Monday, 17 March 2014

Overview: Doctor Who: The Tom Baker Era

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Baker in one of his numerous publicity shoots.
From hdwallpapers
Written between the 8th and 10th August 2013.

It's a common occurance in the popular culture that surrounds Doctor Who to say that while there have been a whole host of interesting Doctors and personalities, the one that will always stick out in the public consciousness will be Tom Baker. This was ensured by his charm, iconic style and ridiculous longevity with the program, with a tenure whose length gives credence to the claims by Tennant and Smith that if they didn't leave after four years, they'd have to be forced out. All this I knew at the beginning of my topsy turvey runthrough of his era, and while I cannot describe why he was so successful in any particularly innovative terms, I can talk about my experiences with that performance.
      The immediate, striking thing about any T.Baker story is the sheer enthusiasm that he brings to the role in pretty much every story (the exceptions coming a little later on in Season 18, when he was grouchy about leaving.) This enthusiasm translated into scripted word means wit, charm and tomfoolery, but the remarkable thing throughout that is that despite this creeping level of genericness that really does bolt up as his era goes along, there's still a deeper character to his Doctor. I think this reaches its pinacle in Season 16, where his fallibility and personal arrogance at their most apparent, and yet not in any way which makes us stop loving him. That genericness does however mean that he rarely has any "raising power" - he delivers the same enthusiastic and witty performance week-in-week-out, so no matter how enjoyable it may be on a bse level it never factors into a story's overall quality.
     I think the best way to tackle Four's seven-year era will be to differentiate between the three different producers he had. Here goes.

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The Doctor and Sarah Jane were a fun combination.
From the BBC.
Phillip Hinchcliffe (and Robert Holmes) - Seasons 12-14

The Hinchcliffe and Holmes era, often proclaimed a Golden Age, was one that I found rather here nor there. While I enjoyed the interconnectivity of the initial six serials layed down by the previous production team, I found that the moment the duo actually started working the stories became all-over rather tedious. The so called "Classics" of this era often left me feeling high and dry, the worst offender being Pyramids of Mars which is just so, so uneventful and hollow of theme that there's nothing really for me to latch on to. The theme of re-appropriating Gothic themes and ideas as well as Hammer Horror plotting did nothing for me - I want innovation and new ideas. By the time Leela arrived I was getting into things, but the horrendous Talons of Weng-Chiang saw everything I didn't like about this era amplified a thousandfold with a dollop of racism left over.
     This era had three companions; Sarah-Jane, Harry and Leela. Harry was a throwback to the UNIT era, and annoyed me for a while, with his openly sexist opinions that never actually changed throughout his time on the series.  Sarah-Jane continued over from the Pertwee era, and I grew attached to her as time went on despite the fact that increasingly, her role was deviating from the strong feminist that we'd been introduced to and into a more traditional and problematic damsel in distress. Her departure in The Hand of Fear was handled with effortless poignancy and it did bring me to tears, I'm happy to say.
    My favourite story of the Hinchcliffe era is The Deadly Assassin from Season 14, with honourable mentions in each season for The Android Invasion and The Sontaran Experiment. These three embodied a sense of fun while still telling a very well-crafted story, especially Assassin, which slickly introduces the entirety of Gallifreyan Society and also has some fun Matrix action which allows for all sorts of interesting imagery. My least favourite story of the era is most definitely The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which is racist, over-long and showcases a bland, shouty villain who goes around killing under-age girls. Fucking unpleasant.
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Get away, Casual Rascism! From taliesinttlg
     Despite my ragings, I do think that Hinchcliffe and Holmes were a skilled team of men. A lot of the stories are certainly written in a dramatic style which in any other series would make me really happy. Robert Holmes especially proved time and time again in Who that he could write stories which had fun characters, dark themes and background messages to agree or disagree with. It just feels like none of these talents are on display during this era, where the vast majority of the stories appeal to bland melodrama. I'll never really get why this era is so highly praised, and I still can't take seriously those who claim that Talons is the best story in Doctor Who.

Graham Williams (and Robert Holmes, Anthony Read and Douglas Adams) - Seasons 15-17

A bit different. I can't really think of a single "era" in Who which is more varied across its duration than the Graham Williams years, lurching back and forwards between competency. Season 15 is a bad pick-up from the previous era which lingers for a while and only demonstrates its own themes with stories which suffer from ridiculous budgetary constraints. Season 16 is exceedingly well-done throughout and is in fact my favourite season of Tom Baker. And Season 17, overseen by Douglas Adams as script editor, is my least favourite as its poor attempts at comedy attempt to cover bad writing. I still enjoy this era a hell of a lot more than I do the previous one, though, so there's something to be said for that.
      This era had four companions - Leela, K9 (who differs little between his two incarnations so I won't split them) and the two incarnations of Romana. Leela was an interesting concept and yet another attempt to move away from Damsel In Distress. While I feel that her character was done well initially, the factor of plot convenience meant that she often knew too much or too little, meaning that her character never underwent a smooth development - not helped by her crappy ending, which is the worst companion exit in colourised Who. The two Romanas are both interesting characters, with Mary Tamm's first incarnation being my favourite. Both of them are smart and snarky and don't tend to fall into the "just there to scream and ask questions" mould, even if the writers really failed to write them in a way which didn't do that to them.
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Baker's madcap antics didn't help the poor Season 17.
From Wikia
     My favourite story of the era is The Androids of Tara, for reasons which I've already gone on and on about, with the honourable mentions from the other two seasons being the dry satire of The Sun Makers and Destiny of the Daleks. While on average I enjoyed this era more than the previous, it does have much lower lows, and I can confidently say that my least favourite story in the entire Tom Baker era is the pathetic Horns of Nimon, which astounds me not just by the budgetary constraints but how little effort seems to have been put into the script. (With a dishonourable mention to the unbearable Underworld, which I didn't actually manage to finish.)
     I really don't think that the Williams' era had a clear direction - whatever needed to be done to keep the show afloat, I guess. It did suffer from severe budget and production problems in both Seasons 15 and 17, especially with the unfinished Shada and the hubub that preceded it. While the Key To Time arc was a stroke of genius that gave them a run of six brilliant serials all tied together in a neat little bow, it was lightning in a bottle and they didn't do anything to help the lack of consistency that the era, with its constantly changing parameters, really struggled with.

John Nathan Turner (and Christopher Hamilton Bidmead) - Season 18

As you're probably aware if you were on my blog in 2012, my favourite part of Doctor Who as a whole is the JNT era, and Season 18 is a great part of that, even if it's imbued with a sombreness that doesn't fit in well either with the rest of Tom Baker's run or with what would follow. As I already said at the end of that year, Tom's final season felt a little boring in some of the stories because it had the opposite problem to a lot of the stories in the Hinchcliffe Era - the grand ideas and plots were there, but the characterisation wasn't. Add in the fact that the Tardis is loaded with companions and that JNT's main focus was on bringing Peter Davison into the fore, and you get a season with a grouchy lead and stories that suffer slightly because of it. If you want a longer article about this season, look here.

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Gotta love these two excited lovebirds.
From Den of Geek
Conclusion

The Tom Baker era was big and varied, held together only by the immense charm (and behind-the-scenes narcissism) of its main star. At times it was big, bold and innovative and in others it was derivative, boring, bland and embarrassing. But it managed to get the balance of the two just right enough to influence a generation of kids and to bring Doctor Who into the public eye as an icon of British culture. For me? It's just that period of the show that everyone really seems to like but that, except for one season and a few other stories, I'm really just not that into. My runthrough of Season 12-16 lasted for about three months of my life, and has been published across six of them. At times I've loved it, other times I've hated it, but it's been a blast and I'm sad to say that I've no more new stories from this era to watch.

Thanks.

NEXT WEEK: Jon Pertwee time, as I go back to finish Season 7 with The Ambassadors of Death.

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