December 28, 2014

The Fourth Doctor: 40 years on

On 28 December 1974 BBC1 broadcast the first episode of the Doctor Who serial "Robot", heralding the beginning of a record-breaking seven-year run for Tom Baker in the title role. Today is the 40th anniversary of his tenure as the Doctor, and he remains pretty much the most popular and definitive lead actor in the series' 51-year history.

David Tennant might have given Baker a run for his money, and certainly remains the iconic face of new Doctor Who, but when it comes to representing the franchise as a whole it's never going to be anybody but Tom Baker. Audience reactions to his cameo in last year's 50th anniversary special confirmed that beyond a doubt.

Now "Robot" was actually a fairly ordinary Doctor Who story, and not really one of the classic. In honour of the Fourth Doctor's 40th anniversary I wanted to highlight other stories; seven in fact, one from each of Tom Baker's seven seasons. Are these categorically the best? Who can say? Opinions will differ. All I want to say is that these are seven entertaining, wonderfully indicative examples of his time on the series.

"Revenge of the Cybermen"
After already experiencing one adventure on the space station Nerva Beacon, the Doctor and his companions Harry and Sarah return - only to find themselves many years in the station's past and in the middle of a Cyberman invasion. While it's nice to see the Cybermen back - their first appearance in years and their only adventure against the Fourth Doctor - this isn't the best story of the season by far. What it is, however, is a wonderful showcase for the Season 12 TARDIS team. There's a wonderful chemistry between the three leads, and brilliant humour in one of my all-time favourite scenes (it contains the line "Harry Sullivan is an imbecile").

"Pyramids of Mars"
This one comes from Season 13. It's such an odd story to my mind, with an extremely small cast of characters and a setting that barely leaves an English country estate in the 1920s. Despite this, it contains proper science fiction ideas - and a rare exploration of the effects of changing history - alongside gothic-style horror and superb design work. The robot mummies remain one of the best-designed Doctor Who monsters ever, and Sutekh one of the most memorable villains.

"The Face of Evil"
Season 14 came under considerable criticism for excess violence, and it's easy to see why with the series' introduction of the naively murderous Leela: pretty much the most distinctive companion the series had introduced to date. She's introduced here in another story that boasts genuinely clever science fiction ideas, alongside action and plenty of humour. In the entire history of the series, no period got the balance of adventure, science fiction, horror and humour down as perfectly as Seasons 13 and 14. It's truly the series at its height.

"The Sunmakers"
The series arguably suffered a drop in quality in Season 15 - it certainly suffered from a lower budget, as well as a BBC mandate to drop the horror and violence and emphasise the humour. That approach hits its peak in this wonderful satire of the British taxation system, which manages to be biting and cynical for the grown-ups while still telling a thrilling story to the kids. Season 15 also saw the introduction of the robot dog K9, one of the Tom Baker era's most memorable elements.

"The Androids of Tara"
Season 16 chained six serials together under a loose story arc, as the Doctor and his new companion Romana (here played by Mary Tamm) tracked down the six segments of the all-powerful Key to Time. Here they play out The Prisoner of Zenda on an alien planet, with robot duplicates instead of twins, and a gleefully silly villain in Count Grendel. It's pure tosh, but it's knowingly pure tosh, and it's all such fun that I can't do anything but love it.

"The Horns of Nimon"
Depending upon your point of view, this Season 17 serial is one of the worst or one of the best Doctor Who stories ever. The ever-shrinking budget really shows, with unconvincing monsters and genuinely wobbly sets masking over a loose retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur. Tom Baker's all but given up on treating the role seriously again, and larks about with K9 and the evil Soldeed. Meanwhile Romana (now played by Lalla Ward) travels to another planet, overthrows an alien empire and saves the day. It's ridiculous and occasionally painful, until you realise the rules of Doctor Who have been inverted, and for once it's the companion who knows everything and emerges as the hero. Then it becomes brilliant.

"Full Circle"
Tom Baker's final season saw the actor become much more sombre and serious, which makes the character come across as if he knows well in advance that his days are numbered. Partway through the season there's this brilliant serial, one of the first in a while to tell a really interesting science fiction story, which boasts strong production design and brilliant looking monsters. It also introduces Adric, the teenage companion who accompanied the Fourth Doctor through his regeneration. I don't care what the detractors say: I always liked Adric. I still do.

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