Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Siver Metal Lover

Apart from An Unearthly Child, obviously, I always considered Spearhead From Space as the best introductory story of any Doctor. Since my earliest clear memory of Doctor Who is an image from Ambassadors Of Death, Spearhead, being a teeny bit before my time, must have impressed me at some later date, whether on VHS or UK Gold. Robot, Tom Baker’s debut, on the other hand, was very much a part of my childhood, so you can take as granted a certain degree of bias when I say it’s very, very good. It’s not, though, as good as Spearhead.

Where Spearhead, in heralding the new era of an earthbound Doctor, pays homage to Quatermass, Robot goes digging in the vaults of Isaac Asimov for its inspiration and emerges smelling of something like an Avengers episode. It’s a pleasant enough scent to pick up and it’s really no surprise, given Terrance Dicks’ writing background. It’s also King Kong, of course, and in that respect demonstrates all the ambition so typical of Doctor Who – “Hey, we’ve got four whole pounds to spend on the next story. Let’s do an SF take on King Kong!” – that we’ve come to know and love. It’s, as always, the sort of gumption you have to applaud and admire, and it’s also the sort of gumption that should brace you for the inevitable few scenes that might not be quite up to visual scratch.

Let’s get all that out of the way first. For the maximum Kong effect, Terrance’s script calls for his titular Robot to become a giant one. So right there you know we can expect plenty of paper cut-out CSO work where, of course, we will see the join. To really test the limits of the production, Terrance also calls for a tank and that’s the part I remember as being embarrassingly poor, because the armoured fighting vehicle they wheel on is an Action Man tank, and I knew, because I wanted one. Oddly enough though, that was not the worst part: that honour goes to the Sarah Jane doll and, as much as I might now want one of those, flopping about in the claw of the Robot it makes for a very unconvincing visual effect.

All that, however, is towards the end. And fortunately this is a story that begins really well. Originally we had the wonder of the recent regeneration and a slight nervousness hinged on how we were going to take to this new Doctor. All that’s history now, but at least we still get to marvel at the energy Tom Baker puts into his arrival on the scene. There’s a Marxist (by which I mean, Harpo) dynamism to the man and when coupled with some great dialogue (this Harpo speaks), we get a swift portrait of an energetic madman who’s apt to go careening off in all manner of unexpected directions. But it’s not long before he’s firmly establishing himself in the role and putting his authoritative stamp on the situation – in fact, I think I can pin it down to the moment when, after an appropriately bizarre sequence of costume changes, he tells the Brigadier to “try cultivating a sense of urgency”.

At the same time, you have this mechanical menace stalking about the country, raiding this top secret facility and that. Aided and abetted by the stalking menace in the soundtrack and some effective use of the Robot’s POV, these scenes could only have been more effective with a touch better acting from the Robot’s victims. Although the guard dog does a fair job.

You also have Sarah Jane Smith engaging in a spot of honest-to-goodness, intrepid journalism – uncovering a conspiracy as well as landing herself in peril. SJS is no martial artist, but there’s still a touch of Emma Peel to her role as she zips about in her sports car, investigating the government-sponsored Thinktank, who are making use of top secret technology – just far enough on the wrong side of credibility – for their own nefarious ends. This Eau d’Avengers is further supplemented with a brief but amusing splash of Harry Sullivan, showing up – undercover – in John Steed mode and part of me has to pause and reflect that it’s a bit of a shame they didn’t capitalize on that angle a bit further. That would have been huge fun.

Still, what we get is fun too, with the story unfolding at a fair pace, showing off its Asimovian and Kong ancestry with pride: showing off the ‘monster’ in a theatre and, in the absence of an Empire State Building, having the giant Robot deposit Sarah on the nearest rooftop. It plays faster and looser with the Asimov side of things, building the robot’s programming around the Three Laws but, ironically, turns to scientists for its villains and ends up revisiting the very trend in Sci-Fi that Asimov, in devising his laws, was doing his best to steer away from. Complete with Mad Professor and a robot that destroys its creator. Heading up the Nazi scientists, Patricia Maynard makes for a good Susan-Calvin-gone-bad and Edward Burnham does a terrific job as the archetypal Mad Professor, Kettlewell, also managing to achieve an amazing combination of balding and bad hair day.

Talking of achievements, the Robot itself is one of those stunning designs that Doctor Who seemed to pull out of its creative hat almost routinely through much of its history. It’s a great, clunking monster with a terrific voice, and lent more than enough character by Michael Kilgariff to sell us on the love story. Because even if this tin man doesn’t actually have a heart, the story does. And it’s not over-egged. If anything, it’s underdone – but it’s just what’s needed to make the story tick.

The seeds of the solution are sown rather clumsily, with Kettlewell slipping a mention of his metal-eating virus (one that, note, attacks plastic buckets but leaves metal handles of said buckets unaffected) into conversation as casually as that sort of thing usually crops up. And it must be clumsy – it’s Benton who picks up on the information and relates it to the Doctor. The principal absurdities come to light around episode three, wherein we are expected to believe that the world’s nations have entrusted Britain with the arming codes for all their ICBMs and even the ruthlessly efficient Miss (Nuclear) Winters hasn’t thought to check the bunker’s food supplies before committing herself to this insane plan. Clearly, the first is a workaround for the lack of an internet via which control of the world’s weapons might otherwise have been seized. The second, I don’t know what the excuse could be.

That said, despite this slippery slope towards the end, in terms of plot and production, the story – along with its brand new Doctor – manages to win through with a certain irrepressible magic and energy and the overall impression is of one of those stories where the majority of this gem’s flaws can, even when rewatching as an adult, be forgiven by the inner child. And, as the Doctor himself points out, “There’s no point in being grown-up if you can’t be childish from time to time.”


Stuart Douglas said...

Re-watching this a few months ago and having remembered it from the telly as being a bit rubbish, I was surprised quite how good it was. Even the tank effect lasted far less time than I remembered.

Season 12 is fantastic, imo.

SAF said...

Yeah, fair to say the tank was nowhere near as painful as I remembered, and to be honest, I can't see any Season 12 story getting a hard time from me. I love it! :)