Tom Baker became the Fourth Doctor in 1974, taking over from the immensely successful Jon Pertwee who’d been the incumbent Time Lord for five years. This was the first time in the show’s history that an actor had been leaving Doctor Who at a time of peak popularity; the Third Doctor was regularly attracting audiences between eight and 10 million, so the prospect of following Jon Pertwee’s act must have been a daunting one.
However, Tom Baker needn’t have worried. His first season was immensely popular with viewers, peaking at a dizzying 13.6 million during the transmission of his second story ‘The Ark in Space,’ written by Robert Holmes. This was a trend that would continue over the next seven years. For many people, he became the definitive Doctor, instantly identifiable by his bohemian get-up, his penchant for jelly babies, and his multi-coloured, 18 ft. long scarf (we sell them don’t you know, plug plug.)
But who was the Fourth Doctor? And if you’ve never seen one of his adventures, where on earth should you begin?
All teeth and curls
As I said, for many people Tom Baker was the one and only Doctor Who. Even today, for people less familiar with the programme, he’s one of the first names that comes to mind when Doctor Who is mentioned. Of course, there is an endless debate as to what constitutes a definitive ‘Doctorish’ personality, and there’s really no way of settling that argument. Some may look to the very first Doctor, William Hartnell (the original, you might say) but beyond that, his or her characterisation is very much up for grabs. However, Verity Lambert (Doctor Who‘s original producer) did go on record saying that Tom Baker’s portrayal was closest to her vision of what the Doctor should be like.
Like Hartnell, he’s certainly eccentric and whimsical. According to Tom Baker, this required very little acting on his part, as he quickly realised that the best way to play a mysterious alien from another planet was “to just be Tom Baker.” As such, it can often be difficult to work out where the Fourth Doctor ends and Tom Baker begins, a problem which occasionally reared its head on set, when the actor would sometimes clash with directors who were perhaps less familiar with the show.
But despite the character’s zaniness, there is no doubt that he commanded authority. As well as being tall in stature, the Fourth Doctor had incredible presence, and had no compunction with sizing up to monstrous aliens or villains, no matter how powerful. He could, however, be hard to take seriously at times. For example, there is one moment in ‘The Creature from the Pit’ where he faces certain death, as the eponymous creature looms over him menacingly, and the Doctor simply cries out, “You’re standing on my scarf…”
Equally, you can quake in fear in stories such as ‘The Pirate Planet‘ where he screams manically at the deranged Pirate Captain, desperately trying to get him to see reason. For all his jokes and witticisms, there’s no doubt that you’ll always feel safe when you travel with the Fourth Doctor.
Unusually in the history of Doctor Who, the Fourth Doctor’s era spawned companions who became almost as famous as the Time Lord himself. The character of Sarah Jane Smith, for example, may have been introduced during the Third Doctor’s run, but she quickly became synonymous with Tom Baker, travelling with him through time and space for almost three years. Portrayed by Elisabath Sladen, the character would return many times after leaving the show, first in the short-lived K9 and Company spin-off from 1981, then in ‘The Five Doctors’ in 1983, and then in ‘School Reunion’ opposite the Tenth Doctor in 2006.
In fact, Sarah Jane proved to be so popular that she received her own spin-off series in 2006, The Sarah Jane Adventures, which ran on CBBC until the actor’s death in 2011, with the final episodes being transmitted posthumously later that year.
Elisabeth Sladen made her final Doctor Who appearance in 2010’s ‘The End of Time Part Two,’ where she caught sight of David Tennant’s Doctor shortly before his regeneration.
And speaking of spin-offs, Sarah Jane Smith was not the only companion to receive her own series. The Doctor’s robotic dog K9 (who first appeared in ‘The Invisible Enemy’ in 1978) may not have been the easiest of characters to work with on set (owing to his robotics) but his impact with viewers – particularly the younger ones – cannot be downplayed. Voiced by John Leeson (and briefly David Brierley) the character went on to star in 1981’s K9 and Company alongside Elisabeth Sladen, and also made a return in ‘The Five Doctors,’ ‘School Reunion,’ ‘Journey’s End’ and several episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
There was also an independently-produced Australian spin-off dubbed simply K9, produced by the character’s creator Bob Baker, and plans are currently in place to produce a standalone movie titled K9: Timequake, in which he’ll battle the rogue Time Lord Omega, also created by Baker.
Which are the key Fourth Doctor stories?
Arguably, the Fourth Doctor era is home to some of the greatest Doctor Who stories that have ever been told. There are several reasons for this, one being that Tom Baker simply played the part for so long. He was bound to amass a fair handful of classics, simply by virtue of being the incumbent Doctor for seven years.
But we cannot overlook the incredible partnership of Philip Hinchcliffe (producer, 1974 – 77) and Robert Holmes (script editor and writer.) The fusing of these incredible minds generated, undoubtedly, some of the best Doctor Who stories of all time. Some of these emerged from germs of ideas that they outsourced to other writers, whilst others came from the typewriter of Robert Holmes himself.
And there are far too many for me to write about in detail, but trust me when I say you’ll want to take a look at ‘The Ark in Space,’ ‘Pyramids of Mars,’ ‘The Robots of Death,’ ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang,’ ‘Horror of Fang Rock,’ and ‘City of Death,’ to name a few.
Now, in terms of key adventures, you’ll also want to make ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ a priority. Written by Terry Nation, this adventure frequently tops the list of fan favourites. As the title suggests, this epic adventure tells the story of the Daleks’ creation, and introduces one of the show’s most enduring villains – the insane Davros, ‘father’ of the Dalek race. In short, ‘Genesis’ is six episodes of gritty, bleak, war-torn, Nazi-esque storytelling, and isn’t the most light-hearted in Doctor Who‘s history. But it’s certainly a thrill ride.
Then there’s ‘The Deadly Assassin’ from 1977. In this story, the Fourth Doctor travels solo to his home planet of Gallifrey, where he’s framed for the murder of the president and goes on an adventure into a strange alternate reality known as the Matrix. It turns out (spoiler alert) that his old enemy the Master is behind these shenanigans, as he desperately clings to life in the husk of a dying body.
And like ‘Genesis,’ ‘The Deadly Assassin’ is another important moment in Doctor Who history for its rather controversial depiction of the Time Lords as corrupt, bickering politicians, as well as introducing the famous Eye of Harmony, which would become an important plot point in stories to come (see The TV Movie (1996) and ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’ from 2013.)
Finally, you can’t leave the Fourth Doctor without joining him for his final adventure – ‘Logopolis’ from 1981. It might not be a classic, but it is certainly a good yarn, and is notable for the reintroduction of the Master as he takes his new body for a test drive, and it also introduces the character of Tegan Jovanka, who would go on to become one of Doctor Who‘s longest-serving companions. It also takes an interesting new look at the concept of regeneration, and features the distant, voiceless entity of the Watcher, constantly gazing at the Doctor and his companions from afar…
So tell me, which is your favourite Fourth Doctor story? Or, if you’ve never seen one, which do you plan to watch first? And if you grew up watching Tom Baker in the 1970s, what are your earliest memories of him? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Official BBC 4th Doctor (Tom Baker) Season 12 full size scarf – Order now from the Lovarzi shop!
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