An Appreciation of the Tom Baker Era (Part 1)

Fourth_Doctor_androidTom Baker portrayed the Doctor for seven years, the longest run of any of the actors who played the part on television. Originated by William Hartnell, refined by Patrick Troughton and played with class by Jon Pertwee, it is Baker’s take — and look — that would come to be the definitive version of the character. But like the previous actors, this performance was not shaped in a vacuum and its success is due in equal measure to Baker, incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Oh, and I suppose some shout-outs should be given to outgoing producer Barry Letts, script editor Terrence Dicks and Bill Slater, the de-facto executive producer of the show at the time.

Which takes us back to Pertwee’s final year. With the key production people leaving, the BBC brought on Philip Hinchcliffe to shadow Letts and learn the ins and outs of the show. Meanwhile, Letts began looking for an actor to replace Pertwee as the final recording of the season would be the incoming Doctor’s first outing.

At the same time, down-on-his-luck actor Tom Baker had trouble landing parts and was working on a construction site when he wrote a letter to Bill Slater asking for work. Slater was the head of serials at the BBC and, for the purposes of this story, the executive in charge of Doctor Who‘s production. Slater previously suggested Elizabeth Sladden to Letts as the Doctor’s new assistant and, seeing Baker’s note, suggested him as well. The producer recalls taking it under advisement and scheduling a meeting with the tall, odd man. Following the meeting, Letts and Dicks went to see a film Baker managed to land — The Golden Voyage of Sindbad — and were convinced he was right for the part.

Granted, it wasn’t the part of Letts originally envisioned.

After five years of Pertwee’s athletic, action-oriented Doctor, the production team thought they might return to an older, Hartnell-esque persona. Baker’s chops and personality swayed the plan and it would be the key element, along with companion Sarah Jane Smith, Hinchcliffe inherited when he took over the next year.

Meanwhile, Dicks found a replacement in his favorite freelance writer, Robert Holmes. Holmes delivered some of the most memorable stories of the Third Doctor era, including Pertwee’s first, “Spearhead from Space” and its quasi-sequel, “Terror of the Autons.” Dicks also arranged for Holmes to commission him as the writer of the first Baker era story. Dicks recalled writing the Doctor as particularly erratic following his regeneration and assumed it would mellow out as time went on, but it meshed well with Baker’s personality and never really mellowed.

As seen in this first adventure, “Robot”, the Fourth Doctor emerges from a troubled regeneration anxious to leave Earth. He is swayed only by the passing memory of his friends, Sarah Jane Smith and Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. They convince him to stick around and help investigate a number of strange robberies. But before they can begin, the Doctor assembles his new dress-sense.

The Fourth Doctor

The costume, like Baker himself, is immediately iconic. And though there would be refinements for both over the years, it is, even now, what people think of as Doctor Who.

We also see a Doctor far less refined than Pertwee. A man whose priorities seem at odds with the humans around him. Though still as gifted as he ever was, his manner appears scattered, verging on foolish. But his foolishness disarms his opponents as they discount the vagabond with an absurdly long scarf. While aloof, he still cares a great deal for Sarah Jane. The two actors had an immediate chemistry that served the characters well for the next two years, even if their first season featured a third traveler, UNIT medic Harry Sullivan, conceived of when Letts expected to cast a much older Doctor and rendered surplus with the casting of Baker.

Though, I will say Harry, as played by the late Ian Marter, did mix well with the group. It was just a shame there was never enough story to go around to keep him onboard. He would depart at the season’s end and make a one-off appearance the subsequent year.

That first year, Hinchcliffe and Holmes would work from stories commissioned by Letts. They would feature the return of the Daleks and Holmes’ Sontarans amongst new creatures like the Zygons and the Wirrn. Recalling the earliest days of the program, each story set up the following one; a device that would not return for six years following this brief experiment. While the stories themselves would not represent the material Hinchcliffe had in mind, they began to take on some of the darker, serious tones he and Holmes would infuse into their second year. The production also began to look more grand with the arrival of production designer Roger Murray-Leach. Once given the reigns fully, the show became parade of macabre stories with gothic production values and an increased emphasis on drama and tight plots. This also meant the violence increased.

Several of these stories are looked on as classics now, such as “The Brain of Morbius,” a riff on Frankenstein, a Mummy mystery called “The Pyramid of Mars” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” a love letter to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that is looked upon as Holmes’ masterpiece.

Full disclosure: I don’t like “The Talons of Weng-Chaing.” I might go into greater length on that some day, but instead, I’d rather highlight a story that sees Baker, Hinchcliffe and Holmes at the peak of their skills and forever cements an important facet of the mythology: “The Deadly Assassin.”

Leaving Sarah Jane behind, the Doctor returns to Gallifrey (the name itself an invention of Holmes) to stop the assassination of the outgoing Lord President. It represents the first, full-scale exploration of Time Lord society and no one was better suited for the task than Holmes himself. Never a fan of the concept, he conceived of Gallifrey as a stagnant — and oddly American — society of be-robbed bureaucrats high on their own perceived power and invulnerability. Like some of the other stories of the era, it is a riff — however loosely — on an older story, “The Manchurian Candidate” in this case, but it is expertly told by Holmes, expertly executed by Hinchcliffe and his production team and expertly anchored by Baker, who goes companion-less for this story; a series first. The story also introduced the Seal of Rasslion, Rassilon himself, the Eye of Harmony, the High Counsel of Gallifrey and the recently negated notion of the 12 regenerations limit. But beyond all that, it’s just great mid-70s British television.

The villain was a disintegrating 13th Master at the end of his regeneration cycle.

The villain was a disintegrating 13th Master at the end of his regeneration cycle.

A cliffhanger from the story featuring the Doctor apparently drowning also got the production in trouble with a British watchdog group. The kerfuffle led to the BBC Director General apologizing and no doubt contributed to Hinchcliffe’s and Holmes’ decision to move on.

But first, they would continue on for a handful of stories in their format — sci-fi infused gothic retellings of great stories — before handing the show over to Graham Williams and a string of script editors hopelessly outclassed by Holmes (including one name that will surprise you in Part 2). The show would never see such cohesion again until the 2004 revival. Interestingly enough, both Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat point to the Letts/Dicks and Hinchcliffe/Holmes eras as their goalposts in terms of effective storytelling and production values.

Which, Graham Williams would erode, but that’s a story for another day.

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About Erik

Erik Amaya is the host of Tread Perilously and the former Head Film/TV writer at Bleeding Cool. He has also contributed to sites like CBR, Comics Alliance and Fanbase Press. He is also the voice of Puppet Tommy on "The Room Responds."
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