Doctor Who: Robot Review
Doctor Who, both Classic and New varieties, has a way of attracting viewers at an age you’d think was too young. Russell T. Davies is only a year older than I am, but he was watching when William Hartnell regenerated into Patrick Troughton, at the ripe old age of three. I was six when I started, and for me and I guess many other ten-year-olds in 1974, Jon Pertwee was The Doctor. Oh, we knew there had been two earlier actors in the role – we’d read the BBC’s tenth anniversary special and we’d even seen them the previous year in The Three Doctors. But Pertwee had done it the longest so far (five years) and in colour too. But finally, in 1974 it all changed.
Behind the scenes, you could be forgiven for a sense of continuity, almost of family, having been built up over the years. Barry Letts had produced all the Pertwee stories after the first one, and Terrance Dicks had begun as script editor in Troughton’s last season. Alongside the Doctor, there was a regular supporting cast, a well-established companion in Katy Manning’s Jo Grant, and a recurring villain in The Master, played by Roger Delgado. Familiarity, even cosiness, was setting in. But then Delgado was tragically killed in a car crash, Katy Manning left after three years to be replaced by Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith, and Letts and Dicks decided to leave. Feeling that his team was finally being taken away, and fearing typecasting, Pertwee clearly decided that it was time to move on.
Enter Tom Baker. Although he had some notable film roles behind him, with appearances in Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and as Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra, at the time he was “resting” to such an extent that he was working on a building site. And so, on 28 December 1974, we had our first look at Doctor Number Four.
The previous regeneration story, Spearhead from Space, had spent a fair amount of its first couple of episodes establishing its new Doctor. Robot, written by Dicks, clears that out of the way quite briskly, give or take some disconcertion and a few costume attempts before settling on the soon-to-be-iconic hat and scarf. Dicks also introduces a new companion in the shape of UNIT medical officer Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), who had been an offscreen character in the final Pertwee serial, Planet of the Spiders. He also kicks the story itself into gear, with top secret plans being stolen from a secure location. This turns out to be a seven-foot robot (played by Michael Kilgarriff), developed by Professor Kettlewell (Edward Burnham), but used for its own purposes by a quasi-fascist organisation headed by Miss Winters (Patricia Maynard) who aim to hold the world to ransom…
Although as broadcast, Robot was the first story of Season Twelve, it was part of Season Eleven’s production block. Letts was still the producer, with the incoming Philip Hinchcliffe shadowing him. Dicks had passed on the script editorship to Robert Holmes, though as an outgoing editor he had (by tradition, or so he said) to write the next story, and so he did. Robot has tended to suffer in comparison with what would follow in Season Twelve, the first fruits of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes partnership - The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, even the relatively lightweight Sontaran Experiment. Watched thirty-three years later, Robot is still a middle-ranker: efficient as is most of Dicks’s Who output without that vital spark that separates out the greatest.
Sarah Jane had worked well with the Third Doctor, but with the Fourth her character really blossomed, forming one of the definitive Doctor/companion partnerships. In fact,.Sarah Jane is the only companion (so far) to have a life outside the series, with the spin-off K9 and Company, her reappearance in the New Who story School Reunion and the forthcoming spin-off The Sarah-Jane Adventures. It’s also fair to say that Elisabeth Sladen has never made much of a public impression in another role, which tends to be the way with companion actors – and some Doctor actors as well. Her characterisation was in part a response to feminism: girls who screamed and had to be rescued were no longer on. She has an independent job, as a journalist, as is shown to be making use of her abilities. The story as a whole riffs off King Kong, and Sarah, the only person who showed concern for the hapless robot, gets to play Fay Wray.
Male companions were a given during the 1960s – think of Ian, Steven, Ben and Jamie. Pertwee’s Doctor established the formula of one female companion, but with Harry Sullivan the male returned. Harry’s role was to handle the action stuff in case an older actor was cast as the Doctor. But Baker was forty, 6’3” tall like his predecessor, and all that work on the building site couldn’t have hurt. He was quite capable of dealing with action on his own, so Harry was really surplus to requirements. You can sense Harry being given little to do in the last couple of episodes of Robot and he, plus the UNIT regulars of the Brigadier and Sergeant Benton (promoted to Warrant Officer in this serial), were written out in the following season. Ian Marter, who had appeared in Carnival of Monsters previously, was a good fit for his intended role, with his old-school square-jawed heroic looks. Marter continued to be associated with the series after leaving it: he novelised some of the stories for the Target range, as well as writing an original, Harry Sullivan’s War. He died tragically young, in 1986 at age forty-two of a heart attack. We’re promised a featurette on his writing activities on a future DVD.
Of the supporting cast, Nicholas Courtney and John Levene have good moments as the Brigadier and Benton. Making the chief villain a woman was another response to feminism, and she’s played with suitable iciness and not a few dykey overtones by Patricia Maynard. Michael Kilgarriff had been a Cyberman previously, living out the rule of thumb that particularly tall actors (6’5”) tend to play inside monster suits, does as well as he could as the robot. Classic Who has a reputation for dodgy special effects that has been overstated: for every sore-thumb effect there are several miracles on a low budget. Robot was shot entirely on outside-broadcast video, partly to make use of colour-separation overlay (CSO, also known as Chroma-Key), especially for the scenes in the final episode where the Robot grows to giant size. But while there’s nothing so awful as the rubber dinosaurs from the previous season’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs, some shots – notably the Action Man model tank – are not the effects unit’s finest work to say the least.
There could have been a better introduction to Tom Baker’s seven-year reign, but Robot does its job without too much fuss or frills. However, soon things were going to be a lot better.
2 Entertain’s release of Robot is on a single DVD-9 disc encoded for Regions 2 and 4.
Instead of 16mm film for exteriors, Robot used OB videotape. This gives the serial a greater consistency in its look, avoiding the visual jolt between video and film that was noticeable at the time and is even more jarring nowadays. As with the similarly all-video Sontaran Experiment, it looks pretty good. Allowances do have to be made: this is not high-definition or anything close, it’s still 70s videotape and looks a little soft. But it’s as good as it’s ever likely to be, and once again the Restoration Team are to be congratulated. As you might expect, the aspect ratio is the original 4:3.
The soundtrack is mono, as it always has been, and no complaints either. Dialogue, effects and Dudley Simpson’s music score are well balanced, and the track is well restored too.
As ever, the extras begin with a commentary, which this time features Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Terrance Dicks, plus Barry Letts who for some reason is not listed on the packaging. This chat sounds like what it is, the reunion of old friends. The rapport is obvious, and the results very entertaining, with Baker’s contributions a particular standout. These four have done quite a lot of Who commentary together and separately, and it shows: they’re in a comfortable groove here.
There are two featurettes on this disc. “Are Friends Electric?” (38:59) is a documentary covering Tom Baker’s casting as the Doctor and the making of Robot. Contributors include all four commentary participants, plus incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe, director Christopher Barry, production unit manager George Gallacio, plus actors Patricia Maynard, Alec Linstead, Michael Kilgarriff and Edward Burnham. It’s a well-constructed piece as similar ones on other DVDs. A particular bonus is the inclusion of footage of the cast – looking much younger, naturally – at the read-through of the script. Some of the actors Letts considered for the Doctor are intriguing, Graham Crowden, Michael Bentine and Fulton Mackay among them.
The second featurette is “The Tunnel Effect” (13:49), in which Bernard Lodge describes the making and evolution of the series’s distinctive title sequences, using such techniques as howlaround and (inspired by the 2001 Stargate) slitscan. This is a good little feature, managing to convey a lot of information about what could have been a very dry and technical subject and to make it interesting. Lodge consistently pronounces “Pertwee” with the stress on the final syllable, which is a little distracting.
Extracts from the long-running children’s TV show Blue Peter have made appearances on quite a few Who DVDs. Included on this one is the opening (2:15) of a 1974 edition broadcast from the set of Robot due to a technician’s strike. This features the classic threesome of Lesley Judd in a very 70s dress, John Noakes and Peter Purves. Valerie Singleton is named in the credits but doesn’t appear in this extract, though the two dogs and the cat do.
The extras are rounded off with the usual items: the ever-informative production subtitles (written this time by Richard Molesworth), a self-navigating stills gallery (4:15) and Radio Times listings in PDF format. You’ll find the Easter egg in the same place as it often is on a Who DVD: this time this comprises continuity links for the opening of Episode One and the end of Episode Four, with a soundtrack that sounds like it was recorded off-air.
Robot is probably more one for the collector than for the more casual viewer. It’s not one of the series’s classics, nor is it a turkey. It’ll make for a pleasant hour and a half’s watch with some interesting and well-put-together extras.