One of the most appealing aspects of Doctor Who is that the reality created within the show is conceptually strong enough to handle the replacement of every single actor in it. This means that fandom and appreciation can be comfortably spread over the entire 50-year run. Second Doctor fans can debate their preferences with Sixth Doctor fans, and no one can be definitively wrong or right.
That said, there are a few good reasons why Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, often comes out as the most popular of all of the incarnations in the classic series, an affection that sometimes rivals the more recent Doctors too.
First, he was there the longest. Seven years in all. Twice (or thereabouts) as long as anyone else had managed until that point, and it’s a record that is still unbeaten. Secondly, his was a far less Earthbound incarnation than that of the Third Doctor, which allowed the special effects departments even more opportunity to take advantage of broadcasting in colour.
And the fact that he was the first Doctor to be shown regularly in America (on PBS) doesn’t hurt his case either.
But really, the Fourth Doctor is all about taking advantage of the good work done by Doctors One, Two and Three, and then confidently ramping up the eccentricity and charm.
All of the really important ideas about Doctor Who were firmly in place by the time he arrived, and he took them over and basically acted as if they were his ideas all along. So he had the sonic screwdriver, like the Second and Third Doctors, but he used his all the time, until it became such a trademark kids would waggle those air-pressure testers you get for car tyres and pretend to unlock things.
He disarmingly offered jelly babies to people from a white paper bag (like the Second Doctor). He would take a stern, professorial tone with evil-doers, to try and scold them into doing the right thing (like the First). He even had the Third Doctor’s shock of curly hair, albeit a darker and more colorful shade, and had a longer and (arguably) stronger relationship with Sarah Jane Smith to boot.
Speaking of whom, the Fourth Doctor also continued the pattern of the lone Doctor with the young, single, female companion, set by his immediate predecessor, only he didn’t bother to temper this by bringing in the Brigadier. It wasn’t until right at the end that he allowed a gang to gather in the TARDIS, and that somehow seemed odd, because by then the format felt set in stone.
The things that are his alone became just as iconic. The felt hat, the scarf that was too long (because the production team supplied too much wool to the lady who was knitting it for them and she used it all), that unique voice, that unique face, that unique presence. He’s also the pioneer of that Tenth Doctor thing of being the loudest, brashest and most arrogant person in the room – with the toothiest grin – as a way of keeping genuine affection at arm’s length:
The Fourth Doctor became THE Doctor for a lot of people because he was their first, and he kept at it until they were grownups. As a result, it was a role he found hard to shake off, but then that’s a measure of his success too. If the benchmark for a successful Time Lord is that you have to be able to convince your audience you come from another planet, Tom Baker fits that brief better than almost anyone.
Don’t forget you can see him in action this Sunday at 8/7c on BBCAMERICA: