What led to the regeneration of the Fourth Doctor in 1981?
By 1980, Tom Baker was officially the longest-serving Doctor of all time. The Fourth Doctor had first graced our TV screens in 1975 in ‘Robot,’ and had been piloting the good ship TARDIS for some six years by the time the 18th season came around.
This coincided with a number of behind-the-scenes changes. The producer Graham Williams had recently left the programme, and the production unit manager John Nathan-Turner was set to take over his job. At the same time, the Fourth Doctor’s much-loved (and short-lived) script editor Douglas Adams had moved on to handle a little franchise known as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, leaving a space that would soon be filled by scribe and science boffin Christopher H. Bidmead.
Moreover, Tom Baker had begun a relationship with his colleague and fellow Time Lord Romana, played by Lalla Ward, and tensions between the pair had been causing some difficulties on set. And as if all that wasn’t enough, Doctor Who was also trying to recover from the cancellation of its previous season finale ‘Shada,’ which had been canned due to a series of strikes at the BBC.
Finally, there was some concern among the new production team – and indeed, the public – that the Fourth Doctor’s era had become overly comical. This was due to many factors. Certainly, the script editor Douglas Adams was known for his whimsy, as was the Fourth Doctor. And Tom Baker embraced the comedy opportunities that the character afforded him; he frequently adlibbed during the recordings, and because of this he sometimes clashed with members of the production team.
But Tom Baker loved the part, and his public loved him. Even today he is one of the first actors people think of when they hear the words “Doctor Who,” and his over-sized scarf has become something of a cultural icon (you may have noticed that we sell them 😉 ) Letting go was not going to be easy.
But at the same time, John Nathan-Turner wanted to reinvent the programme and cast his own Doctor to take the series forward. And so it was agreed, by mutual consent, that the Fourth Doctor’s seventh season would be his last.
Of course, many of John Nathan-Turner’s radical changes began before the actual regeneration, and virtually every aspect of the show changed over the course of Season 18. Nathan-Turner commissioned a new title sequence, a bold new theme tune, a new style of incidental music, a new costume for the Fourth Doctor, and a new roster of companions. Romana II and K9 were quickly written out at the end of the E-Space trilogy, leaving new boy Adric in their stead – shortly followed by Nyssa of Traken, and air stewardess Tegan Jovanka.
The thinking behind this new line-up was to make the TARDIS team a little less “smart.” Nathan-Turner felt that it was unhelpful for the audience if the Fourth Doctor‘s companions were a fellow Time Lord and a talking computer, as both were supremely intelligent and didn’t require many of the stories’ plot points to be explained to them. And so he replaced them with characters who were “less versed” in the finer details of temporal engineering. Adric, for example, came from a completely different universe, whilst Nyssa (although highly intelligent) had experienced a relatively sheltered upbringing on her home world of Traken. Tegan, meanwhile, was an everyday human who had stumbled into the TARDIS by mistake.
And many of these changes came suddenly. Adric was established relatively early in the season, and travelled for a time with Romana and K9. But Nyssa and Tegan were introduced across the series’ last two stories, over the course of which the Fourth Doctor’s deadly enemy the Master was also resurrected, complete with a plan to conquer the universe. The Doctor, of course, takes all of this in his stride – even if he does seem quietly subdued as his final serial unfolds.
One can hardly blame him, though. Throughout ‘Logopolis,’ the Fourth Doctor is being stalked by a mysterious future incarnation of himself known as the Watcher and, because of this, he knows that his death is imminent. At the same time, it must have been difficult for Tom Baker to relinquish a part that he had lived and breathed for seven years.
That being said, there were signs that the viewing public was ready for a change. Season 18 struggled to replicate the ratings success of the Fourth Doctor’s earlier adventures, and viewing figures dipped to 3.7 million during ‘Full Circle’ – a low that Doctor Who had not experienced for many years. In fact, the last time the programme’s ratings had dipped below 4 million was during the Second Doctor’s last season in 1969. It was clear that Doctor Who was ready for reinvention.
And Peter Davison was the man that Nathan-Turner had picked as Doctor number five. He was different from the Fourth Doctor in just about every respect – although not a woman, as some publications had pondered. (The Fourth Doctor’s departure marked the first time the press had wondered if a female Time Lord was in the offing – a debate triggered by Tom Baker and Christopher Bidmead.) Davison was youthful, fair-haired and vulnerable – a far-cry from Baker’s vociferous, statuesque incarnation.
The regeneration itself took place in the final episode of ‘Logopolis,’ with both Baker and Davison present to film the transition. But the production team took a novel new approach to the regeneration process. In the story’s final moments, the Watcher character was revealed as an ‘inbetween’ incarnation of the Doctor, existing between his fourth and fifth bodies. And as the Fourth Doctor breathed his last, the Watcher stepped forward and triggered the regenerative process. The Fourth Doctor faded into the Watcher, and the Watcher faded into the Fifth Doctor. It was quite something.
And the episode’s 6 million viewers had to wait almost a year to find out more about this fresh-faced new Time Lord, and just how he was going to handle his most dramatic change to date…
Do you remember watching the Fourth Doctor’s regeneration for the first time? And what is your favourite moment from the Fourth Doctor’s era? Let me know in the comments below.
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