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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