The Tom Baker Years

Doctor Who, the BBC science fiction serial, first appeared on UK screens in 1963, and has now been part of British popular culture for over 50 years. The programme still has a primetime slot on BBC television.

Tom played the Doctor from 1974 to 1981 and, decades later, is still warmly remembered for that role. He made an appearance as The Curator at the end of The Day of the Doctor, the 50th anniversary feature length movie transmitted simultaneously in 94 countries on 23rd November 2013.

Who is the Doctor?

An overview by Nicholas Pegg

04.jpgWhen Tom Baker stepped aboard the TARDIS in 1974, Doctor Who was approaching its eleventh anniversary and was already an established fixture in BBC1’s Saturday evening schedule.

Originally conceived in 1963 as an educational family adventure series to bridge the viewing gap between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury, the show was the brainchild of the BBC’s then Head of Drama, Sydney Newman. He entrusted the first series of Doctor Who to an unknown young producer called Verity Lambert, who would go on to become one of the most prominent and influential figures in British television.

At a time when science fiction drama was generally the preserve of square-jawed young heroes equipped with ray guns and rocket ships, Newman and Lambert instead offered viewers a cantankerous old man who travelled through time and space in a battered metropolitan police box. And if the original Doctor was something of an anti-hero, in many ways Doctor Who itself was a kind of anti-science-fiction. During the 1960s the programme listings in the Radio Times subtitled each episode of Doctor Who “an adventure in space and time”, and sure enough both time and space were of equal importance: in its early days the series dipped into the past just as often as the future, seeking to educate its young audience not only about science and space, but also about the Crusades, the travels of Marco Polo, the Battle of Hastings, or even the complex political and religious intrigues leading up to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

The first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, was a wily and unpredictable figure whose curmudgeonly exterior disguised a heart of gold. Hartnell was succeeded in 1966 by Patrick Troughton, who played the Doctor as a mysterious Pied Piper-like character whose clownish behaviour masked a sharp intelligence and a ruthless edge. In 1970 Jon Pertwee brought style and flair to the third Doctor, reinventing the character as a flamboyant man of action with a natural authority and a strong moral code.

Video © BBC

Enter the fourth Doctor

During his seven years in the role, Tom Baker combined all of these elements and added some fresh ingredients of his own, which were seized with enthusiasm by the many scriptwriters whose work helped to fashion the character. The fourth Doctor is driven by a freewheeling bohemian spirit and a wide-eyed, childlike sense of wonder at the ways of the universe. As befits a product of the age of Watergate and Vietnam, there’s also something of the student radical about him: he has a healthy disregard for authority and a hatred of tyranny in all its forms, and he is an adept rabble-rouser, often stirring the downtrodden proletariat of oppressed planets into action against their despotic rulers. He’s a well-read Doctor, always prepared with an apt quotation by anyone from Anton Chekhov to Alexander Pope, from Karl Marx to Thomas Huxley, and above all from the immortal William Shakespeare: in The Armageddon Factor he pokes fun at the warlike Marshal of Atrios by boosting his rhetoric with interjections from Richard II, while in State of Decay he rallies the revolting peasants with an impromptu adaptation of the St Crispian’s Day speech from Henry V. In Planet of Evil he lets slip that he once met Shakespeare (“Charming fellow – dreadful actor”), and in City of Death we learn that he even lent a hand with the transcribing of Hamlet after the Bard had sprained his wrist writing sonnets.

Alongside intelligence and individuality, the fourth Doctor champions imagination, spontaneity and freedom of thought: on one occasion, when charged to explain how he’s able to disprove the theories of another scientist, the Doctor replies, “To be fair, I did have a couple of gadgets which he probably didn’t, like a teaspoon and an open mind.” Such good-natured flippancy underscores a deeply felt philosophy; and, in exactly the same way, his celebrated bag of jelly babies is more than just a comic prop. Time and again the unexpected proffering of a jelly baby is the fourth Doctor’s chosen method of distracting his enemies or rewarding his friends, until the jelly babies themselves seem to become a metaphor for the spirit of spontaneous inventiveness and universal benevolence by which he chooses to live his life.

Video © BBC

After the patrician rectitude and moral certainty of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, Tom’s interpretation introduces a new element of alien unpredictability, manifested in unexpected reactions and startling swings of mood. The toothy grin and the flashes of warm-hearted wit are never far from the surface, but there are times when he retreats unexpectedly into a distant broodiness. Nowhere is this clearer than in the 1975 story Pyramids of Mars when, in one of the best-remembered scenes of Tom’s period, the Doctor shocks his companion Sarah Jane when he seems coldly unaffected by the cruel death of a comrade, his mind already focused on the bigger picture and the millions of deaths yet to be prevented. Alongside this alien streak comes an occasionally shocking tendency toward manic recklessness: in his early adventures he resorts to such lethal contingencies as poison gas, Molotov cocktails and makeshift mattress bombs, and he isn’t above getting involved in brutal stand-up fights with his opponents.

The moral maze

Such developments didn’t go unnoticed by the viewing public: while Doctor Who’s ratings began to top 13 million, and many viewers enjoyed the show’s increasingly dramatic content, there were some who strongly disapproved. In 1975 and 1976, Mary Whitehouse of the self-appointed National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association made several complaints about the series, culminating in a furious letter to the BBC in response to the third episode of The Deadly Assassin, which ended with a freeze-frame of the Doctor’s head being held underwater. Mrs Whitehouse was accustomed to having her complaints ignored, but on this occasion she got results: from the next story onward, Doctor Who was rescheduled in a later transmission slot, and in subsequent years any suggestion of graphic violence was carefully monitored by the production office and the BBC drama department. Tom himself was none too keen on the portrayal of violence for its own sake: on one memorable occasion while shooting The Face of Evil, he put his foot down regarding a piece of scripted business which involved the Doctor threatening another character with a knife: instead, reasoning that the alien tribesman in question had never seen a jelly baby before, Tom produced one from his pocket and declared to the assembled company, “Now drop your weapons, or I’ll kill him with this deadly jelly baby.” The threat of violence was removed and an extra dimension was added to the scene, which is now remembered as one of the defining moments in Tom’s portrayal of the Doctor.

Even when thrown into the direst peril, Tom’s Doctor often veils the gravity of the situation beneath layers of frivolity: his approach seems to be guided by the notion that although there’s nothing in the universe more frightening than someone with no sense of humour, there’s also nothing a bully hates more than being laughed at. While earlier Doctors had tended to confront their enemies on a straight-faced moral high ground, Tom’s Doctor is just as likely to poke fun at them. In The Robots of Death he informs a hostile interrogator that he is “a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain”, and in Horror of Fang Rock he responds to an alien monster’s threats of universal domination with the withering put-down: “That’s the empty rhetoric of a defeated dictator, and I don’t like your face either.” Such quotations speak volumes about the difference between Doctor Who and the usual kind of science fiction: you’re unlikely to catch Captain Kirk coming out with a line like that.

Clothes make the man

The fourth Doctor’s rebellious, counter-cultural outlook is reflected just as clearly in his celebrated wardrobe, a ramshackle ensemble of rumpled trousers, voluminous jacket, floppy hat and absurdly long scarf. With a little help from Tom himself, the original outfit was the work of BBC costume designer James Acheson, who created some of the show’s best-remembered monsters as well as the classic Time Lord costumes first unveiled in The Deadly Assassin, before moving on to win acclaim and Academy Awards for his work on films like Dangerous Liaisons, The Last Emperor and Spider-Man. Among the many other costume designers who worked on Doctor Who during Tom’s era were John Bloomfield, who created Louise Jameson’s Leela outfit and memorably dressed Tom in a Sherlock Holmes-style ensemble for the Victorian tale The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and later went on to design films including Conan the Barbarian, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Mummy. The most prolific costume designer of the period was June Hudson, who handled twice as many of Tom’s Doctor Who productions as any other designer and was responsible for some of the show’s most flamboyant alien creations, as well as a new burgundy-coloured version of Tom’s outfit which he wore during his final year in the role.

Gentlemen and players

As with any television production, the making of Doctor Who was very much a team effort, and Tom was fortunate to be surrounded by some of the most talented people working at the BBC at the time: as well as his four producers Barry Letts, Philip Hinchcliffe, Graham Williams and John Nathan-Turner, the programme’s contributors included a host of writers, directors, designers and, of course, actors. Besides faithful companions like Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter, Louise Jameson, John Leeson, Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward, Tom’s travels through time and space were enriched by a gallery of guest stars as diverse as John Woodvine, Philip Madoc, Julian Glover, Beatrix Lehmann, Geoffrey Bayldon, Catherine Schell, Peter Jeffrey, Frederick Jaeger, Tony Beckley, George Baker, Graham Crowden, Eileen Way, John Challis, Emrys James, Iain Cuthbertson and even John Cleese.

Script to screen

Many of Tom’s adventures were scripted by Robert Holmes and Terrance Dicks, widely regarded as among the finest of all Doctor Who’s writers, and other notable authors included Robert Banks Stewart (who went on to create the detective shows Shoestring and Bergerac), Louis Marks (who later became a BBC producer responsible for dramas like the JM Barrie biography The Lost Boys, Bertolt Brecht’s Baal starring David Bowie, and the acclaimed 1994 adaptation of Middlemarch), and a young unknown called Douglas Adams, whose breakthrough success with The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy coincided with the production of his first Doctor Who story in 1978 and was followed by a year as Doctor Who’s script editor, during which he collaborated on a number of fondly-remembered productions including the classic City of Death, whose Parisian filming marked Doctor Who’s first overseas location shoot.

City of Death was one of several serials directed by Michael Hayes, a veteran of classic BBC dramas like A for Andromeda and An Age of Kings. Other directors during Tom’s time on Doctor Who included highly-regarded names like Douglas Camfield, who had directed all three of the earlier Doctors and was a production assistant on the show’s very first episode; Michael E Briant, who went on to direct Secret Army, Blood Money and Howards’ Way; and David Maloney, who later produced When the Boat Comes In, The Day of the Triffids and another BBC science fiction classic, Blake’s 7. There was also Kenny McBain, later famed as the developer and original producer of Inspector Morse, and Rodney Bennett, whose subsequent directorial work included the aforementioned The Lost Boys as well as numerous literary adaptations and the BBC Shakespeare production of Hamlet.

Flights of fantasy

Of the many scenic designers who worked on Doctor Who during Tom’s era, perhaps the most notable and certainly the most prolific was Roger Murray-Leach, who worked wonders with modest budgets to create some of the show’s most striking environments, including a sophisticated space station in The Ark in Space, the Doctor’s home planet in The Deadly Assassin, an array of Victorian settings for The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and a magnificent alien jungle constructed at Ealing Film Studios for Planet of Evil. Other designers included Christine Ruscoe, who was responsible for the gothic splendour of Pyramids of Mars and State of Decay, and Barry Newbery, a veteran from the show’s earliest days who designed three of Tom’s serials including The Masque of Mandragora, for which he created the TARDIS’s seldom-seen “secondary control room”, a vision of mahogany-panelled Victoriana reminiscent of the works of HG Wells or Jules Verne.

Video © BBC

Such comparisons are wholly appropriate; when all is said and done, Doctor Who and its altruistic hero have more in common with the scientific romances of Wells and Verne, not to mention the children’s fantasies of Lewis Carroll and CS Lewis, than with the full-blown science fiction of Arthur C Clarke or Isaac Asimov. The Doctor’s police box, with its miraculous dimensions and infinite possibilities, is more closely related to Alice’s rabbit-hole or Lucy’s wardrobe than to the USS Enterprise. During Tom’s period Doctor Who revels in its fairytale flavour, blending science with folklore, vampires with spaceships, minotaurs with black holes, Egyptian mummies with Mars, Druids with hyperspace, Leonardo da Vinci with time travel. Other fantasy narratives have included such ingredients, but only Doctor Who has the ability to mingle them together at will to create such surprising results.

The legend continues

From its earliest days Doctor Who was a hit with viewers, but during Tom’s period a combination of favourable factors propelled the show to its greatest successes yet: while viewing figures rose in Britain, the show began to sell abroad more widely than ever before. The series was already established in several overseas territories, but it was during Tom’s era that Doctor Who began to catch on in the United States, where the show had previously failed to achieve a foothold. Tom found himself in demand for publicity appearances on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in Australia and New Zealand. By the beginning of the 1980s, it was reported that Doctor Who was reaching 110 million viewers in 60 countries.

Doctor Who has continued to evolve and adapt over the years, and although at various times in its history it has tried its hand at mimicking the style and content of other fantasy franchises like The Avengers, Star Wars or Buffy, in the end it has outlasted them all. Doctor Who’s hybrid origins as “an adventure in space and time” have always remained with it – and the power and ingenuity of that original recipe have ensured that the exploits of the BBC’s wandering Time Lord remain, at heart, unique.

Tom’s 7 series

Tom with Elisabeth Sladen in The Pyramids of Mars

Tom with Elisabeth Sladen in The Pyramids of Mars

Tom as the Doctor with extras in a scene in the Panopticon in Deadly Assassin. Picture © BBC

Tom as the Doctor with extras in a scene in the Panopticon in The Deadly Assassin.

Tom with Louise Jameson in the Face of Evil

Tom with Louise Jameson in The Face of Evil

Video © BBC

Video © BBC

June Hudson's 1980 design for Tom

June Hudson’s 1980 design for Tom

Tom as Doctor Who in Paris recording City of Death. Picture © BBC

Tom as Doctor Who in Paris recording City of Death. Picture © BBC


Tom and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith in the jungles of Zeta Minor – The Planet of Evil. Picture © BBC

Tom as the Doctor reads the Ancient Law of Gallifrey book. Picture © BBC

Tom as the Doctor reads the Ancient Law of Gallifrey book. Picture © BBC

Video © BBC