12.1 – “Robot”
ROBOKINGKONG! Following on from The Greatest Chase Sequence Of All Time, The Doctor has regenerated into a relatively unknown actor named Tom Baker. Wonder if he’ll be any good? Meanwhile, top secret plans for a top-secret disintegrator gun have been stolen in mysterious circumstances, and one by one all the component parts are going the same way. Who is behind all this? Who the Hell are The Scientific Reform Society and what do they have to do with any of this? The Doctor teams up with Sarah Jane Smith and UNIT to investigate.
There is something about 70’s UNIT stories that give me a great big warm glow. It’s Comfort Who. My first Doctor was Sylvester McCoy but my second was Mr Jon Pertwee (“Day Of The Daleks” if you’re interested) so there is something about that era that I just can’t get all critical about. I just can’t. And make no mistake, it might be Tom Baker’s face all over the title sequence now, but this is very much an epilogue to the Pertwee period rather than the shining dawn of a bright new era. If you want that sort of thing you’re going to have to wait ’till the next story.
For now, though, we’re bidding farewell to the Barry Letts & Terrence Dicks vision with one last outing following “Planet Of The Spiders” full-on Barry Letts blow-out. Bar Buddhist undertones, pretty much all of the tropes of the previous five years are comfortably in place. Secret scientific society with a plan to better mankind through nefarious means? Check. Ecological concerns? Check. Clumsy but well meaning support of feminism? Check. Military action (possibly by HAVOC), complete with helicopters? Check. The Doctor zooming around the Home Counties in Bessie? Dodgy CSO and a script oblivious to the limitations of the special effects budget? Hell yes. The only things we’re sorely lacking are an ineffectual civil servant screwing things up and Stephen Thorne’s big booming voice for the big bad robot. Seeded throughout the story are some of the elements we will come to recognise as the tropes of new script editor Robert Holmes and new producer Philip Hinchcliffe. This isn’t the first time, for example, that we’ll see The Doctor thrown into an existing story. “Robot” sees writer (and outgoing script editor) Terrence Dicks fusing UNIT era Doctor Who with King Kong, but soon we’ll be seeing a Time Lord Frankenstein, The Alien Prisoner of Zenda, Doctor Who & The Hammer Horror Remakes of Mars and Lovecraft In Space, amongst others, mostly to fantastic effect.
“Robot” begins with a quick recap of the previous adventure. We see Pertwee fade to Baker once more and we’re off. Contrasting utterly with Pertwee’s staid patrician, Baker is immediately a far more mercurial Doctor, wriggling desperately out of any attempts by his friends to engage with him and itching to get back to the TARDIS and his travels. He’s all boggle eyes and bemused smirks. The smirk refuses to leave his face for the entirety of this story and it’s all the better for it. If he’s not smirking he’s feigning boredom or detachment, putting his feet up and reclining on any available surface. This attitude suits the story perfectly: for all the fun to be had, it’s very much a by-the-numbers runaround. It’s like he’s fully aware of and is taking it easy. And this is not necessarily a criticism – this is Comfort Who, after all. I’m not alone in loving the challenging and the original, the stuff that stretches the format and blows your tiny mind, but sometimes you just want to sit back, put your feet up and switch the brain off while Tom Baker gallivants around looking amused while chaos erupts around him.
Comfort Who generally has Terrence Dicks’ name attached to it in some capacity; sometimes as script editor, sometimes as script writer, sometimes as novelist. Dicks is the master of fun, entertaining stories that may not necessarily change the way you think about stuff, but keep you suitably riveted for their duration. It’s a romp – a word rarely seen outside of tabloid newspapers and Russell T Davies interviews, but completely appropriate when discussing this story. Writing a story that breezes along effortlessly without feeling padded is an equally valid skill and, when it’s as much fun as this, utterly commendable. This is a canny move on Hinchcliffe’s part. With a new Doctor to introduce, following on from 5 years of Pertwee, it makes sense for him to utilise the existing supporting cast and employ a trusted pair of scripting hands to deliver a competent piece of Comfort Who to get people used to the new fella.
That’s not to say that “Robot” is without it’s surprises. The fascist Scientific Reform Society are easy to laugh at; despite being a collective of super-intelligent science loonies with access to all the atomic weapons in the world, they’re still terrifically small scale and homespun, all sub-Nazi uniforms and meetings in a little community centre surrounded by barbed wire. But the episode 3 reveal of who actually leads their group is nicely set up, logical, and genuinely surprising if you haven’t watched this story in years and had kind of forgotten that bit (HELLO!), meaning that rather than the usual capture/escape/capture/escape yawnathon that traditionally fills the episode 3 space, we instead get a superb set up for the conclusion. Which unfortunately ultimately boils down to The Doctor dousing the now giant titular robot in soapy water, causing him to dissolve. But still, it’s fun. And Baker delivers the scene with tongue far enough in cheek to get away with it.
It’s not all about Baker though. “Robot” has some great material for Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, who gets to do all of the heavy investigative lifting. It’s Sarah Jane who gets interested in Think Tank, proactively investigates and – eventually – breaks in to their facility, getting all the intelligence on the robot. It’s Sarah Jane’s compassionate response to the K1 robot that causes it to question his instructions, ultimately saving the day. And then she saves The Doctor at the resolution of episode 2’s cliffhanger and outwits Benton (admittedly not that tricky) in order to infiltrate a Scientific Research Society meeting. The only real mis-step is that perhaps she is a little too quick to accept The Doctor’s transformation, but I suppose if you’re going to travel through time and space in a police box that is bigger on the inside, you can accept that maybe your new alien father figure can become a whole new person too.
There’s so much to love with this story. Ian Marter excels as new companion Harry Sullivan, joining Nicholas Courtney as a second unflappable straight main to Baker’s unpredictable loon. The K1 robot is slightly shonky in execution – particularly when lumbering around the various sets – but it’s a beautiful piece of design work. And, most importantly, it’s never ever boring.
Sorry, but I just can’t help myself! This, as I’ve said more than enough now, is Comfort Who. My critical faculties go out of the window and I just sit there enjoying the kitsch with a stupid grin on my face. Tom is tremendous, I love a bit of Dicks and one era is closed off nicely while the groundwork is laid for the new one that’s just around the corner. A cracking 8/10.
Written and edited by Steve Horry