This belongs in that fairly limited selection of Doctor Who serials that aren’t historicals, but don’t feature aliens or prehistoric monsters. Previously we’ve had The War Machines and The Green Death; in future Arachnids in the UK. That’s about it. This doesn’t even have an evil computer – the robot is fairly sympathetic even in its first proper appearance threatening Sarah Jane (despite attempts to make it seem scary, like its whirr sounding like a roar). Instead, we’re provided with more backstory about Miss Winters, Jellicoe and their fringe associates in the Scientific Reform Society (have they met the European Research Group?) seeking to take over the world.
With no invading aliens or cosmic horror, this is quite a lot more chatty and domestic than this era will turn out to be. Benton natters on about his promotion; Harry gets to dress up as John Steed (possibly a conscious nod to the fact this serial reworks elements of Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke’s Mauritius Penny episode of The Avengers?); Sarah interviews a very Lee and Herring secretary of the SRS, and the Doctor answers the phone and declares that he’ll speak to anyone. This is steady rather than frenetic, the work of someone who knows inside out how to script a four-part Doctor Who story. It’s told with economy, and a few in jokes (Benton explains why UNIT always seems a bit short staffed).
The new Doctor is impressive in the scenes he’s in. This is written very much as an ensemble piece, so Baker doesn’t get many chances to dominate just yet. But the production fetishizes him, and makes the most of the long scarf: one scene begins with a slow pan up it until the camera reaches his face. Later, when he visits Kettlewell’s laboratory and is ambushed by the robot he dances around it, as if he’s playing a game rather than fleeing for his life. The scarf and hat become props – to try to trip the robot up, or blind it – but the most effective prop is Baker himself – his pop eyes, enormous smile, sonorous voice, curly hair make him more distinctive even than the glittering lightbulb that is Pertwee. And rather than seeming weighed down by it, as he seems to be, at times, later on, Baker leans into it, grinning, boggling and looming. Even if some of the lines sound like they were written for the third Doctor (all the Doctor’s dialogue with Kettlewell, mainly), you’d never know it from the performance.
Next episode: Robot – Part Three