A Modern Woman’s Guide to Classic Who: THE FOURTH DOCTOR YEARS: 1975-1981December 29th, 2010 at 21:43
Summary: It’s the Fourth Doctor with his hat and scarf and big toothy grin that most often represents Classic Who in people’s minds – even those who have never watched the show. Tom Baker, barely even a working actor when he got the part, was 40 when he got the role, making him the youngest ever man to play the Doctor. He quickly made the part his own – like Jon Pertwee, he was equally at home with comedy and drama, and frequently used his voice to convey just how much doom everyone was in.
Not since Dalekmania in the early sixties had Doctor Who been such a successful show – it enjoyed a level of mainstream popularity at this time that would not be eclipsed until David Tennant won the hearts of the British public. Rather famously, Baker played the Doctor pretty close to method, embracing his position as a role model to children, and even now when he speaks of the role you can see that the “I” that is Baker and the “I” that is the Doctor get deeply tangled together – unless that’s all part of a colossal joke he is still playing on his audience.
Baker played the part for seven years, still the longest any Doctor has ever kept the role. His era can be divided into three rough periods based on their producers: the Hinchcliffe era (1975-7) which combined hard-ish SF before developing a dark, gothic horror sensibility; the brighter and shinier spaceships-and-funny-hats Graham Williams era (1977-80), and the entropy-and-dark-Tom, John Nathan Turner (JNT) season at the very end. While the latter half of Tom Baker’s run had some real gems, especially with legendary comedy writer Douglas Adams script editing and even writing some episodes, it’s the Hinchcliffe era that is most critically acclaimed and romanticised by fans for its high quality of scripts, performances and atmosphere.
I’ve heard many fans complain about the darker, more morose version of the Fourth Doctor played by Baker in his last year or two – when the actor himself was tiring of the part. In truth, though, the Fourth Doctor was quite dark and unpredictable from early on, often snapping at his companions or working to convince the audience that this time, he might actually be seduced over to the dark side. Several stories like The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time are based on this premise, and as early as Robot, the Doctor was marching to his own tune, regardless of the finer feelings of others. Baker himself, however he embraced his role as a childhood hero, far preferred the darker and more adult side of the Doctor, and many of his suggestions and preferences crept into the show here and there over the years. The high comedy and charm of this Doctor is what most people remember, as with David Tennant, though a closer examination of the stories reveals far more complex layers.
Things You Need To Know: The super-long scarf which is an icon of this Doctor supposedly happened because the little old lady they gave the yarn to didn’t know when to stop, and just kept going until she ran out of yarn. This run is responsible for several important ‘firsts’ in the Doctor Who universe, including the first time we visit Gallifrey, the Doctor’s home planet, the first time the Doctor has a whole story without a companion (both in The Deadly Assassin) and the first time the Doctor is accompanied by alien companions instead of (and as well as) human. The TARDIS remained erratic but was mostly steerable, until a point when the Doctor deliberately fitted a “randomiser” to make it harder for them to be followed by certain nefarious forces.
Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) continued for several years with this new incarnation of the Doctor – his first story, Robot, is a great story for her, as we largely see the difficult transition though her eyes, and we also see her getting on with her life and career during the Doctor’s post-regeneration problems. This new Doctor is a chaotic force, and it takes Sarah a while to come to terms with who he is now. When she chooses to travel with him at the end of Robot, she is accepting her companion role all over again, and instead of the part time adventuring she indulged in during the Pertwee years, this is her leaving everything behind.
Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), the UNIT doctor put in charge of the Doctor’s health after his regeneration, is dragged along for the ride for a season and a bit. Harry, the sort of old-fashioned, bluff British chap who calls girls “old thing” (Sarah does not take well to that!) is very much in the mould of the Heroic Blokes of the First Doctor Years – he is Ian Chesterton to the life – and was originally cast because they intended to cast the Doctor as an older, less active character than Pertwee. In fact, he and Sarah made a splendid trio with the Fourth Doctor, forming an adventurous, banterific team with some truly classic SF stories such as Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks.
Harry left after a little over a year, and Sarah continued as a solo companion for the Fourth Doctor for about a season and a half. This era had some of the best scripted and most beloved “gothic” stories, as script-edited by Robert Holmes, one of the most celebrated Doctor Who writers of all times. The Doctor and Sarah battled alien Egyptian gods in Pyramids of Mars, alien living plants in Seeds of Doom, and a renegade Time Lord in Brain of Morbius. Her swansong, The Hand of Fear, was a fairly average story (though as with all stories of this era, “fairly average” is still pretty damned good) that had Sarah buried in a quarry explosion, hypnotised and cloned by an alien, and then finally come face to face with the destroyed remains of a future Earth… and led to one of the most powerful, funny and heartbreaking scene finales of all time:
While I adore School Reunion of the new season, and love that Sarah was brought back, I did have a big problem with the idea that she was utterly devastated by the Doctor leaving her, that she had no closure, and that (bleh) no man could live up to him. This scene shows that Sarah, always one of the most independent companions, was going to be just fine – and her later returns in K9 & Company and The Five Doctors showed likewise that she basically got on with her life with little but the occasional nostalgic sigh about her time with the Doctor.
After one rather good but male-centric story, The Deadly Assassin, which had the Doctor visit his home planet of Gallifrey without a companion, he was teamed up with “noble savage” Leela (Louise Jameson), whose sexy costume makes her probably the most remembered-by-people-who-never-watched-the-show companion. Leela has a powerful introduction in The Face of Evil, as a huntress from a primitive society. Like Jamie before her, she calmly accepts of science fictional concepts as “magic” and serves the Doctor as a very effective companion, willing to perform violence when he is not. Yes, that’s right, Leela is closer to a Heroic Bloke companion than a Screamer or a Feminist Hero! Her costume was famously chosen “for the dads”, but there was a lot more to Leela than a skimpy leather dress. More than any companions since Ian and Barbara, Leela had a steep learning curve to travel on with the Doctor: he takes on the role of teacher, Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle, and works hard not only to teach her to function in a civilised society, but also to restrain her more violent instincts, at least when it came to killing people. This could be awful, but Leela refuses to be patronised by him, and her intelligence always shows through.
In one of the most poorly thought out companion departures in the history of the show, Leela leaves the Doctor by reaching blindly out behind her and taking the hand of the nearest Gallifreyan guard, with whom she has hardly shared any scenes and certainly no chemistry for the preceding story. It’s a shame, because if written well, her fate to end up living on the Doctor’s home planet would have been a fine ending to her story, but she was badly let down by everyone involved in the production.
K-9 the robot dog also became an iconic character of the Fourth Doctor Years. First introduced in The Invisible Enemy, the Doctor was supposed to return him to his rightful owner and creator, but somehow “forgot.” Yep, he stole him. I love K9, as voiced mostly by John Leeson. Considering the primitive robotic technology they had to work with in the 70’s, he comes across remarkably well as a character in his own right. The Doctor handed over the first incarnation of K9 to Leela, only to build himself a new one.
Romana I (Mary Tamm) was a very different companion, introduced in The Ribos Operation, first of the Key to Time season – which is one of only two entire seasons of Classic Who released as a box set. Romana was given to a reluctant Doctor by the Time Lords, as an assistant to help him on a quest to collect the pieces of the Key to Time. Like Liz, Romana is a companion who is allowed to be almost equal to the Doctor’s intelligence. As a Time Lady, one of his own people, she has the same (in many cases superior) knowledge about the great mysteries of time travel, science and the universe, though his life experience is in turn superior. They constantly work to one-up each other, and have a great chemistry. I’m a big fan of this first Romana for her elegance, sharp wit and intelligence, not to mention her stunning wardrobe, which on at least one occasion becomes relevant to the plot.
Romana regenerated after a year, to be played now by Lalla Ward, whose version of the character was much more light-hearted and flirtatious. While Romana II isn’t anywhere close to being one of my favourite Fourth Doctor companions (there are so many great ones!), she certainly feels to be the best matched to that Doctor: like Sarah, she runs loyally along behind him rather than challenging him as Leela and Romana I were wont to do, and when they are given good banter, it’s a pleasure to watch these two bat it back and forth. In her last few stories, as the Doctor becomes a darker and more menacing figure, we also see Romana return to her elegant, haughty ways, particularly in her interactions with Adric. When she leaves, it is as a graceful saviour to people in need, rather than the mischevious scamp of a Time Lady who flitted around the streets of Paris in City of Death.
Ah, Adric. One of the most loathed companions of Doctor Who history. He appeared five stories before the end of Tom Baker’s final season, which would seem like a decent run for any other companion but coming as it does at the end, feels like a mere footnote. Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), a mouthy teenage maths genius (with apologies to Wil Wheaton, he was totally the Wesley Crusher of his time), actually fits rather well with Tom Baker’s Doctor towards the end. I’m not a fan of him in his first few stories, playing gooseberry between the Doctor and Romana, but in Keeper of Traken and Logopolis, there’s actually some rather nice boyish banter between the two characters, and Tom Baker seems to thrive on finally getting, after so long, a complete innocent to say “what’s happening, Doctor?” and “aren’t you clever!”. Certainly Adric is more likeable in those two stories than in most of the Peter Davison run…
Two new female companions are also introduced in those last two stories of the Fourth Doctor Years, preparing for the transition to the Fifth. They feel like they belong to the next era rather than this one, though in fact much of their meatiest material is in these two stories.
The Keeper of Traken is one of my favourites of all time: a very dark almost-fantasy (all of the stories of this final season supposedly took “entropy” as their theme) about a world with no negative thoughts, invaded by a creature who was all negativity, and used their goodness to fuel his return to life. Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), a princess-type with mad science skills, was a character I loved, and she and Adric work very well together here. In Logopolis, shortly before Nyssa returns to join the TARDIS crew, Tegan (Janet Fielding) makes her appearance as a mouthy Australian air stewardess who accidentally wanders aboard the TARDIS after the disappearance of her aunt, and gets stuck there for the next three years…
But more about them later.
Feminist Heroes: Leela (even if she is more of a Heroic Bloke), Romana I
Best Stories To Watch:
Title: Masque of Mandragora (1976)
Featuring: The Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith
Why Watch: It’s a gorgeous Renaissance Italian historical-with-aliens and is an enjoyable showcase for Sarah as a character. It doesn’t get as much love as some of the other stories of this era but it’s one of my favourites and I think would have quite a bit of appeal to modern fans looking to see what Sarah Jane was like in the old days.
Or Not: there’s some cheesy effects and some mad cultists but to be honest if you don’t go for either of those things, this is not the show or the era for you.
Category: Historical with Aliens
If You Like This You May Like: Pyramids of Mars, Seeds of Death, Brain of Morbius
Title: Robots of Death (1977)
Featuring: The Fourth Doctor, Leela
Why Watch: this is a clever take on the classic Whodunnit, based on a society of robots, so entrenched in Asimov’s Laws of Robotics (or something very like them) that they can’t conceive of the idea that robots could possibly do them harm. The script is clever, fast-paced by Classic Who standards, and has (shock!) female characters other than the companion actually doing stuff. The design also works beautifully in this story, which has a lovely aesthetic and some of the most elegant robots we see until the clockwork men in The Girl in the Fireplace.
Category: Space Opera Murder Mystery
If You Like This You May Like: The Face of Evil, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Sun Makers.
Or Not: Talons is long held up as one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time, the ultimate example of the Hinchcliffe gothic era. Indeed, it is a great story, featuring some of the best Leela character moments of her whole run, and a haunted music hall plot that is very evocative. Modern viewers might, however, have a bit of a problem with the authentic-for-Victorian-times racism that threads through the whole story, a Huge Enormous Problem with the authentic-for-1977 racism that led to a white actor being cast as a Chinese character, complete with heavy makeup and, um, prosthetic eyelids. He’s a great actor and it’s a brilliant performance, but… yes. Um. There’s also a giant rat puppet which is generally regarded as one of the worst examples of Prop!Fail in the history of the show.
Title: City of Death (1979)
Featuring: The Fourth Doctor, Romana II
Why Watch: Of all the ‘best evah’ Doctor Who stories recommended most often to New Who fans, this is the one I heartily agree with. It’s a classic for many reasons: mostly scripted by Douglas Adams, the banter is second-to-none; the Fourth Doctor and Romana have never been sexier or more charming with each other; the shots of Paris are glorious and bathed in nostalgia; the villain (Julian Glover) is suitably melodramatic; the plot is suitably batshit crazy. It’s the happiness of Doctor Who boiled down into one crazy beautiful story, and if I was only going to recommend one story, universally, it would be this one. Oh, and it has a cameo by John Cleese and Eleanor Bron.
If You Like This You May Like: Sadly, there’s nothing like it in the rest of Doctor Who history, except perhaps Shada, a story only partly filmed due to strike action.
Marathons: As I’ve said previously, I’m always shocked when New Who fans set out to watch Classic Who in order – it’s a mighty impressive marathon, which I assume would only be undertaken by the most rabid of Classic Who fans rather than those just starting out. Having said that, we’re now coming to the point where there are several stories or seasons which do benefit from being watched in order, such as:
Season 12 - Tom Baker’s first season, comprising of Robot, Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, Genesis of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen. Sadly not available as a box set.
Key to Time - a linked collection of stories featuring the entirety of Mary Tamm’s run as Romana, and an actual narrative from beginning to end (though most of the stories also work as standalones) – The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet, The Stones of Blood, The Androids of Tara, The Power of Kroll and The Armageddon Factor. All of these have something going for them, though the pick of the bunch is The Stones of Blood. This lot is actually available as a DVD box set.
Keeper of Traken, Logopolis & Castrovalva – these three stories take us through the development of the new TARDIS crew, the death of the Fourth Doctor and the introduction of the Fifth. They are also available as a box set, entitled New Beginnings, and are worth watching back to back.
I am not going to endorse the E-space trilogy for any but the most ardent Romana II fans because, well, you know. Warrior’s Gate.
Extra, extra - we’re not exactly hurting for Tom Baker material, but it’s worth noting that after a decade or two of ignoring the huge industry of Doctor Who audio plays, Tom Baker has now started doing some. The ‘Hornet’s Nest’ series of plays, also featuring Richard Franklin as an elderly Mike Yates, manage somehow to combine the Hinchcliffe gothic sensibility with the haunted, end-is-in-sight latter years of Baker’s run, and make for very enjoyable listening for those who prefer their Doctor to be rather cranky and alienating.
Also if you’re a fan of Louise Jamieson’s Leela and/or Lalla Ward’s Romana, there’s an excellent series of audio plays from Big Finish called GALLIFREY which feature Romana as the Lady President, and Leela as her bodyguard. They are made of awesome, and in particular give Leela a much better send off than the original show.