Doctor Who Project: Robot

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There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.

Our initial outing with the Fourth Doctor shows Tom Baker clearly setting out his stall—mirthful, slapdash, haphazard, alien, and just a bit brutal. It’s a good thing he strives to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Jon Pertwee, as “Robot” (Story Production Code 4A), by longtime Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks, covers much the same ground as several Third Doctor stories. Take one part “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” one part “The Green Death,” one part “Inferno,” file off the serial numbers, and you have Dicks’ tale of a group of fascist technocrats hiding in a bunker, bent on ruling the planet with the help of technology even they can’t control.

A rude awakening

It all feels too familiar, picking up right where “Planet of the Spiders” leaves off, with the newly regenerated Doctor in the Third Doctor’s clothes on the floor of his laboratory, alongside the comforting presence of Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), a newly promoted Warrant Office Benton (John Levene), and the rest of UNIT. The Brigadier has the Doctor sent for observation in the UNIT infirmary, under the care of new arrival Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), whilst he and Sarah Jane casually discuss the recent theft of classified weapon plans and, as a completely unconnected favor to Sarah, arrange for her to be granted access to the top secret Think Tank so she can write an article. It’s there that she encounters—at the traditional first episode cliffhanger, of course—our titular menace, the Robot.

The robot from Robot, the robot K-1

It’s clumsy plotting, but four episodes leaves little time for nuance, particularly when there’s a new Doctor to introduce. Indeed, “Robot” moves with so much pace that the obligatory threat to the planet (nuclear holocaust, this time) is resolved a scant five minutes into the final installment, leaving most of an episode for UNIT to demonstrate once more its utter incompetence as a fighting force (so, again, not much different from any of the Third Doctor’s stories).

Tacked on to the end of the Season Eleven recording block, with Barry Letts still at the production helm and the Doctor dealing with yet another Earth-bound menace, there’s little reason “Robot” should have a different feel. But by the end of of the story, one can see that changes are coming. It’s hard to suggest that any prior seasons would have dressed up the Doctor as a harlequin while referencing both James Bond and King Kong…

Robo-Kong!

The robot, K-1, possesses a rudimentary, if literal, intelligence, and just like King Kong, it responds to the kindness of its Fay Wray, in this case Sarah Jane. When the scientists at Think Tank, who are part of the Scientific Reform Society (SRS) cabal that seeks to take over the Earth, try to throw Sarah Jane off their track by showing that the robot is harmless, they order it to destroy Sarah Jane. It is forced into a logical dilemma—its prime directive is to serve but never harm humanity—and the conflict causes it what seems, to Sarah, to be pain. Her tenderness towards the (then-normal sized) robot pays dividends later, when her presence causes it to hesitate after it has been reprogrammed to serve humanity by destroying humanity’s enemies, as defined by the SRS.

A tender moment

Elisabeth Sladen shows, again, that she can sustain large swaths of plot by herself, and just as in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” and “Planet of the Spiders,” Sarah Jane operates individually for several scenes, uncovering the plans of the SRS on her own. Dicks uses Sarah Jane’s journalistic background to good end, re-establishing her independence, and he gives her the sympathetic role that, previously, the Third Doctor tended to take on.

Because right from the get-go, the Fourth Doctor shows little in the way of compassion or tenderness. His manner shades towards the brusque, at once ingratiating himself and then using the feigned closeness to make a demand. Where Jon Pertwee’s Doctor would have spent time ruminating on the robot’s capability for growth, its possible sentience, even as he attempted to pacify its threat, Tom Baker’s Doctor jumps into the science of killing it with gusto. The veritable glee on the Fourth Doctor’s face as K-1 melts, the robot warbling in agony after being doused with a bucket full of “metal virus,” comes as a dissonant shock to those who remember, just six months prior, the Third Doctor attempting to save the life of the queen spider even as he died from radiation in her lair.

See what I did?!

No, this is very much a new Doctor, though both Dicks and Baker take pains to suggest that the hardness, the near-callousness, stems from a sense of otherness rather than any deeper well of malice. The Fourth Doctor behaves far outside the norms of human culture, not from any desire to harm or offend but from a very real puzzlement as to why he should “behave” and conform at all. He is, after all, an alien, and unlike his predecessors, he sees no reason to hide the fact.

He is capable of serious focus and involvement, but only when the subject interests him; unlike the Third Doctor, he feels no strong sense of obligation (thus far) to humanity, or UNIT, or even Sarah Jane. He is free, the TARDIS is unlocked and at his disposal, and he intends to be off and about. At the end of the story, he does recognize Sarah’s despondency at K-1’s demise, but he consoles her not out of any sense of personal remorse at his actions; he simply reminds her that he had to do what he did to save everyone from the threat posed by the increasingly irrational robot. He offers her a jelly baby and a ride in the TARDIS to cheer her up.

Sorry about the robot. Jelly baby?

It’s an offer she accepts, and with her comes Harry Sullivan, the doctor assigned to care for the recuperating Doctor. As soon as Harry is delegated to go undercover at Think Tank to discover the plans of the SRS, one has the sneaking suspicion that he’s not just a guest star or random UNIT fill-in. He’s not particularly good at espionage, getting captured after calling the Brigadier on a phone in a busy hallway, and he adds no obvious physical/”action hero” attributes that Baker lacks, so his presence won’t be needed in the way Ian, Steven, or Jamie’s was. But he does provide another touchstone of “humanity” to the TARDIS crew—it’s as though both he and Sarah Jane will be needed to balance to the Fourth Doctor’s otherness, at least in the beginning.

Introducing Harry Sullivan

Along with this otherness comes a hefty dose of humor, ranging from the deadpan to the vaudevillian. While Jon Pertwee imbued the Third Doctor with quite a bit of physical humor, never passing up a chance to contort his face while wrestling with tentacles or making an over-exuberant Venusian karate chop, the laughs seldom derived from language itself. Tom Baker does use his equally expressive face to good comedic effect, and director Christopher Barry spends a fair bit of time on the Fourth Doctor’s efforts at settling on his now-iconic hat-and-scarf costume.

Left over from The Time Meddler, no doubt.

But the real humor, at least on the example of a single story, stems from the writing, as the Doctor and his co-stars are given some very choice lines, with a knowing wit:

Brigadier: Well, naturally enough, the only country they trusted with such a role was Great Britain.

Doctor: Well, naturally. I mean, the rest are all foreigners.

Brigadier: Well, exactly.

And later still, the Brigadier exclaims, “You know, just once, I’d like to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets,” a situation he puts to the test when he gets his hands on the disintegrator ray developed by SRS. When he turns it on the utterly bulletproof K-1, it grows to enormous proportions, siphoning the energy from the ray into the “living metal” of its outer skin. So while the action on screen may be somewhat rote at this point, at least everyone involved sees it for what it is.

And what is it? A rehashed story at the end of the UNIT cycle. The plot revolves around the Fourth Doctor being clever at the right moments and the UNIT lads firing away at Robo-Kong with their beloved bazooka to fill time after the Doctor stops nuclear armageddon with two seconds to spare (and fifteen minutes to go in the story). Still, for a regeneration story, “Robot” stays mostly out of the way, allowing Tom Baker to fill the screen whenever he’s given a chance. Terrance Dicks feeds Baker and friends decent dialogue—as script editor, he was very much responsible for massaging the work of other writers to fit the show anyway, so if anyone knows the pulse of these characters, it would be him—and points the show in a new direction, even as it circles around the maypole one more time.

The nose knows.

On his debut, Tom Baker feels very comfortable in the Fourth Doctor’s skin, playing the change-over without any hesitation or uncertainty. There’s none of the Second Doctor’s caginess, trying to convince Polly and Ben; none of the Third Doctor’s bravado and sangfroid regarding his exile, begrudgingly taking a position with UNIT in order to fix the TARDIS. The Fourth Doctor simply flows onto the scene with a welcome confidence, scarf trailing behind, inviting you to follow. Should be quite a journey.

(Previous Story: Planet of the Spiders)

Post 78 of the Doctor Who Project

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