Who On Earth is… the Fourth Doctor?

January 29, 2020

Who am I?

The alien wanderer… the clown with a ruthless streak… the melancholy Time Lord trying to avoid returning home?

Throw in a bag of jelly babies, a robot dog, some very attractive companions and some fourth-wall breaking dialogue, and you have – in brief – the Fourth Doctor, as played by Tom Baker.

The most iconic of all Doctors, the fourth incarnation of the Time Lord is recognisable for his flippant manner, his floppy hat and long coat, and of course the famous scarf. But what is it about the Fourth Doctor that makes Tom Baker’s era as the Doctor so fascinating?

There is of course a massive debt owed to the actor himself. Tom Baker isn’t your ordinary actor. In his early 40s when he took the part, Baker had memorably appeared in cinematic hits Nicholas & Alexandra in 1971 as Rasputin and later in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad as the evil Koura. He had established a strong stage career playing key Shakespearean characters in the 1960s, and his portrayal of the Doctor can be seen as an extension of all of these larger-than-life characters he had earlier played.

Doctor: Gentlemen, this lighthouse is under attack, and my morning we might all be dead! (GRINS).

Of course, the Fourth Doctor is a massive enigma wrapped in a scarf, travelling in a blue box. It isn’t necessarily difficult to appear slightly aloof if you are a scarf-wearing alien with a robot dog who travels through time and space in a TARDIS stuck as a police box. There are, however, key moments throughout the Doctor’s fourth incarnation that underline both how truly superb Tom Baker was and how important this era was to the show’s continued success.

As with most new starts for Doctor Who, the Fourth Doctor’s era began with an upturn in ratings, following Jon Pertwee’s sedate final series. Over the following seven years, Tom Baker wowed and amused audiences as he dealt with Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, renegade Time Lords, pirates, tax men, drug smugglers, war criminals, time-splintered aliens, robotic mummies, man-eating plants, homicidal androids, sentient stones, and even an insane computer that thinks it is the Doctor.

It is the attitude with which the Doctor encounters these foes that most defines this incarnation. He’s quick to play the fool while weighing up the opposition, and just as quick to stand up and be counted when it matters; these are key facets of the Doctor’s character across all of his incarnations. How the Fourth Doctor is different, however, is in his apparent delight at the danger in which he finds himself and his companions in.

For instance, from Horror of Fang Rock:

Doctor: Gentlemen, this lighthouse is under attack, and my morning we might all be dead! (GRINS).

With articles like this one, it is important to remain 100% objective about the topic at hand. But like many Doctor Who fans, I have a very soft spot for the Fourth Doctor. Watching the series with my dad in the late 1970s, Doctor Who imprinted itself on me, made me a fan, all because of Tom Baker’s magical portrayal.

This is of course, An Established Fact. When Doctor Who had it’s first wind in the United States thanks to public access television, the figure of the Fourth Doctor became even more widely known. Immediately there was a whole new audience watching Doctor Who – one that would spend the next 25 years or so viewing it mainly as a piece of quirky British nonsense, not too dissimilar to The Avengers or The Prisoner. Thanks to these broadcasts, however, Doctor Who established a fanbase among discerning American television viewers who knew good science fiction adventure when they saw it – and the seeds of Doctor Who’s eventual revival were sown.

With a seven year tenure, Baker was bound to have worked under different producers – Philip Hinchcliffe was responsible for Baker’s early years and oversaw such classics as Genesis of the Daleks, the first (and only to date) companion-less adventure The Deadly Assassin, The Face of Evil and The Robots of Death; Graham Williams meanwhile was in charge of the series during the middle years, and was the man behind the concept of the Key to Time season and also captained productions such as The Sunmakers and City of Death; finally, John Nathan-Turner was Baker’s final producer, and oversaw a complete change in the TARDIS crew, the return of a classic villain in the Master, and successfully took Doctor Who into the 1980s.

It is thanks to these very different approaches to producing Doctor Who that Tom Baker’s unique interpretation of the Doctor was able to remain eminently watchable and entertaining. Moody and aloof early on, the Fourth Doctor was later more cheerful and off the wall as producer Graham Williams took a different approach to handling the excesses of his leading man. By the time of JN-T’s stewardship, Baker had decided to hang up his scarf; unlike his predecessor however, his final series features some of the best moments in Doctor Who’s history, such as the return of the Master and the loss of K9 and Romana.

As Doctor Who started to gain a following in the USA, so too was fandom becoming more organised in the UK. Like many other portentous moments in the history, this took place during Tom Baker’s era, and was in no small part down to the actor’s popularity. There is of course more to it – the changing attitude of the media to television, the various production teams paying more attention to the series’ narrative and continuity – but a great deal of the growing fandom’s affection for the increasingly popular Doctor Who in the 1970s was due to their admiration of the leading man, a man who it was said, really was the Doctor.

Whether Tom Baker believed at any point that he really was a space-time traveller with a TARDIS is neither here nor there, however. What is important, and what defines the Fourth Doctor in the mind of the fans is the aspect of a complete performance by the actor. This was a man who put his whole life into Doctor Who over the space of seven years; a man who took part in very few other projects in order to concentrate on the show and the young fans he felt obliged to meet; a man who, when meeting his fans, made every attempt to encourage them to believe that he truly was the Doctor, that the Time Lord was real beyond the television, by appearing in public in his long coat and scarf.

While I often associate Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant as the Doctor, I still experience those childhood pangs – bursts of adrenalin and excitement – whenever anyone says “Doctor Who” or “Doctor” and immediately I think of the Fourth Doctor, as played by Tom Baker.

Tom was never anything but perfect, and he will remain forever so.

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