DOCTOR WHO: Debut Stories - ROBOT

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As we continue our look back at the debut stories from each Doctor, Matthew Kresal revisits Tom Baker's first adventure, Robot. 


1974 was to prove to be a pivotal year in the history of Doctor Who. For a series that had been on the brink of cancellation just five years earlier, the show was now in fine shape having been reinvigorated by both Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor as well as the production team of producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks. As the saying goes though, “nothing lasts forever.” With Pertwee's Doctor having already exited, the end of 1974 saw Letts and Dicks bow out with the story that would also introduce the new Doctor, Tom Baker, to audiences. That story was, of course, Robot.

Perhaps because of the involvement of Letts and Dicks, it's hard to look at Tom Baker's first story as anything but as something of a holdover from the Third Doctor's era, particularly because of the involvement both of UNIT and the story's entirely Earthbound setting. After all Robot starts right where Planet Of The Spiders left off before launching into its own tale involving the Doctor and UNIT investigating a series of odd robberies involving components for the government's secret disintegrator gun project. Sarah Jane meanwhile is researching a story about the UK's National Institute for Advanced Scientific Research, otherwise known as “Think Tank”, which turns up some strange going on involving its director Hilda Winters that eventually comes to involve the titular K1 Robot, the technocratic Scientific Reform Society and a plan involving nuclear blackmail and the threat of nuclear Armageddon.


One of the intriguing things about Robot is that it's actually light on science fiction elements. Once you take the Robot out of the equation and perhaps the disintegrator gun, what the story actually is an Earthbound thriller. Add in some exotic foreign locales and one could well have the plot of a James Bond film. Or, keeping it set in the UK, it could well be an episode of a 1960s action/adventure series like Danger Man with Patrick McGoohan or The Avengers. Indeed the Scientific Reform Society and the meeting that Sarah Jane infiltrates in episode three strongly echoes a 1962 episode of The Avengers called The Mauritius Penny, perhaps not surprising since that episode was Dicks' first TV writing credit (with him co-writing that episode with Malcolm Hulke, who wrote several stories for Dicks during the Pertwee era). As a result, what Robot is as a story is a thriller with some science fiction elements.


It's those science fiction elements that make the story what it is though. The inclusion of the K1 Robot and the disintegrator gun takes the thriller elements that Dicks has in the script and brings it firmly into the Doctor Who universe, while the Scientific Reform Society, in its philosophy and aims, bares more than a passing resemblance to the technocratic organization in the 1936 film of H.G. Wells, Things To Come. Dicks, as well as the performance of actor Michael Kilgarriff inside the impressive Robot costume, actually makes K1 into something close to an actual character, though some of the writing is frankly cliched in how it tries to make the robot into something more human. While the ideas might be nothing new, they certainly suit the story well and in fact help to separate it from the UNIT stories of the Third Doctor era.


What really separates Robot from the Third Doctor era is its leading man. Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor seems to just appear fully formed and aflame within minutes of the story starting as, having recovered from at least the initial regeneration trauma, he meets Harry Sullivan for the first time and it ends with the Doctor forcing Harry to jump rope with him before he tries to take off in the TARDIS. Scenes like that, and the wonderful scene of him trying on various costumes before settling on James Acheson's still iconic outfit with its scarf and hat, show off one of Tom Baker's strengths in the role: his famous zaniness and comedic talents. Yet Robot also shows the viewer the other side of Tom Baker's talents with his ability to turn those very elements off in a moment to become more serious and brooding, such as the scene at UNIT HQ in episode three with the Brigadier and Benton when he pieces together the threat that the SRS is about to unleash. Rarely does the character of the Doctor solidify as quickly as it did for Tom Baker here.

Robot then can be seen as a number of different things. On one level, it serves as the link between the end of the Third Doctor's era and the Fourth's, between its production team and its script. On another level, it also separates itself from previous UNIT stories by making itself into something more akin to a thriller rather than the alien invasion stories one tends to think of in regards to their appearances in the years previously. More than anything else though, Robot gives us the introduction of a Doctor who would prove to be both long lasting and immensely popular with fans for decades to come. 

Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.
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