By Shannon Lush
The casting of the role of The Doctor is, inarguably, the most important decision undertaken by anyone involved in 'Doctor Who', on any level. Stories were commissioned and placed in an early phase of pre-production, first by the show's story editors, and then later, by script editors, the job title being altered to more accurately reflect the individual's duties. But these scripts always featured a vague, undefined 'Doctor' absent the mannerisms, personality traits, even physical descriptions that can only come with an actor cast in the role. Terrance Dicks, former script editor of the show during the early to mid 1970's, reflected that it was only after meeting and speaking with Tom Baker upon his official acceptance of the role did he begin to explore the character possibilities of the Fourth Doctor; prior to that, the stories did not jump off the page.
Because the Doctor character in these stories was nothing more than a metaphorical cardboard cut-out. A shadow of what it becomes when it is inhabited by an actor. 'Tom in the flesh does have this type of looney scatter-brain', Dicks said, and that informed the character as eventually written by Dicks in the debut episode of Baker's Doctor, 'Robot'. Similarly, other production personnel frequently noted that, without an actor chosen in the role, it is difficult to comprehend and visualize the overall style, from set design to story arcs, that a new era of 'Doctor Who' was capable of. 'Any actor playing the Doctor shouldn't be acting 'all' the time', former producer Barry Letts once said. 'There has to be a contribution from the actor, it makes life easier for him, for the producers, for everybody'. Without an actor chosen, or, worse, without that certain actor with special qualities chosen who 'can' contribute to the series in their own unique ways, the show as a whole suffers. In this blog, we will look in depth at each actor who played the Doctor; who casted them, what they brought to the role in general and why they left the role that former Doctor Colin Baker often called 'the best job on television'.
THE FIRST DOCTOR: WILLIAM HARTNELL (Duration: 3 years, 1963 to 1966)
Who to credit: The early years of 'Doctor Who' would have quickly faded from memory were it not for the efforts of a handful of talented writers, producers, the overall guiding hand of its primary creator Sydney Newman, and the birth of 'Dalekmania', which kept the little black and white show on the lips and in the hearts of a generation of British children. But it starts with the Doctor. The first title character in the history of British television (to that point) to be an alien, the Doctor needed to be mysterious and interesting enough for children (and, just as importantly, their parents, who controlled the TV viewing habits) to want to tune in again and again. It was Newman who envisioned the role of a 'grandfatherly, senile old man', but it was a combination of the show's first ever producer, Verity Lambert, and it's first director, Warries Hussien, who approached William Hartnell.
Despite having to 'talk nonstop to convince him', as Hussien remembers, Hartnell accepted the role and entered Whovian legend as the first-ever Doctor, the original, you might say. 'From the moment this lovely young woman, Miss Verity Lambert, started telling me about the Doctor, I was hooked', Hartnell said.
Why He Accepted: One of the reoccurring themes that readers will discover in this blog entry is that financial considerations will come to play in an actor both accepting and leaving the Doctor role. However, in Hartnell's case, while he claimed he 'was paid very well, though I worked bloody hard for it', all existing documentation, coupled with interviews by surviving family, friends, and production team members of his era, indicate Hartnell was more driven to take on the role due to concerns over type-casting. As the oldest actor to date chosen for the role, Hartnell's career as an actor was on the decline, but had seen him perform in more than 60 films by 1962. While he preferred light comedy and 'farce' roles, it would be 'tough, army type' roles in post-World War Two productions that would lead to his typecasting as an actor who embodied thieves, rogues, villains, and, as he put it 'out of work, on the dole' individuals. A BBC One series intended for evening transmission, the potential to be viewed by millions of people, with a production commitment of 13 episodes attached, was too tempting an offer for Hartnell to refuse. Despite claiming the idea of space travel 'scares me stiff', he later would say he relished the role, stating 'the magic of Doctor Who will always cling to me'.
What He Brought: A little-known fact regarding 'Doctor Who' is that, like 'Star Trek', it, too, produced a pilot episode, and the pilot was rejected, though unlike 'Star Trek', the BBC actually allocated funds each quarter specifically for these 'test run' episodes, in order to iron out the kinks. As a result, the Doctor was depicted in the very first 'pilot' as being 'too mean-tempered', to quote series creator Sydney Newman. Hartnell agreed, 'he was too mean, and I told them so. Later they changed it and it was quite successful'. Hartnell, whether rightly or wrongly, often took credit for ideas and concepts that may or may not have originated with him. He claimed the idea of the Doctor often mispronouncing the surname of his companion Ian Chesterton, variously calling him 'Chatterton' or 'Chesserman', in order to bring to the screen Newman's original idea of the Doctor being 'a senile old man', was his. To be fair, William Russell, who played Ian, credits Hartnell with this, as well. In his later years, Hartnell also said the story 'The Gunfighters', which oddly depicted 'a Wild West American story on a low-budget British television series', originated with him; 'children like to play cowboys and Indians', he said. Whatever the truth of these claims, what is undisputed is that Hartnell, at the age of 56, suffered multiple physical injuries in the performance of the role. He was temporarily paralyzed during shooting of scenes for 'The Dalek Invasion Of Earth' when he fell from a stretcher the Doctor was being carried on in one scene. He also cut himself deeply on the hand when he gripped the upper portion of a Dalek prop under its dome, where the silver band ringing it was sharp; he insisted that in future, all sharp parts of Daleks props, and indeed of 'all' alien props in the show, be rounded down and fastened with tape, as a safety measure. In short, Hartnell gave it his all, aware that he was becoming the hero to millions of children worldwide, as the BBC began to slowly exploit their ability to sell their home grown series overseas. Another little known fact of this time is that 'Doctor Who' began airing in Canada in 1965 on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), during Hartnell's time. This fact has never been given the attention it deserved from either the modern CBC, who aired the new series for several years beginning in 2005, or by the SPACE specialty channel in Canada, who currently air it in first-run syndication.
Why He Quit: William Hartnell's departure from the series that made him a household name is, to this day, subject to a small measure of controversy. It is well known now that Colin Baker, the actor who played the Sixth Doctor, was in effect 'fired.' His contract was allowed to run out without being renewed, and BBC big wigs specifically instructed the producer to replace him before giving the green light to any further seasons. However, documentation and interviews with the principal production individuals and actors of Hartnell's era reveal now that, just perhaps, decades before Baker was 'axed' Hartnell may have been.
William Hartnell, to quote the actor Peter Purves, who had played his companion Steven, 'was a devil!’ Numerous writers, production people, actors, and even BBC big wigs have all noted that Hartnell was difficult to deal with on a day-to-day basis. While he had apparently maintained an excellent relationship with Verity Lambert and his initial co-stars, he was resistant to change; Lambert's successors as producer inevitably clashed with their star on many levels, from overall direction of the series for the long term, to make-up, costume and prop changes.
Many people now state that the production days were dictated according to Hartnell's moods in any given moment. They also state that they grew to understand the enormous pressures placed on the veteran actor. Unlike those that would come after him in the title role, Hartnell would not be afforded the advantage of retakes, as television technology in England at the time simply wasn't up to the task; 'Doctor Who' was taped but always performed 'as if live', meaning there was no time or money allocated for expensive retakes of key scenes. Consequently, flubbed lines, miscues, and ad libs abounded in this era.
The myth that Hartnell was so sick with arteriosclerosis that he routinely made mistakes in dialogue and therefore was replaced as The Doctor as a concession to his health simply isn't true. It 'is' true that he was always in poor health; he had been forced to resign from active military service in World War Two due to what he would later call 'poor nerves'. A lifelong series of ailments hounded him, yet he appeared, as has been noted, in well over 60 films over a near 50 year acting career, not counting the numerous television appearances he had made in the years before 'Doctor Who'.
Simply put, despite his frequent 'resting' periods, the most recent of which had been directly before being approached to play The Doctor, Hartnell nevertheless had the energy to endure long shooting days on a technically complicated science fiction series for the better part of three years. Hardly a man who was 'too sick to continue'.
Hartnell's wife attested to the fact that he was 'awfully sick', however she also stated that he 'loved them all', in reference to his co-stars, and wished to continue in the role for at least five years, as he himself had publicly stated on numerous occasions, and then retire from acting altogether. Instead, producer John Wiles had other ideas; at the early drafting of the script stage of 'The Celestial Toymaker', he had approached his BBC bosses to use the opportunity afforded them with the scene in which the Toymaker character turns the Doctor invisible and mute to recast the role in mid-story!
Essentially, Hartnell as the Doctor would be unceremoniously ditched and, when he was brought back to normal, would be played by someone else from that point onwards! Not surprisingly, the idea was rejected quickly, but it serves as an extreme example of the animosity that the production team had towards Hartnell by this point. Wile's successor as producer, Innes Lloyd, who also did not have the best relationship with his star actor, was the one who finally managed to dispose of him from the series, on the grounds that it would be 'good for the series, and more importantly, good for Bill', and that Hartnell needed 'a long rest'.
Why did two producers try so hard to get rid of Hartnell? Because he was difficult. Hartnell 'did not suffer fools gladly', to quote Anneke Willis, who played his companion Polly. Hartnell felt that 'too much evil was entering into the spirit of the thing', in reference to the changing nature of the series itself as the light-hearted adventure series for families that Hartnell had signed on for and worked hard to create and maintain. In its place, and under the producer ships of Wiles and Lloyd and perpetuated by various story editors, was suddenly pages and pages of technobabble that Hartnell was assigned to recite in an age before retakes.
This was an attempt to 'buck the series up', to make it more adult in content and more scientific in theme; around this time; the series began retaining the uncredited scientific consulting of Dr Kit Pedlar, who would co-create the Cybermen. The age of historical stories, where 'we all dressed in great gay clothing', to quote Carole Ann Ford, who played Susan, was giving way to the cold, hard science fiction themes that would later flourish in the era to come. Hartnell, in many ways, felt betrayed by this, and clashed often with anyone and everyone who championed these changes.
In the end, while on paper it was deemed a necessary measure and justified in the same manner in which one puts an old horse out to pasture, the sad reality is that 'Doctor Who' abandoned its first Doctor. Hartnell described the Doctor as 'a combination of Santa Claus and Father Time', he resisted labelling him as a 'scientist', instead calling him 'a wizard', and truly felt it was creatively wrong to steer the show away from space fantasy and more into science fiction.
In this, absent the support of Verity Lambert, and coupled with young co-stars as companions who did not have his experience or acting 'clout' to support his stance, he simply was made obsolete when his usefulness was at an end and his stubbornness became too much to bear. Often physically weak and requiring the use of stunt doubles such as Edmund Warwick, who appeared as the 'fake Doctor' in 'The Chase', Hartnell's heart sank at the prospect of leaving.
'I didn't willingly give up the part', Hartnell would say in later years. Today Whovians assume that the frequent fluffs of dialog, the stutters, stammers, and 'mmms' of Hartnell are on-screen proof, if any was needed, that men such as Wiles and Lloyd were correct, that Hartnell was too sick to continue. In actual fact, as noted by numerous people, these were all 'part of the act'. Hartnell's widow stated that her husband had intentionally devised these so-called 'Hartnellisms' in order to better reflect the Doctor's absent-mindedness and his senility; as mentioned previously, inherent parts of the initial Doctor character outlined by Sydney Newman.
Numerous companion actors, William Russel among them, stated that 'Bill Hartnell was nothing like the Doctor', that he not only was not forgetful of his lines, but in fact was so professional in his approach that he had 'marked out every button on the TARDIS console in his mind, deciding what it did and when to press it. Eagle-eyed reviewers need only look to the character of the Abbot in 'The Massacre Of St. Bartholemew's Eve' as proof that the 'dialog fluffs' of Hartnell's era were strictly character-driven and not a side-effect of Hartnell's illness.
How do we know this? Because Hartnell plays the Abbot as well in this episode, it is a substantial character part with plenty of dialog, and, as the Abbot, Hartnell reels off his lines flawlessly without error and without one single 'hmm'. If one suffers from an illness that prevents them from reciting dialog accurately, odds are that the illness isn't going to choose for them which character to portray in order to manifest symptoms!
If nothing else, in addition to the public and private comments Hartnell made after leaving the series disputing the myth that he simply was too sick to continue, there is the fact that he himself did not retire from acting immediately! 'The events of that time are engraved on my heart', he wrote to the head of his fan club. He admitted he suffered a complete nervous breakdown over the entire affair, and he resumed acting once he 'got on his feet'. He returned to both television and theatre for almost a decade after being swerved out as The Doctor. It is fitting his final role as an actor was the Doctor in 'The Three Doctors'.
THE SECOND DOCTOR: PATRICK TROUGHTON (Duration: 3 years, 1966 to 1969)
Who to credit: Innes Lloyd, the man who would literally drive William Hartnell home after a farewell party for the actor's departure, is primarily the man who decided to cast Patrick Troughton. In fact, in a demonstration of how far in advance in terms of his thoughts on who to cast in the role of what would become the Second Doctor, Lloyd asked Hartnell during the trip for his opinion on Troughton. Apparently, Hartnell affirmed Troughton as being 'the only man in England who can take over!'.
High praise, indeed! Other than the brief suggestion of mild-mannered actor Patrick Wymark possibly being casted at one point, Innes Lloyd was taken with the idea of Troughton from very early on. So were the BBC, who enthusiastically agreed with Lloyd's decision, so much so they allowed Lloyd to travel directly to the set of the project Troughton was working on at the time in order to personally invite him to the series.
Why He Accepted: As a self-confessed 'spooky character actor' who was more at home being a guest-star, sometimes in heavy makeup, on various television series of the 1950's and 1960's, Troughton had a great deal of reluctance to the idea of taking on the role of a character in a by-then established hit series, one in which even he admitted was 'carried by Billy Hartnell'.
He initially was inclined to turn it down, but reconsidered when he realized that the steady pay would help provide his sons with college educations. He decided to accept with several self-imposed stipulations. First, he planned on 'only doing 3 years', both in order to avoid potential typecasting as well as ensure he would not forego other projects for too lengthy a period.
Second, he would not make himself available to the press, as he felt that when the viewing public knew too much about an actor's personal life, it had a detrimental effect upon their ability to 'suspend disbelief' and 'buy' an actor in a role when they 'knew when you mowed the lawn'. With those provisions in place, Troughton set about to have 'as much fun as I could for as long as I could'.
What He Brought: It was Sydney Newman who essentially 'created' the overall look and appeal of the Second Doctor, simply by putting his foot down. On a visit to the set mere days before production would begin on Troughton's first episode, Newman objected to both the design of the character's clothing, as well as to his hair.
The production team had made an effort to distance the Second Doctor from the First visually, and thus choose what Troughton later described as 'a Windjammer-type' outfit that resembled 'something Napolean might wear'. Newman said Troughton's Doctor ought to be 'a tramp, a hobo of the skies', and thus he was quickly dressed in the tatty, wrinkled jacket and check trousers that he later made famous.
Additionally, Newman instructed them to 'tamp his hair down’, resulting in a 'mop top' style that resembled 'those lads from Liverpool', and hottest band in the country at the time, the Beatles. It is debated whether producers intentionally 'borrowed' the look in order to 'cash in' on the Beatles fad, but the resemblance remains easy to spot.
Patrick Troughton brought enthusiasm, passion, and energy to the series, which is clearly evident in the episodes themselves. His breezy style of acting, in which learning his lines was, to him, more of a suggestion than a requirement, resulted in frequent and intentional ad-libs. His ad-libbing nature and lack of what some actors would consider 'professionalism' resulted in a famous story in which his successor Jon Pertwee lost his temper during the recording of 'The Three Doctors', when Troughton 'said everything in the scene except what he was supposed to say!', according to Pertwee. The two later became close friends and frequent sparring partners in an epic water-pistol duel/feud that continued in the many fan conventions the two appeared at together.
What Troughton failed to bring to personal appearances and media presence during his time as the Doctor, he made up for in humanising the role, presenting a softer and more even-tempered character than Hartnell. Under him, the show experienced a second golden age, as popular monsters such as the Yeti made their debuts, as well as redesigned Daleks and Cybermen. Another feather in the cap of the show in this era is the debut of U.N.I.T and the first appearance of the popular supporting character of The Brigadier, though at this point he was a Colonel in rank.
Why He Quit: Troughton had always said, privately and at times publicly, that he intended to stay for only 3 years, no more and no less. So adamant was he regarding this number as the optimum time an actor can play the role before boredom from viewers and typecasting from casting agents set in, that twenty years later, he advised Peter Davison to do the same number of years for the good of his career, as well.
Despite continuing his career on television and films after leaving 'Doctor Who', the advent of larger-arena fan conventions by the 1980's would see Troughton happily frequent them, interacting with Whovians young and old and regaling them with stories of his time as the Doctor. It was in fact while attending a 'Doctor Who' fan convention in the United States that Troughton passed away suddenly.
In terms of the character, he briefly flirted with the notion of perhaps staying a fourth year. However, he discovered there was to be a long-term plan of phasing out the space adventure format in favour of the ground-based U.N.I.T, which the producers stated would go ahead regardless of who played the Doctor. Troughton then decided that, as the series itself was entering a new thematic phase, it was best a new Doctor was cast to be the vanguard of these creative changes.
THE THIRD DOCTOR: JON PERTWEE (Duration: 5 years, 1969 to 1974)
Who to credit: Change was coming to 'Doctor Who'. The BBC were privately concerned at the costs associated with making the series, even going so far as to commission a pilot episode for a replacement series be made. That series, 'Stoney Black', would have featured the misadventures of a humble and naive Australian living in London, a sort of pre-'Crocodile Dundee' type.
When those invested in the future of 'Doctor Who' pointed out to the BBC that 'Doctor Who' could be reformatted to be brought down to Earth, the BBC relented and gave the go-ahead, rendering 'Stoney Black' irrelevant. It exists now as proof positive that, for as much money and audience figures 'Doctor Who' could and has brought to them, the BBC were and remain quite capable of making the decision to pull the plug if the situation warranted.
Growing inflation, oil and gas shortages, and recessions in the economies of many of the world's countries gave the BBC pause for thought; 'Stoney Black' could deliver real-world entertainment, unfettered with the need to create new worlds, costumes, monsters, aliens. If 'Doctor Who' could be made to do the same, then it would be allowed to try. The only problem was, Patrick Troughton was leaving, and his successor must take the 6 year old drama series out of the realms of fantasy and closer to reality. Who could be cast to do this?
Producer Peter Bryan had developed a 'short list' of actors to consider for the third Doctor, one of which was the actor Ron Moody. Moody turned it down, and later claimed he 'regretted the decision to do so'. Bryant had another name who was 'very high up' on the list; Jon Pertwee. As a member of an acting family, who had himself been involved with the entertainment world in some capacity or other since before World War Two, Pertwee's reputation and resume preceded him.
When Bryant mentioned his name to Head of BBC Drama Shaun Sutton, the latter enthusiastically agreed, and personally contacted Pertwee himself, as they were in fact good friends. Despite Sutton's preference for Pertwee to portray the role 'as yourself', essentially meaning that Pertwee was being hired on the understanding that he would infuse this Doctor with light comedy styling, in the end he decided to play it 'against type', and therefore 'straight'. Pertwee would later comment that Sutton did not understand that a 'grounded' Doctor needed to be played absolutely seriously. This lack of understanding would come to play a part in Pertwee's leaving the role 5 years later.
Why He Accepted: Pertwee was an 'actor's actor', a performer with cross-over appeal due to his years on television, radio, and film. He had performed the popular World War Two radio comedy series 'The Navy Lark' for 18 years, and had developed a fan base. In addition to the steady pay that being The Doctor would bring, he negotiated for and was given certain 'perks', as a concession to his 'star power'.
He was given limited veto power over scripts and storylines, though in the end he developed an excellent working relationship with script editor Terrance Dicks, which meant he rarely took advantage of this. His approval was also required in terms of casting, and this would come to the forefront at the conclusion of his first season as the Doctor, when he made it clear that the role of Dr Liz Shaw was 'not working out'.
The character was, in his opinion, 'too intelligent in her own right' to even need the Doctor's mentorship. Pertwee preferred a return to the more traditional 'Doctor Who girl', one who would not steal the spotlight from the Doctor, one who required lengthy explanations to events, and one who could either twist her ankle or be carried off by the monsters, preferably both.
The subsequent casting of Katy Manning as the character of well-meaning but bumbling Jo Grant had fingerprints of Pertwee's 'backstage clout' all over it. Given these far-reaching abilities to affect and shape his working environment on a day-to-day basis, coupled with his insistence on wearing whatever clothing he wanted, driving whatever vehicles he wanted, and giving the Doctor character an action-adventure and gadgetry flair based on his own interests in the same, Pertwee would have been mad 'not' to take the role. 'I got away with murder on 'Doctor Who', he once said. 'I just played me, really. Apart from being hard work, it was a piece of cake!'.
What He Brought: Star power. Lots of it. By the time he left the role in the 1969/70 season, Pertwee's Doctor had become responsible for a great many 'firsts' in the history of the series to that point. He was the first to host a multi-Doctor story with 'The Three Doctors'. The first appearance of The Master happened in his era; in fact, an entire season of stories featuring the Master as the reoccurring bad guy happened in his era. The first to feature the Autons, the Sontarans, the Draconians. The debut of the most popular companion of all time, Sarah Jane Smith, happened in Pertwee's era. Not to mention the expansion of U.N.I.T as a covert alien investigation group.
Pertwee's presence alone inspired writers to craft new and unique storylines that would have been out of place and unsuitable for either Hartnell or Troughton, and under Pertwee, 'Doctor Who' became known for doing what science fiction does best; using the trappings of outer space and little green men from the future to comment on societal issues of the present.
All of this wrapped up under the flamboyant cape of the man who not only played the Doctor, he 'lived' the role. Pertwee made multiple personal appearances, and rose to become something of an 'ambassador' and 'elderly statesman' in the eyes of generations of Whovians.
He personally drove the same cars the Doctor did. His era was broadcast mostly in color, another first. In short, both during and after his time in the TARDIS, Jon Pertwee poured his heart and soul into publicizing and maintaining 'Doctor Who' as the mainstream success it became in the 3rd Doctor's era. In the early 1990's, he was named the first-ever entrant into the 'Hall Of Fame' established by 'Doctor Who Magazine'.
Why He Quit: While Pertwee often cited the slow, gradual break-up of 'his team', the producers, writers, and actors with which he was most comfortable working with as a major factor in his decision to leave 'Doctor Who', two mitigating circumstances stand out as being the determining factors.
First, his friendship with the actor Roger Delgado, who played The Master. Delgado had been tragically killed in a car accident in Turkey while shooting a film in the off-season of Pertwee's final year on the series. The death hurt 'Doctor Who' in general, depriving it of its most popular anti-hero character, and meaning the forced abandonment of a story everyone was looking forward to filming, entitled 'The Long Game'.
That particular story would have seen the on-screen 'death' of Delgado's Master, who would have been depicted as saving The Doctor's life in an ambiguous manner, leaving open the further exploration of the Master/Doctor relationship and adding layers of complexities to it. Delgado's death affected Pertwee personally and deeply, and he began to feel that perhaps it was a sign that he needed to move on from 'Doctor Who, and make a clean break with the series.
Second, he was turned down by Shaun Sutton, the afore-mentioned Head Of Drama for the BBC and close friend, for a raise. While he rarely expressed frustration publicly, there is no doubt that this was a 'slap in the face' of sorts to Pertwee, who had, as noted, given his all to the role and had increased its audience and mainstream appeal, not to mention its overall revenue for the BBC, in the process. Once again, the BBC had nickel and dimed 'Doctor Who' for no good reason, and the result was that one of the most popular and long-serving Doctors would shortly be written out.
THE FOURTH DOCTOR: TOM BAKER (Duration: 7 years, 1974 to 1981)
Who to credit: Barry Letts had produced Pertwee's final season, and wrote the actor's final regular appearance in the series, the episode entitled 'Planet Of The Spiders'. As such, he can and should be given credit for casting Tom Baker, a virtual unknown at the time, as The Doctor. However, as with everything else concerning Tom Baker, the actor the vast majority of both Whovians and the general viewing public to this day consider to have been the man 'born to play the role', the truth is a little more colourful than all that.
Baker had been a struggling actor for years prior to 'Doctor Who', and at the time of Pertwee's departure, had been signed on to several medium-budget film projects that were being filmed overseas. In a short space of time, however, these promising films all had been cancelled due to inability to raise production funds.
As a result, Baker began to experience a sense of desperation. In a slight panic, he personally wrote to Bill Slater, at the time the Head Of Serials at the BBC. 'Somewhere there is a job for me', he stated. As Baker himself tells it, his letter was the last one Slater read prior to turning in for the night. As a coincidence, Slater had just that day attended a pre-production casting session for the new season of 'Doctor Who' with Letts, who at the time had been frustrated by the turning down of the part from several actors.
Among them were Graham Crowden, who later would memorably play the character of Soldeed in the episode 'The Horns Of Nimon'; Jim Dale, who had appeared in the 'Carry On..' series of comedy films which Jon Pertwee also had done; Micheal Bentine, a comedy actor who wished to have far too much influence in terms of casting, scripts, and production for Lett's taste; and finally Richard Hearne, who wished to play the role as basically a carbon copy of his then-popular 'Mr Pastry' comedy character.
Slater called Baker at 11pm that night upon finishing the letter, setting up an interview for the next day. Letts, for his part, had been sent to his local cinema 'around the corner' by Baker to view the latter's appearance in 'The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad', which was making its cinematic run at the time. Based on the interview and upon Baker's performance in the film, Letts offered Baker the role.
Why He Accepted: As noted, Tom Baker at the time was a virtual unknown. By his own admission, he was working on a building site as a 'tea maker' when offered the role. 'It had nothing to do with 'Doctor Who', Baker said, 'it was all just a happy accident, really'. Grateful for the opportunity for gainful employment on a popular series, and admittedly unaware of the nature, realities, and pressures of playing The Doctor, Baker essentially 'made it up as we went along'.
While he is credited with influencing the initial style of the Doctor's clothing, which mirrored his own, rather casual fashion sense, it was one of those 'happy accidents' that led to the creation of his character's most famous piece of wardrobe. The decision had been made to outfit the Fourth Doctor with a scarf, 'like the kind you'd see in the West Bank area of France', said Baker.
However, so much wool had been purchased, 'someone's relative at the BBC' knitted the entire amount into one long, voluminous scarf. Baker tried it on, was told 'keep it, it's funny', and the Fourth Doctor now had a handy prop, marketable visual image, and symbol of his Doctor's whacky, unique outlook, all at the same time.
Over the years, Tom Baker has repeatedly stated that, while keen to infuse his Doctor with a 'childlike outlook', and striving to always keep the character 'fresh', he accepted the role first and foremost because it was an acting job. That he would go on to become the icon that he did he chalks up to 'another happy accident'.
What He Brought: There is probably not enough space on the server of this website to properly detail just what Tom Baker brought to the role of the Doctor. That he is still considered, over thirty years after his era, to be the 'definitive' Doctor, is just one indication that his work is still being assessed positively, that his presence is still being felt greatly, and that his tenure is, truly, the high water mark for 'Doctor Who'.
At the time, 'Doctor Who' was in no way in danger of being cancelled; Jon Pertwee had seen to that. It was not yet the 'jewel in the crown of BBC One' that it would become with Baker in the role, but it 'was' a popular series and a regular fixture in the top 20 most watched series on British television.
The temptation was there to do a 'poor man's Jon Pertwee', as was suggested by certain producers and writers who were comfortable with the scope of the show and with its position within TV audience ratings. There was a 'don't rock the boat' mentality among some. However ignorant of the history of the character Baker initially was, once he decided that the Doctor was an alien and therefore ought to be played 'with Olympian detachment' in order to put forth the character's alien origin, he blazed a trail across the Whoniverse.
Inspired by his outlandish, mad-cap suggestions, and eager to distance themselves from the 'U.N.I.T family' era, new producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes carried out work together that, to this day, resonates through Whovian history. Any card-carrying Whovian worth their K-9 batteries will tell you Tom Baker remains the greatest Doctor, Hinchcliffe/Holmes remains the greatest era, and there is to be no argument allowed to doubt these assertions. And they would be right. The question is not 'what did Tom Baker bring to 'Doctor Who', the question is what 'didn't' he bring?
Why He Quit: I once had occasion to share a conversation with a British actor named George Murphy in a pub in Toronto. Murphy was at the time a fledgling actor who remarked upon the purchase of a certain nonfiction book I had brought with me, fresh from acquiring it at the Forbidden Planet bookstore down the road from the pub.
The book, 'Who On Earth Is Tom Baker', was the autobiography of the man who changed 'Doctor Who' forever, and will be itself a blog review subject in a future instalment. Murphy had worked with Anthony Ainley briefly in a recent film, and remarked that it is too bad, as Ainley had apparently told him, that 'JN-T sacked Baker'. I was surprised by this anecdote, as Whovian history, coupled with public comments from both Baker and John Nathan-Turner, his final producer, tell a different story. While they both revealed that there was professional friction apparent in the relationship between them, the decision to leave 'Doctor Who', by both men's admission had ultimately been Baker's.
Murphy went on to relate that, according to Ainley, JN-T 'hated' Baker and wanted him 'out the door so badly', that he privately fired him, and concocted the story of Baker's leaving of his own free will to negate bad press and facilitate the casting of JN-T's own chosen actor, a prospect JN-T apparently relished as a chance to 'stamp his mark' on the series.
It is quite true that JN-T disliked the jokey atmosphere that Baker had come in his later seasons to inject into proceedings, and went out of his way to nip it in the bud. He darkened the tone of the series greatly, specifically instructing script editors, directors and actors to jettison any sign of the 'undergraduate humour' that was allowed to flourish under the likes of Graham Williams and Douglas Adams.
He then instructed the costume department to design a darker, more subdued version of Baker's trademark long coat and scarf; the resultant color scheme coupled with Baker's overall approach definitely skewed the series into a sombre, brooding one. At the time, many fan reviewers applauded this direction, weary of the Williams/Adams years and the excesses of childish, camp characters such as K-9, the slapstick sound effects and ludicrous scenes of the Doctor breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to camera.
But would this be enough to cause Baker to become enough of a problem that JN-T was forced to fire him? Given the weight of evidence otherwise, it is evident that it wasn't. Allow me to deconstruct this.
Firstly, the source of the 'JN-T fired Baker' allegations was Anthony Ainley, the actor who had played The Master in multiple episodes of JN-T's producer ship, and certainly in the final episodes leading up to Baker's finale as the Doctor. However, if ever anyone disliked JN-T, it was Ainley.
Ainley had spouted off about what he felt was JN-T's lack of credentials, his lack of attention to the proper details such as budget and scripts, and a host of other issues that Ainley had, not the least of which would be his feeling The Master 'was put out, supplanted', to quote Colin Baker as the primary bad guy in 'Trial Of A Timelord', a role essentially 'stolen' by The Valeyard. Played by Micheal Jayston, The Valeyard character had been co-created by JN-T, with Eric Saward the then-script editor.
Thus, Ainley is not an unbiased individual when the subject came to JN-T. That he worked with and for JN-T multiple times, had been chosen for the Master role partially 'by' JN-T, and had a day-to-day involvement in 'Doctor Who' for weeks and months at a time must be given credence. But if this were true, why, over 30 years later, would this fact still be hidden?
Baker has gone on to do many other things since leaving 'Doctor Who', though his career was always impacted and affected by his long tenure; he had more than doubled Patrick Troughton's time-limit for an actor to avoid typecasting, staying for nearly seven years. But for all he owed to 'Doctor Who', Baker would not have avoided telling the truth, especially now. If, indeed, he had been fired, he would have revealed that by now.
Finally, as this story was related not by Ainley, who has since sadly passed away, but by a man who worked with Ainley very briefly, it's likely an attempt to merely 'wind up' a fan. I gave it no credence then, and even less now. Because in the final analysis, from multiple people involved, Tom Baker left the series he revolutionized of his own free will, though it is true that JN-T did not exactly go out of his way to talk him out of it.
Having played the role seven years, having contributed time, energy, enormous passion and personal appearances in support and publicity of the role, Tom Baker felt in his final season that he 'hadn't found rehearsals as funny as I had done', that 'it was time to move on, and let someone else come in', that he 'began to feel the role 'was' me, we had become so utterly intertwined'. In his final season's worth of stories, he was so physically sick in fact that his famous hair curls needed to be achieved with multiple applications of hair perms!
'In many ways, I never wanted to leave', Baker said. But, leave he did. It is true his final 2 seasons had seen a drop in overall ratings, a sign that, perhaps, the viewing audience were beginning to tire of his Doctor. Competition from ITV in the form of the glitzy 'Buck Rogers' TV series stole away millions. Wildcat strikes from everyone from catering to gaffing, rigging, and scenic design specialists had their toll. Baker's time as the most popular Doctor was nearing its end.
While Baker had asked for an extended period in which to consider whether or not he would stay, in th end his soul searching resulted in the same decision. Meanwhile, JN-T was already planting the seeds for the future by rapidly casting the companions Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan, who would go on to travel with the 5th Doctor, and who would be introduced to the fans during Baker's final stories in order to 'preview' the new era that was to come.
At seven years, Baker's time remains the benchmark which no other actor has matched, to this day, playing The Doctor. While Sylvester McCoy's 7th Doctor was the officially licensed Doctor from 1987 through the spin-off media, until his final scenes in the 1996 Fox TV film, making him 'The Doctor' for just under 10 years, this was not achieved on screen, and the BBC has constantly-shifting attitudes towards the canonicity of various spin-off material anyway. Tom Baker took 'Doctor Who' from the foundations that had been built upon by his predecessors, and created an entirely new level of popularity with the property.
And when he finally left, famously resisting the temptation to return to celebrate the 20th anniversary in 'The 5 Doctors', though we would return in the 1990's in 'Dimensions In Time' and even now, more than 30 years later, voicing the Fourth Doctor for Big Finish's audio range, the most popular Doctor to this day went out on his own terms, at this own time. It 'was' the end...but the moment had been prepared for.
Next week: We finish off our look at the Classic Series Doctors! We will explore what 'really' attracted a 'personality actor'like Peter Davison to the role, delve into the murky Colin Baker era, and why Sylvestor McCoy stuffing ferrets down his trousers may just have won him the 'best job in television!'. All that, and Paul McGann! What more could you ask for!