Enter Tom Baker, Davros and Harry Sullivan; Fourth Doctor, First Season

They say your first Doctor is your favorite, but I think I like Tom Baker in DOCTOR WHO even more than William Hartnell.

None of the Doctors have much use for the powers that be. William Hartnell sneered at them, Patrick Troughton shrugged them off, John Pertwee snarked at them. Baker meets them with a mocking smile, like a michievious kid who can’t wait to pull a trick on some stuck-up twit. All the Doctors stir up trouble, but the Fourth Doctor relishes the opportunity.

Baker’s stories are probably the episodes I’ve seen most, because they ran in constant daily rotation on PBS in the 1970s. The first season holds up well, though the special effects get pretty bad — worse than most past seasons, I think, because they’re a little more ambitious.

The first serial, Robot, is a Pertwee UNIT story, reminiscent of Invasion of the Dinosaurs: a cabal of technocrats plots to build a perfect world, and steals an unstoppable super-robot to do it. It adds Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) as a new companion, so that if Baker wasn’t suited to action scenes, they’d have someone to handle them. Baker was perfectly suited, so Harry wound up being superfluous, often little more than a buffoon, particularly as Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane) and Baker played off each other well. Most significantly, this serial establishes that regeneration is a normal Time Lord ability in contrast to a freak power of the TARDIS (Hartnell to Troughton) or compelled by the Time Lords (Troughton to Pertwee).

THE ARK IN SPACE is a much stronger story, the first to use the horror elements that would be a recurring part of the next few seasons. The Doctor, Sarah and Harry arrive on an orbiting space ark holding humans in suspended animation against the day when polluted Earth becomes livable again. The day has arrived, but so have the Wirrn, insectoid parasite s laying their eggs on the Ark and whose larva have taken over Noah, the ark’s leader.

That leads directly into THE SONTARAN EXPERIMENT, a two-part serial. On behalf of the space station survivors, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry check out Earth to see if it’s really livable. Wouldn’t you know, a Sontaran has captured some of the few surviving Earthlings as a run-up to taking over the planet. This one is competent, but effective.

 

And then came THE GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, one of the all-time classics. The Time Lords tell the Doctor that the Daleks will inevitably conquer the universe unless someone aborts their creation. The Doctor, Harry and Sarah arrive on Skaro when it’s riven by a thousand year war between the Thals and the Kaleds that’s reduced the planet to an irradiated wasteland. Davros, a Kaled scientist has a solution: forced evolution of his people into a form that can thrive in the radiation, even though it will require a mechanical transport to move around and kill … and while he’s at it, why not eliminate all those inconvenient emotions?

A solid, six-episode arc anchored by the grim tone (the Thals are no longer unambiguously good guys) and by two performances. Michael Wisher as Davros manages a voice that sounds just like a human Dalek, intense yet monotone. As his coldblooded aide Nyder, Peter Miles is equally memorable.

Unfortunately the season doesn’t do as well by the Cybermen in the final segment, REVENGE OF THE CYBERMEN. Arriving at the space ark back when it’s just a minor space station, the good guys become embroiled in a struggle between the human crew, the Cybermen and the Vogans, inhabitants of a planet of gold. Gold, you see, can be used to clog up Cyberman respirators, choking them, which is an unconvincing weakness. The Cyber-actors use their own voices, and the Cybermen come off way too emotional. A disappointing finish to a solid season.

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8 responses to “Enter Tom Baker, Davros and Harry Sullivan; Fourth Doctor, First Season

  1. Zosimus the Heathen

    Tom Baker is probably my favourite Doctor too, in my case because he *was* my first Doctor. I remember a few years back, when the prospect of a future female Doctor was still just an idea being tossed around, former Fifth Doctor Peter Davidson started blathering some nonsense about how a woman could never play the Doctor. “That’s funny,” I remember thinking at the time. “When *you* got that role, I remember thinking that nobody other than Tom Baker had the right to play the Doctor.” Zing!

    But, no, I did very much like the Tom Baker doctor (it’s hard to believe that that actor is now in his eighties!). About the only thing that Doctor ever did that I’ll never really forgive was not try harder to save the truly pathetic character of the Marshchild[*] in the serial “Full Circle” (why yes, let the leaders of the Starliner community hand that creature over to their resident mad scientist; ignore all the red flags that that scientist really doesn’t give a crap about its welfare; and then, when the Josef Mengele-like experiment he attempts to conduct on it leads (indirectly) to its death, expend about five seconds’ worth of outrage over its demise before agreeing to help the people who were responsible for its suffering in the first place!). Seeing as that story was one of Baker’s last, though, I’m probably getting way ahead of myself here…

    *Do you ever find yourself encountering a fictitious character you feel so sorry for that you wish you could jump into the story just to comfort or save it? Well, the Marshchild was one such character for me.

    • Frequently. I only vaguely remember Full Circle but by the magic of streaming I’ll get to it before too long.

      • Zosimus the Heathen

        Full Circle unfortunately seems to have become a largely forgotten story; to the extent a lot of people remember it at all these days, it’s only as “that story wot gave us Adric as a companion. Boo!” It also appears to be one of those stories that has the great misfortune to be regarded as neither overly good nor overly bad; when it’s mentioned at all in books about Doctor Who, it’s generally only in passing (eg as an item on a list). In a way, that’s probably even worse than being regarded as an outright bad story. At least when a story’s considered bad, there’s always the chance it’ll gain a cult “so bad it’s good” status, or, at the very least, attract viewers who simply want to see if it really is as awful as everyone says!

  2. Zosimus the Heathen

    Like you, I’d have to say that “Genesis of the Daleks” was the best of the Fourth Doctor’s first stories. It was actually the first Dalek story I ever saw myself, and looking at it now, I find that it has a real darkness and nastiness to it that many other Dalek stories don’t. Davros and Nyder were indeed memorable characters – I understand the latter was an actually expy for Heinrich Himmler, which I can well believe. Davros’ own creations turning on him at the end was very effectively done[*]; what a pity the show’s writers had to then go and turn him into the Doctor Who equivalent of Jason Voorhees by bringing him back from the dead, over and over and OVER again (in a similar vein, I often think of the Master as Doctor Who’s Freddy Krueger).

    The story’s portrayal of the Thals as deeply flawed characters was also interesting. Probably nothing summed up their potential for evil better, I thought, than their use of slave labour to built their doomsday rocket (said slave labour condemned to a slow and agonizing death from radiation poisoning). On a somewhat sillier note, I did like their shiny silver radiation suits, and was therefore suitably appalled when after each acquiring one himself, both the Doctor and Harry ended up just throwing theirs away.

    *Funnily enough, when Fred Phelps found himself excommunicated by his own hateful church towards the end of his life, I found myself immediately drawing a parallel between his plight and that of Davros. Apparently, Phelps had started suggesting that the members of his cult should actually be nicer to each other, which made me think of Davros beseeching his Daleks to “show pity!” (and by all accounts, the Westboro Baptist Church proved just as incapable of that emotion as the Daleks).

    • It’s almost startling to realize how long it took before the first Davros revival. And now he won’t stay away. The Master doesn’t bother me, as he was a running foe from the first. And overall he’s had better actors post Roger Delgado than Davros has had post Wisher.

  3. Zosimus the Heathen

    As for the others…

    “Robot”: This one wasn’t a bad story, I thought, although in hindsight, a lot of the special effects in it were truly woeful (one particularly egregious example that sticks in my mind was a scene in which the titular monster stomped on a house that was very obviously a model). Also this seemed to be one of those stories in which UNIT was treated as little more than a Redshirt army.

    “The Ark in Space”: Unfortunately, I don’t remember much of this one, so can’t really comment on it.

    “The Sontaran Experiment”: I quite liked this one although I found its brevity a little jarring when I first saw it. The human characters being hunted down by the Sontaran’s robot was nice and creepy, as were the Sontaran’s Nazi-like experiments (the “gravity bar” he used in one of them was an interesting concept), and the treachery of the character who thought he could save himself by helping the villain. The Sontaran’s popgun was a bit silly, though, as was the story’s resolution – that said, I quite liked both all the same!

    “Revenge of the Cybermen”: I’m a bit ambivalent about this one. It’s not the strongest Cybermen story, not by any means; that said, it’s quite fun if you don’t take it too seriously. Was this the first one to introduce the supposedly emotionless Cybermen’s rather notorious (and frankly hilarious) habit of saying, “Excellent!” in a not-at-all-emotionless tone of voice when things were going well for them? Silly details from this one I particularly liked were the use of stock footage from a Saturn rocket launch to show the launch of the Vogans’ doomsday weapon, and the Doctor and Sarah being forced to pilot the Space Ark with something that looked like an oversized version of the key you use to open a can of corned beef. Great stuff!

    • I liked Revenge the first time I saw it (though even then the Cybermen seemed too emotional). Watching when I’ve seen the earlier Cyber-stories fairly recently, it didn’t work as well.

  4. Ah, I knew it had Adric, but not that it was his debut.
    I’m now in the middle of Planet of Evil and I don’t remember that one at all, though so far it’s good. Any memories I had of it were blotted out by images from Face of Evil a couple of seasons later.

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