One thing I’ve never really understood when it comes to fandom and its opinions on the classic series is precisely why Terrance Dicks is regarded as one of its best script writers. He’s not bad, certainly, but he never seems to be that inspired to me. Solid but workmanlike material for the most part.
Certainly, this episode is an awful lot of fun, but doesn’t really have the inventiveness of plot that would truly knock it into the region of ‘classic’. What is does have is an infectious, joyous quality, and an incredible lick of pace.
A lot of this is down to Tom Baker. Much as with Dicks, I’m not a massive fan of Pertwee without actually going to the lengths of disliking him. But Tom Baker’s breezy self-confidence blows him away within minutes. The opening ten minutes or so with him in a post-regenerative state are entertaining enough, but it’s in the rest of the story – when he starts to get involved and display character as well as personality – that he really shines. There’s a quirky energy there and it feels such a refreshing contrast to what’s gone before.
That energy seemingly infects the script. Blitzing through the establishment of the new Doctor in half the episode and avoiding the self-indulgence that later episodes would succumb to, the narrative drive in this episode is astonishing. OK, so no one appears to have told Dudley Simpson (his slow, measured ‘K1’ theme, seems completely at variance with the actual material shown, particularly when John Scott Martin’s security man gets the chop), but the amount of material the story gets through is huge. There are one or two moments – particularly when the Brigadier’s description of security arrangements is illustrated as he speaks through montage – where it feels astonishing that, leading man aside, everyone involved in this, be they writer/producer/director, is a remnant of the last regime rather than one for the new. Because this does feel very much like a conceptual shift.
There are other nice touches. Harry is immediately likeable, and his interaction with the Doctor is hugely entertaining. And Miss Winters has the makings of a corking villainess.
It just remains a bit of a shame that there remains the slightly hacky quality to the actual plot. Because everything else is so right.
(Oh, and it’s such an iconic part of the show history that I’ve never really noticed it before – but doesn’t this story have the dullest, most insipid title in the whole of the series?)
14 Feb 2010, 11:17 pm #4
As seems to happen an awful lot, a story pays for going off at a blistering pace in its first episode by finding it’s run out of plot awfully quickly. I’m going to get well ahead of myself here, but the cliffhanger is a fairly good indication of the problem – a good one to show to anyone who feels the new series cliffhangers are over long to prove it’s not only a twenty first century problem– the Doctor’s attacked by the robot in Kettlewell’s lab… and the entire sequence just keeps on going til we reach a cliffhanger that could easily have happened two minutes earlier, and is essentially just a variation on every individual moment within those two minutes.
Once again, we can pretty much see the entire plot laid out in front of us already. We know who’s behind everything, and not only that but the Doctor does as well (rather pointing up the outrageous coincidence of Sarah accidentally discovering the robot just as the rest of UNIT are investigating its attacks). And this means that the entire episode is just the Doctor wandering around chatting to people and filling in information he already knows, or getting philosophical with Kettlewell.
Of course, it’s fine to have the audience know what’s going on… but having the Doctor work it out so quickly… well, it slightly weakens the villains. I’m rather taken by the entirely alienless sci-fi Who, something not done often enough in my opinion, and Miss Winters is an extremely well performed villain already, but there’s a sense of slightness about the way it all comes together. Like these people aren’t really a match for the Doctor. Certainly, their round the houses plan (stealing plans for a laser gun just so they can break into a safe) isn’t convincing – albeit, that’s mainly on the level of Dick’s just having the idea and not really having a good idea what to do with it. The robot’s got to be attacking someone, but it can’t be achieving anything too quickly. To be fair to him, it’s a difficult square to circle.
But, and this is the important point – it is still fun. Baker’s still an enormously engaging presence, and Marter almost matches him for sparkle (I still think Harry is one of the great underrated companions of Classic Who – for evidence of how to do a similar character badly, just take a listen to Jeremy Fitzoliver). Miss Winters is just arch enough to be simultaneously convincing and entertaining (though the SRS subordinate in this episode doesn’t quite pitch it correctly, looking wooden rather than cold). And the robot, along with Kettlewell, is inching towards a genuinely touching quality, an actually sympathetic ‘monster’. Outside of that, there’s a playful, TV action comic strip quality to the story, a shameless desire to be entertaining. The entirely videotaped look probably helps, giving the production an immediacy. Overall, the plotting and structure is a little wooly, but by and large entertaining performances and witty lines carry it through.
16 Feb 2010, 11:37 pm #5
You know you’re in trouble when an episode takes as long as this one does just recapping the cliffhanger (and then bizarrely cutting it a little short at the end). Three minutes in and nothing new has happened. And you get a similar problem as last time at the end of this one as well – an over-extended cliffhanger that takes as long as it possibly can to a cliffhanger that could easily have appeared five minutes before. Yes, the dreaded curse of the non-existant plot strikes again.
This is, in many ways, a typical episode three. All sound and fury with nothing going on. There’s still a vague pretence at investigation – with Sarah’s hiding out at the SRS meeting an obvious example… but nothing’s uncovered that they don’t already know. There are two exceptions – one being Kettlewell’s duplicity… which whilst a genuinely surprising twist is only such because it’s actually fairly unconvincing. And the Doctor already knows this (again for sound, but not terribly convincing reasons – and it does rather make his visit to Kettlewell’s lab at the end of part two nonsensical). The other is the information from Harry about a bunker trip. Harry’s role as a spy has been wasted in the last two episodes, it has to be said. Especially because this little bit of information he passes on could easily be gleaned from elsewhere. By the end it’s clear he’s only there to be a hostage… though why this couldn’t have just worked with Sarah is unclear. Dicks just doesn’t seem to know what to do with the character.
But the big side-step in the episode is the whole SRS group meeting. Apart from giving Miss Winters a good chance to have a rant and a rave and dramatically reveal Kettlewell as a traitor as well, you have to ask the question: Why do they have a meeting at all? You’ve just got everything you want, the nuclear codes, the disintegrator gun… so rather than putting your plan into action straight away, you decide the best plan is to organise a meeting (in the world’s brightest evening) and have a bit of a shout. It’s the worst kind of plot contrivance – there’s not even the faintest attempt to justify the stalling tactics in plot terms. And another issue is becoming clear – the robot itself is pretty much the only menacing element in the story. There’s only so many times we can see it swing forward waving it’s oddly flailing arms and not quite managing to walk properly as an underwhelming musical score accompanies it without a certain degree of… well, shall we say metal fatigue? Oh dear. Perhaps not. (Oh, and that does remind me – notorious as Warriors of the Deep is for its clumsy poison set up, there’s an almost equally appalling one here as Kettlewell mentions his metal destroying poison with all the subtlety of Michael Bay movie – the only thing it has over it’s brother is that it doesn’t happen right in the first episode. It does scream out ‘here’s the solution’).
It’s all rip roaring fun though, it has to be said. The action sequences are fun (if a little daft – how the hell do no SRS members get shot when they escape? Does no-one think to shoot Jellicoe or Winters? Why concentrate the fire on the clearly bullet proof robot?), the dialogue witty and amusing (yes, the ‘foreigners’ gag is another Brig as a figure of fun gag, but it’s genuinely amusing which helps), and the story is pacey and engaging. But it’s uninspired. I bemoaned the lack of imagination in the title in the episode one review… but in some ways it’s as appropriate as they come.
The World of Dorney - Who Reviews, Episode by Episode /Day by Day
Today, 9:13 pm #6
Something of a damp squib finale, if I’m honest.
I think I’ve mentioned before something I talk about as being ‘David Fisher syndrome’, and it’s something Robot 4 suffers from. A story that runs out of story very quickly in part four… and then has to add another plot on the end for the final episode to make up the time.
And if I’m honest, Robot 4 is a particularly lacklustre example of the type. The problem is that these all powerful major league threats are defeated way too easily at every point. Even if the main plot is finishing early, you still need to have that story resolve in a strong effective manner, or there’s a lingering sense of wondering why you bothered watching in the first place.
Take the Robot itself – big thing, unapproachable with a disintegrator in its hand. But the goodies get past it when it turns round at the wrong point. OK, that’s slightly unfair as it’s mainly incapacitated by its own confusion at the death of Kettlewell… but even then I feel ever so slightly dirty for typing out that last sentence. It sounds so rubbish, doesn’t it? This threat that’s been built up for three episodes is initially defeated by getting a bit confused? Poor dear. It’s been set up in the past couple of episodes I’ll admit… but that doesn’t really stop it being underwhelming. Foreshadowed underwhelming, is still underwhelming. And to top it off, the two main human villains either surrender or are defeated with a punch. You can’t see why it took our heroes this long to stop them.
This almost wouldn’t matter if it was topped off by a better finale storyline. But it isn’t. What we get is essentially a rerun of the last plot. The story just decides to have the same ending twice, pretty much. Which is, again, stopped overly quickly and easily.
It all seems like it’s Dicks filling in time, and moving hell and high water to get to the bit he’s really looking forward to instead – the giant robot and the King Kong parody. And this is probably the flattest bit of the lot.
Not because of the effects. I can suspend my disbelief enough that they don’t bother me. It’s partially the fact that it all seems so narratively unjustified. He grows to the size of a giant… just because. He’s decided to destroy humanity… just because (the story really tries to have its cake and eat it with regard to the robot’s morality throughout). And picks up Sarah just because.
But it’s also the fact that nothing’s really done with it. There are a few nice stomping around a village bits, and a good stamping on a UNIT soldier death… but it’s not really doing a vast amount more than it did when it was normal size. And even then, it’s over and done with too quickly. This is one of the problems of making it a minor subplot of its own in part four. There simply isn’t time to develop the plot. As it is, we know precisely how the robot’s going to be defeated even before he’s grown, as the Doctor is explicitly off making Kettlewell’s narrative device/virus.
The fun rompy quality remains, but it really only just about hides the fact that this is something of a scrag-end of a final episode. Lots of leftovers and good individual sequences and routines, but not really a strong finale on any level.
The World of Dorney - Who Reviews, Episode by Episode /Day by Day