Dr Moo counts down ten of the best Fourth Doctor serials.
The Fourth Doctor, as played by Tom Baker, is considered by many to be the definitive version. There’s the old saying that if you find someone who doesn’t know which one the 4th is then tell them to close their eyes and think of Doctor Who – that’s him.
Today, on the 20th of January 2016, Baker turns 83. Join me as I celebrate the occasion with a look at ten of the very best stories that featured his Doctor!
10. The Keeper of Traken
I’ve got a lot of time for season 18 if I’m being totally honest with you, perhaps more than most people do. I love this final season of the 4th Doctor’s adventures and I think there are some wonderful ideas in play. The best of these lies in its penultimate installment, which plays out like a political thriller. We have the issue of royal succession being discussed, as Anthony Ainley’s significantly-named character Tremas has to fight to make sure the powers of the Keeper go to the right person and not the entity inhabiting the Melkur, whose identity is later revealed to be the Master. Geoffrey Beevers is unbelievably good in this, he's just incredible in the role, so it’s no surprise that Big Finish have him as their go-to man whenever they do something with the Master.
9. The Deadly Assassin
Doctor Who does the JFK assassination! The Doctor returns to Gallifrey where he is framed for shooting the president and must then spend the remaining three quarters of the serial proving there was a second gunman. From the pen of the incomparable Robert Holmes, we learn so much about the Time Lords and almost forty years on it’s still The Deadly Assassin that serves as the textbook when it comes to the Doctor’s people. There’s also a new Master in it, played by Peter Pratt who is excellent, it’s a shame he never returned.
It may be incomplete but I don’t care because Shada is wonderful if what we have of it is anything to go by. The script is incredibly witty (unsurprisingly since it’s by Douglas Adams) and the plot is fantastically bonkers. With an ancient Time Lord criminal hiding out as a Cambridge professor, an alien prisoner on the run who does not want to conquer the universe but to become it (Did Harold Saxon watch this by any chance?), the whole thing is unbelievably entertaining. Don’t be put off by its status as incomplete because it’s still an incredible story and an essential experience for fans.
7. Horror of Fang Rock
The first word of the title is “horror” and that seems appropriate. This brutal season opener is a rare example of a time where nobody lives, except the Doctor and companion Leela, which makes it a Must See Story for those who are tired of Moffat resurrecting everyone every five seconds. (I love the Moff but that one thing about him is grating.) In this story we see the Rutans. Finally we get to see what the Sontarans’ ultimate foe look like, and it's somewhat underwhelming... until we see what they can do! There are many ClassicWho monsters yet to return in NewWho but the Rutans should be right at the top of everyone’s wish-list, especially if they get a story even half as tense, atmospheric and exciting as this one.
6. Genesis of the Daleks
I’m sure Genesis of the Daleks presence on the list will be a surprise to nobody! You’ve probably had it shoved down your throats more times than you can count that this one is a masterpiece. Number one best of all time many will tell you. Is it? Disputable, but you can see where that reputation comes from! The Doctor is tasked by the Time Lords to prevent (or at least delay) the Daleks’ creation, along the way he meets Davros, Nazi parallels, civil war, unconvincing giant clams and a moral dilemma: Does he have the right? This story is a fascinating glimpse into the early days of the Daleks and has held up unbelievably well. (Except for the clam. Don’t mention that bit.) Is it the number one of all time? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it certainly does have a very strong claim to that title.
5. The Brain of Morbius
This story is a collaboration between Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes. That should be all I have to say to make you go watch it right away, but I’ll continue. Essentially it’s Doctor Who’s answer to Frankenstein, with an evil Time Lord of old (that’s Morbius) being kept alive by his servant on the planet Karn, home to the sisterhood of the same name who have shown up a few times in recent years (most recently in the wonderful Hell Bent). It is infamous for one moment of madness where the Doctor is implied to have had faces before Hartnell’s incarnation, which doesn’t fit with what has come since as I have talked about in the past, but don’t let that get in the way of enjoying this for the masterpiece that it is.
4. City of Death
What starts for the Doctor and Romana as a holiday to Paris (cue some excellent location shots) soon turns into a fight across multiple time zones to save the history of Earth from being undone. The Doctor meets the Count, a man who is actually an alien in disguise, who has accidentally splintered himself across time – think of Clara in series seven and you’re almost there – and is now working to fix this problem. It soon spirals into a conspiracy involving the Mona Lisa, which is revealed to be a fake. Douglas Adams once again proves that sci-fi and comedy can be the same thing. The final episode is the most-watched Doctor Who episode of all time, due in part to a strike by rival broadcaster ITV. The timing is a blessing for fans because, thank goodness, the strike coincided with such an awesome episode and not one week later otherwise everyone would've seen Tom shouting into a giant penis… yes, really.
3. The Ark in Space
Tom Baker was brilliant from the start, but his debut story, Robot, feels a lot like a hangover from the Jon Pertwee years with Tom shoehorned in – but then we got The Ark in Space and we got to see what Tom could truly do when he got to do his own thing. This is where the Fourth Doctor arrives properly as he, with Sarah and Harry, comes to the Space Station Nerva where some evil giant insects have infected the survivors of the indomitable human species. It’s a shame that the 1970s effects department aren’t anywhere near their modern day counterparts but they still do some good work here by, let’s call it, creative use of bubble wrap that’ll still give kids nightmares today. If we could have a rematch with the Wirrn sometime, that’d be good.
2. The Robots of Death
There are so many deep layers to this story that the viewer might miss on first viewing. Initially we see it as a murder mystery but it becomes so much more than that. Chris Boucher has presented to us a society built on slavery and a social hierarchy that frequently gets in the way of the Doctor’s attempts to figure out who reprogrammed the peaceful robots to kill. But more than that, what truly elevates The Robots of Death to all-time classic status is the relationship with new companion Leela. This is the first trip in the TARDIS for her and the savage instincts that define her character are prevalent throughout, and they only add to the suspicion the Doctor is faced with. Seeing the anti-violence Doctor and the savage learning from each other was a joy to watch during Louise Jameson’s time on the show and that all starts here.
1 The Talons of Weng-Chiang
There’s a “thing”, apparently, among some sectors of the NewWho fandom calling on Moffat to do a mashup of his two shows – WhoLock – where the Doctor meets Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. To these people I say that you should stop harping on about that and just watch something by that other famous Holmes, the writer Robert, entitled The Talons Of Weng-Chiang. In it we have the Doctor doing his best Sherlock impression as he arrives in Victorian London only to be confronted with a series of mysterious deaths. He and Leela team up with two people (the best non-companions ever, Jago & Litefoot) to investigate what’s really happening. The answer turns out to involve a 51st Century war criminal, a Chinese magician, a not entirely convincing giant rat and a computerised homunculous with a pig’s brain. Not only is this a fantastic story but it’s also one of the wittiest scripts you’ll ever encounter (Both Davies and Moffat have spoken out about how much they adore this one, so how about that for an endorsement?) with all the cast, not just Baker and Jameson, delivering the good stuff at every turn. There is some unfortunate yellow facing, but in a story so perfect as this one you can look past that symptom of 1970s culture that we have fortunately moved on from since. Not only is Talons my favourite 4th Doctor story but it’s also my second-favourite ClassicWho story of them all. It’s utterly perfect, go and watch it right now.
Which are your favourite Fourth Doctor stories? Let us know in the comments below.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The
Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the
latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.