40 years on from his first full appearance, there may not be a better time to look at the Fourth Doctor, still the very real and lasting giant of the series. As Last Christmas showed, there’s a lot to be said for a snappy, irritable, aloof and alien Doctor in this universe. It’s not just the Glam side of the 1970s that will play a key role in the future of Doctor Who?
THE START OF THIS WEEK MARKED ONE OF THE GREAT ANNIVERSARIES IN ALL WHODOM: 40 YEARS SINCE THE FOURTH DOCTOR’S FIRST FULL EPISODE. He’d already appeared at the tail-end of Planet of the Spiders in June 1974. But lying prone on the floor, there was precious little indication of what was to come, even in that first rather simplistic serial Robot. In hindsight, after a staggering seven seasons, encompassing 41 stories and 172 episodes Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor remains the most prolific of the Time Lords. The Tenth and Eleventh incarnations would come close with 36 and 39 stories respectively, thanks to 2005’s format change. But still, despite the strong and sterling headway the last two made in America, it’s often the famous grinning, long-scarved figure of the Fourth that pops up in popular culture.
Losing his hat where Pertwee would pick up his cape…
Jokerside’s Whovember series took a long look at the Fourth Doctor’s debut season, reasoning that it’s the single finest series of Doctor Who. And when it came to his debut appearance, it was clear that “Tom Baker… did something different”:
“Immediately, Baker’s Doctor isn’t as attached to UNIT as Pertwee’s had been, even during his last season. He can’t wait to escape but as he says, “I hate goodbyes”. Watching it, I can’t help but think what any other Doctor would have done. Had it been the Sixth, he may well have buckled down a lot sooner. Still, the Fourth had his own slightly too silly costume selection to make. Overlong and reaching, fortunately once chosen, it’s the speed and comfort that’s the punch line. Years of familiarity have enhanced the joke. And then the more telling phrase for this Doctor: “There’s no such word as can’t”.
“Hanging between that and “No point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes” the Fourth Doctor comes straight out of a peculiar Gallifreyan can. One that’s bigger on the inside obviously. They are words to live by, and live he does. Lounging around Bessie in a way Pertwee would have tutted at, losing his hat where Pertwee would pick up his cape – but still carrying off the role of the scientist when he needs to.”
Though resolutely still in the UNIT set-up, albeit one softened by the Third Doctor’s recent mobility, and written by Third Doctor stalwart Terrance Dicks, the Fourth Doctor’s initial appearance is an instant tide-turner. Almost immediately – far more than his predecessor, a noted comic actor – Baker is happy to lets loose with laugh out loud moments. True, he’s nominally not ‘acting’ a new persona as much Pertwee had, but he’s instantly engaging.
To summarise the Whovember breakdown, Tom Baker’s arrival got everything right. Though cast by outgoing producer Barry Letts the new Doctor couldn’t have hoped for a better incoming producer and script editor. While he may be losing an increasingly sparse UNIT family, Baker was incredibly lucky in the companion stakes. Sarah Jane Smith really came into her own when paired with this incarnation of the Time Lord, possibly his perfect foil. But she wasn’t alone, with a season of (lovable) public school idiot Harry Sullivan rounding off one of the all-time classic TARDIS crews. That’s fortunate, as the first full season story arc in the history of Who saw them propelled across five adventures over 20 weeks with very little TARDIS in sight.
Saved for that very day. And it’s a classic…
And so the Fourth Doctor’s tenure continued, moving from leaps to bounds even as Harry Sullivan disappeared prematurely. Lucky enough to coincide with the glorious script editing/producer partnerships of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe, Baker’s take was very much defined by his golden first seasons – although there were many further highlights to come, in narrative terms as well as viewing figures. And that wasn’t just not under Hinchcliffe and Holmes’ exemplary watch. The later tenure of producer Graham Williams may not be so highly regarded, but it brought rating highs (City of Death) and distinctive stories under Douglas Adam’s script editing reign. In his final year, bedecked in a far more uniform and red version of his previous attire thanks to incoming producer John Nathan-Turner* there’s still much to admire in the Christopher H. Bidmead edited quest for real science. It’s just a shame that ‘extra’ season makes criticism, and that neat 1970s fit, just a little awkward.
A Brussells sprout away from Who Goes There?
So 40 years on from the start of, quite inarguably, Doctor Who’s most popular era, how to celebrate? Well, ready for 28th December, this writer had something saved up. A hasty watching of the rather derided Horns of Nimon and The Invisible Enemy left only one tale from Tom Baker’s whole tenure unseen – saved for that very day. And it’s a classic… Broadcast between January and March 1976, Seeds of Doom fell squarely in the gothic heyday of Holmes and Hinchcliffe. Written by Robert Banks Stewart (also assured cult status by penning Terror of the Zygons), it’s a glorious example of definitive Who built on inspired and shamelessly heavy borrowing.
Starting in a very nicely realised Antarctic, it’s a Brussells sprout away from Who Goes There? – the short story that had already spawned The Thing From Another World, and was to be remade as The Thing in 1982. The Day of the Triffids reference is clear to see – although in a wonderfully Who way any dystopia is very localised and short-lived. In one of the best throwbacks to the Fourth Doctor’s predecessor, it’s Who’s most significant stab at Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass since the Third Doctor’s first season in 1970. More than any other, Seeds makes quite blatant reference to The Quatermass Experiment. It also nods to a classic Avengers episode The Man-Eater of Surrey Green, a series contributed to (though not an episode penned by) Banks Stewart himself. That nod to fantasy eccentricity also opens up some great comedy and references to all sorts of literature in a highly regarded serial.
The result is a finely paced six-parter that can only be thought of as definitive Doctor Who. Not the Fourth Doctor’s finest hour perhaps (that’s no slight, there are many of those), but an overall superior product, in which every part of the production can shine.
It’s also an end of two incredibly important parts of the Who mythos. It’s the serial that killed UNIT off for the 1970s, not to be seen again until 1983’s The Five Doctors. It’s a light if fine swansong for them (although the regulars, especially Lethbridge Stewart are an obvious omissions – Nicholas Courtney unavailable for filming). It’s also a reliably fine goodbye to one of classic Who’s classic directors, the legendary Douglas Camfield.
The shamelessly referential festive special
And this Last Christmas proved the choice to be everso timely.
2014’s Christmas episode can easily lay claim to being the best festive special yet. It shares a number of similarities with The Seeds of Doom, not least the liberal borrowing from external references.
They may be polar opposites in terms of location, but it was great to have the least hospitable parts of the planet back on the show. And all the better when there’s an alien invasion. Not just anyone either – an alien invasion with humans very much the vehicle for their master plan. While Seeds of Doom had the green Krynoids stumbling around, here it’s the crab-infested personnel who wander around, in the dreams at least. They may have rather attractive blue heads rather than faces of foliage, but back at their ‘real’ bases, both are similarly feeding on the infected humans.
But internal nods to one side, Last Christmas was just as good – and, whisper it, even better at dealing with the sources it stole from. That’s not uncommon in Doctor Who of course, least of all in modern Christmas specials. Under Steven Moffat alone, Christmas specials of varying quality have directly drawn on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Last Christmas delved directly into Hollywood science Fiction – and it soon moved from knowingly smug acknowledgement to an onscreen list. The Thing from Another World (of Course,) Alien and Miracle on 34th Street. What’s perhaps stranger than Shona’s running order is the omission of Inception. But perhaps that’s too much of a wink. Of course some of it just doesn’t add up, but then we’re used to that. And perhaps the “Thrones marathon” is being saved up for next year’s special…
Far better than the sneered at budget saving clip show, or the mixed fortunes of Doctorless bottle episodes is the shamelessly referential festive special.
Look Back in Anger
A perfect summary of the first four…
Perhaps most importantly, Last Christmas and The Seeds of Doom are stories rather perfectly matched to their Doctors. Santa, Triffids – you need a different Doctor for those tales than, for example, offered by numbers 10 or 11. In 1976, Tom Baker reached the end of his second season with The Seeds of Doom, with a fair few classics already under his belt. Despite a generally high quality Series eight, Capaldi’s Twelfth incarnation has quite that weight behind him. The overall high quality of Series eight is undeniable, and reassuringly after Matt Smith’s excellent performance, it took just a little longer for Capaldi to become THE Doctor. Things weren’t made easy of course. Some saw the fall of the Eleventh as a step back to the First Doctor and Susan archetype of 1963. Some saw the Twelfth’s arrival as a chance to remake the Sixth Doctor’s awkwardly handled arrival.
In fact, as highly referential as it was to specific eras of its own history, it was a more holistic homage. The early 1970s influence was clear to see – well before the episodes reached the screen (or internet, tut). But far from bringing back the irascible aloofness of the first Doctor, the Twelfth often seems like a perfect summary of the first four. If anyone’s lacking, it’s the Second Doctor who was constantly revisited by the Eleventh.
Boys Keep Swinging
Would you like a jelly baby?
The more Doctors the more fun a Logopolitan can have. Of course, there’s the fun to be had balancing the divisible Doctors; the neat balance when contrasting Ten with Five or Twelve with Six of course.
AS the dearly departed, the original three were are very much of their own. However. So were the errant wonder children of JNT in the 1980s, Doctors Five to Seven. That marks out on their own the particularly long-haired of the classic Doctors: Four and Eight. To simplify perhaps, the one who stayed too long and the one who really wasn’t given a chance. In the customary montages, the well-loved Four and Eight even seem to stand out – especially with the gang of reboot Doctors join the party.
While not their exclusive preserve, they are both among the most alien. Perhaps no Doctor has aped the Fourth Doctor so well without falling into the inevitable trap (“Would you like a jelly baby?”) There’s similar level of jumping from distracting comedy, reckless abandon and appreciation of the absurdity of the universe alongside to that flaring sharp temper of disinterest. It’s a fine trick, and while Capaldi hasn’t quite had the chance to shine (in keeping with the theme, could a Davros meeting sort that out?), there are few episodes where he hasn’t. And in the best Doctor Who tradition, it’s an effective way of bridging the drama and comedy; the death and the life. Of particular note was the brilliant Mummy on the Orient Express, just one of the episodes where the death conundrum was properly considered and the Doctor’s tactics used as a proper plot propellant. If anything, the Baker Capaldi fast burning energy (as opposed to the youthful Doctors) is one of the greatest story ignitions in the Who fabric.
And as if the shadow of the fourth Doctor could disappear. It would have been impossible to ignore the marvellous cameo of the Great Curator in the 50th anniversary special Day of the Doctor. As the Great Curator, it is the Fourth Doctor, or indeed the future return of the Fourth Doctor, who set the Search for Gallifrey as the great next step for the next half century of Who. The hope that Gallifrey is lost. No More. And there can never be enough…
Sense of Doubt
Emotion perfectly pitched…
That fast ignition that comes with the Fourth and Twelfth incarnations of the Time Lord has so far been a little disguised by the strange relationship the latter has with Clara. A very out-of-character hangover from his younger prior incarnation, his hopping back to pick Clara up has positioned the companion as more central to the show than ever, and that’s a good year after her Impossible Girl plot was resolved. But in a series, where many leaps and cliff-hangers hung on emotional relationships that were simply resolved the following week. Annoyingly it often appeared as filler or a reaching quest for some inherent drama that single stories couldn’t provide. But with Last Christmas, Moffat looks to have worked it out. The coda was a flip to last year’s Time of the Doctor but for once, the emotion was perfectly pitched, hanging in just the right amount of Christmas schmaltz. Maybe not the 40th, but come a key anniversary for the Twelfth Doctor Last Christmas may well make the cut.
Ashes to Ashes
Three times the Fourth Doctor
The series is still rediscovering aspects first brought to the universe under the Fourth Doctor’s wide-eyed watch. It was the Fourth Doctor who dragged us into the Matrix, revealed as a key part of Series 8’s running mystery.
Certainly, the velvet aspirations of the early 1970s remain. But as much as the Eleventh Doctor fell into a few of the dips and chased the many highs of the Fifth Doctor, so the Twelfth Doctor keeps one harsh eyebrow firmly pointed at the Fourth.
Tom Baker signified, not so much a physical shift to youth away from the very tight triumvirate of the first three Doctors, but a stampeding charge into the real 1970s. It’s a slice of delicious Who irony that the apparently youngest Doctor made way for the joint oldest, and that this signalled a shift of focus from the 1960s to the 1970s. Or perhaps it’s simply fitting that the two giants of the 1970s, including the difficult middle cog that cast the biggest and most awkward shadow, play such a role in the Twelfth incarnation of the last Time Lord.
The Twelfth is nominally three times the Fourth Doctor – but maybe it’s more like one-third.
Doctor Who will continue. And now all that remains is to watch the complete Fourth Doctor in order…
Read more about the New Series’ Velvet Aspirations and the Early 1970s
Read more about the Fourth Doctor’s First Season
Read the review of the Twelfth Doctor’s Debut, Deep Breath