Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Doctor Who (Classic): "Robot"

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who (Classic): "Robot"

"Robot" (season 12, episodes 1-4; originally aired 12/28/1974-1/18/1975)

Before landing the role that would make him an icon of science-fiction TV, Tom Baker spent six years studying to be a monk, did a stint in the army, worked a construction job, and played an evil wizard in a Ray Harryhausen movie. As resumes go, that's all over the place, and it reminds me of a Dave Foley line from NewsRadio: "Sounds like a drifter." But it's somehow perfect for the guy who gave us the most unpredictable incarnation of the Doctor in the history of the show and helped it achieve both some of its greatest moments and some of its worst.

"Robot," his 1974 debut, is a mixed bag—certainly not a disaster, but hampered by a story full of holes and logical inconsistencies. It's still fun to watch, thanks to the charisma of the actors, a wealth of clever moments, and some inconsistent but mostly engaging sci-fi adventure.

Regeneration stories always have twice as much to carry as other Doctor Who stories, since they not only introduce the new lead but usually do so by wrapping that reveal around a plotline that's otherwise unrelated to the regeneration. (Next week's "Castrovalva" is one of the rare exceptions.) "Robot" succeeds splendidly as Tom Baker's debut, but the main plotline never really gels.

The Third Doctor's era began in "Spearhead From Space" (which we looked at last week) by making as clean and sharp a break from the past as possible. But the Fourth starts off with one foot firmly set in the immediate past. The reason why, I think, is that this time around, nobody was worried that the show was going to be axed.

"Spearhead" needed to introduce both the new Doctor and his newfound setting and behaved almost as if it were the pilot for an entirely new series, in part because the old version of the show had been in danger of cancellation. In 1975, the show was a comfortable popular success, and the trick was to pivot in a new direction without alienating the old audience. Thus, "Robot" gets up to speed much faster, assuming that we already know who all the principal characters are and that the previous season ended mid-scene as the Doctor regenerated into his new body.


So if you're in 2011 and jumping on for the first time at this point, you're going to feel a bit at sea. To catch you up on the things set up in "Spearhead" that carry over into "Robot": The Doctor is no longer exiled to Earth, but he's still living there and working with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT, the military taskforce he allied himself with five years earlier in "Spearhead." Liz Shaw is long gone, and taking her place in the role of female sidekick is Sarah Jane Smith, a perky but nosy reporter. At the end of the last serial, "Planet of the Spiders," the Doctor was injured and is now lying collapsed on the floor of his lab in UNIT HQ.

The Tom Baker era really begins in earnest with the following episode, "The Ark In Space," the first one produced by incoming showrunner Philip Hinchcliffe, which returns the Doctor to the role of wanderer across the cosmos. "Robot," on the other hand, sees him tracking down an Earth-grown menace with the help of UNIT and was even filmed concurrently with "Planet of the Spiders" under Pertwee's producer, Barry Letts, with a story written by outgoing script editor Terrance Dicks. Although Doctor Who was preparing to move firmly away from the hallmarks that had characterized the Jon Pertwee years—UNIT  most especially—"Robot" isn't really a Fourth Doctor story as much as a Third Doctor story with the Fourth shoehorned into it. That sounds clumsy, but it was probably done on purpose and with the specific goal in mind of showcasing just how weird this new Time Lord was by accentuating how normal and familiar his surroundings are. Nobody's even fazed by the regeneration itself: As this unconscious stranger lies on the ground in front of him, the unflappable Brigadier sighs, "Well, here we go again."


The new Doctor is an immediately anarchic force in his own series. He wakes up, disoriented and babbling incoherently, and is taken away to the sickbay. Actually, though, those first lines of his are weightier than they might seem, and it's worth unpacking them. His first two sentences are taken directly from two of the previous season's episodes ("The Time Warrior" and "Invasion of the Dinosaurs"), establishing that this Doctor is still the same as the ones before him. It's still a common technique on the series today: The Eleventh Doctor's Flesh duplicate in "The Almost People" proved he was more than just a copy by spouting off lines from previous Doctors.)

The fact that it sounds like random nonsense is actually somewhat important, establishing that this Doctor is going to be a more anarchic and comic presence than his predecessor. Of course, Pertwee's first line was a similar joke, blearily saying only the word "shoes" to his befuddled physician, who wonders if he's been brain-damaged. But that's nothing compared to a brilliant non-sequitur like, "I tell you Brigadier, there's nothing to worry about. The brontosaurus is large and placid." (And note Harry Sullivan's subtle introduction as Baker completes the self-quotation with, "And stupid.")


Baker's next couple of lines aren't taken from older episodes, but they serve the same dual function—seemingly random, comic babbling that subtly links the Doctor both to scientific rationalism (the Pythagorean theorem) and a more intuitive way of thinking (the Zen koan "why is a mouse when it spins").

Taken together, they suggest another literary ancestor of the Fourth Doctor: Sherlock Holmes. It won't be the last time "Robot" invites that comparison. It's noteworthy, in fact, how much "Robot" resembles a science-fictional take on a Holmes story. Much of the plot revolves around the Doctor, Sarah, and UNIT slowly piecing together what the villains are up to, clue by clue. And the Doctor's arrogant behavior toward the Brigadier and UNIT is essentially the same as Holmes' to Lestrade and the London police force—he helps them partly to unravel the mystery and partly to prove how much smarter he is than they are. Deducing the existence of a quarter-ton thief based on the remains of a pulverized dandelion, almost literally rubbing the evidence in the Brigadier's face, is pure Holmes. (Should anyone be surprised that Steven Moffatt has simultaneously pulled off successful reinventions of both characters?)


Baker's eccentricities and clownish energy are a huge contrast with Jon Pertwee but very much in line with the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. Like Two, Four is going to be a trickster figure, keeping his foes off-balance with his unpredictability. Baker would also add a deliberate touch of alienness, projecting the idea of a Doctor who is operating on a different mental plane than his companions and is preoccupied with issues on a more cosmic scale than mere human concerns. Much of that is developed in later episodes, though. In "Robot" itself, the Holmesian aspect dominates, along with bursts of childishness and whimsy that aren't too dissimilar to the mood swings of the previous three Doctors. Whether he's a snappish old man, avuncular hobo, courtly gentleman, or wandering bohemian, the Doctor is always also a bit of an 8-year-old boy. Baker was far more mercurial than the others, though, turning on a dime from grim brooding to manic glee.

The main plot concerns a mysterious series of robberies that are eventually revealed to be part of a world-takeover plot by a group of unpleasantly arrogant would-be technocrats, complete with Nazi-esque armbands. It feels a lot like a mid-'60s Avengers episode and for good reason—Terrance Dicks wrote a mid-'60s Avengers episode, "The Mauritius Penny," that has some uncanny similarities.


The other obvious influence is King Kong, whose tragic story is echoed in the rise and fall of the misunderstood and all too easily duped K-1 Robot, with the good-hearted Sarah Jane Smith in the Fay Wray role. It's worth noting that it's Elisabeth Sladen's performance that first sells the notion that the audience should sympathize with the Robot, which we see at first as nothing more than a huge, lumbering force of destruction.

Paying homage to earlier sci-fi/horror stories was something Doctor Who was no stranger to (see "Tomb of the Cybermen") but the "Robot" presaged a whole slew of similar homages over the next few seasons under Hinchcliffe's aegis. On that subject, Dicks once noted that "My old friend Mac Hulke used to say that to write science fiction, or any kind of fiction, you needed a strong original idea. It didn't have to be your strong original idea." Don't take that as a lack of creativity, though—the early Tom Baker years are pretty much the golden age of Doctor Who. The starting points were often  familiar, but the stories generally spun in new and fresh directions.


In "Robot," though, the homage doesn't really work. The Kong/Fay Wray relationship between Sarah and the metal being is nicely established and even sweet, but I wish they would have stopped there, instead of trying to re-create the Empire State Building biplane battle with the Doctor's yellow roadster and a bucket of slime. The idea that the Robot's "living metal" lets it grow to enormous size is clearly a holdover from the original King Kong concept, but it's not properly set up in the script. It seems to come out of nowhere and only serves to prolong the story past its natural ending point somewhere in the third episode.

As for the special effects: You have to cut some slack to a low-budget TV show in 1975, but even back then it was obvious that the tank that's disintegrated in episode three was merely a remote-control toy. The Robot costume, which gets a lot more screen time, is much more effective, although note that in the middle of a gunfight, another character has to help it down some steps because the actor couldn't see where he was going.


Besides the new Doctor, we're introduced to another new character—Harry Sullivan, a pompous and dim but good-hearted physician played by Ian Marter. Harry doesn't have much to do in "Robot," but afterwards, he becomes a member of the TARDIS crew for the rest of this season. He makes a great comic foil for Baker, who constantly runs circles around him, and I suspect he was the inspiration for the similar dynamic between the Ninth Doctor and Rose's boyfriend Mickey.

Stray observations:

  • Nicholas Courtney has some wonderful comic moments here as the target of Baker's pranks and jibes, showing how funny a talented straight man can be. The double take he gives after the "they're all foreigners" line is priceless. Too bad he's all but gone from the show after this.
  • Even though it's illogical and thus out of character for the Robot, I like the fact that it fakes out the Doctor by pretending that it shuts down when he puts his hat over its eyes.
  • Kudos to Edward Burnham as the dotty Professor Kettlewell, who not only suggested the cartoonish Einsteinian hair and coke-bottle glasses but gives the poor dupe enough genuine humanity that the costume doesn't turn him into a clown.
  • There are a couple of coincidental echoes between "Robot" and the episode I looked at two weeks ago, "Tomb of the Cybermen." The Robot itself was played by Michael Kilgarriff, who played the less sympathetic Cyber-Controller in "Tomb." And Think Tank seems like a modern-day version of the Brotherhood of Logicians.
  • Here's what we're tackling in the upcoming weeks, starting with Peter Davison's debut as the Fifth Doctor:
    July 3: "Castrovalva"
    July 10: "The Twin Dilemma"
    July 17: "Time and the Rani"
    July 31: "Doctor Who: The Movie"
    Aug. 7: "The Daleks"
    Aug. 14: "The Mind Robber"
    Aug. 21: "The Time Warrior"
    Aug. 28: "The Brain of Morbius"
    Sept. 4: "Earthshock"