Robot ***

Battling a giant robot, Tom Baker begins his epic seven-year run as the fourth Doctor

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Doctor Who story guide
Mark Braxton
Mark Braxton
Robot ***

Season 12 – Story 75

"I can bring about the destruction of humanity. But do not fear, Sarah. You alone will be safe" - Robot

Storyline
Unit and the newly regenerated Doctor investigate a series of thefts of top-secret scientific files and equipment. The culprit is found to be experimental prototype robot K1, invented by Professor Kettlewell while employed by an advanced research establishment called Think Tank. Sarah Jane Smith discovers that Think Tank's plans are tied in with fascistic group the Scientific Reform Society. Armed with nuclear armament codes, the SRS reprogram the robot to kill, and threaten global annihilation if their terms are not met…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 28 December 1974
Part 2 - Saturday 4 January 1975
Part 3 - Saturday 11 January 1975
Part 4 - Saturday 18 January 1975

Production
Location (OB) recording: April/May 1974 at BBC Engineering Training Centre, Wood Norton Hall, Evesham, Worcestershire
Studio recording: May/June 1974 in TC3

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart - Nicholas Courtney
Sarah Jane Smith - Elisabeth Sladen
Harry Sullivan - Ian Marter
Sergeant Benton - John Levene
Miss Winters - Patricia Maynard
Professor Kettlewell - Edward Burnham
Jellicoe - Alec Linstead
Robot - Michael Kilgarriff
Short - Timothy Craven

Crew
Writer - Terrance Dicks
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Ian Rawnsley
Script editor - Robert Holmes
Producer - Barry Letts
Director - Christopher Barry

RT Review by Mark Braxton
Twenty-first-century "New Doctor" stories really hit the ground running, with heaps of action, introductions on the hoof and frequent instructions to "Run!", all propelled by Murray Gold's excitable scores. Compare Rose and The Eleventh Hour with this plodding, apologetic debut - can you believe it's the same show?

And yet, in many ways, this derivative potboiler about a clanking killer and thinly veiled Nazis is mere window dressing. After all, this isn't any old Doctor being introduced; this is the fourth Doctor - for many people, myself included, the Doctor. The definite article, you might say.

Tom Baker entrances from the moment he wakes up. Pop-eyed and mercurial, like Gene Wilder in his heyday, Baker carves out a niche strikingly at odds with Pertwee's upstanding authoritarian. The fourth Doctor is prone to childish sulks, bamboozling non sequiturs and the hilarious habit of talking though his hat. I thought him an idiot when I was ten, but I soon got over that.

The traditional readjustment period includes a painful comedy costume-change that owes rather too much to Rentaghost. Happily, it also contains my favourite scene for a fledgling Time Lord. His "You may be a Doctor" exchange with Unit medical officer Harry Sullivan, as scripted by Terrance Dicks, is perfection. The timing between Baker and Ian Marter (a polished and, for me, much underrated performer) suggests admirably thorough rehearsal, and the former's little burst of showing off - chopping a brick in half and frenzied jogging - is very endearing.

So what else is new about the programme? Apart from Harry, not much - but that's quite deliberate. With a radically different Doctor, Dicks and outgoing producer Barry Letts wanted to give the viewer plenty of hand-holding continuity. Hence an Earth-bound, present-day adventure featuring Bessie, Benton and the Brig, not to mention Unit emptying their weapons with customary futility.

The titular threat is similarly untaxing on the imagination. The agitated, pincer-waving metal monster is an impressive design from James Acheson - all segmented chrome and flashing pink brain - but you have to feel sorry for rent-a-giant Michael Kilgarriff, trapped inside such restrictive paraphernalia. The start of episode three sees K1 come perilously close to a pratfall in pursuit of Unit troops. Easy to outrun, the robot is adept at little more than swatting aside empty cardboard boxes.

K1's accidental enlargement is brought to us by fluctuating CSO, though interestingly, his King Kong-style protection of Sarah "Fay Wray" Jane opens the floodgates for a mixture of homage and classic-plundering that will become a highly successful feature of the Baker era.

But what of K1's puppet masters? With his mad hair and bachelor cardy, Kettlewell is a cartoon boffin, while "arch-villain" Miss Winters resembles Deirdre Barlow in black gloves. Such underdevelopment sadly extends to Think Tank's woolly schemes and motives.

So what is memorable? Well, Robot boasts perhaps the show's worst visual effect ever. Unable to breach the Bunker defences, the Brigadier deploys a tank… an Action Man tank in unforgiving close-up. And by making it part of episode three's cliffhanger, the trundling toy is shown AGAIN at the start of the part four. Madness! In fairness, director Chris Barry wanted the real thing plus a location shoot, but Barry Letts thought a model shot would suffice.

For all the above reasons it's easy to dismiss the story. But despite its faults Robot remains easy, unchallenging fun. And the fact is that it gave the world Tom Baker. His exuberant, ceaselessly creative interpretation of the Doctor lifted Who to stratospheric popularity. That reason alone makes Robot, perversely, an absolute gem.

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[Available on BBC DVD]

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