Like The Power of the Daleks and to a lesser extent Spearhead from Space, Robot knows just where to draw the line between focusing on the Doctor’s regeneration, and getting on with the story, something that would not be done well again for many years. There is a strong comedy flavour to the regeneration, with the costume changes a good example, and the Doctor’s clowning around with Harry helps to introduce the new companion to good effect as well. It is interesting to note that the Doctor’s rejected clothes choices are all costumes, until he settles on something that is not fancy dress – eccentric, but real clothes rather than something you would only wear to a party. For an example of this done wrong see… well, every subsequent classic series regeneration.
When the Doctor starts to get properly involved in the plot, there is an instant change. The comedy is still there, but he is also managing and incredibly capable, and seems to be less concerned by events than any of his predecessors. Here is a Doctor we can rely on, but who will also give us plenty of laughs along the way, the most in-control of all the Doctors.
Tom Baker makes an instant impact in the role, injecting just the right amount of eccentricity without ever losing credibility. He has an instant rapport with both Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney. Ian Marter is an excellent addition to the team, a welcome return to the Troughton era formula of one male and one female companion. It is a shame that he was in so few stories, as he helped to bring Season Twelve to life. Sarah says Harry ‘seems a bit old-fashioned’, which sums him up very nicely.
The plot is classic Terrance Dicks, refreshingly straightforward as usual. It is also one of the last hurrahs for UNIT. Benton has been promoted to Warrant Officer and he comments that there should be a captain and a major but the UNIT budget can’t stretch that far, a nice little in joke after years of low-budget UNIT with hardly any personnel shown on screen (which of course is all about Doctor Who’s budget in reality). The Brig is as great as ever: “just once I’d like to meet an alien menace that isn’t immune to bullets” is a classic Brigadier line, and also “I’ll show that wretched woman” is very Brig as well.
The concept of a robot developing emotions is not particularly original, but it is so well written that it really feels like something new. At times we cross over into the Land of Weird Terrance: the Doctor suggests a ‘suppressed Oedipus Complex’ for the robot, which has killed its ‘father’ and kidnapped Sarah, who it presumably sees as ‘mother’. Deep stuff, and an odd inclusion in the script. One wonders if any children watching at the time made their parents uncomfortable by asking what it means.
Michael Kilgarriff is excellent as the robot, which is a very impressive costume, although he does struggle with it at times. When John Scott Martin’s guard is killed by the Robot, the actor has to offer up his neck to the robot’s hand. But I won’t hear anything against the costume because it was one of the first Doctor Who props I saw in real life, when I visited a Doctor Who exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image in London many many moons ago, sadly long closed down. Looking up at that huge robot was very impressive.
Unfortunately the production’s credibility is jeopardised as the story approaches its conclusion, when we are presented with a toy tank and some horrible CSO effects work for the robot’s growth to enormous proportions. Better choice of camera angles could have improved some of the shots; for example, when Sarah Jane is framed against the chimney the fringing around her head is very obvious, but against the white sky it disappears. Parts of the robot’s legs disappear as it grows due to CSO problems. This has been corrected for the DVD release, which is odd – either do new effects or leave things alone – don’t just tinker with one or two things! Yes, this was a very obvious fault, but there are plenty of others.
Poor visuals can often be overlooked if a story is well written, acted and directed, as the viewer is sufficiently engrossed in the plot to suspend disbelief, and this is most certainly the case with Robot. Not only do the regulars (old and new) all deliver great performances, but there are also two impressive guest roles, Edward Burnham as the bumbling, treacherous Kettlewell and, better still, Patricia Maynard as Miss Winters, a villain who deserved to return, and eventually did, in the Sarah Jane Smith audios from Big Finish. Robot had a lot to live up to in terms of regeneration stories, and it is not quite up there with the best, but it certainly comes very close.
One final thought. There is one thing about Robot that always gets overlooked, and the Doctor doesn’t even spot it. There is clearly an alien influence at work. Look at the door handles in Think Tank, in the SRS building and in the bunker. They are all exactly the same. This clearly cannot be a coincidence, and they are obviously aliens masquerading as door handles. If only the Doctor had noticed. But I am confident that Big Finish will plug that gap one day with Revenge of the Door Handles. It has to happen 😉 RP
The view from across the pond:
Having recently traveled to the utterly incredible Doctor Who Experience, I was lucky enough to encounter some old friends. And while I may be referencing one in the attached picture, I also had the opportunity to meet Roger and his wife and son after over a decade of friendship. I won’t do a review of that here, but I can take a moment to look at Robot.
Robot introduces us to Tom Baker as the Doctor. It marks the start of the Golden Era of Doctor Who. While nowhere near as strong as those that follow it over the next 2-3 seasons, it’s a great introductory story for this Doctor because it allows the Doctor time to be funny, new, brilliant and, ultimately, alien. This story is some ways King Kong, as a giant robot falls in love with a girl and runs off with her and I, Robot where said robot kills his father.
Introductory stories are typically a little weak on action and even plot as they generally have to get us used to the players. Characterizations have to be right for the viewer to get back to them each weak. Tom Baker excels at being a crazy, brilliant scientist. Our first meeting with him can’t help but delight. His post-regeneration assessment is marvelous. His clothing changes, his “definitive article” talk with Harry, his mimicking of the Titanic, and most well remembered of all, this is the episode that gave us: “There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes”! It’s spot-on, crazy fun. And it’s accessible to any age, old and young! What more could you want?
Nick Courtney as the Brigadier is wonderful, but the interaction between the Doctor and Brig is priceless. While discussing the nuclear missile bases, the Brig says “Naturally enough, the only country that could be trusted with such a role was Great Britain.” Tom replies, “Naturally. I mean, the rest were all foreigners!” It’s dialog like this that brings the story to the level of a classic. The look the Brig shoots the Doctor says it all!
Professor Kettlewell has the best hair of any villain ever. He’s another crackpot genius. He’s likable in some ways. A total fop in others. Not the best villain, certainly not the worst… watchable, certainly! The titular Robot is impressively large on his own; making him grow to Kong’s height was unexpected. He’s a good looking robot, but never sure of himself, which is sad. He’s not a bad guy, he’s a conflicted individual. The viewer can’t help but feel sorry for him.
The cast is completed by Sarah Jane (the amazingly wonderful Lis Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter). For me, Doctor Who was The Doctor, Harry and Sarah – they were the start of it all for me. Harry may be labeled “an imbecile” eventually, but he’s an absolutely likable one; a gentleman that deserves every flight in the TARDIS that he was lucky enough to have. For me, he will always be a part of that original 3 person team that brought me into Doctor Who.
There are better openers, but Doctor Who was at such an impressive height during this era. It should be watched, enjoyed and laughed with. It’s classic Doctor Who with one of the best Doctors of all time. And he is a delightful madman!
Now there’s a large, placid and potentially stupid dinosaur outside looking for a spinning mouse…. I’d better go help it out. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Ark in Space