DOCTOR WHO:  ROBOT

Commentary by Judy Harris

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#1: ROBOT (4 Parts) ORIGINALLY AIRED: 12/28/74 to 1/18/75
WRITTEN BY: Terrence DicksDIRECTED BY: Christopher Barry
PRODUCER: Barry LettsSCRIPT EDITOR: Robert Holmes

The initial thing that might strike a first time DOCTOR WHO viewer is the opening credits. Unlike the spoonfeeding of most network TV shows in America (such as BATTLESTAR GALACTICA or V, where you are not only shown clips from the upcoming episode, but also are given--week in and week out--a brief summary of the show's premise, and an extensive rundown of the cast and credits), DOCTOR WHO just lists the story title, author and episode number; and then gets right into the plot.

Throughout its history, the graphics under the opening credits on DOCTOR WHO have changed with each new lead actor (twice during Tom Baker's tenure). The time tunnel sequence which lasted for the first 6 years Tom Baker was the Doctor--until John Nathan-Turner became producer--was created by Bernard Lodge; and better than any wordy prologue sets the tone of the series, accompanied by Ron Grainer's unique theme.

Almost all of the elements which personify Baker's Doctor are apparent from this very first story. Certainly his trademark costume--floppy hat, baggy coat with voluminous pockets and long flowing scarf--surfaces pretty quickly. The TARDIS is immediately visible; and in the course of the story, the sonic screwdriver is called into play; and jelly babies are offered around.

Quite apart from the striking visual appeal of Baker's costume, he used its components as props throughout his time as the Doctor. In ROBOT, he uses his scarf to measure the depth of a hole dug by the Robot; he also tries unsuccessfully to trip the Robot with it, and he succeeds in knocking out a Scientific Reform Society guard by pulling the scarf out from under his feet. Likewise his hat is used to put over the Robot's head, temporarily blocking its sight and bringing it to a halt, a ploy that shows up in later Dalek skirmishes.

The voluminous pockets of the Doctor's coat are full of all manner of strange things, including a galactic passport and honorary membership in the Alpha Centaurian table tennis club--"Very tricky opponents," the Doctor observes. "Six arms and, of course, six bats!"

In the last Patrick Troughton story, THE WAR GAMES, the sonic screwdriver resembled a pencil-thin flashlight which literally acted as a screwdriver. Over the years, it has undergone a metamorphosis into a slick futuristic multipurpose device. In ROBOT, the Doctor uses it to safely explode mines outside the villains' bunker and to cut out the lock of the bunker door. Terrence Dicks, who created the sonic screwdriver, never meant it to be more than a tool and has mentioned, likewise, that K9 (who does not appear for 18 more stories until THE INVISIBLE ENEMY, written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin) was also not intended to be more than a mobile, sophisticated device. However, they became such crutches to the writers that eventually both were written out of the show by edict of then producer, John Nathan-Turner. The sonic screwdriver disappeared in the Peter Davison show, THE VISITATION; while K9 exited during a Baker story, WARRIORS' GATE. Nathan-Turner later relented on the sonic screwdriver, restoring it to Colin Baker, although changing its name to sonic lance. Of course, they returned with the new incarnation of the Doctor, played first by Christopher Eccleston and later David Tennant.

Finally, the jelly babies make a belated appearance in part 4 of ROBOT. These are soft, fruit-flavored, multicolored jellied candies in the shape of little babies. Apparently jelly babies were first used by Patrick Troughton, although as only 5 of his stories have survived the great BBC tape purge, this is impossible to confirm. Certainly John Pertwee never used them. However, they became a unique part of Baker's character; and Baker himself said he worked them into the scripts as sort of punctuation to add rhythm to the dialogue. Also glimpsed from time to time throughout ROBOT is the TARDIS key. Early shows, up to and including those with Jon Pertwee, failed badly on this, depicting it as a the sort of flat metal key that would open any ordinary door. However, in the last Pertwee show, PLANET OF THE SPIDERS, a new key of suitably alien design was given prominent display and it is this key which has shown up in all subsequent stories.

Atypically of Tom Baker's energetic performance as the Doctor, he lounges around a lot in this story, possibly to convey nonchalance but also possibly to indicate the Doctor's fatigue after his regeneration.  He lies flat out on a table in his UNIT lab, he slouches in a UNIT jeep, he lays supine on a table at the SRS meeting, although he winks at Sarah as she is kidnaped by terrorists.

Balancing so many "firsts" are a couple of "lasts." ROBOT is the last story to show the Doctor's UNIT lab, although he continues as UNIT scientific adviser for several more shows. It's also the last that Bessie, his roadster, is seen. As for Sarah Jane Smith, this is about the last her journalism background is brought into play, although it is alluded to in THE ANDROID INVASION and she does sit down at a typewriter to write an article in TERROR OF THE ZYGONS. In ROBOT, Sarah is seen in a hat and suit and shortish hair; from here on her hair gets progressively longer and her clothes more casual and appropriate to racketing around the universe.

Much of the humor of the Baker shows has been attributed to producer Philip Hinchcliffe, but ROBOT--the last show produced by Barry Letts--has substantial humor, especially compared to Hinchcliffe's first story (and Tom Baker's second) THE ARK IN SPACE.

Examples of this humor start early in part one. The Doctor suffers from the effects of regeneration and, upon awakening, mutters: "Why is a mouse when it spins?" This opening regeneration sequence is restaged almost exactly from the ending of PLANET OF THE SPIDERS, with Sarah and the Brigadier redoing their dialogue, as Baker's face is superimposed over Pertwee's.

There follows a long scene, with lots of physical business, which appears to have been achieved in a single take. The Doctor, to prove he's fit: jumps rope with Harry, karate chops a brick, jogs vigorously in place and puts Harry's stethoscope to his hearts, asking Harry about his "heartsbeat--bit fast are they?" This sequence almost looks improvised. When Harry tries to get him back to bed anyway, Baker asserts his authority: "You might be 'a' doctor, but I'm 'the' Doctor. The definite article, you might say."

There is an Alice in Wonderland feel to this scene, especially when the Doctor catches sight of his newly regenerated face in the mirror and asks Harry, "Tell me quite frankly, what do you say to the ears?"

Later, searching for the right outfit, the Doctor emerges from the TARDIS first as a Viking warrior with horned helmet, fur costume, sword and shield. The Brig, with British understatement, says, "You've changed." Misunderstanding, the Doctor heads back for the mirror lamenting, "Oh no, not again!" Each of the following costume changes is instantaneous; he comes through the TARDIS door looking like the Jack in a deck of cards; and then a Pierrot, miming dejection when the Brig disapproves. Finally he hits upon his trademark Toulouse Lautrec look.

Writing in her posthumously-published autobiography (Aurum 2011), Elisabeth Sladen said of watching this scene, Tom "had everyone in hysterics, especially with the Viking outfit.  You knew what he was wearing before the cameras started rolling, yet the second he stepped out of those blue doors, sparks flew.  It was so damn good, I thought, 'Bloody hell, we've got a hell of an actor on our hands here!'"

After lollygagging around picking a costume, he dashes out to investigate the recent military break-in and theft, calling over his shoulder to the Brig as he dashes out the door: "You must cultivate a sense of urgency."

When he arrives at the scene of the break-in, while everyone else is checking a hole in the electrified fence, the Doctor examines a pulverized dandelion with a jeweler's loupe, calculating by the "resistance to pressure of vegetable fiber" that whatever pushed through the fence must be a quarter of a ton.

On the basis of the physical evidence, his own considerable scientific expertise and practical experience, he concludes it is a robot. "Assuming I'm right, and I invariably am."

Later, the Doctor answers UNIT's phone saying "Yes, of course, I'll talk to him; I'll talk to anybody." This is central to Baker's interpretation of the Doctor--treating every new experience, including villains and monsters, with friendly interest. Even when they turn out to be evil and he's had to vanquish them, he often seems to forgive them whatever pain and loss they've caused.

ROBOT's "monster" is, of course, a robot. Experimental Prototype Robot K-1, to be exact. Presumably K is for Kettlewell, his archetypical Einstein-haired inventor. The theme music for the Robot, written by Dudley Simpson, is appropriately menacing and wonderfully sets the mood early in the show before the actual creature is revealed. The Robot is also blessed with a terrific costume and is wonderfully voice by Michael Kilgarriff. Credit must also go to Dick Mills for his interesting sound effects.  The costume, like those for Sarah Jane and the Doctor, was designed by James Acheson.

Hooray for the Brig--Alastair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart; unlike the military minds in most celluloid science fiction, he doesn't waste time arguing. Once the Doctor decides what should be done, the Brig does it, although here he complains: "Just once I'd like to meet an alien menace that wasn't immune to bullets."  Watching this story again when it came out on DVD, I am struck by how much Nick Courtney resembles Peter Sellers as INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU, amusing in his seriousness.

Although the Robot itself is splendid, the story does have some poor special effects toward the end, including an obvious toy tank which is disintegrated by the robot; and some poor CSO work. CSO stands for color separation overlay and is sometimes called chroma-key in the United States. Anyone who has watched the news or weather report has seen this in action. One camera shoots a performer or newscaster in front of a screen that is a special shade of blue (or sometimes yellow or nowadays green); a video process makes this blue area "drop out" to be replaced by whatever a second camera is pointing at. In the case of ROBOT, the shiny reflective surface of the Robot made for poor CSO work during the sequence in which the Robot--made of "living metal"--grows, and later when the metal virus concocted by the Doctor makes the creature shrink and eventually disappear. Also the doll version of Sarah Jane (used during the "King Kong" sequences of the giant sized Robot picking up Sarah and carrying her around) is poorly done.

When the Doctor is about to depart in the TARDIS at the end of part 4, he defends his right to leave because, "It's a free cosmos." When Sarah chides him for acting childishly, he responds, "There's no point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes." This is another element crucial to Baker's performance. Although the show gained its largest adult audiences during his time as the Doctor, he always included little touches for the children; and remained childlike, curious and refreshingly spontaneous in his portrayal.

Unlike most of the other stories in the show's history, ROBOT's outdoor sequences were shot with video, not film (to facilitate the special effects when the Robot grows and later shrinks). Aside from the giveaway British accents, you can spot most BBC series of this era just from the fact that all studio sequences are on tape and all outdoor sequences are on film, because film equipment is lighter weight to lug around outdoors. Fans of DOCTOR WHO who stick with the end crawl through all the technical credits might be puzzled by the prefix O.B. in front of some of the titles, for example O.B. Sound. The O.B. refers to Outside Broadcast, meaning those sequences not shot in the studio.

Writing in her posthumous autobiography (Aurum 2011), Elisabeth Sladen said of Tom that he "has such an energy, a genuine impish delight in the absurd; always playful, always alert to the possibility of a punchline---a treasure."  Her impression when they first met for the transformation scene was "he was big, very big, and had piercing eyes that seemed to be constantly scanning for something in your face when you spoke to him, and there was that mellifluous, rich voice."

NOTES ON THE CAST

Sarah Jane Smith Elisabeth Sladen
Brig. Lethbridge-Stewart Nicholas Courtney
Harry Sullivan Ian Marter
RSM Benton John Levene
Robot Michael Kilgarriff
Professor Kettlewell Edward Burnham
Miss Winters Patricia Maynard
Jellicoe Alec Linstead
Short Timothy Craven
Guard John Scott Martin

Michael Kilgarriff, who plays the Robot, was a Cyberman in TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN, a Troughton story; the Cyber Controller in the Colin Baker story ATTACK OF THE CYBERMEN; and an Ogron in FRONTIER IN SPACE, a Pertwee story.  In his autobiography, WHO ON EARTH IS TOM BAKER?, Tom writes that Michael "could perform as a music-hall artiste.  He could play the piano and sing and spin all those lovely improbable Edwardian monologues that have lasted so well, and he had a marvellous natural authority as a chairman; he's great at being in charge."

Timothy Craven, who plays Short, portrayed Robinson in INVASION OF THE DINOSAURS and a Guardian in FRONTIER IN SPACE, both Pertwee stories.

Edward Burnham, who plays Professor Kettlewell, was Professor Watkins in the Troughton story THE INVASION.

Alec Linsted, who plays Jellicoe, was Osgood in THE DAEMONS, a Pertwee story; and the head of Stengos in the Colin Baker story REVELATION OF THE DALEKS.

ROBOT marks the story in which Sgt. Benton gets promoted to Warrant Officer. John Levene also played a Yeti in two Patrick Troughton stories--WEB OF FEAR and THE WAR GAMES.


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