8 January 2016

The Time Tom Baker left Doctor Who

On 24 October 1980 an apparently hastily arranged news conference announced that Tom Baker was leaving Doctor Who after seven years in the role. He was, remains and in all likelihood always will be the longest running Doctor so you can imagine it was quite a big story at the time. For fans it was quite a shift as there would be some who could barely recall another Doctor. For Tom himself it was a life changing moment and his manner during the ensuing months leading to his final story would be, even for him, a little odd. 

He had been at Madame Tussauds the previous day in an uncharacteristic smart suit posing with his plastic replica at the launch of a new exhibition posing with his double and also as Meglos which incidentally made him the only person to have been portrayed twice there in the same exhibition. The display also included Foamasi, Nimon, Davros, Sontaran and a Marshman. 
In 1981 he appeared on Nationwide, which was essentially The One Show of its day responding in a somewhat elliptical way to questions while leaning against the Tardis as if he would otherwise fall over. Of course he had given a classic 1978 interview to the programme in which there is undoubtedly some flapdoodle and possibly bafflegab as well. When Frank had suggested Tom has to be Doctor Who all the time and the actor replies; “I don’t have to be Doctor Who any more than you have to be Frank Bough!” When Bough replies that he is Frank Bough and doesn’t have a fictional image, Baker says; “Of course you do. People don’t really believe you exist.” He may not have been entirely sober at the time of course and concludes “I get on well with people- superficially.” Anyone hoping for a similarly interesting repeat was to be disappointed. Instead Tom just looked worse for wear.

Perhaps the most revealing press insight into the alternative life that few fans of the show were aware of at the time came about a month later by journalist William Marshall of the Daily Mirror who spent what he described as “a liquid evening with a lonely Time Lord” in an article published in November 1980. He vividly describes how an art gallery’s hush was shattered by the arrival of Tom and “his gang of sweating, swearing rag-tag-and bobtail Soho revellers.” Tom stands in front of one painting “and boomed in that fat rolling voice `Just look at that arse, how it goes with the sweep of the scenery in the background.” Soon the party has repaired to the bar where Marshall describes them as standing out “like a team of trapeze artists in a monastery mouthing good humoured obscenities with vigour, freshness and beguiling abandon.” Later when the bar has closed he says “Tom drank straight from the neck of a bottle of wine, draining the dregs as though snatching at the very last of life itself.” 
Then he accompanied Tom to the most expensive restaurant in London to get him talking about his departure from the show. “Finishing with Doctor Who is a great emotional jolt after playing it for so long,” Tom tells him, “But we ned these emotional jolts in our lives, they are good for us.” He says playing the role has made him “quite well off and believe me there was no row with the BBC. It was strictly my decision.” He talks of work already lined up but adds; “Maybe I’ll end up digging ditches or working behind a bar.” He declares he is looking forward to the unknown; “the wonderful idea that anything or nothing could happen to me. Anyway, I’ve been a nomad all my life and always will be. I am a lonely man, a really lonely man.”

By the time the duo reach liqueurs Tom announces; “Do you know I turned down five grand to be here with you tonight. Some people wanted me to write all about the making of Doctor Who and I said No and decided to talk to you instead.” He goes back to the topic of the series as Marshall describes it “whipping himself into a kind of crescendo of feeling. “I simply had to get out. GET OUT. I had done all I could with the part.” The lively article ends with Tom heading off for a Chinese meal leaving Marshall watching him strife off. The journalist concludes: “He is the Lord of Time but it is well past midnight and he cannot sleep.”
This was the first time the press ran with the story about the next Doctor possibly being a woman, an idea that has been credited both to John Nathan-Turner and Tom Baker, no-one seems to know which of them thought of it but Baker said it and JNT, his wily PR head on, did not deny it. Whoever had that idea it still seems to be running these days!  
If Tom's public departure seemed a little scrappy and irritable then his fictional one proved more elegant. `Logopolis` provides an on screen farewell with a little bit of everything. Mature mediations on mathematics and mortality linger alongside The Master’s barmy plans and a gaggle of companions fighting for space. Impressive though recent regenerations have been there is something strong about the simplicity of The Watcher in the distance and the downbeat score. Lines about entropy and decay foreshadow what we all knew was coming at the end of the story. Tom is centre stage in quite a different way to recent Doctors- and even by his own past performances. There is little grandstanding and some looks that suggest the Doctor knows what is coming too. 
In its quest to be very serious the story does lack little moments that highlight what Tom had been like and he seems to have aged a lot since just the previous year when he was mad capping about with the Nimon or running around Paris. It is one of those rare occasions when the Doctor seems to act his great age.
The regeneration was the start of what has become an increasingly over dramatized event. Compared to Jon Pertwee’s farewell which was simply done, the effects take over from here in. While they do add the idea that regeneration is a painful business, they also detract from the passing of the baton. After this, save for the necessarily cobbled together Sixth Doctor regeneration, the event would become increasingly melodramatic. Visually stunning for sure, but for all the fake grass and unbelievable studio posing as outside, the fourth Doctor’s regeneration manages to tap into the viewer’s affection for this incarnation perfectly. 
It would be another decade or more before Tom re- engaged with any aspect of the series and 32 years before he actually re-appeared in a brief but mesmerising cameo. Though his career has continued across tv, film and audio ever since for us and you suspect for him nothing quite matches his mercurial seven years as the Doctor.

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