To many modern Doctor Who fans, David Tennant is the most iconic version of The Doctor. To fans of the Classic Series, that will only ever be Tom Baker. Now approaching 50 years since he first donned the famous hat and scarf, Baker shows no signs of leaving the role that made him a sci-fi legend.
Speaking with the UK’s Radio Times, Baker says that he “didn’t know what to do with” the role when he took over from Jon Pertwee in 1974, becoming the show’s Fourth Doctor. “Of course, the problem is it’s not really an acting part,” he explained. “In fact, I don’t really do acting parts because they just embarrass me. I try to inhabit these kinds of crackpot people who I play and find a crackpot niche in my crackpot brain… I slot them in, and off we go!”
Doctor Who in the 1970s
Tom Baker was on the show from 1974 and 1981, making him the longest serving Doctor. And he did it when the show was at the peak of its popularity, with 1979’s City of Death reaching an astonishing 16.1 million viewers in the UK. The producer for that season, Graham Williams, hadn’t initially got on with his lead star; Baker said that Williams initially “tried to influence” Baker’s performance and change the show to match his own personal vision.
It eventually dawned on him – when other actors, and one or two of the directors I was working with, said, ‘Hey, you know, I think Tom’s got something here, I think we’re onto something’ – that he had to put up with it. After that, we became quite friendly… never very friendly. I’m not all that good at being very friendly.
Despite the excellent ratings, Williams departed after season 17 to be replaced by John Nathan-Turner. That marked an overhaul of the show — everything from the theme song to the logo to the storytelling was changed. Where Graham Williams had largely failed to put his own stamp on the series, Nathan-Tuner succeeded.
Baker felt slighted. “It was obvious that he saw Doctor Who very much as he saw himself,” he said. “I didn’t like his style, you know, and he didn’t like my style.”
It was a great struggle all the time, which we didn’t have to take to arbitration because that would have been counterproductive, but it made life difficult, and it made constantly the need for compromise on both our sides.
While Baker’s time with Williams and Nathan-Turner was somewhat contentious, the same cannot be said of Philip Hinchcliffe, who ran things immediately before Williams. Hinchcliffe’s era is arguably the one most associated with Baker’s time on the show. It featured heavy gothic trappings as Doctor Who moved toward the horror genre, inspired by the legendary Hammer Horror studio. “He often found my ideas my ideas interesting, and sometimes he adopted them,” Baker said. “And for that reason, of course, I thought he had marvelous taste and insights.”
Tom Baker returns to Doctor Who
Nobody who has ever played The Doctor has genuinely left the role behind. Like a Star Trek captain or James Bond, their name is forever associated with the franchise. In 2011, 30 years after regenerating into Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, Baker returned to the role on a semi-regular basis with Big Finish Productions.
I never left being Doctor Who. I played Macbeth the way I played Doctor Who, So naturally, it was not a success. But although it wasn’t a success, the audience laughed a lot, and that was a kind of consolation.
Baker has so far starred in 10 seasons worth of audio plays with at least three more planned. His decision to return to the iconic role reunited him with Philip Hinchcliffe. In 2014, Big Finish began a new side range to the Fourth Doctor Adventures, designed to tell stories that “kind of have the flavor of what we were doing in those three years,” as Baker put it. The Philip Hinchcliffe Presents range enlisted the former producer to write two stories based on ideas that he’d had back in the 1970s. “The starting point was there were a few basic ideas that were kicking around for another series, had we made it,” said Hinchcliffe, speaking back in 2014. “I thought this project would be fun to be involved with, and I’ve tried to and tell stories that are in the same spirit as the ones [legendary writer] Robert Holmes and I were telling.”
After two more volumes in 2016 and 2017, the series looked like it was winding down until the surprise announcement that a fifth story in the range on the way. It was made available just this month.
The God of Phantoms is written by Marc Platt from an idea by Hinchcliffe, reuniting Tom Baker as The Doctor with Louise Jameson as Leela. The story is classic Hinchcliffe, featuring ghosts and an ancient foe. “This is proper Philip Hinchcliffe Doctor Who!” producer David Richardson told BigFinish.com. “There’s a fascinating cast of guest characters, brilliant world-building, and a terrifying villain for the Doctor and Leela to battle. Told over six episodes, this is huge storytelling in the style of The Seeds of Doom or The Talons of Weng-Chiang – a chance to immerse yourself in a rich and vivid fantasy world for 150 minutes!”
Naturally, Baker was delighted to be reunited with Jameson. “She’s beautiful and very witty,” he said. “We absolutely have a wonderful relationship now and are constantly in touch with lovely little messages about what we’re up to. So it’s a happy story, really very happy.”
With over 10 years at Big Finish and approaching 100 new stories already released, Baker’s time doing audio stories has now long surpassed his run on screen,
And the boys at Big Finish like my work, and the visiting actors seem to like it. Lots of the supporting actors who come in, they watched me before they’d reach the age of reason… For lots of them, it’s a little sneaking ambition to come and play a part in Doctor Who. That’s what they tell me anyway. They’re actors, so I can’t believe a word they’re saying. But it’s charming.