Gatwa will take on the role of the Fourteenth Doctor.

As is now tradition with new Doctors, I find myself unaware of Gatwa’s prior work, which says more about my media consumption habits than his CV. His background seems to be in comedy, having starred most recently in the Netflix series Sex Education. It strikes me that very few Doctor Who leads have worked mostly on the comedic side prior to assuming the role. The part of the Doctor definitely requires a light, comedic touch at times, particularly with Russell T. Davies taking the series helm once more, so hopefully he’ll have scripts that play to his strengths there while staying true to the Doctor’s inherently serious mien.

Much like Matt Smith, Gatwa looks to be on the young side for the role, but he’s roughly as old as Peter Davison was upon taking the part of the Fifth Doctor, and Davison’s take on the part was anything but callow. If there’s one thing the BBC knows how to do, it’s casting, so I’m confident that Gatwa’s run on Doctor Who will add something new and interesting to the continuing lore of the series.

It must, of course, be noted that Gatwa will be the first person of color to lead the show, which is nearing its sixtieth anniversary. He is not the first person of color to play the Doctor, that title going to Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor, who debuted during Jodie Whittaker’s run as a previously unknown regeneration and fits in somewhere around the First Doctor’s timeline (as best anyone can tell). As with Whittaker’s expansion of the role’s possibilities, Gatwa’s appointment gives credence to the core conceit of the series, that the Doctor can be anyone via the magic of regeneration, and I look forward to following the Fourteenth Doctor’s adventures.

Doctor Who Project: The Keeper of Traken

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Don’t listen to me. I never do.

By the time Johnny Byrne’s “The Keeper of Traken” (Story Production Code 5T) airs, recurring antagonists no longer appear on Doctor Who with distressing inevitability, unlike earlier years when the Daleks were penciled in for at least one appearance per season and the Cybermen would fill in as needed. Producers Phillip Hinchcliffe and Graham Williams avoid old home week quite admirably during their tenures from Seasons Thirteen through Seventeen, bringing back only the Sontarans, the Daleks, and the Master from the Doctor’s dusty rogues’ gallery, and then only once each, the better to heighten their impact on the screen. In their stead, the Fourth Doctor faces fresh foes and new challenges aplenty, making Tom Baker’s run one of constant wonder and surprise.

Adric and the Fourth Doctor conversing with the Keeper of Traken

Thus, at the start of the four episode story, as the Doctor and Adric confront the wizened form of the Keeper of Traken (Denis Carey), an amazingly powerful being capable of breaching the TARDIS thanks to the power of the Source, the audience expects another foray into the unknown. With the Keeper harnessing the Source, a quasi-mystical and ill-defined energy (not unlike the equally inexplicable Dodecahedron in “Meglos“), the Traken Union stands as a paragon of peace and tranquility, such that any evil being setting foot there calcifies and turns, slowly, to stone. This fate befalls the Melkur (Geoffrey Beevers), an ominous living statue that the Keeper warns the Doctor about while seeking the Time Lord’s help to prevent the Source from falling into malign hands.

The enigmatic Melkur

Byrne, who cut his writing chops on Space: 1999, slowly and subtly introduces the real force behind the Melkur. In keeping with new producer John Nathan-Turner and new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead’s focus on rewarding long-time viewers, Byrne and director John Black dole out just enough hints in Episodes Two and Three for audience members steeped in series lore to realize that the Melkur is in fact a TARDIS belonging to none other than the Master, well before the renegade Time Lord’s presence explicitly manifests in the last ten minutes of the final episode.

The view from inside the Master's Melkur TARDIS

Sadly, the impact of the Master’s return fizzles out by waiting so long to reveal him. His motivations receive short shrift indeed, boiling down to the Master’s de rigeur desire for conquest, revenge, and another regeneration. Far from matching wits with the Doctor, as in the finest battles between Jon Pertwee and the late Roger Delgado, the Master here simply waits in his moss-covered TARDIS, cackling occasionally and taking action only through others by dominating them mentally, such that the most dangerous figure for much of the story is an officious guard captain with an eye for a bribe…
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Doctor Who Project: Warriors’ Gate

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Do nothing, if it’s the right sort of nothing.

Where Terrance Dicks’ “State of Decay” suffers from too much exposition, first-time series writer Steve Gallagher’s “Warriors’ Gate” (Story Production Code 5S) leans in the opposite direction, doling out information in penny packets and leaving the audience confused through to the very end of the four episode story. As the final part of the “E-Space Trilogy,” which sees the Fourth Doctor attempting to get back to his own universe, “Warriors’ Gate” focuses very specifically on the predicament in a way the earlier stories in the mini-arc only obliquely touch upon. The demands placed on the narrative further intensify given that Romana and K-9 both leave the series at the conclusion of the tale, posing quite a task for an established script writer, to say nothing of a newcomer to the show. While both strands resolve sufficiently, the overall impression by the story’s close is one of sheer befuddlement.

The TARDIS crew trapped between dimensions (or something)

The entirety of the story takes place in an intermediate time and space dimension, a gateway between E-Space and N-Space (the “normal” universe), a blank white canvas that immediately calls to mind the “nothingness” that so frightened the Second Doctor in “The Mind Robber.” The Fourth Doctor is more sanguine about the trapped predicament he, Romana, K-9, and Adric find themselves in, even after “time winds” smash open the TARDIS doors, allowing a furry humanoid to burst in and set the coordinates all to zero—the intersection between E-Space and N-Space.

Biroc the Tharil (David Weston) on the loose in the TARDIS

The humanoid, a Tharil named Biroc (David Weston), has escaped from a spaceship crewed by humans from an indeterminate era and background, though their mannerisms and colloquialisms suggest they’re originally from Earth, like pretty much every human civilization encountered in the series. These humans, commanded by Captain Rorvik (Clifford Rose), use the Tharils as navigators for their ship, employing their time sensitivity to enable them to plot a safe course through time and space. Far from a mutually beneficial relationship, humans enslave the Tharils for this purpose, apparently journeying into E-Space, whence Tharils originate, on slaving expeditions.

Captain Rorvik (Clifford Rose) and crew

Rorvik’s ship, filled with a cargo of Tharil slaves in suspended animation, has, somehow, also been stranded in the intermediate zone, ostensibly because Biroc guided it there in a bid for freedom. Along with the narrative uncertainty, director Paul Joyce’s adds visual discomfort through his incessant use of jerky, stuttering, stop-start filming to portray moments of time shifting and phasing. Though a clever approach, the excessive use of the technique leads to an unpleasant viewing experience, particularly in the first episode where several minutes are filmed in this manner.

Romana and the Fourth Doctor, slightly out of phase

Tonally as well, “Warriors’ Gate” shifts around, moving not just from the serious to the silly but from the present to the past, and this aspect of the story adds interest and moves the plot forward. Along with the “futuristic” spaceship (bearing a passing resemblance to the one from “Meglos“) and the TARDIS, the scruffy all-white wasteland of the intermediate dimension also houses an elaborate stone castle gate, inside of which the Doctor finds a decaying feast hall, festooned with cobwebs, skeletons, dusty mirrors, and suits of armor that, inevitably, come to life…
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Doctor Who Project: State of Decay

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Well, I’ve never been a great one for swarming.

For all the monsters and notionally scary moments and themes in Doctor Who, the series seldom veers into out-and-out horror. When it does, however, former script editor Terrance Dicks is usually the writer. His “State of Decay” (Series Production Code 5P) draws heavily on the trappings of Hammer horror to present a tale of ancient space vampires, visually evoking Christopher Lee’s turns as Dracula, but the resulting story winds up casting the bloodsuckers as toothless caricatures instead of fang-some foes, about as frightening as the glowing green goopy Rutan in Dicks’ last offering, “Horror of Fang Rock.”

King Zargo (William Lindsay) and Queen Camilla (Rachel Davies) Resting

The four episode story begins with much promise, even if it does retread ground from “Full Circle” in presenting a society that devolved from a crashed spaceship generations earlier. Trying to find a way out of E-Space, that sparsely populated alternate universe the TARDIS accidentally entered in the prior story, our Time Lords (plus stowaway) land on an unnamed planet with evidence of both high technology and minimal energy output, all focused around a tower and a village. The rulers of the planet, King Zargo (William Lindsay) and Queen Camilla (Rachel Davies), exert complete control over the small rural populace, aided by their councillor, Aukon (Emrys James). Festooned with elaborate facial makeup, the three Lords exert a strange power over their people. Throw in a prohibition on any form of knowledge amongst the peasantry that is quickly subverted when one villager surreptitiously pulls out a radio communicator, and a real sense of mystery begins to unfold.

The Fourth Doctor explains how to use a computer

Horror, after all, relies on a slow drip of fear and uncertainty, and Doctor Who‘s tendency to gradually unveil the monster or threat fits that model nicely, but the first two episodes give themselves over to broad exposition instead, diluting any tension the setting has developed. Dicks takes pains to establish the social structure, with peasants being selected regularly to go to the Tower, where the lucky become guards—and the unlucky are never seen again. In due course, the Fourth Doctor and Romana are captured by rebels who have discovered some technology, leading the Doctor to unpack the origins of the civilization on an ancient computer monitor: an exploratory spaceship from 1990s Earth that was pulled into E-Space over a thousand years prior.

Crew Roster of the Hydrax

The leaders of that spaceship—Captain Sharkey, Navigator MacMillan, and Science Officer O’Connor—look remarkably like Zargo, Camilla, and Aukon, and rather than some grand revelation that they are one and the same, alive for a thousand years as the living dead, the Doctor and Romana instead take a few minutes to discuss folklorist Jacob Grimm’s theory of consonantal shift and theorize that the name MacMillan softened over time to become Camilla and so on. Sociolinguistics, in a vampire story. Though fascinating in a real sense, it’s only marginally less exciting than the Adric trying, and failing, to steal food again…
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