Sunday, 15 October 2017


Chapter The 68th, where Tom debuts in a Pertwee story.

The Doctor, as played by Tom Baker, dons his long scarf for the first time, and assists UNIT in investigating a series of break-ins of top secret establishments; the new medical officer Surgeon Lieutenant Harry Sullivan I.A.I. tags along to keep tabs on him in case of any post-regeneration complications. Turns out it's a robot that's doing it. Sarah Jane Smith meanwhile is actually doing her journo day job for once, interviewing for a piece on a scientific think tank where they are working on a mysterious secret project. Turns out it's a robot. What are the chances? The think tank is a front for an authoritarian group who want to hold the world to ransom, and use the robot to get access to nuclear weapons. After the Doctor sorts that out, the robot grows to giant size because science, and goes on the rampage. Also, it fancies Sarah. After defeating it, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry go off adventuring in the TARDIS, which is as it should be, and produced much rejoicing by everyone (except for Nicholas Courtney's agent perhaps).

I viewed from the DVD an episode at a time occasionally over the course of approximately a week, and was accompanied by all the children (boys of 11 and 8, girl of 5) who were surprisingly excited to watch. Either he's at a cynical age right now, or he was eager to be mentioned on the blog, but my eldest was full of commentary. A selection, just from the first episode: "Why doesn't he run away?" "Who shoots at a robot?" "The dog's run away, dogs have more common sense" "Are UNIT pretty much useless?" and a long discussion with his brother about how you can definitely see weird faces in Baker's slit-scan time tunnel effect credits sequences.

First-time round: 
( (Junior) Doctor Who and the Giant) Robot is one of those stories that always seems to have been around, at least for me. I think this is because my school - and probably every primary school in the country at the time - had the novelisation in its library. This was in the late seventies / early eighties. In fact, the school library had at least two versions of the story. I was always intrigued by the Junior Doctor Who edition of the book, but I never read it as I had read the X-rated adult version first. I josh of course, the Junior books did not exist to protect children from the extremes of sex and violence that would otherwise have been featured in Terrance Dicks' prose, but instead were easy readers aimed at a slightly younger audience than were the usual novelisations. I always wondered how much they differed, was it a page 1 rewrite job, or did they just edit out words and passages. I hope Terrance got paid twice, anyway.

The first time I saw the episodes themselves was when they came out on VHS in January 1992. This was when I was in my first year of university in Durham. It was usual in those days to watch a new release in my friend Mike's room, but for some reason we watched this one in David's room instead (David is my long-term fan friend, mentioned many times before on this blog). It got a good crowd too, maybe because Tom Baker was a nostalgic draw for everyone. There was much hilarity - and embarrassment on my part - when the Action Man tank is pushed on in the foreground at the end of episode 3; it's fooling no one. There was then equal hilarity when the same scene was repeated in the recap at the start of episode 4. 

Tom Baker's debut story is an odd one, as it's resolutely a celebratory swansong for an old era (his predecessor's) rather that the start of a new one more tailored to him; the first proper Tom Baker Doctor Who story would be the next one, The Ark in Space. As has been pointed out by many commentators before, this serves for four episodes to persuade any waverers in the audience that they're watching the same show, settling people in before there are even more radical changes. Nobody would begrudge outgoing producer Barry Letts staging this send off either; the last time there was a change of producer, that person also hung around to do one for the new Doctor. But Derrick Sherwin's Spearhead from Space was more about laying the groundwork for the new - colour, UNIT, Earth, invasions - than celebrating the old, and all those aspects Derrick originated would categorise Letts' era up to and including Robot. The coincidence of the same location (Wood Norton Hall) being used for both Spearhead and Robot further cements them as 'bookends' of this period.

Robot is successful as one last walkabout in a comfy old pair of shoes before they fall apart, but it's no more than that. It's not the deepest or most expansive storyline, and has significant flaws; but it does feature a big robot shooting at stuff, and UNIT soldiers running about and throwing grenades. The all-video look, which obviously isn't as classy as Pertwee's all-film debut, nonetheless is consistent and the robot is of a spectacular, if slightly impractical, design. In the location work, the sun is always shining, which is apt for how this story feels: it's a last bright and unchallenging Summer romp before incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe brings in some more autumnal shades. Of course, it is very slightly of a type with what's to come, in that there is a horror movie pastiche in there (King Kong), an approach that would become more prevalent in later serials, but here it's only done half-heartedly, as something of a gag in the final few sequences.

For the rest of the running time, writer (and outgoing script-editor) Terrance Dicks is seemingly giving us his take on another classic, Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Like his buddy Malcolm Hulke's story aired in the previous season, this is a tale where the environmentalists (usually the champions of the Barry Letts era) are the bad guys, and end up threatening to wipe out the human race for the planet's own good, bar only a chosen few, safe in an underground chamber. As Dicks has less natural sympathy with their cause than Hulke, though, the characters never seem believable, so any dramatic edge is lost. With lots of other moments, such as his undermining Sarah's Women's lib credentials by showing her making sexist assumptions, Dicks gives the impression, in this last script for Barry Letts, that he's finally relaxing at no longer having to pay lip service to the hippy stuff he's been producing to please his boss up to now.

None of this explains why a rationalist scientific group who've planned every detail only checks they've got enough food and water to survive after they've started the nuclear countdown, nor why a disintegrator gun for some reason doesn't disintegrate the robot but instead makes it grow, like it's got an 'exciting denoument' setting. Kettlewell's behaviour in scenes in episodes 1 and 2 is so inconsistent with him turning out to be be the (spoiler) main bad guy that it's a major cheat on the audience. But, I don't think this is Dicks' error - it's in the direction. There are scenes that feel as if the director hasn't read to the end of the script, where he's showing Kettlewell keeping up the pretence even though there's no one around to witness it.

The first few minutes of both Robot and The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon contain a scene showing the Doctor regenerating; both stories are Earth-based and deal with an internal enemy rather than an alien invasion; the companion team in both is one male, one female bolstered by at least one significant recurring character. And both stories feature many ranks of armed public servants (at least in the Matt Smith story, the bullets have some effect).

Deeper Thoughts:
Human League B-Side. The people of Doctor Who are regularly referred to as a family, and I think I would broadly agree. I don't go to events or conventions that much, and it is there especially, but even in print and online, that you see a familial atmosphere between fans, between fans and the stars of the show, and even between the stars themselves: many actors from different eras have become mates from seeing each other on the convention circuit. There are family rows and feuds too, yes, but mostly it's positive. I'll admit I did shed a tear when Jon Pertwee died in 1996; he felt like a colourful great uncle that would never not be there, rather than just some bloke off the telly. Talking of great uncles, I'm sure I have some great uncles on one side of the family or the other, but I don't know anything about them. I do, though, know a substantial amount about the life and times of, say, Ian Levine. Is this healthy? And is it something that is unique to Doctor Who? Probably Star Wars and Star Trek convention-goers feel the same too; but there's one member of the Doctor Who family, a larger-than-life funny uncle, that no other franchise has or could ever emulate, and that is Tom Baker.

I remember the first point that I realised that Tom wasn't just any old actor, and was instead a true eccentric who is incapable of saying anything straightforward or uninteresting. I was reading Doctor Who Magazine when I'd started buying it again sometime early in the Nineties, when the series wasn't long off the air. I don't think it was an interview, just an article writing up a convention where he'd spoken, and I read some of his wonderful material for the first time. This was the story, which I'm sure he's repeated often since, where he's mistaken by a cab driver for Jon Pertwee, and strings the poor guy along for ages, as the driver repeats a comic refrain "You was always the most elegant, Mister Pertwee". In the end, horror of horrors, the driver asks 'Mister Pertwee' whatever happened to his successor in the role. Without missing a beat, Baker says he thinks he died drunk in a ditch.

I have met Baker once, accompanied by the Better Half, at a signing for his magnificent autobiography in a Worthing bookshop in 1997. The Q&A that preceded getting one's book autographed wonderfully demonstrated his art (an endlessly applicable one, if you can master it) of twisting the most uninteresting questions and answering them entertainingly by talking about what he wanted to talk about all along: himself, yes, but not in arrogant way; instead he uses that theme as his own unique philosophical window on the world. If I hadn't learnt from him the approach of stringing together random anecdotes in a semblance of coherence, this blog wouldn't exist. So, you know, he's to blame, is what I'm saying. Anyway, my copy of 'Who on Earth is Tom Baker?' is signed to me and the Better Half from him, which I consider just as binding and solemn as our wedding vows. We can never split up, the book says so!

Robot, whatever its good or bad aspects, will always be important, as it ushers in the most consistently popular period of Doctor Who to that point, and perhaps ever after, embodied in Tom Baker as the front man. For only seven of its 50+ years, Doctor Who featured a Doctor who wore a long scarf, but because of the indelible impression Tom left on the show, there are still a huge number of people out there now who if asked what the Doctor wears, will say a long scarf. He is the exemplar. Baker as the raconteur is only one aspect of a complex man; he's of course a bloody good actor too. But Baker as raconteur has had a place in the Doctor Who family far longer than he was playing the role. For almost all that time, Baker has fixated on his own mortality (he's had his own gravestone ready for at least twenty years). I think a lot of us are still banking on his turning out to be immortal, though, so we don't have to shed tears at what will be a great loss to the family.

In Summary:
Whatever happened to Sarah Jane? That Seventies Summer-dress frame...

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