'To be adored is something I recommend.'
A Tom Baker Career
Graham Williamson looks at the career of the great Tom Baker, including his tenure as the Doctor...
Ask any Doctor Who fan what qualifies an actor to play the Doctor, and the answer will be a tautological one: ‘Doctorishness.’ What that means, translated from fan cliché, is Tom Bakerness.
It’s not as if his predecessors brought nothing to the role: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee all developed character traits that are still present in the show’s 21st-century incarnation. No less an actor than Peter Cushing, too, had played the part in two non-canonical film spin-offs.
All those prior actors, though, were more different than alike. Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, who hides his moral courage behind a shambolic exterior, is poles apart from Pertwee’s peacockish, gadget-loving action hero. Even Hartnell and Cushing, who both played the part before the concept of regeneration gave actors leeway to experiment, came up with distinct characterisations.
Had Tom Baker never been cast, the show might have continued in this vein, with a series of actors giving their own unrelated spins on the core concept of a time-travelling adventure hero. Baker’s masterstroke was to play the character as being so mercurial, so alien and unknowable, that all the Doctor’s past characteristics could feasibly exist within him. By the time he left, after a still-unmatched seven years in the role, a character who was conceived as an insoluble mystery had, somehow, been defined.
Baker didn’t walk into the part knowing he could do this. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe recalls the show’s new star anxiously asking him for advice on how to play a centuries-old alien. Hinchcliffe’s answer – ‘You’ve always been good at Olympian detachment’ – suggests he had paid close attention to Baker’s prior roles.
His breakthrough film was Franklin J Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra, in which he played the ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin. It was a part that gave him plenty of opportunities to deploy the ominous stare that would soon be known to millions of schoolchildren. Had he not been given the keys to the TARDIS, it may have been remembered as his defining role. But three years later, when he was presented to the press as the new Doctor, he was working on a building site.
How did this happen? Britain’s early ’70s economic malaise can share some of the blame. Shortly before he was cast as the Doctor, he’d been cast in three major films with A-list co-stars like Glenda Jackson, Anthony Quinn and Richard Harris. In all three cases, the funding fell through. Even when films were completed, the results were not always satisfactory.
He appeared in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales (1972), generally considered the weakest of Pasolini’s trilogy of medieval literary adaptations – although there are some, like this writer, who consider a middling Pasolini to be better than most other directors’ masterpieces. Similarly, there is no such thing as a charmless Amicus anthology, but Roy Ward Baker’s The Vault of Horror (1973) is not one of their finest efforts. Baker’s segment, ‘Drawn and Quartered’, sees him play a bitter ex-pat painter who turns to voodoo to avenge his faltering career. The story is mostly memorable for the depth of feeling Baker gives to his sparse dialogue about regret and failure; you sense that this was a very easy emotion for him to tap into at this point.
He had a decent part as a sadistic freak-show owner in Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations (1974), whose storyline involves human-plant hybrids of the kind that would menace his Doctor in 1976’s ‘The Seeds of Doom’. Looking back on Baker’s early roles, it is remarkable how much foreshadowing there is for his later career. Before he unforgettably played a sea captain in Blackadder II (BBC, 1986), he was a sea captain in the Christopher Isherwood-penned TV movie Frankenstein: The True Story (Jack Smight, 1973) – and sure enough, his Doctor faced a Frankenstein-like villain in ‘The Brain of Morbius’ (1976).
There are also a number of sorcerers and religious figures on his CV, which may be the result of post-Rasputin typecasting. They nevertheless confirm that Baker – who spent six years training to be a monk before losing his faith – had an unusual mix of otherworldly qualities, the fanatic’s intensity combined with the mystic’s inscrutability. He played Pope Leo X in Guy Green’s adaptation of John Osborne’s Luther (Guy Green, 1974), though his part was cut from some releases. There was also Prince Koura in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (Gordon Hessler, 1973), a role that reportedly put him on the radar of the Doctor Who production offices.
Ray Harryhausen films often featured fine actors who were then completely overshadowed by the stop-motion genius’s inventions. Despite having such memorable creatures as a one-eyed Centaur and a six-armed Kali, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad has two performers who manage to steal the spotlight. There is Caroline Munro, bringing a kind of forthright sexuality that is unusual for the series, and then there is Baker, bringing a similarly unprecedented degree of menace.
Koura is an unpredictable threat, which is a gift of a part for an unpredictable actor. He uses his command of magic to bring the wooden Siren from Sinbad’s ship to life – another strangely Freudian image of female sexual power alongside Munro and Kali – but he also disfigures the Grand Vizier of Marabia by simply locking him in a burning room. This mix of personalised violence and mystic power reaches a crescendo in the final set-piece, where Koura tries to gain advantage in a swordfight with Sinbad by becoming invisible. Having played an archetypal trickster figure as a villain, it was natural for Baker to then play the ultimate heroic trickster, which is where we came in.
The problem with having such a thematically unified career became obvious when Baker left the show in 1981. If his early roles now remind you that he would be the Doctor, his later roles too frequently remind you that he was the Doctor, a lesson learned by former Doctor Who producer Barry Letts when he cast Baker in a poorly-received version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Peter Duguid, 1982). Baker’s Doctor had donned a knowingly Holmesian costume in the Victorian-set adventure The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977); actually casting him as the great detective felt like overkill.
It’s no surprise that Baker’s most memorable late-period roles have seen him extend his screen persona into comedy. Apart from the aforementioned Blackadder II, he brought some of his trademark anarchy to the cosy surroundings of Monarch of the Glen (BBC, 2000-2005) as the ex-racing driver Donald MacDonald, and was memorable as both guest and host on Have I Got News For You (BBC, 1990-). The greatest of his many voiceovers, too, came on the sketch show Little Britain (BBC, 2003-2007), bringing an impressive amount of dissolute madness to what could have been a simple narrator’s role. The show’s disputed status as a satire of British small-mindedness – contested once more after its recent removal from streaming services – can perhaps best be defended by pointing to Baker’s abrasive, unreliable authorial voice.
Still, what stands out now about his Doctor is not the comic timing that delighted 1970s audiences, it’s the moments of profound loneliness, sadness and intensity. He took functional aspects of the Doctor’s back-story – his exile, his alien nature – and built them into something profoundly serious, a lonely man fated to fit in nowhere because of his contempt for authority.
Baker’s famous costume was based on a Toulouse-Lautrec portrait of an 1890s cabaret singer, and he brought something of that decadent, dissident era’s quality to his performance. He was still a reassuring figure – by the middle of his tenure it was comfortingly impossible to believe any villain could defeat him, so dominant and attention-grabbing was his performance. But he was also a very old, very lonely extraterrestrial. Unlike his predecessor and his successor (the earnest, gentle Peter Davison) he seemed to enjoy reminding viewers of that.
Behind the scenes, Baker was sometimes sweetly uncomfortable with the level of violence the show reached during his tenure. Recording one of the series’ most horror-influenced stories, ‘The Stones of Blood’ (1978), he successfully lobbied to change one cliffhanger for fear it would leave children with the impression the Doctor had turned evil. He wasn’t puritanical about this and was rightly contemptuous of Mary Whitehouse’s campaign against the series. In any case, the main reason why Baker’s Doctor Who run feels so dangerous is the volatility of the actor’s own screen presence. His indelible moments on the show – showing Sarah a ruined parallel Earth in ‘Pyramids of Mars’ (1975), crying ‘I deny this reality!’ in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ (1976), even simply praising humanity in ‘The Ark in Space’ (1975) – are ones that, thanks to Baker, come with claws.
He retains a unique gift for entering safe formats – a family science-fiction serial, a G-rated adventure movie, a topical news quiz – and, without offering the censors any definable moments of transgression, suddenly making them feel risky and thrilling. Whole generations are grateful to him for that.