Serial Review: Robot (Season 12)
Re-visiting “Robot” is an interesting experience, being that it is the very first Doctor Who story I ever saw. I didn’t think much of it at the time, nor did I dislike it. I would say that it deserves some level of credit, though, because it was good enough that I continued on to the next episode. It wasn’t until “The Ark in Space,” though, that I really could see myself being a fan of this show.
I’m not a huge fan Tom Baker as the Doctor in general, but nor do I dislike him. That being said, I think he is a bit more on the irritating side than the amusing one in this. I don’t think he really gets a hang of the role until late in this first season, or perhaps early in his second. His facial expressions are particularly obnoxious here, and the jump rope scene is ridiculous.
I do appreciate the simplicity of this plot, somehow. I always thought it was strange that, with all of the classic villains in Doctor Who, they didn’t start a Doctor off by facing the Daleks or Cybermen or something like that more often. Would seem only natural to put ones best foot forward when trying to introduce a new actor to the role. The team behind the show managed to handle the introductions pretty well early on, though, as I think all of the first four Doctors have solid debut stories that showcase their talents pretty well. I don’t think “Castrovalva” does much for Davison (I know you’ll disagree), or “The Twin Dilemma” for Colin Baker, or “Time and the Rani” for Sylvester McCoy, but this does a pretty good job of providing a solid story and giving the actor a chance to show the audience what his Doctor is all about. The story borrows a lot from other stories, most obviously Asimov’s “I, Robot” and classic stories like “King Kong” and “Frankenstein,” but I think it works well. There’s no harm in wearing ones influences on your sleeve if you do it well.
I think it was great form for new script editor Robert Holmes to commission the departing Terrance Dicks to write the first story of this new era. Dicks does a good job of bringing a different feel to the story than that of his tenure as script editor; there is a decidedly lighter and more adventurous quality to it than I think the overall scope of the Dicks era had. That’s not to malign the five seasons that saw Doctor Who under Dicks’ watch, but only to point out that it is different.
The first time I saw this, I was too busy trying to figure out what everything was about to notice how great Elisabeth Sladen was, or how cool Ian Marter is as Harry Sullivan. There’s a different quality of Sarah Jane’s character here than there seemed to be in the final season of Pertwee’s run, and I think that she becomes the great companion that she was only when this era of the show begins.
In the guest star department, I love Edward Burnham as Kettlewell, an essentially identical character to his early appearance in the absolutely brilliant Patrick Troughton epic “The Invasion.” He is really the perfect absent-minded professor. It is a shame that recurring Doctor Who actors are so consistently typecast within the show, but it is hard to deny Burnham’s quality when it comes to playing this sort of role. Patricia Maynard is also very solid as the slightly fascist-y scientific ne’er-do-well Hilda Winters.
At the start of a very well-written season, “Robot” might not seem like much, but I enjoy it. I like the use of Asimov’s laws of robotics, and I think the story works pretty well. I’m also fond of a good explosion, which this provides as well. It’s kind of strange that new companion Harry Sullivan has very little to do, but a minor quibble in an otherwise pretty damn solid story. It’s not a classic but I enjoy it anyway.