by Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 333
“Robot” is one of those stories which many adult fans of Doctor Who would like to see forgotten. Although this is understandable, as it certainly doesn’t hold up as an adventure for adults, or even adolescents, it has to be said that this is a little unfair, as it was never intended to be. While it is not accurate to describe Doctor Who as “a children’s show,” as it has a lot of good writing for adults and adolescents as well— indeed, at its best it contains something for all ages— some of the stories, including “Robot”, are quite clearly aimed at children above all else. And as a children’s story, it works very well indeed.
To begin with, “Robot” has many of the elements of the best children’s fiction. That is to say, it has a coherent plot which stays within boundaries which children can easily understand and rationalise, likeable and sympathetic “good guys,” and “bad guys” who are quite clearly bad without being gratuitous or unnecessarily sadistic. It has a simple but timeless moral message: crime, and indeed being unkind to people in general, doesn’t pay. Best of all, it manages to do this without being patronising or talking down to the audience. It is also interesting that the focus of the story is very much on Sarah Jane Smith, who is the most obvious identification figure for a child within the setup: she has been earlier established as something of a tomboy, and here she comes across as a rather Enid Blyton-esque plucky and adventurous, if slightly immature, young woman. Seen from this perspective, the UNIT lads take on the role of parent-surrogates, advising, protecting and forbidding Sarah in turns, and the Doctor as a kind of eccentric uncle or wizard. In a way, the story is reminiscent of Tintin, with Sarah as Tintin and the Doctor as a teetotal version of Captain Haddock. “Robot” thus has the structure and character elements of beloved childhood favourites.
This also explains some of the aspects of the story which adults find difficult to swallow. Nobody over the age of fifteen would believe the Brigadier (whose hair is now so far off regulation military length that he’s practically a hippie) telling top secret information to Sarah, a journalist with no security clearance, simply because he doesn’t have anyone else to talk to, nor that he wouldn’t at the very least have a couple of lieutenants and a captain serving under him (although there would undoubtedly be an RSM, and any intelligent commanding officer would listen to his advice, he wouldn’t be the second-highest ranking person in the chain of command in any realistic military setup). Likewise, nobody who has much experience with how the government works would believe that it would cheerfully fund a subversive organisation like Think Tank without investigating what the taxpayers’ money is being spent on. However, none of these are elements which are likely to bother child viewers: not to imply that children are unintelligent, but they have less experience of how society works than the average adult, and consequently are willing to let pass certain things which would make their parents and older siblings exclaim “come on, now!” in exasperation. The adult viewer might even enjoy moments like the famous Brigadier/Doctor exchange-- “naturally, the only country which could be trusted with such a task was Great Britain.” “Well, naturally, all the rest were just foreigners”— as a sideswipe at mindless British patriotism and self-justification. As long as one doesn’t forget that its primary audience is fairly young, then, “Robot” can be an enjoyable story.
The one thing that lets the story down even as children’s fiction is, however, the sequence at the end where the robot grows to giant size and does an impression of King Kong with Sarah and the UNIT soldiers (to say nothing of the infamous Action Man tank, which, to be fair, is the one genuinely bad note in a story with generally good production and effects for the time). Although King Kong references seem to have been a running theme in Season 11, appearing in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” and “Death to the Daleks” (and also crop up earlier in “Robot”, particularly the sequence in which the robot breaks down a pair of barred doors and kills John Scott Martin), the robot-growing-to-giant-size sequence is completely unnecessary to the story; it could have ended excitingly enough with just the countdown and the robot going mad and having to be destroyed (or even, perhaps, being saved). Apparently the idea of a King Kong-themed story involving a giant robot was suggested to Terrance Dicks by Robert Holmes as the basis for “Robot”; however, Dicks appears to go off in other directions with the concept, and the climactic scene winds up being shoehorned into a story which doesn’t really suit it.
One element of the serial which is more interesting to adult than to child viewers, however, is its heavily Freudian aspects. These may well be at least partly the result of the fact that the story’s other major antecedent (aside from certain resemblances to the The Avengers episode “The Cybernauts”) is Forbidden Planet, featuring a robot prevented from killing humans which goes into a crisis when ordered to do so, but which also contains overt themes of Freudian analysis and sublimated incest wishes, and, furthermore, that robot stories in general, featuring as they often do a scientist with a pretty wife/daughter ,who creates a robot which then attempts to carry off the wife/daughter and has to be killed as a result, also contain Freudian overtones. In this case, as is noted in the script itself, the robot kills its “father” (Kettlewell), and attempts to run off with its “mother” (Sarah, the person who introduced it to emotional concepts), and must be destroyed. The psychology of the story, therefore, does provide something of interest for older viewers.
The other thing which is worth watching out for, from a fan perspective, is the aspects of the show which appear to foreshadow developments to come. Curiously, the story has some parallels with “Genesis of the Daleks”, featuring as it does a fascist organisation, complete with uniforms, armbands and a secret bunker, promoting rule by a scientific elite and who create a robot being with an ostensibly useful purpose which is later turned to evil. Nyder and Davros find an echo in Jellicoe and Miss Winters (both even don black leather gloves), and Kettlewell, the reluctant fascist, in the various Kaled scientists. The story thus looks forward, in some ways, from the Letts era to the forthcoming Hinchcliffe era.
Kettlewell, also, seems to be a sly dig at certain themes of the Letts era. He is undoubtedly the most interesting villain of the piece; he joins the SRS not because he’s evil or an elitist, but because he is frustrated at being ignored by the government. Once he joins, however, he finds out that he has swapped being ignored for being bullied. His nervousness at the SRS meeting is a nice touch; the audience is led to think he’s nervous at being found out, when, in fact, it has other causes. His villainy, however, is an inversion of the usual Letts theme of good, forward-thinking scientists who are looking to resolve the environmental crisis through applied knowledge, like Professor Jones in “The Green Death” (and in explicit contrast to the backward-looking Whitaker of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”). Kettlewell, although a forward-thinking sort who is working to resolve the environmental crisis, is still a weak-minded petty man who is bullied into using his scientific knowledge for evil. We thus see in Kettlewell an explicit rejection of certain themes common to the outgoing producer.
Despite this, there are a number of holdovers from the earlier era. Aspects of the Doctor’s behaviour and dialogue are still very Jon Pertwee— the scene where he introduces himself to Kettlewell and admires his scientific work is a case in point, recalling in some ways the conversation with the Chinese ambassador in “The Mind of Evil” (both featuring a reluctant informant whom the Brigadier attempts to bully into cooperation, but whom the Doctor wins over by stressing their mutual interests). We also see more of the patronising anti-feminism which dogged the Letts and Dicks team, with Sarah being shown up as a hypocrite when she assumes Jellicoe, rather than Miss Winters, to be the Think Tank director, and with Miss Winters herself, a powerful and intelligent woman in charge of a scientific establishment, explicitly portrayed as an evil witch. However, new twists are already beginning to enter the mix; as well as some gratuitous business with the scarf which is clearly there to emphasise the fact that the new Doctor is different to his predecessor (and which thankfully gets reduced in subsequent stories), Baker is clearly adding his own twists, smiling when the robot is destroyed where Pertwee would have affected an air of resignation and of regretting the necessity of the act. The general effect is a mix of leftovers from the Pertwee era (Bessie, UNIT, the Doctor building towers out of random bits of circuitry) with aspects of gratuitous bohemianism (the Doctor going to sleep on a laboratory bench), and the gradual emergence of Tom Baker’s more natural eccentric style (propping his feet up on Bessie's windshield and covering his face with his hat). From the point of view of the series’ history, then, it’s interesting to see the new era beginning to find new directions to go in.
“Robot” is also noteworthy in being the first regeneration story in which the regeneration aspects are continually emphasised throughout, and which incorporates an extended change-of-costume sequence; even “Spearhead from Space” simply has the Doctor hors-de-combat for an episode, and stealing an outfit effectively out of necessity. The costume-change scene in particular has a lot to answer for: although it may be very much in keeping with the establishment of the new Doctor as a kooky, unpredictable sort, it is then referenced in subsequent regeneration sequences, whether or not the Doctor in question is the sort to mess around eccentrically with funny costumes. It can be tempting to read literary, philosophical or continuity-related points into the sequence— the warrior, king and clown outfits echo the first three divisions of ancient Indo-European five-fold social classification (king, warrior, priest, agricultural producer, negative social function), for instance, and others have suggested that it is meant to represent earlier aspects of Doctor Who history (in particular “The Time Meddler” and “The Celestial Toymaker”)— but in no case does it work totally: the Doctor does not subsequently dress up as a farmer or thief, and there’s no real reason why those two Hartnell stories should be singled out for emphasis. Most likely, the costume changes are simply there for comic effect and to emphasise the new Doctor’s outrageousness.
There are other aspects of the story which are worth watching out for. Ian Marter is generally great, particularly when doing his turn as the Man from the Ministry (in which he is visibly acting like a civil servant, rather than just Harry Sullivan in a bowler). There is also the very funny scene where the Doctor demonstrates to Harry that he is physically fit, which is very much in keeping with Tom Baker’s unpredictable characterisation of the Doctor: he appears to be doing something menacing, then, out of the blue, does something peculiar but innocent, and finishes by, in an offscreen sequence, hanging Harry up by his ankles in the cupboard. Unfortunately, Harry does get sidelined at times, which is a shame. This is also a good story for playing spot-the-stuntman (or, indeed, in the case of John Scott Martin, Dalek operator) among the various guards, SRS members and security men.
Once one has passed the hurdle of accepting that “Robot” is aimed primarily at younger audiences, then, one can find much to enjoy in it. As well as being a perfectly good children’s story, it also contains moments and ideas which an adult can enjoy, and also aspects worth noting by fans of the programme interested in charting its development.
Effects courtesy of Maureen Marrs and Fiona Moore