The Timelessness of Robots

Review of The Robots of Death: SE (#90)

DVD Release Date:  13 Mar 12
Original Air Date:  29 Jan - 19 Feb 1977
Doctor/Companion:  Four, Leela
Stars:  Tom Baker, Louise Jameson
Preceding StoryThe Face of Evil (Four, Leela)
Succeeding Story:  The Talons of Weng-Chiang (Four, Leela)

I'm not sure why I didn't really take to Robots when I first saw it a few years ago. I liked it better during the Marathon, and better yet this time. (This trend can't continue...) I guess part of the reason I'm enjoying it so much these days is that I can see how well it stands the test of time, especially compared to some other stories. The plot is pretty timeless, and as pointed out in some of the extras, the more retro design keeps that from looking dated, too.

At its most basic level, Robots is a cross between an Agatha Christie-style locked room murder mystery and an Isaac Asimov-inspired future-of-robotics thriller. But there are both deeper and more superficial ways to look at it, too. Is it a commentary on our society's attitudes towards class? Is it a just a great way to get Leela into the swing of traveling with the Doctor? It all depends on how the viewer chooses to approach it.

One thing that particularly struck me, as a Neowhovian, was how blatantly the Heavenly Host from Voyage of the Damned were modeled off the robots here. The tone of voice, the pleasant visages, the creepiness of it all when their programming is subverted all can be traced directly back to this Sandminer. It's almost insultingly obvious, once you see it.


Old Face, New Face


Review of The Face of Evil (#89)
DVD Release Date:  13 Mar 12
Original Air Date:  01 - 22 Jan 1977
Doctor/Companion:  Four, Leela
Stars:  Tom Baker, Louise Jameson
Preceding StoryThe Deadly Assassin (Four)
Succeeding Story:  The Robots of Death (Four, Leela)

As the story opens, a young woman is being cast out of her tribe. The scene sets up the character of soon-to-be-Companion Leela perfectly: she's strong and outspoken, not willing to suffer fools gladly, and yet willing to subvert her own position for those for whom she cares. Conveniently for future exposition, she is soon orphaned (a bit subtly, actually) and cut off socially from her home. Why wouldn't she ask the Doctor to take her with him?

From that perspective, it was nice finally to get to see Leela's "origin story." But aside from that, there were several interesting plot points that make one think a bit more, and clearly demonstrate that the production team were trying to stretch their storytelling muscles. Perhaps most in-your-face (~ahem~) is the idea that the Doctor has clearly been here before, as evidenced by the likeness of his visage carved in stone. He's done his usual number of sticking his proverbial finger in the pie of the planet, only to have it backfire ("I thought I was helping..."). It's a rare situation when we clearly see how fallible the Doctor can be.

There's also the pretty major idea of an insane computer. Obviously this is not the only time in science fiction history that a sentient computer has gone mad (it's not even the first time in Doctor Who - think back to BOSS in The Green Death, or even further back to WOTAN in The War Machines). The results, though, which include eugenics, linguistic drift (Leela's tribe the Sevateem derive their name from their antecedents on Survey Team 6), and sociocultural evolution (a habitual motion among spacefaring folk has become a sign to ward off evil). It's a rather fascinating quasi-academic study, if one wants to approach it that way.


Confession #21: I Believe in the 13 Regeneration Limit


Common fan knowledge puts a Time Lord's Regeneration limit at 13. That is, a Time Lord can regenerate twelve times for a total of thirteen Regenerations (or incarnations). A couple of years ago, Russell T. Davies (RTD), the man greatly responsible for bringing Doctor Who back to our screens in 2005, once again added his own particular brand of fan-geekery to the mix, trying to show everyone in yet another way that he "knows better" than us.

In an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures called "The Death of the Doctor," Eleven ends up visiting Sarah Jane and her gang again. SJS-Companion Clyde, who previously met Ten, is stunned to see this regeneration thing for himself. Whilst peppering the Doctor with questions ("Can you change color, or are you always white?" "No. I can be anything."), he asks how often the Doctor can regenerate. The answer is a quick and flippant "five hundred and seven."

Apparently, RTD thought that was a hoot. He could casually rewrite decades of "canon" (whatever that means) with a so-funny-he-makes-everyone-who's-RTD-laugh line. Here's what he has to say on the whole number-of-regenerations question:

There's a fascinating academic study to be made out of how some facts stick and some don't – how Jon Pertwee's Doctor could say he was thousands of years old, and no-one listens to that*, and yet someone once says he's only got thirteen lives, and it becomes lore. It's really interesting, I think. That's why I'm quite serious that that 507 thing won't stick, because the 13 is too deeply ingrained in the public consciousness. But how? How did that get there? It's fascinating, it's really weird.

*Let's not get into RTD's own obvious ignorance/ignore-ance of the Doctor's age.

Personally, I don't think it's weird at all. And here's why.


Pub Kraal


Review of The Android Invasion (#83)
DVD Release Date:  10 Jan 12
Original Air Date:  22 Nov - 13 Dec 1975
Doctor/Companion:  Four, Sarah Jane Smith
Stars:  Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen
Preceding StoryPyramids of Mars (Four, Sarah Jane)
Succeeding Story:  The Brain of Morbius (Four, Sarah Jane)

We don't often get to see a non-Dalek Who story by Terry Nation, but this is one of those times. It's clear he's got a good sense of plotting, and loves a good action scene. He also does a lovely job with a rather unexpected twist (as well as a couple of obvious ones). So right off, there's some pedigree to recommend The Android Invasion.

Then there are the androids themselves. Maybe because it's one of those idyllic English villages at the center of things, but the creepy behavior of the "villagers" in the local pub can really get under your skin. I suppose there's a bit of the Uncanny Valley at work. There is, of course, one very well-known doppelgänger to watch out for (if you aren't familiar with the face-falls-off-the-android scene to which I refer, I won't spoil it further for you), and the performances of the individuals who have to be androids are actually quite well done.

In contrast, the poor actors forced to play the Kraals (the aliens of the piece) have to put up with heavy rubber masks that had to have been nigh-impossible to move (let alone act) in. Their obvious artificiality scupper any credence the Kraals had as a force to be reckoned with, and stretch the believability of pieces of the larger plot thereby.


Flippant and Compelled


Review of the Fourth Doctor's era, Part 2

1978 - 1981
The Ribos Operation
The Pirate Planet
The Stones of Blood
The Androids of Tara
The Power of Kroll
The Armageddon Factor
Destiny of the Daleks
City of Death
The Creature from the Pit
Nightmare of Eden
The Horns of Nimon
The Leisure Hive
Full Circle
State of Decay
Warriors' Gate
The Keeper of Traken
*Due to a labor strike, filming for this story was never completed.

During his later years, Four seemed to mellow a bit. There were no longer the angry outbursts that could occasionally surprise us with their vehemence; instead, he was jocular even to the point of flippancy. The silliness seemed especially rampant in his adventures with Romana II, perhaps because she seemed especially inclined to dish it back to him deadpan (after she gets past the residual helplessness that plagued her earlier Regeneration). As such, the second part of his run feels more light-hearted, up to the last season.

Much is unchanged; after all, it's the same incarnation, just new Companions and adventures. He continues to pooh-pooh their input, especially K9's ("Oh, shut up, K9!") and still gets to be A Little Bit Fabulous, engaging in the occasional swashbuckling and often doing his damnedest to be the Cleverest One in the Room. There are a few bits of continuing character development (or, should I say, Regeneration development) just in the way he interacts with others. For instance, he taunts his enemies (particularly the Daleks, whom he gives grief about not being able to climb), tries frequently to go on holiday (without much luck), and gets a bit snippy about his age. He seems to revel in quoting (or misquoting) Earth literature and other memes, directing a local to "take me to your leader" at least once.



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