Wed
Dec 29 2010 12:00pm

Born to be an Alien

This is a post in the Tor.com Twelve Doctors of Christmas series. Click the link to peruse the entire series.

The Fourth Doctor Tom Baker

There’s something to be said for the idea that we all think Doctor Who was best when we first started paying attention to it. I was seven when Tom Baker became the Doctor, and thirteen when his term in the TARDIS ended; for me he has always been the definitive Doctor, alien, unknowable, yet powerfully moral and frighteningly intelligent, against whom all other Doctors must be measured. Few come close—Hartnell, Eccleston, and the new boy Smith being the nearest.

I’m not alone. Poll after poll of fans put Fourth Doctor stories right at the top of the Old Who rankings. Like many others, I love “The Ark In Space” (1975), “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975), “The Deadly Assassin” (1976), and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (1977), all of which gripped me on first viewing, over a third of a century ago, and still grip me now. Particularly in Baker’s early years, the people making the show really gelled—producer Philip Hinchcliffe with his attraction to the gothic and commitment to making things look right, script editor Robert Holmes with his subversive, anti-establishment instincts, and of course Baker himself with his fundamental anarchism.

In some ways, Tom Baker was born to be an alien; his father was mostly absent (probably not so rare) and Jewish (probably rarer), making the Baker family an oddity in the intense, devout Liverpool Catholic community where he grew up. (There’s a brilliant 2001 radio play, Regenerations by Daragh Carville, where Baker descends on Belfast, partly in character, to bring peace.) No wonder he ran off to become a monk; no wonder it didn’t work. No wonder he later married a minor member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy (Lalla Ward, who played the second Romana); no wonder that didn’t work either. Baker’s accent now is impeccably proper; but he must have started very Scouse. Accent apart, he reminds me a bit of the weird male relatives who I meet at Irish family occasions. At least, I used to encounter them; maybe I have now become one myself.

So it’s unsurprising that Baker claims (most notably in his confessional autobiography, Who on Earth is Tom Baker) that as the Doctor he was channelling himself more than anything. In a 1999 TV documentary, he explained, “I felt that the best way to suggest that I was an alien and came from somewhere else and had secrets, dark thoughts, and wonderful thoughts, I thought, the way to do that is just to be Tom Baker.” He also reflected on how the magical aspects of the Doctor’s heroism transferred to him: “Everybody knew me. I was like St Francis of Assisi… I would embrace the afflicted and the contagious, and the infectious. Anything, really, for a laugh.”

I think he is too modest. The moral drive of the Doctor, his outrage at evil, are of fundamental importance to all of his incarnations; but in Baker’s portrayal they seem to come from particularly profound roots. And personally and professionally, that was probably the aspect of the show that has had the strongest impact on me. My friend and sometime fellow activist, Alex Wilcock, wrote a famous essay on “How Doctor Who Made me A Liberal” (NB this is the British usage of “liberal”) back in 2003, explaining the influence of the show on his own political thinking. Over the decades, there is of course, no 100% consistent message; but Alex has it right when he talks of the show’s fundamental liberal libertarianism (if that makes sense). He puts his finger on it here:

…there is a very Liberal and very British dislike of any big battalions that’s rarely contradicted. The Doctor prizes knowledge and individuality, and doesn’t like despots. There’s an ingrained repulsion from fascism from the very beginning that’s one of the most crucial ideals of the series. It means almost any Doctor Who story carries the belief that conquest and control is a bad thing, whether of a planet or of the mind.

My day job involves hard-edged international politics—dealing with cultures which are similar to, but not quite the same as, my own; trying to sort out good from evil; attempting to steer the story to a happy ending, generally as an incidental character (hopefully not the guy who gets exterminated in the first episode). It’s very grown-up stuff, but when I am traveling I always bring a few episodes of Doctor Who with me to watch; partly of course for sheer escapism, but partly also to remind myself of where I am coming from, of how the seven-year-old who watched “The Ark In Space” became the person I am now. I think there are worse places to rest your moral compass than the TARDIS console.


Nicholas Whyte works in international politics in Brussels, Belgium, and watches Doctor Who unashamedly.

This article is part of The Twelve Doctors of Christmas: ‹ previous | index | next ›
15 comments
Joe Hagan
1. Mercwrought
Aw the 4th Doctor, “My Doctor”, he was a great influence on who I became. I think back to that time and looking at it with what I understand now, the Doctor s taught me several things. He taught me how to be a leader and that regardless of who you are if you stand up and do the right thing others will follow and if they don’t who cares your right and they are wrong. He showed quick wit and action would win the day as well as few are as capable of handling the situation as you yourself are. And finally he showed me that being your self at the right times will throw everyone off balance. Looking back I also see how he made me a little devious and arrogant, not necessarily that great of traits. Overall he showed me what a hero was and that I didn’t need superpowers to be one.
Gnashchick
2. Gnashchick
I'm another who claims the 4th doctor as "My Doctor." I began watching Dr. Who on my local PBS station, every Saturday night, and I'm sure it was a few years behind the actual air date. I learned to crochet so I could make myself an absurdly long scarf. The lesson I took away from those many years of devotion was to notice everything around you. Even the smallest things can be important.
Gnashchick
3. Pendard
I can't claim the Fourth Doctor is "my Doctor" -- I'm an American in his 20s, and I didn't get wise to Doctor Who until he had traded in his rainbow scarf for a pinstriped suit and a trenchcoat. But Tom Baker's Doctor is my favorite of the classic Doctors. He has just the right mix of Patrick Troughton's childishness and Jon Pertwee's heroism. I'm surprised this article doesn't mention his sense of humor, his penchant from dropping in a superbly crafted bon mot, the way he would slide from being an overgrown kid to a deadly serious adult and back in the same scene, and how he seemed to always know exactly what to do. He made saving the world look easy.

One of the first things I did when I started watching Classic Who was watch every Tom Baker episode in order, and when I continued on into the Peter Davison years it was a sad letdown. Not that there was anything wrong with Davison (other than being poorly endowed in the companion department), it was just that no one could quite compare. The moment I realized how much I was going to love Matt Smith was when I recognized a shadow of Tom Baker's flagrant irresponsibility and ability to have fun. It was what I had been missing in the tragic, brooding, damanged, post-Time War Doctors (the Ninth and Tenth). I hadn't even realized it was missing. It is delightful to have some of Tom Baker's spirit back.
Gnashchick
4. Marilynn Byerly
As an American, Tom Baker was my first Doctor, too.

For me, particularly in comparison to the anti-Doctor-- The Master, I figured out the Doctor knew that it's not about taking over the world, but it's about keeping the world from taking over you.

It's a good lesson about freedom.
Joseph Blaidd
5. SteelBlaidd
Grew up watching Mr. Baker galavant around the universe. Amaizing that he was only the fouth man to have the keys to the TARDIS. (Key to Time was a favorite set.)
Warren Ockrassa
7. warreno
Genesis of the Daleks was a seminal episode for me. The Doctor's ethical concern about perpetrating genocide by blowing up the Kaled incubators - despite knowing what they would become - was something I've never forgotten. To seek the redeemable in even the most deadly enemy is something very, very few fictional characters ever aspire to - let alone those of us who live in the "real" world.

Let's not forget, also, that Douglas Adams (yes, that Douglas Adams) came on as script editor when Baker was the Doctor. Some of the episodes (notably Pirate Planet) have his fingerprints all over them.
Gnashchick
8. WhovianToo
I started watching DR, Who while the great Mr Baker was Lord of Time. Believe it or not my hill billy grandmother turned me on to it. I was probably between 6 and 8 when we started watching the Dr. Great memories that I have of my grandmother and when I watch now I know she is with me also. Save the world eat a juju fruit. What a concept. I even started cxarrying a brown bag of gummy bears around all the time. I just wonder how many mannerism we Whovians havethat came from our delightful alien. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.
Joe Romano
9. Drunes
For me, Tom Baker will always be Doctor Who. Funny, intelligent, caring... and that crazy scarf that Madame Nostradamus knitted for him! The perfect Doctor. What more can I say that everyone else hasn't already expressed better?
Samantha Brandt
10. Talia
All I've seen of Dr. Who was maybe part of an episode when I was very young.. and that was during Tom Baker's reign. So when you say "Dr. Who," a blurry, ancient image of Baker's character pops into my mind, though I remain having no clear idea about the character.

I know, I'm a bad nerd. I expect to start Netflixing episodes soon (at least of Eccelston forward) so I'm not so behind the times. :p

Still, since Baker was my very first exposure, I imagine he'll continue to be the one I associate with the character. Need to find a way to watch all the episodes he was in, if it's not on Netflix. (Amazon?).
Gnashchick
11. Dr. Thanatos
This was my Doctor; when local PBS started broadcasting the Doctor in 1979 in Houston it started with "Robot" and no Doctor has been able to measure up.

Favorite moment:

Doctor: I'm the Doctor, and this is Romana.
Official: Romana Who?
Romana: That's right...
Jacy Clark
12. Amalisa
Let's not forget, also, that Douglas Adams (yes, that Douglas Adams) came on as script editor when Baker was the Doctor. Some of the episodes (notably Pirate Planet) have his fingerprints all over them.


Oh, yes... I have eased so many of my American compatriots into Who-dom by first hooking them with Hitchhiker... *lol* Relatively speaking, the association may not have been that long-term, but the essence has never completely gone away...
I fell in love with the Doctor during Jon Pertwee's time but became a fangirl thanks to Tom Baker. He remained my Doctor until the reboot - now I vacillate between Nine and Ten. For purposes of separation, I can be happy with Four being my Classic Doctor.

An excellent article, this. Regardless of eventual character ranking, Tom Baker was - without a doubt! - one of the most interesting actors to take the role!
Ray Irwin
13. Rathar
The 4th Doctor was also 'My Doctor'. I remember staying up Late on Sunday nights when I was young, tellimg my mom that I would be ok for school the next day. Yeah, I even had a scarf until a recent house fire burned it up.

Well will have to find another one. Since he was the best 'clasic' doctor. At least for me.
Ian Tregillis
14. ITregillis
Pendard@3: Great comparison between the Baker and Smith doctors-- for me, anyway, it's right on the money. Thanks for pointing this out! I was just a few days ago thinking about how much I like the exuberant joy of Matt Smith's performance, but I hadn't made the connection to my first doctor: none other than Tom Baker.

(Chalk me up as another American whose first exposure to Dr. Who came via PBS in the 1970s.)
Gnashchick
15. Twilight
Being in the US, Tom Baker was my first doctor but I wouldn't call him "my doctor" (that honor goes to Sylvester McCoy and Christopher Eccleston). I enjoyed him as the doctor but rewatching episodes now, I think it is blatantly obvious that he is mostly just channeling himself and that he has a *massive* ego.
Gnashchick
16. Eugene R.
I agree with Pendard (@3) that Mr. Baker's saving grace was his irrepressible sense of humor, which I believe helped redeem his Doctor from the problem of a massive ego (on which Twilight comments, @15). Baker often played the joke on himself, in order to make the Doctor's point:

Doctor (twitching as if in an epileptic seizure): As from this moment, there is no such thing as free will in the Universe. There's only my will, because I possess ... the Key to Time!

Romana (worried): Doctor, are you all right?

Doctor (snapping back to normal): Well, of course I'm all right! But, supposing I weren't all right?

(from "The Armageddon Factor", the finale to the Key to Time sequence)

Or the Doctor, after explaining that he can, indeed, control the Tardis, nine times out of ten, well, seven out of ten, or five times ... never mind!, telling Leela to leave her weapons behind:

Doctor: I never carry weapons. If people see that you mean them no harm, they never hurt you. (Straightens coat and prepares to leave the Tardis.) Nine times out of ten.

Leela grabs her dagger and follows him. (from "The Robots of Death")

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