Saturday 20 October 2018

Inspirations - Robot

If there is another thing that Terrance Dicks is very good at, it is telling the same stories over and over again on DVD commentaries and documentary extras. Even when the stories have nothing to do with the DVD's main feature. You can have a drinking game if you stick on any of the commentaries in which he features. Examples of when to imbibe include knowing which part of the Pertwee era we are in by the size of his bouffant; Sean Connery and his wife at the next table when meeting Terry Nation to discuss use of the Daleks; arriving on Doctor Who just as they were trying to make the Yeti sound less like flushing lavatories; monsters should be green; companions should tied to railway tracks etc, etc, etc.
One of his other oft-quoted stories is of how he invented a tradition whereby outgoing script editors were commissioned by their successor to write the next story. There is such a tradition (sort of), but Dicks did not invent it. Actually, it isn't a tradition per se - more like this situation has happened more than once in the programme's history. When David Whitaker stepped down, handing over to Dennis Spooner, he got to write The Rescue - mainly because he had been involved in sorting out Susan's replacement for a while, and him writing this story gave Spooner a little longer to get his feet under the table. Spooner then handed over to Donald Tosh, whose first story as script editor was The Time Meddler - written by Spooner. Tosh left and the job went to Gerry Davis - and Tosh was the uncredited author of The Massacre. However, he did not write the first story which is credited to Davis (The Ark). Davis handed over to Peter Bryant for Evil of the Daleks, though Davis did co-write the next story after that. Bryant never wrote any stories. Victor Pemberton did a one-off as script editor, and did get to write a story much later. Bryant's full-time successor, Derrick Sherwin,  rewrote almost all of his stories, though not always credited, so the tradition had pretty much died out by now. Dicks took over from Sherwin, and he may have read up on the Whitaker - Spooner - Tosh days when he claims to have told Robert Holmes of the practice.
Anyway, this is a rather long-winded way of saying that on leaving the post of script editor, Terrance Dicks wrote the very next story - Robot.

It is a time of change in the production office. Holmes has been script editing uncredited for a while now, and Philip Hinchcliffe has been shadowing Barry Letts for some time as new producer - an interim project having fallen through. This is Letts' final story as producer, and it retains a Pertwee vibe throughout. Even though it stars the newest Doctor, Tom Baker. The vibe is mainly down to the UNIT setting. We didn't know it at the time, but there would only be one more story featuring the Brigadier and Benton, which was originally supposed to close this 12th Season.
You are no doubt well aware of the circumstances by which Baker came to play the 4th Doctor. After critical success with the National Theatre and film work with the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini, his career had taken a downturn and he was working on a building site in Ebury Street, Pimlico, whilst living in a bedsit. Depressed one evening, he wrote to one of Barry Letts' superiors at the BBC in search of work. His performance as the villain in the latest Ray Harryhausen Sinbad film was in the cinemas at the time, so Letts and Dicks went off to a matinee to see the actor who had been recommended to them. They loved what they saw. Other actors under consideration at the time included Graham Crowden (who did not want to commit to more than a year), Ron Moody (the favourite choice); Michael Bentine (who wanted too much script involvement), Fulton McKay (who decided to do sitcom Porridge instead, which made him a household name), plus a few more who proved uninterested or unavailable (Michael Hordern, Brian Blessed etc). Another favourite was Richard Hearne, who had played a doddering but wily old character named Mr Pastry in a number of B-grade feature films (including one with William Hartnell as a nasty milkman, which I just happened to catch on the Talking Pictures channel recently). Hearne was doddery in real life by this point, and thought they wanted him to play the Doctor as Mr Pastry. Suspecting that the next Doctor would be a much older actor playing the part like the First Doctor, Letts decided to introduce a new male companion, who would be able to handle the physical stuff - like fisticuffs and other stunts. Ian Marter had been in the frame to play Captain Mike Yates back in 1970, until he realised the part was going to be an on-going one. He had been cast by Letts as Lt. Andrews in Carnival of Monsters, and the producer returned to him for Lt-Surgeon Harry Sullivan, new medical officer attached to UNIT who was to oversee the Doctor's recovery from regeneration. Marter was now willing to accept a recurring part.

While all this was going on, Lis Sladen was convinced that her days on the show were numbered - thinking the new producer would want to cast his own new companion. Production on Robot got underway concurrently with that on Planet of the Spiders, so Sladen was doing location work on the new story at the same time she was doing studio work on the Pertwee finale. Baker had recorded his regeneration scene during the first studio block for Spiders.
For his main inspiration, Dicks looked to that classic movie King Kong. This was released in 1933, produced and directed by Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack. The stop-motion animation was by the great Willis O'Brien - the man who had inspired Ray Harryhausen. Nice twist. If it hadn't been for King Kong, Tom Baker might not have had a movie on release for Letts and Dicks to go see that fateful lunchtime... Kong is a huge gorilla, who lives on the dinosaur-riddled tropical Skull Island where he is revered by the natives as a deity. A bunch of Hollywood movie-makers visit the island and their starlet, played by Fay Wray, is captured by the beast. Rather than eat her, he becomes quite smitten by her. The parallel with Beauty and the Beast is made explicit when the film director character states at the conclusion that it was "beauty that killed the beast...", after Kong has gone on the rampage in New York, carrying Fay Wray to the top of the Empire State Building whence he has been shot down by air force biplanes.
In Robot, we have a, er, robot, instead of a gorilla. He's the K1 - standing for Kettlewell 1. This is a prototype, designed for hazardous work. In Episode 4 he is shot with a disintegrator gun, which causes him to absorb the energy and grow to massive size. He has already formed an attachment to Sarah, after she felt sorry for him when he was ordered to do something which went against his programming. Once enlarged, he picks up Sarah, as Kong did with Fay, and deposits her on top of a building when under attack by the military.

Professor Kettlewell is played by Edward Burnham, and he had already featured as a slightly less eccentric scientist in the series. He was Professor Watkins in the Patrick Troughton Cyberman story The Invasion. Another Cyber-connection is Michael Kilgarrif, who is inside the marvelous K1 costume, designed by James Acheson. He had previously featured as the Cyber-Controller in Tomb of the Cybermen, cast because of his height. Burnham elected to play Kettlewell full-blown eccentric, deliberately fluffing up his hair - inspired by images of Albert Einstein. Einstein actually suffered from a rare condition known today as Uncombable Hair Syndrome, which results from a genetic mutation.
Mention of costume designer James Acheson brings us to the Fourth Doctor's costume. The principal inspiration was a famous poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec of the dancer and cabaret singer Aristide Bruant, advertising his cabaret at the Ambassadeurs nightclub. Bruant is seen with a wide-brimmed hat and a large scarf wrapped round his neck. Acheson gave a quantity of wool in different colours to a lady by the name of Begonia Pope to knit a scarf for Baker. Not understanding the instructions to experiment with different, more manageable, designs, she knitted it all into a single scarf - and a legend was born. It was actually much longer, and had to be cut down.

The basic plot is that a fascistic group called the Scientific Reform Society want to blackmail the planet into conforming to their ideals through nuclear blackmail. Their leaders work for the research group where Kettlewell developed his robot, and they have reprogrammed it to ignore its prime directive so that it will steal and kill for them. Back when Colony in Space was being developed, it was vetoed that one of the villains should be a woman. The leader of the SRS is the research group's director - a woman named Miss Winters. A certain niche of fan-fiction writers have had all sorts of fun with her Sapphic prison-based exploits... Dicks was never quite on board with female emancipation - see the bit about companions supposed to be tied to railway tracks above - so he has some fun with Sarah assuming Miss Winters' male underling - Jellicoe - is the one in charge.
The SRS seems to be a development of the Operation Golden Age group we saw back in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. They are another militant ecological group, but with added fascism. Dicks was presumably inspired by the work of his ex-landlord and mentor Malcolm Hulke in devising them. At the time he was still trying to make amends with Hulke after he withdrew himself from the programme in protest over the handling of Episode One of the dinosaur story. We can see that they might be a continuation of Operation Golden Age because the bloke from the fake spaceship, who was complaining about having sold his house to go to a new planet, seems to be working the door at the SRS's HQ. He takes offence at Sarah's wearing of trousers - on the basis that they are not very practical. This seems rather odd, as I would have thought trousers the most practical thing for both genders* to wear. I say this with authority, as someone who frequently sports a kilt.
(* Other genders are available).

Jellicoe is the one who has been altering the robot's circuits, on Miss Winters' orders. This brings us to the renowned Sci-Fi writer Isaac Asimov, and his Three Laws of Robotics. These are:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to be harmed.
2. A robot must obey the orders of any human being, except where those orders conflict with the first law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

The Doctor knows his Asimov, and deduces that Kettlewell is really part of the conspiracy - as only he could have shown Jellicoe how to make his adjustments.
Later in the story, the robot shoots his creator with the disintegrator gun, causing it to have a bit of a me(n)tal breakdown. The Doctor mentions it having an Oedipus Complex. This comes from that well-known Austro-Hampsteadian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who posited that a child has a desire for its opposite sex parent, and a jealousy towards its same sex parent. Around 429 BC Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus - abandoned as a baby and oblivious to his regal parentage - inadvertently sleeps with his mother and kills his father. This play gave us the well known 'Riddle of the Sphinx': What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening? The answer is, of course, us - walking on all fours as a baby, upright on two legs as adults, and leaning on a stick in old age. Oedipus Rex was filmed in 1967 - by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Oh, the synchronicity...
Anyhow, the Doctor makes a bucket of anti-robot metal sludge, and throws it over its foot. It shrinks and dies. The End. Harry Sullivan gets invited on a trip in the TARDIS - but the new producer has other ideas...
One final bit of synchronicity ('Coincidence' for conspiracy theorists): the location for all this giant robot action is the same place where they filmed Jon Pertwee's first story, after it had been struck by industrial action - so Barry Letts ends up back where he started when he was shadowing Derrick Sherwin very briefly at the beginning, back in 1969.
Letts isn't praised enough. This was the man who saved the programme when it was collapsing in the ratings. He took Doctor Who into colour, and realised the opportunities that CSO could afford. The UNIT Family came into being on his watch. He introduced the Master, and cast the brilliant Roger Delgado in the role. Axons and Azal. Omega and Ogrons. Silurians and Sea Devils. Draconians and Drashigs. He cast Katy Manning as Jo. He cast Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. And he cast Tom Baker as the Doctor. Russell T Davies?, Steven Moffat?, Chris Chibnall? - they're all still in the nursery...
Next time: Hinchcliffe & Holmes. One Golden Age may have ended, but the ending has been prepared for...

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