It’s partly that he was the Doctor at the point that I started to pay attention to the programme as a regular thing to watch on Saturdays. Those are formative years, and people have commented on how the first Doctor that you remember clearly shapes your expectations of the whole show. I have vivid memories of watching at least part of all the Season 12 stories (except The Sontaran ExperimentThe Making of Doctor Who.
This was a fundamental moment in my own appreciation of sf in general, not just of Who in particular – that it was possible to write about it in an analytical (if not necessarily critical) way, and to fit this week’s Who into a tradition over a decade old. When The Deadly Assassin was broadcast, my brother and I were ready for it, and we religiously noted every episode from then on.
There’s something to be said for the idea that we all think Who was best when we first started paying attention to it. Yet there’s also the objective evidence of poll after poll of fans rating the top stories of Old Who as coming from the Fourth Doctor era – and in general, those early seasons, with Hinchcliffe as producer and Holmes (gosh, Robert Holmes!!) as script editor, as the consummate peak in quality of Old Who. Somehow the personalities gelled – Holmes with his subversive, anti-establishment instincts, Baker with his fundamental anarchism, and Hinchcliffe with his tendency towards the gothic and commitment to making things look right. And so we had The Deadly Assassin, Genesis of the Daleks, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which gripped me on first viewing and which still grip me now. I still think that in terms of concentrated quality, the run from The Deadly Assassin to Horror of Fang Rock is difficult to beat in any other sequence of Who stories. (To remind you: the three in between are The Face of Evil, The Robots of Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang.) We were very lucky to have this feast in front of us.
(Incidentally in the middle of all this, in the summer of 1978, my cousin Brian was born; and he grew up to be a Doctor Who script editor. But that is a story for next week.)
Tom Baker’s combination of eccentricity, a powerful moral drive and a general air of being not quite human still defines the nature of the Doctor for me, and I essentially rate the others in terms of how close they approach his portrayal – particularly his alienness; it’s very important that he is not really one of us. The only two of the others who come close in my humble opinion are Hartnell and Ecclestone. I’m aware of course that this is a totally subjective set of values.
But I just want to throw one further thought into the mix. Baker always claims these days that as the Doctor he was channelling himself more than anything. He was born to be an alien – his home district of Liverpool was so detached from England politically that it had elected an MP from the Irish Nationalist party until a few years before his birth. His father was mostly absent (probably not so rare) and Jewish (probably rarer), making the Baker family an oddity in that peculiarly intense, devout community. No wonder he ran off to become a monk; no wonder it didn’t work. Baker’s accent now is impeccably Received Theatrical Pronunciation; but he must have started very Scouse. (Stretching a point a bit from a previous post: accent apart, his persona is reminiscent of the weird male relatives who one encounters at Irish family occasions. At least I used to encounter them; maybe I am now becoming one myself.)
Back to the sequence of stories. The rest of Season 15 after K9 arrived was less exciting; but then we had the Quest for the Key to Time, and even if the plots weren’t always great, the spark between Baker and his Estonian Time Lord assistant was always fun. We missed the next year due to being on non-BBC land (though it turns out the only real loss was missing City of Death), and returned in time to watch Tom Baker’s last season, but now with our understanding mediated by Doctor Who Magazine. In retrospect, that last season – Season 18 – combines an elegiac mode for the star’s imminent departure with the rather more vulgar flair that Old Who’s last producer brought to it. It was decent enough fun, but no longer the real thing.
(I will just point out that the reason Romana II looks a bit like a minor member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy is that Lalla Ward actually is a minor member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy [I once held a scholarship named after her great-grandmother, a scientist in her own right who was killed in a freak accident with a newly invented steam-driven motor car]. No wonder there was a spark between the working-class Merseyside Catholic lad and the upper class Ulsterwoman; and no wonder that that didn’t work out either.)
Baker’s refusal to participate in The Five Doctors rather confirmed my idea that Doctor Who had ended in 1981. We still had the novelisations (not fantastic) and increasingly the videos to go on. Some of the best Missing Adventures and Past Doctor Adventures that I have read feature the Fourth Doctor (admittedly I haven’t otherwise sampled them widely).
It may be a little unfair to say this, but perhaps Baker has been liberated since the death of Jon Pertwee, more than 20 years ago. He is the senior surviving Doctor, with no elders looking over his shoulder. He has established himself as a reliable eccentric, culminating in his weird but authoritative autobiography, and his other surreally confessional appearances on retrospective documentaries. Long may he last.
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