Casting the Doctor

With Jodie Whittaker back on our screens as the thirteenth Doctor in Doctor Who, we look at the part that a Ray Harryhausen film played in casting the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker.

In 2020 we welcomes a host of cinematic icons to Modern Two. They came from the films of special effects titan Ray Harryhausen. While for many of us the true stars of Harryhausen’s films are the stop motion creatures that he created, masterpieces in foam latex, we should not forget the contributions that many fine actors made to his films. One such actor was Tom Baker.


Although better known now as the fourth Doctor in Doctor Who, Baker was cast as the villain, the magician Koura, in Ray Harryhausen’s second Sinbad film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). It was a role that he tackled with his customary relish, in an appropriately larger-than-life performance. During the film, Koura creates his own familiar in the form of a winged homunculus, an act that calls to mind a similar act of creation – that of Harryhausen himself bringing his foam latex creatures to life on screen via stop-motion animation. It is this act of creation, bringing life to the inanimate, that is at the core of what a stop-motion animator does.

Sketch by Ray Harryhausen showing the magician Koura creating the homunculus, (about 1971)

Indeed, this act of bringing the inanimate to life runs right through The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Later in the film, Koura will also summon into life the figurehead of Sinbad’s ship to attack Sinbad and his crew. And later, in one of the key sequences of the film, he will cast a spell to animate a statue of the many-armed goddess Kali to do battle with Sinbad.

Tom Baker with the statue of Kali from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

Baker’s full-blooded performance as Koura in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad came early in his on-screen career. He had already served in the Royal National Theatre under Laurence Olivier and starred in a handful of films (including opposite Olivier, as Rasputin, in Nicholas and Alexandra). Despite these roles, Baker still found it necessary to work between acting jobs on a building site. By his own admission he was not especially suited to a career in construction. His tendency to disappear for acting auditions led to some good-natured ribbing from his workmates, who called him ‘Sir Laurence’ on the building site.

Desperate to earn some more acting credits, Baker sent a letter to Bill Slater, who had directed him in a Play of the Month production of George Bernard Shaw's play The Millionairess. The letter arrived as the BBC were actively seeking a suitable replacement for Jon Pertwee, whose tenture as the third Doctor had recently come to an end. With Baker’s letter in his pocket, Slater asked his wife for advice. She agreed that Baker would be perfect as the Doctor and Slater took the suggestion to Barry Letts (BBC's Head of Serials).

Koura (on steps) animates the statue of Kali for a sword fighting set piece with Sinbad and his sailors, The Golden Voyage (1973)

As luck would have it, the ensuing discussion took place 50 yards from a cinema that just happened to be showing The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. So, when Baker’s name came up everyone decamped to the cinema to witness Baker’s larger-than-life performance. Suitably impressed, the decision was made and the fourth Doctor was cast.

After a week in which Baker was sworn to secrecy, the casting was announced and Baker found himself front page news. He still found time for one last triumphant return to the building site, where ‘Sir Laurence’ was heralded by his workmates.

Tom Baker with Daleks from Doctor Who

Baker went on to make the role of the Doctor his own, creating perhaps the most iconic and recognisable incarnation of the regenerating time-traveller. Baker’s Doctor, with his long scarf and love of jelly babies is many people’s favourite Doctor.

Tom Baker was not the only Doctor with Harryhausen connections, however. Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor, who played the role from 1966–69, appeared in two Harryhausen films. Three years before entering the Tardis, Troughton had a memorable role in perhaps Harryhausen’s best-known film Jason and the Argonauts (1963). He played Phineas, the blind seer who is tormented every day by the winged Harpies, sent by Zeus as punishment.

Ray Harryhausen, Harpy sequence key drawing from Jason and the Argonauts (about 1961)
Phineas and the Harpies scene in Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Troughton returned to the world of Dynamation again in 1977 when he was cast in the pivotal role of Melanthius, another wild-haired wise man, in Harryhausen’s final Sinbad film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). Troughton’s Melanthius guides Sinbad through his adventures and along the way is attacked by a giant hornet, captures the wicked (and in this scene, shrunken) Zenobia in a jar and has many scenes with one of Harryhausen’s most expressive creatures, a stop-motion baboon who is in fact a prince transformed by Zenobia.

Model of Kali from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

While Doctor Who is famous for its many memorable creatures, from the Daleks to the Cybermen, at least two Doctors were prepared for their adventures across time and space by their experience with the winged creatures, magically transformed insects and animated statues of Ray Harryhausen.

Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema (paperback)


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Shortlisted for Saltire Society Scotland's National Book Awards, First Book Award 2021

This landmark exhibition book examines 100 objects selected from the Ray Harryhausen archive by the animator's daughter Vanessa. The book is packed with Vanessa’s personal stories from a life watching her father make world-famous films that changed the course of cinema.

By Phil Hunt, Digital Content Publisher/Analyst and Ray Harryhausen fan, 31 December 2019