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