Back when I was young I first began watching “Doctor Who” on my local PBS station. It seemed as if they constantly looped Tom Baker’s first four seasons starting with “Robot” and ending with “Invasion of Time”. I remember watching this story on an old black and white television in our kitchen, and trying to catch a glimpse of what the Doctor’s face looked like before he regenerated, because I’d never seen any Pertwee stories at the time.
“Robot” was not the first episode I ever saw. That distinction goes to “The Seeds of Doom” episode 6 (if I remember right) or “Revenge of the Cybermen” (if my mom is right). Regardless, Tom Baker is the actor who defined the role for this fan, and for years he was the standard by which I measured all who followed him in the role.They all fell (and still fall) short of his definitive performance. Only William Hartnell who originated the part is right up there with him, with Troughton and Pertwee barely behind, not because they were deficient, but because Tom Baker is just so good.
I hope you have no doubts about where I stand. After William Hartnell, Tom Baker is the definative Doctor Who.
Having said that, “Robot” feels like a Pertwee story. Written by Terrance Dicks, produced by Barry Letts, and featuring UNIT, the Brigadier and the newly-promoted Mr. Benton, and full of talk about alternative energies and man’s ability to destroy the planet, the whole tone of the four episodes is very familiar. That’s no bad thing, since it eases the transition and allows Tom Baker to contrast his version of the Doctor with Pertwee’s. There’s no denying that the two are polar opposites in just about every way. Whereas the third Doctor was dignified, well-dressed and about as straightforward and honest as they come, the fourth Doctor is all over the place. He’s flippant, eccentric, dressed in a mismatched ensemble of clothing with that wonderful scarf, and prone to erratic behavior. He has a tremendous energy that reminds me of Troughton. However, I’d never noticed before just how unpolished Baker’s performance is at this point. He’s still the Doctor we know and love, but he hasn’t quite refined his approach to the part.
“Robot” seems quite small in scale at first, but builds nicely to an impressive climax where the fate of the world is at stake. This is made convincing largely by Patricia Maynard’s performance as Hilda Winters, the director of Think Tank and also the leader of the SRS, a fascist group who have every intention of plunging the world into nuclear war. She really sells the character with her dead serious and strong approach to the part. She plays Winters as an utter fanatic, albeit one with plenty of self-control. The only time she rants is at the SRS rally, and since she’s giving a “pep talk” to the members, that’s to be expected. As the main villain of the piece, she really carries the story, even more than the robot does.
The robot itself is impressively large and bulky, but it’s clearly a man in a suit, and not very convincing visually. What makes it actually work is the characterization that Terrance Dicks gives it. It’s a formidable foe, portrayed as resistant to high voltage and bullets, and even ultimately the disintegrator gun. I’m not sure I buy resistance to the gun, but it does lead to one of the more bizzare UNIT gunfights ever, as they try to stop the fifty foot robot that’s rampaging around the town. I note with some amusement that at least three UNIT soldiers are killed precisely because they dont’ follow orders and fall back. It’s amusing because after the first time, every time a lone soldier continues to fire at the bulletproof robot, I know just what’s coming next. They’re the equivalent of the red-shirted security guards in Star Trek.
Kettlewell needs a haircut. Badly. That’s all I have to say about him.
The Brigadier is really fun to watch in this story. Nicholas Courtney plays the part with his usual dignity, but there are numerous indications of a world-weary humor beneath his composed exterior. He has his “foreign agents” idea dismissed by the Doctor, and then asks, “So what are we facing? Alien invasion, again?”, emphasis on “again”. Also memorable is one of my favorite lines, “Just once I’d like to meet an alien menace that isn’t immune to bullets.” He seems visibly irritated by the Doctor’s new personality, despite depending on him for the answers as usual. And while the Brigadier gets a lot of amusingly knowing lines, he also does very well while commanding the attack on the bunker in episodes three and four. The character is still out leading from the front, not sending his men in to attack while he sits safely out of harm’s way.
Overall, “Robot” is a fine beginning for Tom Baker. He gets off to a good start, despite his manic approach to the part. It’s comfortable to watch him with all the familiar elements of the third Doctor’s era on display before we move on into the gothic Hinchcliffe and Holmes style of story. And it’s fun.