The arrival of Tom Baker seemed to bring with it a change of tone – not for the first time. Since the character was more jovial (compared to the stern Pertwee version), the stories developed a humour to them as well. When coupled with dark themes, this gave some of the stories a distinctive style of their own. It added wit and charm to darkness and horror, and handled it all with confidence. I’ve watched this show gradually transform from melodramatic stage drama to rather ambitious TV sci-fi that pushed the envelope in many ways. Some serials, like The Deadly Assassin, made bold changes to shake up the format, and it’s been an interesting journey to work through them.
This era of Doctor Who is widely regarded by fans as the definitive era, the golden years, and I can see why. Certainly, seasons 13 and 14 represent a high point of quality and consistency. There are a few missteps along the way, and towards the end things start getting a bit stale, but nevertheless, this is the most consistent run of good stories so far.
Along the way has been a collection of companions who have perhaps been overshadowed next to the Doctor. Sarah Jane Smith was witness to the Doctor’s transformation from Three to Four but her potential was never fully realised. Romana was an attempt to match the Doctor’s intellect, but she was never developed much as a character herself (before or after her change of appearance). Leela was my favourite, being so out of touch with the world(s) around her, and providing a primal energy and resourcefulness that complimented the Doctor nicely. Her departure was weakly handled.
But before I agonise over my favourite serials, there is the matter of the Doctor himself.
Thoughts on the Fourth Doctor
What can I say about Tom Baker as Doctor Who that hasn’t been said countless times before? All I can add, as an outsider (coming from modern era first), is that I see exactly from where Eccleston, Tennant and Smith draw their inspiration. He IS the Doctor, the yardstick by which others will always be judged. Tom Baker portrays the Doctor as an eccentric alien, but maintains an air of humanity and compassion. He always gives the impression that he has a universe of thoughts running through his mind, evidenced by his absent-mindedness and in the way he changes his mind or contradicts himself and others at the drop of a hat.
He is able to be preoccupied by the smallest of things, like his scarf or jellybabies, even while the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. The way he faces down death with a smile, mockery and an undercurrent of threat, is just masterful. Such is the Doctor’s strong presence, that he is even able to assert his authority in any given situation, pretending to be somebody else or simply dodging the questions and taking charge, without the need for the ‘psychic paper’ McGuffin of later series.
If I have any complaints about Tom Baker’s version of the Doctor, it would simply be that some of his mannerisms start to wear thin. After seven years of TV (crammed into four months), that is understandable. Admittedly, offering jellybabies to people remained as funny to me as ever, but his contradictory plans, low mumbling punctuated with shouts of “come on” in the last couple of seasons did start to grate. The way he would escape death so often could weaken the sense of threat and drama. Also, on occasion, his character became a little too detached and inhuman, but this was a rarity.
On the whole, Tom Baker has been superb, so much so that even the poor stories are brought to life by his performance. He has effortlessly topped my list of Doctors, so my order of preference right now looks like this:
Tom Baker > Patrick Troughton > Jon Pertwee > William Hartnell
Picking out the cream of the crop of Tom Baker stories has been difficult. Not only do I have to choose from seven seasons of stories, more than any other Doctor, but there are just so many that are almost impossible to separate without being a bit ruthless. It would be easier for me to list the bad ones, or certainly quicker, or to pick twenty-odd serials that I thought were good enough to mention. Alas, I am imposing a limit of seven, which seems fair, so inevitably, some good ones slip through the net. A shame, as I enjoyed The Android Invasion and The Pirate Planet, for instance, but they won’t get a mention. Oh, hang on, they just did!
The Sontaran Experiment (2 parts)
A low-key tale of Sontaran wickedness and Time Lord cunning. Gripping sci-fi done on a tiny budget.
Pyramids of Mars (4 parts)
A change of scenery and an imposing villain add a lot to this well-written four-parter.
The Deadly Assassin (4 parts)
This mystery story changes to a darker tone, brings back an old villain and explores the Time Lords home world.
The Robots of Death (4 parts)
A “Who-dunnit” with robots, thought-provoking themes and a cast of likable characters.
The Sun Makers (4 parts)
An Orwellian nightmare pushed to farcical extremes, it is nevertheless very modern and watchable.
City of Death (4 parts)
A jaunty contemporary style makes this a lighthearted adventure in Paris and beyond.
The Leisure Hive (4 parts)
A solid story is backed up by the best studio direction and audio work I’ve encountered in this series so far.