Saturday, April 19, 2014

Doctor Who Weekend: The Case Against Tom Baker?

And the cry went out throughout the fandom: Heresy! The case AGAINST Tom Baker? I'll be a son of a Dalek, that is HERESY! 

OK, now that I have your attention...

Hello and welcome to Doctor Who Weekend, part of my blog that I dedicate to Doctor Who stuff. And since you might still be turning different shades of red with steam blowing out your ears, I best explain myself.  

Let me go on record as saying that I hold Tom Baker's time as the Doctor as the pinnacle of the show's history. As much as I've admired the performances of Chris Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith in the modern era, Tom Baker still stands at worst as an equal, at best a peer. Whatever wonderful things that Chris, David and Matt did with the role, Tom Baker did it first and did it very well, maybe even best. 

So what's this "case against Tom Baker" business? Well, it's not much of one, mind you, but I've recently been reflecting on the timing of an exit. 

Two weeks ago, American TV talk show host David Letterman announced his retirement after over 30 years in late night television. There is no doubt of Dave's impact on the world of television in general and in the area of late night TV talk show host in particular. But even the most glowing tributes included caveats that Dave's best days were in the first half of his career. It is a reminder that bears revisiting as a whole generation of viewers have come to know David Letterman as the grump old guy. Did Dave overstay is welcome?

The recent finale of How I Met Your Mother was extremely polarizing. The episode was in many way an extremely effective coda to the events begun in the series pilot but was a major whiplash when compared to events in the last 2 or 3 years of the series. Did HIMYM stay around too long? 

Bringing this back to Doctor Who, the last three actors playing the Doctor who have presumably had some control over whether to stay or go have left sooner than expected. Chris Eccleston only did one year and that may have been too soon. But for David Tennant and Matt Smith, there was some expectation that both men would stay on a least 5 years yet both walked after 4. In both cases, both men have reflected on their decisions as being difficult. Tennant actually momentarily reconsidered his exit when he saw what Steven Moffat was planning for his first season as executive producer. Smith broke down in tears at the read through for his final scene. 

Both men had a least some small amount of regret over the decision to leave. But the show biz adage of always leave them wanting more applies to both audience AND performer.  

Did Tom Baker stay too long? This is a hard charge to make. Baker had absorbed the role so completely at a time of the show's increasing popularity, particularly overseas. I think the viewing audience was not only still happy with Baker as the Doctor but had come to think of Baker as THE Doctor. 

But such a strong connection of Tom Baker to the Doctor may have unintended side effects. All subsequent Doctors were fighting against Tom Baker's deeply embedded persona. The upshot was that Tom Baker wasn't just one of the Doctors; there was Tom Baker and then there was everyone else. 

Baker himself didn't help this perception by not actively participating in the 20th anniversary special. Baker's relationship to the role was perhaps too close. As producer Graham Williams put it, "I think Tom Baker forgot he wasn't really the Doctor." 

Williams and other behind the scenes people have their stories of Tom's temperament, arguments over scripts, disputes with directors and strained relationships with co-stars. Of course some of those stories can be tracked back to the beginning of Tom's run on the series so that can't all be attributed to staying in the role too long. But 7 years accumulates a lot more "moody actor" stories than 3 to 5 years. 

For my part, I wasn't ready for Tom Baker to go when he did depart the series. But there was to my perspective more of a sense of an era ending than Doctor Who evolving into something new. In the modern era, I've not wanted Eccleston, Tennant or Smith to leave but at the same time I was extremely excited to see what would come next. This is accomplished because 1) I'm left wanting more from the outgoing actor and 2) because the actors do move on as they do, I'm more ready to accept the concept of change and evolution of Doctor Who. 

All in all, it's hard to make any kind of case against Tom Baker, even on the "charge" of staying too long. Without Baker's turn as the Doctor, perhaps we would not be talking about Doctor Who today. Tom Baker made the character a distinct icon in science fiction and pop culture and it's his time as the Doctor that provides the strongest foundation in the classic series upon which the new series is built. 

But when it comes to an ongoing television program, the decision to leave or stay is an important one and impacts so many people in so many different ways. As I'm sure the Doctor himself would agree, timing is everything. 

Be good to one another. 

I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You

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