Robot [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But lately I decided to spend both some of my birthday and Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

(Daily Doctor Who #221)


Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.
Companions: Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith and Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan
Recurring Characters: Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and John Levene as Warrant Officer Benton.
Written by Terrance Dicks.  Directed by Christopher Barry

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  December 1975 – January 1976 (Episodes 1-4 of Season 12)

Robot was the beginning of a new era in Doctor Who. Tom Baker was now the Doctor, making his first appearance, alongside one prior companion (Sarah Jane Smith) and one brand new (Harry Sullivan).

Spoilers Ahead!

Robot is a funny animal–in many ways a Third Doctor story, but without the Third Doctor. The Doctor drives around in Bessie, working alongside hapless UNIT soldiers, alternately advising and arguing with the Brigadier, confronting an entirely earth-bound science-gone-mad threat. In spite of the story’s roots in Frankenstein, there is nary a trace of the gothic-horror influences that the show was about to become so known for. These similarities to the prior season are not surprising–Barry Letts was still producing (for the last time), and though Terrance Dicks was no longer the script editor, he was in fact the writer of this story. Really, the only sure sign that the show had entered into a new era was Tom Baker himself and the manic energy that he brought to the part.

No Doctor before had the same sort of flippant madness that Tom Baker had, though held in place by genuinely child-like charm. It’s like the Doctor, having given in his life out of deep sense of responsibility and duty as seen in Planet of the Spiders, has taken the opportunity afforded by his regeneration to re-discover the magic of being a child. As he even says in this story, “There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t act a little childish sometimes.”

Tom Baker is a big part of the charm of this story but there are other elements that work as well. Sarah Jane gets to do extensive journalism work (maybe for the last time in the classic series?) so that’s cool to see. Ian Marter is charming addition to the cast as the old-fashioned and stuff Harry Sullivan (even if the character ended up being a bit redundant), although he doesn’t get to actually do very much. And its always good to see the Brigadier and Benton as part of things, even if their days in the series were numbered.

Robot K1 makes a unexpectedly sympathetic menace, generating a fair amount of pathos considering it’s not quite believable design. Terrance Dicks, as mentioned, pulls from Frankenstein to make the creature more interesting than the mindless killing machine one might expect. K1 ends up surprisingly “human” and relatable in his quest to understand his purpose.

From the point of view of the plot, the biggest surprise was the revelation that Professor Kettlewell was actually in league with the villains. But I think the story would have played out better if he had stuck to his guns as a bad guy rather than making him the misguided fool that he was. The climax, with the Robot defeated by the Doctor driving up and throwing something at it is sadly uninspired, and makes the ending less satisfying than it should have been.

Robot is far from a masterpiece, and it is a bit of an anomaly as a Fourth Doctor story, but as a transition from one era to another, it works just fine.

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