Robot

DVD NTSC
Region 1


(for North America)
DVD PAL
Region 2

(for Europe)
VHS Video
NTSC
PAL
(Doctor Who Story No. 75, introducing Tom Baker)
  • written by Terrance Dicks
  • directed by Christopher Barry
  • produced by Barry Letts
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The Doctor transforms into his fourth incarnation at UNIT Headquarters. New companion Harry Sullivan is introduced, and joins Sarah, the Brigadier, and Sgt. Benton in helping the Doctor thwart the misuse of a large robot by a group of scientists at Thinktank. Led by icy guest villain Miss Winters, the Thinktank group plan to dominate the world with their strict new order.

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Tom Baker (The Doctor), Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), writer Terrance Dicks, and producer Barry Letts.
  • "Are Friends Electric?" making-of documentary (39 min.) adding Patricia Maynard (Miss Winters), Edward Burnham (Kettlewell),
    Michael Kilgarriff (The Robot), Alec Linstead (Jellicoe), director Christopher Barry, production unit manager George Gallaccio, and
    in-coming producer Philip Hinchcliffe.
  • "The Tunnel Effect" interview with title designer Bernard Lodge (14 min.)
  • Blue Peter segment from the sets of "Robot" (2 min.)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery sound effects montage (4 min.)

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


Here we begin Doctor Who's 12th season and the long, popular, 7-year run of Tom Baker stories. His even-numbered seasons seem to strike me as being richer than the odd-numbered ones as a rule (as is often the case with Star Trek feature films), although many individual stories also seem to run against such a generalization. A big drawback with this season specifically is that it is far too TARDIS-less precisely when this main vehicle for the show needs to demonstrate itself to new "Tom Baker only" audiences.


Never Assume That the Audience Already Knows Your Show

No other story in the history of Doctor Who has been more greatly called upon to act as a surrogate "pilot" for the show than "Robot". North American stations in particular love to start a run of Doctor Who at this point, where incoming lead actor Tom Baker has often been so popular that his predecessors and successors on the show are virtual unknowns, and where there are no more missing episodes, or black-and-white substitutes for colour episodes.

Any story that opens a new season should make a special effort to give "entrances" for the main characters and the main properties of the TARDIS such that any audience can "get" it, and any story that introduces a new actor in the lead role should also be written as a surrogate pilot story, capable of impressing new viewers with the kind of dynamics they should expect from the rest of the show and bringing them up to speed on who's who and what's what. But, although Doctor Who writing legends Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes were at the helm of this script and turned out a thoroughly fun and enjoyable tale, "Robot" is somewhat lacking as a pilot story.

The Tom Baker show opens on a fairly confusing sequence of shots composed for the previous story, with the Brigadier rushing to confront some off-screen unknown before Sarah re-directs his attention, and with a trick dissolve changing the appearance of a man on the floor for reasons not fleshed out for newly acquired viewers. Reactions between the Brigadier and Benton soon begin to give the audience some idea how to take in what is going on, while the Doctor's first lines of babbling add to the confusion side of the scale.

Harry Sullivan is officially introduced to the series in the midst of this chaos, and it is perhaps a bit of a pity that the whole thing wasn't told from his perspective. As a new character, he could perfectly represent a new audience, and ask all the who-are-you, what's-going-on questions that would inform them. Isn't that what Terrance Dicks is fond of citing as one of the two most important functions of a Doctor Who companion's role in story-telling? What a pity Harry wasn't allowed to get on with it when it was needed most.


Early on we cut to the antagonists' opposing thread in the story, composed initially of the Robot's point of view as it stalks about at night. Three cheers for Dudley Simpson, who steps up to deliver a memorable and totally appropriate theme for the lumbering automaton. This is easily the most memorable piece of music from the season. Simpson continues to provide an excellent score for the story, capitalizing on his "Robot" theme, and providing some classic "humour" music to back Tom's next few initial scenes as the Doctor. Episode one is a particular favourite of mine from the season, musically speaking. I think it's the best Simpson has done since season nine. He, for one, is putting in the extra effort one would hope for in a "pilot" story.

It is disappointing and surprising that the script doesn't do a better job of introducing the Doctor as a whole character, but rather focuses on how the fourth version now played by Tom Baker will be different from his predecessors. We don't really learn that the Doctor is, at least partly, an alien from another planet who can actually travel around the universe a lot. His history with and relationship to the Brigadier and UNIT is also glossed over too quickly in one line from Sarah Jane, when she mentions that he is still supposed to be UNIT's scientific advisor. Far more screen time is given over to portraying Tom's Doctor as a madman instead. In hindsight of his era, it is actually a lot of on-the-money classic humour from his character, portrayed perfectly well. I love the sequence of him choosing his new outfit in particular. But it's all a little overboard for a pilot, or for fans of the show up until now seeing Tom's new Doctor for the first time.

The significance of that odd blue box in the corner of the lab also goes by undemonstrated and unexplained. What really should a brand new audience make of it, or all the shenanigans of the characters playing around it? What is the significance of that wheezing, groaning sound that makes the Brigadier and Sarah panic in episode one? This story doesn't say, and it all adds to the unfortunate, incorrect first impression that the main character of this quaint little British show is simply mad.


Casting and the Adventure at Hand

The fourth Doctor finally begins to fair excellently when he gets to confront the current challenge of investigating the Robot. Finally his quirky eccentricities carry their weight, by quickly leading him to answers others overlook, and thankfully he is always proven right in this story. Tom Baker's Doctor also manages to totally avoid many of the pitfalls of previous eras. They don't shoot episodes when the star's away on holiday anymore, for one thing. For another, the fourth Doctor refuses to be a Man of Sleep. He can hardly utter two lines from a lazy, prone position before bolting upright with new energy and rushing off to sink his intellect into some new issue and take some action to put it right. "Robot" contains some of the best examples of this, neatly counterpointing Tom with his predecessor. Doomsaying is also far more limited from now on in Doctor Who. Things are looking up.

"Robot" also benefits from the larger cast of regulars and the UNIT atmosphere, which does help to "anchor" Tom into his role. Tom's Doctor even gets to drive around in the Doctor's classic yellow car, Bessie, which is a bonus unique to this particular story. Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier is enjoyable as usual, although it's a pity that his character doesn't appear to be more capable of dealing with the Robot. His poor armoured tank doesn't stand a chance, and even turning the disintegrator gun on it hinders matters more than it helps. It's destined to be more Tom's day than the Brigadier's this time. John Levene's Sgt. Benton is also on hand to help keep things interesting. He actually has a good day this time around, getting a small promotion, and paying enough attention to Professor Kettlewell's ramblings to be able to suggest a solution that leads to victory at the end of the day, showing up the Brigadier some. Not the first time the Brigadier has given him a stern look to wipe the proud smile off of his face....

Ian Marter also joins the cast as a regular this time, and although his character Dr. Harry Sullivan isn't too bright a chap at times, Marter makes him enjoyable to watch, and a fun foil for the Doctor to play off of. Marter had previously played Andrews in "Carnival of Monsters" (story no. 66) with equal excellence. Elisabeth Sladen is wonderful as usual as Sarah Jane Smith, the only character really unaffected by the big changes in the show, who carries the story quite a bit near the beginning.

The guest cast also includes a few great returning actors. Michael Kilgarriff, the Cyberleader from "Tomb of the Cybermen" (story no. 37), dons another metallic costume to play the giant "Robot" of the title. He actually gets to speak his own lines this time, and with his voice nicely processed in the sound department, turns in an enjoyable performance, satisfactorily emotive when necessary, believably robotic in more "straight" circumstances. Edward Burnham makes a lovable bumbling old eccentric as Professor Kettlewell, decidedly contrasting with his more normal performance as Travers' replacement Professor Watkins during UNIT's inception in "The Invasion" (story no. 46). Regular stuntman Terry Walsh also gets a role as an SRS guard, in which he does a few flips over and around Tom Baker. Unfortunately, not his best work on the show.

Patricia Maynard makes a believably icy guest villain as Miss Winters. Apart from being a woman where one might expect a man, her character is rather a stereotypical villain, and as such gets easily outshone by most other villains this season. Jellicoe is also rather bland, and although Alec Linstead plays him nicely enough, his performance as Sgt. Osgoode in "The Daemons" (story no. 59) was much more interesting.


Executing onto Videotape

Veteran Doctor Who director Christopher Barry, who introduced us to firsts like The Daleks and Patrick Troughton's Doctor, and who also directed the much-loved "Daemons" story, does quite well here in getting fun, enjoyable performances out of the cast, and an adequate, entertaining job of getting the camera to shoot the story such that anyone can follow it, such as it was scripted.

Many of the effects obviously could have been better planned, lined-up, and executed. The disintegrator gun is disappointing, not only in that it has an effect solely for its target and no visual beams for its line of fire, but also in that the Robot holds and points it so much like a sissy that it is hard to recognize as a weapon. Barry has not directed the Robot to be all that impressive a physical fighter, and typical Doctor Who budgets of the day were probably not to his advantage. More importantly I'm also not impressed with the discrepancy between script and final visuals of all those bullet-laden UNIT battles. Shooting seems to start, or when Sarah can prevent it, wants to start from unbelievably little provocation many times, and people run around through dozens of lines of fire at a time and come out unscathed. Only the Robot has a good excuse from the script to be immune. For people, a script like that needs more careful blocking out of action than it gets to be believable, and in the end, the shootouts come across a bit impotent. Most of the non-shootout material in the SRS auditorium in episode three is also particularly unimpressively blocked out.

The Colour Separation Overlay (chroma-key / blue-screen) work bringing a supersize Robot to the final episode has some problems keying the elements cleanly, and some less than believable model work, but I'm going to give this sequence some points for its ambition. I would have loved to see Barry attempt something similar with Azal back in "The Daemons", and was even more disappointed when that story played it safe and kept its giant monster off screen. And yes, we have to be thankful that the giant video robot isn't keyed on top of jittering film footage; using outdoor video equipment on location has stabilized things nicely.


Narrative Homage Illogic

The "giant" sequence is the most revealing of Terrance Dicks' source of inspiration for the story: "King Kong", and this story will be the first of his many adaptations of classic horror film tales into the Doctor Who format. "Robot" is perhaps a bit more intelligent than "King Kong", in that Sarah's relationship with the monster is more conversational, which works in favour of a more believable sense of emotion and pathos near the end. Besides, the Peladonian beast Aggedor has already been done twice fairly recently, so a contrast from hairy mono-syllabic monsters is a good thing.

However, in comparison to the rest of the season, even to "Revenge of the Cybermen" (story no. 79), one often sees the Robot and many of the other characters deciding they must destroy people or things with logic that seems to take far too many ridiculous shortcuts for my liking. Tom's Doctor also catches the same bug - he seems almost callously gleeful at destroying the monster in the end. It's not nearly as bad here as it will be in "The Horror of Fang Rock" (story no. 92), as the final scene of this story does a wonderful job of softening the rough edges of Tom's character, where he shares with Sarah that he does feel sympathetically towards the "Robot" as she does, and they find their common ground. A nice emotional, philosophical note on which to end the story.

But the series must move on, beyond the UNIT mould specifically. The Doctor makes his case for preferring a carefree jaunt across the universe, and expertly ropes in Harry Sullivan's curiosity as well. This last lab scene is wonderful, finally leading up expertly to something we should have got three episodes ago: that key moment when a new character like Harry Sullivan sees the impossibly large, technological working interior of the TARDIS: console, scanner, doors, endless halls and all. It's a stock set, so it needn't break the budget. And the surrogate pilot needs it. New audiences need it. Old fans like me crave it. Harry's character arc is pleading for it. And then we get nothing. From deep inside the police box, Harry's voice echoes out in astonishment: "Oh, I say!" And the Doctor and Sarah laugh and go in to join him. New audiences are left to wonder what has astonished Harry so, without any explanatory dialogue trying to make the point either. Pretty poor, and visually illiterate as well.


At least we get an audio-visually perfect dematerialization, split-screened with a walking talking Brigadier and a great closing line as a bonus. Dicks and Holmes have opted to be humorous and enigmatic where key exposition was more readily called for. And then they wondered why Doctor Who didn't take the North American public's fancy the way it did in Britain..... One of the most common reasons I've heard why people here don't care much for the show is that they simply can't understand it. "Robot" is a fun tale, but misses far too much of the traditional "heart" of Doctor Who to make a good pilot story.



This story has become available on DVD and VHS video.
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