Tom Baker first played the Doctor almost 50 years ago – and to hear the acting legend tell it, he’s never really stopped.
“I got it right out of the blue,” he tells RadioTimes.com of his 1974 casting as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who replacement. “There we were, and I thought… I didn’t know what to do with it. And I still don’t know what to do with it! Because of course, the problem is it’s not really an acting part. In fact, I don’t really do acting parts, because they just embarrass me.
“I try to inhabit these kind of crackpot people who I play, and find a crackpot niche in my crackpot brain… I slot them in and off we go!”
In 2011, three decades after his final TV story Logopolis had aired, Baker signed up to reprise his iconic role in a series of audio dramas produced by Big Finish. Three years after that, he was reunited with Philip Hinchcliffe, the producer who – along with script editor Robert Holmes – had crafted some of the Fourth Doctor’s best-loved stories between 1974 and 1977.
“He often found my ideas my ideas interesting and sometimes he adopted them,” Baker recalls of working with Hinchcliffe on the television series. “And for that reason, of course, I thought he had marvellous taste and insights.
“When I fell into Doctor Who and realised that Philip liked what I was doing, and so did the other actors, I kept on with it. I was always, as an ex-Catholic, looking for new meaning to life. And then Doctor Who came along and suddenly losing my faith in God didn’t seem so serious. Not nearly as serious getting a good part!”
Since 2014, Hinchcliffe and Big Finish have collaborated on the “Philip Hinchcliffe Presents…” range, which in the man’s own words takes in “new stories that wouldn’t have followed on from my last season in the 1970s, but that kind of have the flavour of what we were doing in those three years”.
The latest, fourth volume is The God of Phantoms, which reunites Baker’s Doctor once again with companion Leela (Louise Jameson), his co-star on the TV series from 1977-78, for a ghost story with a sci-fi twist.
“Everybody who meets Louise loves her, because she compels affection,” Baker beams. “And she’s beautiful and very witty. We absolutely have a wonderful relationship now and are constantly in touch with lovely little messages about what we’re up to. So it’s a happy story, really very happy.”
From storytelling structure to music and sound design, these new stories – adapted from Hinchcliffe’s initial ideas by writer Marc Platt – seek to recapture the flavour and feel of Doctor Who’s Hammer Horror-influenced TV outings from the 1970s. Recapturing his performance wasn’t a problem for Baker, chiefly because he claims playing the Doctor wasn’t for him a performance at all.
“It’s just me, really,” he says. “It’s just me trying to be amusing, or trying to be heroic in an amusing way. The Doctor Who character is such a benevolent old fellow and often amusing, and obviously a crackpot in the sense that he doesn’t know how gifted he is, and doesn’t seem to have learned very much about how the magic that he commands. Because of course, if he did realise that there wouldn’t be any stories, he’d just solve them straight away. But all heroes have to have a black spot, don’t they?
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful part – there’s nothing like it because it’s completely crackpot. There’s no reason or rhyme to it. And this kind of crackpot, scatterbrained, rather charming character fitted me rather well. I thought to myself, ‘You know, I’m really at home doing this.’ People say to me, ‘Your Doctor Who is absolutely fabulous, Tom, and what’s wonderful about it is you don’t appear to be acting.’ And before I can say that I’m not acting, they press on with another compliment…”
Fans have often identified an evolution to Baker’s TV performance in the seven years he was playing the part, with early confidence giving way to a more experimental and madcap middle period, culminating in a more sombre take in his final year on the show. But if these shifts were happening, he claims not to be aware of them.
“Do you mean there’s a difference in the way I played it? No, I only have one performance. really, and that’s the Doctor Who one. So no, it didn’t change at all… consciously. Though I changed – I got older and couldn’t run as fast.”
Baker was the one constant in his era – other than the Doctor’s familiar police box – with costumes, companions, styles and producers all coming and going. When Hinchcliffe departed Doctor Who in 1977 to work on the gritty police series Target, he was replaced by that show’s creator Graham Williams.
“He tried to get his mark on the thing, that’s the way it works,” Baker says of Williams. “So he tried to influence me and perhaps turn me into his version of Doctor Who. It didn’t seem to occur to him that he had the job as a producer, I had the job of being Doctor Who. So he had to compromise along the way.
“It eventually dawned on him – when other actors, and one or two of the directors I was working with, said, ‘Hey, you know, I think Tom’s got something here, I think we’re onto something’ – that he had to put up with it. After that, we became quite friendly… never very friendly. I’m not all that good at being very friendly. But we co-existed and on it went. I got more and more confident and they accepted more and more of my preposterous ideas and the audience responded.”
Baker’s relationship with his third and final producer on Doctor Who, John Nathan-Turner, was by his own admission rather less amicable. “Now he came and he had an idea of doing Doctor Who… how it should be done. It was obvious that he saw Doctor Who very much as he saw himself. And I didn’t agree with this.
“He was very nice otherwise and very generous. But I didn’t like his style, you know, and he didn’t like my style. So it was a great struggle all the time, which we didn’t have to take to arbitration because that would have been counterproductive, but it made life difficult and it made constantly the need for compromise on both our sides.”
Having become the longest-serving Doctor to date – an accolade he holds to this day – Baker departed the series in 1980, going on to play Sherlock Holmes in a 1982 BBC adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles and appear in Blackadder II, The Chronicles of Narnia and the rebooted Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). But there was, he insists, a little bit of the Doctor in every role he’s played since.
“I couldn’t leave it behind. It would be like leaving myself behind. I’m stuck with the way I am. We’re all stuck with the way we are and we have to make the best of it and exploit what people like about us. As an actor, some people have rather liked the way I do things, or the way I do anything, because there really isn’t much difference between any of the things I’ve done.”
All of which meant that he “wasn’t anxious” about returning to Doctor Who through his collaborations with Big Finish. “I never left being Doctor Who. I played Macbeth the way I played Doctor Who So naturally, it was not a success. But although it wasn’t a success, the audience laughed a lot and that was a kind of consolation.
“I can’t really play a villain any more than I could really play a super sleuth like Sherlock Holmes. I played Sherlock Holmes on-stage as well and people found me utterly ridiculous. I couldn’t quite get his vanity. What I imposed was my anxiety and my notion of how to tell the story. And of course, people did find it very, very funny.”
He’s been playing the Doctor for Big Finish for a decade now, surpassing his TV run, and doesn’t plan on stopping. Tom Baker, it seems, is the Doctor for life. “What’s kept me coming back is I have the best part and all the best lines!” he says, before letting loose with one of his trademark booming laughs. “And the boys at Big Finish like my work, and the visiting actors seem to like it. Lots of the supporting actors who come in, they watched me before they’d reach the age of reason, because it goes back a long, long way, doesn’t it, Doctor Who?
“For lots of them, it’s a little sneaking ambition to come and play a part in Doctor Who. That’s what they tell me anyway. They’re actors, so I can’t believe a word they’re saying. But it’s charming.”
Doctor Who: Philip Hinchcliffe Presents Volume 04: The God of Phantoms is available now from bigfinish.com.