Friday, September 30, 2011

Where There's Life (Robot)

The real highlight of this story is watching the robot body
catch reflections of the green screen and occasionally blink
out of existence in places. That and singing Kraftwerk
to yourself. Mmmm. Werk. By far Philip Morris's best
product.
It's December 28, 1974. Mud are "Lonely This Christmas," and apparently a lot of people care and are trying to buy their single to make them feel less alone. After three weeks of this they finally plummet down the charts as people realize Christmas has been over for a while, and Status Quo's "Down Down" takes the number one spot. Also in the charts are Barry White, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Gloria Gaynor, Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes (I promise I did not make that up), and, once again, The Wombles, who make their fifth and final top ten placing.

Since Pertwee's regeneration, the 1974 FIFA World Cup has happened, sans England, but with Scotland, so that's nice and frustratingly rarely mentioned when people decide to list England's failure to qualify as a reason why the Heath government fell. Nixon resigns, essentially kicking off the American sleepy period equivalent to the British one we've already discussed. Haille Selassie was deposed in Ethiopia, and Ceefax began in the UK, and Ali defeats Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. More tragically, the Birmingham pub bombings take place, killing 21 and injuring another 182. The exact cause is under some dispute, with the IRA being widely blamed, a Marxist splinter group called Red Flag 74 trying to take the blame despite probably not being responsible, and a group of Irishmen known familiarly as the Birmingham Six ultimately being arrested and, after some truly spectacular police corruption, convicted and sent to prison for sixteen years.

While during this story, the British government abandons another attempt at a Channel Tunnel, Wheel of Fortune debuts, and Lesley Whittle, a 17 year old heiress, is kidnapped by Donald Neilson. Also, International Women's Year is kicked off in the UK, which I note not because I'm particularly enamored with commemoration-style politics like that but because I haven't cited a lot of news stories that point to the degree to which these are golden years for feminism, so I figured I should.

I, of course, am still off in 1992, in the basement. I think, though I honestly don't remember vividly, that I actually marathoned that entire tape in one day, so while we've jumped over six months in world history since Planet of the Spiders, I'm pretty sure from my perspective we've had lunch. Still, this is perhaps advantageous - it's not clear that there is any story to date in Doctor Who more suitable for watching when you are A) ten, and B) have no idea what the show is supposed to be like.

Robot is, by necessity, an odd duck. By convention, Doctor Who has, for the past few seasons, banked an episode across seasons. The Time Warrior was actually made immediately after The Green Death, Carnival of Monsters immediately after The Time Monster. The effect of this was that, following Planet of the Spiders, Barry Letts had one more story to do on his contract, and so the opening story of Season 12 was produced immediately after Planet of the Spiders and under the old production team.

On top of that, Terrance Dicks managed to persuade Robert Holmes that there existed an active tradition of hiring the outgoing script editor for the first script of the new editor's tenure. To be fair, this did actually happen for several of the previous outgoing script editors. But the result was, by most sane standards, unfortunate for the series - a production team of departing veterans with little at stake doing what needs to be a big, impressive story that grabs people.

And we get about what we'd expect. Dicks, in what is actually his first solo credit for a story, smashes out an Avengers story with the Steed role split between the Doctor and Harry. Letts finds some new ways to misuse CSO. Everyone finds bold new ways to have horrifying politics in which the environmental movement is treated with suspicion and feminism is treated with disdain. (Particularly disturbing is the fact that the bad guys include both sexist men and repressed and clearly intended to be lesbian women, and nothing in between.) All of these things are absolutely true. They are also, however, beside the point. Because what this story is actually about is far more important and superficial than all of that.

There is something of a devil's bargain in the casting of Tom Baker. The main brief for a new Doctor was that they wanted an eccentric. For a while the part was expected to go to an elderly actor (hence the creation of Harry to fill the old Ian/Steven/Jamie role), but eventually Bill Slater, Head of Drama at the BBC, pointed Letts towards Tom Baker as someone who was suitably crazy for the part. The problem with casting someone for their craziness, however, is that, well, they're a bit crazy.

As I said, this is a devil's bargain. Throughout the Tom Baker era, lurking in the background, or sometimes in the foreground, is the fact that Baker was a profoundly ungracious actor who stole scenes and sabotaged co-stars with reckless abandon, and who was prone to petulant sulking when he didn't get his way, despite the fact that his ideas were often self-evidently idiotic. To say that this caused problems from time to time is an understatement. (Though it was by and large a slowly developing thing - Baker started gracious and got less so, with the stories that reflect poorly on him not really starting up until around Lis Sladen's departure. It's also important to note that he had good relations with a number of his co-stars, most obviously Lala Ward. It's also worth noting that the person who is by far nastiest about Baker is Matthew Waterhouse, about who nobody says anything nice.)

Which would be easier to fault if there were not so many occasions in which Tom Baker saved a scene or a script through sheer charisma. Baker was exceptionally good at winning over the audience and he knew it. And for all that his tenure is going to be peppered with anecdotes of is ungraciousness or, towards the end, overt cruelty towards his co-stars, no small portion of that was motivated by his absolutely correct belief that a fair share of the audience was watching the show for him, and that scenes in which the Doctor isn't talking were viewed as actively inferior to ones in which he is. And there's a reason for that, which is that he is, in fact, jaw-droppingly charismatic.

From the moment he opens his eyes in Robot, he is all charm. He has several things going for him. First is that Terrance Dicks, lacking any clear idea of where this Doctor was going (and perhaps more to the point, lacking any real investment in that question), just wrote him as funny. The first episode's scenes featuring the Doctor are almost all played for comedy, including set pieces such as him trying to prove his fitness to Harry or endlessly changing clothes for the Brigadier. Oddly, some of the credit here then has to go to Patrick Troughton. Fenced into the corner of not knowing where Baker's Doctor is going and having the task of differentiating him clearly from Pertwee, Dicks takes the most obvious route available and just writes for Troughton at several points.

This is most obvious in the scene in which the Doctor and UNIT go to question Professor Kettlewell, who remains adamantly prickly in response to the Brigadier. So instead the Doctor proceeds to butter him up, praising his work and his genius for a minute or two before suddenly dropping his voice and telling Kettlewell to fill him in on the robot. It's not a trick Pertwee would ever use, and it's clearly a derivative of Troughton's old seizing of authority that isn't his to befuddle people and get his way.

Indeed, Baker's take on the part clearly owes considerable debt to Troughton. This is also visible in the Kettlewell interrogation scene, as Baker opts to have the Doctor stand behind Kettlewell for a conversation, literally lurking on the periphery of events in a way reminiscent of Troughton's performance in Tomb of the Cybermen. But there is a bombast and excess to Baker's performance that Troughton would never have gone for. Troughton stayed at the periphery of events to hide, keeping himself underestimated and unnoticed. Baker, on the other hand, hangs a massive "I am lurking on the periphery of things waiting to make my move" sign.

But from a viewer's perspective, it's wonderful. And what it comes down to, in the end is Baker. The soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo is often criticized for being arrogant and of acting like he's the best player in the world. Back when he played for Manchester United and I was thus obliged as a fan to defend him, he won the World Player of the Year award. And as I pointed out to people at the time, it really does take some of the sting out of the accusation that you act like you're the best player in the world when you actually are. Likewise, you can, as I suggested above, get away with constantly mugging for the camera if you are, in fact, colossally likable.

And my God, Tom Baker is. I remember falling in love with him watching the episode. He was funny and charming and I knew as soon as he did the bit about unsinkability and the Titanic I knew that I wanted to see more of him. And I didn't feel that about Pertwee after Planet of the Spiders. He wasn't unlikable as such - it wasn't like anything about his portrayal of the Doctor made me root against him. But he didn't have the immediate head-over-heels charisma of Tom Baker.

Part of this, if I am being honest, is a matter of what does and doesn't work for geeks. Another theme that is going to start showing up in earnest during the Tom Baker years is the emergence of Doctor Who fandom as an organized and coherent force. And I don't think that's entirely down to the show just being around for long enough to acquire a fandom. I think it's subtler than that. I think another part of why fandom started to crystalize in the Tom Baker years was that Tom Baker was unusually well-poised to be liked by geeks. Because Tom Baker played what is, in many ways, one of the fundamental fantasies of a socially ostracized smart person. He's adored precisely because he's clever.

Previous Doctors were valued for their intelligence, yes. And previous Doctors were adored. But Hartnell was adored because he was kind and paternal. Troughton was adored because he was mercurial and silly. Pertwee was adored because he was dashing and manly. Baker is adored because he's clever. Whether clever in a humorous sense or clever in a solves problems sense, Baker is the first Doctor where his intelligence is overtly the source of his charm. This is, after all, what the scene in the fourth episode in which he disarms the computer is about. Baker delivers straight-facedly a lengthy monologue about how difficult it is, and then smiles widely and beams as he does it anyway. In other words, what's charming about him is that he was clever enough to do the terribly difficult thing.

Certainly, if I'm being honest, it's what I loved about Baker at age ten. And it was enough to make this episode seem like a revelation after Planet of the Spiders. But even to more established audience members, it's easy to see that the nature of the show is about to change in a big way. The decision to have Baker start off with key parts of Pertwee's supporting cast in place is a sound one, though not for the reason you'd expect. The normal logic of a decision like this is to ease the new guy in. Having old pros like Courtney and Levene around helps cover up any stumbles as Baker finds his way into the part. It's the reason the Daleks were used for Troughton's debut, it'll be (rather unfortunately) why the Rani comes back for McCoy's debut, and, more modernly, it's why Harriet Jones, Jackie, and Mickey all come back for Tennant's debut.

But instead, what we get is something more oddly transformative. All of the normal props of a UNIT story are put into place, and Baker just acts them off the screen. Part of this is his sheer charisma, yes. But part of it is conscious decisions on Baker's part to look at UNIT and the work he's doing with mild disdain, and to visibly want to run off and shirk responsibility. Pertwee's Doctor would want to avoid doing something for the Brigadier because something else interested him more, but Baker seems to want to do anything just so long as it's not have to work for somebody. Some of this is Dicks as well - the decision to have the Doctor seem willing to abandon Sarah and just run off speaks volumes about how little the new Doctor cares about the day-to-day affairs of Earth. (Though it's a gambit, and Baker makes some deft decisions to avoid having it ding his likability)

The result is something that seems in a real sense to continue a thread from Planet of the Spiders and establish the firm killing off of the Pertwee era at its most fundamental level. Here UNIT are shown ruthlessly to be surplus to requirements. The Doctor doesn't care about them anymore, and the Doctor wins us over with such utter charm that we take his side and find ourselves looking down on the Brigadier. By turning us slightly against the tenets of the Pertwee era, it makes it easier to invest ourselves in the beginning of the Baker era.

This is also the time, really, to say goodbye to both Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. While both return a few more times, this is the end of their continual tenure and the end of the phase of the program that is made to their image of it. I have been exceedingly hard on both at times, but both are rightly beloved and honored by fandom. If I may briefly discourse on their legacy, then, I would say this:

There are two ways to improve a television series. The first is to make the show good more often. The second is to make the show bad less often. Some production teams on Doctor Who have aspired to the first - John Wiles and Peter Bryant both clearly came in with ambition to make the show do more impressive things. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, however, are of the second school. And this is something that it is easy to miss when watching the Pertwee era. Tat Wood points it out in the About Time entry on Planet of the Spiders by pointing out how bizarre the standard criticisms of the show would seem to somebody coming off of Spearhead From Space - there's yet again too many gratuitous chases and action scenes? What?

But it's actually bigger than that. Letts and Dicks dragged the baseline quality of the show up to the point of where its best episodes had been when they took over. Under Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, even the two lowest points of his tenure were at least as good as their nearest equivalent Troughton episodes (Let's say these two), and even something Invasion of the Dinosaurs - a business as usual piece in which everybody was on autopilot - is about on par with a Troughton-era masterpiece like The Invasion. Dicks's ability to spin an engaging adventure yarn in his sleep keeps any of the scripts from bottoming out too badly. And, as we're seeing him off, we should also reiterate his massive contribution to childhood literacy.

As for Letts, he is far and away the best producer in terms of the technical the series since Verity Lambert. Most obviously, Letts brought in huge innovations in how stories were made, moving to doing two episodes as a block over two weeks with two straight days of filming instead of one episode every week with filming one day a week, and then again to finally doing a story entirely in order of location. He got the series so organized that it could air stories out of production order - something it had never been close to doing under any previous producer. In the past, the series at times slipped to only a week between production and transmission.

The result is a series that is consistently interesting, consistently shows new and exciting things, and consistently entertaining. It's a series that firmly and unequivocally deserves to be recognized as a classic of its era - one that is, in production values and basic quality, visibly miles better than its next competitors, both of which we've looked at and found wanting.

And that's not something that comes through on an episode by episode approach, where the individual weaknesses that make each one slightly less than it could have been shine through. But taken as a whole, and not dissected with the critic's scalpel, the Letts/Dicks era is amazing in its ability to hit the B+/A- level week in and week out. That's not something many shows are good enough to do. And it explains a lot of why so many people love the show. Letts and Dicks produced five years of television that people were fond enough of that they wanted the show to be on the air just because of how much they loved it. In a very literal sense, that is why the show is still on the air.

And here we bid them a very, very loving farewell.

11 comments:

  1. There's a splendid shot early in the story that sums up the new Doctor's approach. The Doctor, the Brigadier and Benton have gone to examine one of the Robot's break-ins. There's a great big hole in the fence. The shot is composed with the camera on the inside of the fence looking out, and the two soldiers outside the fence looking in, one on either side of the frame. In a Pertwee story, Pertwee would be right in the centre of the frame in the foreground, between the Brig and Benton, examining the fence. But instead there's a gap where Pertwee should be - and through that gap, away in the background, is Tom Baker, lying on the grass contemplating the daisies.

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  2. A fantastic summation of why Tom Baker's Doctor was by the far the most popular. In fact an excellent article all round. Yes your obvious like of Baker shows through, but doesn't detract from the analysis, and I agree with you on all points.

    You don't allow your like or dislike for a particular character or actor to affect your analysis of them, and your recognition of Letts & Dicks' contributions to Doctor Who is most touching and very welcome.

    Sadly not all "fans" of Doctor Who are so magnanimous. I've recently seen a discussion on a certain forum in which one poster complained about the online dedication to Barry Letts in "Waters of Mars", freely admitting that she had never heard of him and that wikipedia said he was "some producer".

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  3. Confession: When I first saw this story as a boy, having already seen some of the later Tom Baker episodes, I assumed we would soon meet robots called "K2," "K3," etc., until we finally reached "K9."

    Yes, I understood the pun in the dog's name. I just thought the show was going to build to it.

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  4. When I saw Robot as a kid, I had mixed feelings:

    "Giant robot? Cool! Bring me more!"
    alongside
    "Who is this wacko? He's nowhere near as good as Jon Pertwee! I want the old days back!"

    Nowadays, while I still have mixed feelings, it's the robot I grumble about and Tom that saves the story...

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  5. I agree totally with what you say about Baker, but -- predictably -- not with what you say about Pertwee. And once again I have the impression that you're seeing a different Pertwee from the one I'm seeing. This in particular:

    "Pertwee was adored because he was dashing and manly. Baker is adored because he's clever. Whether clever in a humorous sense or clever in a solves problems sense, Baker is the first Doctor where his intelligence is overtly the source of his charm."

    Whereas I would just have taken it as obvious that with Pertwee's Doctor too, his intelligence is a major source of his charm. (I'm pretty sure I don't adore Pertwee for his "manliness," whatever exactly that term means.) Pertwee's intelligence just shines off the screen in a way that just doesn't (for me) seem to happen with Troughton (much) or Hartnell (at all). That's another part of what I mean in saying that for me the Doctor first becomes the Doctor with Pertwee.

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  6. "Naturally. The others were all foreigners." is a fairly important line of dialogue in the development of the series. Half in the line itself, half in Baker's delivery. (One can imagine Pertwee saying it, but on some level he'd undercut it by trying to present it as a serious condemnation of the Brigadier's parochialism.)

    It's the first time - well, I think - that the Doctor so directly draws attention to the fact that the central premise of a plot doesn't really make any sense, and says to the viewer "We know that. Just go with it."

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  7. It would seem you and I have a similar history when it comes to this show: "Robot" was my first episode of Doctor Who in more ways than one. It was the first episode I saw as a child just getting introduced to it. My prevailing memory of my initial thoughts were that I thought the titular robot looked incredibly silly and I wanted to see more of the dude in the scarf and less of the rather annoying damsel in distress. That aside, it was also the first episode I watched on a number of occasions when I went back to re-watch the series later in life.

    Like you, I also immediately fell in love with Tom Baker. You did an excellent job analysing why his interpretation of the character was so wildly successful and popular and I'd not thought about in quite those terms. Put that way, and especially in light of some things to come in a few years or so, Tom Baker's Doctor as a geek icon makes a great deal of sense.

    What I'd add to that, and what immediately attracted me to the show and him in particular when I was young, was his overbearing sense of free-spirited bohemianism and the way he so wholeheartedly embraces abject alien eccentricity and staunchly rejects authority and anything else that limits his freedom or that of others. That was something I'd never really seen before at that age, and it did wonders for my blossoming sense of independence and cultural rebelliousness.

    For a very long time Tom Baker was my favourite Doctor and this was my favourite era of the show. For a number of reasons once I started re-watching the entire series in recent years he stopped being my favourite and was in fact knocked down several pegs in my personal hierarchy. Even so, I still maintain a very strong fondness for his portrayal and interpretation of the character. However, time has not been so kind to my memories of the era itself: I actually have quite a few problems with the Tom Baker era nowadays, especially the earliest years and the very end. That being said, I am very much looking forward to hearing your opinions and experiences with the show during this period and comparing our personal fandoms-I'm sure there will be much to discuss!

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  8. I came to this blog via Adventures with the Wife in Space, and have fallen for the heady mix of alchemical leftist utopian celebration. Tom Baker was a formative part of my childhood, but I only saw Robot recently, when I started catching up on older Doctor Who.

    I love your analysis of Baker, but I also disagree a bit. I don't think Baker is the Doctor who is "adored precisely because he's clever". I think he's adored because he's *bonkers*. He's huge and confident and completely unselfconscious while being weird on an intergalactic scale.

    You said last week that Buffy and the Tomorrow People offered the image of special teenager who is persecuted but will save the world through their specialness, which is one way of appealing to the clever but socially awkward geek. Tom Baker goes beyond that. He isn't normal, he doesn't fit in, and his stunning charisma makes that seem like a straightforwardly good and even enviable thing. I can't imagine anyone persecuting Tom Baker for being weird, because he glories in it. As geek role models go, that's a revelation.

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  9. Incidentally, the last place I saw Tom Baker's goofy exuberant grin in the face of peril was on Warren William's face in _Satan Met a Lady_, the 1936 comedy remake/premake of _The Maltese Falcon_.

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  10. My first Doctor was Peter Cushing. I adored him. My 2nd Doctor was Jon Pertwee. I had to watch from "THE SILURIANS" all the way to "DAY OF THE DALEKS" (that's the entire run they ran in Philly in the early 70's, go figure) before I got to like him. Strange... Roger Delgado was MUCH more charismatic and charming. Except for all the senseless murders, of course. (A friend recently suggested Delgado would have made a better Doctor than Pertwee. I agree.)

    So about 5 years later, "ROBOT" arrives here (May'79). I remember seeing a photo of Tom Baker, and thinking, "Him? This LOONEY is replacing Jon Pertwee? Are they kidding??" The same article had photos of the other 3 Doctors and I finally understood the connection between the show and those 2 movies.)

    So I watched "ROBOT Part One"... and by the time it was over, I had ALREADY gotten to LIKE Tom Baker's Doctor, INTENSELY. That says a hell of a lot about the difference between him and Pertwee, doesn't it?

    The Brigadier was always my favorite character on the show when I watched it before. Was so glad to see he was still around, along with Sgt. Benton. This Sarah Jane Smith character, though, SHE took a bit of getting used to. NO, REALLY. All I could see at first was a sort of "English Lois Lane". All arguing and bluster and getting herself into jams she needs rescuing from. And some VERY dodgy outfits. (That white hat! That flowered dress! What was she thinking?)

    The 2nd week (yes, they initially started out running ONE episode per week, Fridays at 10 PM-- all CUT for commercial time, so, no "clothes-changing" scene-- and they added those totally uncalled-for coming attractions narrated by Howard Da Silva-- THE HORROR!!!!) I managed to get my best friend to watch with me. His intro to the whole series, he'd never even heard of it until that night. We spent an AWFUL lot of time in the 80's watching and discussing the show after that.

    I never even noticed Harry was "doing" John Steed (right down to the outfit) until later reruns. A couple years later, my PBS station began showing UNCUT versions of the Baker stories, and they were even better. Somehow I'd completely forgotten I'd SEEN Baker before... and in my ALL-TIME FAVORITE Ray Harryhausen movie, too. (Was there ever a better "special effect" designed to keep you glued to your theatre seat, than Caroline Munro??)

    And speaking of the outgoing team, the very 1st "Doctor Who" convention I ever went to, held in Philly, had 2 guests. One was Terrence Dicks (I never forgot his EXTREMELY thick accent). The other was John Leeson. NO, REALLY!

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  11. The real highlight of this story is watching the robot body ... robotdogsgirls.blogspot.com

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