Ask any American Doctor Who fan — or even ask any American — who their first Doctor was, and invariably they’ll point to “that guy with the scarf”, Tom Baker. That he is seen by many as the definitive Doctor is more than just a testament to his longevity (at seven seasons, he is easily the longest serving Doctor of the program, although technically he was outlasted by Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann, who spent most of their tenure off the air); rather, it is a testament to the forceful personality Tom Baker was able to imbue into the character. He had the physical abilities of Jon Pertwee, but he also had an alien eccentricity that all previous Doctors lacked. He was larger than life, and it is during his time that the Doctor became a true superhero.
But the secret of Tom Baker’s success was the quality of writing that the production crew was able to achieve at the time of his arrival. The producers, especially Phillip Hinchcliffe, had a strong vision for where the program should go, and to them Doctor Who was not just a children’s show anymore, but a program designed to appeal to a slightly older audience. Their success enabled a breakthrough onto the American market in the late seventies and early eighties — a breakthrough that would prove critical to the show’s current success.
The length of Tom Baker’s time on the program, and the quality of his work leave me with something of a dilemma. I find that limiting my selection to just five essential stories is impossible. And so I am going to cheat.
The Ark in Space (1974)
After a short look backward to the Jon Pertwee era with Robot, the fourth Doctor takes Sarah Jane Smith and Dr. Harry Sullivan on a jaunt to the far future, and so propels the program out of the nursery and into the drawing room, as script writer Robert Holmes puts it. The tone of the program becomes a lot more mature.
The Doctor, Sarah and Harry encounter the human race asleep on a space station called the Ark. The station has been built to allow humanity to hibernate, as the Earth is bathed in deadly radiation from heightened solar flare activity. And while the captain is shamelessly named Noah, don’t let this fool you; the jokes take second fiddle to the horror. Humanity has overslept, and the space station has been invaded and sabotaged by the Wirrun, a space faring intelligent giant wasp which has implanted eggs in some of the crew, in the hopes of consuming the remains of humanity and extracting its revenge for the death of its own species. The storytelling gets pretty serious pretty fast as Noah succumbs to the influence and the other humans fight for their lives. In particular, Noah’s transformation is horrible, as the actor and the script writer do a good job of showing the man’s fight to retain his consciousness in the face of the Wirrun’s influence.
The similarities between this show and Alien are hard to miss, except that Alien wouldn’t debut for another five years. Robert Holmes, easily the best writer of Doctor Who, was ahead of his time in a number of respects. His script for the later story, The Deadly Assassin, featured a mental battle between the Doctor and the villain in a virtual reality world set within a gigantic computer system known as the Matrix Data Bank — over a quarter century before the debut of The Matrix, and even before William Gibson’s own launching of the Cyberpunk genre.
The Ark in Space was the first story produced by Philip Hinchcliffe with the assistance of script editor Robert Holmes. The stories that would follow would continue this upswing in quality and in maturity, but then the show would reach a pinnacle that has never been seen before or since.
The Gothic Era (The Seeds of Doom to Horror of Fang Rock) (1975-77)
(Includes The Seeds of Doom, Masque of Mandragora, The Hand of Fear, The Deadly Assassin, The Face of Evil, The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock)
Here’s where I cheat. These eight stories, comprising 36 consecutive episodes of the program (the fourteenth season, plus the finale to season thirteen and the fifteenth season’s premiere), are the best that the show has ever produced. The overwhelming majority of old Doctor Who fans who remember what early episodes introduced them into the program, invariably cite these.
I originally started this entry by writing down The Deadly Assassin as my first choice for quintessential Tom Baker Who, but then I had to add The Face of Evil and then Robots of Death and then Talons of Weng Chiang, and then I gave up. The run from The Deadly Assassin to Talons of Weng Chiang has not a single false note in it (okay, one piece of overacting in Talons, but easily overlooked by the great stuff surrounding it. The writing is firing on all cylinders, and Tom Baker is at the apex of his career, showing off the confidence he’d gained in his role, but not having gone too far into silliness. Louise Jameson ably replaces Elisabeth Sladen in the companion role and her savage Leela is an excellent Eliza foil to the Doctor’s Henry Higgins.
And the stories themselves vary delightfully, as the Doctor and his companion face carnivorous alien plants, an attempt by an energy-based alien lifeform to subvert the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance, a stone alien attempting to rebuild herself with nuclear radiation, the Doctor and the Master fighting for control of Gallifrey, a mad super computer struggling with an imprint of the Doctor’s personality, murdering Art Deco robots, and a romp through Victorian London that would have done Sherlock Holmes proud. Uniting all of these tales is a sense of maturity and a dark touch which gives the Gothic Era its name, an atmosphere exemplified by the appearance of the mahogany control room in the TARDIS that would have its place for Season Fourteen only, and never be seen again.
The Ribos Operation (1978)
Tom Baker’s performance of the Doctor is remarkably dynamic. Compare a story from his fifth season (like The Ribos Operation) to his second season (like The Seeds of Doom), and it’s as though you’re watching two different characters. Part of this change is the result of Tom Baker gradually overpowering the producers’ vision and adding more and more eccentricities to the role, and also part of the BBC’s edict, after parental complaints during the Gothic Era of the program, that the violence be turned down. The Graham William’s era of the show is known for favouring comedy over drama. Sometimes this worked; sometimes this didn’t.
Just as Robert Holmes set the stage for the onset of the Gothic Era of the program by writing The Ark in Space, in many ways he set up the Graham William’s era by writing The Ribos Operation. He was nothing if not versatile and The Ribos Operation is a excellent example of a strong all-round story from the Graham Williams era, balancing comedy with drama. It also introduces the Key to Time sequence, a season-long storyline where the Doctor is charged by the White Guardian to fine the six segments of the Key to Time which will allow the Guardian to stop the universe and rebalance it. The Doctor is, of course, opposed by the Black Guardian. The search for the first segment takes the Doctor and Romana to the medieval planet Ribos, where their task is complicated by an intergalactic con artist Garron trying to sell the planet to a intergalactic feudal king Graff Vynda-K seeking to regain his throne.
There is a definite Tsarist vibe going through the piece, and atmospheric throwbacks to the Gothic Era, but Tom Baker punctures this with a touch of slapstick, a game of one-upsmanship with his new companion, eager young Time Lady Romana, and a number of decent one-liners fed to him by Holmes himself. He is matched by the boisterous eccentricities of Garron who relishes the con-artist role like any televised lovable con-artist. The script is clever and even has moments of poignancy. Well worth watching.
The City of Death (1979)
Douglas Adams influence on the Graham Williams era of the program can’t be overlooked. Conscripted into the job of script editor after supplying the Key to Time story The Pirate Planet, he took the humourous approach of the Graham Williams era and added his Hitch Hikers vibe to it. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it clashed (see Destiny of the Daleks for a remarkable knock-down, drag-out fight between the bog-standard action style of Terry Nation and Adams’ whimsey). Unsurprisingly, where it worked best was when Adams wrote the script from scratch, rather than rewriting a script by another author who just didn’t get Adams’ unique brand of humour. The City of Death is Adams’ best effort (actually credited to “David Agnew”, a pseudonym for Douglas Adams and Graham Williams, who collaborated on this project), combining his comic stylings with the ingenious plotting which is a trademark of all his work.
Early in the formation of Earth, the last Jagaroth commands a spaceship carrying the race bank of his vanished species. He’s having a very bad day. The planet that he’d hoped would be a new home for his reborn race is wholly unsuitable, barren and lifeless, in the earliest stages of development. But trying for takeoff, a fault develops and his ship explodes, shattering him into twelve pieces, each with their own identity, scattered throughout Earth’s future history. In modern-day Paris, Count Scarlioni coordinates with his other selves through time, collecting priceless antiquities and selling them off to pay for the time experiments that he hopes will enable him to go back to the destruction of his spaceship and stop the disaster. The con includes commissioning Leonardo DaVinci to paint six additional copies of the Mona Lisa, to be sold off to six separate buyers after the real Mona Lisa is stolen from the Louvre. Of course the Doctor and Romana can’t stand idly by while the art theft and, incidentally, the changing of history, takes place.
Scarlioni and his other eleven selves are played by Julian Glover with Bond villain delight, and Adams has great fun with one-liners that Glover and Baker relish (“I love your butler! He’s so violent!”). There is a joie de vivre here that isn’t present in the surrounding stories that aren’t written by Douglas Adams, and everything steps up, including the music. This episode is an undisputed gem of the series.
Season 18 (The Leisure Hive to Logopolis) (1980-1)
(Includes The Leisure Hive, Meglos, Full Circle, State of Decay, Warriors’ Gate, The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis)
At the end of Season 17 (which featured The City of Death), there were dramatic changes in the Doctor Who back office. Graham Williams and Douglas Adams both left, and the task of producing the series was left to John Nathan-Turner, an excellent production manager who had been working for the program in a variety of capacity since the Troughton era. With the help of script editor Christopher Bidmead and executive producer Barry Letts, the decision was made to dramatically alter the look and feel of the show. A new opening sequence was commissioned, a new logo, and the comedy that had been the hallmark of the Graham Williams era was tossed out the window, for better or for worse.
The changes did not sit well with Tom Baker and between this and a desire from Chris Bidmead and John Nathan-Turner to clean out the program from the top down, it resulted in the actor’s departure as the Doctor when, in all likelihood, he could have been persuaded to sign on for an eighth season. The matter obviously resulted in some bad feelings (as the documentary to the DVD release of Logopolis attests), but it might ultimately have been the right decision. At the time, the show was showing its age. The initial ratings of Season 18 had the program trounced by competition from Buck Rogers, and Tom Baker had been at the helm for so long, some viewers couldn’t even remember Jon Pertwee’s regeneration. What Season 18 did, and is remarkable for, is it gave Tom Baker’s Doctor a proper season-long good-bye, something that no other Doctor has received.
Yes, I cheated here too in my selection criteria. The twenty-eight episode run is the second strongest that the series has made, after the Gothic Era of the program — only Meglos falls flat — but that’s not why I select the season as a whole. Despite its diversity of settings, these stories are united by their look and feel, a reliance on early eighties synthesizer music, a bit of glitz, but most of all for Tom Baker’s performance as his eccentricities give way to a more sombre approach. The Doctor who was practically immortal during the Graham Williams era, now looked and acted old. This culminates with his regeneration story Logopolis, and while that story is excellent on its own, you only really appreciate its doom laden atmosphere when you watch the build-up, as the immortal Doctor confronts his mortality.
Season 18 rescued the Doctor. By the end of its run, the ratings had returned from the brink of disaster in the United Kingdom to just about reasonable. And the publicity surrounding Tom Baker’s departure brought the program back to public attention in the United Kingdom, just as Tom Baker’s own popularity in the United States fostered the growth of a North American-based fandom that would coalesce in the years following, likely assuring the program’s return to our screens decades later.