Say the words Doctor Who to most people and they’ll have one of two Doctors pop into their heads. More modern audiences will say David Tennant, but the older brigade will immediately say Tom Baker. It’s undeniable just how much of an impact Baker has had on the franchise to this day and it’s impossible to imagine this show without him.
Baker rarely needed to put on a performance, as the man himself is such a weird individual normally that he practically is the Doctor. Even awful stories can be lifted by some degree due to his presence, but such is his engagement with the part that when in his latter years he was tired with the role you could see that translated to screen. Thankfully Baker still acts as a role model of the franchise to this day.
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Seven years in the part meant he went through a plethora of companions and writers and as such this era has distinct chunks: Sarah Jane, Leela, Romana, and JNT taking the reigns in his last series. Almost every companion from Sarah to Tegan are brilliant and bring their own charms to proceedings, even if they couldn’t always match up to the sheer presence of Baker. There really is a reason he’s so beloved by so many, and that’s partly down to his ambassadorial status within the show from Big Finish to the endless anecdotes he’ll share.
Add to that the sheer number of iconic stories and villains introduced in this era (Davros, the Zygons, the Crispy Master and Sutekh to name a few), to pick a top and bottom five really is a task, one that would be near impossible if all expanded media was considered. But without further ado, let’s see the list.
5) ‘The Seeds of Doom’ (1976)
What is there to say about ‘Seeds’ that hasn’t already been said? The Hinchcliffe years of the show are some of the best, remaining iconic to this day for good reason, and ‘Seeds’ is a perfect example of just how brilliant it is.
Tom Baker is on absolute fine form (if a bit more violent this time) and his chemistry with Elisabeth Sladen is on point. From those moments of deadly seriousness to his humorous quips peppered throughout, such as the amusing Mozart reference, every moment of this story you believe the Earth is in deadly danger and that’s down to Baker’s performance.
The guest cast are some of the best we’ve had (maybe ever?), from John Challis as the iconic Scorby to Tony Beckley’s Harrison Chase, as every presence in these six episodes absolutely drips with perfection. Chase is one of the most deranged villains we’ve seen in the show and he’s a perfect foil for the Fourth Doctor, while his compost grinder dispatches his enemies in a horrific manner. The structure of the story works wonders and never lets up, leaving you with a huge feeling of satisfaction at story’s end. Just brilliant.
4) ‘Terror of the Zygons’ (1975)
Perhaps a story that won’t make most top fives for this era, ‘Zygons’ is a gem that can often slip under the radar. It encompasses many of Doctor Who’s core elements that make it the joy it is, from a disturbing alien menace, an iconic lead role, fan-favourite characters and of course the awful effects that Classic Who is known for.
Skarasen aside, most of the production holds up today, from the design of the titular monsters to their off-putting spaceship. As with many of the stories of the time, it takes inspiration from a Hammer Horror classic (Invasion of the Bodysnatchers) and has some lovely Scottish imagery from the Doctor’s hat to the Brigadier’s kilt.
The conclusion is suitably big and while Harry’s departure may be a little sudden it’s still a joy to watch. It’s no wonder the Zygons were fondly remembered enough for David Tennant to ask for their return in ‘The Day of the Doctor’ in 2013.
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3) ‘Nightmare of Eden’ (1979)
Now we get to the controversial entry. ‘Eden’ is a very divisive story, often erring on the side of dislike, but there’s a lot to love here.
Like ‘Zygons,’ it has a hallmark of shoddy monster design yet the Mandrels still do impose a striking figure, while the drug-smuggling commentary is very much known. It’s not subtle by any means and may feel a little weird in this production but it has a lovely tie in to the Mandrels and represents the type of story the show was heading towards for the 1980s.
It’s often said that Tom Baker looks visibly bored here but he still puts in a very good performance and he never once feels like he’s dragging the story. In the past there’s been comparisons to ‘Carnival of Monsters’ from 1973 – another story I love, check out the Third Doctor list – and for me that’s no bad thing. Give it another chance.
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2) ‘Pyramids of Mars’ (1975)
Like ‘Seeds,’ this story’s been so often talked about it’s hard to find any new praise. But that’s OK because the praise it’s already received is well deserved.
The manor house provides an effective setting for the spooky occurrences while the Egyptian mythology is perfectly woven into proceedings through the Osirans, a race that’s since cropped up many times in the franchise.
Sutekh is a suitably chilling villain and Gabriel Woolf delivers a sinister performance with a voice dripping with danger, seduction and omnipotence, and his chemistry with Baker is undeniable. The leads are on fine form, especially Baker, and even the lumbering Robot Mummies are delightful to watch. Perfection.
1) ‘City of Death’ (1979)
How could it have been anything else? ‘City’ embodies the fun of Doctor Who at its core: brilliant and enjoyable TARDIS team, comedy, great guest characters, time travel, and real world iconic elements looped into a story.
To see the show actually go somewhere to film is a huge win, not restricted to BBC studios in attempting to recreate Troy or Barbados this week. Scaroth is one of the best villains of the era, Julian Glover playing him to absolute perfection, while Tom Baker gives possibly his best ever performance.
There are hordes of iconic fan favourite moments from Baker littered throughout the story and it never lets up even for a second. Sometimes the show hits a combination of idea, cast and writer that just clicks! And let’s not forget Duggan, best side character of the classic show?
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5) ‘The Creature From the Pit’ (1979)
Talk about tonal whiplash. There’s not much actually wrong with ‘Creature’ in all honesty, it just kind of exists.
It’s got a unique feel, more like a Beatrix Potter fairy tale forest than a Doctor Who sci-fi extravaganza. It does provide a nice change of setting but it’s hard to love the story. The side cast are serviceable, Romana feels like she’s been written for her first incarnation and Baker does try but it’s not the best material.
Episode four admittedly picks up, but it’s just a little jarring of a setting especially in between Paris and a space cruiser. It’s best remembered for the phallic design of Erato and it’s understandable why. The best thing about it is the DVD commentary of the Doctor talking about animals.
4) ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ (1975)
Their first proper appearance since 1968’s ‘The Invasion,’ ‘Revenge’ is not a good Cyberman outing.
Their one TV encounter with this most iconic of Doctors and it’s relegated to a dull retread of ‘The Ark in Space’ mixed with a bunch of cave wandering alongside aliens in restrictive masks. The main cast do their best, despite Sladen being out for a large majority of the middle section, and the actual design of the Cybermen is a guilty pleasure.
It’s just a shame that the rest of it is so dull. From the boredom of the Vogans to the pathetic scene of the Cybermen shaking the Doctor and Sarah, it’s just not good. It does, however, get points for the iconic line of ‘HARRY SULLIVAN IS AN IMBECILE!’ and the spooky behind the scenes anecdotes of filming in Wookie Hole. Best to just pick up the recent Big Finish adaptation of the original script which is miles better than the TV edition.
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3) ‘Underworld’ (1978)
An entry that I’m sure will shock no-one!
There’s not a lot to say about ‘Underworld’ because there’s not a lot in it. Part one has a lot of promise and is a genuinely enjoyable watch, but come part two and it’s a three-episode cave-fest of… not a lot.
So for this story to then try and do some stuff with past Time Lord mythology and the Minyans feels like a completely wasted opportunity.
It was at this point the show needed to shake itself up a bit, because this is just not good at all.
2) ‘The Pirate Planet’ (1978)
Shake up it did DW, with the next season taking the form of a series-long quest spanning six stories. ‘The Key to Time’ is verrrry variable in quality and sadly it’s not often on the positive side.
The middle two instalments (‘The Stones of Blood’ and ‘The Androids of Tara’) are genuinely very good stories but the rest range from awful to lacklustre. ‘Planet’ is a story that garners a lot of praise and I can certainly see why, but it just doesn’t quite work for me. A story that should be fun ends up dragging a bit and completely missing the mark and it’s a huge shame.
Baker and Tamm are on fine form, the Captain is brilliant and the Polyphase Avatron is a wonderful foil for K9. And yet… I’m just bored and it really shouldn’t have that effect. This one just comes down to personal preference I’m afraid.
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1) ‘The Ribos Operation’ (1978)
‘The Key to Time’ gets a second entry on the list!
The opening instalment is not good. From a veteran of the show’s writing room, Robert Holmes here delivers a script completely devoid of joy or watchability and we’re saddled with one of the dullest Doctor Who stories to date.
The opening couple of minutes setting up the series arc is fun and Garon is an OK character delivering a little comic relief, but overall it’s just so dull. Baker tries, we have no reason to love Tamm yet and the Shrivenzale is wasted and could have added a bit more to it. Instead we spend two episodes in catacombs with… something happening. It’s that dull I can’t even remember. Holmes completely misses the mark here which is a huge shame for one of his final scripts for the show.
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From here, the comics really get their grip into the Doctors, and the books and audios follow suit quickly, leading to a wide variety to choose from…
Best Comic: City of the Damned
It was during the latter years of Baker’s tenure that Doctor Who Magazine began, and with it a line of comic strips that continue to this day. They began by following the Fourth Doctor on his travels with K9, a new companion, or occasionally solo up until Peter Davison debuted; then later on, during the parent show’s wilderness years, the comic entered a rotation of the first seven Doctors.
‘City’ was the second story of the Magazine, and as such it’s one that slips under the radar. Yet, it’s great. A simple premise (1984-esque dystopia where emotion is illegal) provides a cracking story over eight instalments and allows for the Doctor to really show his meat. It’s a grim story that has some disturbing imagery at times, yet it’s one which never lets up and comes to a hugely satisfying (and a little bonkers) ending. Reprinted in ‘Doctor Who and the Iron Legion’, it’s still worth a read.
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Best Audio: Genetics of the Daleks
For a Doctor so beloved, most of Tom Baker’s audio output merely meets average levels of storytelling throughout the ‘Fourth Doctor Adventures’ range from Big Finish, meaning it’s rare for him to have a huge hit.
He does have the odd one such as ‘The Foe From The Future’, but I have to give the crown to ‘Genetics.’ As part of 2020’s Time Lord Victorious multi-media event, the story ties into the Escape Room (of all things) and yet produces a cracking story in its own right.
The Doctor doesn’t even turn up for the first 15 or so minutes and yet it’s so enthralling that it hardly matters. Of course, when he does turn up, Baker delivers a fine performance full of brilliant moments and the story flies along at a great pace, managing to provide both a satisfying (yet grim) resolution while also having enough of a cliffhanger to lead into the aforementioned Escape Room. Great stuff from Jonathan Morris.
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Best Book: Scratchman
It could never have been anything else. Written by the big cheese himself (and ghost-written by the fantastic James Goss), Scratchman is the ultimate Fourth Doctor story.
Starting off as a movie idea between Baker and his co-star Ian Marter (who played Harry Sullivan) back at the start of his run, it finally saw fulfilment in 2019. And what a story it is.
A deep, chaotic and psychological insight into the inner workings of this incarnation, it reads as the Fourth Doctor’s autobiography and has a whole wealth of treats. From a spooky and atmospheric first half to an insane and fairly meta second half, it’s absolute perfection. Harry, Sarah, scarecrows, Cybermen, a few treat cameos, a meta-reading on Baker’s love for the role, and the literal devil. Pick this up, I urge you. You won’t regret it.