Friday, February 01, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 45: Robot

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… Tonight’s celebrates the late, wonderful Elisabeth Sladen’s birthday by going back to a particularly fine moment for Sarah Jane Smith, joined by the Doctor and Harry to set out in their first trip in the TARDIS together. And mine. Beware spoilers for Robot, the story that first captivated three-year-old me and led to all this, as the coda still charms me every time…
“Doctor, you – you’re being childish.”
“Well, of course I am. There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”

Doctor Who 50 – Robot: The Doctor, Jelly Babies, Sarah Jane and Harry

This story changed my life – and not just by giving the best advice to any child (or worst for them, if you’re a parent). Can I imagine any of it without Doctor Who? Without reading, politics, Richard? I wouldn’t want to. So it’s hard to think of an adventure closer to my heart, nor a team that makes me smile so delightedly as the Doctor, Sarah and Harry. This is the scene where they come together as a proper TARDIS crew, with Harry taken for a ride, the fourth Doctor offering his first jelly baby, and Sarah Jane – ah, Sarah Jane. With Sarah Jane grounding the Doctor and standing up to him when he’s gone too far – but then, the grown-up of the three, making a deliberate choice to be child-like and, in doing so, giving the Doctor consent to fly again. With my Fifty restricted to the Doctor Who TV series, there are sadly no selections from The Sarah Jane Adventures – but there is, there has to be, Sarah Jane Smith.

Doctor Who 50 – Robot: Sarah Jane Smith

My apologies at this point to regular readers for having been an irregular writer. I had intended to write this for Saturday 19th January, which would have been ideally placed between the 18th – on which Robot Part Four was originally transmitted in 1975 – and the 20th – which was Tom Baker’s 79th birthday. That would also have followed on naturally from my posts about My Doctor Who Thirty-Eighth Anniversary and my Favourite Season Countdown, going straight to Number Two on the list (and to Number Three, below). Happily, tonight would not only have been Elisabeth Sladen’s birthday, but is the anniversary of Part Two of The Ark In Space, her first full story that I saw, and which gave me the finest nightmares in all the world. So that’s almost worth the wait. As to what caused the wait… Not only have I been more ill than usual (as usual), but my mouse karked it, and I found myself completely unable to get to grips with the swish new RSI-beating joystick replacement I bought. So thank you, my lovely Richard, for so many things but on this particular occasion for buying for me (though it was your birthday and not mine) a less radical vertical mouse that I can more or less use, and that more or less diffuses the pain. I won’t make any rash commitments to catch up this time, but merely offer a few extra photos by way of making up for lost weeks, and a special preview of one of the few things I’ve been doing in the blizzardy weeks between (re-enacting not The Ark In Space, but a thematic successor to that story, first broadcast thirty-seven years ago yesterday evening).

The new Doctor (Tom Baker) has been amazingly physical and inventive in his first story, body and mind in constant motion as he seizes the series. And arrayed against him, fascists, nuclear Armageddon, and an impressive, intelligent Robot, to whom only Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) ever shows kindness and whose mind is eventually broken by manipulation, loss and despair. Sarah Jane has been almost as much the star of this show as the new Doctor – the first to discover what’s going on, on her own initiative; brave; clever; inquisitive; ruthless with a gun in facing down the villain; but also compassionate. When the Robot takes on the whole world, the Doctor is worried for the world… But Sarah Jane is, very Doctorishly, also concerned for the Robot, an immensely powerful, suffering child. Her sympathy for the Robot was my first lesson in moral sense from Doctor Who: empathy for the ‘other’, and ever since wondering if every artificial intelligence has an existential crisis of its own (and knowing instinctively what an ‘existential crisis’ was long before I had the words for it).

The Doctor saves the world, and he’s newly alive, and loving it, and he’s very, very clever, and for all those reasons, he deserves to look pleased with himself. But in doing all of that, he’s killed someone – someone that Sarah Jane cared about – and that makes his triumph feel almost as wrong as it’s right. That’s why it’s so right that the story doesn’t let him off with it. I’ve often pointed out the plot elements that Russell T Davies’ stories take from this season of Doctor Who: perhaps he took some of its heart, too, because just as he showed that sometimes the Doctor needs a strong woman friend to tell him he’s gone too far, the camera cuts from the Robot crumbling to dust to the effect that it – and the Doctor – has had on the Doctor’s best friend…

In the aftermath, Sarah Jane sits forlornly in the old Doctor’s lair, the UNIT laboratory. The new Doctor enters, this regeneration not haughty but naughty, and before leaving that lab for the last time at the end of the scene, at the start of the scene there’s what turns out to be an iconic moment when Tom takes his first bag of jelly babies from his pocket and, desperate to make her happy again, says, for the very first time:
“Would you like a jelly baby?”
Doctor Who 50 – Robot: The Doctor

She doesn’t respond; so he moves from being the little boy offering a present so he doesn’t have to apologise to trying to engage her in argument. He had to do it… And she knows, it did terrible things, “but at first, it was so human.” And he admits that it was: “capable of great good, and great evil,” and in doing so, that he too has the knowledge of good and evil that she demands of him. Then, having given a little to his friend, the only worry that was keeping him there, he’s off. Even though – especially though – the Brigadier wants him to address the Cabinet, the PM and the Queen and write a mass of reports. And that’s exactly the point at which Sarah Jane, already established as the grown-up in this relationship, puts her finger on what his tantrum’s all about.

And in the most important moment in the whole scene, where she could tell him to face up to his responsibilities, or refuse to forgive him and stay, unhappy… She stands, firmly shoots out her arm, and naughtily snatches a jelly baby. She’s not given in to him, but made her own choice, and she wants to be a child, too.

Which is when poor Harry enters. A marvellous portrayal of an upper-class not-quite-twit, Ian Marter makes the character work by being so utterly endearing and eager to please. He’s mostly been the comic relief this time; in the next story, he provides more comedy to leaven the horror, then gets serious for the next two stories before briefly slipping back into comic relief and then, startlingly, becoming part of the horror… But first, he has to step into the TARDIS. He’s new to UNIT; he’s new to the series; and he doesn’t know what’s coming. I didn’t, then, either, and I was just as wide-eyed as Harry. But you know, don’t you, reader? So when the Doctor tells Harry he’s going on a little trip and, a similarly generous offer, gives him a jelly baby, Harry’s the only one who doesn’t understand the subtext.
“What, in that old police box?”

Doctor Who 50 – Robot: Harry Sullivan

Sarah Jane giggles. The Doctor, hurt, takes back the jelly baby. And Harry, who’s the most boyish of them all, tries to be adult and tells the Doctor that they’re both reasonable men. Which is his third mistake just since walking through the door. And that they both know that police boxes don't go careering around all over the place. Which is his fourth. And then he listens to the Doctor, who’s acting innocent. And that’s his biggest mistake of the lot.
“You wouldn’t like to step inside a moment? Just to demonstrate that it is all an illusion?”
“Well, if you think it’ll do any good.”
“Oh, yes, it’ll make me feel a lot better.”
Sarah Jane, ever kindly, sounds a warning note not to be mean to the new boy, but she can’t help pissing herself adorably when Harry goes into the TARDIS. And out again. And then they all pile back in, and off into time and space to have what you know is going to be the scariest, and most fun, and most marvellous adventures anyone could ever imagine.

There’s even a lovely little coda to that coda. Just as the TARDIS fades away, the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) comes into the lab and clocks it. It’s not really the TARDIS that’s fading away before that unbeatable time tunnel titles whoosh in here, but UNIT from Doctor Who – we go with the TARDIS, not stay behind on Earth. But I still love the Brigadier with all my heart, as much as I still love the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry. So though we didn’t know at the time that the first journey of one era meant it had to be the last words of another, it’s lovely that he has the beautifully underplayed last words:
“Doctor, about that dinner at the Palace: Her Majesty—
“Yes. Well, I’ll tell them you’ll be a little late.”

Only Number 45? I love this scene so much that it feels like it should be higher. But there are so many more great scenes to come!

The Seeds of Doom – The Doctor and Sarah Jane at the Antarctic Wastes of East London

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – Aliens of London

It’s part of another great start, and another one close to my heart for all sorts of reasons. Another new Doctor who gives the series a fantastic lift-off; another ordinary, extraordinary woman companion who’ll stand up the Doctor; another man companion who’s a bit of a fifth wheel. The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) has taken Rose (Billie Piper) off into space and time for excitement, and adventure, and really wild things. Sounds awful, her mum Jackie (Camille Coduri) thinks, and that’s even after she gets over the shock of Rose going missing for a year and assuming her dead. So the Doctor’s not having a great time – he gets a slap. And neither is Rose – she gets an earful. And she doesn’t even have the pleasure of knowing she’s the only person on Earth to have seen alien spaceships: as already featured in my Eleven More Great Scenes, it’s at that precise moment that one crashes into Big Ben and the headlines.

Everyone gathers at Jackie’s flat to welcome Rose back and watch spaceships on the telly; Matt Baker’s even making one out of cake – with more jelly babies – on Blue Peter. [EXCLUSIVE SCANDAL: I met him once, and he admitted he didn’t make it. What an outrage!] But in a closed-off city hospital, there’s an ‘alien’ somebody made earlier out of bits they had at home. Oh, and with my Fifty restricted to TV Doctor Who, there’s no Torchwood – but there is Tosh. It’s a third of the episode in and it looks like only a few people having a jolly time in Downing Street know what’s going on, so as they laugh, the Doctor gets itchy feet and leaves the flat for the “BAD WOLF”-scrawled TARDIS. But as he steps onto the balcony…
“And where d’you think you’re going?”
Just as Tom’s Doctor offered Sarah Jane the trip of a lifetime in a jelly baby and she chose to accept it on her own terms, this Doctor asked “D’you wanna come with me?” in that trailer – and though Rose, too, chose to go with him, this question fired back at him is the natural sequel to his more famous line. I just love the cocky confidence of Rose, knowing exactly what the Doctor’ll be doing. He talks about history happening, and insults humans, and thinks maybe it’s first contact, and is excited for humans, and tells her to stay. And she does stay – on target, asking exactly the right questions to cut through all his bluster. So that before he heads off, she wins not just his respect, and his crabby face, when he turns to go, but – for the first time – her own TARDIS key.

But I love that line for another reason, too. It doesn’t just sum up the freshness of Rose back in 2005, but the sheer exhilaration of 30th July, 2004, looking up in wonder at a block of flats alive with massive lights in the dark night, watching Christopher Eccleston act a lot with his hands and one cool, clear line from Billie Piper to command our attention. As if she needed to. Because that had been the day that a friend of ours a few streets away had gone to see – no, really – the doctor, on the Brandon Estate. And found the local surgery mocked-up as a Chinese take-away, and a TARDIS round the corner. And knew he’d be coming back to see the Doctor, and gave us a call. That night of marvels, Richard and I saw Doctor Who being made, and held that line in our hearts for nine months until it was reborn.

Next Time… Where do you expect to find a ship? Not here.

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Thanks for saying something so original about a scene I've certainly overlooked.
Thank you! I try to find different things to say about these scenes - and though that might be more difficult with many of the Fifty, which won't be ones often overlooked, this one's etched so deeply into me that it was a joy to write about it. Both of them, in fact, as my "Bonus Quotation" probably has a longer write-up this time than some of the main scenes...
I've remarked on the Doctor-Sarah chemistry before, but never the scene as a whole. It's gained a lot in hindsight - I doubt that it was certain that this was the last UNIT lab scene, for example, when Robot was in studio. Juxtaposed with the stories which are to come, though, one takes away a daunting sense of unseen worlds about to be discovered, which is much how the rest of Season 12 comes across.
I love this. I love Robot.
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