After giving it some thought, the Tom Baker article is being broken up into three parts: the Sarah Jane years, the Leela years, and Romana years. There’s just too much good material to talk about during this long tenure.
It’s difficult not to think of Tom Baker as being the “definitive” Doctor. Not in the sense he’s the indisputably best one, so much as that it’s difficult to have a prolonged conversation about the classic series without discussing his tenure, or to talk about the various Doctors without comparing ultimately to TB.
There are several reasons for this:
- He had the longest televised tenure: 7 seasons. With the advent of Big Finish audioplays and the Virgin and later BBC Books novel series, he is not the Doctor who has had the most stories written about him, but in terms of on-screen time, he had both the longest tenure and I believe the most screen time. (Earlier seasons had more episodes per year, so I’m not positive about this).
- His Doctor was a wide-eyed enthusiast with a commanding presence that immediately dominated a scene or a situation. His mop of curls, huge eyes, manic smile, booming voice, and tall stature all guaranteed he would immediately be memorable. Add to that a few “trademark” touches, like the infamously long multicolored scarf and you create something that even non-fans will recognize instantly.
- The stories of his era, while not uniformly fantastic, are mostly pretty good, with several moments of true brilliance. While effects were still crude by any standard, the show had reached a level of maturity that meant that the production team knew how to make the most of what they had available to them.
- The Tom Baker era seemed to avoid some of the formula traps of the past. The Second Doctor is often thought of as the “monster” Doctor, while the Third Doctor is the UNIT Doctor. The Fourth Doctor, however, defies any such categorization. His stories are as likely to involve human(oid) villains as monsters, are only sometimes set on present day Earth, and fall into many genres, including occasionally bordering on outright horror.
- Tom Baker’s tenure coincided with the BBC getting the bright idea to syndicate the program overseas. Many fans of my generation had their first exposure to the program when first independent commercial stations (in my case, WOR-TV) and then a great many PBS stations began airing the first four years of Tom Baker’s tenure in endless loop. Eventually, the numbers justified expanding the syndication to include the rest of Baker’s tenure, then, more or less in real time, Peter Davison’s, and then finally begin releasing the back catalogue of older stories into the syndication universe. In the meantime, however, many of us had had a groove worn in our brains by repeated viewings of those first four years.
At any rate, just as David Tennant is, at least for the moment, the definitive Doctor of the New Series, Tom Baker is that for the old.
Right…on we go…
Tom Baker (1974-1981)
Robot by Terrance Dicks
Companions: Sarah Jane Smith; Navy Lieutenant Harry Sullivan, MD
Recurring non-companions: Lethbridge-Stewart, Benton, Bessie
Why it matters: First Tom Baker, first Harry Sullivan.
Continuity note: This story follows directly from Planet of the Spiders. They reshot the regeneration scene (Sarah’s hair is a little longer) rather than replaying it.
For American viewers watching this for the first time, as their first exposure to the show, the opening scene, and other early scenes relating to the new regeneration, must have been a little confusing. Somehow I don’t remember being confused myself, but this isn’t where I started. I started with a later Tom Baker episode (Robots of Death), part way through the Baker Loop, and by the time it came back around to this I had somehow managed to glean what was going on already.
The story gets a bit of a bad rap, but really the biggest issue with it is that the effects don’t work as well as they should, making it hard not to laugh at scenes that should be scary. It’s also just not all that groundbreaking a story. The Doctor’s personality for a lot of it is so erratic that it’s hard to get a handle on him…but then, he never really entirely loses that erratic quality. It’s worth seeing just for the scene where the Doctor repeatedly runs into the TARDIS and changes clothes trying to establish his identity through his wardrobe, while the Brigadier watches in exasperation.
This story establishes firmly the idea that regeneration, for the Doctor, at least, is hard. There are some hints of this in the lost story The Power of the Daleks, when the Second Doctor sees the First’s reflection in the mirror and is otherwise disoriented for a while; but the Third Doctor is merely very tired, and slightly befuddled. With this story, they cement the idea is that after a regeneration, the Doctor has serious issues with memory, personality and identity. We later see that this is not uniformly true for all Time Lords, and that it’s just another way the Doctor is different even from his own people.
Harry Sullivan, a Navy lieutenant attached to UNIT as its medical officer, joins the Doctor and Sarah for the rest of the season. He was originally conceived of as the “young muscle” when older actors were being contemplated for the Doctor. When Tom Baker was cast, they immediately decided to phase Harry out after one season as redundant, and later admitted this was probably a mistake, as Harry is actually kind of fun to have around, and Ian Marter worked well with his cast mates.
The Ark in Space by Robert Holmes (from a story by John Lucarotti)
Companions: Sarah, Harry
Why it matters: Actually? Just because it’s a damned good story.
This story kicks off a four-story arc that fills the rest of the season. While the stories aren’t all linked by plot or theme, they all follow each other directly and all ultimately deal with the consequences of the TARDIS landing on Nerva Station in about the year 103,000 or so. Their landing here is actually the last time they travel via TARDIS all season.
In many ways, this story exemplifies what I consider to be the best sort of Doctor Who story: take a solid story premise, science-fictional or otherwise. Something where the story stands up perfectly well without the Doctor or his companions in it, although the outcome would likely be very different.
Then, inject the Doctor and his friends into the mix. Stir vigorously until well blended — don’t keep them as passive observers, but provide reasons for them to get involved, even when they’d rather not.
Again, the story is a little ambitious for the effects budget, but it ultimately works to much creepier, more successful effect here than in Robot. This story really sets the tone for the rest of the Phillip Hinchcliffe production era — darker stories that rely in scary ideas more than immediate shocks to scare audiences and leave lasting impressions. The transformation of the central character of this piece gave me nightmares the first time I saw the story and still kinda makes my hair stand on end to think about too much.
Genesis of the Daleks by Terry Nation
Companions: Sarah, Harry
Why it matters: Chronologically first Dalek story, revising Dalek continuity for all stories after. First appearance of Davros. Arguably first salvo in the Time War, although it was not conceived of as such at the time.
Continuity note: Immediately after The Ark in Space, our heroes use the station’s transmat to go to Earth and investigate conditions there, getting caught up in the events of The Sontaran Experiment. At the end of that story, they return to the transmat to return to Nerva, but are intercepted by the Time Lords, beginning this adventure.
While there are a lot of things to not-like about post-Davros Dalek stories, this very first Davros/Dalek story is excellent and iconic in its own right. It’s also very dark and gritty, filled with the horrors of war, moral and ethical dilemmas, and some first-rate hero-nemesis dialogues between the Doctor and Davros.
For such an important story, you’d think I’d have more to say, but most of it would be spoiler territory. Just watch it.
Continuity note: The Time Ring ultimately returns them to Nerva, but in a much earlier era, when it’s Nerva Beacon, a lighthouse of sorts, warning spaceship traffic against an eccentric asteroid, Voga, leading to the events of the otherwise sort-of meh Revenge of the Cybermen. The TARDIS catches up with them there and then.
Terror of the Zygons by Robert Banks Stewart
Companions: Sarah, Harry
Recurring non-companions: Lethbridge-Stewart, Benton
Why it matters: Last traditional UNIT story, last appearance of Lethbridge-Stewart (and in a kilt, no less!) ’til 1983; The. Loch Ness. Monster!
This wasn’t originally on my list, but going back over a synopsis of it, I decided it should be, if only because of an argument the Doctor has early on with his old friend the Brigadier. The argument is, on one level, a bit of environmentalism that pops up in the show from time to time, with the Doctor ranting about the primitiveness of using mineral slime as an energy source. But it’s also, essentially, a break-up argument. The Third Doctor continued to work with UNIT and anchor to modern-day Earth because he’d grown accustomed to it, even after his exile was over. The Fourth Doctor is impatient with having any such binding tie and resentful at being called back (the first time we ever see this, and pretty much the last until the Doctor starts supercharging cellphones in the new series). Two stories later, he would explicitly tell Sarah that he’s pretty much done with UNIT, having better things to do than chase after the Brigadier, although he never does formally resign. He just stops coming back. UNIT goes on without him and somehow doesn’t get the planet blown up.
Harry Sullivan stays behind at the end of this story, although he appears again in The Android Invasion, the first recurrence of a departed companion.
Pyramids of Mars by Robert Holmes and Lewis Griefer, writing together as Stephen Harris
Why it matters: Um…actually…just because it sort of kicks ass
This story contains no real firsts or lasting continuity issues. It’s just (mostly) damned good.
Also, Gabriel Woolf’s turn as the voice of Sutekh is infinitely superior to his over-processed outing as the Beast in “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit”.
The Hand of Fear by Bob Barker and Dave Martin
Why it matters: Last Sarah story.
In “School Reunion”, when Sarah Jane complains about exactly how she was dumped? The last 10 minutes of this story tell the tale. The rest of the story is solid enough, as well, and a pretty good swan song for Sarah.
The Deadly Assassin by Robert Holmes
Recurring non-companion: Cardinal Borusa.
Why it matters: First story set entirely on Gallifrey, first establishment of limits on regeneration, first mention of Rassilon, first mention of the Matrix, first appearance of Borusa.
Continuity note: Chancellor Goth is played by one of the same actors who stood on the Doctor’s tribunal in The War Games, but not the same one who played the Chancellor in The Three Doctors. It is generally assumed by fandom that these are two separate characters, each of whom became Chancellor in turn, and that both characters were on the tribunal, along with a third we haven’t seen again.
Also note that this story should be watched after at least one Roger Delgado Master story, and before The Keeper of Traken.
This story gives us our first real glimpse into Time Lord society. It’s not actually very pretty. The outside universe sees the Time Lords as these all-powerful beings — so powerful they don’t dare actually get involved with anything — but the inner truth is that they’re a decadent and bored aristocracy. A few individuals are seen to rise above this and seem to have their own sense of purpose, including Cardinal Borusa, a character we would see again several times, and an old teacher of the Doctor’s. But for the most part, we have no difficulty at all understanding why the Doctor left.
The governmental structure depicted here would imprint itself on all subsequent Gallifrey stories: a High Council, led by a President who is more or less ceremonial (depending on personality), a Chancellor who runs the government, and a Castellan who is responsible for security ostensibly in the Citadel, but is also de facto Minister of Defence. We also meet for the first time the red-liveried Chancery Guard, who despite their name are responsible, through their captain, to the Castellan.
This story is actually quite visionary, in that it has virtual reality as a core component, long before that term was really coined. Long before Keanu Reeves took the Red Pill, Doctor Who fans had their own Matrix to think about…