Saturday, April 27, 2013

Doctor Who Debuts: Robot by @ThePlanetHarris

Tom Baker’s Debut as The Doctor 
By Steven Harris

          On 28th December 1974 my own personal relationship with Doctor Who changed forever. From being a programme I watched if I happened to be indoors on a Saturday it transformed into essential viewing, something I became obsessed with (an obsession of which I haven’t particularly been cured since). The reason? Tom Baker. THE Doctor. The definite article, as he tells Harry Sullivan in this very episode.

        The programme was written by former script editor and long-serving show stalwart Terrance Dicks and directed by another long-term associate of the show, Christopher Barry. Their steady hands and deep understanding of the character of the Doctor despite externally changing personalities and faces, allowed for as assured a debut in the role as there has ever been. Or perhaps it was just that Tom Baker was a hand-in-glove fit for the part. Certainly no-one else, before or since, has quite so successfully convinced me that they possibly are an alien masquerading as a jobbing human actor.

          When the previous season had ended, Jon Pertwee had been well mashed up by the Spiders of Metebelis Three and by radiation poisoning. He collapsed back at UNIT headquarters and a funny abbot man appeared on a flaming pie (well on some clever BBC special effects) and told Sarah-Jane Smith and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart that the Doctor was about to regenerate. Robot, then, opens with that regeneration, Pertwee rapidly transmuting into Baker while Sarah-Jane and the Brig look on. “Well, here we go again” mutters the Brig, who has seen two previous incarnations of the Timelord already. He calls for the UNIT medical officer to ensure that the Doctor is checked over once he has changed.

          The Fourth Doctor’s first words are some burbling nonsense which Sarah-Jane swears is connected to stuff his previous face had uttered on Metebelis Three. He then jabbers more audibly – “If the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of its parts, why is a mouse when it spins?” – and Sergeant Benton arrives and asks who the hell this nutjob on the floor might be. Well he doesn’t quite put it like that but he’s clearly thinking it. When he is told it’s the Doctor he drums home the fact of the Timelord’s regeneration for anyone watching who has not yet cottoned on: “You mean he’s done it again? He’s changed?”

          The action switches to an exterior shot of a sentry guarding some military installation. We then see him through a distorted camera, as though someone is filming through a 60s style, thick and panelled school toilet window. We can just about read that the installation is a research centre. Bleepy noises accompany this creepy view and a metallic arm smashes down on the sentry who is rendered unconscious, or worse (probably worse as we are later told there are no eye witnesses). The creepy bleepy thing enters the building, casting a Robby the Robot shadow against a back wall.

          Back to UNIT, evidently on a different day. The Brig is telling Sarah-Jane about the theft we have just witnessed and bemoaning the fact that the Doctor is still unconscious. Sarah-Jane wants a favour; can UNIT give her a special pass to interview the people at Think Tank, a highly secretive research development institute. Of course, says the Brig and they head for his office.

          As they pass we see the Doctor skulking in a side corridor wearing a long nightshirt and carrying his shoes. He wanders into the room where the Tardis is standing and, finding his time machine locked eventually remembers that the key is in one of his shoes, just as it was when Troughton had regenerated into Pertwee. The Doctor is seemingly about to scarper for pastures new when Dr. Harry Sullivan enters and orders him back to the sick bay.

          There follows a little back and forth on the matter of who is a doctor and who isn’t, which is where we hear Baker’s assertion that he is THE Doctor. He chops a brick in half with his bare hands to prove his fitness, runs on the spot like a loon, and checks his hearts with Sullivan’s stethoscope. Then we get the by now obligatory look in a convenient mirror so that the Timelord can assess his new physiognomy. “Well, nothing’s perfect…I think the nose is a definite improvement.” decides the Doctor before trying to take his leave of Sullivan. The doctor (the UNIT one, not the Tom Baker one) is having none of it so the Doctor (the Tom Baker one, not the UNIT one) grabs an overly long Bunsen burner hosepipe and they skip in unison like infant schoolboys.

          In the next scene The Brigadier and Sarah-Jane enter the same room to find it empty. A knocking noise is coming from a cupboard which the Brig opens to discover Harry Sullivan tied up with Bunsen burner hosepipe. At this moment the Tardis begins to make clearing off noises and Sarah-Jane yells at the Doctor not to go. The noises stop and the Doctor’s head pops out of the Tardis door to say goodbye. He is convinced that the Brigadier needs his help and finally recognises both Lethbridge-Stewart and Sarah-Jane. We are to take it that the regeneration has taken and he is fit as a fiddle (or whatever instrument would indicate fitness on Gallifrey).

          Beepy creepy is at it again, killing a perfectly innocent looking electric fence and then a security guard who has foolishly tried to bar a door with an obvious BBC balsawood prop instead of a thick chunk of purpose-built wood. Creeping and beeping his way inside another interior, the metallic thing (ok, we know already that it’s a robot because of the story title but, you know, suspense and all that) steals some stuff from a shelf which just happens to be at a perfect height for his clicky-clacky hands.

          The action is broken up again by a sequence in which the Doctor tries on several different costumes in front of the bemused Brigadier and Harry Sullivan. Not exactly in front of them, they don’t see his pants or anything. He pops out of the Tardis in a Hunnish outfit, then as the King of Hearts and as a Pierrot clown (a look David Bowie pretty much rips off entirely for his Ashes to Ashes video some years later). At last the scarf and hat make an appearance and we can get back to the plot.

          At the scene of the latest robbery the Brig and Harry are checking out the broken fence while the Doctor is going all ecological and perusing a crushed dandelion on the floor. Except he’s not being all green politics and knit your own head, he’s calculating that to crush vegetable matter so completely the thing stepping on it would need to weigh about a quarter of a ton. The Brig eyes him suspiciously before rattling off the information that the parts stolen would go very well with the plans that were originally stolen to give someone virtually everything they need to make a disintegrator gun.

          Meanwhile we get a little gag about feminism when Sarah-Jane arrives at Think Tank and mistakes the female director’s assistant for the person in the top job. Oh what laughs. Before we can repair our splitting sides we are back with the Brig who, prompted by the Doctor, realises that the only component the thief or thieves now lack if they want to make a disintegrator gun is a focusing generator. He orders a complete military lockdown of the electronics firm making such parts and they all rush off in their jeep.

          At Think Tank Sarah-Jane appears to be getting on quite well with the director after their initial poor start. So much so that she is able to barge her way into an empty room with little resistance from the director or her assistant. The journalist notices that the name on the door says ‘Kettlewell’ and asks if that is professor Kettlewell who recently resigned from the Think Tank robotics programme. Yes, is the answer but before she can make anything of it Sarah-Jane slips on something and once she’s recovered her composure she finds herself ushered out of the room again.

          At the electronics factory countless UNIT soldiers are guarding the place. The Brig is boasting to the Doctor that the vault containing a sealed box of focusing generators is impregnable. The Doctor tells him they have not accounted for anything tunnelling from below. As if on cue (or as if the editing team have placed one scene logically right after another) we see creepy beepy tunnelling up into the vault. A soldier rushes in on hearing the noise, fires ineffectively and is eradicated. By the time the Brig and the Doctor have entered the vault (Harry in tow) the box of focusing generators is open and empty, the soldier lies dead on the floor and the Doctor proceeds to measure the depth of the tunnel with his scarf, an ‘I told you so’ look on his face.

          Sarah-Jane has located Professor Kettlewell by this time but he is not very forthcoming about his reasons for leaving Think Tank other than to say he did not like the direction their research was going. He is now dedicating his time to researching alternative energies, apparently but does confidently dismiss the notion that anyone back at Think Tank would be competent to continue his work in robotics.

          Sarah-Jane decides to head back to Think Tank after her unsuccessful interview with Kettlewell. While she is driving there we get a quick flash to the Doctor who has worked out that the tunnel digger has to be mechanical – well, duh! There are huge, robotic footprints near the tunnel entrance. Sarah-Jane has now arrived at the institute and climbed over a wall to head for the same room she slipped in. She has just confirmed her suspicion that it was a patch of oil which caused her to lose her footing when a dirty great robot appears from a side room and demands to know who she is.

          Sarah-Jane backs away and we now see her as viewed by the robot. What a surprise, the view looks just as it would if filmed through a 60s style, thick and panelled school toilet window. Not only that, but the creepy beepy noises are back. Cue credits.

          The viewing figures for Robot were 10.8 million, which pretty much spanks every single Pertwee story apart from The Three Doctors, which was a Pertwee, Troughton, Hartnell story anyway. Tom Baker’s Doctor would continue to break its own viewing figures again and again until the final Baker season which saw a dramatic drop in viewers (thanks a bunch, Nathan-Turner). For this reason alone the onscreen claim to be the definitive Doctor seems pretty indisputable when it comes to classic Who, anyway.

          The Fourth Doctor is unique in certain respects. He rarely allows himself to get flustered, or at least brilliantly covers up and flusters with a development of the Troughton style of clowning that served the Second Doctor so well. Yet Baker’s Doctor is clearly no fool right from the off. Whereas the Second Doctor seems content to let people assume he is an idiot in order to gain some tactical advantage, the Fourth Doctor is evidently as sharp as a tack and yet as mad as a box of frogs. Not mad for effect, genuinely fruitloop. As a boy of nine at the time I can attest that it was this lunacy which endeared him to me more than anything. Given the viewing statistics for most of his seven years in the role, I can hardly have been alone.

          All subsequent Doctors, even in the modern era, have had to live with the shadow of Tom Baker. All have dealt admirably with this shadow with varying degrees of public and critical success. Sneak previews of the forthcoming 50th Anniversary episode have shown various nods to the Timelord’s past, one of which is a ridiculously long scarf seen around the neck of somebody in conversation with the Brigadier’s daughter, Kate Stewart, who is now heading UNIT.

          The character of Harry Sullivan was something of an incongruity. Although he proved popular with fans he had originally been included in the cast before the new Doctor had himself been chosen in case the job went to an older actor who was less capable of the running, jumping stuff. As a result Sullivan would make only two further appearances after this series, the opener of series thirteen, Terror of the Zygons, and The Android Invasion, three storylines later. 

          Sarah-Jane and the fourth Doctor would go on to develop possibly the most affectionate pairing of the original shows. Although this episode has them barely onscreen together at all the Doctor’s fondness for the young journalist grows throughout her time on the show and her departure at the end of The Hand of Fear in 1976 is genuinely moving. Perhaps that’s why she was the companion to end up with her own show (twice) and to return most frequently for specials and during the Russell T. Davies era.

          As Robot progresses we see many of the Fourth Doctor’s trademark tics, from the infectious yet slightly maniacal grin to the proffering of jelly babies to enemies and friends alike. Tom Baker simply hit the ground running and, for this viewer at least, forever keeps me in touch with the nine year old I once was when I first sat down to watch him take over the role. I can only hope that his importance to the show is marked by more than somebody’s long scarf when it comes to the 50th anniversary later in the year.

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