Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Robot written by Terrance Dicks and directed by Christopher Barry

This story in a nutshell: ‘You can’t take on the whole world…don’t you understand they’ll destroy you!’ A nuclear winter looms as the scatterbrained new Doctor takes on the mighty metal man of Thinktank...

Teeth and Curls: If Tom Baker's aim was to produce a Doctor that is as far removed as Jon Pertwee's far more straight laced version then he couldn't have succeeded more. If there was ever a greater contrast in character from one Doctor to the next then this is it (although I am willing to bet that the upcoming Smith to Capaldi will threaten to rival it). He's just nuts, isn't he? That's not such a bad approach to go for considering the audience has settled down to Pertwee for the past five years - this is such a slap in the face that it really makes a song dance about the fact that he is a changed man to the point where his altered character is more important than the story itself. I maintain that it takes Tom Baker the entirety of his first year to properly settle down in the role (even in the Williams era he is never quite as hyper active and kooky as he is here but he's also a little unsure in The Sontaran Experiment and Revenge of the Cybermen - in The Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks the material is so strong it would take a very bad actor indeed not to take it and run with it) but with so many moments of genius anyway. The man just can't help himself. Straight away the Doctor is seen to be a cheeky schoolboy sort of character sneaking about UNIT headquarters and going boggle eyed as he spots the TARDIS and escape from this world. Whereas Pertwee was tied to Earth (by design and then by loyalty at the end of his life), Baker's fourth Doctor is unburdened by this and can't wait to shoot off for adventures in time and space. A new body is like a new house you know, it takes a little while to settle in but the nose is definitely an improvement. This is an outwardly irresponsible Doctor (although Sarah Jane manages to get through to him eventually) and wont click his heels at the Brigadier's command. Robot features the only version of a wardrobe selection scene that I can stomach (Castrovalva is okay too but that is so gently played that it barely registers) because it is painted in such broad, immature colours. How can you fail to laugh when the Doctor emerges from the TARDIS decked out as a Viking Warrior, horned helmet, shield and all and the Brigadier mentions that he might just attract a little attention in a top secret UNIT investigation. He builds a tower of junk, shares scientific secrets with Kettlewell and works away in fast motion on a typewriter (complete with comedy music) to leave Sarah a note to tell her he’s not in trouble but if he is he will need rescuing – he’s a complete nutball and it’s very refreshing to explore a Doctor who is this unpredictable for a change. Whereas Pertwee was serious most of the time with moments of comedy peppered about, Baker seems to be going for the reverse approach, acting the fool so that when he suddenly turns serious you really pay attention (when he learns Sarah has gone off with Kettlewell). He's a bit like Troughton in that respect. This oddball approach really comes into its own when he trips up a guard with his scarf and provides some knockout entertainment whilst distracting the SRS nuts until the Brigadier turns up and arrests everybody. Baker looks extraordinary playing about with test tubes and bubbling potions, a real nutty professor. I don't know if the Doctor could have continued in this vein forever but it is certainly an attention grabbing first act that secures Baker as one to keep your eye on.

Lovely Lis: From the off, season twelve presents a far more feminine Sarah Jane Smith than the trouser suited career girl of her debut year. The early scenes of Sarah pursuing a story in a sporty roadster are remarkably similar to scenes in The Sarah Jane Adventures (although I would argue that this is the last we see of the career girl Sarah Jane until her own series). ‘Why are you telling me?’ says Sarah as the Brigadier spills all the latest top-secret information to her and the simple truth is it's because he can’t tell the Doctor. Watch Lis Sladen’s wonderful reaction when the Doctor slams the door of the TARDIS on her and then jumps when he pops out again, these two are going to be gold together. After her in-your-face sexism dialogue last season it is rather wonderful to see her getting a stiff telling off from Miss Winters for her own thoughtless chauvinism. I often find people who take a defiant stand against something (although I certainly wouldn't question anybody who fights sexism/racism/homophobia, etc) often forget that they are flawed human beings themselves and more than capable of slipping into the same behaviour given the right stimulus. Only Sarah would happily swan into a room that has POSITIVIELY NO ADMITTANCE on the door, risking life and limb to get a good story. It takes the work of strong actress to take hold of an inanimate object like the Robot and project feelings onto it as effectively as is achieved here. If we adored Sarah before this story then her feelings towards the Robot seal the deal as she stands up for its rights and protects its feelings. She touches the beast in a very sensitive way that should be ridiculous but Sladen and Christopher Barry sell the relationship convincingly. Sarah has a cheeky, almost flirtatious relationship with the Brigadier, winking at him and telling him that she is still a working girl.Watch out for her contemporary hippy look, scarf wrapped around her head as she tosses insults at the outrageously sexist SRS nitwit. ‘Mr Benton are we members of UNIT? Are we under arrest? Well then where we go and what we do is none of your business!’ – don’t you just want to kiss her? What a babe, she grabs a gun and threatens to blow Miss Winters’ head off! Elisabeth Sladen single handedly makes us believe in the creature and her hysterical pleas to the beast in the last episode give the story a touch of drama it desperately needs to keep it on the right side of feeling like parody Who. Even after the crazy conclusion, Sarah pines for the creature and makes us ponder on the possibilities it had. Sarah shoves the jelly baby in her gob as a delightful indication she is going to take to this Doctor and will be going with him on his travels once again. Although they don't spend a great deal of time together in this adventure it is clear that this three way ensemble is going to be a joy, probably the most delightful set up since the second Doctor, Polly, Ben and Jamie.

Oh I Say: The initial encounter between the Doctor and Harry is comedy gold and both actors give superb, energetic performances (no wonder Sladen felt as though she had to up her game). It turns out to be the blueprint of their relationship, the Doctor running rings around and thoroughly bamboozling Harry. The indignity of him being trussed up in the cupboard like a pair of old boots is hilarious, I do so like a character who isn’t afraid to look a bit foolish in order to become likable, it is a knack that Joss Whedon landed upon and developed to a fine art in many of his shows. Harry gets the chance to be a real James Bond, infiltrating Thinktank and reporting back on their sinister activities. Unfortunately, it isn't long before he has been koshed, his natural tendency to cock things up coming to the fore. As would be proven time and again over the next six stories Marter and Sladen have a palpable chemistry and it's immediately apparent from their scenes locked up together. You'd think they had been working together for an age. Harry is good in a fight and he gives Jellicoe an impressive right hook in the last episode. His reaction to the TARDIS ('Oh, I say!') rather puts all the others to shame.

Our Brig: Confronted with his third Doctor, Nick Courtney gets to play a whole new side to the Brigadier as he tries to build a relationship with this fruitloop of a Time Lord. The Doctor used to drive him mad but he misses having him about the place. There’s nothing wrong with being a bit old fashioned, he admits of his gentlemanly ways. It's great how the Doctor goes through some of the most heinous military leaders from history when trying to remember the Brigadier’s name. According to the Doctor in a facetious mood, he really must cultivate a sense of urgency. The Brigadier looks like he is going to explode like a nasty old blister when he screams ‘cancel the destructor codes!’ If he's being characterised like a military leader from a kids cartoon strip throughout, that is the moment where he really makes his presence felt. Once all the explosions are over the Brigadier doesn’t really care about the sentimental stuff…when the Doctor tries to explain about the Robot’s affection towards Sarah he responds with a very unimpressed ‘hmm.' Courtney has that deadpan reaction down to a fine art now. When the chips are down you can count on the Brigadier to grab the biggest gun going and get blasting, in this case making a sizaeable problem a hundred times worse.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why is a mouse when it spins?’
‘Rather a splendid paradox, ay Brigadier? The only ones who could do it wouldn’t need to.’
‘Naturally enough the country that could be trusted with such a role was Great Britain’ ‘Well naturally I mean the rest were all foreigners!’
‘In science as in morality the ends never justifies the means.’
‘The trouble with computers is that they are very sophisticated idiots!.
‘There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes!’ – probably my most quoted Doctor Who line ever.

The Good Stuff: The realisation of the Robot is a mixture of good (the awesome glowing head, the size of the thing and Michael Kilgariff’s emotive voice giving the creature a strong sense of character) and the not so good (the floppy wrists, the smiley face that looks for all the world as though the thing is about to crack up and the anachronistic eighties shoulder pads that would have looked quite at home in Dynasty). Christopher Barry is always looking for imaginative ways to shoot stories and his opening gambit with Robot is the unusual POV scenes, showing the creature about its dastardly work. Add to that the menacing shadow of the beast against a wall and a terrific Dudley Simpson score and there is the immediate feeling that we are in very safe hands.The Doctor's dressing up sequence is played to the hilt, it is outrageously comical and camp but strangely it doesn't attract the same wrath as Romana's body choice scene or similarly costume choices in The Twin Dilemma and Time and the Rani. Perhaps because as much as they might disapprove, Peri and the Rani cannot disapprove with quite the same stiff upper lip as the Brigadier the makes the whole thing so laugh out loud funny. Patricia Maynard is extremely good as Miss Winters, an icy cold villainess who has some very unusual ideas about nuclear solutions to the Earth’s problems. That shows you the difference between Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dick's solutions to the same problems; the Earth is in trouble and needs new management - Hulke chooses to have his villains roll back time and gently erase all of our mistakes so we can start again, Dicks goes for the jugular by having everything go up in a bally big explosion and have the villains shape the debris to their own design. One might be kinder, but the other is far more exciting. The days of UNIT as a top secret organisation are numbered. There was a time when the administration was taken very seriously with lots of gritty action sequences and impressive hardware. There are action sequences and hardware on display in Robot, but the tone is so much more convivial with plenty of jolly music and colourful location work. Kettlewell is the quintessential baffled but brilliant scientist, played to perfection by Edward Burnham and I was howling at his distracted babble as he tries to avoid the Doctor's questions lest he gives himself away (‘they’re incompetant nincompoops!’). Imagine, if you dare, the fourth Doctor, Kettlewell and Amelia Rumpford travelling together – the sheer amount of eccentricity on display would blow The Avengers out of the pool. Miss Winters has clearly been grooming herself in the role of villainess for some time and she has perfected the art, reveling in a sense of theatre as she orders the Robot to dispose of Sarah. Barry tries his damndest to make the Robot look like a genuinely powerful piece of hardware (although at times he is fighting a losing battle) and I appreciate the effort that has gone into the thing tearing through the door of the warehouse, knocking over crates and walking through a hail of bullets. As soon as we start talking about nuclear weapons the story takes on a darker tone but that is balanced by the ludicrous scenes of the Giant Robot, the entertainment factor never forgotten. Once seen, never forgotten, Miss Winters enjoys some fabulous Hitleresque hair-shaking rants that would put the Nuremberg address on a second footing. There is something deliciously cowardly about the SRS bunch sneaking away in a bunker and blackmailing the world with nuclear detonation unless we bow down to their outlandish way of thinking. It would be a little embarrassing if the world was destroyed simply because a group of oddballs felt that etiquette had slipped somewhat. Their plan to detonate a bomb and emerge to control the survivors is so feverishly improbable you have applaud their nerve. Perhaps Miss Winters has been watching a little Bond, all the best villains have giant countdown clocks these days. One thing Doctor Who always does well is blow up things real good and the impressive pyrotechnics as the Doctor waves the sonic screwdriver has to be seen to be believed. I always thought Terrance Dicks was a ruthlessly efficient plotter of stories but here he has Benton whip up the solution of how to defeat the living metal before the Robot has even grown. Amongst all the crazy (read: unsuccessful) special effects in the last episode there are some impressive Ariel POV shots that add a little credence to the scenes of it mincing about the size of a skyscraper. Nothing could have quite prepared me for its path of destruction; trampling a UNIT soldier, using its boot to smash through a hut and getting caught up in a telegraph pole and ripping it from the ground in sheer frustration. Russell T. Davies would approve heartily of the bucket of dayglow goo that is conjured up at the last minute to save the day, he pretty much copied and pasted the idea for the end of his first Doctor Who script. Robot ends with one of the most positive closing scenes in any Doctor Who story with a charismatic new Doctor, two gorgeous companions departing for adventures unknown and the real feeling of a universe of excitement ahead for them.

The Bad Stuff: That poor guy playing the security guard has the unfortunate job of trying to squeeze his neck into the Robot’s cumbersome pincers and making it look like a natural moment of attack. That is a big ask. Could the sequence where it drills from underground look any less convincing? I realise that we are supposed to buy into this mechanical man as a person but I'm not sure that the scenes of the decapitated Robot being operated on with jargon from a medical procedure isn't taking things a step too far. What was the point of having Kettlewell looking so appalled when he learns that the Robot has performed acts that conflict with its prime directive...if he was the one who tinkered with its circuitry to make it so? It makes absolutely no sense in retrospect, except to provide the story with an (unconvincing) twist. How odd is it to see the fourth Doctor driving Bessie? Benton was promoted because…there was no one else to promote? Is that how it works in the Armed Forces? The fight scene at the end of episode two  between the Doctor and the Robot is far too theatrical and lacks realism because the Robot is too cumbersome to shot with any can't of dynamism. At points Kilgarrif is so blinded inside that suit he has to be guided around (visibly) by the other actors. Showing the age it was made, the Brigadier talks on a walkie-talkie the size of a breezeblock! Some Doctor Who effects live in infamy and the toy tank must rank pretty high in that respect - what were they thinking attempting something as cheap as this? Bizarrely the Thinktank group ask themselves if they have enough food and water after they set their 300 second countdown - that really doesn't leave them long to pop down the shops. Kettlewell is unconvincingly rationalized throughout, his eleventh hour change of heart doesn't ring true and the way he attempts to avert a nuclear missile launch by smashing the equipment with the chair has all the scientific rationale of tea tray sealing a breach in the dome on the Moonbase. Can a Robot have an epileptic fit? Apparently so, as we witness once Kettlewell dies. I thought the show would never top the Chewits monster T-Rex but prepare yourselfs for King Kong Robot and Barbie Doll Sarah...I promise this image will burn in your mind forever.

The Shallow Bit: Where does Kettlewell get his fabulous electrifying hair gel from?

Result: Unlike anything else in the Tom Baker era, this is a hugely fun and colourful adventure that reeks of the previous management rather than the new administration that was to come. Departing Robot you might be under the impression that things were going stay pretty much the same. Certain TV stories lend themselves well to being drawn as a comic strip and Robot is a great example (Paradise Towers is another), it is full of arresting, epic imagery that needs the unlimited budget of an artists hand to bring them to life successfully. However this is Doctor Who so a certain amount of forgiveness has to be lavished on the effects work and there is much more to Robot than the Giant metal antagonist taking his anger out on a UNIT platoon. Terrance Dicks’ dialogue is fast and furiously witty and the story is full of memorable characters and moments. At four episodes it feels remarkably fast paced, especially compared to some of the more laborious Pertwee six parters. Tom Baker hits the ground sprinting with a performance that reaches into the stratosphere, pulling every trick out of the book to make sure that the audience is wrong-footed throughout. He's demented, and it's a real slap around the face after Pertwee's straight-lacedness. There's a nicely detail relationship between Sarah and the Robot that should have bombed but thanks to the efforts of Sladen and Kilgarriff, it turns out to be rather touching. Robot is one of those Doctor Who stories where it is best not to think about any of the details for too long because it all starts to fall apart (Kettlewell's behaviour, the last minute solution) but simply go along with the ride and be seduced by the adventurous tone, the charismatic performances and wonderful byplay. As a final hurrah to an incredible era of Doctor Who it is a thoroughly entertaining and energetic piece that I never tire of enjoying: 8/10


Pink!Dalek said...

I didn't like this story very much, but I utterly adored the next one, The ark in Space.

The wardrobe scene made me laugh out loud ;)

Another contrast from one Doctor to the next: Mccoy to Mcgann, from the broody, dark manipulative 7th doctor to the fluffy and careless 8th (I'm talking about the TVM, on the audios, the 8th became more broody)

Ulkesh said...

This isn't apropos of your excellent-as-usual review of "Robot", but did you change the background/skin of the blog the other day?

Don't get me wrong, I like the current skin but I personally preferred the replacement, especially for reading a long block of text.

AndrewBuckley said...

Hi, not sure if you know but since the change to your blog layout, loads of your links are not appearing - if a user navigates to your chronology, only book titles are visible etc

Joe Ford said...

Thank you, I think I have sorted the problem :-)