Monday, May 27, 2013

Robot - "She introduced it to concepts it was not equipped to deal with." "What? Concern, compassion, and useless things like that?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Robot - Details

Season 12, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #75) | Previous - Next | Index

Move over, move over, let Tom Baker take over. Our man steps into the role and absolutely owns it. Tom Baker is the Doctor and the Doctor is Tom Baker. "Robot" on the whole is far from perfect, but Baker proves out of the blocks that he was an absolutely inspired choice to take over the role.

Image via whatinthewho on LJ
Behind-the-scenes stuff isn't something I can speak directly to, my focus in reviewing these episodes is what's on the screen, so I couldn't do much beyond regurgitate what was covered in the bonus materials on this disc if I were to try. I will say it's rather alarming to think Baker wasn't the first choice for the role. The producers had actually tried to get three or four other actors first. Any one of them might have been fine, you can go look up who they were if you're interested, but I can't imagine what the those years would have been like if Tom Baker hadn't been pegged. One can easily imagine a vastly different show and different fate for the series itself if it didn't have Baker's manic charm for all those years. (Your guess is as good as mine, but I'd wager the shows demise would've been accelerated by many years and the new series would've probably never happened. Go ahead and try to find Blake's 7 these days, that's the sort of obscurity Doctor Who might've found itself in without Tom Baker. Of course, some other lightning in a bottle might've been caught instead. I doubt it though.)

This story is essential as Baker's first, but it has legs beyond the landmark status despite its shortcomings. We can fault the decision to keep coming back to the CSO effects that never worked before and probably should not have been tried again. The poor bloke inside the suit was clearly doing all he could stay upright when trying to move around the costume and its arms end in floppy grabber appendages that were distracting in their inefficiency. We can also do little more than raise our eyebrows at the Robot being diagnosed with an Oedipus complex -- it's emotional development is puzzling and not ever adequately explained, so it comes off more than a little silly. These are standard issue gripes though -- the sort goofiness we put up with when we agree to go along for the ride.

Where this story does well beyond being strictly a character piece is giving a pair villains behind the Robot that fit thematically with series as a whole. Miss Winters is a straightforward psychopath with a certain steely charm. The scenes where she knocks Sarah Jane off her game -- first by nailing her for chauvinism when Sarah Jane assumes Winters' male assistant is the Director of Think Tank, and later by scaring the wits of Sarah Jane by ordering the robot to destroy her to demonstrate it follows Asimov's Rules of Robotics -- give her some grudging credibility as someone whose mean but not a dope.

Professor Kettlewell on the other hand is rooted in the tradition of the dopey scientist who's brilliant, but in over his head with villains with which he's allied himself. (Dr. Kerensky in "City of Death" is cut from the cloth. Prof. Parry in "Tomb of the Cybermen," though not a villain himself, is another similarly clueless genius who gets played). Kettlewell, while part of the conspiracy all along, remains a sympathetic character who doesn't want to go to the extremes his comrades do, but in the end gets what's coming to him.

Kettlewell modelling "Mad Scientist Hair"
As in "Tomb," where the Brotherhood of Logicians was bent on world domination, there's a group of amoral scientists, the Scientific Reform Society, out to establish a totalitarian state ruled by scientists. It's not hard too imagine where this fear of scientists comes from giving the Cold War tensions that waxed and waned for half the 20th century. Had those pesky scientists not developed nuclear weapons after all. Of course, it's hopelessly naive to hang that on the scientists. Even though the fears Doctor Who and other shows of the era often framed the question as "how do we ensure scientific advances contribute to the progress of humankind, not its enslavement?" which naturally leads to skepticism of science (or even progress itself!) the answer is always to make sure that our institutions operate with accountability to governments that represent all their constituents, not just the elites.

The Doctor's role here is to be representative of advanced knowledge and scientific curiosity guided by genuine concern for the general welfare. In other words, he's science's conscience.

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