Manic, wolfish grin. Curly hair. Ridiculously overlong scarf. Bag of jelly babies. Until David Tennant took over the helm of the TARDIS in 2005, the above were all seen as being the defining characteristics of what Doctor Who was in the eyes of Joe Public.
Tom Baker – all 6ft 3ins of him – cast rather a long shadow across the series, being a strikingly charismatic figure who had managed to captivate audiences of all ages throughout the epic seven year stint he had as the title character. Many people still consider him to be the best Doctor of all, and for those who were lucky enough to grow up with him saving the universe on Saturday teatimes, Tom Baker definitely holds a special place in their hearts.
Baker falls into the category of genuine British eccentric; his autobiography – Who On Earth Is Tom Baker? – is a darkly hilarious read, his life story being told with a mix of candour and the sort of comic exaggeration honed in his storytelling, as evidenced in his interviews and holding court with fans at numerous conventions. Having turned away from the show for so many years, Baker has now returned to the fold in his dotage, and is now a staple of Big Finish’s officially licenced audio adventures.
Having completed 87 laps around the sun, Baker is a national treasure whom we are still very lucky to have with us. During his reign on the series, however, he garnered something of a reputation as being difficult to work with, outlasting several different production teams; Baker has come to acknowledge this himself, and while it seems he was driven by the goal of making Doctor Who interesting and fun – for the audience as well as himself – he may have burned a few bridges in the process.
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Although Baker was frontman and figurehead, there were so many people on both sides of the camera working diligently together to serve us up every corner of space and time from a corner of W12 on a shoestring budget. All their contributions to Doctor Who’s golden period may have been overlooked or forgotten for so long, but Reeltime Pictures’ latest entry in their range of The Doctors interview DVDs gives us a chance to hear their stories, affording us a glimpse of what life was like making Who during its ‘70s heyday.
Graham Williams – producer during one of the show’s more controversial eras, when it turned away from gothic horror towards a lighter, more comedic tone, with Douglas Adams even being script editor at one point – sadly died in 1990 in a shooting accident, depriving us of the chance to have him record commentaries or interviews for DVDs and Blu-rays. Luckily, a video exists of a convention panel he did, which – while of somewhat poor technical quality – is invaluable for giving us a rare opportunity to hear him talk about his work.
A writer who worked extensively for TV besides Doctor Who, David Fisher is also no longer with us, but Reeltime managed to interview him, despite his being in poor health at the time of the recording, and get his valuable recollections of what it was like penning scripts for Baker’s Doctor. Given that one of his submissions actually ended up having to be rewritten at short notice by Williams and Adams under a pseudonym, and it ending up being Who’s highest-rated story ever, it really is interesting to hear Fisher’s take on the situation.
The show’s youngest-ever writer – Andrew Smith – had the unenviable task of introducing Adric, who was perhaps seen as being one of the least popular companions for a long time amongst fans. Here, Smith takes us through what it was like not only to start out writing professionally while in his teens, but also for a show of which he was a huge fan. From hearing Smith talk about his craft with such passion, especially as he now writes regularly for Big Finish, he is quite an inspiration to follow your dreams.
One final behind-the-camera interview comes courtesy of June Hudson, a veteran costume designer who was tasked with the job of giving Baker’s Doctor a new look for his final season. Hudson manages to give us a good insight into the challenges of devising designs for all manner of outer space gear; given Hudson’s long history in working for television, she is also able to tell us just what it took to put together the wardrobe for some of the BBC’s sumptuous, lavish costume dramas, for which the Corporation was rightly famed.
Next, we have a compilation of different convention panels, featuring three actors who worked together on one of the most famous and beloved stories, ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’. Michael Wisher – the original Davros – was certainly a great raconteur, with a truly wicked sense of humour, all of which is in full flow here. Davros’ henchman, Nyder, was played by Peter Miles, and you can tell the great affection which he and Wisher had for each other. Roy Skelton, the longtime voice of the Daleks, was also Zippy on Rainbow, and he gives us some wonderfully fun anecdotes.
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Rounding out the set is another collection of actors who may have only had some relatively brief connections with Doctor Who, but manage to make up for this with a wealth of stories which add a lot of additional colour; some of the participants are deliciously loose-lipped and gossipy, meaning you get to hear some anecdotes you may not necessarily expect to see featured on the official BBC releases. It really is a heartening sight to have so many jobbing actors genuinely thrilled over their being remembered for small parts which they played in their lengthy careers.
Another outstanding release from Reeltime Pictures, and as a second volume is in prospect, hopefully they will be able to at least match the high standard they have achieved here, if not reach even greater heights – this is definitely five hours’ worth of viewing time well spent.
The Doctors: The Tom Baker Years – Behind The Scenes Vol. 1 is out now on DVD from Reeltime Pictures.