The Tom Baker Era – A Look Back at My Favorites

Fourth Doctor title image
Fourth Doctor title image

It took me nine months to finish the seven-year run that Tom Baker had on Doctor Who. By the final episode of each Doctor I have covered so far, I was ready for the next actor, but with Hartnell and Troughton, I started to re-think my desire to move on. For the first two Doctors I was ultimately sad to see them go. In the case of Hartnell, I actually cried. With Pertwee, I felt sad, but I was ready for Tom. And despite having a wonderful final season, I never felt sad about Tom Baker’s departure. I still don’t. I think seven years was too long of a run, especially after the struggles the show had during the Graham Williams era. So while Tom Baker was my introduction to Doctor Who as a child, as an adult, he is no longer “my Doctor.” He isn’t a bad Doctor, by any means, but somewhere along the way he ceased being the Doctor and became Tom Baker. And I think the show broke down for me somewhere in there.

Since the tone of the show varied drastically from producer to producer, rather than give my favorite Fourth Doctor stories, I will evaluate my favorites by producer. I will do five from Philip Hinchcliffe, four from Graham Williams, and three from Jonathan Nathan Turner.

The Philip Hinchcliffe Era

The Hinchcliffe Era is the one most associated with my childhood. It will always have a soft spot for me. (You never forget your first Doctor, as they say, or in this case, your first producer.) This era of the show, however, did have some recurring tropes that may have hurt the show if they had gone on too long. While I would have loved to see one more season from Hinchcliffe, being left wanting more is rarely a bad thing. Here is my top five:

  1. The Talons of Weng-Chiang. This story is a perfect imitation of gaslight horror. Unfortunately, that also includes the racism. The story is a joy to watch, however. It plays on tropes from Sherlock Holmes, Phantom of the Opera, Fu Manchu, Jack the Ripper, and on and on. Jago and Litefoot are delightful characters that steal the story from Tom Baker, which is quite the accomplishment. Leela is at her best, and Tom is on top form. The world-building backstory is delightful. This is the story that so many Doctor Who fans define the series by, which can be a problem because its scope is rather limited. Nevertheless, it is immensely watchable and a lot of fun.
  2. Terror of the Zygons. This is the final story to feature Harry Sullivan and the final UNIT story with our regulars. It is a great send-off for the Brigadier and Benton. We are in gothic horror territory again, and the story is dark. But once more, it is compelling. The pace is great. The story is only let down by the Loch Ness Monster effects, and even those are forgivable due to the fun in this story.
  3. The Seeds of Doom. A bit of an oddity for Doctor Who as this one is more action-packed than normal. Oddly enough, it works. The Hinchcliffe Era is again raiding horror movies and tropes, but they do it well. Hints of The Thing from Another World and At the Mountains of Madness. This is Doctor Who at its Quatermass-y, Lovecraftian best.
  4. The Brain of Morbius. If only all failed stories could be this good. Robert Holmes reworked this Terrance Dicks story and made a darkly comedic Frankenstein story. Philip Madoc dominates this story, and the one liners are disturbing and hilarious. “Don’t lie to me, Condo! You’ve been looking for that arm again, haven’t you?”
  5. Genesis of the Daleks. This story breathed new life into the Daleks. Unfortunately, it also caused a major shift away from the Daleks toward Davros. But that shouldn’t be held against this story. Davros is a wonderful megalomaniac and Nyder is perfect as his second-in-command. The story is straightforward as it plummets toward the inevitable conclusion, but the tension along the way is achieved well.
The Graham Williams Era

I think the Graham Williams Era gets a bad reputation. I think each producer should be allowed to succeed or fail on his own terms. Graham Williams did not and was forced to make his era in response to what the BBC felt had gone wrong in the Hinchcliffe Era. Williams is best-known for his failures, which is completely unfair because when his era was good, it was good. It may not have had the sheer number of hits that Hinchcliffe’s era had, but there were some strong stories here. These are my favorites:

  1. City of Death. As modern Doctor Who goes, “City of Death” is near perfect. New fans can be drawn to the classic series by this story. It is pitch perfect. The leads are on form. The guest cast is interesting. Julian Glover is a perfect villain. The story is great. I don’t think Douglas Adams was the best thing to happen to Doctor Who, but if all of his stories had achieved the heights of “City of Death,” he probably could have ousted Robert Holmes from his notable position as fan-favorite writer.
  2. Horror at Fang Rock. This is one of the tightest, darkest gothic horror stories that Doctor Who has ever done, and it wasn’t even in Hinchcliffe’s era. Terrance Dicks hits this story perfectly. It is moody, atmospheric, and genuinely creepy.
  3. The Ribos Operation. This story is a distillation of all the things Robert Holmes does best. It has two great double-acts (Garron and Unstoffe, Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh), it is full of humor, and it has great world-building. The sets look great, and Mary Tamm is wonderful as Romana I.
  4. The Stones of Blood. What starts as a gothic horror quickly takes a sci-fi turn. And that is what I love so much about this story—the shift in tone. The guest cast is superb, and you won’t find many other stories with a female to male cast ratio as high as this one. This is a wonderful story.
The Jonathan-Nathan Turner Era

This is merely the beginning of his over-long era, so it isn’t fair to judge him on this one season alone. But it is a strong start and Christopher H. Bidmead worked wonders in moving this show from being about Tom Baker to being about the Doctor. Here are my favorites:

  1. The Keeper of Traken. The start of Bidmead’s mythic re-working of the Doctor who mythos, which comes at the end of a season-long deconstruction of the Fourth Doctor. “Traken” can be boring if you are looking for an action-packed story, but the depth to this one is astounding.
  2. State of Decay. One final foray into the gothic horror by a crew that doesn’t quite capture the horror. Nonetheless, this is an interesting addition to Time Lord mythology and the story is quite good.
  3. Logopolis. Ending the Tom Baker era is a tall challenge. Bidmead does a wonderful job by draping this story with mythology, classical philosophy, and Messianic imagery. Pitting the Doctor as a force for stability against the Master as a force for entropy and chaos brings a surprisingly epic tone to a story that can be dense. You have to work at this story, but it rewards you for it.

So, these are my favorites. Feel free to chime in with yours and let me know why.

In the meantime, on to the Fifth Doctor.

2 thoughts on “The Tom Baker Era – A Look Back at My Favorites

  1. Really, really great run-down of Tom Baker’s seven year era as the Fourth Doctor! He was in so many different serials that it’s really difficult to narrow it down to just a few favorites. I agree with nearly all of your choices. In brief, here are three others that especially stood out for me, one for each producer…

    The Robots of Death: This one is just so atmospheric & suspenseful, the designs of the robots and the various costumes are stunning, Louise Jameson as Leela is great (I think it’s really helpful that Chris Boucher, the writer who introduced her in the previous story, got to continue developing her in the very next serial), and I really enjoy seeing the Doctor assume the role of investigator with D84 as his assistant.

    The Pirate Planet: It’s my favorite of the Key To Time season. I think writer Douglas Adams had some amazing, original ideas, and script editor Anthony Read did a good job at distilling the inventive story into something that could be filmed within the budget constraints. Bruce Purchase as the Captain is humorously over the top yet possessing hidden levels of genius and pathos. The scene where the Doctor expresses his utter moral outrage towards the Captain is amazing. (“Appreciate it? Appreciate it? What, you commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that’s almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it?”) Even in the midst of the Graham Williams years, when Tom Baker was taking his character in a very comedic direction, he was still capable of an stunningly dramatic moments like this. It’s actually one of my all time favorite Doctor Who scenes ever.

    Warrior’s Gate: This is just so amazingly bizarre. Stephen Gallagher’s script is mind-boggling & thought provoking, the direction by Paul Joyce is moody & dramatic, Peter Howell’s music has the perfect surreal quality, and Romana is given one of the best departures ever for a companion. Oh, yeah, and the Gundan look really cool. After all these years, I still don’t fully understand this one, but it’s always a pleasure to watch.

    I am really looking forward to your reviews of the Peter Davison era. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks for commenting. Your list of episodes are the ones that almost made it. I think Boucher did a wonderful job of solidifying Leela’s character, and I think The Robots of Death is a lot of fun. The designs are particularly striking. I also love the story’s pace, which owes more to Agatha Christie than to science fiction. The Pirate Planet is also good, if a little too stuffed with ideas for the time constraints. The performances are wonderful, however, and I love Bruce Purchase’s transition from blustering bombast to weak and pitiable. He handles the switch so well that I think it would be easy to miss it. And Warrior’s Gate is just flat-out beautiful.

      I’m excited about the Davison era. I haven’t seen very many of them (Resurrection of the Daleks, Earthshock, The Five Doctors, The King’s Demons, Caves of Androzani), and Peter Davison has never been my go-to Doctor. But I’m excited to see what happens in his era, and I’m hoping to be surprised.

      Until I get to the new series, I’m in largely unexplored territory, which is quite exciting.

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