Changing of the Guard

Review of Robot (#75)
DVD Release Date: 14 Aug 07 (Out of Print)
Original Air Date: 28 Dec 1974 - 18 Jan 1975
Doctor/Companion: Four, Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan
Stars: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter
Preceding Story: Planet of the Spiders (Three, Sarah Jane)
Succeeding Story: The Ark in Space (Four, Sarah Jane, Harry)

Having completed an overview of Cybermen stories in the last few months, I felt it was time to switch to another theme. The question, of course, was what theme to pursue? By percentage of (extant) stories, the Fourth Doctor is still my least-reviewed incarnation. Therefore I thought something focusing on his tenure would be appropriate.

I had two ideas of how to cover Four's time in the TARDIS: deep or broad. I could delve into one particular season (The Key to Time, which was the first season-long story arc) or I could find a way to choose stories distributed across the entire seven-year run.

Eventually I settled on the latter, with the idea that the first story of each season would provide a simple selection criterion. Four of those seven season openers have never been reviewed either directly or with Nu-/Retro-Views. Two (Robot and The Ribos Operation) were the subject of a Retro-View several years ago (Nov 2012 and Apr 2013, respectively), so are due another look-in. The final story in question (Terror of the Zygons) has already been reviewed in full when the DVD came out in Oct 2013. Further, the story that immediately preceded it, Revenge of the Cybermen, was reviewed just three months ago as part of my Cyber-series. Therefore, I've decided to skip that period (end of Season 12/beginning of Season 13) in my retrospective.

So we're kicking it off with T. Baker's first ever on-screen adventure Robot. Because Baker is able to jump in with both metaphorical feet and make the role his own right from the get-go (his famous quote that "I was the Doctor and the Doctor was me" seems to have been true nearly immediately), it's easy to forget that this story was written before Baker had been cast. Occasionally there is a line that sounds ever so slightly "off" for the person we know this Doctor would become, but for the most part it's as if he has sprung from the head of Zeus Terrance Dicks fully formed.

With the perspective of history, it is fun to look back on the episode more than forty years later and see how early parts of the mythos entered the canon. It is this very first adventure in which we get Four offering others Jelly Babies, for example. It is also the source of a couple of well-known quotes. Both the Doctor's assertion that "You may be a doctor, but I'm the Doctor. The definite article, you might say." and his reply to Sarah Jane's accusation of being childish ("Well, of course I am. There's no point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes.") come from Robot, as does the Brigadier's lament that "Just once I'd like to meet an alien menace that wasn't immune to bullets."

In contrast, this story also marks the end of an era (both on and off screen). Although the Doctor happily works with the Brigadier and the rest of UNIT in this episode, it is the last of his regular collaborations with them (though he returns to help them in Terror of the Zygons). At the end of the final episode, he asks Sarah Jane to toddle off with him in the TARDIS, along with their skeptical new friend Harry Sullivan, the UNIT doctor who had been assigned to the Doctor's post-regenerative care.

The plot itself is fairly standard fare. It's got a batty old scientist, a group of overly confident baddies set on world domination, and an obvious influence from King Kong. The eponymous robot K1 is both painfully laughable (from a modern point of view) and a glorious testament to the creativity that comes from a tiny budget.

And yet all of these things are part and parcel of the story's charm. It's a safe story—Baker is obviously thrilled to be there (an attitude that didn't last his entire run, sometimes bleeding onto the screen), the UNIT cast and returning Companion are all working well together, there's enough intrigue and danger to keep things from getting too dull, and the denouement doesn't feel overly dragged out.

I can't honestly say this is among my favorite stories, but neither is it one that makes me cringe at the prospect of a re-watch. Aside from being set on Earth, it's fairly representative of its season, most particularly in the way Baker relishes his new role; he's the new kid in this one, yet he manages to come across like he's in charge anyway.

For the viewer who wants a good representation of the entirety of Season 12, I'd recommend Genesis of the Daleks instead (it's set off-world and highlights the way this TARDIS crew work together), but if you're looking for the way the show transitioned between one Doctor and the next, this is one of the best examples out there. If you take the time to watch, I don't think you'll feel it was a waste.

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