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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

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

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