- Mother, mother, I feel sick.
- Send for the doctor quick, quick, quick.
- Mother, dear, shall I die?
- Yes, my darling, by and by.
Robot was the very imaginatively titled first story of 12th season in the British-fiction television series Doctari Who, written by your pal Tear-ants Dix and broadcast in late December 1974 to early January 1975, which means that one part was the Christmas episode for 1974. Huh. It was the first to feature Tom Baker as the Scarf Doctor, as well as Ian Marter as the new imbecile Harry Sullivan.
TL;DR Plot Edit
So there’s all this stuff being stolen by something not-human, which turns out to be a big metal robot built by this mad scientist who’s sort of like Frankenstein I guess. He calls his robot K1, so that means he must be the first of eight more prototypes before the world could have a K9, and this scientist turns out is trying to help an elitist group take over or destroy this world, sort like in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. The robot ends up going kind of crazy, like Frankenstein, holds onto the puppet of Sarah Jane and then get kill, just like King Kong, except for when Tom Baker splashes some red slime splashed on it. Tom Baker then takes over Doctor Who (also like King Kong) and runs it into the ground, the end.
If a bit generic, it’s not a bad basis for a story, plus could be done on the cheap: all they needed was some common costumes from the voluminous BBC wardrobe, to cobble up a metal robot costume and sew together a little Sarah Jane doll for the “giant” robot to carry around, then to buy a toy plastic tank that was perhaps six inches long. Viola! This was how Doctor Who magic was made back before the invention of the special effect.
So anyway, Part 1 Edit
I still say these opening credits are the best - short, weird-looking, and with music as-yet unspoilt by the 1980s. Sarah Jane lets us know the episode is starting by literally telling us “I think it’s starting!” Pertwee’s regeneration was probably the first departure that the programme made a big tearful farewell out of, so leave RTD alone already you guys.
The minute the Brig says things are quiet, a terribly unobservant guard is killed by the patented Monster-Vision-Cam, a common form of death Doctor Who, but I kept hearing some kind of quiet beeping sound or something; maybe I left my phone off the hook? Some blueprints for a disintegrator gun have been stolen and Sarah Jane’s outfit is rather awful. The Brig is a swinger.
Barely any lines out of him yet, Tom silently, tellingly sneaks around the UNIT HQ like Harpo Marx in Duck Soup, and when he starts talking comes across like Groucho, owning the character and the entire show in about as long as it takes to unwrap a mint. The Doctor says there’s no such word as cunt before he’s going, or maybe I misheard that?
This robot likes to look as his own pinchy-claw hands a lot doesn’t he? If I had awesome pinchy claw hands like that, I might too! Another guard who looks like Harry Shearer laughably tries to bar the door with a thin bit of wood that stretches the definition of “plank” but dies anyway when he sticks his neck into the robot’s claw.
Baker trying on the drastically different outfits is something no other Doctor has really done before or since (a trick Romana 2 later half-stole herself) and marked him as a clown straight-off - literally even. At exactly thirteen minutes into his very first episode, we get the first Who Nose of Tom’s long career as the Wacky Doctor! Sarah visits some suspicious scientists (or “boffins” as the mongrel tongue of Great Britain would have them) who’re running a scientific think tank literally named Think Tank, while the Doctor, Brig and Harry check out the robot’s crime spree.
Interestingly, a “think tank.” “policy institute,” “research institute,” “group of mad boffins,” “shills set up by rich people to create lies to justify raping the poor,” etc. is an organization formed for research and “advocacy” (i.e. heavily biased lying, usually) on such topics social policy (BBC funding), political strategy (The Happiness Patrol), economics (toy licensing deals), the military (disintegrator guns), technology (silly tin robots), and culture (Mary Whitehouse). Most such groups are “non-profit” organizations whose top administration can make hundred of thousands of dollars/pounds a year. Some countries such as the United States and Canada actually provide with them tax exempt status, so rich people with an axe to grind can make make tax-exempt donations to fund their trumpeting of selfish pet theories about everything from the lack of climate change to why John Barrowman is bad for our morals (which is 100% accurate by the way). Other think tanks are funded by governments (BBC funding), advocacy groups (Mary Whitehouse, John Barrowman), or businesses (toy licensing deals), or derive revenue from consulting or research work related to their projects (Top Gear). Corporate interests and political influence groups sometimes find it useful to create these “policy institutes,” “advocacy organizations,” and, yes, think tanks, as well.
For example, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition was formed by Satan himself in the mid-1990s with the express mission, despite it’s name, of disputing sound science and research pointing towards a real, verifiable association between secondhand smoke and cancer. Another example, Think Tank (full name: The National Institute for Advanced Scientific Research), was a scientific institute formed in the UK in the early 1970s and was headed by the possibly lesbian Hilda Winters. This group specialized in studying “advanced sciences” including robotics. Most of Think Tank's members were also part of the Scientific Reform Society, a radically nutjob fringe organization (which is saying something in the world of think tanks) that eventually wanted to rule the world, but let's’ not get ahead of our story shall we? One last detail: naming your think tank “Think Tank” is just lazy.
So anyway, these sorts of partisan policy institutes both left- and right-leaning are often quoted by the media without being identified as such. The result is that think tank "experts" are sometimes depicted as neutral sources without any ideological predispositions when, in fact, they represent a very particular (and paid) perspective about as sound and level as Mary Whitehouse's. There’s really no excuse for falling for such political hackery these days, what with the internet allowing you to look up real and unbiased info about the Heritage Foundation for instance, but such didn’t exist in 1975 and Sarah Jane knows nothing about the Scientific Reform Society yet - and neither do we, that comes next episode. I seem to have wandered a bit here, so let’s get back to the pertinent adventure at hand, “Doctor Who And The King Kong-Bot Of Worcestershire.”
Sergeant Benton is a trap apparently, at least on the radio. The BBC saves money by making an intentionally empty set where Professor Kettlewell once worked. Baker makes a pretty good joke of “sinking” down into the jeep. Every time someone fires a machine gun on Doctor Who video, little horizontal stripes slightly distort the picture quality and this time’s no different.
The robot doesn’t make that left turn at Albuquerque and has already escaped! Professor Kettlewell (I’ll call him KW from here on out) is quite the cartoon of a scientist, but somehow doesn’t make this story any more silly, which tells you how well it’s all working. The Doctor, Brig and Harry check out a smoking hole and some square holes while Sarah discovers it was oil and gets threatened by the big robot (who has pink lights inside his empty head) for the cliffhanger.
Then Part 2 Edit
Turns out the suspicious scientists were ‘avin’ a larf and Sarah wasn’t in any danger - just another fake-out cliffhanger, but when you have to think up a cliffhanger every damn week, fake-outs must be a really tempting option to fall back on. The Doctor is talking through his hat.
The first thing the robot tells us he’s been programmed for is mining - what is it with 70s Doctor Who and its obsession with mining?! Anyway, proving that a woman can be the equal of any male mad scientist, the main suspicious scientist, orders the robot to kill Sarah to prove it can’t be used to kill anyone, sending it into a “I must obey, but I cannot obey” feedback loop very much like the Hamlet soliloquy of the venerable classic 1950s sci-fi stinker Robot Monster - which also featured a robot thing who’s somewhat reminiscent of King Kong, in fact. One of the scientists spray-paints inside the robot’s head, then they show it a slide of a newspaper clipping instead of just, you know, the newspaper clipping. Science! Everyone hops over to see KW again who says he told the suspicious scientists to dismantle the robot and the Doctor impresses him with maths because he’s a smug fellow, this ‘ere new doc. KW, who appears to hate those suspicious scientists for being so… so suspicious or something, mentions in passing that his own brain patterns were used to program the robot (please remember this later, perhaps) and that forcing it to kill would drive it mad (as in “mad scientists”? Ha ha!). The robot uses the disintegration gun to kill some old British fogey who’s only stage direction was “look scared” and whose only line is “ah-ahhh!” The robot steals a file and the Brig shows us its hole. The Doctor sleeps on a table and KW has a large medical diagram/poster of a human ear for some reason. “They say there is no conflict, yet I know there is conflict.” Silly old robot, making that either/or logical fallacy again!
Sarah’s new 70s outfit isn’t much better - in fact, the guy she’s talking to hates her trousers and probably writes his own Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality fanfic. Harry Sullivan tips his fedora bowler, you've seen this on /who/. To this day, Tom Baker still puts on his hat to answer the telephone. KW invites the Doctor over to help with the robot before the suspicious scientists show up and the Doctor types a note superfast on a 20th century document-printing device known as a “print writer,” if my research is correct This Doctor seems to fit Bessie just as well as Pertwee ever did, maybe better - but this is the last we’ll see of her. The robot attacks the Doctor at KW’s house and appears to be ready to kill him for the cliffhanger.
But then Part 3 Edit
Baker slams the door so hard you can hear the glass break. Sarah shows up in time to save the Doctor by kirking the robot before UNIT starts uselessly shooting at it, as they always do. The robot has trouble breaking through a balsa wood door, even though he can’t be hurt by bullets, plus it walks like a man wearing flippers on dry land. KW comes out of the closet in a tearful scene, then drops some terribly important info about the robot being made of living metal and that he also has a virus to degrade metal, hmmm… thanks for that seemingly useless information, episode 3, I wonder why they wasted screen time with that? So Sarah talks KW into tagging along to a meeting with the radicals and she tells Benton to go do something with his rifle, which sounds a bit dirty when you think about it.
The Doctor looks depressed while the Brig is talking, then accuses everyone other than white British people of being foreigners; he’s probably going Tory this time. For some reason, the secret codes to fire every single nuclear missile on Earth were being kept by that one old fogey guy who’s only line was “ah-ahhh!” and the robot has them now. The Doctor speaks ill of KW, perhaps because he’s the only actor around with crazier hair.
The possibly lesbian leader proves that women can’t be Hitler but gets cheers when shouting about approaching climax. She yells about ruling the world thanks to, drum roll please, KW, dun dun dun, who’s actually been working with them except when he pretended to quit and pretended to care about the robot’s feelings and was attacked by it but not killed and huh? Wait a minute… oh, never mind, let’s just keep going. The Doctor has a fake pigeon in his coat.
The robot clumsily knocks aside some cardboard boxes, revealing Sarah hiding at the back of the room; kind of odd since KW knew she was there but hadn’t told anyone. The Doctor, like Baker in his new role, takes to the stage and generates some big laughs by playing a buffoon. I too once stapled together a deck of cards end-to-end so I could “accordion” them like Baker does here, after I had read about it in a book about stage magic, but that made the deck too thick to fool anyone and I never progressed to becoming a stage magician either, so I ended up feeling like an idiot. Anyway, Baker makes the possibly lesbian leader think her minions are idiots too. A bit of bad stage fighting later, the possibly lesbian leader points out quite rightly you can’t just lock up the Doctor and his friends because they’ll escape, then without missing a beat tells her minions to “take them away”, not “kill them where they stand.”
That one bald dude looks ridiculous trying to take shelter from the gunfire behind the robot, but this is Doctor Who. Harry mentions pulling out and the Brig is shocked by some bland knocking on the phone. The fate of the Earth on the line, so UNIT musters up three trucks and about a dozen men to go check out an underground bunker that looks like a metal porta-potty which has a single defensive machine gun with a range of about three or four yards, it appears. The possibly lesbian leader has the Brig’s number! Ok, maybe three defensive guns.
So anyway, the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver makes some booms and then the disintegrator gun looks almost as cheap as the Styrofoam box it comes in. The robot comes out and zaps another soldier who showed up in whomever’s back yard they filmed this and then - the pièce de résistance! - the plastic toy tank roles out. Many will tell you this is one of the worst effects ever on the programme, but ignore their minuscule minds and enjoy the levels of comfy that laughable CSO can add to any story (more on this later), plus I’m sure it looked just fine on a ten-inch black and white screen back in the day, which is what probably half of the original British viewers had - that and scurvy plus a deadly gin addiction, if William Hogarth is to be believed. The tank doesn’t even get to fire a shot, which probably saved money. The robot issues a verbal warning for the cliffhanger. This is and is objectively and scientifically the best cliffhanger ever featured on Doctor Who. No onscreen character is about to be shot by a Dalek, eaten by a puppet monster, etc.; instead, the programme completely forgets the Doctor and the Brig, who’ve just failed, even exist and has the robot break The Fourth Wall by staring directly into the fucking camera and declaring that it will destroy us all in that chilling metallic voice - you, me, and the entire bloody world of 1975. And then it coldly cuts to the end credits, leaving that disintegrater Sword of Damocles hanging over us for an entire goddamn week.
I dunno why man, I just know I fucking love those last few seconds far more than they probably deserve. I’m sure you love some other stupid random moments of the programme that I don’t, so shut up already. I claim this one and no one can ever take it from me.
Finally, Part 4 Edit
KW turns out to not be as evil as the possibly lesbian leader. Harry thinks it’s coming.
Steps To Blackmailing The World With Nuclear Launch Codes:Edit
- Start your big nuclear countdown telly screen behind you
- Check to see if you have enough food and water
Great plan, suspicious(ly stupid) scientists! Another stupidity: they again fail to kill Sarah (and Harry) like they did in the previous episode. Those two are also, surprise surprise, indeed trying to escape just as predicted, too. I guess sometimes a villain is his own worst enemy, if scriptwriters who dodge logic are to be believed. Harry later punches some dude and KW uses what looks like a scavenged Tardis console panel to open the doors so that he, Harry and Sarah can escape. The robot gets all verklempt after accidentally shooting KW instead of Sarah, which I imagine it would have felt pretty good about. Harry apparently punched that one guy so hard he died. Sarah picks up that pistol like a boss (something like Amy Pond near the end of A Good Man Goes To Whore) and the Brig yells, but neither can stop nuclear war. Then the Doctor bounds on-set out of fucking nowhere like he almost forgot to bother showing up today, smugly rattles off some light patter and saves the day by putting his feet up on the computer. Sarah meets the robot again and it somehow escapes everyone outside; no wonder the programme dropped UNIT, they were all becoming a bunch of slack-asses. The robot tells Sarah to come.
The Doctor mentions something being teenie-weenie, which was a then-popular forerunner to today’s Timey-Wimey. The Doctor does some science! The robot fails to destroy humanity (so much for the previous cliffhanger I guess), so it tells Sarah to come, again. The Doctor smiles when he gets his rod wet. The Brig makes their problem bigger and Sarah is quite the doll; the Brig’s lucky Pertwee’s gone, the Third Doctor probably would have insulted him about the foolishness of the military mind, military intelligence and all that tommyrot he used to abuse his “friend” with for zapping the robot, which really didn’t need to get big for other than stretching out this story just a tad and pretending things were getting more exciting. So anyway, the UNIT troops exit the backyard they were filming in and blow some smoke at a building. The robot treads upon a model home in a simply beautiful special effects scene (ha ha) and deposits Sarah on the roof of what passes for a tall building in Evesham, Worcestershire; I think it was four stories tall.
You can also see parts of the robot's legs disappearing into another timeline, if you look carefully, which really makes that tank look better by comparison. The Doctor kills the robot in a bright red spray of blood! The robot falls over backwards very slowly for some reason, almost as if… as if some invisible stagehands were carefully lowering it to the ground in front of a yellow CSO screen or something; the robot clearly suffered while dying too, so the Doctor has apparently killed a living, sentient (if crazy mixed-up) creature yet again. The Doctor offers Sarah a jelly babby before admitting the robot was human and capable of great good, so he’s really got blood on his hands this time, but basically says so what? He hates writing (one doesn’t wonder why, based on the history of the orogramme) and decides to run away while Sarah just laughs, a moment even more inappropriately despicable than when Peri just laughed away the Sixth Doctor trying to strangle her. Harry shows up and says something dumb and they all get into the Tardis. The brig tells two bottles, a drinking glass and a brick on the table about his dinner plans, which serves as the perfect and respectful send-off for such a beloved character who wouldn’t reappear on the programme for the next thirty-seven years, if not longer.
We may not have been destroyed by a tin robot, but - worse! - we are now stuck with Baker’s ego and its deforming presence in Doctor Who for the rest of our lives. Only the dead can know peace from the evil.
Some Crap Like I’m Phil Fucking Sandifer Or Something Edit
Many people describe Robot as being something of a left-over Jon Pertwee story and what with UNIT still hanging about and the mad scientist angle, they’re not wrong. The programme both old and new usually tries to play it safe with regeneration stories lest the new Doctor somehow frighten viewers away, and so strives to assure viewers “we’re still the same show you like, just with a new face and bug-eyes now!” At least it does so when it’s being created by anyone with even a goddamn modicum of storytelling ability. I mean, be fair, I’ve often been astounded by savvy criticism that can discern masterful application of story beats, plot foreshadowing and all that heavy stuff that I miss myself, so I’m no fucking expert or anything, but even I could have told JNT that The Twin Dilemma was about as appealing as civet coffee after you find out how that stuff’s made. But so anyway, the Doctor Whooze programme-makers back in the dim mists of timey-wimey thought it would therefore make sense to cobble up some rather forgettable if well-paced (another strike against the JNT era) Pertwee-esque tale for Tom’s first, which is exactly what they did.
And no one gives a good goddamn about that story because Baker’s manic whirligig of energy replaced Pertwee’s stoic and reserved Doctor like a falling cinder block replaces an egg. Pertwee played his Doctor all straight all the time, while Tom obviously thought that was rubbish. I often do too. Why? Pertwee’s Doctor was like this great granite rock of sanity and level-headedness for the programme’s waves of silly inanity (Alpha Centauri, strangling phone cords of living plastic, Jo Grant) to wash up and break against. But didn’t we already have the Brigadier for that? And sometimes the programme failed to summon all that bizarre shit; instead of great crashing waves of ingenious creativity, sometimes all we got were the mere dull ebbs of something like Colony In Space, leaving Pertwee’s grey granite rock just another grey thing in a lifeless sea of grey (or at least in a grey quarry). Tom’s approach swallowed whole the programme’s daft spirit and let it light the way like a lamp through even the most dull of serials, like, oh, I don’t know, Robot. Baker’s grinning charisma monster surfs those ridiculous crest of surrounding nonsense when they supported him and helped prop up the boring failures which inevitably occurred. It’s really probably a good thing he refused to appear in the Five Doctors, chances are he’d have outshone everyone else but for Troughton.
Notably, there's a point early on where the Brig is staring at the hole in the fence that the robot burst through, with the camera focused on the spot next to him where Pertwee would normally stand. Instead, Baker's in the background, looking at flowers on the ground. The program literally is showing us the hole where Pertwee should be, but has been replaced by this leering madman.
Minor But Related Twelfth Doctor Trivia Edit
During the story’s opening scenes, the newly regenerated Tom Baker Doctor quotes himself by muttering "change the course of human history," which was from the Third Doctor story The Time Warrior. Turns out Twelvie said the same thing when he woke up in the TARDIS during Listen. He went on to add that “the brontosaurus is large and placid ... and stupid,” a direct quote from the Third Doctor in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. All of which goes to prove that Moffat, who is himself large, placid… and stupid, has a couple of DVDs of previous adventures and wants to change the course of human history.