Monday, December 28, 2009

Doctor Who S12 Ep75: Robot

Doctor Who's King Kong homage. We get some of the most ridiculous special effects possible at the end of the entry, a nod to Fay Wray topped off with a wee rag doll. It's a beautiful thing. Still, this was cutting edge for British TV in the day and it would be our first introduction to one Tom Baker. The combination of Elisabeth Sladen and Baker was magic, those state-of-the-art effects not so much.



This entry is dedicated in memory of late Doctor Who Producer Barry Letts who passed away in October 2009. Barry Letts 1925-2009. This is also for the fans and the uninitiated. Enjoy.
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I am definitely wet behind the ears when it comes to my Doctor Who knowledge base compared to the vast fan armies that rival Doctor Who The Encyclopedia, but I hope to learn right along so bear with me. I will unabashedly admit to, if you hadn't noticed prior, my original child-like awe and adoration for Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen with little to no understanding of the series at the time it made its way to American shores. I just thought it was cool, fright-filled science fiction pure and simple. There was nothing like dropping my dinged up, heavily scratched, slightly rusted, metal lunch box, grabbing a bag of Wise chips and kicking back into the sofa for the horror-filled adventures that awaited me on Doctor Who. Quickly following, I generally needed to lighten the mood with some Japanese anime in the form of Battle Of The Planets [Gatchaman in Japan]. Homework? W ell, that got done eventually. I had important matters to tend to first.
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One of the big factors that drew me into the series aside from the monsters, aliens and robots as a kid was Tom Baker and to a lesser extent Elisabeth Sladen, though I grew to understand the importance of her role as the series continued. Eventually, through maturity and my growing affection for the opposite sex I realized Sladen was as vital to the show for me as Baker. It was hard to picture one without the other. Okay, the monsters were the really big draw, but they led me to finer points of Doctor Who.
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Tom Baker has been described as many things in taking over the role of the good Doctor. He's been referred to as quirky, eccentric, flamboyant, quick-witted, a real big, bold, colorful personality and he as it turned out he was all of those things. All of it drew me into the strange, but exciting world of Doctor Who. He is often referred to as the bohemian Doctor. For some reason, hearing that word applied drives me apoplectic. I go mad, but, he was unconventional and a free spirit with that trademark hat and rainbow scarf wandering the cosmos of time so bohemian certainly suits him. Tom Baker is a real character, but it will be the last time you'll see me use the word bohemian here. It just plain annoys me to see it printed everywhere when reading about Tom Baker's Doctor Who. Tom Baker is a nutter and his robust love for life really shines through in the character. I think you'll agree. In fact, I wonder with his wonderful use of language and words whether he stuck to script or applied his own embellishments along the way over the years. I suspect it was a bit of both, but he brings the Doctor to life in his own madcap, slightly deranged way.
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Let us begin our journey in the fabled tardis with the BBC's [British Broadcasting Service] Doctor Who, Season Twelve [1974-1975], Episode 75, Robot [1974]. It's interesting to note in the UK, television is broadcast in sequences far different to television here in the USA. Season Twleve of Doctor Who featured just five stories. Each story is comprised of either two, four or six parts. We'll make note of how many with each episode. Tom Baker's debut, Robot, was filmed in four segments. It's also worth noting the episodes are in sequential order beginning with the First Doctor, hence Baker's introduction as the Fourth Doctor with Episode 76. Catching Doctor Who, the Tom Baker Years, in dribs and drabs on my local PBS station was a challenge of timing for me. I did my best to always tune in for the continuation to each previous installment of the serialized adventure, but alas was not always successful. The walks home from school were often treacherous and evading the local bullies required some ingenuity and strategy. These were not always quick exercises. With the advent of DVD, now is my chance to start over from scratch and from the beginning filling in all of the holes those harrowing walks home from school forced me to miss. I cannot wait, so let's get it started. I'll be curious to see what my second impressions are like so many years later. My Boy Wonder is anxious to watch alongside me.
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ROBOT: PART ONE: We begin with the introduction of the Tom Baker years and that wonderful theme song. How bloody fantastic is that theme!? The KLF sample and contorted the track into an appropriately named classic called Doctorin' The Tardis. It is a well known fact that the Doctor has many faces. He is up to ten faces [the eleventh is filming]. Those changes are forced through regeneration. Typically it happens with each new doctor's debut. The Doctor regenerates here in Robot, Part One altering from John Pertwee into Tom Baker. How many times can this happen? I believe twelve, but there may be greater information regarding this process out there on the web. We introduce you to the man's signature afro and image embedded into one of the world's greatest science fiction theme songs ever created. How the theme was created is handled in great detail in one of the DVD extras. The whole thing gives me goosebumps. Enjoy.


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A top secret robot breaks into a top secret facility and steals top secret plans. We are introduced to Sarah Jane Smith, of the now famous The Sarah Jane Adventures [2007], in her younger years played by the wonderfully talented, loveable, beautiful Elisabeth Sladen with an abundance of verve. Am I gushing over her? I love her. I still lover her. She once recalled the moment of regeneration of the Doctor from Jon Pertwee into Tom Baker in an interview with Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition. "I don't think Jon made it easy. Not a word was said during the regeneration scene. Jon got up from the ground. Tom lay down. Tom got up and went off...." Of course the regeneration took place in the episode previous to Robot, Episode 74, Planet Of The Spiders.
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My initial reaction to my old friend Tom Baker and his eclectic, quirky personality is one of pure elation. He is such a rare, breath of fresh air even by today's standards. You can keep all the supercool Brad Pitts of the world with reputations to uphold. Give me Baker any day. Tom Baker is a flake in the best sense of the word. He's out of his bloody tree, an absolute wackadoodle. He is intrigued by his new appearance. Here's a taste of things to come and why it's easy to fall head over heels with this Doctor.


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Upon further medical evaluation performed by Dr. Harry Sullivan [another excellent character contribution from the late Ian Marter] and this may certainly be old news to longtime fans of the series at this point, it would appear the Doctor has "hearts." How many I do not know. I presume two. His fully redundant system pre-dates even Londo Mollari by two decades. Londo, of course, is a Centauri gifted with two hearts on the science fiction epic Babylon 5.
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The first meeting between the NEW regenerated Doctor and the loved Sarah Jane.

The Doctor attempts to take off in the Tardis, but is halted by the arrival of Sarah Jane. He is eager to get started on his adventures. I often wonder what might have been had he left Sarah behind here. Perish the thought I might add. Sarah convinces him to stay as he is needed by the Brigadier. The Doctor is apparently the Unit's scientific adviser. Meanwhile, there is another break in by the unidentified robot and a man is killed.
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After a series of attire changes from king to barbarian to court jester, Tom Baker emerges from the Tardis with his classic hat and rainbow-colored scarf and jacket. We learn he has been recovering in the sick bay section of this place called the Unit. It is top secret. There are many. Writer Terrance Dicks must have been the sort that loved secrets of the top variety.
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Sarah Jane Smith visits with her Unit pass to an off-site location dubbed the National Institute For Advanced Scientific Research. Back at the Unit, Tom Baker and company attempt to figure out what IT is that has stolen the plans for the Disintegrator Gun.
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Meanwhile Smith heads into a NO ADMITTANCE section and finds a sign concerning Kettlewell Robotics. The Doctor is treated to the "impregnable" military protection of another top secret location. Guns and barricading are no match for the Robot, which breaks in via undergound tunneling stealing the contents inside, wait for it, the top secret facility.
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Smith visits Professor Kettlewell at his residence to inquire if anyone is carrying on his work in robotics. He denies that could be happening.
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At the military-laden site, Doctor Who and company find the rectangular footprints of a non-human entity and the tunnel that burrowed underneath their facility. Sarah Jane Smith is on her mission and makes her way to the top secret, POSITIVELY NO ADMITTANCE section of the institute. It is here she encounters the Robot and the dire, cliffhanger moment where she is about to be attacked by it. We hear the splendid end music kick in to leave us breathless for more.
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It's nothing particularly spectacular thus far, but we are treated to the necessary introductions of Tom Baker now working with Elisabeth Sladen. Their talents are immense and Tom Baker elevates just about any story with his personality and shining character. One of the wonderful things about the show was its awesome cast of characters and as a fan you always got two favorites in Tom and Elisabeth. It was like two for the price of one.
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As I mentioned, Ian Marter guests as Harry Sullivan, another recurring character favorite, that I recall from my younger days. Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart and John Levene as Sergeant Benton were some of the standouts.
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ROBOT: PART TWO: [These segments are essentially different episodes, but decided to combine them all for one entry]. So to recap, I am fairly excited about Doctor Who a la the Tom Baker years and I am infused with the excitement and promise of some good old-fashioned BBC science fiction. The effects are clearly low budget as one might expect, but ya ain't seen nothin' yet. Despite those cheesy effects, my Boy Wonder is happy to look past it all and is quite enjoying the entry himself. He's also comprehending the good Doctor's sense of humor as he chuckles out loud like myself at all of the properly executed moments. There are not many shows that can walk the line of adult and family programming, but this one does it very well. I also do not recall this episode as a kid. I never did see this one. It isn't until next adventure [The Ark In Space] where I begin to remember the show that populated my childhood.
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We begin, where part one ended, with Sarah Jane in particular jeopardy at the hands of the Kettlewell Robot. Suddenly two of the institutes' people enter to deactivate the Robot and inform Sarah they knew she was eager to see the Robot. The display of its awesome power was all by design.
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Elsewhere, the Doctor is chatting with the Brigadier. They are deducing who the culprit is that is stealing all of this top secret technology. They would also like to know where Sarah is.
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Sarah is introduced to experimental Robot K-1 designed to perform tasks of a dangerous nature she is informed. Sarah is chastised for snooping around. It's a little hard to believe she wasn't quickly whisked away and escorted off the premises. The man [Jellicoe] understands it is her nature as a journalist to uncover information. Sarah imagines K-1 could be quite dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands. Yes, like the current hands of this institute for example Sarah. The woman [Miss Winters] orders K-1 to terminate Sarah and that she cannot leave alive. The K-1 Robot mentions something about the order being a violation of its Prime Directive. I suspect the Prime Directive is to not harm humans as programmed by Professor Kettlewell. Miss Winters tells K-1 it must obey as it proceeds forward upon Sarah, but its actions are confused. Two things: a. it would appear it has killed people before, and b. it's so ridiculously slow, you could turn, run and get away. Miss Winters deactivates K-1 again. Sarah asks if it's another one of her little jokes. Miss Winters indicates it was a practical demonstration of how it will not harm humans despite orders to the contrary. The organanization tells Sarah to remain quiet about what she has witnessed as it is top secret. After Sarah departs Jellicoe indicates to his female comrade what a dangerous move it was to order K-1 to destroy Sarah. You see, it's inhibitor was only just reset. Inhibitor? Oh boy.
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By the way, the Prime Directive is actually not a reference to Star Trek as I first considered. It's actually a direct homage to Isaac Asimov and his I, Robot [1950] anthology. The law is laid out in detail within the aforementioned author's work. A Robot "may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." Asimov continued that the Robot "must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law." This rule would be explored in much greater detail later in Doctor Who, Episode 91, The Robots Of Death [1977].
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Sarah initiates the beauty and the beast thread opposite K-1. Robot is the first in a series of Doctor Who entries that pays tribute to a number of science fiction classics, intentional or not. This one hinting, smelling and tasting of King Kong.


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Back at the Unit, Sarah arrives to tell her colleagues there is "something very odd" going on over at Thinktank.
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Over at the institute the evildoers work on the K-1 Robot. Reactivated the woman, her name Miss Winters, tells the Robot of its next mission.
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The Doctor, Brigadier and Sarah pay a visit to Professor Kettlewell. Tom Baker as the Doctor is masterful and always comes across as a playful genius. He's such a smart ass fellow as he jousts with Professor Kettlewell until he tells him he wants to know more about the Robot. Kettlewell tells them it was his last project before leaving the institute. He deactivated the Robot and it was difficult to do as he so loved the Robot like a son. There's a bit of mad genius for you. He tells our fearless heroes that if K-1 is forced to go against its Prime Directive the institute will destroy its mind and it will go mad. 'Ruh-Roh'!
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Later, the K-1 Robot destroys a prominent British MP [Member of Parliament] when K-1 is informed the man is "an enemy of humanity." The K-1 Robot's nifty design is simple, but stunning in appearance and effective when it implements its weaponry and the fantastic and awesome power of the stolen top secret disintegrator ray. One thing though, wouldn't the disintegrator ray's power be best applied outside the laborious efforts of the K-1 Robot.? Fine, K-1 has stolen the ray gun. Now give it to someone who can do something more substantive with it. Seriously, the Robot doesn't exactly have a deft touch with the gun.


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More TOP secrets are stolen from the dead MP's residence. The man was a cabinet minister in the area of security. So much for top secret security then.
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Sarah Jane Smith is off to learn a bit more about the Scientific Reform Society [SRS] of which Thinktank's Miss Winters and Jellicoe are members. The Doctor and Brigadier will pay a visit to the institute. Meanwhile, Professor Kettlewell is paid a little visit by his very creation. K1 is almost sympathetic as he tells the professor, "help me." There is a sense of internal turmoil as the orders K-1 is given conflict with the Prime Directive as programmed by his creator. The man inside the suit generates some sympathy.
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Sarah Jane visits the SRS. She discovers the organization is clearly of the lunatic fringe variety. As only Elisabeth Sladen could deliver, she tells the group she is covering a number of "fringe organizations" as a journalist. They ask for some good press and she zings them good. She tells them she will find a spot for them somewhere between the "Flying Saucer People" and the "Flat Earthers." She is a classic delivering the humor! The Doctor and the Brigadier visit the institute, but K-1 is nowhere to be found. Miss Winters is interrupted with a visit by Dr. Sullivan of the Ministry. Harry Sullivan is undercover. The Doctor and the Brigadier think. Brilliant stuff in this sequence!


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The Professor calls the Doctor for help. He informs the Doctor he has absconded with K-1, but is concerned he will not be able to contain it for long. The institute people arrive at Kettlewell's home. The Doctor has left a note back at the Unit for Sarah in the event he runs into trouble and he will. He's Tom Baker as the Doctor!
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At Kettlewell's home the Doctor finds K-1. He is attacked by the Robot as an enemy of humanity. Locked inside the home, the Doctor does everything to evade its advances until the Doctor is knocked to the ground and we are left with the closing Who theme music. Love those cliffhangers!
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ROBOT: PART THREE: Okay, so the effects aren't exactly up-to-snuff by today's standards, but they are vintage era BBC and deliver the story needed along with a few good laughs. When we last left the good Doctor, he was knocked unconscious before the mammoth power that is K-1. The Doctor did ask the Robot what its Prime Directive was and it indicated it must not harm humanity, except in this case apparently. There are always exceptions to the rule aren't there?
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Sarah Jane has arrived outside the professor's home in a nick of time. Sarah Jane, in full on hippie-gypsy garb, explains to K-1 the people that are giving the Robot orders are evil. The Robot is confused and rampages out of the home. Okay, rampage may be a slight exaggeration. The Robot more or less walks slowly out of the bulding while being shot at by the military. Professor Kettlewell is bound and gagged inside his home. Kettlewell returns to the Unit.
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Back at the Unit, the professor explains how he created the Robot's metal as well. It's a living metal. Sarah Jane decides to go to the SRS meeting with the professor. The Doctor is resting back at the Unit. Mr. Benton informs the Brigadier and the Doctor that Sarah and the professor are off to the SRS meeting. The Doctor is looking less than pleased with that decision.
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In the meeting, the radical Miss Winters is working the crowd into a major frenzy. Miss WInters introduces the professor using him for their cause or so I thought. It becomes clear the professor has been playing everyone like a fiddle. He intentionally feigned severing ties with his Robot and the institute earlier in Part Two. He also lured the Doctor to his home on purpose in the hopes of having him killed. He also pretended to be gagged and bound to cover up his plan. Wow. He's very tricksy! He does play look the part as a pretty insane, wacky-looking professor. The Doctor arrives with his crazy antics to get the crowd laughing. The Doctor asks the professor why he is working for the radicals. The military arrives and fires upon the Robot. Oddly, Sarah is nearby making the move seem rather ill-planned. Miss Winters escapes with Jellicoe and Sarah as hostage. The crazies escape with Sarah and the destructor codes. They also abduct Harry Sullivan. Benton takes the Doctor to their hidden away bunker. The Unit is under assault by automatic machine gunfire. Hi-tech defenses surround the perimeter of the bunker. Will our heroes successfully infiltrate?
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Miss Winters reaches out to the Brigadier with demands. She stipulates a full surrender in thirty minutes or the destructor codes will be employed.
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Meanwhile the military Unit destroys all weaponry, whilst the Doctor finishes off the underground mines with his infamous sonic screwdriver. This is the first application of the Sonic Screwdriver in the hands of the fourth doctor. He also whips his sonic screwdriver out to break the seal of a door to gain entry. I gotta get me one of those.


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This is a toy tank. An actual tank was desired but never realized.

The baddies give Robot the disintegrator gun so that he can destroy the Doctor and Unit. The Doctor and company fall back to the woods as K-1 arrives. The Robot quickly disintegrates a man and a tank. The eerie sound of the Doctor Who theme song arrives as the the K-1 Robot announces, "go now or I will destroy you all!" That Prime Directive really isn't working so well.
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ROBOT: PART FOUR: And now for the exciting conclusion to Robot, the first full adventure in the capable hands of the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker. Okay, well, it hasn't been that exciting, but it's Tom Baker's first time out. Everyone needs a little time. Miss Winters readies her use of the destructor codes which are capable of igniting a nuclear war. Now that's more like a villainous plan. Miss Winters may actually give those James Bond baddies a run for their money.
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Relax, there's only a killer Robot on the loose and a potential for nuclear war. No worries.

The Doctor and company implement a plan to draw K-1 away from the entrance point so the Doctor can finish cutting through the doorway with his sonic screwdriver. Harry, Sarah and the professor escape. Sarah pleads with K-1 informing it the evildoers want to start an atomic war. The K-1 Robot is truly conflicted between whether he should destroy or not. Damn it man make a decision Robot. Unfortunately K-1 gets really confused and disintegrates yelling "the one who created me." Suddenly K-1 falls to the ground. Poor K-1 has some real issues.
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Miss Winters is apprehended, but the launch codes for all of the nuclear missiles have been activated. The Doctor begins punching away on the keyboard at a rapidfire pace halting the countdown sequence just two seconds before launching.
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Sarah is stopped by the Kettlewell Robot in the basement. Doctor Who suspects Sarah is in trouble as K-1 must be in a "state of tremendous emotional shock." Yes, Robots can get emotional, just ask the Cylons. K-1 is still tasked with destruction [despite that little thing called the Prime Directive but whatever]. K-1 assures Sarah she will be saved. Whew! Robot is worst than a bad date. It's a bit of beauty and the beast here or beauty and Robot. "Just once I'd like to meet an alien menace that wasn't immune to bullets," declares the Brigadier. Benton mentions the metal-eating virus designed by Kettlewell and the Doctor hurries to the professor's office in the silly yellow car referred to as Bessie. It may be the only time we see Bessie during the Fourth Doctor's tenor. It may not. I simply cannot recall.
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K-1 and Sarah arrive in the secret launch room as K-1 reactivates a launch sequence. Robot insists it is trying to fulfill his creator's wishes to recreate mankind, I think. The Doctor is certain K-1 is suffering from an excessive Oedipus Complex making it difficult to see through the professor's original mad plan to destroy the planet. The Oedipus Complex is a psychoanalytical reference whereby a child is driven by repressed feelings to possess the parent of the opposite sex, while destroying the parent of the same sex. Boy, these Robots really are complex and far more complicated than me.
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The final sequence becomes utterly laughable as the K-1 Robot grows into a King Kong-sized Robot and grabs Sarah in its clutches carrying her to a local building. The giant Robot is now rampaging and looking about as ridiculous as it gets. A fake doll version of Sarah in the Robot's hand is off the charts hysterical. My boy was cracking up. So the disintegrator ray didn't work on the Robot. "I see our little problem seems to have grown" exclaims the Doctor. The Brigadier has summoned the RAF, but the Doctor has a plan. The doctor douses the Robot with the metal-eating virus and it quickly spreads across the surface of the Robot's body. It quickly shrinks back to size. The Robot quickly turns bright orange and disappears. Farewell my friend.


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Back at Unit the Doctor offers Sarah a jelly baby. Ah yes, this would be the introduction to the Doctor's jelly baby obsession. Sarah is slightly saddened by the loss of the Robot. Yes, we're all broken up. Those final moments recreate a Who version homage to King Kong. Here is one of the finest closing moments. Remember, It's all about the character. Nevermind those cheesy effects behind the curtain.


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The K-1 Robot is a pretty striking design for its time. A fairly weak story is salvaged by some fine performances on the whole. Robot serves up a glimpse of greatness from Tom Baker and in that makes it worthwhile. That, of course, combined with the sparkle of chemistry hinted to between the Doctor and the beautiful Elisabeth Sladen along with the insanely likeable Ian Marter. Things are just getting underway and any first outing deserves a little slack. Still, Baker does hit the ground running. "There's no point being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes." Amen.
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Robot: C/ Director: Christopher Barry/ Writer: Terrance Dicks/ Producer: Barry Letts.

This would be the end of Producer Barry Letts tenor. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe would take over and place his own stamp on the style and direction of the series following Robot. For that reason, Robot feels considerably different to those going forward. Writer Terrance Dicks would also take a step back to make way for new blood to inject ideas into the ever-changing Doctor Who universe.

DVD Extras: Audio Commentary by Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Terrance Hicks and producer Barry Letts. A real treat now that Letts is no longer with us. The BBC video release has a number of bright spots including a 2007 documentary entitled Are Friends Electric? [38 min]. This is an entertaining look back at landing Tom Baker as the new Doctor and the making of Robot. It includes wonderful interviews and behind-the-scenes footage starring none other than Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Alec Linstead [Jellicoe], Patricia Maynard [Miss Winters], Michael Kilgarriff [Robot], Edward Burnham [the Professor], producers Barry Letts and Philip Hinchcliffe, script editor Terrance Dicks and Director Christopher Barry. It's a truly special highlight on the DVD. Here is a terrific sample complete with Tom's trademark smile. Sweet!


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You will also receive a short on the making of The Tunnel Effect [13 min] for the opening theme to Doctor Who.

The afortementioned Ian Marter is noticeably absent from the proceedings in the documentary you will note. Sadly, Ian Marter [1944-1986] died suddenly at the ripe young age of 42 on his birthday following a heart attack and complications from diabetes. Marter was actually cast to play a young, more physical part opposite an expected older casting for Doctor Who. After Tom Baker was cast Marter was less critical to the ongoing adventures and was slowly phased out of production. He was a popular character on the show from December 1974 to December 1975. The expected action hero plan for Marter was no longer imperative and thus Marter was inevitably let go despite being a fan favorite.

2 comments:

ElCorvo said...

The Doctor's yellow roadster is named "Bessie", not "Lizzy". And yes, this is the only appearance of the car during Baker's tenure.

Good review :)

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

You know. I really did know that. There's no explanation for it. I swear to you, sometimes I'm writing and what comes out on the other end of the keyboard strokes is a mystery. : )

Thank you for the correction. I will make sure that is applied. Thanks for the input.