Doctor Who complete reviews: Robot
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
The Tom Baker era arrives with a visually-stunning entry for Doctor Who...
When it was announced that Matt Smith was stepping into David Tennant’s shoes as The Doctor, all I remember saying is “Huh?” With dozens of potential big names being thrown into the ring, I wondered who on Earth this new guy with the bizarre haircut was. Guilty as charged – in the end, I didn’t have to worry, since Smith has proved to be a great success in the role. But I wonder how many viewers in 1974 uttered a collective “Huh?” as Jon Pertwee’s features blurred into those of a relative unknown.
Step forward, Tom Baker. At the time, Baker wasn’t big news. He’d played the mad monk Rasputin with great gusto in the film adaptation of Nicholas And Alexandra. He’d also been in a few ropey horror films such as The Vault Of Horror and The Mutations. However, Barry Letts, always known for his shrewd casting decisions, paid a visit to the local cinema where The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad was playing. Looking for a new Doctor and acting on a tip-off, Letts found his new Time Lord, who was starring in the film as an evil prince. And before long, Baker had gone from being a building labourer to Britain’s most famous Time Lord. Oh, and also, arguably the best Doctor of them all.
Robot is rather different to the previous regeneration story, Spearhead From Space. Instead of keeping The Doctor off screen for most of the time, the new Doctor is in the thick of the action from the word go. After an astonishingly quick recuperation, the new Doctor is already making for his beloved TARDIS, chopping balsa wood bricks in two and proving to be remarkably adept with a skipping rope.
"Not only is he a whirlwind of energy, breezing about the place like a mad, curly-haired dervish, he also has the uncanny ability to go from mood to mood in a matter of seconds"
Tom Baker makes an immediate impression. Not only is he a whirlwind of energy, breezing about the place like a mad, curly-haired dervish, he also has the uncanny ability to go from mood to mood in a matter of seconds. Take the aforementioned scene in which he tries to escape in the TARDIS, only to meet with a resistant Harry Sullivan. One minute he’s full of breezy cheer (“You may be a Doctor, but I’m The Doctor, the definite article, you might say”) through to manic contemplation (“Well, nothing’s perfect – you have to take the rough with the smooth”) through to a slightly sinister edge (“Well how can I prove my point?” he mutters, before bringing flinging the brick about and bringing down a skipping rope with a crash).
Two other great examples of this new characteristic spring to mind. One is in part two, when he’s idly chatting with Miss Winters about the absence of the Robot, before subtly threatening her: “I was determined to see that Robot” he says. And of course, the sequence in which he gatecrashes a SRS meeting, offering to entertain the audience one minute and then seriously confronting the guilty Kettlewell.
This range of quickfire emotions will be seen in many of his future stories, as will many of the other fourth-Doctor trademarks established here. The moody staring into space. The rather gangly sitting positions that he gets into (he’s sprawled out in the back of the UNIT jeep or curling up like a newborn baby on a lab table at various points). All of which combine to make the new Doctor a genuinely alien presence, and Tom Baker nails the part instantly.
To ease the transition of one Doctor to another, Barry Letts decided to make the fourth Doctor’s debut story a relatively uncomplicated, straightforward action adventure in the style of previous Pertwee/UNIT stories. There’s none of the deep soul searching or moral messaging to be had though (apart from one or two choice snippets on the ecology and solar power), as Robot concentrates on telling a good story to introduce the brand new Doctor. Unsurprisingly, Uncle Terrance was brought in to do the job, since he knows the nuts and bolts of Doctor Who inside out. Robot may not be the greatest story ever told, but it’s still hugely enjoyable, and is also a clever pastiche of the film King Kong.
"What’s great about Robot is to see how the new Doctor interacts with the ready-made team"
It’s very much standard UNIT fare. The team are quickly investigating on shady goings on at a place called Thinktank, which pools all the latest scientific resources under one roof. Before you know it, Sarah’s suspicious of a pair of scientific geeks with misplaced delusions of grandeur, and wouldn’t you know it – her discovery of a clunking heap of metal ties in with The Brig’s investigations of a series of robberies which are precise targets to assemble a Disintegrator Gun – flat pack goods have nothing on this.
What’s great about Robot is to see how the new Doctor interacts with the ready-made team. He actually settles into a comfortable groove with both The Brig and Benton, who actually take his change of appearance for granted, pretty much. The Brigadier admittedly confides in Sarah that he’s quite worried about The Doctor’s health, but once his alien friend is up and running, the two seem to get on quite well. Benton too seems to take to the new Doctor, offering ideas about how to defeat the Robot and congratulating him warmly on averting a major worldwide disaster.
Sarah, however, is a different kettle of fish. For most of the story, she’s away from The Doctor, investigating on her own and getting herself into even more danger than she probably would have done with The Doctor at her side. Sarah’s recklessness knows no bounds as she finds herself cornered by robots and getting taken prisoner by the SRS nerds. It’s only at the end of the story that she comes to recognise the new Doctor in that rather sweet scene when he offers her a jelly baby. And when she joyously accepts the sweet, she finally accepts the new man on the block. Quite why she takes so long to come around is a good question. Possibly she’s grown so attached to the third Doctor (she points this out in The Brain Of Morbius) that she can’t quite comprehend what’s happened. And also, she’s never experienced the concept of The Doctor becoming a new man either. A change of K’anpo is certainly different from a changeover in a bloke that she’s been travelling around with for a good few months.
"The titular Robot is by far one of the most successful robots that’s ever strutted about in Doctor Who"
Instead, The Doctor is assisted in the beginning by newcomer Harry Sullivan, a bumbling Doctor of the old school. Harry’s the sort of man who will open doors for girls, turn up with flowers and wine on a first date, and think that swearing means “Bally!” Needless to say, Harry probably would look a bit out of place in the 21st century, but there’s a great deal of charm in Ian Marter’s performance. Marter establishes a great rapport with the new team, and brings a lot to the part, even if Harry does prove to be a bit of a fifth wheel in the end.
The titular Robot is by far one of the most successful robots that’s ever strutted about in Doctor Who. Not only is the towering costume very well designed by James Acheson, Michael Kilgarriff is excellent in the role, bringing equal amounts of menace and pathos to the table. In the end, the robot is just a hapless stooge, used by the SRS as a pawn in their deluded plan to take over the world. But what Kettlewell and the SRS goons hadn’t bargained on was that the robot would take on a personality of its own. Miss Winters scoffs that Sarah probably stands around giving motor cars pet names, but in the end the joke’s on her. The robot recognises the one person that shows it kindness, and develops a rather twisted fixation on the journalist. “You alone will be saved,” it promises after going mad and threatening to destroy the world. It’s clearly had its brain mucked about too much, as after killing its creator Kettlewell, it goes berserk, and tries to create what it thinks was his creator’s dying wish. As The Doctor says though, computers are just sophisticated idiots, doing what you tell them at remarkable speed. And sure enough, the robot does exactly that, doing what it thinks is the right thing to do, but not taking the full facts into account.
The scenes in which it grows to lofty proportions have come in for a fairly bad press, but I actually think that they’re quite well done. It helps that the outside scenes are shot on videotape – an innovation for the show in 1974, but they go with the studio scenes of the robot much better than if the exteriors had been on film. Unfortunately though, the toy tank and the Sarah rag doll wouldn’t even convince Marcie from the Charlie Brown cartoons.
"Robot looks fantastic, and it’s the sign of a rebirth in the Doctor Who production values"
In fact, these niggles aside, Robot looks fantastic, and it’s the sign of a rebirth in the Doctor Who production values. The next few years would see an increase in budget and it shows on screen. There’s a striking confidence about Christopher Barry’s direction, not just in the slick OB scenes, but also with some clever camera tricks, such as the quick cuts in The Doctor’s wardrobe choices or the speeded-up typewriter scene. The robot POV shot is also simple but effective, and even if it’s not as visually arresting as the POV shots in The Robots Of Death, it’s still quite well done. There’s plenty of fast paced action shots, such as the preparation against the unseen menace in part one, complete with barbed wire and helicopters (and a neat voiceover technique as The Brig outlines his plans). Oh, and Dudley Simpson’s music is again outstanding, with a threatening motif for the robot and some lighter cues such as when The Doctor and Harry race against time to find the solution to destroy Kettlewell’s creation.
The only slight downer is that the characters are a bit one-dimensional. Miss Winters is basically a cross between Deirdre Barlow and Anne Robinson, stomping about in great big oversized specs and sneering at everyone that crosses her path. I don’t know, these SRS types really redefine the word ‘deluded’. Jellicoe, her baldy lackey, goes from a fawning creep to a big-headed thug (even if he can’t punch for toffee). Still, a polar opposite in hair terms is of course, Kettlewell. Edward Burnham always seems to play rather hen-pecked little professors, and sure enough Kettlewell makes Watkins look like a worldly wise hard case. Kettlewell’s hair has to be seen to be believed though – a great big sticky-up bald afro which looks like the aftermath of sticking your fingers in an electric socket. Absolutely bizarre, although I kind of felt sorry for him when he realised his folly and caused a greater one by blundering into the path of an activated Disintegrator Gun.
Overall, though, Robot is a good start to what would be my personal favourite era. Big Tom rocks throughout, the story’s well constructed and is slickly and confidently brought to the screen by Christopher Barry. It also marks the last story for one of the best producers of the show. Barry Letts was possibly the producer who was most ahead of his time – not only did he shrewdly highlight the concerns of the world in the Who storylines, he also introduced a large number of brand new concepts, both fictional and technical. CSO. Outside Broadcast. The Master. Jo Grant. Sarah Jane Smith. And of course, the pivotal casting of Tom Baker. But as the DVD documentaries and commentaries demonstrate, Letts did all this with a quiet modesty and a big heart. What a genius.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.