We Interrupt This Programme
Thoughts on Tom Baker's First Doctor Who Season

Those nice boys in Radiohead have just solved the biggest conundrum of my year for me.

As you may have gathered from my glowing review, the venerated British band’s seventh album, In Rainbows, knocked me out. It’s the first Radiohead record in 10 years to bring the hooks, the melody, the honest-to-gosh songwriting to the fore, and in so doing, the band has made its most human album since their early days. While it’s not to the level of OK Computer by any stretch of the imagination, it is a superb album, and in this so-so year, it’s absolutely top 10 list material.

Ah, but therein lies my problem. Under the current rules, In Rainbows isn’t eligible, because technically, it isn’t out. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I’m hesitant to jump aboard the digital download train. My top 10 list rules are clearly designed to accommodate physical CDs, and even with all this talk about Radiohead’s revolution, I still won’t think of In Rainbows as part of my collection until it can be filed with the other six albums, in packaging that complements the music.

I know, I’m very old. But the band obviously put some value in the physical product, because they’ve just inked a deal to bring In Rainbows into record stores before the end of the year. The expediency of this deal – the CD will be in UK record shops on December 31 – frees me from having to decide whether to include the album in this year’s top 10 list, or wait and see if it makes it in 2008. If you can walk into a record store on New Year’s Eve and buy the thing, it’s a 2007 release, as far as I’m concerned.

Yes, I understand, I’m missing the point. The future is passing me by. The whole point of the In Rainbows experiment was to introduce, with blinding force, the new way of distributing music. Soon there will be no CDs. Believe me, I get it. But I think the physical presence of an album is something worth holding on to, so I will gladly buy the In Rainbows CD, despite having all the music already. They’ll get my money twice, because I want to support the tangible, artistic release of music on CD.

As much as I admire Radiohead for taking a chance and blazing a trail, I much prefer the way Marillion releases their stuff. In 2001, the boys in Marillion gambled on a pre-order, asking their fans to pony up for music that hadn’t been recorded yet, in hopes of funding the actual making of their 12th album. The fans did, in mass quantities, and the result was Anoraknophobia, one of Marillion’s most idiosyncratic and amazing records. They did it again in 2004 with the brilliant double-disc set Marbles, to even better results.

So the traditional release of the underwhelming Somewhere Else this year is starting to look like an anomaly. This month, Marillion announced that their still-untitled 15th album, expected out next year, will be the subject of another pre-order. You can order it now, in fact, at their site.

Here are the details: Album 15 was largely written at the same time as Somewhere Else, and was expected to be the second half of that set. But the band members have found themselves in a creatively fertile period, and they’ve come up with tons of new material. Hence, Album 15 will be another double disc affair, in special super-awesome packaging for the pre-orderers. Send them your cash now, and you get the deluxe edition of the album, with your name printed in the package. The album will also be available in two single-disc packages (part one and part two), for less money, and without your name in the liner notes.

On the surface, this sounds fantastic, and of course I’m going to buy the deluxe set, but I’m actually thinking twice about it – a first for me and this band. For one thing, they’re coming off of one of the weakest albums they’ve ever made. I’ve tried over and over again to like Somewhere Else, but even with the benefit of time, it still ranks near the bottom of my Marillion collection. So I wasn’t looking forward to an album full of also-rans from that record to begin with.

But even more disconcerting is the band’s admission that they’re not quite sure how they’re going to fill two CDs with music. In their pitch for Album 15, the Marillion boys note that they’re considering solo, duo and trio tracks, as well as instrumentals, to pad out the record. Hey, it worked for Yes on Fragile, so it can’t be that bad an idea, but my worry is this – does the band have enough good material to justify this release? Because honestly, after Somewhere Else, I think they need a tight, compact, filler-free collection, not a sprawling two-hour White Album-style mix CD.

I love this band too much to not buy anything they do, but I admit it – I’m worried about this one. But I still think the Marillion method is the way to go. I get to support a band I love, and feel like I’ve contributed to the process of making their new record, and then, I get that new record in a (likely) gorgeous package I can display, with my name in it. That beats downloading context-free music any day of the week to me. I think it’s a winning system, but of course, it’s only as good as the albums the fans get for their money and their faith.

Anyway, that’s it for music musings this week. I’ve been very behind on my Doctor Who reviews (and on my Doctor Who viewing, in fact), so I’ve dedicated the rest of this week’s missive to my thoughts on Tom Baker’s first season. Those of you who are sick of the Doctor can stop here. Next week, a bunch of guilty pleasures, including Duran Duran’s new one with Justin Timberlake, and Queensryche’s covers album. Really.

* * * * *

Like most Americans, I was surprised to find out that anyone besides Tom Baker had ever played the Doctor.

I first saw Doctor Who on Boston’s own Channel 2, our local public broadcasting station, when I was six or seven years old. I started halfway through Tom Baker’s run, but I swear that Channel 2 looped around and played the old ones before airing Logopolis and moving forward. For my entire childhood, Tom Baker was the Doctor, and just about every American I talk to about this had the same experience.

It’s not hard to see why Baker is the man most associated with the role. Starting in 1974, Baker played the Doc for seven years, starring in 41 complete stories (and one pretty famous unreleased one). His run is the longest of any Doctor before or since, even if you look at it in terms of single episodes – Baker was in 172 episodes of the show, beating out William Hartnell in second place, who did 134. Jon Pertwee’s in third with 128, and nobody else even comes close.

Tom Baker’s first season as the Doctor, which was the program’s 12th, made him a superstar in his native Britain. Which is strange, when you think about it. Tom Baker is perhaps the most unlikely, oddball leading man in television history. His face is more interesting than handsome, with its jutting nose and toothy grin. His hair is amazing, a tornado of curls that make him look like a homeless man more often than not. He’s the most alien-looking Doctor ever.

He’s also the most eccentric. Baker’s off-screen antics are well documented elsewhere – he had a reputation as a control freak, and said what was on his mind at all times, no matter where he was. Some of that translated to his on-screen persona. Baker played the Doctor as a man not only one page ahead, but often reading a different book than everyone else. His dialogue, much of it written by Baker on set, was a never-ending logic puzzle, a series of one-ups and quips that basically add up to him saying, “I’m living over here in this reality, and it’s much more fun than yours. Would you like to join me?”

Baker proved captivating for a couple of reasons. First off, he was brilliant in the role. He took the Doctor into new directions, building off of Patrick Troughton’s deceptive buffoonery, and introduced a new level of physical and verbal comedy to the part. Second, there was That Voice, a sonorous, commanding, regal tone that would make women swoon and villains quake – a sharp contrast to the fourth Doctor’s physical appearance and manner.

And finally, Tom Baker could be the most charming man alive when he wanted to be, and he used that power to beguile audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Baker’s Doctor was the first one to wink at you nearly all the time, like you were sharing a secret with him. I find that off-putting now – Baker’s stories so far are the first ones I find it difficult to get lost in, just because of the ironic wall he puts up – but as a kid, I can remember loving Baker’s antics. He was my tour guide to this strange world, taking my six-year-old hand and telling me with his eyes and his quick wit that the monsters were just guys in rubber masks.

Tom Baker couldn’t have had a weaker, weirder start. His first story is called Robot, and it’s about – yes – a killer robot. It’s also about Baker’s Doc regenerating, of course, and after five years of the more sedate, serious Jon Pertwee, Baker’s clowning around in Robot is jarring. But it’s great fun, too. This is a story about a killer robot. I’m not sure how seriously anyone should have taken it, and Baker puts in just the right amount of ironic eyebrow-raising.

The robot itself is pretty well-designed, for 1974 British television, except for the claw-like hands that just hang there, attached by thin cables. Its first appearances are actually pretty scary, but by the end of the third episode, when UNIT soldiers have surrounded the robot and are shooting at it, it looks a bit ridiculous. And the fourth episode is a glorious, trashy implosion. The script calls for the robot to grow to 50 feet tall, and the production team tries mightily to pull it off, but it’s a laugh-out-loud failure.

But hell, Robot is a romp. It’s fun, it’s stupid, it includes Tom Baker tripping people with his trademark 30-foot scarf, and it makes me laugh. But it’s with the next batch of stories that new producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Bob Holmes really got ambitious. The next 16 episodes of the show form a single, interconnected story, one that brings back three of the Doctor’s most famous foes, and when the 12th season finished up on May 10, 1975, Tom Baker was a star.

The story kicks off with The Ark in Space. While Jon Pertwee’s Doc kept close to Earth for most of his five-year run, Tom Baker’s Doctor couldn’t leave fast enough. At the end of Robot, he piles Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan into the Tardis and sets off for who-knows-where. (No pun intended, of course.) They end up on an orbiting space station called the Nerva Beacon, hundreds of years in the future, and soon discover the station’s precious cargo: the hibernating remnants of the human race.

This one really works. The frozen survivors of an unexplained apocalypse are slowly awakened, and they discover that they’ve been sleeping for centuries longer than they’d intended. They’re under attack by a monster called a Wirrn, which has used the sleeping humans to lay eggs in. Creepy, creepy story, undercut by the cheapness of the monster costumes. When the captain of the Beacon starts transforming into a Wirrn, we can clearly see that his monster parts are made of green bubble wrap. It was new then, but not so much now.

That aside, The Ark in Space is a successful bit of imaginative horror, and Baker keeps his quipping to a minimum. (He has one killer line, when one of the awakened humans asks for medical help: “Well, my doctorate is purely honorary, and Harry’s only qualified to work on sailors…”) At the end of the tale, the Doctor defeats the Wirrn (Oh, crap, I gave it away!) and beams down to Earth to see if it’s still suitable for the revived human race to inhabit.

And that leads right into the two-episode The Sontaran Experiment, featuring the first of our trio of old villains. The Sontarans first appeared in the Jon Pertwee story The Time Warrior, and they’re a warlike race of tacticians. In just about all of their appearances on the show, the Sontarans are planning one invasion or another, and here, they’ve sent a scout to test the resilience of humans. In short order, our three heroes are separated, Sarah is captured and tortured, and the Doctor has to save her. It’s an okay story, but even at only 50 minutes, it nearly wears out its welcome.

Not so the next story, the unabashed classic Genesis of the Daleks, even at two and a half hours long.

Yes, I just used the words “classic” and “Daleks” in the same sentence. Now, I hate the Daleks. Always have. They’re rolling pepper shakers with no opposable thumbs, and they can’t go up stairs or turn their heads all the way around. And yet, all the other characters are afraid of them, and talk about them like they’re the most dangerous beings in the universe. Here’s why: they’re popular, and always have been. The Daleks first appeared in the second ever Doctor Who story, back in 1963, and became a British phenomenon. So the producers like to use them whenever they can – witness the seven Dalek episodes of the new series so far.

It’s the rare story that can make me enjoy the Daleks as villains, and Genesis is one of those stories. At the end of The Sontaran Experiment, the Doctor and his crew beam back up to the Nerva Beacon, but their transmat is intercepted by the Time Lords, the Doctor’s people from the planet Gallifrey. The Time Lords assign the Doc a mission: go back in time to the origin of the Daleks and prevent them from being created. They dump him, Sarah and Harry on war-torn Skaro, hundreds of years in the past, and tell them not to come back until they’ve accomplished their mission.

This is one of the darkest Doctor Who stories. Skaro is a bleak wasteland, devastated by centuries of war between the Kaleds and the Thals – hinted at but not shown in 1963’s The Daleks. Both sides are dedicated to the eradication of the other, for reasons they can’t remember. And both are mutating into something else, as a result of all the radiation they’ve dumped on each other.

It is here that we meet Davros, a crippled, burned scientist who has seen the future of the Kaleds, and is preparing for it. He’s devised a war machine that can hold the final mutated form of the Kaleds – a tentacled blob-like thing – and ensure their survival and dominance. When we meet him, Davros is testing these machines, and building himself an army of them. He calls them Daleks, and for only the second time in the show’s history, the rolling pepperpots are actually kind of scary.

The story is about that age-old question – could you kill Hitler as a child? Does anyone have the right to wipe out an entire race, even if that race will go on to enslave much of the universe? How does that make the heroes any better than the villains? There are some terrific scenes in this story, and Michael Wisher’s Davros is much less over-the-top and histrionic than I remember. (I could, of course, be remembering Terry Malloy’s Davros from the later stories…) And Baker is terrific, showing how powerful he can be when he tempers his silliness.

The story’s finale is actually perfect – the Daleks turn on their creator, killing him for trying to control them, while the Doc escapes. Not much is resolved in Genesis of the Daleks, but much insight is gained into these creatures and why they do what they do.

Sadly, the last story of season 12, Revenge of the Cybermen, is not yet on DVD, so I haven’t seen it since I was six or so. But I do know this – the Doctor is returned to the Nerva Beacon, coming full circle, only to find that the Cybermen, last seen in Patrick Troughton’s time, are using it as a staging point to conquer another planet. I have no idea if it’s any good, but I like that the four stories that make up the bulk of the season are connected so thoroughly. The classic show would try that trick again with The Key to Time and Trial of a Time Lord, and the new series has done it every season, to some degree.

Tom Baker’s tenure is considered by many to be the high point of the show, and even though he’ll have to go a long way to eclipse the greatness of Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee, I’m excited to keep following his evolution. And of course, six-year-old me is delighted to see these old stories again, the ones starring the Doctor I grew up with. Teeth, curls, hat, scarf, a wink and a grin. That’s my Doctor.

Next week, Pyramids of Mars. And some of that music stuff, too.

A quick note – two people wrote to tell me that Pushing Daisies is actually doing pretty well. It’s winning its time slot, and has been picked up for a full season. That’s great news for me, even though it goes against all the laws of nature as I understand them. Thanks to Mike Lachance and Josh Patterson for setting me straight. And watch Pushing Daisies. It’s great.

See you in line Tuesday morning.