Faced with the prospect of encapsulating the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who in roughly five hundred words is some task. The man who would play – nay, epitomise the Doctor in his fourth incarnation on and off the screen is simply the sine qua non, without whom the series might not enjoy its twin existence as both popular entertainment and ‘cult’ fascination. Eight seasons, seven companions, four producers and a legacy that to this day means to more than one generation the quintessential shorthand for the Doctor involves jelly babies, curly hair and toothsome grins, and an impossibly long scarf.
Please sympathise with me, then, as I attempt to unravel this almost universal portrait to find the kernel of the Baker era, to disengage the performer and children’s favourite, the formidable talents of men whose names became genres unto themselves in Who – Hinchcliffe, Holmes, Williams, Adams, and seek out a new byword for Doctor Who in the mid to late Seventies. That word ladies and gentlemen is Change.
All series rely on reinvention and on refreshing the sheets from time to time, but Doctor Who in its teens seems to actively seek change out – no two seasons of the Baker era are alike, much less even similar; there is no ‘business as usual.’ In fact the entire run of the Fourth Doctor may be seen as the culmination of several strong personalities attempting to cast their own interpretation of the series on each other, the show tripping from one set of fingertips to another like a ball in a line out toss. The Baker Era – epic, Gothic, didactic, antagonistic, Apocalyptic, satirical, funereal – has a style and feel for everyone. Think of it as a multi-coloured approach, if you will – like a scarf, of variously-flavoured like a bag of jelly babies. It is broad and deep enough to find an audience savouring a wide range of tastes, and in the middle of it all is an actor who gave so much of himself to the role, who literally occupied it as much as it occupied him, that he will forever be Tom Baker, Doctor Who.
The Baker era tries everything, and occasionally stumbles when budget cuts conspire, but at its height its scripting is consistently high, and Baker’s instinctive performance caries the rest through – if ever an era could be said to have natural charisma, it’s this one. The Doctor, loping from one outlandish scenario to the next, is the most free he’s ever been, and ever will be, escaping a season-long story arc to randomly gad about the universe with his female equal. By season nineteen and the onrush of universal entropy we are given the answer to a final question – can the Doctor remain a universal constant as well, or is he also susceptible to change? The answer this that he does change, and in eight years looking back it’s there to be seen most clearly. Say what you may about Tom Baker’s swansong, but for this viewer the image of a Doctor loosening his grip on a radio telescope beam to fall to his death and usher in his next form is one of the greatest moments of Tom Baker’s era, a moment of stoicism and calm, where the Doctor, resolutely Chaotic Good, surrenders his dominion over time and space to change again.
Change, they say, is as good as a holiday; and for the fourth Doctor this holiday comes in the form of greater exploration in time than his predecessor, a confident eschewing of traditional enemies (after an introductory season, of course) and an indulgent season-long story arc. Space, as script editor Douglas Adams once wrote, is big, and in the eight years’ space that the Tom Baker Era provides there’s plenty to lose one’s self in.