Growing up in a somewhat rural area, my family had pretty shoddy reception from the rabbit-ear antenna attached to our television, but one channel that always came through well was PBS. Because of that, my television intake consisted of a lot of rebroadcast BBC content, including “Monty Pyhton’s Flying Circus,” “Benny Hill,” and yes, “Doctor Who.”
“Doctor Who” was my first experience with science-fiction television (even pre-dating “Star Trek”) and Tom Baker was my first Doctor. I remember desperately wanting a scarf like the one he wore, and I distinctly remember the weird looks I got from other kids (and adults) when I referred to Gummi Bears as “Jelly Babies.”
(Yes, that’s a confession of some very-early, shameful nerdery there, folks. Enjoy it.)
I also remember thinking that Tom Baker’s version of The Doctor was the coolest action hero ever created, because he looked like the people I saw in the real world, but had these amazing adventures and defeated all sorts of monsters with just his wits and the occasional “I am deadly serious about this” look. (Yeah, he occasionally punched a bad guy when that was the only option, but he always got knocked out when bad guys hit him, so he wasn’t invulnerable.)
More often than not, the only super power he ever displayed was an ability to talk people out of doing bad things, or to crack a great joke at just the right time. He was a cool, smart, funny adult who just happened to have a machine that could take him anywhere in time and space.
Nevertheless, when things got serious, The Fourth Doctor could knock you out of the room with his gravitas. He’d fix his attention on someone, drop all hint of humor, and suddenly have you wondering how this guy could ever be seen as anything but the cold-as-ice embodiment of celestial wrath that he was at that very moment. When he spoke, you listened — or you got the hell out of his sight.
David Tennant managed to capture some of that in his role as The Tenth Doctor, even though he told me that he grew up watching “Doctor Who” with Tom Baker’s successor, Peter Davison. That’s probably why Tennant is my second-favorite actor to play The Doctor — he’s the most Baker-like of the bunch. (It’s also the reason why this photo captures one of the only moments I’ve ever come close to hyperventilating.)
So, happy 78th birthday to Tom Baker, the man who will always be the first person I think of when someone mentions “Doctor Who.”
And just for the sake of making a trip down memory lane, here’s a video that collects some of Tom Baker’s best moments as The Doctor:
Oh, and if anyone ever gets the urge to buy me another Tom Baker scarf, you know where to find me.