Tuesday, January 03, 2012

I think that in retrospect, everybody could see that Tom Baker was just too good. He wasn’t necessarily the best actor to play the Doctor. He wasn’t the first to think he owned the role, or even to get himself and the character mixed up. But he was the most charismatic incumbent. His ad libbing made him a de-facto co-writer. The credited writers naturally played up to his sense of humour. They wrote Tom-lines, and the audience tuned in to see Tom in a way they never had to see Jon or Pat or Bill. The TARDIS became less and less a fictitious space craft; and more and more a stage set or a TV studio. When Tom was discovered learning oil painting or playing chess with K-9, it didn’t occur to us to ask why, or what he was doing before, or what he did the rest of the time. It would have been like asking what Geoffery and Bungle did in the Rainbow House when they weren't singing songs or reading stories or making finger paintings. We understood, from a very early age, that people like Tom Baker and Rolf Harris and Zippy didn’t exist when the camera wasn’t pointed at them. Tom’s bundle of mannerisms and surrealism and jokes and gestures and one liners held the series together as the narrative around it became less and less coherent; less and less relevant; until it all but ceased to exist. You could have dropped Jon Pertwee into Web of Fear or Wheel in Space, or Pat Troughton into Silurians or Curse of Peladon, and very little about the story would have changed. Horns of Nimon or Nightmare of Eden or Armageddon Factor couldn’t be imagined without Tom Baker at the center. “Story” had become nothing more than a series of corridors to run along, monsters to offer jelly babies to, villains to deliver hammy speeches to. And it was all wonderful because Tom was wonderful but once Tom wasn’t there being wonderful any more it all started to fall apart: not because Peter Davison was a poor actor, but because Peter Davison was only an actor, and he could only deliver the lines he was given, in the script that was written. Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee were leading men in mostly well crafted costume dramas and thrillers; Davison, Baker II and McCoy floundered around in a star vehicle without a star. (McCoy could, in fact, have saved the series. But he didn't.)


*

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.” As a wise man once said: “Piece of shit. Walk away.”




If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collect all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.



12 comments:

Dave Stone said...

Please change the typeface. It's almost unreadable online.

D said...

Very good! Just recently I'd been trying myself to figure out why I felt differently about pre- and post- Tom Baker WHO.

Showed it to my brother, who is at least as much a WHO fan as I, and he also thought you hit the nail on the head with the idea that Baker changed the focus of the series to the actor-as-star ...

Andrew Stevens said...

Okay, so is Matt Smith the new Tom Baker? I.e. this is a terrible story redeemed only because it has Matt Smith? Or is David Tennant Tom Baker? And this is a terrible story because Matt Smith can't save it the way David Tennant could have? I'm pretty sure you're trying to say one of those two things, probably the second one, but I'm not quite sure which.

I do agree with you that it was Tom Baker who killed off classic Doctor Who for the reasons that you mention, though I think it's not entirely fair since the Davison era was trying to resurrect the pre-Tom Baker era (as indeed was Season 18), but failed.

Greg G said...

For me, within the context of Andrew's post, Matt Smith is McCoy (and River Song is the accursed Cartmel Masterplan made flesh).

guy.jackson said...

"Okay, so is Matt Smith the new Tom Baker? I.e. this is a terrible story redeemed only because it has Matt Smith? Or is David Tennant Tom Baker? And this is a terrible story because Matt Smith can't save it the way David Tennant could have? I'm pretty sure you're trying to say one of those two things, probably the second one, but I'm not quite sure which."

Looking back into the nostalgic mists of my childhood, I think that New Who bacame much more star-focused during the Tennant years, which I suppose would make Christopher Ecclestone pre-Baker Who, David Tennant Tom Baker, and Matt Smith Doctor Who after Tom Baker left.

(Personally I don't think that David Tennant could have redeemed "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe", and I think that the series was definitely in decline towards the end of his period as Doctor. Your mileage may vary, of course.)

Gavin Burrows said...

For me, the point to Tom Baker was that he was charismatic enough to dominate proceedings as the central character, yet quirky enough to remain a totally inscrutable stranger.

No matter how long he played the character, you felt like you didn't have the slightest clue what he might be thinking. Troughton had done that before but Baker did it best.

Salisbury said...

Andrew Stevens:

Okay, so is Matt Smith the new Tom Baker? I.e. this is a terrible story redeemed only because it has Matt Smith? Or is David Tennant Tom Baker? And this is a terrible story because Matt Smith can't save it the way David Tennant could have? I'm pretty sure you're trying to say one of those two things, probably the second one, but I'm not quite sure which.

It took it to mean that Matt Smith is the new Tom Baker and that 'The Doctor, the Wicker Chair and the Walnut' was the new 'Horns of Nimon'. This is mostly based on Mssr Rilstone's past praise of Matt Smith.

Andrew Stevens said...

So far we've got two votes for David Tennant as Tom Baker and one vote for Matt Smith as Tom Baker.

Gavin Burrows said...

I would vote for Tom Baker as Tom Baker.

Andrew Stevens said...

That's another interpretation. The 2005+ Doctor Who is still living in Tom Baker's shadow and has remained a star vehicle, which all the post-2005 Doctors can only occasionally make work.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I'm confused. Is this compared to the narrative excellence and well-put-togetherness that was the previous Christmas special?

Though my experience was rather different. I enjoyed this Christmas special. Nothing to write home about, but at least it wasn't so gratuitous about its time-travel deus-ex-machinae.

This may be one of the few times I appreciate having discovered the Doctor rather late in life.

Anonymous said...

I loved it. TDTW&TW was delightful.