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It was my father who introduced me to the world of the TARDIS and the Time Vortex. Sitting in our living room one day, aged six – scant weeks after being introduced to Blackadder, Bottom and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a series my sister and I still affectionately refer to as “Fish in the Ear”) and their subsequent devouring – I was offered something new. A cassette with the words “Dr. Who” and a date now long vanished from memory scrawled across it. It was inserted into the VCR, and after a moment’s static I was given my first glimpse of the world of Doctor Who.
Things were never the same again.
The opening titles (do we ever forget our first glimpse of them?) exploded in front of me in a riot of blues and whites, whilst Ron Grainer’s immortal theme warbled out of the speakers. I was hooked instantly. What was this world? Who is this strange figure -his face appearing before me to be suddenly replaced with the enigmatic title “Doctor Who”. Then the name of the serial appeared “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” it proclaimed, filled with melodramatic gusto.
A classic serial; comprising of a mixed pastiche of Hammer Horror, Conan-Doyle mystery and Victorian Penny Dreadful story, sadly marred by some ropey effects involving a “giant” rat and rather uncomfortable Asian stereotypes. My 6 year old self however, was enthralled. I laughed at the jokes (no doubt not understanding a single one), I feared the villains (to my mind the very height of ungodly, monstrous grotesques). By the time the end credits rolled on the final episode I was hungry for more. I wanted more adventures with this strange, joyous wanderer, I wanted to see more of his world, more of his gadgets and brilliant ideas, and most of all I wanted to see more of him. Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor.
An effervescent mix of scatty professor and master wizard, he was the hero for me: Holmes and Watson rolled into one, at turns brilliant and blundering. I adored him from the tip of his hat to the bottom of his scarf. So, naturally I watched the next tape, and the next, and the next: Journeying across Baker’s time, into a few of Davison’s before moving up to Baker (Colin) then rewinding for some adventures with Pertwee’s 3rd, occasionally managing the odd adventure with Hartnell (although at the time I was put off by the lack of colour). Troughton’s Doctor was absent, due to my father’s dislike of his episodes I discovered years later.
However, despite loving each and every new adventure in space and time I always yearned for more from Baker’s 4th. He was my Doctor. My first and greatest.
I wasn’t alone in this. For many, Baker’s Doctor was and will always be The Doctor. But what is it that endears him so? He can’t have been the first Doctor for all of us, and other actors matched him for acting ability and prowess time and time again. Yet, it must be said that others simply lacked what Baker had. That sheer volume of personality, that warmth and wit that made him such an utter joy to behold. A big part of this was Baker, but also he was helped greatly by the record length of his time in the TARDIS.
This seven-year career ensured that his Doctor had room to grow in ways not seen before or since. His performance, not bound by a truncated run, or troubled production allowed him to deliver a performance of magnificent nuance. Alternating between the Proud Headmaster and the Naughty Schoolboy, stern and silly, curmudgeonly and caring, Baker was given room to breath life into the role with such depth and space to evolve.
He was the whole of man, the prototypical human, the definite article in his own words. But he was not just every man, but also his own man with his own tastes and eccentricities. His famous fondness for jelly babies speaks to both of these things. To him, life was always grand and always glorious if you let it be; adventure was what you could find if you don’t let yourself be dragged down by the mundane. He was the cosmic wanderer and eternal student.
However, there are those that would damn him for these affectations. Claiming his was the turn that ruined the role with endless prattling, chewing scene after scene with unending giggling bombast. To his detractors he was the cartoon doctor, the pretender that stole the gravitas and dignity of the role. To those I say that the only cartoon of his doctor was exactly that-a cartoon, a rough sketch drawn by others due to his sheer impact. His was the lead ball on the rubber sheet of the public consciousness, drawing countless imitations and boiling his performance down to its cheapest, most simplistic parts-the hat, the hair, the scarf, and the teeth.
Beyond Baker the material written for him was peerless. Luminaries such as Douglas Adams, Robert Holmes and Terrance Dicks expanded the show into the realms of Gothic Horror, Sci-Fi Comedy and Speculative Fiction, each helping the 4th Doctor to make his stamp on the programme and on its audiences. They populated the Doctor’s world with unforgettable characters and an irreplaceable irreverence and charm. For many years it was a perfect marriage of writers and actor, one that wouldn’t be seen again until the pairing of Russell T. Davies and David Tennant decades later.
Ultimately Baker’s Doctor showed me that life is lived greater when viewed with eyes open wide to the possibilities, that our intelligence and humanity and willingness to see more made us better people. And that yes, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. For me, that makes him truly, immortally iconic.
So, fellow companions, as we celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th year, raise a screwdriver (sonic or otherwise) and nibble a jelly baby for Tom Baker and the 4th Doctor, and strive to carry on his spirit-go out into the world, explore, discover and above all have fun. After all:
The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Boxset is available now: click.