I love Terrance Dicks. He’s one of my favourite writers. It’s a cliché, but I genuinely feel that his accessible, compulsive prose made me fall in love with reading, and played a big part in developing my literacy as a child. And I don’t think anyone involved in the classic series knew it as well as he did. He took the wild ideas of Bob Baker and Dave Martin and helped shape them into something that could be achieved on a BBC budget. He recognised Robert Holmes’ talent and brought him onto the show. His light but firm grip on characterisation is the backbone of the Pertwee years, the first time since the early 1960s that it felt like anyone was paying much attention to it from story to story. He knew his stuff, too, when it came to continuity: he didn’t need an Ian Levine to remind him. To a greater or lesser extent he invented the Time Lords, the third Doctor, the Master, Jo Grant, Mike Yates and Sarah Jane Smith, and, between The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors fixed generations of fans’ perception of the first and second Doctors as well. His legacy for Doctor Who fans is immeasurable.
Robot represents six years of Doctor Who scriptwriting experience. There are some excellent jokes, the best here being:
BRIGADIER: Naturally enough, the only country that could be trusted… was Great Britain.
THE DOCTOR: Well naturally: I mean, the rest were all foreigners.
Technically, it knows exactly what the show can achieve (one impressive robot rather than an army of shoddy ones; contained UNIT set pieces like their battle against the Robot here; limited crowd scenes; inserts that only need a corner of the studio (such as Harry being knocked out while on the phone). I think this is also a slight drawback, though. When he’s knocking other people’s scripts into something that actually works, Dicks is a genius. But there’s a fine line between an awareness of the budget’s constraints (Horror of Fang Rock being a brilliant example of economical storytelling), and letting it constrain your ambition. I don’t think that entirely happens here (as the imminent arrival of a Giant Robot attests) but I think this feels safer than some of his previous work.
I suspect this is partly due to uncertainty about the new Doctor. In this episode, Dicks almost gives him an audition piece as he has to do stand up to a room full of fascists. I think there’s a hint of the original conception of the fourth Doctor as played by an older actor, perhaps more whimsical than Pertwee. The scene with the Doctor emptying his pockets feels like a bit of business Troughton would have enjoyed. But while Baker plays the Doctor with Troughton’s distracted eccentricity, he’s definitely not flitting pixielike around the edges. He plays it with the commanding presence of Pertwee – how could he not: he’s Tom Baker. I also think this causes issues introducing a new male companion: Harry gets barely any screen time, or anything very useful to do. Ian Marter is wonderful, and I’m delighted he’s in it, but so far Harry’s just a buffoonish relic. He gets three lines in this episode including, ‘Oh I say, this isn’t gallant!’ I’m enjoying this, but I’m not loving it.
Next episode: Robot – Part Four