This month I finally got a chance to tap into the return of Tom Baker to the role of the Fourth Doctor in his Big Finish audio drama "The Evil One". The radio plays have offered pre-2005 Doctors a chance to continue their adventures, sometimes even in ways that are better than they had on-screen. Paul McGann and Colin Baker come to mind, but listening to Tom Baker try to recapture the same energy makes me think it's time for one of the most celebrated Doctors to hang it up.
Just to get it out of the way, I'm one of the rare Whovians who just isn't that big of a Tom Baker fan. Oh I love him, don't get me wrong. I love all the Doctors, but it was Christopher Eccleston that first grabbed my attention, then Patrick Troughton, and now Paul McGann. The Fourth Doctor's era had some of the best scripts, enemies, and companions, but for some reason it's just never been my bag of jelly babies. So bear that in mind as we go through this.
Baker is widely seen as THE Doctor for generations of fans, and rightly so. He spent seven years in the role, and was the first Doctor to really bring mainstream international attention (By that I mean he was big in America). He had his scarf, his talking robot dog, a hot savage assistant in a short leather outfit, and Davros to play off of. Until very recently he was the first Doctor people thought of when they heard "Doctor Who?", and only David Tennant comes close to supplementing him in the public mind.
That iconic status has come with a price, though. Baker has tried many times to walk beyond his career as The Doctor, and yet always seems to be drawn back into it. He dropped out of "The Five Doctors" and was replaced with unused footage for his brief appearances. He was also only minimally involved with "Dimensions in Time", and for many years balked at joining the rest of the classic era cast for the Big Finish productions. Only in the last three years can he really be said to have returned to the role in a big way, including his mysterious cameo in "Day of the Doctor".
Listening to "The Evil One" is a perfectly enjoyable experience. It's one of Nicholas Briggs' better scripts, and Geoffrey Beevers is an awesome Master. The sometimes ridiculous things that Leela says work perfectly because Louise Jameson has the chops to play the character completely straight. And then there's Baker...
That voice can only ever be Tom Baker's, but there is a change to it that makes it not necessarily the Fourth Doctor's. It's older, certainly, and that's to be expected and forgiven, but the delivery and characterization has changed. In fact while listening to Baker do his thing I could have sworn I was actually listening to William Hartnell. In his latest series the Fourth Doctor has lost a lot of his warmth, turning in a grumpier if no less heroic performance.
The thing that makes the Big Finish stories such wonderful companion pieces to the television series is the sheer love and energy the people involved bring to it. Colin Baker in particular is in his element, as his Doctor is completely free of the troubled production that doomed it so badly when he had the role on TV. Even the first three Doctors continue to live thanks to gifted recreations by Frazer Hines, Anekke Wills, Peter Purves, and more. Purves especially, though only five years younger than Tom Baker, positively races in both his portrayal of Steve Taylor and the First Doctor in the Companion Chronicles.
I don't believe that it's really an age issue with Tom Baker when it comes to the less-than-100-percent way his audio adventures come across. I just think that one of the greatest of the Time Lords is simply beginning to feel the long burden of his reign. It's clear that Baker does in fact take his place in Doctor Who history very, very seriously. He knows that there is an obligation on him from fans to be The Doctor for the rest of his life in some form or another, and he's said himself that the part has made him immortal. He knows what it means to be The Doctor in a way that Eccleston doesn't seem to understand, and for that I am eternally grateful.
But to paraphrase the Tenth Doctor, "Don't you think he sounds tired?" Much as I enjoyed "The Evil One", there's little growth like you feel listening to something like "Zagreus" or "The Perpetual Bond". Alone of all the Doctors, I think Baker has said all that needs to be said.