To most, Tom Baker is only known (if at all) as the actor who has
Who from 1974 to 1981, his trademarks being a manic toothy
grin, big staring eyes, curly hair, a booming voice, an old hat and coat, and an incredibly long scarf. So prominent was his performance of
Doctor Who in fact that he (well, his caricature) made (at least) 2
walk-on appearances on the popular tv-show The Simpsons in the mid 1990's,
and he (as Doctor
Who) is regularly spoofed on the
TV-impersonation show Dead Ringers. This article however
tries to portray Tom Baker the actor in greater detail.
was born in 1934 to a devout catholic mother, who made her living as
housecleaner and barmaid, and a Jewish father, who was a sailor and was thus rarely at home. At age 15, Tom Baker turned his back on this world
as it is and became a monk with the Brothers of Ploermel on the island of
Jersey. However, his vocation only lasted for 6 years, after which he
abandoned monastery life, joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and later
became a sailor like his father. Eventually though the theatre-bug seems to
have bitten him. He subsequently underwent formal acting education and started his career in repertory theatres.
It wasn't until the
late 1960's that he got an assignement at the National Theatre and played with some greats as Anthony Hopkins (then a close friend of him)
and Laurence Olivier. The late 1960's also brought on his first TV and film roles - the motion picture The Winter's Tale (1968)
and guest spots in series like Z-Cars, George and the
Dragon or the Thirty Minute Theatre..
The first role
that gained him bigger attention though was that of Rasputin in 1971's
film Nicholas and Alexandra.
1972 brought Baker a role in
Pier Paolo Pasolini's I Racconti di Canterbury/Canterbury Tales, a film that he
holds in highest esteem (and thinks it was his best performance) to this
day. (For people who only know him as Doctor
Who, it might seem a tad odd to see him doing full frontal
nudity and sex scenes, though).
Some interesting genre-films and -oddities followed, like The Mutations/The Freakmaker, in which he played an
assistant to mad scientist Donald Pleasence [Donald
Pleasence bio - click here], Amicus'
The Vault of Horror [Amicus
history - click here],
a guest role on Frankenstein: The True Story (which told everything
but what Mary Shelly has written), and the lead villain (an
Arabian sorcerer ... a bit far fetched for a red- and curly-haired Brit) in The
Golden Voyage of Sindbad, a Gordon Hessler-directed showcase for Ray
Harryhausen's stop motion effects also starring John Philip Law, Caroline
Munro [Caroline Munro bio -
click here] and Douglas Wilmer.
However, Baker soon thought his
career led to nowhere and turned his back on acting. Legend has it that
he has taken on a job as a construction worker when he got the BBC
approval for playing Doctor
The TV series Doctor
Who was premiered in 1963 as a kids' sci-fi show (that would
within time attract a large adolescent and adult audience as well). It dealt with a time (and
space) traveller called the Doctor (no last name) whose adventures were
set both in earth's own history as well as in its future, on other planets
and in outer space. It would eventually wind up to be the longest
(consecutively) running science fiction tv show ever (it was
eventually cancelled after 26 seasons in 1989, however picked up again in
2005), but that would yet lie in the future.
Before Tom Baker,
already 3 other actors - William Hartnell, Patrick Throughton, Jon Pertwee
- had played the Doctor in the series (Peter Cushing, by the way, had also played the
Doctor, for 2 big-screen remakes of popular episodes: Doctor
Who and the Daleks and Daleks
Invasion Earth 2150 AD), and these actors had only 3 things in common: One, they had
nothing in common, two, they did not follow the traditional description of
a science fiction hero, and three, they were all a bit weird, even
Tom Baker, a natural eccentric, of course fitted this bill perfectly,
and not only
that, he brought an intensity to the role that few other actors could
equal. He always seemed to be on top of things, always seemed to be
prepared to throw himself into things head-on, he tended to offer his
opponents jelly-babies in the least probable moments, and he could
deliver endless lines of outrageous technical gobbledegook with such a
conviction that one actually tended to believe every word he was saying - in short, Tom Baker
was Doctor Who on speed. His always wide-open, staring eyes, seemed to
only emphasize on that, as well as his anachronistic outfit, inspired by
Toulouse Latrec, but with a long scarf.
Tom Baker joined the show at its most creative and innovative period,
with Philip Hinchcliffe just having become producer and Robert Holmes
script editor (producers and script editors always had a massive input
into the show, as you will see later). With them on board, the show left
its more traditional sci-fi roots and entered what is dubbed by fans its
gothic period - which in this case means the show gives a sci-fi
spin to horror mainstays.
Consequently, Baker, as the Doctor, has to fight
walking mummies (that turn out to be robots controlled from Mars) in Pyramids
of Mars, a Frankenstein
style monster in The Brain of Morbius, a giant man-eating plant in The
Seeds of Doom, while The Ark in Space has giant insects,
Planet of Evil combines a traditional ghost story with the Jekyll
Maybe the episode that shows the series
closeness to the gothics best is 1977's The Talons of Weng Chiang
(scripted by Robert Holmes himself), an episode that features oriental
villains (something that might today be seen a s politically incorrect),
weird experiments, giant rats in the London sewers, Limehouse and prostitutes,
and everything else you would expect from a classic horror/detective story. Tom
Baker even dons a Sherlock
Holmes-like outfit for this one.
(It has to be noted that
during that era of the series, there were a few non-gothic stories as
well, like Genesis
of the Daleks, essentially a war story with references to World
War I that delivers a strong anti-war message not usually found in a kids' sci-fi show
and that is actually one of the best episodes of the series.)
The Talons of
Weng Chiang unfortunately was the last episode produced by Philip
and while initially everything looked fine - the first
post-Hinchcliffe episode Horror
of Fang Rock manages to have the whole supporting cast killed off
one by one by an alien - , soon the series declined in quality of both
story and production values (e.g. in the episode Underworld, a
whole world made up of caves is represented by unconvincing back projections for budgetary reasons).
However, the immediate
post-Hinchcliffe-era also featured one ot the best Doctor
Who episodes ever, The Sun Makers, a
biting satire on
taxation and capitalism and/or communism gone wild,
again scripted by Robert Holmes. If you can ever grab this
episode in any form, do yourself a favour and get it.
As the quality of both
production values and scripts declined though, Tom Baker found more and more possibilities to make the show his own, chewing up
up every scene he's in and filling his lines with irrelevant (but often
hysterical) little jokes (his co-star and later wife Lalla Ward claimed he did it
for the children in the audience, but in some episodes, his jokes are the
only thing memorable and appealing to grown-ups like me as well).
Eventually, inside the BBC,
Who became known as The Tom Baker Show.
Douglas Adams was then fresh from scripting the
highly successful Hitchhikers
Guide to the Universe radio series, but somehow the royalties for that
series tended to come in rather slowly, so he had to look for other work
at the BBC,
scripting first an episode of Doctor
Pirate Planet in 1978, then, in 1979, becoming script editor of the show.
Fortunately for Tom Baker, Adams totally shared his sense of humour and his views on turning the
show into a sci-fi--comedy.
With Adams on board, both the script ideas
and Baker's performance got ever crazier and more outrageous. The
writers seemed to be even encouraged to take a no-holds-barred approach to
science fiction, which is probably best portrayed in City of Death,
scripted by Adams himself, where a villain who for some reason exists
through time persuades Leonardo Da Vinci back in his time to paint 7 Mona Lisas, then
steals the actual Mona Lisa from the Louvre in contemporary Paris to sell
his 7 (also authentic) Mona Lisas, all to finance the creation of a time
machine so he can travel back to the beginning of life on earth and stop
his spaceship from exploding - the explosion which made life on earth
possible in the first place.
However, many of the
episodes during Douglas Adams' time as a script editor suffered from poor
storytelling, inadequate scripts, sloppy and cheap sets and so on. Not
even Tom Baker managed to save some of the weaker episodes. Despite the
success of the show, a change seemed thus immiment.
change was not for the better ...
John Nathan Turner became
producer of Doctor
Who in 1980, and his idea of a popular sci-fi TV-show,
especially in the wake of the Star Wars-series of films (the
first 2 episodes of which were out back then), were quite different from
those which Baker and Adams had. He steered the show back towards
traditional science fiction, ommitted all the jokes and restrained Tom
Baker to a point where one wonders why he had Baker on at all ... the
Doctor became unimpressive, and often a supporting character in his own
It came as no big surprise that Baker quit the show which he has
once delivered to new heights in 1981 with the episode Logopolis.
Being out of a regular
job, Tom Baker found time to marry Lalla Ward, his former sidekick (or
companion, as Doctor
Who-fans tend to call sidekicks) on Doctor
Who (but their marriage did only last 16 months).
that, Tom Baker found it difficult do find new work, despite the show's
undisputed success. After The
Golden Voyage of Sindbad, he played another Arab, Hasan, in Curse of
King Tut's Tomb (1980), but was a secondary villain even to Raymond Burr
(who also played an Arab), he played a supporting character on the
TV-series The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood, and he made a fun
guest appearance as maddened and amputated sea captain on Black
Adder II. In 1982, he even got to play Sherlock
Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, a BBC
mini-series. His portrayal of Holmes however was widely dismissed by Sherlock
Holmes-fans, even though he does a pretty sincere job
portraying the detective (and seems to be a natural for
portraying the character's cocaine addiction) - it rather seems that
nobody wanted Doctor
Who portraying the iconic detective to begin with.
In 1986, Tom had
a supporting role in the TV-miniseries The Life and Loves of a
She-Devil (directed by Philip Saville), based on Fay Weldon's novel of
the same name - the same novel 1989's She-Devil (Susan Seidelman)
starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne, but no Tom Baker, was also based on.
and large though, Tom Baker's roles during the 1980's were few and far
between, so much so that by the late 1980's, several publications spread
the rumour that he had actually died from a drug overdose in 1982 ...
1990's did show a renewed interest in Tom Baker though.
Who had been cancelled and this strange phenomenon called fandom
emerged, plus with his old Doctor
Who shows being by and by released on VHS, he once more
became a household name ... he was in demand once more.
kicked off with The Silver Chair, a made-for-tv movie from The
Chronicles of Narnia, he was a regular on the third series of Cluedo
in 1992 (as Professor Plum) and from 1992 to 1995 he was seen on the
hospital series Medics. In 1993, he even returned to the
role as Doctor
Who for a 14 minute charity spoof, Dimensions in Time,
for Children In Need, shot on the sets of the popular daily soap Eastenders.
Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy can all also
be seen as Doctor Who in this one.
his career seems to have gotten a real new lease of life in the 2000's,
suddenly it seems everybody found a niche for Tom Baker in one way or
another: He played the ghost Wyfern in Reeve's and Mortimer's reworking
Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), got a role in the rather
forgettable fantasy film Dungeons and Dragons (2000), was a
co-host in the adventure gameshow Fort Boyard from 2003
onwards, got a central role in the final 2 series of Monarch of the
Glen (2004 - 2005), had a hilarious guest role as a sleazy film
producer in the first episode of the not so hilarious show Swiss Toni (a
spin off of the Fast Show, starring and produced by Charlie Higson, who
Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)), and was the narrator on Matt Lucas'
and David Walliams' spoof show Little
Britain (from 2003 onwards) - where his sense of humour and the
deep conviction he lays into his voice work especially well with the utter
nonsense he has to proclaim.
Besides that he, or rather his
distinct, booming voice, has become a recognizable entity, from
voice-overs for advertisements, doing voices for animated shows to doing
narration in various media, including video games and answering machine
his workplace being (primarly) Great Britain, Tom Baker these days lives
in France with his third wife, Sue Jerrard, who once was an assistant
editor on Doctor
Who. However, if you have no desire to go to France to find
him, visit him at http://www.tombaker.tv.