Doctor Who: The Implosion Effect
Having overtly replaced its lead actor (Hartnell to Troughton) in 1966 using an invented plot mechanism which opened the door to a peculiar longevity for the show, then in 1969 reinventing itself as an Earth-based series of adventures, inverting everything that had made it successful, we have seen how Doctor Who underwent two of the most radical experiments in television in the 1960s. As Jon Pertwee’s era came to a close, and the sea-change in British culture began to become more visible, a third shift was undertaken. This one, swapping Pertwee for relatively unknown actor Tom Baker, was less extreme, but resulted in one of the most interesting eras for the Doctor.
Tom Baker has come to be known by many as ‘their Doctor’ for four main reasons: he was the Doctor who first ‘made it’ in America when the show was reintroduced there; he was the longest-serving Doctor and was in the role at the time of some of its most popular and highest-rating stories of the ‘classic’ period; his character was the first to depend upon distinctly iconic props (a cultivated bohemian appearance, including a distinctive multicoloured, 20-foot-long scarf) which were easy to remember, imitate and parody; and Baker was very good at the part of the Doctor.
With hindsight, it’s not difficult now to see that certain underlying trends and themes which we have touched upon in earlier articles now became manifest on the surface of the show: there was no hedging around the Doctor’s role in the stories now, he was undoubtedly the protagonist, something which had been growing ever since Troughton’s time; the shape of Doctor Who stories was now more or less established, but subtly changed to take into account this larger-than-life protagonist; and both of these indicate that more than ever the tendency of the show, inevitably perhaps, was to mirror the times it was in (meaning the Britain of the late 1970s and early 1980s, not the times to which the TARDIS frequently travelled).
The first few seasons of the Baker era were the best both in terms of the quality of the stories and the ratings. This wasn’t just due to the quality of the writing or acting, though (though this had picked up, partly due to the effortless chemistry between Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith and Baker’s Doctor) but because of something which the parameters of the show meant that Doctor Who was able to do relatively easily: it could capture the tone or mood of the culture around it. Just as Hartnell’s era caught the tail-end of the deferential ‘inform, educate, entertain’ early 1960s (with Hartnell’s Doctor at first stern, cantankerous and grandfatherly, later melting a little into a ‘hero’) and just as Troughton’s era reflected the post-Beatles, youth revolution of the later 60s (with his Doctor racing around the universe as a distinctly science fiction hero) Pertwee’s interpretation had grounded the character in the gradually more sophisticated and cynical era of the early 1970s, playing a more patrician action-hero. Now, as the culture became more Ironic and comics, film, literature and theatre grew darker, there was a choice as to which way the show might go: it could become purely escapist, as the ‘long long time ago in a galaxy far far away’ of the Star Wars series had exemplified, rejecting a growing sense of gloom and ‘realism’ and fleeing into the purely fantastic, or it could try in its own small way to ‘go with the flow’ and become darker itself. Along with Baker had come a new script editor, Robert Holmes and producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, who together chose the ‘dark path’ orientating stories towards horror.
What happened showed the underlying pattern: ratings shot to the highest of the classic Who period, even beating the initial flurries of Hartnell’s encounters with the Daleks. Why was this? Because the tone of the stories matched the descending tone of the culture around it. Baker's interpretation of the Doctor as an eccentric alien and outsider helped: he was charismatic and often funny, but larger-than-life and ludicrous at times. This incorporated the key elements of the Second Doctor - charm, humour and spontaneity - with the aloofness and presence of the Third Doctor, while adding a wild element of his own. With the Second Doctor we had gone on a series of adventures with a certain amount of fun, but there had been a moral purpose; with the Third Doctor we had been positioned, as he was, defending the earth from a variety of alien threats - but with the Fourth Doctor, we journeyed into often violent nightmares verging on the surreal. This was popular, but drew criticism. ‘The Brain of Morbius’, for example, had a temporarily blinded Sarah Jane stumbling around a mad scientist’s laboratory pursued by a hideous Frankenstein’s monster. The source of most of the criticism was revealing, though: it was the conservative groups who protested, representing the older generation.
In effect, what happened next led to the demise of the classic series: tracking successfully with the culture as it was, with millions tuning in every week to see how far things would go in terms of horror, the BBC put the show’s brakes on and bowed to pressure from the critics. After a disastrously horrific story, appropriately titled ‘The Deadly Assassin’, in which the Doctor is shown being drowned on screen, the following season added more comedy, along with a laser-nosed robot dog, K9. With Sladen’s Sarah Jane leaving, the chemistry between the lead actors altered: the new companion, the savage Leela, played by Louise Jameson, was meant to be ‘sexier’ but the fact that she was from another planet in effect distanced the audience. This was exacerbated in the following season when she was replaced by Time Lady Romana, whose aloofness and disdain for the Doctor confused the positioning of the protagonist with his audience even more.
Doctor Who was being pushed off the rails, probably unknowingly: these moves in response to that narrow critical backlash had begun to divorce it from the cultural trend it had so exactly matched for so long. When writer Douglas Adams, who had worked with Monty Python and was just becoming known for his own science-fiction series The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy, took over as script editor in 1979, a distinctly comic element set in which lurched towards self-parody. Though Adams’ story ‘The City of Death’ was a huge success, the show began to collapse into a kind of satire of itself, made worse by Baker’s gradually sillier performances. With the audience dependent on strong suspension of disbelief to keep it watching, even a surge of new talent including producer John Nathan-Turner were unable to reverse the slide.
In fact, Nathan-Turner’s creative decisions worsened the situation. He reduced the Doctor to a two-dimensional, stereotypical, almost cartoonish character and the coherence of the stories began to dissolve. Often, the tales of this time give the impression of characters wandering aimlessly around the sets, with less idea of what is happening than the audience. What we were witnessing - though we didn’t realise it at the time - was the disconnection of the show from its surrounding culture: the centripetal impulses which had been present since the beginning were now, if you like, starting to implode the programme. Ratings halved in Baker’s final season. Only the most loyal fans continued to watch.
And worse was to come.