Thursday, December 10, 2009

Doctor Who Review - Story 75 - 4A "Robot"

I suppose if you've never seen Doctor Who at all a small amount of introduction is necessary. First thing you need to know is that the main character is never actually referred to as "Doctor Who", he's simply "The Doctor." He does have a name, but we've never actually heard it and he only tells it to people he really, really cares about. Second thing you need to know is that the Doctor is an alien, from the planet Gallifrey, and he's a member of a race called "The Time Lords." Time Lords are extremely long-lived as every time they "die" they simply regenerate into a new body, thus avoiding those silly negotiations when it's time for the actor's contract to be renewed. "Oh don't like the small raise you're getting, well, I guess it's time for your next incarnation."

The first three Doctors from the serial entitled "The Three Doctors"

The Doctor spends most of his time flitting about the universe in his time travelling space ship called the TARDIS, which is stuck in the shape of a 1950's era London Police Box. It's also bigger on the inside. The TARDIS is so iconic that the BBC, which wholly owns Doctor Who, took out a trademark on the design of the box, and when the Police actually objected and took them to court, the court sided on the side of the BBC since the Bobbies don't use that box style anymore.

On his adventures the Doctor typically allows one or two humans (or aliens) to tag along, obstensibly because he likes to teach (the original concept of the show was an education programme for children), but mostly I think because he's lonely. Most of the time his companions follow him around for a few episodes and disappear, to be seen again in spin-off media. SOMETIMES the companions are so freaking popular that they get their own shows thirty years after their initial appearances.

That leads us to Tom Baker, the fourth incarnation of the Doctor. The first Doctor was a kindly elderly gentleman portrayed by William Hartnell, who had to retire due to health issues (in fact, he passed away shortly after his final appearance as the Doctor). He regenerated into Patrick Troughton who then gave way to Jon Pertwee. Twelve series into the show Pertwee gave way to the longest lived Doctor and the most popular to date, Tom Baker.

At age 40 Baker was much younger than his three previous predecessors and his casting seemed to be an attempt to appeal to a younger audience. His early biography reads like that of a super-hero; his absentee father was a sailor, he served two years in the Royal Army Medical Corp, spent six years living as a monk, and worked construction in between acting gigs, His Doctor was much less a stodgy stick in the mud and much more of an enigma as we'll come to see.

"Robot" was first aired in December of 1974 and opens immediately following the end of the previous story entitled "Planet of Spiders." At this point, Doctor Who was a weekly half-hour serial, each "Story" comprising multiple episodes, usually four to six, though some would be shorter and a few longer. The previous incarnation of the Doctor had contracted radiation poisoning on planet Metebelis Three, and succumbed to the disease upon his return to Earth at UNIT headquarters. I suppose UNIT needs some explaining also: basically it's a "secret" organization that combats all sorts of weirdness in the world under the auspices of the United Nations. The Doctor had been associating with them for quite some time as he needed a terrestial base of operations after being exiled to Earth and unable to travel through time for a bit.

So anyway, the story starts with Jon Pertwee giving way to Tom Baker, which leads to some hilarious moments as the new incarnation of the Doctor appraises his new body. This type of scene would be revisited several times over (and should be once again sometime in 2010 as current Doctor David Tennant will be giving way to the new VERY YOUNG Matt Smith). The new Doctor makes a comment about his ears that would be reflected once again in the first Story of the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccelston), and it's a funny moment. Soon the Doctor's companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) appears to assist the Doctor in his transition, but suddenly some thing breaks into the UNIT compound where the action is taking place.

As typical of Doctor Who the details of the story are intricate and plodding in order to pad out four half hour episodes. If you watch all of the episodes in order you'll notice several artificially created cliff-hangers utilized to tantalize the audience for a week, but they really aren't all that scary, especially when you know that Sarah Jane lasts well into the 21st Century (she got her own show a couple of years ago). Turns out that the thief is a very large, very goofy looking robot who is under the control of some fascist scientists who want to eradicate most of humanity leaving them in charge. The leader of the group is atypically a crazy woman scientist, which I suppose in the early 70's was the BBCs attempt at placating the Women's Liberation movement. Of course that forward thinking is brought back down by having the Doctor's other companion, military doctor Harry Sullivan call Sarah Jane "old girl" and treating her like a second-class citizen for the entire story, even though it's clear he's smitten with her. The Doctor himself is fairly dismissive of Sarah too, and she's not given a whole lot to do in the story other than get into trouble and have to be rescued. Today there are groups that would call that the "woman in the refrigerator" syndrome, but I digress.

The titular "Robot" - named "K1"

In the end UNIT and the Doctor conquer the Rogue Robot who for a time has self-identity and self-control issues. At the end he's accidentally enlarged to several stories tall, which leads to some unintentionally hilarious special effects sequences. In all, it's not a bad story line, but it certainly doesn't excite the audience and leave them waiting for the next story.

As with most of the pre 21st Century episodes of Doctor Who this story features low-budget production values. It also has the hallmark of 20th Century BBC television productions, indoor sequences shot on video-tape and exteriors shot on film. The interior sets are obviously sound-stages, while exteriors are obviously locations close to the production offices. The Robot himself looks like it was made from recycled aluminum (pronounced al-u-min-ee-um) and cardboard with some flashing lights. Pay special attention to the claws, which are just inconceivably goofy. At one point UNIT brings in a tank to try to destroy (not kill of course, they never mention the word "kill") the robot, and it's quite clear that the tank is an off-the-shelf model kit super-imposed on a background plate. The sequences with the giant-version of the robot are just too funny to take seriously as well. It's odd that a show that was produced several years AFTER NBC aired Star Trek would have special effects that are no better than 1930's Hollywood Serials, but the production money on early Doctor Who was all spent on the actors and the script, and rightfully so, because as bad as the effects are, the dialogue and acting is superb.

The story even brings up some salient issues that are still being wrestled over today. The K1 Robot is conflicted over his programming at one point, bringing to mind the conflicts that the HAL-9000 described years later in 2010. The evil society of fascist scientists call forth the question of who should be leading people; briliant but ammoral laboratory types, or leaders that come from the people. IN any case, there's never any easy answers.

In my introduction I mentioned that I'd throw some collecting aspects into each review. Several versions of Doctor Who action figures exist to date, including a current series of 5" scale figures from the UK company "Character Options". The K1 Robot was their first classic "collect a figure" in which a single piece of the figure would be included with each figure in a specific wave, so in order to put the figure together completely you had to purchase every figure. This tactic has been used by toy companies for a few years to both spur sales of "peg warmer" figures and also to produce larger figures on a more limited budget. This type of collection has been done in many toy lines thus far, best executed by Toy Biz and Mattel in their BAF collections for Marvel and DC comic figures respectively.

Some trivia to consider:
This story features one of the last appearances of the "Whomobile", a yellow souped-up roadster, used previously by the Third Doctor during his exile. It wouldn't be seen again until the 7th Doctor's stories. It also features the last major appearance of UNIT for quite a while. The organization would appear again, but the Doctor ceases working for them in this series.

Next Time on Doctor Who Review: The Ark in Space

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