Farewell, Jon Pertwee; hello Tom Baker. As Doctor Who entered its twelfth season, exiting producer Barry Letts had the task of finding a replacement for his star, who had been with him all five seasons. After going through a long list of names, Letts was given Tom Baker’s name by the BBC Head of Serials and, luckily, Baker was in cinemas at the time as the villain in the Harryhausen throwback film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. But Baker was then currently working on construction sites as a builder, having not had an acting job in a while. Letts hired Baker, but said he couldn’t tell anyone until much later, and so it was that Tom Baker was cast as the lead in Doctor Who and had to keep working as a builder until filming began.
Season 12 – 28 December 1974 – 10 May 1975
Baker’s first story was filmed concurrently with Pertwee’s final story, “Planet of the Spiders,” and was the final story to be produced by Letts. Robot was written by departing script editor Terrance Dicks, who told incumbent script editor Robert Holmes that it was a tradition for the exiting writer to do so (it wasn’t). As such, this feels almost entirely like a regular Pertwee/UNIT story, down to the Brigadier and Benton being involved. However, it would quickly change thereafter, as Holmes and new producer Philip Hinchcliffe were interested in moving the show back toward the traveling mischief that had been such a part of the series’ first six seasons.
Introduced in “Robot” is the character of military physician Dr. Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), who would become a new companion along with Sarah Jane. The idea initially was that the new Doctor would be incapable of the action things again, as Hartnell and Troughton had been, and so Harry was meant to be the brawn. However, it quickly became clear that 40-year-old Baker could more than handle it. Still, Harry’s relationship to the Doctor and Sarah Jane is a lot of fun, and his weirdly antiquated way of dealing with people is rather charming paired with Sarah Jane’s staunch feminism. Throughout the season, Harry calls Sarah Jane “Old Thing” and outdated terms of endearment like that. She is obviously not a fan.
In “Robot,” the newly-regenerated Doctor is trying to get situated and prove to Dr. Sullivan that he’s fit and virile. As the Doctor tries to leave, Sarah Jane and the Brig convince him to stick around and help them track down the missing plans to a top-secret disintegration gun. He can’t help himself. While the Brig and the Doctor go to the Ministry of Defense, Sarah Jane goes to a scientific research facility where a group known as the “Think Tank” are attempting to develop a robot called “K1.” Unbeknownst to everybody, the Think Tank folk are using K1 to commit crimes, including murder. At any rate, there’s intrigue and things, and eventually the robot becomes fixated on Sarah Jane, the robot becomes giant, and UNIT has to stop it before it crushes everybody. It’s King Kong, basically. At the end of the story, the Doctor and Sarah Jane convince Harry to come along in the TARDIS.
This isn’t a bad story by any means, but it’s a rather unengaging one, with the exception of it being Baker’s first story. Already, he’s bringing the weird alien angle to a character who had become very much James Bond with Q’s intellect. At this point, too, the crew had been in UNIT mode for five full years, and a drastic shift wasn’t in the cards, really. It’s a very weird experience watching “Robot,” because “Planet of the Spiders” had been such an excellent sendoff not only to Pertwee himself but to the whole Pertwee vibe of episodes, and then it’s followed by a story with all the Pertwee elements back again but with this new, wholly different aspect added. At any rate, the rest of the season is not this way at all.
If I were to tell people to watch a Tom Baker story that best exemplifies what his time with Hinchcliffe and Holmes could be, I’d absolutely point them in the direction of The Ark in Space. From an original script by John Lucarotti, the script was heavily rewritten by and credited to Robert Holmes, whose stamp of excellence is all over it. It sees the TARDIS land on the seemingly deserted relic Space Station Nerva way in the future. The air is stale, and they need to turn the vents on before they suffocate. There’s weird booby traps and doors opening and closing on the station and eventually Sarah Jane is dosed and put through cryogenic freeze. The Doctor and Harry find a room full of frozen bodies and the Doctor opines about the resiliency of Homo sapiens, who would find a way to survive even if the Earth is uninhabitable. However, it looks like the people overslept by several hundred years. What could have made the life support system not trigger the automatic restart?
Harry finds what likely is the answer in the form of a giant dead insectoid carcass in a cupboard. They also wake up a few members of the crew to help them revive Sarah Jane. As is common, one of the crew, the leader called Noah, doesn’t believe the Doctor and company are friendly. He quickly gets infected by a slimy slug thing called a Wirrn, the larva of the dead thing Harry found. Slowly, Noah begins to transform into one himself, whilst the others have to crawl through ducts and things to try to find the rest. Very creepy. Eventually, the Wirrn is defeated, thanks to the last shred of humanity of Noah, and the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah Jane get transmitted down to Earth to fix some sensor things.
“The Ark in Space” is SUCH a good story. Its similarities to Alien are very intriguing, and one wonders if Dan O’Bannon had seen this serial before he wrote the Ridley Scott film. Tom Baker is the Doctor so completely already here; His speeches are beautiful and memorable, and he even does the trick of telling Sarah she’s a useless girl when she gets scared in the ducts to make her angry enough to crawl out on her own. Good man. The space station sets are gorgeous, which is excellent, given they’d be used again later in the season. This is so absolutely not a Pertwee story, down to the lack of any politics at all really, but it’s very high on creepiness and vibrancy of story, which is Robert Holmes all over.
The story more or less continues with the three travelers down on Earth for the next story, the giveaway titled The Sontaran Experiment by “The Bristol Boys,” Bob Baker & Dave Martin. After almost immediately being separated, with Harry falling down a crevasse, Sarah Jane is found by an astronaut who is panicked because he’s been tortured by some alien creature. Other astronauts have captured the Doctor and are blaming him for the crash and dissolving of their spaceship. They don’t believe the Nerva Space Station exists (which seems silly) and think the Doctor’s a big ol’ liar. However, there is an alien presence on the planet, and it turns out to be Styre, a Sontaran. Sarah Jane immediately thinks it’s Linx from “The Time Warrior” because they’re all clones (and he’s played by Kevin Lindsay, the same actor as before). Styre’s been conducting field research on the humans; One of the humans has tried to make a deal for his own life at the expense of the others, but when he’s double-crossed by Styre, it leads to the Sontaran’s downfall.
This story is only two episodes long, and, as such, if I described it any more, there’d be no real point in you watching it. However, it is pretty good, and there are some cool things going on with the astronauts. It wasn’t the writers’ idea to call it “The Sontaran Experiment,” which totally ruins Styre’s arrival at the end of Part 1. This was shot entirely outdoors on Outside Broadcast video in the countryside and it looks very nice. There’s also an anecdote wherein Tom Baker broke his collar bone from a fall at one point and had to use his very long scarf as a sling.
At the end of this story, the three travelers are swept away from Earth, but not back to Nerva. They are taken away by the Time Lords for a special mission that begins Terry Nation’s Genesis of the Daleks. On Skaro, generations before the Doctor first met the Daleks, the Thals and the Kaled peoples are locked in gritty, horrible chemical war with each other. Those caught in the crossfire begin to mutate into those dubbed “mutos.” It is here the Time Lord tells the Doctor that he has been given the task of stopping the Daleks from being created, therefore ending millennia of bloodshed and subjugation before it starts. There are people doing horrible things on both sides, but none more insane than Davros (Michael Wisher), the Kaled scientist who is deformed, paralyzed, and mutated to a horrible degree and who has been experimenting with Kaled DNA. The Kaleds at this point still appear “human,” but if Davros has his way, there will be precious little left of their Skaro-based humanity.
The Doctor and company get captured by both sides a few times, and there’s a lot of escaping, as well as some sabotage, underhanded dealings, and guerrilla warfare tactics. Eventually, what you want to have happen happens, and the Doctor and Davros have a battle of wits. Davros, finding out the Time Lord is from the Daleks’ future, wants information on all of their defeats so that he can learn to make them stronger. The Doctor attempts to reason with the madman, asking if there was a way to end all life in the universe with the breaking of a single vial, would he do it, to which Davros fervently exclaims he would. The Doctor has the opportunity to blow up the entire Dalek incubation room but hesitates from putting the two wires together, in one of the most famous Doctor Who sequences of all time. The Doctor doesn’t believe he has the right to end the life of an entire species, even one as deadly and evil as the Daleks. He wonders about all the countless worlds who would end their wars and join together against the Daleks; would he really be saving that many people? In the end, he doesn’t destroy the Daleks, but does leave them caved in within their destroyed dome. Perhaps that will have been enough…
“Genesis of the Daleks” is so good that it actually makes me wonder if Terry Nation had very much to do with it at all. It has his love of Nazi symbolism and running around being captured, but the dialogue is amazing, especially in those magical scenes between the Doctor and Davros. In Davros, we get the father of the Daleks, and, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the Daleks would never be onscreen without Davros from here until the end of the Classic Series. Wisher’s performance as Davros is unparalleled, and, though he only played the character this once, he is still the standard against which any future actor to play the role is measured. My complaints with this story are that the Thals are still very forgettable and even most of the Kaleds aren’t particularly interesting, save Davros and his right hand stooge Nyder (Peter Miles), who are both so delightfully evil. This is easily the very best Dalek story ever produced, and David Maloney’s direction is just as bleak as you want it to be. If you haven’t seen this story, go watch it right now.
The Time Lords send the three back to Nerva for the conclusion of the season, but it’s not when they left. Revenge of the Cybermen takes place thousands of years before the events of “The Ark in Space,” when the station was still active. Nerva is on a 50 year mission to warn ships away from Voga, the new asteroid it’s orbiting, until it can be properly charted. The problem is that the Nerva crew is not the only beings on the station… Cybermats are there too, turning members into Cybermen. The Cybermen are attempting to wipe out or assimilate humanity once and for all, though Voga, being made of gold, the Cybermen’s one weakness, is not helping them at all. There’s stuff involving a missile (called Skystriker) and the people of Voga attempting to help destroy the Cybermen. Overall, this story, written by Cybermen co-creator Gerry Davis, is all over the map– not bad, necessarily, but certainly far from the best of the season. “Revenge of the Cybermen” has the dubious honor of being the only story to feature the eponymous silver baddies for the whole of the 1970s, having not been featured since 1968. At the end of the story, the three are returned to the TARDIS just in time to get a distress call from the Brigadier.
The season ends on that cliffhanger, though it wasn’t meant to. The first story of Season 13 was actually meant to end Season 12, but it was moved.
For his first season, Tom Baker quickly established himself as an amazing Doctor. Audiences immediately connected with the new blood, as evidenced by an increased viewership of close to 1.5 million people. For their first season as producer and script editor, Hinchcliffe and Holmes, largely working from scripts commissioned before they took over, did a bang-up job of transforming the Earthbound adventure series into a space and time skipper with dark and troubling storylines and creepiness in ample supply. Season 13 would be all Hinchcliffe and Holmes, who would amp up the horror elements and references to specific Gothic literature and Universal Horror movies for what is easily my favorite Tom Baker season. We’ll see you on Thursday for the mighty 13.