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Inside the TARDIS: The Middle (1975-1981)

By Dan Toland
19 November 2008 The Fourth Doctor is the elephant in the room. His is the face non-fans of the show associate with the character (at least, up until the new series). He held onto the role for seven seasons, something no other actor has come close to doing. He was on the show so long, in fact, that he went through three producers, each of which had their own take on the Doctor. Never before or since would any actor play the Time Lord in a manner that varies so wildly. There were, in a manner of speaking, three Fourth Doctors. Building on the three previous incarnations, casting an impossible shadow over the next three, the central figure that dominated the classic series remains, to this day, impossible to ignore.

The end of Season Ten brought with it many changes to Doctor Who. Katy Manning left her role as Jo Grant. The lifting of the Doctor's exile meant less need for UNIT, with Richard "Mike Yates" Franklin leaving the series outright. Producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks had announced their intentions to leave their respective roles after the next season. And most stunningly of all, Roger Delgado, the actor who originated the role of the Master, was killed in an automobile accident while on a movie set in Turkey. With all this upheaval, Third Doctor Jon Pertwee decided that it was time for him to move on after five years in the role (a decision reportedly aided by the BBC's response to Pertwee's request for a fairly substantial raise, which was essentially to request that he not let the door hit him on his way out). One of Letts' last acts as the show's producer was to search for Pertwee's successor, a long and drawn-out process that finally led him to a letter that had been sent to the BBC's Head of Drama, written by a former monastic student and full-time construction worker, chastising the Beeb for their shameful oversight in not having given him an acting job.

Thomas Stewart Baker (1934-) had carved a niche playing villains in films of varying degrees of quality, from The Freakmaker (a late-night staple of finer UHF stations everywhere) to Nicholas and Alexandra (a big-budget epic period piece in which he played Rasputin), but had found getting work a little difficult. While he found employment as a builder, the letter he sent to the BBC inspired Barry Letts to catch a screening of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, a Ray Harryhausen fantasy in which Baker played the evil wizard. After having planned to cast an older man, Letts saw the performance menacingly tall, wild-eyed, fiercely intelligent and with a deep, resonant voice and reportedly decided he'd found the Fourth Doctor before the movie even finished playing.

Letts oversaw the formation of the character; as was traditionally done, the new Doctor would be an almost total about-face from his predecessor. Whereas Pertwee's Doctor was a velvet-wearing James Bond-type (lots of gadgets and wine with an unmistakable air of the aristocratic about him), Baker resembled your favorite college professor (chewing on jelly babies while playing with a yo-yo, wearing a rumpled tweed coat, baggy trousers, an argyle sweater and a floppy hat). Most famously of all, the costume design called for a wool scarf; unsure which color would be decided upon, many balls of yarn of varying colors were purchased and given to the costume department. However, no one told the costumer that they didn't want all of the yarn used. So when Baker arrived for his costume fitting, he was handed a scarf that measured 15 feet and consisted of multiple colors. Naturally, he thought it was hilarious, and the scarf became iconic; ask a non-fan what they know about Doctor Who, and the answer is almost always "that guy with the scarf."

Baker's first story, "Robot," was recorded at the end of Season Eleven (though aired as the first story of Season Twelve), and was therefore overseen by Barry Letts. Shadowing Letts was the series seventh and latest producer, Philip Hinchcliffe (1944-). Hinchcliffe was a very young man, and brought with him an excitement and a desire to drive the show into new directions.

Season Twelve, while having high moments the six-part "Genesis of the Daleks" chief among these had plenty of examples of the production team trying to find their footing. However, once everyone got comfortable, the series settled into a run of stories that lasted for over two years and is generally considered to be the creative high point of the classic series. Hinchcliffe brought an air of archetypal Gothic horror, darkening the mood and tone of the show dramatically. There is virtually no cheesiness or camp to be found in Season Thirteen or Fourteen; teams of monsters in rubber suits, by and large, gave way to single villains. These menaces are appropriately intimidating, the mood is somber and the feeling is claustrophobic. Even Baker's costume was tweaked so as to be less chaotic, as the sweater and neckerchief were traded in for a Victorian frock coat, complete with waistcoat and tie.

An enormous part of this new direction came from script editor Robert Holmes (1928-1986), a longtime writer for the show who had graduated to the position of overseeing the entire direction of the scripts, mostly on the basis of being the best writer all of television has ever or will ever see. Okay, no, but holy crap, this guy was amazing. He was the Steven Moffat of his day: every script he wrote was the best of its season, and when he was put in charge of rewriting all the scripts, you got a run of quality not seen before or since. Bob Holmes' strengths lie in his creativity (he named Gallifrey, and created the Master, the Autons, the Sontarans and companion Sarah Jane Smith), his knack for creating memorable guest characters (the "Holmes double act," a pair of characters that would banter back and forth, was a staple of his scripts), his readiness to draw on outside influences ("The Brain of Morbius" was an effective Frankenstein pastiche; "The Deadly Assassin" draws on The Manchurian Candidate) and his willingness to let characters other than the Doctor get some of the really good lines.

Under Hinchcliffe, Baker played the Fourth Doctor as being truly alien for the first time. He was prone to wild mood swings: sudden anger, bouts of melancholy, quiet joy and unbridled arrogance. He frequently pretended to be slow and foolish in order to catch his enemies off-guard. He took delight in discoveries and in showing the universe off to his companions. Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor owes more than a little to this take on the character.

Stories such as "Pyramids of Mars," "The Brain of Morbius," "The Robots of Death," "The Deadly Assassin" and "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" (Doctor Who story titles have traditionally been really big on "The Noun of Proper Noun") marked a creative high point, and at the same time, ratings were going through the roof; at one point they topped 14 million viewers, which for the UK at the time were Super Bowl numbers. A huge factor in the show's popularity was that, in addition to being generally well-made and intelligent, it was truly scary. Tales of kids not being able to sleep were legion. And naturally, there's nothing a little kid wants to watch more than something that's going to prevent him from getting to sleep later that night.

Unfortunately, whenever there are frightened children, there are guardians of safety and morality leaping in to make sure no TV anyone wants to see actually gets made. The 1970s were the heyday of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (today known as mediawatch-uk), and its ringleader, Mary Whitehouse. Whitehouse was a rabidly conservative fundamentalist housewife who liked nothing better than writing letters to the BBC, the Prime Minister, the Queen and anyone else whose address she could get her hands on, to complain about things like the level of violence in cartoons. And for whatever reason, for a while, she had the ear of the BBC. While the occasional complaint from Mrs. Whitehouse usually resulted in increased ratings, she began to campaign vigorously against Doctor Who and what she saw as its needless, intense violence. Eventually, the nuisance and the real threat of a boycott of the BBC by the NVALA, whose membership was not insignificant, outweighed the publicity benefit. To this end, Hinchcliffe was very quietly taken off Doctor Who and moved to Target, a police drama where his talents were seen to be better suited.

"Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable... indomitable."
Fourth Doctor, "The Ark in Space"

Coming in as the show's eighth producer at the start of Season Fifteen was Graham Williams (died 1990), a former BBC script editor who had been brought in with very specific instructions: decrease the amount of violence, lighten the atmosphere and keep the traumatizing of British children to a minimum. Together with new script editor Anthony Read (1935-), who took over from Bob Holmes halfway through the season, they set about replacing the horror elements with the only thing they could think of: humor.

This was music to Tom Baker's ears. Baker was and is a remarkably quick and funny man, and he had been trying for years to inject more of his band of humor into the show. From here on out, the Fourth Doctor was Tom Baker unleashed. Much of the shading and layering of the Doctor's personality was jettisoned, and in its place was a more bohemian wanderer, someone who traveled through time and space for the sheer hell of it, determined to have as good a time as he could for as long as he had. The phrase "laughing our enemies into destruction" was used quite a bit at this time; villains and monsters were frequently frustrated into undoing themselves in the face of the Doctor refusing to treat the situation seriously.

A personal note: I realize that those last two paragraphs sound like I'm down on the Williams era. That couldn't be farther from the truth. The three years Williams oversaw the show were three of the most entertaining in the show's run, in my opinion. It was very funny, to be sure, but at the same time, the scope went from drawing room murder mysteries and monsters in cramped lighthouses, to truly cosmic, sweeping epics that realized the Doctor had not only all of time, but all of space to play in. It may not have always been successful, but it attempted huge things, even if those things may have frequently been beyond the show's reach. In fact, I became a fan of Doctor Who watching stories that had been produced by Williams.

However, to be fair, things really did start to come off the rails a bit. The consistency of the Hinchcliffe years was gone. Season Fifteen, Williams' first year, was in 1977, the year that Star Wars exploded, and the demand for more realistic special effects was basically something that couldn't be met. The imagination was there, but the ability to realistically show that imagination on the screen simply wasn't. The result of this is that unlike a season earlier, when you would have six stories that were all of comparably high quality, an average Williams season would have one or two brilliant stories, one or two clunkers, then a couple of average stories that didn't offend, but weren't particularly memorable.

Williams did introduce a few interesting ideas. He oversaw the creation of the robot dog K-9, and brought another Time Lord into the mix that being Romana. He instituted the show's first season-long story arc, the search for the Key to Time, in Season Sixteen. And he oversaw some stories that, in concept at least, could be truly epic in scale: "The Invasion of Time," "The Pirate Planet," "City of Death" and "Shada." Both the epic scope and the further increase in humor came on the back of the new script editor for Season Seventeen, Douglas Adams (1952-2001). Adams, who had written the first radio series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but had yet to see the release of the novel that would cement his fame, took the attitude that if you set up the situation with humor, and present the bad guy of the week as someone to be laughed at, it's all the more horrifying when it turns out they're completely serious and everything starts to turn dark. However, to his horror, he found that all this did was encourage the cast (particularly Baker, who needed no such encouragement) to send the entire thing up. Adams left after one year, and while this season saw the classic story "City of Death" made, and every story had some funny and clever ideas, on the whole this year was seen by many as a lightweight disappointment.

Someone who had also had enough at the end of Season Seventeen was Graham Williams. By all accounts, he was not a terribly forceful personality, and he was almost completely unable to rein in Tom Baker's worst excesses. While he was able to firmly say no to Baker's demand to have his companion written out of the show and replaced by a talking cabbage that would sit on his shoulder seriously he generally found it easier to let Tom do whatever the hell Tom wanted to do. Baker did know the role backwards and forwards and usually made good decisions about how the part should be played, but when Baker began breaking the fourth wall, throwing scripts at writers and generally being totally uncontrollable, Williams decided that three years of daily arguments with a temperamental and possibly mad star was plenty.

"You wouldn't want to rule the universe! Exactly! That's what I keep trying to tell people! It's a troublesome place, difficult to administrate and as a piece of real estate it's worthless because by definition there'd be no one to sell it to."
Fourth Doctor, "Shada"

The story "City of Death" featured a great deal of location shooting in the city of Paris; this was achieved by the efforts of a very clever production unit manager (what we'd call a line producer now) who had worked out every cent in the budget and realized it could be cheaper to shoot there than in England. When Williams stepped down as producer in 1980, the job of the ninth and final producer of the classic series was offered to that aforementioned production unit manager.

John Nathan-Turner (born Jonathan Turner, 1947-2002) was the epitome of the phrase "a new broom sweeps clean." The first thing he did upon taking the producer's chair was, essentially, change everything. A new, electronic version of the theme song was created. The "time tunnel" opening, which Nathan-Turner thought too dated, was replaced by animation of stars whooshing toward the camera, which was also justified by the fact that after six years, an aging Tom Baker no longer looked like his picture in the opening credits. The admittedly cheesy diamond-shaped logo was replaced by an even cheesier neon logo. The longtime composer of all of the incidental music, Dudley Simpson, was let go, with the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop now supplying an electronic score. Baker's costume was redesigned, with the haphazard sloppiness giving way to a more tailored look, in varying shades of burgundy. (This included the new addition of question marks on the shirt collar, something that every subsequent Doctor under Nathan-Turner's watch would be saddled with.)

That's all the obvious stuff. Less obvious was that for one thing, the show looked a thousand times better. JNT (as he came to be known in fan circles) was a genius at stretching every penny, and however small the show's budget was, you can see all of it onscreen. Also, under the eye of new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead (1941-), the tenor of the stories changed. For Season Eighteen, the space opera and science fantasy that had marked the Williams years were replaced by hard science fiction. Every story had some scientific point that had been researched for some degree of accuracy, and the Doctor was frequently explaining actual scientific theories, and not technobabble, to his companions; Bidmead was a throwback to the first years of Doctor Who, in that he saw it as a means to teach scientific concepts to children.

And the other major change was the almost total eradication of humor in the show. In Nathan-Turner, Tom Baker had found someone who was more than a match for him, and the two butted heads constantly. It seemed like there were a thousand little things JNT was giving him to fight about. JNT wanted no humor because there had been far too much of it in the past three years (Baker always managed to sneak some through anyway). JNT wanted him to wear dress shoes (Baker succeeded in getting his beloved swashbuckler boots back before the season was over). JNT wanted Baker, for the first time in his career, to wear makeup on camera (this was a fight Baker lost). The fact is, while the show was rather too serious for its own good that year (and the year or two following), on the whole Season Eighteen is fantastic. Baker seems to be interested for the first time in a while, and we actually see the third and final iteration of the Fourth Doctor: that of the scientist. For the first time since Pertwee's first few years, the Doctor can be seen running experiments, investigating for the sake of scientific curiosity and teaching his companions.

"Never guess. Unless you have to. There's enough uncertainty in the universe as it is."
Fourth Doctor, "Logopolis"

For many reasons the personality conflicts with Nathan-Turner, illness (Baker was noticeably ill during this season, having lost a great deal of weight), boredom and concern for his ability to keep working, Tom Baker left the role of the Fourth Doctor at the end of Season Eighteen. Having been the Doctor for seven years a lifetime for many of the show's fans he cast a shadow that hangs over every actor to play the role to this day. He had hit almost every possible beat, having been Hinchcliffe's Edwardian gentleman-adventurer, Williams' bohemian traveler and Nathan-Turner's crusading scientist. However, the show would continue for several years, and now John Nathan-Turner would finally be able to mold the show completely in the way he saw fit.

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Part One: The Beginning (1963-1974)
Part Two: The Middle (1975-1981)
Part Three: The End (1981-1989)
Part Four: The Return (1996, 2005-current)

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