Doctor Doctor Who Guide


03 Jul 2003Robot, by Gareth Jelley
02 Sep 2003Robot, by Paul Clarke

One of the really irritating things about 'Robot', the first Doctor Who story to feature Tom Baker, is the voice of the robot - you can't help but hear it as a slighly less frightening, non-branded copy of the better known Dalek. The writers would like the robot's voice to be written in the jagged diagonal typeface found in the pages of the Dalek comic, but it would be lucky to even get italics. In all ways, Kettering's robot is a bit sad. Clearly, to look at this robot, you would never mistake it as a Dalek, and you kind of sympathise with it when Sarah Jane Smith tells it that it has been programmed to behave "all wrongly". Yes, robot, it isn't your fault that you've been programmed to behave the way you do, walking a bit like the Mitchelin man, talking a bit like a violent pepperpot. But, alas, this is the robot we are stuck with, in this remarkably below average Doctor Who story. 

What is there to say about 'Robot' that is positive? Well, there is Tom Baker. The skipping scene, with Harry, is remarkably funny, and must have been unbelievably odd, coming straight after the bravado of Jon Pertwee. Equally, Baker makes the riff on "unbreakable sounds ominously like unsinkable" the best dialogue in the episode (and there is some awful dialogue to be found here). A quick negative, while on the subject of writing: the bizarre unveiling of the 'robot' couldn't possibly try any harder to sound like a speech from a 1930s Nazi rally, and this blunt symbolism really doesn't do an already weak story any favors. 

However, following after this comes the Doctor's disarming and completely Doctor-like stand-up comedy routine. This is not only the Doctor we would come to love for 10-or-so years on television, but it is also the Doctor that we have always loved: Baker catches, in his performance, the special something that makes the Doctor who he is, and builds on it. His performance is a shot in the series' arm, and we are still seeing the benefits of it today, in, for example, the Eighth Doctor of the novels. 

So pretty frothy, in terms of plot, dialogue, and characterisation, by all accounts... but it is saved by a charming performance from Baker, teeth, scarf, and all.

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All things considered, I am not a fan of Terrance Dicks. Before the advent of video, when my only knowledge of old Doctor Who stories came from Target novelisations, I always preferred those written by Malcolm Hulke or (especially) Ian Marter, finding Dicks' to be overly simplistic and lacking in depth. His television stories are variable, the better ones being those on which he collaborated with another writer ('The War Games') or was heavily script edited ('The Brain of Morbius'). 'Robot' in some ways demonstrates his shortcomings as a writer, but on the other hand it succeeds rather well in introducing both a new Doctor and a new companion. 

Conceptually, 'Robot' makes a great deal of sense, in that it introduces the new Doctor by surrounding him with the trappings of the old; UNIT plays a significant role in 'Robot' and this highlights the differences between the performances of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. There is a tendency amongst Doctor Who fans to favour the Doctor they grew up with, which in my case is Peter Davison, but from the moment I started buying Doctor Who videos Tom Baker became, and remains, my favourite. He makes an immediate impression. Although I dislike things about the Pertwee era, Jon Pertwee's performance isn't one of them; after his dignified, almost establishment figure, Baker needed to establish himself as a distinct character, and he does so magnificently; he's incredibly eccentric from the start, with his brick-chopping, running on the spot, and ludicrous costumes, but he's also commanding and fiercely intelligent. Recovering from his regeneration far more quickly than his predecessor he is able to establish his character by the end of Episode One and the scene in which he examines the pulverized dandelion showcases his intellectual prowess. He deduces far more quickly than anybody else the nature of the threat facing them from only a handful of clues (the Brigadier suspects foreign powers or alien invaders) and is quick to realize Kettlewell's involvement. His clowning, rather like Troughton's, hides a lightening fast mind, but unlike Troughton he is possessed by a manic energy, as demonstrated by his entry into the Scientific Reform Society meeting (he creates the impression that he is a buffoon, only to quickly overcome the off-guard, erm, guard) and his brief clowning on stage during the meeting even wins over members of the audience despite the fact that he threatens their plans. His line "There's no point in being grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes?" perhaps best sums up this new Doctor, and of course his offering of a jelly baby to the distraught Sarah. 

The other new regular is Harry Sullivan, also making an immediate impression. Initially, he demonstrates his usefulness as a comic foil to Baker's Doctor, most notably during the scene in which the Doctor presses Harry's stethoscope to his chest and he hears two heartbeats; the expression on his face speaks volumes. Despite his initial buffoonery however, he also proves to be more than just an imbecile; he quickly accepts that the Doctor's eccentricity is going to leave him baffled, as he wry smile as he later presses the stethoscope to both sides of his own chest indicates. By the end of the story, he gets a great moment as he and the Doctor drive towards the robot in Bessie, and they joke about the fact that their problem seems to have grown. It suggests an easy friendship and establishes Harry and the Doctor almost as a double act. In general, Harry is hugely likeable; he's old fashioned almost to the point of chauvinism, but big-hearted and well meaning with it, and Ian Marter plays the part to perfection. He also gets to play James Bond, which he clearly relishes, even if he does get caught. 

The other regular also gets plenty to do in a story, which exploits her investigative skills very well. She infiltrates Think Tank and quickly deduces the significance of the patch of oil on the floor, and she stands up bravely to the icy Hilda Winters when Winters nastily offers a further demonstration of K1; Sarah is clearly terrified by the idea but accepts the invitation nonetheless. Most significantly of course, Sarah's compassion brings the robot to trust her, which allows her to save the Doctor's life at the start of Episode Three. Sladen quickly establishes a rapport with both Baker and Marter, establishing the dynamic of the new team. 

UNIT, returning for one of its final appearances, also does rather well out of the story. Although not back to the heights he reached during Season Seven, the Brigadier is nevertheless back on form to a degree, regaining some of the authority of his early appearances. As in his later appearances with Pertwee, the script makes him look slightly dim in order to allow the Doctor to explain the plot, but he's impressively commanding when in action in Episodes Three and Four, especially when dealing with Miss Winters; Courtney seems genuinely horrified by the situation in Episode Four as he pulls a gun on Winters whilst the countdown to nuclear war ticks away. And the newly promoted Mr. Benton also gets some great moments, most notably when he gives the Doctor the idea to use Kettlewell's metal virus and thus finally destroy the robot. 

Then we have the robot itself. The actual costume is very effective, ingeniously designed so that it manages to avoid looking like a man in a costume. The actual characterisation of the robot also works, largely due to its interaction with Sarah and its tortured persona. Artificial intelligences have become rather clichĂ©d, and in Doctor Who we have already had a least two, in the megalomaniac forms of WOTAN and BOSS, but the emphasis here is rather different. Unfortunately, it is also here that the story starts to fall down; firstly after Kettlewell's death, the robot becomes just another ranting madman, albeit a rather novel one, and the final episode degenerates into a typical runaround after Hilda Winters is arrested by UNIT. Secondly, and most annoyingly, it astonishes that Terrance Dicks, a man who was part of the Doctor Who for the previous several years, would be so stupid as to incorporate into his script the Attack of the Fifty-Foot Robot, an idea that could only realistically be achieved by the dreaded CSO. This immediately results in an effects nightmare, as first parts of the CSO robot vanish as it grows larger, and then we are presented with a rag-doll Sarah. The toy tank at the end of Episode Three is bad enough, but the toy companion is unforgivable. I don't usually judge Doctor Who by its special effects, but the whole concept is unnecessary here, adding little to the plot since the robot is already virtually indestructible. Since Christopher Barry's direction elsewhere in the story is rather good (especially the scene in Episode One as the camera moves through the security system as the Brigadier describes it in voice-over), this hamstringing of the production is especially disappointing. 

The villains are rather mixed. Patricia Maynard's icy Miss Winters is very good, but her assistant Jellicoe is utterly forgettable. Moreover, the motives of the Scientific Reform Society are rather dubious; given that they want to make a better world, their obvious willingness to plunge it into nuclear holocaust beggars belief. In addition, that food store in the bunker must be well stocked; a global nuclear catastrophe would render the planet largely uninhabitable for decades at least. Kettlewell's motivation is even more ill conceived; leaving aside Edward Burnham's performance of a ludicrously stereotypical mad Professor, his attitude to the robot doesn't make much sense. Even when he is alone with the robot, he frets over the treatment inflicted by Winters and seems genuinely horrified by it, despite having provided the necessary technical know-how required to reprogram it and being party to his allies' actions. His eventually revelation as a villain seems to have crow-barred into the story simply to provide a plot twist, and most unbelievably of all, despite his apparently long association with Hilda Winters and his full knowledge of their intentions, he seems not to have considered the potential consequences of helping her to obtain the nuclear launch codes. The plot also falls down in regards to the disintegrator gun; as The Discontinuity Guide points out, the Scientific Reform Society goes to great lengths to obtain the gun, just to use it to open a safe. Whilst the script tries to compensate for this with the unlikely revelation that the safe is otherwise indestructible, the plot would have been better served had they simply had the robot force it open. 

Despite these drawbacks, 'Robot' succeeds as a introduction for Tom Baker and at four action-packed episodes is rather refreshing after Pertwee's last two bloated stories. More to the point, 'Robot' establishes the new TARDIS team and paves the way for arguable Season Twelve's finest story, as Doctor Who's greatest script-writer makes a welcome returnÂ…

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