Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Best of Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor

Ah, the Tom Baker years, and Doctor Who reaches heights never attained before or since.

And depths too, to be honest, but we'll forget about that.

The curly one started off with a few earth based stories left over from the Pertwee years, then blasted off into space for a series of Gothic horror film remakes that are amongst the best of the series. He then said good by to the earth and ditched his last human companion to search for the Key to Time.

Then things started to go a bit wobbly. They gave the job of script editor to a zany comedy writer - a very brave move. The seventies then came to an end, Douglas Adams left to become a demi-god, and a new script editor was appointed to vowed to end all the "late sixties hippie ideas derived form Third World cultures" which had infested the series. Arguably it was all downhill from there.

But back to the highlights, and what a lot there are.

There's Terror of the Zygons with its atmospheric Scottishness, although it does have a terrible CSO monster and the Brigadier in kilt. Not good.

Then there are the best of the horror remakes; The Pyramids of Mars and The Brain of Morbius, both of which also have the incomparable Sarah Jane.

Another near-perfect story is The Robots of Death. Agatha Christie in space with a claustrophobic setting and wonderfully scary Regency-style robots.

The Talons of Weng Chiang, a tribute to the best of Victorian noire is another near winner. A collection of cliches from swirling fogs to inscrutable Chinese, giant rats in the sewers and sneaky oriental assassins, it also has some of Robert Holmes's most sparkling dialogue, not just from the Doctor and Leila, but also from a great cast of supporting characters. Brilliant stuff.

The Key to Time was an interesting concept for the next series. Alas, it didn't produce any classic episodes, but Mary Tamm looked superb and easily gets the prize of best dressed companion. If her Ice Maiden costume doesn't tickle your fancy, then just look at her mock-Medieval outfit for The Androids of Tara. personally I think Tom Baker (and Richard Dawkins) married the wrong Romana.

The Douglas Adams years tend to divide fans, and I'm not completely in the camp that thinks he was the best thing that ever happened to Who, but The City of Death is very funny, very stylish thanks to being shot in Paris, and actually a very original idea.

Shada doesn't count as it was never broadcast, but I also suspect it wouldn't have been as great as many fans expect. I mean, it includes the Doctor on a bicycle being chased by a flying globe. How rubbish would that have been?

As I've said, Tom Baker's last season was a bit uneven, but there's he no doubt he went out on a high. Logopolis is an interesting story, as The Doctor comes up against his most deadly enemy to date, namely entropy. Baker acts his socks off here, and the final fall from Jodrell bank is a fittingly dramatic way for it all to end.

So what's the best of the Fourth Doctor then?

Well it was almost The Genesis of the Daleks. Here we have Doctor Who at its peak: Tom Baker, Liz Sladen, Ian Marter, a Terry Nation script, the Daleks, Davros, the camp chap from Allo Allo in a minor roll, they're all there.

Why doesn't it win? Partly I suppose I've watched it so many times it's lost some of its fizz, partly its a touch too long, partly I have my doubts about the point it's trying to make - is genocide really that bad when we're talking about the Daleks?

Mainly though its because I prefer dark humour to deep thought.

So my vote for the Best of the Fourth Doctor goes to The Deadly Assassin, Robert Holmes's deliciously satirical political thriller set on Gallifrey.

The Time Lords had been on the periphery of the Doctor Who universe for a while. We'd had sneaky peaks in The War Games and The Three Doctors, but now we were going to find out the whole truth. All seeing, all powerful and supposedly all good, they could have been stupefyingly boring, but not in Holmes's capable hands.

Instead of the vaguely Buddhist ascended masters hinted at before, here we had a bunch of old fuddy-duddies who can now barely work the technology they have inherited and who now care more for status and tradition that science and art. No wonder there are so many renegade Time Lords.

The set design is spectacular, the acting first rate and then there's The Matrix, an idea so good someone else had to make a film about it.

But most of all what makes it great is the script. With ideas nicked from The Manchurian Candidate and Porterhouse Blue, and contemporary references to Harold Wilson's resignation and the Kennedy assassination Holmes created a masterpiece leavened with his inimitable dialogue.

Then there's the ending. The Master is defeated, Gallifrey is saved, so what do the Time Lords do? The embark on a cover up of course. Delicious, simply delicious.

A classic episode from a classic Doctor.

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