It’s a new era for Doctor Who…only it’s not. At least not yet anyway.
Tom Baker has taken over from Jon Pertwee to become the fourth Doctor Who and to celebrate this dawning of a new era they have a Terrence Dicks penned UNIT story produced by Barry Letts. Ok then.
I won’t go into excessive detail about that like some reviews do, other than to say it reminds me a bit of Carry On England.
As a child I watched Carry On England and was confused as to why there were only one or two familiar faces in the cast. Where was everyone? That’s probably what casual
viewers in the 1970s thought about this one when they saw this go out.
It’s not a criticism, it’s just the way it is. So at this point where you’ve got a different bloke playing the Doctor but still hanging around with a handful of the same people, working out of the same office and driving the same car, it just feels incongruous.
And it’s made even more so by way it’s filmed. All of a sudden, despite it being made in the same production block as Planet of the Spiders, the outside broadcast stuff is now filmed on video. That just adds to the feeling that ‘something’s not right’.
Doctor Who – Robot Review: What’s This One About
Socially repressed brainiacs led by a female fashionista with Deirdre Barlow glasses plan on holding the world to ransom by threatening to detonate all of the worlds’ nuclear weapons.
And they plan on doing that with the help of a shonky looking Robot who sounds as though he’s auditioning for the
Royal Shakespeare Company.
And when that plan fails, it becomes a rural version of King Kong.
Thoughts – All About Tom
Overall, the plot of this story could be labelled as ‘safe’. As legend would have it, Robot was written and filmed by the old production team without really knowing what the new one was going to do with the show, so this – for all intents and purposes – is a Jon Pertwee story with a different man in the lead role.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it just means that it was never going to be epically memorable or ground-breaking.
As I see it you’ve got a story in three parts.
- Introducing the new Doctor
- The Think-tank Stuff
- The Giant Robot becomes King Kong
And certainly the strongest aspect of that is the introduction to Tom Baker’s Doctor.
There’s a 10 minute period in Episode 1 which is among the finest 10 minutes in the show’s history. Three scenes to introduce an actor and define his character for years to come. You’ve got the one with Harry and the ‘You might be a Doctor but I’m the Doctor…the definite article you might say’, closely followed by the one where he is about to leave but manages to remember who Sarah and the Brigadier are, and finally the one where he chooses his new costume.
All three are superb, with Tom Baker instantly grabbing the role with both hands and making himself distinctly different from Pertwee. He manages to convey how the
Doctor can be funny, serious and alien all in one go. I could certainly watch the scene where he tries on the different outfits a hundred times and still laugh (and credit must also go to Nicholas Courtney for that because the humour is in his reactions as well as Baker’s acting).
But here’s the thing; I think if I watched it at the time and had been on nothing but a diet of Jon Pertwee stories for my Doctor Who-watching life, I probably would have thought ‘Well that’s just silly’ and yearned for Pertwee to come back. All because it’s just so different and people are — initially at least – resistant to change.
Watching now with hindsight you appreciate its brilliance.
Unfortunately, I think beyond that 10 minute period – and Baker’s performance in general throughout – we’re left with a pretty unremarkable affair…
Think Tank And The Plot That Doesn’t Make Sense
Think Tank are a fairly dull threat for the Doctor to come up against. Yes, they’ve got this robot working with them, but really they are themselves a bunch of crackpots with a specialist skill of being ‘fairly intelligent’. Oooooh.
There isn’t really too much to say about them; the fact that they are defeated simply by the Doctor sitting in a chair and pressing a few buttons on a computer before their arrest shows that they aren’t really any sort of match for him in the first place.
What makes no sense to me though is the sub-plot with Kettlewell. All of a sudden he is revealed to be the mastermind behind the whole thing (even though he mostly acts like he doesn’t want anything to with it later on). As a plot twist it’s weak but reasonable if you didn’t take into account the scenes before that between Kettlewell and the other Think-Tank lot or Kettlewell and the Robot.
If they were treating him badly in front of Sarah or the Doctor I could see the point, but there are scenes – such as the one where the Robot comes to see him alone and Kettlewell can’t believe what they’ve programmed him to do – that make absolutely no sense in that case. It’s as if Kettlewell is knowingly acting in a certain way to trick the viewer rather than the other characters within the script and that goes against all laws of TV script writing.
But then very little of what he does makes sense. Why does he bother to get tied up and hidden in a cupboard? Is it to put UNIT off the scent? In which case, why invite Sarah along to the SRS meeting (with the full knowledge of UNIT) when he was planning to reveal his part in it all?
These are all issues that detract from the plot as far as I’m concerned.
The Luvvie Robot
And as to the Robot; again there are plenty of questions to be asked.
I can accept that they’ve changed his programming so that he has no problem killing people who are ‘enemies of humanity’, but the longer the story goes on, the looser its grasp on what constitutes an enemy becomes.
He starts off as a tortured soul and finishes off as a generic ‘Doctor Who Monster’ killing without a second thought.
And how exactly does a disintegrator gun turn it into a giant?
Still, you can forgive that when you’ve got a robot who speaks as though he’s a member of high society. It gives it character; a character that saves it from being considered a total dud. If that Robot had a standard ‘I…am…a…ro…bot’ voice then it would have no redeeming features.
- Over the past few years, the British branch of UNIT has saved the world from alien invasion or hostile takeover internally on 15 separate occasions. 15. And yet they aren’t given a large enough budget for the Brigadier to have a Major or a Captain under him and so he has to promote Sgt. Benton to Warrant Officer. That’s gratitude for you.
- If you watch the DVD of Robot, in the menu it shows a small clip of the Robot’s claw strangling John Scott Martin. Have a look at that little clip and watch how Martin screams in terror as he carefully moves himself forward into position for the Robot to kill him. What a fool.
- Also, in that same little scene you’ll see a phone being hit from a wall resulting in explosion. Try that at home and see what happens.
- For all the criticism I gave to the characterisation of the Brigadier towards the end of the Pertwee run and in Planet of the Spiders especially, he’s sorted himself out
again for Robot. And he’s got a haircut too. But what makes that especially galling is that it’s the same people writing and script editing.
- He gets a great line in there as well; you know the one. “The rest are all foreign.” “Well exactly”. Brilliant.
- But why is it that the Brig keeps being stunned about what the Doctor knows in terms of secret intelligence. Sure since he’s pretty much the most important part of UNIT the Brig should be sharing all this information as a matter of course?
- Shoe-horned into the plot of this one is Harry Sullivan. I think Harry becomes a terrific companion to the Doctor in his subsequent appearances, but here he’s just sort of dumped into the mix for no good reason. I can see why he would be around at the start when the Doctor is recovering from his regeneration, but he’s inexplicably involved with the rest of the story too.
- One thing that is noteworthy about this story is that Tom Baker appears to be speaking with a far more pronounced Liverpudlian accent than he ever uses again. He must have been sat down by BBC bigwigs and told to speak in a more ‘BBC’ manner.
- I mentioned it above, but I’ll say it again; there’s just something wrong with seeing the Fourth Doctor driving Bessie.
- I suppose I have to mention that tank. Awful. And yet people don’t criticise it half as much as they do the dinosaurs from the previous season. It looks like something they got from a local toy shop on the day of filming.
- How come though while the RoboKong is on the move, that he doesn’t kill or at the very least seriously injure Sarah by picking her up rather roughly and dropping her onto a roof? And why did Sarah just lie there with her hand on her forehead like something out of Gone With the Wind rather than run away when the Robot very slowly decided to grab her?
- The conclusion to the story is weak at best. The Doctor just drives up to the robot, throws some chemicals on it, and it’s done for. That’s drama at its finest right there.
Doctor Who – Robot Review: Final Thoughts
So that’s Robot. A carry over from a different era and a holding point before the ‘real’ start to the new era in the next story. It’s bland, but it’s saved by a great performance by the new man in charge.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth it for that and that alone.
Onwards and upwards to the Ark In Space!