Category: Tom Baker

moonbase01For my most recent reviews of Doctor Who Classic at The A.V. Club, please visit Click on season numbers to browse individual episodes.

To see the reviews in publication order, it’s easiest to start at my staff page at The newest material is at the top of the list.

TV Club, Doctor Who, Shada

“Shada” (season 17, episodes 21-26. Filmed in 1979; never aired.)

In 1979, Douglas Adams, then script editor for Doctor Who, wrote a story for the show in which the villain disastrously shatters into half a dozen fragments of himself that scatter throughout time. That was “City Of Death,” one of the best serials Doctor Who ever did. Later that year, he wrote another one. This time, the story itself exploded, shattered into half a dozen fragments of itself, and scattered throughout time. That was “Shada,” the great lost story of season 17, a half-filmed serial from Tom Baker’s second-to-last season as the Fourth Doctor. And for a long time, people wondered if it too wouldn’t have been one of the greats. But that was back when it was still lost.

It’s oddly appropriate that the last scene of “Shada” begins with the Doctor reading from Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, because despite the persistent efforts over the years to give it life again, “Shada” remains, in all its various and contradictory manifestations, just an old curiosity. It’s not awful, mind you. It’s not anywhere near the toxicity level of something like “The Twin Dilemma,” in which the stupidity is actually painful to watch. No, this is just a thinly written, overly formulaic story, with some clever ideas and a smattering of good Adamsian jokes and Bakerian Doctoring stretched out over a lot of boring filler. “Shada” would never have engendered so much interest if Douglas Adams’ name hadn’t been attached to it.

Still, even if it’s mediocre, it’s worth a look. If nothing else, “Shada” is interesting as a bit of complex pop-culture archaeology. There are at least seven versions of “Shada” floating around out there, ranging from complete adaptations to fragmentary scraps.

Originally published Feb. 17, 2013 on Read the complete article.

TV Club, Doctor Who, Warriors’ Gate

“Warriors’ Gate” (season 18, episodes 17-20. Originally aired Jan 3-24, 1981)

As the title implies, “Warriors’ Gate” is about transitions. The gate in question is a doorway between dimensions that all the characters want to pass through—well, almost all of them, and that’s the emotional key to the story. Gates present you with a choice: this side or that side, this life or that life, out or in. And for the Doctor’s companion Romana, this gate offers her what’s probably the most difficult choice of her life.

More than most Doctor Who serials, “Warriors’ Gate” is not easy to just dive right into. For one thing, the story is a little complicated, stranding the Doctor and friends in a strange non-place that exists outside of everything—two everythings, in fact—anchored by a key sequence that, like a waking dream, puts two sets of characters in the same place but at different points in time, kind of sort of simultaneously. It’s a story that rewards some thought, even a second viewing, before what’s happening becomes clear. Neither is “Warriors’ Gate” very self-contained. The entirety of season 18, in fact, ties together into a broader storyline, and basically assumes you’ve been following along in sequence—which is, I have to admit, probably the best way to watch this particular season, much as I prefer skipping around between eras of the show. This was a season of tumultuous change, both on and off screen, so before I get into the story at hand, let’s set the stage.

Originally published Jan. 20, 2013 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Deadly Assassin

“The Deadly Assassin” (season 14, episodes 9-12. Originally aired Oct. 30-Nov. 20, 1976)

This is one of the giants, one of the cornerstones of Doctor Who. In terms of influence on the rest of the series, “The Deadly Assassin” is almost unsurpassed, establishing much about the Doctor and his homeworld that reverberates through subsequent seasons, from the legendary figure of Rassilon to the concept of artron energy, the quasi-radiation that the Doctor picks up from traveling through the Time Vortex in the TARDIS. The first extended look inside the society of the Time Lords, “Deadly Assassin” showed a much more human side to them, full of flaws and hypocrisy and corruption that explained much about why the Doctor ran away in the first place. It was also a significant step forward, maybe even a culmination, in his long struggle to achieve independence from their control and meddling in his life. Nothing would ever be the same again.

It doesn’t hurt that “Deadly Assassin” is so well-crafted all around, starting with the smart, slyly satiric script by the great Robert Holmes that plays off political thrillers, noirs, and espionage/conspiracy movies (especially The Manchurian Candidate) and restages the Kennedy assassination on Gallifrey, with the Doctor caught in a trap that casts him as Lee Harvey Oswald. Director David Maloney also has more than his share of Doctor Who classics to his name, including “The Mind Robber,” “Genesis Of The Daleks,” and “Talons Of Weng-Chiang,” but I don’t think he ever topped the tense, surreal, and nearly dialogue-free sequence set in the virtual-reality Matrix that takes up around a third of the running time here.

Originally published Oct. 28, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Seeds Of Doom

“The Seeds Of Doom” (season 13, episodes 21-26; originally aired Jan. 31-March 6, 1976)

Horror and good old-fashioned scariness have always been a big part of Doctor Who’s appeal. The standard joke in the early ’60s was that kids watched the show from behind the sofa, not on it, for fear of the Daleks. The Silence and the Weeping Angels serve the same function today. But in seasons 12 to 14, the early years of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, the series made horror a driving force. The show started to push at the boundaries of what you could get away with in family-friendly TV, with a focus on the intensity of the violence and the creep factor that echoed Hammer Studios movies. It had the desired effect of getting attention, good and bad—ratings went up, but so did complaints from censorious conservatives. That was a primary factor in why the BBC broke up the creative team after season 14, packing off producer Philip Hinchcliffe to take over crime series Target, with script editor Robert Holmes leaving soon after. But it was a great ride while it lasted—out of the 17 serials made in these three years, I’d call 10 absolute classics, and none of the remainder are less than watchable and entertaining.

And “The Seeds Of Doom” is one of the greats. A tightly written and directed horror/thriller about an alien weed called a Krynoid, it’s anchored by a great performance by Baker that capitalizes on the rapid mood swings and charismatic intensity of his Doctor to underscore the atmosphere of unearthly danger with grim hints of what he knows but isn’t telling us about Krynoids, and then to work as his own comic relief with a zinger and a toothy smile that lightens the mood without letting you forget there’s an apocalypse blooming in the garden.

Originally published Sept. 16, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Review: Gareth Roberts/Douglas Adams, Shada

Charles Dickens has The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. Bruce Lee has Game Of Death. And for Doctor Who and Douglas Adams, the great unfinished story is Shada. A six-part serial scripted by the Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy author while he was screenplay editor for the venerable science-fiction TV series in 1980, Shada was meant to be the grand finale of Doctor Who’s 17th season, but strikes at the BBC halted filming halfway through, and scuttled the story. Since then, it’s grown to mythological proportions in its own absence, with a reputation as a tantalizingly incomplete fragment of unfulfilled potential.

Like a ghost, Shada has refused to stay quietly dead, popping up in fragmentary or much-reworked versions over the years. Most famously, clips of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward in character as the time-traveling Fourth Doctor and his companion Romana were used in the 1983 anniversary special “The Five Doctors,” and in 1992, Baker provided linking narration when the surviving footage was released on video. In 2003, Paul McGann starred as the Eighth Doctor in a rewritten, partly animated audio version.

Adams himself cannibalized Shada for his 1987 novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, after which he washed his hands of it, saying the episode was “not that great” and refusing to put his name on the video release, which he claimed had been authorized by mistake. (“Whoever it was had forgotten that I wanted Shada sat on.”) His sudden death in 2001 sunk any lingering hope that he might eventually write a proper novel version, and it became, instead, unique among Doctor Who’s sizable array of missing adventures, as the only one from a writer of Douglas’ caliber not at least available as a novelization.

Now Shada is back in another regeneration, as a novel authorized by Adams’ estate and penned by Gareth Roberts, a frequent writer for the current TV series. It’s a respectful, even loving adaptation of the original scripts, and Roberts takes pains to try to recreate the spirit of the Adams era of Doctor Who, when it was often something like a cosmic screwball comedy. And other than fleshing out the underwritten side characters, he sticks very closely to Adams’ plot, which—ironically enough—revolves around a lost book.

Originally published June 25, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Ribos Operation

“The Ribos Operation” (season 16, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Sept. 2-23, 1978)

At its heart, “The Ribos Operation” is playing for relatively small stakes in comparison to the kind of thing you usually get with Doctor Who. It’s a story about a con game gone wrong between two hard-luck grifters and a fallen aristocrat who thinks they’re his route back into power. Though it’s set on a faraway planet with connections to a vast interstellar empire, mainly it’s just about the con, and how the Doctor’s own little quest gets in the way of that. But wrapped around “The Ribos Operation” is a much broader story of literally cosmic scope, and it’s there that we should start.

By Doctor Who’s sixteenth season, the show had run into a problem inevitable for any series that lasts that long—it was outgrowing its own founding mythology. The seemingly all-powerful Time Lords had been a lingering background presence for years, first as the unknown people the Doctor was running away from, then later a persistent source of unwanted control. But by this point, the question was: What do you do when your hero finally defeats the one foe he was never supposed to be able to defeat?

Originally published June 24, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “Destiny Of The Daleks”

“Destiny Of The Daleks” (season 17, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Sept. 1-22, 1979)

Just going by pedigree of the writers involved, “Destiny Of The Daleks” should be a lot better than it is. It marked the final Doctor Who script from Terry Nation, one of the series’ oldest and most reliable writers and the creator of the Daleks. The story also marked the debut—as script editor—of the inimitable Douglas Adams, who had written “The Pirate Planet” for season 16 the year before and was now taking over the big chair. And “Destiny Of The Daleks” was a huge success at the time, setting new viewership records for the series along with the following story, “City Of Death”—both helped a lot by a strike that had taken the BBC’s main competitor, ITV, out of action. But although there’s a lot to enjoy here, especially in the early episodes, in the end the story fizzles out. It’s dragged down chiefly by a revisionist take on the Daleks and their creator Davros that makes both less interesting and fails to build on the promise of their previous appearance in “Genesis Of The Daleks.” It’s sunk further by miring the pepperpots in a stalemate with a deadly dull army of alien robots, the Movellans, who look something like Milli Vanilli in white disco outfits.

Most of what works well here is loaded in the first half of the story, so let’s start there.

Originally published May 13, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “Genesis Of The Daleks”

“Genesis Of The Daleks” (season 12, episodes 11-16. Originally aired March 8-April 12, 1975)

If you have to boil down to one single factor why “Genesis Of The Daleks” is so deeply influential on the later history of Doctor Who, it wouldn’t be the one implied in the title. Sure, this is the story that gave the Doctor’s most persistent enemies an origin. But what was more important was that with the introduction of Davros, their insane creator, the Daleks were finally given a face.

This had always been a problem with the Daleks. Despite their ongoing popularity, distinctive design, and iconic status as the original Doctor Who monster, it was hard to make effective characters out of creatures that had been designed on purpose to have so little individuality. Although they weren’t robots, it was easy to forget that distinction since every Dalek looked alike—a mechanistic melange of an insect and an armored tank, with only the occasional color variation to mark those of different rank. And they all had the same hostile and aggressive personality, which they could only express by shouting and shooting at things. None even had individual names. The whole point of a Dalek is that it’s a fascist, conformist bully that wants to eliminate anything that isn’t a Dalek. It’s the Nazi ideology taken to its logical extreme.

Originally published April 15, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club Doctor Who: 24: City of Death

“City Of Death” (season 17, episodes 5-8. Originally aired Sept. 29-Oct. 20, 1979)

Today’s stop on our nonchronological journey through Doctor Who brings us to somewhere close to the end of the second major period of the Fourth Doctor era. The most obvious way to mark changes in the series over the years is simply by which actor is playing the main character, but Baker’s seven years in the role, longer than anyone else, spans three distinct periods, more or less. There were always many other forces helping to shape Who, whether that was external ones like the 1960s Dalek craze or competition from shows like The Avengers and Batman, or internal ones like the changes in creative vision brought in whenever a new producer or script editor took over. I’ve already covered two serials from Baker’s first period (“The Brain of Morbius” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”), when horror-friendly Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes were the creative leads behind-the-scenes. (Baker’s debut, “Robot,” is really more of a holdover from the Third Doctor creative team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks.) The third section begins in Baker’s last season, with the ascendancy of producer John Nathan-Turner, who would steer the ship like a slow-motion car crash through nine years and four Doctors, before flying his metaphorical “Mission Accomplished” banner with the series’ cancellation in 1989.

Originally published Jan. 8 on Read the complete article.

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