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Tales of a Time Lord: Tom Baker at 90

“Homo Sapiens! What an inventive, invincible species. It’s only a few million years since they’ve crawled out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenceless, bipeds. They’ve survived flood, famine and plague, they’ve survived cosmic wars and holocausts, and now here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They’re indomitable! Indomitable!” – the Fourth Doctor

Tom Baker was a Time Lord. And not just any old Time Lord, but the bloody Gucci of Time Lords — The Doctor. My Doctor. The man who meant everything to little infant me in ’70s Britain. A godsend from Gallifrey in those drab grey times, Doctor Who was as colourful as the infinite iconic scarf he sported, and for seven glorious years Baker’s iteration travelled the universe in his trusty Tardis saving Planet Earth from Daleks, Cybermen and other inter-galactic horrors, and he loved the part and lived the part. 

As someone who was reduced to jobbing on a building site before the role that made him, Baker gloried in the adulation of viewers, and spoke the Gallifreyan “gobbledygook” with the conviction of someone who’d spent six years as a man of the cloth (albeit as a rather more mute monk). 

He loved and hated in equal measure, too. That “insufferable” little tin dog, K9 wasn’t exactly Doc’s best friend, though, with no small measure of personal relief, those Baker was fond of included the now sadly departed actress playing his (and indeed my) first companion Sarah Jane Smith, telling the Guardian in 2013

“Luckily, I got on straight away with my companion Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane. She was very influential. The directors didn’t always like the things I suggested, like carrying jelly babies, but she thought I was very funny. Because she laughed at what I was doing, the directors noticed and relaxed.”

Baker took over as The Doctor at the conclusion of the season-finale Planet Of The Spiders in June 1974, the month I turned five. It was only the second time viewers saw an actual regeneration take place, with Patrick Troughton’s forced “renewal” into Jon Pertwee taking place off screen, five days before I entered the planet in June 1969.

In fact, my earliest memories of British television are of two things: a plethora of tin-foiled tinsel-sporting glam rockers stomping around Top Of The Pops every Thursday night (Slade, Gary Glitter and Bolan, but no Bowie, ironically) and two evenings later, a rather scarier T. Rex in The Dinosaur Invasion*; during the tail end of Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the third Doc, just before he morphed into Baker. It was a transformation that this infant school kid marvelled at. Cue the infamous line from Robot, Baker’s first full serial, that never sounded so prescient.

“You may be a Doctor, but I’m the Doctor, the definite article you might say!”

The transformative aspect of the Doctor’s metamorphoses was a neat production trick, borne out of William Hartnell’s relinquishing of the role in 1966, that has kept numerous actors in work and transfixed audiences from Bombay to Ballarat. It certainly did me, but then my favourite lunchtime programme was already Mr Benn, another show with a Byronic, chameleonic characterisation. Though Baker, in the same Guardian article, downplayed his zany reimagining. 

“I didn’t consciously try to be different from Jon because I didn’t know anything about the series. I was younger, of course – but, having been brought up a Catholic, the idea of disappearing and reappearing, of miraculous events, strange voices and all the other mad things about Doctor Who seemed totally natural to me.” 

The Fourth Doctor was whimsical, unbalanced, and thoroughly unpredictable, turned the universe on its ear as he rooted out the dark forces that threatened it. 

Come 1981, it turned out that the dark forces that threatened the Fourth Doctor himself were from within the BBC. He had an increasingly tense relationship with the programme’s producer new John Nathan-Turner, whose first executive decision was deciding Baker’s creative influence needed to be reined in. And not even the positive publicity the show received by Madame Tussauds bestowing the honour of making Tom the first person to have two waxwork replicas displayed simultaneously – one as the Doctor in normal times, and one as the Doctor possessed by 1980‘s alien cactus Meglos, could prevent what came next.

Alas, after a record-breaking tenure still unmatched to this day, and just days after the Human League’s first post Marsh-Ware single Boys & Girls paid titular homage to the actor on its wonderfully atmospheric B-side, Tom Baker’s final story, Logopolis, was aired. As fish came to shove, Doc 4 and his ethereal stalker-cum-future incarnation known as The Watcher (a mysterious “white light” phenomenon that befalls Time Lords nearing their end) prepared to hand over the sonic screwdriver to Peter Davison. Well, I was hardly full of the joys of spring.

“Tristram from All Creatures Great And Small?” I queried, slightly unnerved. In a household with three channels and one television set, “That’s what Mum and Dad make us watch,” I thought. Yet Baker made headlines for suggesting – the audacity – that his replacement might turn out to be a woman. He was a few decades ahead of the curve with that one.

Keeping it very much in the family, the denouement of Logopolis was filmed at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, ten minutes from my grandparents’ house in Wilmslow. Me? I was not quite 12, and six months away from an “upgrade” to high school and a newly opened portal into the universe marked pop music. 

I should add that I did grow to enjoy Davison’s take on the role, despite the endless rushing down over-lit corridors. But in 1984, when the portly Colin Baker took over, this 14-year-old boy was going through some ch-ch-changes of his own. I’d swapped stamp collecting for clubbing, vests for sex, and Adam Ant for David Bowie. I found it impossible to warm to the less than masterful Baker Mk.II and stopped watching Doctor Who completely. 

The show was unceremoniously exterminated five years later, the year I stopped being a teen.

Zip forward to a crisp late morning in March 1991, and I was living in the hotel where I worked — the Bull Hotel in Stony Stratford, an old school market town on the periphery of Milton Keynes, where Buckinghamshire morphs into Northamptonshire and, coincidental, where future Doc No. 8 Paul McGann had filmed Withnail And I.

No sooner had I stepped out on to the High Street to head to the Co-op do I see an imposingly tall figure walk towards me, past Odell’s the ironmonger’s and about to pass my very home and workplace. It was Tom Baker himself, looking pensive, and slightly forlorn in a long beige trench coat. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This was a sleepy coaching town plonked in acres of farmland, and naturally, my first thought was “What’s Tom Baker doing here?” I mean, you would, wouldn’t you. 

Despite Milton Keynes proper being the fastest growing new town in Britain, we didn’t witness endless celebs passing through. Other than the two queens — QEII and Margaret Thatcher — opening the shiny new shopping centre, the only “names” I recall seeing were a grumpy-faced Don Estelle hawking his budget album in Woolworths and, well, hello, Jon Pertwee switching on the Christmas Lights in 1990, on a balcony above John Lewis, in character as Worzel Gummidge — the same store where the roller-skating closet Cliff Richard had filmed his Wired For Sound clip a decade prior.

What were the chances? My first two and most important Doctors of my formative years, in MK within a few weeks of each other. 

I checked the date, and it was almost ten years to the day that Tom Baker met his fateful end as The Doctor. Having read the cue card that said Do Not Disturb I crossed the street so to avoid eye contact, which would have undoubtedly freaked me out.

Then, as he passed The Bull, I doubled back and rushed to the kitchen window where I plied my trade. I beamed excitedly to Kath the elderly lunchtime waitress

“You won’t believe who I’ve just seen!”

“Who?”

“Tom Baker!”

“Oh, OK. Yeah, he knows someone that lives down the far end.”

“But he was Doctor Who!”

“Yeah, we know, Steve.”

And with that I sloped off, deflated and dispirited. Other than being in the back of beyond, I think what made seeing my childhood hero so otherworldly was that I couldn’t recall seeing Tom Baker in anything after he quit the Tardis other than what was little more than an extended cameo in an episode of the brilliantly surreal The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil some five years earlier.

Of course, I wasn’t letting my colleagues’ trademark indifference taint my dining out story, and would gladly tel anyone who came within earshot who I’d witnessed traipsing down our thoroughfare.

It turned out that Baker indeed had a male friend who lived on the edge of town, and — I’ve had this tale confirmed and corroborated by several locals — their go-to eatery was Umbrella’s, a fish restaurant and wine bar, where their posse would delight in eating and drinking their way through the entire menu. A condensed version of the story goes as follows…

“One night Tom Baker and his group were so rowdy, they had worked their way through so many bottles of wine the boss was worried they we’re going to run dry. They were really loud and demanding towards the American waitress, constantly changing their order, that at one point she said under her breath ‘This job is a pain in the ass.’ Tom grabbed her, picked up a fork and poked it in her backside and exclaimed loudly, ‘No, dear, THIS is a pain in the ass. Now, bring us more wine!”

Oh, to have been a fly on that table.

Fast forward to 2006, and what with Doctor Who’s remarkable return under the stewardship of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, Saturday nights were the Sabbath all over again. Baker too, was riding the wave by association, though when his sonorous boom was voted the fourth most recognisable voice in the UK, behind the Queen, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher that was probably more to do with his audio role as the quirky narrator in Little Britain.

British Telecom hired Baker to become the voice of BT Text, the service which allowed mobile text SMS messages to be sent from your phone and then their server would dial the landline and use a speech synthesizer pre-recorded by the man himself over 11 days, to read out the text.

Naturally, I and zillions of others had no end of fun getting TB to say unquestionably saucy things. I even sent one to my parents, hoping, nay, praying they would see the funny side. Sadly, this was a good three years before my first smartphone and its inbuilt voice recorder, but the communiqué went something like this… 

“Hello, Is that Susan? Or perhaps it’s David. This is The Doctor. I see you aren’t in the Tardis right now so our universes will collide another time. Right, I’m off to get shagged by a sexy Cyberman, so byeeee!”

Amazingly, my parents haven’t disowned me. In fact, my mother tittered hysterically when she heard it. Little things eh. 

Putting that stunning baritone too good use, in recent years Baker shocked and delighted fans in equal measure by returning to Doctor Who as the mysterious Curator in the 50th anniversary special The Day Of The Doctor and recording audio dramas for Big Finish, a second string that was prompted by a question posed by none other than yours truly, when — kudos to me — this writer interviewed the great man in 2008.

And yes, we talked about Stony Stratford. It’s all delightfully, deliciously true.

Many happy returns, you glorious, crazy, wonderful man, you.

The moment has been prepared for.

Steve Pafford

* I recently rewatched The Dinosaur Invasion and, lo and behold, can’t find the pivotal scene I remember, with Jon Pertwee dangling off a window ledge as a monster of some description is on the loose. It could be that my memory is playing tricks and it’s a completely different story — either way it’s a Doctor Who serial in the last year or so before Baker took the reins.

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