“ROBOT” – Season 12, Serial 1, Story 75 – Written by Terrance Dicks; Directed by Christopher Barry – It’s time for a new Doctor as Tom Baker takes over from the departed Jon Pertwee. The Brigadier, Sergeant Benton, UNIT, and Sarah Jane Smith are still around, and as a welcome to life present, the universe tosses up a giant robot. Pretty nifty, eh? All UNIT got him was a personal doctor in the guise of Harry Smith. Welcome to the start of the Golden Era. Because Before Tom Baker Turns In The Scarf, He’ll Take The Program To Its Highest Highs And Cast Its Longest Shadow.
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One of the long-running questions in DOCTOR WHO fandom is whether or not we should classify the Brigadier as an official Companion of the Doctor. The argument on each side goes something like this: the pro side gives the Brig credit for his years of service to the program while the con side points out the uniqueness of his relationship with the Doctor and the fact that he never called the TARDIS home.
My feeling on the matter is that the Brigadier is never the Doctor’s Companion, but rather that the Doctor is the Brigadier’s Companion. The Brig has his own life apart from the Doctor, UNIT HQ serves as the de facto TARDIS during much of Pertwee’s tenure, and the Doctor is largely dependent on the Brigadier for his adventures.
That all starts to change with the introduction of the Fourth Doctor. ROBOT has the familiar set-up of a Pertwee serial, with UNIT investigating some mysterious incident and the Doctor being brought in as a consultant (there’s even an appearance by Bessie), but Baker has an energetic vitality to him that instantly upsets the old way of doing things and starts pushing at the boundaries of the relationship with the Brig and the old format of the show. I am not arguing that Baker’s method is automatically better. I love the Pertwee run and when he was given fantastic scripts, Pertwee delivered, but where he felt totally at home in a serial like ROBOT, Baker’s Doctor runs the gamut from boredom to an interested itchiness.
ROBOT is very close to being a Tier One serial. Terrance Dicks has written an excellent script that feels much more like one, full story rather than four individual episodes. There’s really nothing majorly wrong with ROBOT except for it falling apart a bit in the fourth episode and, well, the Robot, itself. You have to have a willingness to go along with the Rubber Suited Monsters in classic WHO, of course, but this large, clunky robot is one step too far. It looks ridiculous and it moves ridiculous and then they draw your attention to how ridiculous it looks and moves by having it grow to giant size. While I’m sure the production staff did the best with what they had, it’s just doesn’t work for me.
I mean, this robot is supposed to be powerful enough to destroy the world and it’s got floppy arms.
And no hands.
It’s a shame because what the script does with the robot does largely work for me. That’s the important thing, really, that Dicks has created in the K1 robot a machine in the early stages of developing a humanity. When we get the K1 confused and struggling with his emotions, ROBOT works far better than when K1 is smashing through walls and trying not to fall over.
Dicks has stated on numerous occasions that he prefers the female Companions to be damsels-in-distress, but he delivers a very strong script for Lis Sladen to dig into in ROBOT. While the Doctor is busy figuring out who he is post-regeneration, Sarah Jane is pushing forward with an investigation into a think tank for the National Institute for Advanced Scientific Research. There’s a couple of solid evil scientists at the think tank – Miss Winters and Jellicoe – and Sarah is at her best, smiling yet forceful in tracking down her leads and investigating her suspicions.
Back at UNIT, the Doctor has been assigned his own doctor, Harry Sullivan, who’ll end up becoming a Companion in his own right. Unlike some regenerations, though, where the Doctor spends a good deal of time being scattered and ineffective to the main plot, ROBOT gets the Fourth to a good place rather quickly. As a result, we have two main plots for much of the serial’s early stages: Sarah’s investigation and the Doctor and the Brig’s investigation.
Tom Baker is on fire right from the start of ROBOT – there’s no easing into the role for him. Once he settles on an outfit, he leaps right into the investigation. What’s striking about Baker’s performance here is that it’s fun and playful. So much of his run is great because the stories get darker and more philosophical, but here the emphasis is on fun. Take the K1’s burgeoning steps into humanity – it’s Sarah Jane’s who’s primarily concerned with the robot’s feelings and state of mind. The Doctor’s philosophical reaction is largely relegated to the end of the serial. After he’s killed the robot, he’s ready to move on to the next adventure, but Sarah Jane can’t get past it.
“He was capable of great good … and great evil,” the Doctor offers by way of philosophical condolence, adding that this did, indeed, make him human.
At the end, the Doctor is ready to cut and run. He’s all grumpy about the Brig wanting him to go to meetings and meet the Queen and do paperwork, so he plans to just hop in the TARDIS and run away. Sarah chides him for being childish, and the Doctor replies that, “there’s no point being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”
There’s a host of great lines all over ROBOT, which speaks to the strengths of Dicks’ script.
“You may be a Doctor,” the Fourth says to Harry early on, “but I’m THE Doctor. The definite article, you might say.”
Near the end, the Brigadier dryly remarks, “You know, just once I’d like to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets.”
And then, as the doomsday clock ticks down and the Doctor pounds away at the keyboard to stop it, he casually tosses off that “the trouble with computers, of course, is that they’re very sophisticated idiots.”
There’s a much greater emphasis in ROBOT between action and dialogue that adds to the vitality of the script. The Doctor and Sarah’s two investigations come back together in such a moment. In his UNIT labe, the Doctor and Brig are trying to piece together what’s going on with a series of mysterious thefts. “There can’t be that many people in the country with the money and resources to design and build something like,” the Doctor begins, when Sarah walks into the lab behind him and, in her own mid-sentence chat with Benton finishes the Doctor’s rumination, exclaiming, “a giant Robot about 7 feet tall.”
There’s a secret scientific society here with Winters, Jellicoe, and (in a plot twist) Professor Kettlewell (who just might look like the most mad mad scientist in any movie or TV show ever). This plot angle works well through the middle of the episode, but at the end they’re revealed as just another crazy batch of scientists looking to fix the world by totally destroying it.
And these idiots aren’t even smart enough to have checked their food stores before they hole themselves up in their bunker.
Really, ROBOT is three episodes of awesomeness and then one episode with a weak stand-off and a giant robot. Dicks’ writing is so good in the first 3/4 of the story that the blips in the last quarter stand out. When Sarah and the K1 both disappear, and the Doctor and Brig get all up in Benton’s face, he says about the robot, “We all thought someone else took it.”
And then the Brig says, “Well, keep looking,” and it takes some wandering UNIT soldier forever to, you know, check back INSIDE THE BUNKER. Ugh.
Plot silliness in episode 4 aside, however, ROBOT is a very strong start to the Fourth Doctor’s legendary tenure. It is definitely a transitional serial as DOCTOR WHO moves from the Pertwee/Dicks/Barry Letts team to the Baker/Robert Holmes/Philip Hinchcliffe era, and while we don’t get a huge sense of where the program is going, we do get a sense that it is not going to stay where it was.