Who Wrote It?: Terrance Dicks
What’s It About: The Brigadier and UNIT must learn to work with a regenerated Doctor. It seems a series of break-ins have been committed by someone who can break through electrical fences, locked doors, and underground bunkers. The stolen items: parts for a disintegrator gun.
I have quite a few friends who love new Doctor Who. I would love to share the old series with them, but many of them have no interest due to the dated effects and slower pace. But another problem is deciding which stories to introduce them to. For years, we fans have lived in a world of Doctor Who a la carte. If we want a little horror, we go with the 4th Doctor. If we want some heavy sci-fi elements, we may choose the 5th Doctor. If we want a historical with minimal sci-fi, the 1st Doctor provides that. In this particular case, knowing the desires of the audience is essential.
But fans of new Who are used to watching entire seasons. They almost expect that any season has an arc, whether plot or thematic. I think some fans like to see context. I have been fascinated, as I have gone through the classic series in order, at how much character development is in the Doctor Who. The very first season had the TARDIS crew (composed of The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan) learn how to work together and respect on another. It wasn’t until the thirteenth episode that we saw the antagonism between the characters settle into mutual respect. And even then, the situation almost erupted again at the beginning of The Reign of Terror. There is something to be said for watching the classic series in order, to see it not as a collection of serials, but as an on-going, evolving series.
Which brings me to the 4th Doctor and Robot, the natural starting point for the Tom Baker era. The 4th Doctor has massive appeal to viewers, and he is probably one of the closest Doctors in personality to Matt Smith’s version of the character. A transition from 11th Doctor to 4th Doctor wouldn’t be a hard one. But when you look at Robot, you are confronted with a story that doesn’t match the tone and themes of the larger Baker era.
Robot is the final story of Barry Lett’s tenure (although we will see him return later). Philip Hinchcliffe will take over with The Ark in Space. The difference in tone between these two stories is almost jarring. The Ark in Space (to be reviewed soon), is dark, paranoid, and creepy. Robot is lighthearted, silly, and moderately thought-provoking. In fact, this story has more in common with the era that preceded it than the episodes that follow. Throughout most of the story, The Doctor seems uninterested. His previous incarnation would have enjoyed this adventure, but the current one is somewhat bored. He has most of it sussed out within the first episode, and he seems to merely be sticking around to hold The Brigadier’s hand. The story itself reuses elements from Invasion of the Dinosaurs (an elite group wanting to rule the world, which was also an element of Tomb of the Cybermen). The execution is uneven. And let’s face it, the robot itself is impractical. I both love the design and hate it. The effects really let this story down, and there wasn’t a lot to work with to begin with.
In many ways, Robot seems more a farewell to UNIT than an introduction of the new Doctor. Planet of the Spiders was more about The Doctor and Mike Yates, so perhaps it was felt that UNIT needed a farewell. Fair enough, but it makes a clumsy place to start a new Doctor and a new era.
I think what frustrates me the most about Robot is that it is the ideal starting point to the classic series. It has a familiar Doctor; it has stories that are moderately recognizable to viewing audiences (especially since many of them are derived from horror movies and tropes); it has Sarah Jane Smith who is a great companion. But the era begins on such uneven footing. It is almost painful to have to start with Robot, but it is necessary because it introduced Harry Sullivan (another great character). But it is also sad, to me, to have Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks go out on such a mediocre story. I thought Season 10 was quite good (with the exception of the Peladon story), and I’m sorry that their last stamp on the show (until Season 18, at least) was Robot.
My Rating: 2/5