In 1974, 40-year-old Tom Baker was between acting jobs and working as a bricklayer, when he landed the role of a lifetime: succeeding Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who. He would stay in the role for seven seasons, longer than any Doctor before or since. As such, the Fourth Doctor, with his long overcoat, multi-coloured scarf, curly hair and fondness for Jelly Babies, represented probably the most well-known image of Doctor Who until the show’s 2005 revival. The Fourth Doctor’s tenure consisted of 41 stories and 172 episodes, not including Shada, which was only partially filmed due to strike action and never aired on television.
The Fourth Doctor made his first full appearance when the show’s twelfth season began on 28th December 1974: after defeating an insane robot in the imaginatively-titled story Robot, he was soon off and away in the TARDIS, accompanied by his existing companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and UNIT medical officer Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter). Harry wasn’t around for long: he was simply returned to Earth at the beginning of the following season. The Doctor continued to travel with Sarah Jane until he was ordered to return to Gallifrey; unable to take Sarah Jane to his home planet, he reluctantly dropped her off (in Aberdeen instead of the intended Croydon). The story that followed, The Deadly Assassin, was the Doctor’s first adventure without a companion, and also saw a return for his nemesis the Master: now played by Peter Pratt in lieu of the late Roger Delgado, he had run out of regenerations and had been reduced to a rotting, walking corpse, desperately searching for a way to prolong his life.
The Doctor soon picked up some new companions, however. Leela (Louise Jameson), not to be confused with the Futurama character, had grown up on an unforgiving jungle planet, giving her habits such as being more violent than the Doctor would like, and running around in skimpy outfits. Then there was the robot dog K-9, much adored by children but not by the show’s technical team, due to his unreliability, and how he struggled to traverse any surface that wasn’t completely flat.
The sixteenth season – Baker’s fifth – saw the show make its first attempt at a season-long arc: accompanied by a younger Time Lady named Romana (Mary Tamm), the Doctor is given the task of assembling the Key to Time, divided into six pieces which have been hidden across the universe. The final story of that season featured a character named Princess Astra, played by Lalla Ward, who must have made an impression. In Season 17, after Tamm had decided not to come back, Ward became the new Romana; this involved the character voluntarily regenerating, rather more casually than other Time Lords would. Ward and Tom Baker also got married around this time, but sadly the marriage did not last long.
When Tom Baker finally decided to move on from Doctor Who, his last two stories – The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis, marking the end of Season 18 – would see him tangling with the Master once more. The villainous Time Lord initially appeared in his decaying form again – now played by Geoffrey Beevers – before gaining a new body more similar to his original bearded appearance; the new actor in the role, Anthony Ainley, would continue to play the Master right up to the show’s cancellation in 1989. On 21st March 1981, the Fourth Doctor’s era finally came to an end; viewers watched as he was mortally injured after falling from a radio telescope, and regenerated for the first time in nearly seven years. By this time, he had acquired a trio of companions – teenage mathematics prodigy Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), Traken native Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), and airline stewardess Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) – who would see the Fifth Doctor into the start of his own era.
Baker elected not to return for the 1983 special The Five Doctors; the Fourth Doctor briefly featured in the episode via a clip from the unfinished Shada, before becoming trapped in the time vortex and remaining absent from the main story. In 2013, however, he made a well-received surprise appearance in the fiftieth anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, playing a mysterious museum curator who speaks with Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor at the end of the episode.
Now that I’ve finally watched all of the Fourth Doctor’s episodes and can write this post, I find myself wishing that I’d watched them all in order, regardless of the sheer numbers involved. Instead, the first stories I watched were the best ones that everyone talks about, and that raised my expectations a little too high. Certainly, the Fourth Doctor’s era starts off strongly; the overall solid and reliable feel of the Third Doctor’s latter adventures continues into the first few seasons, resulting in a healthy dose of sci-fi fun. However, as time went on, the majority of stories became increasingly unengaging and unmemorable, and even Tom Baker didn’t seem to be enjoying himself as much. The Key to Time arc in Season 16 had some very good individual stories but a weak conclusion, and City of Death and State of Decay were the only stories I especially enjoyed from Seasons 17 and 18 respectively.
The Fourth Doctor is certainly very distinctive – it’s clear to see how his image has persisted so long in the public consciousness – and easy to like. Tom Baker’s voice and intense facial expressions serve the character’s more eccentric, detached and alien nature very well; he can be very jolly when he wants to be, while still handling more grim situations appropriately, and coming across as suitably old and wise despite being the youngest Doctor up to this point. Previously, I considered him my joint favourite classic Doctor alongside the Third Doctor, though now I have to give Three the edge for his superior consistency; perhaps Baker was just in the role a little too long.
Of all the Fourth Doctor’s companions, my favourite has to be Leela, who was a long way from the traditional audience-surrogate: not only was she very capable and possessing a firey attitude, her wild nature led to some amusing interactions with the Doctor and other characters. It’s just a shame that she gets such a lousy sendoff (see below). With Romana, we got to see the Doctor travel with someone who was on more equal terms with him in an intellectual sense; and K-9 was good fun too, at least when he actually got things to do and was voiced by John Leeson – being voiced by David Brierley for one season was just distracting. With regards to Sarah Jane Smith, the first I knew of the character was when she appeared in the revived series in 2006, and subsequently got her own spinoff, The Sarah Jane Adventures; having now seen Sarah Jane in her original role as the Doctor’s companion, I honestly prefer the older version who gets to take the lead. Few celebrity deaths have made me feel as sad as I did in 2011 when the news broke that Elisabeth Sladen had died of cancer, partway through filming the fifth series of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
My Favourite Fourth Doctor Stories (honourable mentions: Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars, The Brain of Morbius, The Ribos Operation, The Androids of Tara, State of Decay)
Genesis of the Daleks: There’s a reason why this is consistently voted as one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time. The Doctor’s oldest and most famous enemies are given a full origin story, retconning the more basic one from all the way back in Season 1. However, the true villain of the piece is not the Daleks themselves, but their mad-scientist creator Davros, who refuses to let any obstacle prevent him from creating what he considers to be the supreme life form. The story goes back and forth with the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry trying to carry out their assigned mission of preventing the Daleks’ creation, and stay alive long enough to do so; mixed in with all the twists and tension are some of the most memorable moments in the show’s history, from Davros’s insane rant on the idea of wiping out all life in the universe, to the Doctor debating whether he even has the right to erase the Daleks from existence.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang: If, as a modern viewer, you can look past the racism – there are some unfortunate stereotypes, along with a white actor in makeup playing a Chinese character – this story is simply a great adventure. The smog-filled streets of Victorian London make the perfect setting for a Sherlock Holmes-esque thriller, as the Doctor and Leela contend with a time-travelling megalomaniac, a living doll, and even giant rats.
City of Death: Not only did this story mark the first time that Doctor Who filmed abroad (in Paris), but it set a ratings record for the show that stands to this day. On 20th October 1979, 16.1 million people tuned in to watch the fourth episode of City of Death – and while that wasn’t simply due to the story’s quality (the rival channel, ITV, was off the air at the time due to a strike), there’s no doubt that this one deserved to have lots of people watching it. It’s as fun and quirky as you’d expect from a script with Douglas Adams as a co-writer, with a plot that escalates from the Doctor and Romana investigating the theft of the Mona Lisa, to the very origin of all terrestrial life being put at risk.
My Least Favourite Fourth Doctor Story
The Invasion of Time: This story, which alternates between being boring and ridiculous throughout, sees the Doctor handing over Gallifrey to aliens that take the form of floating foilwrap and have voices about as threatening as Graham Norton. It also sees Leela leaving the Doctor for the sake of a romantic relationship; to see Leela, of all companions, leave the Doctor in such a fashion is insulting enough, never mind that she’s barely interacted with or shown any interest in her new boyfriend, who happens to be a total drip anyway.