Thursday, March 29, 2012

My First Doctor--Who? Tom Baker

It’s 1967 and my parents take me to see a cool Japanese monster movie called KING KONG ESCAPES in which the giant gorilla (whom I’d never heard of at that point) fought a robot version of himself created by a villain with the memorable name of…Doctor Who. Well, it sounded like that anyway but it was actually Doctor “Hu.” I was eight but a lot of other people interpreted it as “Who,” also. Doctor Who. A name to conjure with.

I heard it again around 1970 when a movie called DOCTOR WHO AND THE DALEKS premiered on local TV one Saturday night.  It was five years old at that point. I had seen that film’s star, Peter Cushing, in several horror films by that point. Here, though, he was playing a kindly old absent-minded professor who lived in a space-time machine that he invented himself. It was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. His granddaughter lived with him, too, and one day her teachers came by to see her home and got taken to an alien world where they had to fight their way out of being enslaved by weird metal creatures called Daleks.  Cool. Fun movie.

And a few weeks later, they aired a sequel! THE DALEKS’ INVASION EARTH, 2150 AD. Peter Cushing and his granddaughter were back in their T.A.R.D.I.S. (Time and Relative Dimensions In Space) and again a couple of normal folks get dragged along on an adventure, this time into the future when the Daleks were on Earth!  This one was even cooler than the other one for 11 year old me!

11 year old me was also a regular reader of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, as were many boys my age. Soon after seeing those two movies, I saw a photo in that magazine that showed a weird alien creature said to be from the British TV series, DOCTOR WHO. “Wait a minute,” I remember thinking. They have different TV series in England than we have? And apparently they had made one out of those two movies that I enjoyed so much. Ah, well…not being in England, I figured I’d never get to see it.

It was another five or six years before I heard of DOCTOR WHO again. This time, it was in the weekly comics collecting newspaper TBG that I subscribed to by mail. Columnists Don and Maggie Thompson—mostly Maggie I think—began running some newspaper clippings about the building popularity of the latest actor to portray Doctor Who or, as I learned there, simply “the Doctor.”

And he wasn’t an old man for some reason. He looked like Harpo Marx with a wide grin but with a floppy old hat and an oddly long scarf! What in the world? The articles and clippings that TBG kept running mentioned that PBS stations were starting to run the series in some parts of the country. Was there a chance…?

Well, not for another couple of years there wasn’t. Finally when I was about 19 years old, our local PBS station began airing DOCTOR WHO, starting with the very first episode. Well, the very first episode starring Tom Baker from 1974. I still had a lot to learn about what had come before that.

That first episode was called “Robot.” The Doctor was absolutely nothing like the one I remembered. And where was his granddaughter? There was a woman there who seemed to know him but didn’t. There was also a man. And a military group and…well…really cheesy looking special effects! The absolute only thing that was familiar to me was the blue Police Box—the TARDIS!

But there was something about the Doctor. Over the following weeks, I quickly became hooked by his eccentric charm and charisma on the Saturday night show. In England a serial, here the chapters were edited together to be long TV movies, sometimes as much as three hours long in fact!

He was not “Doctor Who” at all. That was just the name of the series. He was “the Doctor.” And rather than a kindly old earthman, he was an ancient member of an alien race called the Time Lords who, when their body “died,” simply evolved into a new body. That was where the series had picked up for me. Tom Baker’s Doctor was, in fact, the fourth Doctor the series had had since it began in 1963. 1963!!?? That meant that the two Peter Cushing films were actually based on the series and not the other way around!

As the series turned up in more markets, more and more articles began appearing and TBG ran more and more clippings. Thus, I learned more and more about DOCTOR WHO. The previous three Doctors had all been a bit older and so the character of Harry in this series had been created before Baker’s casting to handle the action scenes. The girl was Sarah Jane Smith, destined for her own fame in time in her own successful series many years later. As far as the Doctor’s “companions” went, she was my first and in the end my favorite.

Running them in the format they were, my local station burned through each series quickly and I met later companions such as Leela, the wild girl, K-9 the robot dog, Time Lady Romana (in two different incarnations) and the ever-popular Adric.. I watched my hero defeat Cybermen, Zygons—all sorts of evil, generally cheap-looking aliens including, yes, the Daleks of my youth. More and more backstory was added to the franchise as the Doctor and his companions galavanted all around the universe. Merchandising started hitting the US shores including Marvel UK’s DOCTOR WHO WEEKLY magazine. By 1981, PBS was nearly caught up with where the series was in England at the time. It was then that word began to filter across the pond that Tom Baker felt he’d had a good run and was ready to move on, transmogrifying into yet another actor as had been done three times before.

Tom Baker had taken an already long-popular TV series character and made him iconic to a whole new generation on at least two continents. It was conceded that he would be an almost impossible act to follow. But he would be followed…as he had been preceded.

In 1987, the first time I ever looked twice at the woman I would eventually marry was when she mentioned that she, too, was a Tom Baker and DOCTOR WHO fan. Today, in 2012, DOCTOR WHO in its various incarnations remains one of my all-time favorite TV series. But each of those incarnations is so very different. In time, we’ll meet the next Doctor that I personally discovered---Jon Pertwee. 


  1. Tom Baker was the first Doctor I came to know also. I saw him on my local PBS station too (WMPT in Baltimore,Maryland). I was sad when they cancelled the old series. Thanks to BBCAmerica I can see the NuWho episodes. Can't wait for the next season of that. My family doesn't understand my obsession.
    As a package my local station also ran Red Dwarf right before Doctor Who. Did they do that in your area? Red Dwarf is very silly and fun, I loved it. You should check it out if you've never seen it.
    Only reason we had the shows is because Geppi's Comic World used to underwrite the block of programming in exchange for a shoutout before each episode. They were shown late at night every Saturday night, it was hard staying up for some of the longer ones.

  2. We also had RED DWARF right before the Doctor for quite a while. I loved it!

    If you haven't heard, they recently started shooting a new series of RED DWARF. No idea when it might turn up in America. Not sure the most recent series from 4-5 years back ever played in the US. That's what Internets is for, I guess!