Sometimes an actor is born to play a role. Christopher Reeve was perfect for Superman, Schwartzenegger was epic as the Terminator, and while Tom Selleck may have originally won the role, I find it impossible to imagine anyone other than Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones. The actors just ‘fit’, and when they do, something special happens.
This happened in 1974, as Jon Pertwee regenerated into Tom Baker, and Doctor Who entered what was to become its most popular and iconic era. It’s hard to come up with anything new to say about Doctor Who – very few shows have been as documented, analysed and dissected – but Tom’s contribution to the programme was immeasurable and worthy of tribute. I think it’s summed up by a story Tom tells in his autobiography – the excerpt is here – in which, after a day of personal appearences in Blackpool, the actor realises that Doctor Who is about to be broadcast. Wanting to catch the episode, he knocks on the door of a nearby house, whereupon he’s invited in, amazing the children who are sitting there watching him on TV.
It’s a great story, not only showing Tom’s committment to the show (never being caught drinking or smoking in public when kids were around, lest their hero be tarnished), but also the power of Doctor Who in general, its ability to take the everyday and make it scary, exotic, magical. Tom was the most otherworldly Doctor, the one who could be funny or furious or frightening, but always alien. Heck, half the time he’s like that in real life, leaving us never entirely sure where the Doctor ends and the real Tom Baker begins – or even if we ever actually see the real Tom Baker.
And this is at least partly why Baker’s era was so successful – Baker’s outsider charisma not only works for children, who live in an almost-fairytale world of Santa Claus and pavement crack avoidance, but for geeks, who can see in Tom’s portrayal something of their own social dilemmas. As the fantastic TARDIS Eruditorum blog points out, “I think another part of why fandom started to crystalize in the Tom Baker years was that Tom Baker was unusually well-poised to be liked by geeks. Because Tom Baker played what is, in many ways, one of the fundamental fantasies of a socially ostracized smart person. He’s adored precisely because he’s clever.”
Professor Brian Cox was interviewed on Kerrang Radio this morning, pointing out that we wouldn’t be able to replicate the Saturn rocket programme nowadays because the skills have been lost. The importance of science, engineering, and other pursuits dependent on celebrating intellience, curiousity and inspiration can’t be over-estimated, and Tom’s Doctor was, by default, a cheerleader for this. Often films and TV are said to have villians that are more fun than the heroes; Doctor Who largly flouts that rule. Tom’s Doctor was the smartest, funniest, most charismatic person in every room he walked into. He made intelligence and humour aspirational, and that’s why the Fourth Doctor remains relevant. And it’s why, thirty years after he last regularly played the Doctor on TV, that Tom Baker is remembered and loved.
Happy birthday Tom.