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12x1. Robot
Writer: Terrance Dicks
Director: Christopher Barry
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: The newly regenerated Doctor, after overcoming some initial disorientation, becomes involved in a UNIT investigation of the theft of designs and equipment needed to make a dangerous disintegrator gun. The culprits are a ruthless group of scientists associated with Think Tank and the Scientific Reform Society (SRS), who have constructed an advanced robot to assist in their plan to take control of the world via nuclear blackmail.

Review: If "Spearhead from Space" was practically a second pilot for Doctor Who, "Robot" takes the opposite approach, introducing a new Doctor and a new companion in the familiar context of an Earth-bound UNIT narrative about megalomaniacs trying to take over the world. As such, it would prove to be atypical for the Tom Baker era, but it's still a decent story and an engaging first look at the incarnation who would come to be the series' best-known Doctor.

Though he had his comedic moments, Jon Pertwee's Doctor was by and large a very serious and straightforward individual; as I commented in my "Planet of the Spiders" review, he was probably the most conventional hero of the first three Doctors. Baker's incarnation, however, is clearly headed in exactly the opposite direction, establishing himself as an unpredictable eccentric who always finds room for whimsical humor and sometimes even uses it as a weapon. Some of his strangest antics occur in the context of his post-regenerative confusion, such as when he catches Harry Sullivan off guard with a game of jump-rope and promptly ties him up in an attempt to escape into the TARDIS. Still, the off-kilter behavior continues throughout, ranging from lying on a table with his hat covering his face during a conversation to the endless pocket-search that enables him to catch the SRS bouncer off-guard. It helps that the script gives him some good one-liners; clearly Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes quickly picked up on their new lead actor's peculiar talents, because it's difficult to imagine them writing exchanges like "What's wrong with [the word] 'unsinkable?'" "'Nothing,' as the iceberg said to the Titanic" for Hartnell or Troughton or Pertwee. The mischievous side we see at the beginning is clearly not just a product of disorientation: the big grin that crosses his face in the first episode when he first sees the TARDIS reminds me of nothing so much as a child who's just found his favorite toy, and this is echoed at the end when Sarah tells him he's being childish and he responds by asking why be grown-up if you can't be childish once in a while.

The new Doctor is clearly at the top of the agenda in this serial, but the supporting cast have some good moments too. Sarah gets a chance to shine in Episode 1 when she senses that something suspicious is happening at Think Tank and finds the Robot after bluffing her way in, demonstrating the cleverness and determination that has made her an appealing companion. Harry Sullivan, the newest addition to the cast, is correctly characterized as "old-fashioned" by Sarah and perfectly fits the mold of the loveable but somewhat bumbling protagonist, as his attempt to infiltrate Think Tank eventually fails and prompts a derisive snort of "James Bond!" from Sarah. This isn't a major serial for the Brigadier, but it's at least clear now that he's recovered from his lapse into buffoonery in the middle of the Pertwee era, coming across as smart and resourceful even if he's occasionally on the receiving end of a zinger from the Doctor. (In addition to the joke about "unsinkable," another memorable exchange, and another indication of the new Doctor's slightly subversive personality, is when the Brigadier comments that only Britain could be trusted with the disintegrator gun blueprints, causing the Doctor to remark, "Well, naturally, I mean, the rest were all foreigners.") He also has a more overt moment of fear than we've ever seen from him before, when he bellows at Winters to stop the nuclear launch and seems genuinely and understandably panicked as the Doctor tries to hack the system. Benton doesn't have a whole lot to do in this one, though we do learn that he's been given a promotion to Warrant Officer because budget restraints have precluded the assignment of a new Captain to serve under the Brigadier. It makes sense for Benton given that he's been a reliable officer for several years, but I'm not sure what to make of the notion that UNIT is underfunded -- wouldn't those with proper security clearance be aware that the organization has saved the world on numerous occasions?

The human villains in "Robot" are sufficiently intimidating, if not especially complex. Hilda Winters has a chilling scene in which she delivers a diatribe about how SRS will soon assume their rightful place as the planets' rulers, her indiscriminate anger revealing what I can only describe as a disturbing hatred of humanity itself. While there doesn't seem to be much to her character beyond that, you certainly have no trouble believing that this woman is dangerous and that she's not kidding around when she starts threatening nuclear holocaust. Professor Kettlewell has apparently thrown in his lot with SRS because he's tired of seeing the planet polluted (and also assumes erroneously that Winters will relent and call off the nuclear launches if their demands are not met), but the others seem motivated only by power. Kettlewell's motivation recalls the Golden Age scheme of "Invasion of the Dinosaurs," and his involvement in this scheme shows how misguided idealists and self-serving thugs can end up forming an unholy alliance. Still, while the observations about elitist hypocrisy in seeking to deny others their basic human rights "for their own good" (as one SRS representative tells Sarah) are valid, they're also fairly obvious, and I don't think this bunch quite rank among the best human villains of the UNIT era.

The Robot, on the other hand, makes for a good tragic villain. Initially programmed not to harm humans, its programming has been tampered with by the Think Tank scientists, to the point that it seems to suffer an ethical crisis over its actions and seeks an explanation from its creator Kettlewell. Like Winters and the other Think Tank/SRS types, the Robot eventually develops a deep loathing for humanity and is prepared to kill everyone, and yet it does earn some sympathy. After all, most of its actions are due to its program being rewritten, and only after its betrayal by Kettlewell and the other Think Tank types (who demonstrate for the Robot a stark example of humanity at its worst) and its accidental killing of Kettlewell does it finally go berserk and prepare to wipe out the human race and replace it with machines incapable of lying. Though we can feel justified in expecting Winters and the rest of her cadre to have known better, there's a sense that the Robot is quite literally just not wired to handle disappointment and betrayal, and thus its very human-like emotions drive it to the point of being ready to commit genocide while still promising to spare Sarah, the only person to demonstrate genuine concern for its well-being. As the Doctor comments at the end, the Robot was in fact very human in its capacity for both great good and great evil. (Incidentally, though it was justifiable to destroy the Robot under the circumstances, the Doctor's complete lack of hesitation at the end hint that there may also be a slightly darker shade to this eccentric new incarnation. I don't doubt that even Pertwee's Doctor would have eventually resorted to lethal force, but he would have almost certainly been more regretful about it, whereas the final scene in "Robot" instead finds Sarah feeling sad and the comparatively aloof Doctor having to explain himself.)

If there's anything that brings "Robot" down a notch (aside from the somewhat routine plot), it's a quality that I am forced to categorize as simple sloppiness for lack of a better term. Though the story as a whole holds together, there are a lot of little odd moments where I couldn't help but wonder if another rewrite or two might have helped. For one thing, there are just too many scenes of the Robot lumbering around being Big, Scary, and Unstoppable. Once or twice is fine, but after a while it becomes a drag on the story's pace, especially when the UNIT personnel end up doing something dumb in response. The Brigadier's one slight moment of buffoonery comes when he shoots the Robot with the disintegrator gun and the energy actually enlarges it -- not that it's a bad idea, but why doesn't he turn the gun off once it's clear that it's backfiring (pun intended)? Some of his men don't come across as the brightest bulbs around either -- at one point they fire at an escaping vehicle but neglect to aim at the tires, and later, when their bullets have proven ineffective against the Robot and the Brigadier has ordered them to fall back, one of them inexplicably keeps shooting and, not surprisingly, gets killed. And while I'm all for establishing the new Doctor's comedic persona, it's taking things a little too far when he bursts into the SRS meeting and has the whole audience cracking up almost immediately. This seems awfully forced given that (a) he's been on stage for all of about 3 seconds, and (b) he's an enemy trying to disrupt their plans. Again, none of these bits exactly ruin the story, but many of them also defy basic logic and leave me scratching my head as to why they weren't somehow fixed before production was completed.

Though "Robot" may be flawed, it's a solid entry that does what it needs to do. The new Doctor is established and proves to be quite an entertaining character, and the context of a UNIT story actually holds a certain logic (there's no reason for a completely new setup a la "Spearhead" with every new regeneration). By the time it's over, we're more than ready to follow the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry on their first outer-space adventure.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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