Monday, August 24, 2015

"Robot"

Aired Dec 28, 1974 - Jan 18, 1975


4 Episodes

Story 75

Written by: Terrance Dicks

Directed by: Christopher Barry



Synopsis

As the Brigadier and Sarah watch, the Doctor regenerates, becoming a totally different person. This new Doctor is younger and possessed of a wild mass of brown curly hair, wide blue eyes and toothy grin. Initially set on immediately leaving Earth and resuming his travels, eventually the Doctor becomes intrigued by the theft of top secret plans that UNIT is investigating.

Doing some investigating of her own, Sarah uncovers that the theft was committed by a large sentient Robot created by Professor Kettlewell while he was employed at scientific research facility Think Tank. The Doctor, Sarah and UNIT soon suspect that Think Tank, led by its director Miss Winters, are behind the theft and are planning to use the stolen plans to create a disintegrator gun with which they can obtain the computer codes necessary to control the nuclear arsenals of the world's powers. Winters and her allies, including a reluctant Kettlewell, are part of a society that want to reorder society along purely logical lines.

The Doctor and UNIT thwart Winters' plans, but the danger has not passed. The Robot, which Kettlewell programmed to protect human life, has been going mad since it was reprogrammed by Winters to be capable of murder. After it inadvertently kills its creator Kettlewell, it suffers a complete breakdown and tries to launch the nuclear weapons. The Brigadier attempts to destroy the Robot with the disintegrator gun, which only succeeds in causing the Robot to grow to a gigantic size. Eventually, the Doctor and UNIT medical officer Harry Sullivan devise a chemical solution that will dissolve the Robot's unique structural makeup, and succeed in destroying the tragic creature.

In the end, the Doctor and Sarah decide to travel in the TARDIS, taking along an unbelieving Harry.


Analysis

When writing about Robot, people often comment on how the story is a holdover from the Pertwee era only with a new Doctor in the lead. There is something to that view, as the story does share the trappings of that period; the Earthbound threat, UNIT's involvement, Sarah Jane investigating, and a conspiracy of malevolent scientists. But I don't believe these aspects were unintentional on the part of writer and outgoing script editor Terrance Dicks. To my mind, that choice is intentional, though.  This is a coda to the Pertwee era, and those trappings are being deliberately used to gently introduce viewers to the idea that this new Doctor is the harbinger of a new direction for the series by accentuating how he doesn't really fit in the old paradigm.

At the centre of this is of course the radically different and immediately engaging performance of Tom Baker. A largely unknown actor and true eccentric, Baker's performance embraces the alien side of the character in ways no other actor ever had, and Terrance Dicks' script wisely decides to make the Fourth Doctor excessively manic at first in order to allow Baker to start off over-sized, then tone it down into where he wanted the character to live. Dicks gives the Fourth Doctor some his most witty and funny lines in his opening scenes, and emphasizes his anarchic spirit. The result is a central figure who is once again bit of a mystery, an unpredictable character whose energy, intensity and strangeness revitalizes the show instantly.

The story itself is frankly not all that original or sophisticated. It's basically a combination of King Kong, I, Robot and other science fiction tropes. It's a fun adventure that never drags or stumbles until Part Four, where the production clearly runs out of money at the same time that Dicks seems to run out of story (which is odd for a writer typically so good at plotting and structure). Christopher Barry does his best, but there are numerous points in the final act when the action sequences nakedly reveal the minuscule budget. The CSO that Barry Letts so embraced also is at times not entirely successful in suspending disbelief, even by the programme's prior standards.

But, the robot is well-performed, and actually does become a character, which is to the story's credit, and the human villains are nicely performed by the guest cast, even if they are pretty basic overall. 

Ian Marter makes a fun and engaging debut as new companion Harry Sullivan. Harry was created before Baker was cast, when Barry Letts thought he was going to cast an older actor for the Doctor. Harry was intended to fill the action-man role, much like the male companions of the 1960s. Though Baker's casting does make Harry a tad redundant right off the bat, I love Marter's fuddy-duddy charm and slightly pompous goofiness. He's got great chemistry with both Baker and Elisabeth Sladen right off the bat. 

So, even though Robot is not the best new Doctor introduction story from a storytelling point of view (Spearhead from Space or The Power of the Daleks share that honour) its very simplicity allows the viewer to focus on the new Doctor, and Baker takes hold of the part and instantly displays why he was about to become, for many, the definitive Doctor. The definite article, you might say.

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