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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

classic ‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Robot”

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: Jon Pertwee: “Planet of the Spiders”)
“Here we go again,” Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart says, in a rather nonchalant tone, as he watches the Doctor regenerate from Jon Pertwee into Tom Baker. Sure, the Brigadier was already aware of this ability of the Doctor’s, but he hasn’t witnessed it happening before: you’d think he might be a tad more impressed that this alien dude is completely altering his physical appearance right before his eyes.

But no.

Sarah Jane, too, barely even seems to notice that the Doctor has regenerated: she watches it happen, too, and isn’t rattled, or amazed, or amused, or… anything. You’d think this kind of thing happened every day.

Episode 1 of “Robot” is the very first episode of Doctor Who I ever saw, and I certainly had no idea the Doctor could do this. All I did know was that Doctor Who was a British science fiction show I had read about — in only the most general terms — in Starlog, and I knew that I was a fan of science fiction (this would have been sometime in 1982 or 1983, when I would have been 13 or 14), so when I heard that my local PBS station was about to start showing Doctor Who, I knew I had to check it out.

And then the very first episode I saw opened with this old guy with white hair lying on the floor, and his face melts away to become this goofy new one with goofy curly hair. I was stunned. I was bewildered. And I was hooked.

I saw “Robot” again, of course, many more times in my career as a Doctor Who fanatic, and while I always remember my confusion upon that first viewing, I don’t ever recall thinking it strange that no one around the Doctor seemed to be thrown off by his regeneration. It’s only now, compared to New Who, that it seems odd. Hell, the Doctor is more weirded out than Sarah or the Brigadier:

But unlike what we’ve seen on the new show — or even how regeneration would go for the Doctor the next time, in “Castrovalva” — this times it runs relatively smoothly… or whatever problems the Doctor might be having are kept offscreen. Sarah makes a comment to the Brigadier about the Doctor “still” being unconscious, which suggests that he’s been in the UNIT infirmary for a longish while, but we never see that. And apart from a bit of disorientation — the Doctor mistakes the Brigadier for Alexander the Great and Hannibal, though could simply be his way of saving face after he decides to stay and help out with the current crisis — and his strange ideas about appropriate attire:

he’s pretty much back to his own self, with just a few new eccentricities.

Well, perhaps hog-tying Harry up in the storage cabinet is a bit out of character for the Doctor — it sort of hard to imagine how the Doctor even managed this:

without either violently knocking Harry unconscious or wildly wrestling him. Maybe Harry deserved it, though — he is a bit of a blockhead. How could the Doctor have been in Harry’s care for so long before, it seems, Harry has the first notion to put a stethoscope to the Doctor’s chest, at which point Harry is startled to discover the Doctor’s dual pulmonary system? (And hey, shouldn’t UNIT have at least some medical information on the Doctor? Wouldn’t that have been shared with Harry when he first took the Doctor into his care?)

Anyway, when I think about Doctor Who, it’s this kind of image that seems iconic to me:

perhaps because the Tom Baker UNIT era was my introduction to the wonderful insanity that is this show.

It’s sort of startling to look back at “Robot” now and consider that this was meant for children, because the story touches on some very sophisticated notions: nuclear extortion, scientific fascism, feminism, Asimov’s laws of robotics (though Asimov’s name is not mentioned), even unthinking nationalism. One exchange still startles me, for the levels of commentary going on: The Brigadier is explaining to the Doctor how Russia, America, and China agreed to give details of their nukes to a neutral country, which would hold them securely with the idea that if relations between the superpowers were ever to heat up, those secrets could be released to defuse the situation. And so:

Naturally enough, the only country that could be trusted with such a role was Great Britain. –the Brigadier

Well, naturally. I mean, the rest were all foreigners. –the Doctor

Exactly. –the Brigadier

The Brigadier then does a little double-take, but it’s not clear that he really understands that the Doctor is making fun of him.

I love how, when Sarah Jane meets Winters and Jellicoe at Think Tank, even she automatically assumes that Jellicoe is in charge, when of course Winters is the big boss and Jellicoe her assistant… an assumption that Winters calls Sarah to task for. And there’s even something feminist in the fact that Winters turns out to be a sort of tinpot scientific dictator at the Scientific Reform Society, with her own fascistic uniforms and her own devoted followers and her own secret bunker and everything:

See? Women can do everything men can do, including hatching mad plots to rule the world.

Sarah, of course, is a great example of feminism in action: She’s mostly fearless — I love how, at Think Tank, she asks, “What’s in here?” and barges into the door marked “Positively No Admittance” — but she will play the dumb girl when it’s useful (with that story about her leaving her notebook in one of the Think Tank labs, trying to bluff her way past the security guard). Later in the Tom Baker era, she would descend, weirdly and disappointingly, into a genuinely flighty “girl,” but here she gets to be the professional woman.

Of course, if you will be nice to the giant robot:

It will go all King Kong on you when it’s even more gianter:

Random thoughts on “Robot”:

• Men in uniform:

(Harry should have worn his naval uniform more often…)

• In general, the firm of Ned Devine Security

does not have a stellar reputation for protecting what you hire them to protect, particularly when there’s a danger of giant-robot B&E:

• Hey, wait! If the dandelion is “almost pulverized,” so much so that the Doctor can do this:

Then how did he get it into his palm in the first place?

This always bothered me.

• The Doctor drives!

And of course he still had Bessie at this point, too:

• The Doctor does science!

With test tubes and everything!

• This manor (or one so like it as to make no difference):

will show up again and again during the early Tom Baker years. They must have really liked shooting here.

• If only the Doctor had the psychic paper at this point:

he wouldn’t have to work so hard to bluff his way in to the SRS meeting. This is his “galactic passport” he’s flashing, but the guard’s not interested. So the Doctor ends up tripping the guy with his ridiculously long scarf:

and knocking him out.

The Doctor also uses the scarf to try to trip up the robot, to measure the depth of a hole, and to pick up a doodad from the floor of Professor Kettlewell’s lab. I don’t recall the scarf being put to such prosaic use after this…

• Warrant Officer Benton, tea boy:

(He’s just been promoted in this story, but he’s still fetching tea.)

• By the end of the story, when the Doctor has triumped once more, the Brigadier is organizing, for the Doctor, visits to Downing Street and Buckingham Palace. That latter makes me wonder: Where is Torchwood in all this time? Has, perhaps, Torchwood gone rogue? Surely, the Queen must know that Torchwood was instituted by her great-great-grandmother Victoria to thwart the Doctor, but now he’s being invited to dinner at the palace…

We need a full history of Torchwood, I think.

• Great quotes:

“Young Sullivan [is] a very fine chap… first-class doctor.” –the Brigadier
“He seems a bit… old-fashioned.” –Sarah Jane
“Nothing wrong with that, Miss Smith. You may not have noticed, but I’m a bit old-fashioned myself.” –the Brigadier
“Oh, nonsense, Brigadier — you’re a swinger.” –Sarah Jane

“You might be a doctor, but I’m the Doctor. The definite article, you might say.” –the Doctor, to Harry

“A new body’s like a new house, takes a bit of time to settle in.” –the Doctor

“I never cared much for the word impregnable. Sounds a bit too much like unsinkable.” –the Doctor
“What’s wrong with unsinkable?” –Harry
“Nothing, as the iceberg said to the Titanic. Glug glug glug.” –the Doctor (that’s pretty gruesome for him, actually)

“Just once I’d like to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets.” –the Brigadier (though technically, the giant robot is not alien but entirely homegrown)

“There’s no point in being grownup if you can’t be childish sometimes.” –the Doctor

(next: “The Ark in Space”)


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb
  • Leslie Carr

    “There’s no point in being grownup if you can’t be childish sometimes” is the Doctor Who quote that stuck with me all the way through my adolescence and adult years. It still sums up my mistrust of adults and of taking yourself too seriously. Looking back as a 46-year old (how did that happen? time travel the long way!) perhaps I ought to blame The Doctor for my inability to become a well-paid corporate droid.

  • The reason for Sarah’s nonchalantness (is that a word, and if so is it spelt right…) about the Doctor’s transformation is because in the previous story she saw K’ampo Rimpoche regenerate. That’s always the problem with living life out of sequence…

  • Keith

    This is one of the first episodes of classic Who I saw too. Can’t remember exactly which episode was actually my first. I’m pretty sure it was either Pertwee or Baker. I’m just a couple years older than MaryAnn.

    Enjoyed the review. Been a long time since I’ve seen this episode, though I remember parts of it well enough.

    I believe your “triumphed” (under the picture of Warrant Officer Benton, tea boy) is missing an “h”.

  • Is it just me? When I came across this post on the main blog page, the entry just below it was a “Muppet Zoot Looks Like…” Keep scrolling back up and down and I swear Zoot Looks Like the Fourth Doctor!

  • This was my first episode of classic Who too.

    I never realized how much I missed the Brigadier until he made a brief appearance in the second season of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Perhaps because I’d liked the way he and the Doctor played off of one another–and because I hate the way most of the authority figures the Doctor came across in more modern episodes came across as complete nincompoops.

    Just as I always thought it a nice touch when stodgy old Giles or geeky young Willow saved the day on Buffy as often as the title character did, I always thought it was a nice touch that the Brigadier was so good at the stuff he was obviously trained to do–yet so determined to do his best with dealing with alien menaces that were obviously outside his experience. In short, he didn’t need the Doctor’s help because he was a total incompetent–which is how a similar character would be played today–he needed the Doctor’s help because even a super-efficient military officer like himself was incapable of knowing everything–and not above delegating certain tasks to the appropriate specialists.

    I must confess I liked the early Sarah Jane better than the latter Sarah Jane too–but that’s a story for another day.

  • My first experience was a UNIT story, the Loch Ness Monster episode (Terror of the Zygons). It was the first one the local PBS station aired back in the day (1978 or 79) as they were picking up on the scifi culture push post-Star Wars. The effects were ludicrous even to a 9-year-old, but the dialogue had good wit… it wasn’t until the Pyramids of Mars episode when I was truly hooked.

    I noticed this episode is right smack in the middle of a particular producer or story editor’s obsession with ‘crazed’ secret society / paramilitary groups trying to take over the world, usually with the aid of a parapsychic force they can’t fully control. And they all seem to be obsessed with dressing either like druids or neo-Nazis. Sometimes both.

    I actually miss those episodes. Just to see the look of those neo-Nazis faces when they realize “Ooops, maybe we shouldn’t have woken up that 10,000 year old alien that eats eyeballs!”

  • Erik

    I figured the current Queen didn’t know that UNIT’s scientific advisor, Mr. John Smith, was, in fact, The Doctor her ancestor banned. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

    The flower? I got nothin’…

  • tom baker was hot. which is what got me interested in DW in the first place. the first episode i ever saw was “Horror of Fang Rock” and even then i came in in the middle. still got hooked on those wild blue eyes, the out of control hair, the excessive amount of teeth… the strange and compelling character. maybe it’s just me, but the pic of the Doctor in his rolled up sleeves is a real turn on. i’ll be in my bunk.

  • Tammy

    @bronxbee: It’s not just you, honey. I just watched ‘Robot’ online a few days ago, and that whole ‘rolled-up-sleeve, get-to-work’ look sent me to my bunk, too! 8-D

    I’m coming at Classic Who from the other direction, having never seen Who in my youth. My first introduction to the character was actually ‘Robot’, come to think of it, about fifteen or sixteen years ago, but the group I watched it with was mostly into pointing and laughing at the wobbly sets and bad effects, so that’s what I did, too. My next experience with the Doctor was the abysmal ’96 movie. I was re-introduced to the show by online friends during the second season of Nu Who, who told me I just had to find it and watch it, I’d love it, the Doctor was utterly ‘hawtt’. Thanks to Netflix, I was first completely entranced by Chris Eccleston and then utterly blown away by David Tennant. I have been absolutely enchanted by Matt Smith. I am now expanding my limited Who experience by diving into online versions of the Classics (via links from the blog at http://lifetheuniverseandcombom.blogspot.com/ ), and, having finally realized the brilliance of the show by way of decent production work that got past my ‘point-and-laugh’ reflex, I am now loving the whole Who experience, and sharing it among my friends. :-D

  • Jim

    Love your reviews. As for the Torchwood issue: As Ten and now apparently Eleven are fond of saying, “Time can be rewritten.” Perhaps the creation of Torchwood, later in the Doctor’s personal time stream, has rewritten history, and some aspects of the Doctor’s relations to UNIT are quite different. The other thought I had was that between the Victoria and the Unit area, Torchwood’s resources may have been reallocated to defend the British Empire during all the Wars it found itself embroiled in. It therefore was not ready for the Doctor until Canary Wharf.

    OMG….I have gone geek!

  • bronxbee

    @jim:

    OMG….I have gone geek!

    join us! and feel the power of the dork side!

  • Ryan H

    I’m someone who discovered Who with the new series and have since gone back to watch a fair amount of the older run. One thing that I loved about the old episodes that the new series could use more of is multiple companions. The best stuff seems to be where there are two or three other people rattling around in the TARDIS with the doctor.

    I think it’s because it gives the writers more possibilities to play off of. You can get reactions and exposition without falling into the same dynamic every week. It also frees up the Doctor if he is not needed to give the single companion someone to play off of in every scene.

  • PrincessSlaya

    The brontosaurus is large and placid and stupid….

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