Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Doctor Who: Robot

Part One
“I think the nose is a definite improvement.”

New titles. They’re very impressive, not throwing out the baby from last season’s bathwater. Which is a good thing, because they’ll be around for quite a while.

New, new Doctor too. It’s nice that his first words relate back to The Time Warrior and Invasion of the Dinosaurs, reminding Sarah (and us) that this is the same character. New character too, with Ian Marter splendid as the immediately likeable Harry Sullivan.

Some very good directing with the robot POV shots,, and also good that the story’s threat is set up so early. There’s a lot of setting-up required for the new Doctor’ and some fun is had, but things stop short of self-indulgence.

One problem (or not) is that the plot requires the Brig to slip a lot of information to Sarah who is, however much a friend of the Doctor, a civilian and, more to the point, a journalist. The effect is that a closeness is implied which isn’t really justified elsewhere.

The establishing scenes with the Doctor- mirror, clothes, medical- are fun and, crucially, brief, nicely establishing this new Doctor’s very different personality without making this the plot itself. It’s notable that, although only last episode the TARDIS brought the Doctor “home” to Earth, having regenerated he’s now eager to get back into the TARDIS, a sign of things to come. Still, not only is this a fully-fledged UNIT story, and the first real one since Invasion of the Dinosaurs to boot, it’s the first time we hear the Brig’s full name: Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.

We’re introduced to the key concepts of the plot by the end of the episode- Thinktank, Kettlewell and his perfect mad scientist hair, the Robot- but the thought that lingers is just how great this new Doctor already is.

Part Two

“I can’t thank you enough for the visit. It’s been most amusing.”

The Doctor’s mannerisms, not that the hat and scarf have been added, already seem established in only his second episode. Far from being erratic or disoriented, he’s very much thrown straight into the fray, with plenty of eccentric mannerisms and witty asides but always with something penetrating to say about the situation. And he just oozes charisma.

The sinister behaviour of Miss Winters, sadistically letting Sarah think the robot is going to kill her, makes no bones about the fact she’s a baddie, and the fascistic scientific Reform Society is equally obviously up to no good. It’s fascinating to see the contrast of the Doctor’s actions while visiting Thinktank to Sarah’s last episode. This Doctor is flippant, Bohemian, full of bon mots, always playing things by ear, but never misses anything. He’s fantastic.

It soon becomes clear, though, that the fact these baddies are so obvious very effectively hides the fact that Kettlewell is secretly with them. This came as a genuine surprise to me.

It’s fascinating to see the new Doctor still driving around in Bessie. And gratifying to see Benton promoted, albeit in a way which wryly acknowledges the cut-price nature of UNIT staffing!

Part Three

“The US Cavalry never got treated like this!”

The robot has become a figure of sympathy by the start of this episode, driven to despair by the way it’s forced to go against its “prime directive” and kill people. This is all taken from Asimov, of course (to do otherwise in a story about a robot would just be perverse, and an insult to the great man) but the robot is also an interesting amalgam of Frankenstein’s monster and King Kong.

Britain being entrusted with the nuclear launch codes of every nuclear power is, to put it mildly, the most far fetched thing yet seen in all of Doctor Who. And yet we’re made to accept it by the clever tactic of smothering the exposition in witty banter between the Doctor and the Brig: “Well, naturally. The rest were all foreigners”.

We get the first scene with the Doctor playing for time by emptying his capacious pockets, and a fine scene it is too, shortly followed by the revelation of Kettlewell’s baddie status. The funniest scene in the entire story, though, has to be the sight of the Brig’s walkie-talkie. How very Trigger Happy TV.

There are some interesting developments of elements from the Pertwee years; the bunker is yet another relic of “the cold war days” while Sonic Screwdriver Mission Creep continues unabated- this time it’s a sonic lance, apparently. Would have come in handy during Monster of Peladon then…

Oh, and the CSO’d Action Man tank- you know, I think they actually get away with it!

Part Four

“You know, for once I’d like to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets.”

Sarah and Harry are to be killed. But, for reasons which make no sense but are a rule of the genre, Miss Winters decrees that it is to be later and not now for some reason.

It’s fitting that the robot should kill Kettlewell in the most Frankenstein moment yet. And convenient that the countdown to Armageddon, once stopped, should start again right at the beginning on 300.

The robot’s suitably tragic in this episode to be believable (“Machines do not lie!”) but is enough of a well-known trope (King Kong and Frankenstein again) not to trouble us unduly and stop us enjoying the light-hearted fun.

I love Kettlewell’s lab- every bit as stereotypical as his hair, with all that bubbling liquid. It’s been a long wait for a proper mad scientist story so it’s good to see it done with gusto.

I had to chuckle as soon as the Brig was heard to exclaim “I think just for once we’re not going to need the Doctor”- the robot growing to giant size is funny precisely because it’s exactly what you expect to happen. And it’s when it picks up Sarah in the most King Kong moment yet that it occurs to me- there’s an awful lot of CSO in this story!

The threat is ended, perfectly, by a nice bit of teamwork between the new Doctor and Harry, who’s been great.

The final scene is fantastic. The Doctor offers Sarah a jelly baby at the end and she accepts, seeing his meaning straightaway. Much as I liked Jo, it’s nice having a companion who actually enjoys travelling in the TARDIS! And, excitingly, they’re joined by Harry. This TARDIS team looks very promising indeed. And it seems the TARDIS is where the future lies, as the Doctor seems determined to the point of childishness to cut his ties to UNIT, or at least the boring bits. Cue one of my favourite lines: “There’s no point being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”

Wow. That was great fun, and a perfect introduction to this exciting and great new Doctor,. It may have been light and fluffy, but I see no reason not to give it a 5/5.

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