Doctor Who and the Robot

While I’ve been struggling to write anything of substance, I thought I would indulge myself and write about Doctor Who [SPOILER WARNINGS APPLY]. Yes, I know we just had a DW post, and at this rate we shall have to change the blog name to Who Goggles, but it’s all I got at the moment and sometimes writing about something pleasant can inspire more advanced and cutting patriarchy blaming. Heck, I may be able to throw in some blaming with my Whovianism! Something like, for example, Jo’s post the second entry below this one. A post I agree with completely, by the way. However, I think I’ll mostly be writing a bit of a love-fest-type of thing. Kind of like MaryAnn Johansen’s Who posts at Flick Filosopher, or Catriona Mills’ Circulating Library live-Who-blogging posts. I may try my hand at one of the latter when I watch the next Classic Who story on my list. I think they’ll probably be mostly love-fests because I am aware of how much my love of Who will forgive a multitude of sins – like giant plot holes, absurd twists, deus ex machina, etc. But I shall try and keep at least one feminist eyeball open and not glazed over!

So after getting hooked on DW by watching the Reboot, I thought I would go back to the very beginning and watch all the Classic Who from the first Doctor onwards. But, while watching Youtube clips waiting for stuff to download, er borrow, er buy, I ended up saying fuck it and went straight to the Classic Doctor I wanted to see most: Tom Baker. He was, sort of, my first Doctor after all. Being Canadian, I didn’t grow up with Who but did manage to watch something of the reruns that PBS was showing in the 80s. I remember nothing about the show, not the story, not the villains, not even the house I watched it in, but I remembered Four! “Who is that guy?” I remember thinking. I always thought there was something subversive about him, so I wanted more of that. And, I mean, look at him! 😀 (lovely photo borrowed without permission from Kaldor City).

Right! Anyways, Robot.

The story opens with the Third Doctor having just finished battling the Planet of the Spiders where (presumably, since I haven’t seen it) he’s been bitten or mortally wounded in some way. He regenerates back on Earth at UNIT headquarters, in the presence of his companion, Sarah Jane Smith, and the military commander of the British arm of UNIT, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. But, as often happens with the Doctor, his regeneration has left him a little funny in the head and Four lies on the floor muttering and asking nonesensical questions about mice.

While he’s been taken to the sick bay – or was it the infirmary? 😉 – something large and dangerous is stalking the compound, easily breaking into well guarded areas, killing guards and dogs, and stealing very specific bits of information or technology. Shortly after the first incident, the Doctor sneaks out of his bed and tries to run off in the Tardis, but is thwarted by his physician, Harry Sullivan.

HARRY [trying to get him back to bed]: You’re not fit yet!
DOCTOR: Not fit! I am the Doctor!
HARRY: No, Doctor, I am the doctor, and I say that you’re not fit.
DOCTOR [grins]: You may be a doctor, but I am the Doctor. The definitive article, you might say.

Harry will have none of it however and steps between the Doctor and the door. This leads to one of my favourite scenes in this story, which, while maybe is trying a bit hard to show the Doctor as quirky and silly, is played out wonderfully well by Baker who mixes in a sense of being dangerous. Searching about the room for a means of “proving my point,” the Doctor whips out a jump rope and and wraps it menacingly around his hands, approaching Harry. But suddenly he starts skipping, close enough to the other man to force him to jump with him. The Doctor sings:

Earth mother, Earth mother, I feel sick
Send for the doctor, quick, quick, quick
Mother, dear, shall I die?
Yes my darling, by and by!

And the pair of them skip off-screen.

Moments later, Sarah and the Brigadier come into the room where the Tardis is located – and Harry, tied up and hanging by his feet in the closet. They just manage to stop the Doctor from leaving by pretending they need his help with the intruder mentioned previously. Of course, they say this because the Doctor is still not quite right, all wide-eyed and almost spaced out, and they want him to stay and get better. Little do they realize that, well, that’s kind of Four isn’t it? Maybe not spaced out, but kind of bonkers. But also that, yes, they actually do need his help.

The intruder turns out to be a giant robot, programed by a supremist group seeking world domination, as they are wont to do. There is much over-acting/arm-waving by this robot, and threats of nulcear holocaust by the baddies, and a stand-off wherein the Doctor actually uses his brains rather than whipping out some technobabbly deux-ex-machina solution. I love the Reboot, but there is an awful lot of deus ex machina going on there! We also see the beginning of a trend where the Doctor uses his scarf for a multitude of purposes.

Like quite a bit of DW that I’ve seen so far, Robot has a good deal of anti-authoritarian, anti-bigotry, and yes, even some anti-sexist elements. It doesn’t entirely succeed at these progressive things because, as I said in comments, I think the writers are trying to be progressive, but being mostly white men in the 70s (or now, natch), they’re bound to miss things or mess up entirely. Mostly it’s been reasonably good, I think. Sarah is seen to repeatedly complain against what she deems is Harry’s sexist terminology, and when she slips herself (as we all do) by assuming that the man in a male-female pair in front of her is the director of the large science and research facility, the female director comments on her male chauvinism. I didn’t feel that these scenes were played out to snark at Sarah; there is no eye-rolling or smirking or anything that suggests that she isn’t actually right. Compare this to early Star Trek: The Next Generation. Crusher is not uncommonly set up as a feminist bogey-woman, with Picard literally sneering at her. Ugh. Although the sexist terminology that Harry uses doesn’t really strike me as being all that bad – but is that me being in a different country 30 years later? Or is that the male writers trying to think of something sexist and that’s all they come up with? Or are they, consciously or no, having their feminist character complain about a triviality? You know, I may be wrong about this initial assessment of Robot being not too bad on the sexism front. For example, Fiona Moore over at Kaldor City refers to Sarah’s slip-up this way:

We also see more of the patronising anti-feminism which dogged the Letts and Dicks team, with Sarah being shown up as a hypocrite when she assumes Jellicoe, rather than Miss Winters, to be the Think Tank director, and with Miss Winters herself, a powerful and intelligent woman in charge of a scientific establishment, explicitly portrayed as an evil witch.

I agree, Winters’ strength quickly turns into another Powerful Women Are Evil Bitches meme. But I find it interesting that I didn’t read Sarah’s mistake as hypocrisy. Is this because I am so aware that we all struggle with eliminating residual sexism from our psyches and I’ve unconsciously assumed everyone else knows that too? Huh. Maybe. And I’ve not seen any Pertwee stories apart from Sarah’s debut, The Time Warrior, so I don’t have any background history to compare it to. And the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to think that the writer’s are not really on the feminist side as much as I first thought. In fact, now that I’m thinking of it, I do recall hearing that the actor that plays Sarah, Elizabeth Sladen, has commented on how much she had to add to what she was given – not just to flesh out her character but to also combat some of the sexism? I listened to Baker read the novelization of this story not that long ago and noticed a difference between the way Sarah is written and described and the way she ends up coming across in the production. The audio-book was based on the script before it was filmed, so there’s a wee bit of difference between the two (no jump-rope!). And lacking the audio book’s descriptions of Sarah that tend to infantilize her, we end up seeing a Sarah that is stronger, braver and more resourceful than she sounds in the book. Go Liz 🙂

Oh, and there are no people of colour. Anywhere. I haven’t seen a lot of Classic Who, maybe 9 stories, but so far no people of colour at all that I can remember*. Not even one! Was Britain so white as all that just 30 years ago? The BBC never hired non-white actors?  Though I did like the Doctor teasing the Brigadier about his xenophobia/racism:

BRIGADIER: A few months ago the super powers, Russia, America and China, decided upon a plan to ensure peace. All three powers have hidden atomic missile sites. All three agreed to give details of those sites plus full operational instructions to another neutral country. In the event of trouble, that country could publish everyone’s secrets and so cool things down. Well, naturally enough the only country that could be trusted with such a role was Great Britain.
DOCTOR [eyes wide in mock agreement] Well, naturally! I mean the rest were all foreigners!

I like the little things like that. I think they are good messages for kids: don’t talk down to women and assume they’re not capable (ie don’t assume the woman isn’t the one in charge), don’t be afraid of the foreign, don’t believe in the superiority of one group of people over another. The Doctor is also an evironmentalist, which may have been rather fringy in the 70s? Then again, would kids recognize what’s so fun about that dialogue? The alien teasing a human about his xenophobia about other humans? Maybe not. And maybe I’m being overly generous with my feelings around them not talking down to women. Maybe how Winters is very quickly shown to be dangerous really counter-acts the goodness of her being the director. Well, blah. I think this is where my love of Who makes me feeling more generous that perhaps I should be. Also, compared to the Apatowcalypse, this stuff is fine! :-/ (that last link is just the latest in a series but contains links to other great posts that describe the horror. also, please read Sady Doyle’s brilliant smak-downs of the Apatowcalypse, but as she doesn’t use tags I can only link to her blog. you’ll have to search! it will be worth it!)

Still, over all I enjoyed the story, despite some special effects that really didn’t work all that well, despite the overacting robot, even despite the King Kong element and the standard text book nazi-esque supremist villians. Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor is charming, loose, sarcastic, intense, eccentric, silly, but also with this slightly dangerous undercurrent. He flashes that megawatt grin at everybody and everything, oftentimes inappropriately, and mutters to himself regularly. Sarah continues to be resourceful, intelligent, brave and determined (despite the writers?). And even though their time onscreen together in this story is short, we see right away that Baker and Sladen have a lovely chemistry together.

*sigh* I want her and Four to be my new BFFs.

[Complete and utter disagreement with my assessment and memory are very welcome – I’m still unfamiliar with a great deal of Doctor Who so am apt to get things wrong. And I’m interesting in differing takes on these stories.]

* I’ve just watched the opening episode of Five’s Resurrection of the Daleks where I saw two (!) people of colour! They are both capable and brave, and they both die very quickly. Sure, everybody dies in that story, apparently. Highest body count of any Who story, I’ve been told. But still. Oh, and addendum to the addendum: I’ve started watching Four’s The Talons of Weng Chiang and… dear lord. The racism is terrible! I can barely watch it 😦

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4 Responses to Doctor Who and the Robot

  1. Lynn says:

    Yeah…Robot and Weng Chiang both sort of highlight the low points of the writing in this time period. Casting the main villain as a white dude in makeup…and I think if you go into the special features one of the writers actually calls it a Yellow Peril story and grins. None of this struck them as a problem.

    But you actually get PoCs intermittently from the start of the series…though I suspect a lot of the main characters will be white dudes pretending to be PoCs. The original intent of the series was history edutainment, so there are episodes like the Aztecs and the Crusades. I remember liking the Crusades for showing Richard as being in the wrong…but it could be my memory softened the fail. :p

    It could also be my memory, but Baker ep the Robots of Death had a character called Zilda who I thought was pretty awesome…though it is also one of those stories where like two people make it to the last ep.

    And the last Throughton episode (War Games) has a black union soldier who I remember (a) figured out the aliens before everyone else (b) lives (c) shouts at the other soldiers to try and get them to see sense. (Also features Zoe effortlessly passing herself off as a timelady)

    • Crowfoot says:

      Re: the main villain as a white dude in make-up. I had heard that they tried to cast an east asian man in the role but couldn’t find anyone they liked enough. Which may be true? But still. And that doesn’t excuse the racism of the whole set up, as well as all those comments from characters (including the Doctor) calling them “little fellows” etc. Yeah, sure, practically everyone is a “little fellow” next to Tom Baker maybe, but, bleh. And “yellow peril”?? gaaack.

      Thanks for the heads up regarding PoCs in other episodes. My assessment comes from Baker’s first and second season (what I’ve seen of his second season, anyways), and some of his stories with Leela and Romana. I’ve only seen the very first episode and the first three eps of Mutants from Hartnell’s era. My Classic Who experiences are sadly lacking! But Troughton’s War Games is on my list :-).

  2. Andrew Hickey says:

    Weng-Chiang is problematic, yes, but it is at least in part a parody of those ‘yellow peril’ stories.
    If you want non-white people in Who you have to wait for the 80s really – try Battlefield. Not a great story, but UNIT is now led by Brigadier Winifred Bambera, a working-class black woman. There was a policy in the last couple of years of the show of including at least one positive portrayal of a black character in every story, although this does, naturally, tend toward tokenism…

    • Crowfoot says:

      Hmm. That’s an interesting proposition – that it is in part a parody of such racist stories. I’ll admit that I haven’t seen the entire story yet, just the first 3 episodes. I do think, however, that it’s pretty hard for a bunch of white folk to successfully parody racist tropes when at the same time they virtually never have people of colour in their productions. If, for example, DW of this era had had east asian people in the show, then seeing them in this particular story wouldn’t have been so galling. I do think I see what you mean- there is a line that the asian magician (the Big Villain’s main accomplice) says to some white guy “we all look alike.” Perhaps if the actor hadn’t of had the prosthetic over his eyes he might have conveyed more sarcasm? As it was, the line appeared to me to supposed to be a critique of racism, but fell a bit flat? I need to watch it again. And, well, all of it! heh

      And I’ve heard of Brigadier Bambera in Battlefield (I think I caught something of a documentary or DVD special about that story). It’s not surprising that Doctor Who, like all other tv shows, being run primarily by white guys, would take some time to become more representative. Television evolving along with the rest of the culture, etc.

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