Grab your longest, widest scarf and your favorite sweets, because today in the world of sci-fi birthdays, we are in the presence of royalty with the 88th birthday celebration of Tom Baker ready to begin. Best known for his role as the Fourth Doctor on the legendary British series Doctor Who, he holds the distinction of being the most popular of the Doctor’s incarnations, as well as a legend in British voice acting. So let’s —
What? Can’t find a sweet snack? Well … would you care for a jelly baby?
Thomas Stewart Baker was born January 20, 1934, in the Vauxhall area of Liverpool, England. Raised by a devoutly Catholic mother and the child of an absent father, Baker was called to religious study at the age of 15, and began his studies as a member of the Brothers of Ploermel in Jersey, and later Shropshire. After a loss of his faith, Baker departed the order and performed his national service in the Royal Army Medical Corps. There, he developed an interest in acting, and after serving seven months on the Queen Mary as a sailor in the Merchant Navy, he attended the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent, England, on a scholarship. There, he met his first wife, Anna Wheatcroft, but sadly the marriage fell apart prior to the beginning of Baker’s professional acting career.
After his marriage to Wheatcroft ended in 1966, Baker worked in repertory theatre, and was discovered in 1968 by a member of the National Theatre. Encouraged to audition for the company, then headed by Laurence Olivier, Baker received a contract and went on to play small roles and understudy for the duration. From there, he made his way into television with a string of small roles until he got his big break in film. Playing the role of Grigori Rasputin in the 1971 film Nicholas and Anastasia, Baker earned himself two Golden Globe nominations, one for best supporting actor and another for best new star of the year.
1974 would be the landmark year for Baker, as it was then he was tapped to take over the mantle of The Doctor from Jon Pertwee on the BBC staple Doctor Who. He would not pass the torch for the next seven consecutive seasons, and became the public face of the show in the minds of many worldwide. With his trademark wide eyed, toothy grin and massively iconic, massively massive scarf, alongside his lengthy tenure, he became the most widely recognized of the Doctor’s incarnations, and to this day it is the Fourth Doctor that those outside of fandom think of when mention of the show is made.
A significant departure from the flamboyant man of action that was Pertwee’s Third Doctor, the Fourth Doctor embodied the bohemian spirit, sometimes mercurial in demeanor but always imbued with childlike wonder and a sense of humor. Though capable of having dark moments and even capable of violence, it was never without reason. This could be traced back to Baker himself, who once demanded a script change the Doctor threatening a member of an alien race with a knife to threatening them with a jelly baby instead – something the alien race was equally intimidated by. Instances like this turned innocuous gimmicks, such as offering a jelly baby to friend and enemy a like, into compelling aspects of the character.
Baker departed the show in 1981, passing the mantle on to Peter Davison, but despite his career moving on to other endeavors, he never truly left Doctor Who in the past. While he subsequently took on more iconic roles in British and popular culture, such as his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the miniseries The Hound Of The Baskervilles in 1982 and a role in Blackadder II, Baker also later went on to reprise the Fourth Doctor in other projects. While he declined to appear in The Five Doctors, he did appear in the 30th anniversary charity crossover with Eastenders, Dimensions In Time, and also recorded voice work for the 1997 PC game Doctor Who: Destiny Of The Doctors. He also made an especially notable appearance in the 50th anniversary special The Day Of The Doctor as the mysterious Curator, encountering the Doctor as played by Matt Smith with implications that, perhaps later in his life, the Doctor might choose to retire under a new name – and perhaps, in a future regeneration, slip on an old and especially beloved face for the duration of that cycle. At present, he’s also done voice acting for several of the Big Finish audio dramas, reuniting with previous companions such as Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) and Romana II (Lalla Ward). Baker was also slated to do a series of stories reuniting him with one of the most beloved of the Doctor’s companions, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), but Sladen sadly passed away before the stories could be recorded.
While he remains best remembered as the Fourth Doctor, Baker is recognized far beyond that in the UK. He’s had a great deal of success as a narrator, his trademark deep and pleasant voice serving him well as the narrator for popular radio shows such as Little Britain, Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World, and has also narrated various documentaries and done voice acting for several video games. In the UK, his voice was voted as the fourth most recognizable in 2006, behind only the Queen, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair.
Whether you’re one of the millions who know him as the Doctor, or one of the rare few that know Baker’s voice better than his face – or if you’re just a deeply passionate Sherlockian who adores that one BBC miniseries, there’s no question that Tom Baker is highly gifted, and incredibly beloved. Raise your glasses today, and salute the man who has not only brought so much joy and entertainment to so very many, but has also ensured that jelly babies will forever be a highly sought after commodity for a select group in America and elsewhere abroad.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Baker – may your days be many, happy, and your life as long and rich as the scarf you made famous.
Liz Carlie (she/her/he/him) is a regular book, TV, and film reviewer for SCIFI.radio and has previously been a guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. In addition to being an active member of the traditional fandom community, she’s also an active participant in online fan culture, pro wrestling journalism, and spreading the gospel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She resides in Southern California with her aspiring superhero dog, Junior, enjoying life one hyperfixation at a time.