I continued revisiting Terrance Dicks written episodes of Doctor Who this past week by watching Robot, a four part serial that aired from December, 1974 through January, 1975. It’s most famous for being Tom Baker’s introduction as the Fourth Doctor but, while there is some slight roughness about the edges, mainly the story works pretty well in its own right.
I remember taking to Tom Baker right away when I first watched the serial. I’m only 40 so I didn’t watch it when it first aired but, about ten years ago, never having seen Doctor Who, I decided to start watching from the 1963 première up to the present. And I did a pretty good job avoiding spoilers or any clips so Baker’s performance was quite fresh for me. He’s one of those actors who seems instantly familiar somehow, his every delivery somehow implying a shared secret between himself and the viewer. I love Pertwee but, while Three is like a great, beloved teacher, Four is like a really wise friend.
There’s kind of an Alastair Sim quality to Baker—he has the same bug eyes, deep voice, and somehow persistent melancholy. I feel Sim was generally miscast as prideful buffoons. The Fourth Doctor’s introduction similarly imposes too much on Baker—much in the writing is there to set Four up as a clown in contrast to the serious and dapper Three. A bit ironic since Jon Pertwee had a background in comedy while Baker’s noteworthy previous roles were in horror and fantasy as villains. Baker is amusing enough taking over the stage at an extremist environmentalist rally to do card tricks but like much of the business he’s saddled with throughout the serial it feels just slightly too much. Fortunately the writers and Baker settled into a very fruitful creative dynamic soon after this, one that played more to Baker’s natural strengths.
The main plot, widely noted as being influenced by King Kong and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, focuses much more on Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen), which is sensible considering viewers who needed to be reassured this really was the same show they used to love.
Her trembling voice as she tries to reason with the rampaging robot (Michael Kilgarrif) is effective and, even though the robot effects are pretty rough, especially since this whole serial was shot on videotape, the childlike uncertainty in the artificial being is effective. This is particularly true because its uncertainty conflicts with a compulsive need for strident simplicity. It’s easy to agree with Sarah Jane as she sympathises with the robot, struggling at the quandary of being told to kill when his “prime directive” is never to kill.
This is another story with political components, this time an extremist environmentalist group. The idea of environmentalists becoming so concerned over the course of events they’re willing to kill people was explored in great emotional depth recently in Paul Schrader’s film First Reformed. It presents plenty of dramatic conflict in Robot as the robot’s creator, Professor Kettlewell (Edward Burnham), finds himself almost as torn as his creation. But the main emotional resonance in this episode is the relationship between Sarah and the Robot and the fascination of watching a new Doctor, a balancing act Dicks carries off well. A theme of dogged rationalism versus the value of emotion recurs throughout the episode. The environmentalists are presented as adhering strictly to what they see as rational, one of them abhorring the sight of a woman being employed as a journalist (though that doesn’t make much sense with the group’s leader being a woman). The robot, having two conflicting commands, is driven to the most extreme irrational behaviour by attempting to adhere to the simple imperative to follow orders. The episode concludes with the Doctor asking Sarah what’s the point of being adult if you can’t act like a child now and then and this neatly seems to sum up the nature and mission of Four.
Twitter Sonnet #1282
A candy green involves the apple smoke.
A written bark supports the paper tree.
As golf began the autumn claimed a stroke.
The leaves were read as far as eyes could see.
A brittle flake of paper ash arose.
Across the beach reports confirmed the sand.
A thin and boiled dust approached the nose.
A train of ghosts create a spectre band.
A splash of soup affords aromas round.
A painted inn awaits on ‘lusion hill.
Concocted sights attend a proxy sound.
A stormy wind disturbs the ancient mill.
The rolling road embraced a tiny store.
A giant fish consumed the salty shore.