With the exit of John Pertwee last week, we’ve reached the longest-running Doctor of the classic series, Tom Baker! It’s a record that has yet to be surpassed even in the revived series. Personally, I’m a little too young to have seen him in first run—I was born at the end of the seventies—but courtesy of a very slow and laid-back public television station, this is the Doctor I grew up with, and I always considered him to be “my Doctor”. (To the best of my memory, the local station dropped broadcasting of Doctor Who at the same time as the first-run termination of the show by the BBC, but we had only reached the Fifth Doctor at that time—at least, I don’t recall Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy from those days, and when the movie was released in 1996 I recall being very surprised that Paul McGann was the eighth Doctor.) Let’s get to it!
After a momentary cameo last season, the Fourth Doctor makes his real debut in Robot. He and Sarah Jane are immediately joined by new companion (and doctor) Harry Sullivan, the first true male companion since Jamie McCrimmon. It’s also the final regular appearance for the Brigadier (whose middle name, Gordon, is first mentioned here), though not his last overall; we’ll see him again next season, plus a bit in the eighties. The same goes for Sgt. Benton (here promoted to Warrant Officer), though with slightly different future appearances. As for the Doctor, it was an unusually smooth regeneration, perhaps balancing out the turmoil that led up to it, and most likely due to K’anpo Rimpoche’s assistance. Tom Baker even resembles a young John Pertwee a bit, though their personalities will prove to be very different.
We get a sort-of specific date for this serial: April 4th, as seen on Sarah’s Think Tank day pass. Her thumb obscures part of the ticket, and we aren’t sure if it’s supposed to be 1974 or 1975 (the original broadcast spanned both years). I expect it’s 1975, as that is more consistent with the rest of the season.
We get a sympathetic villain in the titular robot, K1 (I want to make a K1/K9 joke here, but it’s just not coming together). He’s being used, but he doesn’t want to be, and he suffers greatly for it. He’s the victim of a plot by misguided scientists to rule the world, and nothing good comes of it in the end.
Some oddities: We’re beginning a run of more than a full season in which the TARDIS interior is never seen, though the Doctor does use the TARDIS. At some point, the Doctor has an offscreen visit—alone, it seems—to the planet of the Sevateem from season fourteen’s The Face of Evil; it’s suggested it happens here, in part one, while Harry is incapacitated and the Doctor is in the TARDIS (we even hear the dematerialization sound, and it’s proposed that he is returning, not leaving, when the others enter the room). If so, his post-regeneration confusion might account for why he later has trouble remembering the trip. Finally, it’s mentioned that the USA, USSR, and China all gave their nuclear launch codes to Britain for safekeeping. While I can believe in a seven-foot transformable robot, that proposition stretches credit a little too far for anyone who grew up during the cold war.
The Doctor, Harry, and Sarah land in the far future—approximately the year 15,000—on the space station Nerva Beacon in The Ark in Space. Nerva will be the “lynchpin” of the season, as they return travel to and from the station. At this time in history, Earth has been abandoned for about ten thousand years due to solar flare devastation around the year 5,000; it’s the same diaspora that spawned the Starship UK in NuWho’s The Beast Below. Nerva is populated with hibernating humans whose mission was to repopulate the planet. The station has been partially taken over by the Wirrn, a spaceborne insectoid race that wants to assimilate the humans for their knowledge. I remember being absolutely terrified by the Wirrn as a child; they’re still an effective enemy today.
I never cared for the way this serial presents Sarah Jane. She comes across as weak, another screaming damsel in distress, which is very different from her time with the Third Doctor. Although this serial is the high-water mark for that portrayal, it’s something that will continue for the rest of Sarah’s time with the Doctor.
After freeing Nerva from the Wirrn, the Doctor and his companions transmat down to the supposedly-empty Earth to repair the transmat receptor beacons—a one-way trip if they can’t fix them—in The Sontaran Experiment. (The date, of course, is the same, as this serial immediately follows the previous one.) It’s a short adventure, only two episodes long—in fact, it’s the shortest serial of the 1970s, a product of script editor Robert Holmes’s aversion to six-episode serials. He preferred four-episode stories, but with the next serial, Genesis of the Daleks, he had no choice but to accept the longer version; therefore he compensated with this brief contribution. The Sontarans return in the person of Styre, another clone warrior; though genetically identical to Linx from the previous Sontaran story, he looks different, as the costume had to be replaced. (Kevin Lindsay, the actor, suffered from a health condition exacerbated by the original costume; six short months later, the same condition would claim his life.) This story, along with Genesis of the Daleks, is one of the eight TARDIS-free stories that I’ve previously mentioned; after Genesis, it won’t happen again until 2008’s Midnight.
Here we find that Nerva isn’t the only place where a remnant of humanity survived; in fact, they’ve spread through the stars and become a vast empire (not, though, one of the four Great and Bountiful Human Empires—the dates don’t match up). Nerva, in fact, is considered something of a lost colony, the future’s Atlantis or Roanoke Island. Earth itself, however, is still not reinhabited; its only occupants are a crashed human expedition, and the Sontaran who would use them as slaves and experimental fodder. The Doctor fights Styre hand-to-hand at one point, and actually wins, though with some help from an energy feedback; either Styre is a terrible Sontaran, or the Doctor is a much more capable warrior than we’ve been led to believe.
In Genesis of the Daleks, we get one of the classic series’ most famous serials. The Doctor is intercepted en route back to Nerva by the Time Lords and sent to Skaro at a point in its distant past (about 4,000 BC, it seems). He’s given a mission: Stop the creation of the Daleks before they grow to destroy all other life. Failing that, he is to change them in some way that reduces their aggression, or find some weakness to exploit. Let’s get it out of the way: though he fails to destroy them (with the famous “Have I the right?” line), he sets their development back by a thousand years; however, the timeline we’ve been seeing all along incorporates that change, meaning that past appearances of the Daleks won’t change retroactively. It can also be argued that he inadvertently saved Davros’s life, thus later creating a schism in the Daleks that arguably weakens their ability to conquer.
This entry is getting long, so let’s mention some noteworthy things in this serial. The Dalek raygun visual effect is first used here, though we can assume previous serials implied it. The scenes of the war between Kaleds and Thals will be famously recapped in Series 9’s The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, where the Twelfth Doctor saves young Davros, thus answering the dilemma he poses to Sarah Jane and Harry about killing a child you know will become a monster. The Kaleds are unusually ignorant for an advanced race, believing there are only a few stars and that those worlds have no inhabitants. The Thals make their final (or technically, first!) onscreen appearance here. The Kaleds (except for Davros) only appear here. Davros appears to die, but don’t be fooled; he does that often. The Daleks don’t seem to require any kind of power transmission; there’s a theory that says that the Daleks from early appearances (The Daleks, et al.) were mutants left behind when most of their race fled Skaro, and only had access to inferior prototype machines until their cousins later returned. And last, Davros’s assistant Nyder: That man is terrifying. He’s one of the most unquestioningly evil characters we’ve ever seen. While the Daleks scared me as a child, Nyder scares me as an adult.
One more matter, and it’s crucial to the revived series: The Doctor’s actions here are often considered to be the opening salvo of the Last Great Time War. Although the Daleks lack time travel at this point, Davros’s hatred for the Time Lords begins here, and will eventually—in the era of the Eighth Doctor—blossom into the war.
In Revenge of the Cybermen, The Time Lords aren’t done with the Doctor; instead of sending him back to the time he left, they send him to Nerva somewhere earlier in its history. (A History of the Universe gives a date of 2875, but this seems inaccurate; it is more likely to be shortly before the year 5000, some brief decades or centuries before the solar flares.) The station has not been repurposed as an ark yet; it is a warning beacon near an errant asteroid called Voga. Unknown to its crew, Voga is a remnant of the legendary planet of gold, which was destroyed by the Cybermen during humanity’s wars with them; Cybermen are vulnerable to gold, as we learn here. Although this is still far in our future, these are Mondasian cybermen, not the hybrid version seen in Series 7’s Nightmare in Silver. This is the final appearance of the Cybermen until Earthshock in the mid-1980s, though they may get an occasional mention in the meantime. We see a new type of Cybermat, as well, one that is more like a snake than a rat. It’s a simple story; the Cybermen are in league with a human on Nerva to bring about the destruction of Voga. The Doctor, working with the Vogans, puts an end to their plans.
Some final thoughts about the Fourth Doctor: This season demonstrates that the nice, polite Third Doctor is well and truly gone. Baker’s Doctor can be arrogant and cruel to his companions; he’s capricious in a way we haven’t seen before, even while working for a good end. Looking back, it’s painfully obvious that this was a growing-up phase for him—his adolescence, if you will. He certainly has the same sense of responsibility, but it bothers him to have it; he wants to just roam around, enjoy life, and be idle. It’s no coincidence that he continually gets forced into responsibility. Unlike the Third Doctor, he’s bored by his work with UNIT (though he never really quits! Eleven later acknowledges that he still has the job, which incidentally may explain how he bought Amy and Rory’s house despite never having pocket money—he probably had pay accruing and drawing interest in escrow for years). This is very much his teenage rebellion phase, though we’ll see some growth by the time he regenerates again.
Next time: Zygons, evil gods, and seeds of doom! See you there.
All episodes can be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.