The opening of this episode features some classic Tom Baker clowning (“what a wonderful butler, he’s so violent”) but back in 1979 many fans weren’t impressed. Browsing through the various fanzines which circulated during that era, it’s fascinating to take the pulse of Doctor Who fandom – for some it was pretty much a case of Tom Baker Must Go! The levels of humour during the Graham Williams era continues to be an issue which divides opinion – although this period of the programme has picked up in popularity somewhat in recent decades (this first occurred during the early nineties when JNT was firmly out of favour). That’s the nature of fandom, if someone’s out of fashion, like JNT, then that allows someone else (Williams) to be back in. Personally, I don’t have an issue with enjoying both Williams and JNT, but that’s a whole other debate ….
Let’s take a look at some of this Tom-foolery –
Doctor: Hello, I’m called the Doctor. That’s Romana, that’s Duggan. You must be the Countess Scarlioni and this is clearly a delightful Louis Quinze chair. May I sit in it? I say, haven’t they worn well? Thank you, Hermann, that’ll be all.
COUNTESS: Doctor, you’re being very pleasant with me.
DOCTOR: Well, I’m a very pleasant fellow.
COUNTESS: But I didn’t invite you here for social reasons.
DOCTOR: Yes, I could see that the moment you didn’t invite me to have a drink. Well, I will have a drink now you come to mention it. Yes, do come in, everybody.
DOCTOR: Romana, sit down over there. Duggan. Now, Duggan, you sit there. Do sit down if you want to, Count… Oh, all right. Now, isn’t this nice?
COUNTESS: The only reason you were brought here was to explain exactly why you stole my bracelet.
DOCTOR: Ah, well, it’s my job, you see. I’m a thief. And this is Romana, she’s my accomplice. And this is Duggan. He’s the detective who’s been kind enough to catch me. That’s his job. You see, our two lines of work dovetail beautifully.
The Doctor continues clowning as he, Romana and Duggan are escorted downstairs and locked into a small cell. It’s only then that his expression and manner changes and he becomes completely serious. This, for me, is key – I don’t have an issue with the Doctor mucking about if it’s made obvious (as here) that it’s just an act, designed to make his opponents underestimate him. So once Scarlioni’s gone, the Doctor reverts back to being business-like and focused.
I can’t see a great deal of difference between this style of performance and the clowning of Troughton’s Doctor (who could equally turn serious when it was required). In every Williams-era story that I can think of, the Doctor “earns” his right to clown, by demonstrating at various points that there’s much more to him than meets the eye.
The Doctor’s interaction with Kerensky is also interesting. Keresnsky tells him that although Scarlioni is a true philanthropist he doesn’t ask too many questions, to which the Doctor tells him that “a scientist’s job is to ask questions.” This harks back to similar exchanges in the past, such as with Sorenson in Planet of Evil, where the Doctor makes it quite plain that a scientist has definite obligations – not just to himself, but to the wider community.