Friday, October 10, 2014


"The pub you say?"
What do you do if you mix James Bond, King Kong, Isaac Asimov, filter it through the formula of a routine Third Doctor serial, take out the Jon Pertwee and put some Tom Baker in instead? In case you're unsure, the answer is 'Robot,' the inaugural Fourth Doctor serial of Doctor Who. The basic plot is this: in the wake of the Third Doctor's regeneration, the plans for a top-secret disintegrator gun have been stolen. This turns out to be the work of an organisation called the Scientific Reform Society, a technocratic-fascist organisation using the gun and a robot built by one of its members, Kettlewell, to steal launch codes held in Britain which control the entire world's nuclear arsenal. UNIT attacks the SRS bunker while they're threatening the world, they take out the people, the robot goes mental after killing its creator and is accidentally turned into a giant through the combination of the Brigadier turning the disintegrator gun on it and some iffy CSO work, and then Tom Baker throws a bucket of soapy water on it and it melts. As usual the Doctor gets knocked out, Sarah Jane gets captured a couple of times and the Brigadier frowns a lot at all the silliness going on around him despite doing a lot of fairly silly things himself.
A sudden prophetic vision of 'Battlefield.'
It's weird to think that in the run-up to New Who Series 8, they were bigging up the idea that the introduction of their Doctor would take cues from Tom Baker's first season as the Doctor, with this new man being a 'difficult' incarnation. Unsurprisingly they're talking out of their rear ends, as the Fourth Doctor's not especially difficult at all. He's more distant - one of his character traits in this serial is not always bothering to listen to people a good deal - and he's very chirpy, but beyond a little bit of tomfoolery with the Brigadier and one or two scenes where he's still recovering his memory and identity he's not especially difficult at all. It's interesting to observe that Tom Baker 'hits the ground running' as the cliché goes in this serial, establishing a pretty firm grasp on his character more or less immediately. His voice and expressions, as well as his costume, go a long way towards this of course. It must have been shocking at the time going from the smoothly-spoken, swashbuckling Third Doctor to this much more mercurial and yet enigmatic figure. In that regard despite how run-of-the-mill it is 'Robot' succeeds as an opportunity to establish the character of this new Doctor, obviously in a comfortable environment. The important thing is that characters aside, it's a comfortable plot and setting, which allows us to see the Fourth Doctor as someone who - and we can even see this from the blocking of scenes, for instance - is someone willing to stand back for a moment, survey the situation, and then proceed to show up everybody around him.
"Now do your best 'there's a big robot over there' look."
It's very odd, of course, seeing Tom Baker driving the Third Doctor's car Bessie, for instance, which was immediately abandoned after this serial. It's also curious to think that this serial, broadcast in late 1974 and early 1975, is using characters first established in the late Sixties, '68 for Lethbridge-Stewart and '69 for Benton. Characters connecting the Tom Baker era to the Patrick Troughton era? Weird. UNIT's obviously run its course by this point though, and the Fourth Doctor doesn't fit with them, so it's appropriate enough that he leaves at the end: "I really think we've had enough bangs and flashes for a bit, don't you?" I think the idea that the Third Doctor is 'establishment' is a bit oversold, but the introduction of the Fourth really displays a rejection of any association with, much less loyalty to, parochial human institutions on the part of the character, the Doctor essentially deciding that his role as UNIT's scientific advisor simply doesn't matter. An interesting analogue is that the human conspiracy is defeated early in the final episode, with the remainder devoted to defeating the rogue robot itself. The serial really establishes itself as somewhat beyond the point where 20th century espionage and intrigue is particularly worthy of attention.
"Does he do interviews?"
In fact the serial in general doesn't devote enormous amounts of time to any one thing in particular beyond perhaps the Robot itself. The new Doctor's character is established in a handful of scenes. Our brand new companion, Harry, in fact barely appears at all in the second and third episodes. Sarah gets a fair shake, but beyond a remark about chauvinism they're totally forgetting the entire notion of Sarah as a particularly outspoken feminist character, spending a lot of time in rather impractical outfits (I immediately thought 'heels' when she got her cliché trip in front of the growing robot) and getting captured, menaced and placed in the bizarre position of the robot's surrogate mother. That being said, 'Robot' is a good example of how well Sarah Jane functions, particularly in these Earth-centric serials, when she has the opportunity to actually operate as a full protagonist in her own right rather than as simply a tag-along to the Doctor, because her investigative skills and willingness to use trickery and guile to get to the truth allow her to operate very competently as the Doctor's associate. Another strong element, of course, is the fact that she has such an immediate rapport with Tom Baker's Doctor. Viewing it through the modern lens, it's interesting to observe that her evident relief that her friend is still alive is clearly of far greater importance than any changes to his appearance or personality.
The Terrance Dicks Monument.
One thing I thought was somewhat interesting viewing this is the rather blasé approach to the threat of nuclear disaster, one which is, to a degree, also evoked in 'The Hand of Fear' a couple of years later. I realise that they were kind of aiming towards an ambiguous near-future setting during the UNIT era, but all the talk of peace between the superpowers and so on is rather surprising. More surprising too is the UK, with its "special relationship" with the United States, being a dyed-in-the-wool NATO founder and everything, being presented as a supposedly "neutral" country in possession of the American, Soviet and Chinese nuclear codes. Somehow I doubt that that would ever have been a possibility. It's interesting to perceive, however, a time period in the relative calm of the mid-Seventies, post-Vietnam, in which evidently nuclear warmongering was able to be presented as the purview of comic-book evil organisations rather than mainstream political activity. Indeed the nuclear threat posed by the fascistic SRS group, I would argue, portrays such policies as, in a sense, "Nazi behaviour," which may or may not say something about the behaviour of the real nuclear-armed groups, which is to say world governments, and whether they were in any degree holding the world to ransom. It's interesting to observe here Jellicoe's remark that the higher-budget group which develops Think Tank projects is "usually the government." There's a little slice of Seventies social politics that makes this story stand out in today's corporatocratic world.
"Have I told you about Scratchman?"
Another mention ought to go, of course, to a few other important characters in the serial: Hilda Winters, the leader of SRS, and Professor Kettlewell, inventor of the Robot. Winters, one might argue, is intended as a foil for both Sarah and the Doctor. She specifically makes the joke about Sarah being a "chauvinist" when she assumes that the head of Think Tank would be a man, and I would argue that the character's empowerment and her villainy aren't given much explanation, and I wouldn't begrudge anyone thinking that the character is rather problematic. We never find out why Winters and the SRS are so fascistic, so it's easy to see it as Terrance Dicks taking his regular jab at feminism. The fact that this is the point where everyone pretty much gives up on the characterisation of Sarah as an outspoken "women's lib" type may or may not add to that. As I always say, this isn't my area of expertise in criticism. I could do a utopian reading of the text, but I couldn't be arsed. Of course Winters' technocratic fascism and scientific irresponsibility also make her an effective opponent for the Doctor. The character is not, perhaps, given her full due, but there are definitely some striking elements there. Kettlewell is another Doctor-analogue, an eccentric radical scientist, but one who lacks conviction or firmness of purpose. There's also, of course, the whole plot device of his "living metal" and "metal virus" which both become elements of pure convenience by the end. Those ideas could almost carry a plot on their own independent of any Earth-centric Robots, while the intended purpose of the Robot, to perform tasks too dangerous for humans, doesn't fully get its due either. There's probably something to be made about intelligent and arguably emotional robots which are nonetheless purely intended to fulfil dangerous and unpleasant tasks, but the argument more ends up being that powerful people are all the more dangerous if they're weak-willed and easily influenced or lack the necessary wisdom to use their power responsibly. Something like that, at least. In this way, of course, the Robot and the SRS reflect each other as well.
"I expect coffee breaks, lunch breaks, and breaks
to salute a picture of the Queen five times a day."
All in all, 'Robot' isn't exactly the most groundbreaking of introductory stories for a new Doctor, but after five years of Jon Pertwee that might have been for the best. My biggest criticisms would probably be that Harry's not given nearly enough of an introduction given that he's the new companion, and that the plot I feel doesn't fully get to flex some of its more interesting ideas what with all the running around, UNIT blowing stuff up, Sarah and Harry getting captured and the Robot going crazy. I'm not fond of criticising Doctor Who's special effects because I think in a lot of cases it took guts to at least try stuff even if it looked crap, and personally I could completely live with the CSO work in this serial, but I have to admit that the Robot costume isn't terrific. If I'm going to be perfectly honest, though, I think the design is probably its biggest drawback because it's so bulky and clumsy. There are some pretty corny moments, too, like the stupid costumes the Doctor tries on and that pointless reference the Doctor and Harry make to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I realise I haven't actually spent an enormous amount of time discussing Tom Baker's introduction here, but I think that's because it's so understated and enmeshed with the writing as it stands. It's interesting as an end to the UNIT era though, although we'd see them again in 'Terror of the Zygons' and get another half-hearted motions towards them with 'The Android Invasion,' before they appear with no familiar faces in 'The Seeds of Doom,' because it really shows the Doctor leaving them behind. The universe of the Fourth Doctor is just too big for them, which fits given that this is followed by probably the most ambitious and imaginative run of stories, in my opinion, since mid-Hartnell. It's also odd to think that this and 'Spearhead from Space' are the only two original Doctor Who post-regeneration serials to be set on Earth (unless you count the TV Movie, I guess). But that's fair enough, because 'Robot' works as a safe launching point which really permits the subsequent seven years of Fourth Doctor serials to scale impressive heights of adventure.
"Stand back, it's going to be a big one."

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