Sunday 22 September 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary - Reflections on the Fourth Doctor

Although Jon Pertwee was technically my first Doctor, the honour really belongs more to Tom Baker. He was the one who imprinted himself on my memory, going so far as to take Pertwee’s place so that I forgot the third Doctor had ever existed. It was the early fourth Doctor period that had the most effect on me in my early formative years. But it wasn’t just Tom Baker. It was also Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Indeed, to some small extent, I think Sarah may well have had more effect on me than the Doctor himself did.

In those years, to me, Doctor Who was about the Doctor and Sarah—and sometimes Harry (I knew Harry existed, but he wasn’t always there, so I didn’t really include him to the same extent). They were the stars of the show and they had always been the stars of the show. There were no other companions and no other Doctors. As I detailed last week, my memories of “Day of the Daleks” had replaced both the third Doctor and Jo with the fourth Doctor and Sarah. Similar things happened after Sarah’s time on the show. I have a distinct memory of seeing “The Invisible Enemy”, specifically the scene where the Doctor and Leela are about to cross the bridge between the two parts of the Doctor’s brain. But my child mind didn’t notice Leela. No, that was Sarah. Right up until I started watching the show regularly (when I was confronted with the harsh reality that the person I thought was Sarah was being repeatedly called Romana), every female character on the show who spent any amount of time around the Doctor was Sarah. (I should point out that I have always had a rather poor visual memory. I’m an audio learner and remember sounds far better. When it comes to vision, I remember actions—movements and things people do—without any problem, but when it comes to what people (or things) look like, I can’t give more than the vaguest details (gender, skin colour, very approximate height, maybe hair colour). It’s perhaps not surprising that I never noticed Sarah’s changing appearance or that Tom Baker looked very different from Jon Pertwee.)

In many ways, I was kind of enamoured of Sarah. She was the one I looked up to more so than even the Doctor. The Doctor was clearly a hero, of course. He was the good guy and he saved the day in the end. But the Doctor was distant, intimidating, even a little bit terrifying in his own right. He was powerful and if the monsters could harm him, they had be really, really bad. Yet Sarah was a different sort of hero. She was more like me. She was afraid of the same things I was afraid of, had the same sort of vulnerabilities. In short, she was human. The Doctor wasn’t. Sarah showed that a normal person could rise up and defeat the villains, too. You didn’t have to be a powerful alien like the Doctor.

One thing that really strengthened up Sarah’s role as a hero in my eyes was actually another case of mistaken identity and had nothing to do with Sarah at all. I remember seeing part of the movie Doctor Who and the Daleks on TV once when I was still quite young—maybe seven or eight years old or so. I remember going to my mom afterwards and excitedly telling her that I had just seen a Doctor Who story that didn’t have the Doctor in it and was set at a time when Sarah was just a little girl. It didn’t matter that the girl in that movie was actually named Susan or that the Doctor was indeed in it—just played by Peter Cushing. In my mind, Sarah Jane Smith had been fighting the Daleks her whole life, even before she met the Doctor!

Over the last couple of years, I’ve often marvelled at how deeply Elisabeth Sladen’s death affected me. I wouldn’t have expected it to hit me quite so hard before it happened. I never met her, never got out to a convention that she was a guest at, never got an autograph I can cling to. All I ever knew was her character. However, in just the last few weeks as I’ve started to collate all my thoughts and memories about Doctor Who for this series of articles, the why has become a lot clearer to me now. Even though I don’t actually list Sarah Jane amongst my all-time favourite companions, she definitely influenced me far more than any of the others did. I was never ashamed to stand up for my beliefs and likes as a child, no matter how much I was teased or bullied because of them—particularly because I dared to like a stupid show like Doctor Who. I can’t really say how large a role Sarah Jane had in making me into that person, but I’m sure she had some role. One thing about Sarah is that she always stands up for herself, even when petrified with fear. She’ll even stand up to the Doctor. So I guess I always kind of looked up to Sarah because, while I could only gather the courage to watch bits and pieces of the show, she had the courage to be in the show and to help the Doctor save the day while being true to herself.

These days, I do think that Sarah was a better character with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. She became a little too blubbery with Tom Baker, a little too standard “damsel in distress”. Still, there’s no denying the effect she had on me as a child. I still tear up about her. R.I.P. Elisabeth Sladen.

By the time I got into Doctor Who as a full-fledged fan though, Sarah Jane Smith had been gone for a while. I was ten years old and in grade five at the time. In the U.K., Peter Davison was already the Doctor, but his episodes hadn’t shown up on TVOntario yet. They were still broadcasting the final Tom Baker season. I came in one evening as an episode was just starting. A character that I initially thought was Sarah, but was actually Romana, was saying, “They’re only spiders.” At the same time, my mom was cringing and saying, “Oh, I really hate this one.” My mom has never been good with shows involving giant insects. There was a time when they would have terrified me, too, but I was getting older and harder to scare. And I loved anything about the fantastic. I was already hugely into Star Wars by this point. I think the only reason I hadn’t paused to watch Doctor Who more closely before this was my memory of being frightened by it. Whatever the reason for not doing so before, I finally sat down and watched a whole episode through from beginning to end. By the time the closing credits rolled, there was no going back. I was hooked for life. That episode was, of course, the third part of “Full Circle”. After that, I almost never missed an episode again. It helped that TVO showed each episode twice a week—once on Saturdays and then repeated the following Thursday—so if I missed the first showing, I could catch the second showing. Most weeks, though, I watched it both times. Also, after TVO finished airing each new season, it would go back to the previous season and repeat that one, so those rare occasions I missed an episode entirely, I eventually got to see it. Except the final episode of “Warriors’ Gate”. I had terrible luck with that one. Every single time it was on, my family and I were off on a holiday somewhere so I couldn’t watch it on either the Saturday or Thursday. It made things rather confusing the first time when both Romana and K9 were gone in “The Keeper of Traken”. I didn’t finally get to see Romana’s departure until many years later when it aired on YTV.

I was so excited by the show, in addition to watching every episode religiously, I started grabbing novelizations from the school library and voraciously reading them. I even managed to introduce a couple of friends at school to the programme. One began watching it regularly for a time (I’m fairly certain he stopped after the end of that school year, though). The other watched it occasionally. Alas, those two were about the only ones willing to forgive me my sins. To the other school kids, Doctor Who became something they could make fun of me about. That didn’t deter me, though.

That Christmas, I got my first introduction to the wider world of Doctor Who when my parents bought me that year’s Doctor Who Annual. I talked a little about this a few weeks ago in my Reflections on the First Doctor. The picture of Peter Davison on the cover stunned me. He wasn’t the Doctor! Who was this imposter? At the urging of my mom, I opened the book and learned about the five Doctors for the first time.

It was actually not long after that that “Logopolis” began airing on TVO. My mom recognized Tegan from my Doctor Who Annual almost immediately after she first appeared. I probably wouldn’t have noticed if my mom hadn’t pointed it out to me (like I said, my visual recognition is rather poor). But thanks to my mom, it became clear to me that the new Doctor was coming soon! This way actually a pretty good example of how little I knew the programme at that time. I was right, of course, but for all the wrong reasons. See, I figured that every Doctor had to have his own set of companions and that there could never be any crossover. If Tegan was showing up, it had to mean the new Doctor was coming in this very story. It also meant Adric had to be leaving. He was a fourth Doctor companion, after all. When Nyssa showed up in “Logopolis”, it was a bit of an oddity. It was rare for a character other than the Doctor or a companion to cross over from one story to another, but she certainly couldn’t be a companion. She wasn’t in my Doctor Who Annual (it had Tegan and someone called Turlough in it)! It wasn’t until well into Peter Davison’s first season that I realised some of my assumptions about the show were just plain wrong—but that’s a story I’ll cover next week.

After “Logopolis” finished, I was eager as anything to see the new Doctor. I didn’t yet realize that I had actually seen Jon Pertwee years ago, so from my point of view, this was going to be the first time I got to see a different Doctor. It was exciting! I was very disappointed when, just before Doctor Who started the next week, there was an announcement that it was a repeat broadcast. It wouldn’t be until the following fall that the fifth Doctor would finally show up. However, my disappointment that day didn’t last long. The story being rebroadcast was “City of Death”—still one of my favourites today—and I was soon glad to have the opportunity to catch up on stories I’d missed.

Doctor Who massively took over my life that year. I was utterly obsessed with it. I talked about it all the time, with everyone—whether they wanted to talk to me about it or not. Star Wars got pushed aside as everything became about Doctor Who to me. I watched Doctor Who, read Doctor Who, even acted out my own Doctor Who stories when I could pressure my siblings or friends into it (all completely improvised—we just made them up as we went along). Looking back on it now, I’m rather surprised anybody agreed to do that with me since they all professed to hate the show so much. I even took my first stab at fan fiction.

I had always enjoyed writing. I think I first discovered the joy of writing in grade four when I started writing ridiculous stories where I combined characters from numerous different TV shows and movies all together. This year, my fifth grade teacher Mr MacLeod gave us a journal-writing assignment where we were to pick a TV show and write our own version of it. Other students in the class chose programmes like Knight Rider, but I naturally chose Doctor Who. My version was called “Doctor What”. Day after day, I faithfully wrote a new episode in my journal. I wrote them as scripts (although I’m sure I didn’t follow any standardized script format) with each story being four episodes long (because at the time, I didn’t realize Doctor Who stories were ever any length other than four episodes). Every day, Mr MacLeod also gave us the option of reading our stories/episodes to the class, and naturally I went up every single time. I even recorded the opening and closing theme music off the TV so that I could play it at the beginning and end of my “Doctor What” episodes. I carried a portable cassette recorder with me to school every single day just for this. Mr MacLeod seemed to love what I was doing (except the one day when I forgot the tape player and tried to sing the theme music—on that occasion, he stopped me and asked me to just read the episode), and that both encouraged and empowered me to keep it up.

Alas, apart from the two friends I mentioned earlier who were willing to watch Doctor Who, the entire rest of the class despised what I was doing. They hated it every single time I got up to read, and they made absolutely certain I was aware of it. Intriguingly, the thing they objected to the most was the theme music. Some of them were willing to acknowledge that my stories were actually kind of good, but they hated the music. Everyone did. It didn’t have enough guitars and drums. Years later, when I was in high school, Doctor Who would evoke a slightly different response. People would tell me how much they thought the show sucked, but at least the theme music was awesome.

I honestly don’t remember much about the content of those stories. I do recall that I had my version of the Doctor regenerate quite frequently. I thought the idea of regeneration was really cool and that it should be done more often. However, I don’t think there was ever much difference in the Doctor’s character as I didn’t yet realize how much the Doctor’s personality changes each time he regenerates. I also remember that at the end of the year, I wrote a series finale in which all evil in the universe was ended for good. I remember the final line was the Doctor saying, “And the universe is safe forever.” I’m sure if I were to look at those stories now, they’d be pretty terrible. They were written by a ten-year-old, after all! However, they were my first real start down the road of writing. I’d like to think I’ve come a long way since then, even if I haven’t yet achieved my dream of being a published novelist. I owe a lot to Doctor Who for inspiring me and to Mr MacLeod for encouraging me on, even when the other kids were just about ready to lynch me.

As I reflect back on the fourth Doctor’s period, I realize now that I haven’t actually said a whole lot about the fourth Doctor himself so far. Tom Baker had an incredibly commanding appearance and huge charisma in the role, so why am I hardly mentioning him? Part of it is because of what I mentioned earlier, that it was easier to relate to Sarah (or the other companions). I think it’s also because I was discovering the show at the time. That meant discovering the Doctor too (and for a large part of that time, Tom Baker was the Doctor), but it went a little beyond that. Indeed, once I discovered regeneration existed, I was actually quite eager for Tom Baker to be gone—not because I didn’t like Tom Baker, but just because I wanted to experience another Doctor as that was part of the show too.

Many years after grade five, when I was in high school, and YTV started showing Doctor Who from start to finish, I finally got a chance to see every Tom Baker story, all the ones I’d either missed entirely or seen only bits and pieces of as a very young boy—even that pesky final episode of “Warriors’ Gate”! Doctor Who was also starting to show up on VHS, so I was acquiring a number of episodes that way, as well as taping every episode off YTV. It was great to finally see so many half-remembered stories—although not always. “The Brain of Morbius” had left a strong impression on me years earlier, mostly for utterly terrifying me. Solon wanting the Doctor’s head gave me nightmares, as did Sarah discovering the incomplete body being made for Morbius. It was a bit of a disappointment when the version that aired on YTV was missing the incidental music and sound effects!

Somehow YTV had ended up with “wrong” copies of a bunch of the Tom Baker episodes. Several of the ones they aired had the Howard DaSilva intros on them—but not all of them. So every once in a while, for one episode, there’d be a strange narrator during the opening and closing of the episode. The next episode would then be back to normal. It was also clear that many of the Tom Baker episodes had been heavily edited. I don’t know if YTV did the editing or if they simply got them that way (I suspect the latter since this problem didn’t show up with other Doctors). There would be sudden moments of a black screen and then a clumsy jump to another scene. This left me feeling a little cheated, as I hadn’t quite gotten to fill in all the blanks from Tom Baker’s period as the Doctor. It wasn’t until quite recently, in fact, that all those holes have been filled in by DVD, since I didn’t manage to get everything on VHS before I switched to DVD. For example, I was stuck with a taped-off-YTV copy of “The Creature from the Pit” for many years, one which was missing a number of scenes, such as when the Doctor is trying to climb down the pit while learning to read Tibetan. Admittedly, the scenes that were missing were usually inconsequential scenes, but the edits were always so poor and jarring. I’m grateful to have complete copies now.

Although all eleven Doctors have had some sort of impact on me to differing degrees, Tom Baker certainly had the largest. He was the Doctor in my earliest memories—even the ones that were really with Jon Pertwee! Doctor Who during his time imprinted itself on me in a way that no other programme or movie ever has. The fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith were the epitome of heroes to my young mind. They walked into the most terrifying of situations and came out victorious. As such, even while Doctor Who was terrifying me, it was also inspiring me. Eventually, it would wrap me up completely and turn me into a life-long fanatic (I deliberately use that word instead of its derivative fan). Peter Davison’s time would be a learning period for me as I started to fully discover the show’s long history.

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