“Something that kills a man as casually as it crushes a dandelion” – The Doctor
Robot would be a mediocre story for any Doctor, but it’s especially disappointing as a debut for the popular Tom Baker. The robot costume is rather atrocious, the simplistic storyline wanders and jumps around various clichés, and characters’ actions don’t entirely make sense. Building on the prediction mentioned at Pertwee’s regeneration that they “may find his behavior somewhat erratic”, Tom Baker plays it a little too manic at first (one could even say unhinged) but also cycles through various degrees of being condescending and difficult to the point that it’s overbearing (at one point he can’t even be bothered to get out of the truck). Thankfully he mellows out as time goes on and starts to be more of the breezy, giddy genius full of constant patter that we expect him to be.
Since the Doctor’s been gone for quite a long time, Sarah has apparently been throwing herself back into journalism and it’s kind of satisfying to see she was not a wilting flower just waiting for the Doctor. We get to see Benton moving up in the world and the Brigadier, though always a step behind, is still quite the stalwart leader. (“We hold two of your friends as hostages.” “That will not deter me…”) Our introduction to permanently befuddled Harry makes you smile. I love the amusing scene where, after being amazed at hearing two heartbeats from the Doctor, we later come across him just sitting with his stethoscope checking his own chest with a bewildered look on his face, a look that he seems to keep throughout his entire run.
Though the script is not a particularly compelling story, Terrance Dicks does do well to add cleverly funny and succinct lines. Indeed, there are a number of signature Doctor and UNIT quotes from this episode. I especially like some of the amusing bits like the Doctor’s note: “Sarah, Professor Kettlewell tells me that he has the robot hidden at his house. Gone to meet him… P.S. It is of course possible that this message is a trap. If it is I can deal with it…P.P.S. I am leaving this note in case I can’t.” I also like Kettlewell’s matter-of-factly stated: “No one is carrying on my work in robotics, Miss Smith, because no one has the ability to do so. Good day.” Most of the other characters are rather over the top but the cold and refined British archness of Hilda Winters is effective when by contrast she suddenly lets loose her bloodthirsty Hitler-like speech at the SRS meeting.
It’s interesting that this first Tom Baker story begins with what will become a signature part of much of his era, stories that add themes and elements of classic horror or scifi films. In this case, it’s King Kong—the misunderstood creature who becomes singularly attached to a woman who treats him kindly, stealing her away when wounded and running from soldiers, picking her up and setting her own high as he towers over soldiers shooting at him from below. Unfortunately, it’s not much of story over all and it’s all resolved rather abruptly with a rather silly “ta da” moment by the Doctor.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The poor unit soldier unceremoniously stomped by the giant robot is rather shocking. The gurgling cries of the dying robot are also disturbing. (Also, hokey as it may seem, Professor Kettle’s disintegration by the robot he considers like a child should be quite sad too. Unfortunately, the intended pathos is ruined by the clunky delivery of the line: “I have killed the one who created me.”)
- The Doctor’s unending pockets
- Story built around a horror movie motif
- The Doctor’s scarf comes in handy
- Fourth Doctor and jelly babies
[This robot is known as the K1. Even though his creator is killed, surely we can somehow assume that this is the first of intelligent robots in a series that leads up to K9?]
The story gets off on the wrong foot with a rather poorly developed point of view shot showing the evidently flimsy claw of the robot. They were trying to do something impressive in design perhaps but the whole costume ended up being so clunky that it just looks bad (even worse when it grows and they start trying to do CSO effects with it). I think the embarrassing ineffectiveness of the costume is highlighted most when it attacks a security guard and the actor has to literally lean forward and place his neck in the claw for it to “grab” him.