Friday, December 28, 2012

Robot

Dear Gary—

“If the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum on the other two sides, why is a mouse when it spins?”
Aaaah . . . yes . . . that is one of the many reasons I love Tom Baker’s Doctor. He has a touch of Ish Kabibble about him (by the way, what exactly is the difference between a duck?).

“A new body is like a new heart; just takes a little bit of time to settle in.”
Tom Baker has no problem settling in to the role of the Doctor: “You may be A doctor, but I am The Doctor; the definite article you might say.”

I have to say, Gary, that I was a bit apprehensive about Robot; I was concerned that I had built Tom Baker up too much in my mind and I would find I was disappointed, especially since the last time I viewed Robot I recall finding it a touch boring. Not to worry. Both Robot and Tom Baker fire on all cylinders, or as the Doctor says, “Of course I’m fit . . . all systems go.”
Ish Kabibble aside, the Doctor is still the Doctor; and what impresses me about Tom Baker’s portrayal in Robot is that he can quickly and easily go from “People never can see what’s under their noses above their heads” nonsense to “Assuming I’m right, and I invariably am,” and we have every confidence that he is.

Everything about Baker’s Doctor is quick witted; he flows seamlessly from gibberish to reasoned logic, all at lightning speed. The Doctor has always been intelligent; with Baker we see his intelligence. From his examination of the pulverized dandelion to his study of the list of stolen equipment, we can see the wheels turning, calm and steady and ordered, even while the non-stop string of banter flies unchecked.
Tom Baker’s Doctor illustrates the “lateral thinking” of Jon Pertwee’s. This is lateral thinking at full tilt.

Tom Baker is not the only star of Robot. Nicholas Courtney, John Levene, and Elisabeth Sladen as our regulars, the Brigadier, Benton, and Sarah Jane, are stellar as ever. The Brigadier has always been a standout for me; his lines and his delivery are consistently spot on. Robot contains one of his classic lines that is so apropos of Doctor Who: “Just once I’d like to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets.” And when he boldly declares, “Just for once we’re not going to need the Doctor,” only to have his plan backfire, he takes the resulting disaster with his usual nonplussed but stoic restraint.
Then there is Benton, who we learn has rightfully been promoted. Benton quietly goes about his job, mostly content to remain in the background, but always on hand. It is Benton who thinks to remove the disintegrator gun from the hands of the immobile robot; it is Benton who recalls the professor’s claim that the robot is made of a living metal. Benton: the unsung hero of Doctor Who.

And of course there is Sarah Jane. Sarah is still the independent reporter, going out on her own seeking the answers and more often than not coming up with them. Sarah leads the Doctor to the Institute, Professor Kettlewell, the SRS, and the robot. But she is more than the liberated woman of ‘70s stereotype. She is a woman of warmth and understanding and compassion; the “sort of girl who gives motor cars pet names.” Sarah forms a bond with the robot that is far more effective than the Brigadier’s bullets.
Finally we are introduced to a new regular—Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan (shades of Ian Chesterton of old). Harry isn’t given much to do in Robot, but he is on hand for the following:

Doctor: “Never cared much for the word ‘impregnable’; sounds a bit too much like ‘unsinkable’.”
Harry: “What’s wrong with ‘unsinkable’?”

Doctor: “Nothing; as the iceberg said to the Titanic.”
Harry: “What?”

Doctor: “Gloop, gloop, gloop, gloop, gloop, gloop, gloop.”
Harry provides some nice fresh blood to our Brig, Benton, Sarah mix.

With a crew like this it is acceptable that the supporting cast is rather too wild-haired absent-minded professor and stock Nazi-wannabe caricature. In fact I think it preferable. Robot is a story for the regulars to shine. The supporting cast is there for just that—support.
Shining above all, of course, is the Doctor. Fourth generation Doctor. William Hartnell-Patrick Troughton-Jon Pertwee-Tom Baker. It is quite a kaleidoscope. William Hartnell, the citizen of the universe and gentleman to boot; not a doc and not a god. Patrick Troughton, the hobo; the adventurer; the clown. Jon Pertwee, the dandy; the action hero. Tom Baker, a whirlwind of all the generations in one; both the eye of the storm and the storm; the calm and the chaos; all rolled into one extraordinary being.

“In science, as in morality, the end never justifies the means.” A statement that could have been made by any one of the Doctor’s generations.  That underlying, unifying element that makes each Doctor the Doctor. And when the odds of defeat are enumerated, the Doctor, any of the Doctors, can and does say, “I know, but we have to try.”
The Doctor. The same. The Doctor. Different.

“That, Mr. Benton, is the Doctor.”
“You mean he’s done it again?”

Yes, he has done it again. He is the same and yet different. Perhaps not as abrasive or rude as past generations, but still firm and decisive; with a dash of buffoonery and a splash of sleight-of-hand. And so when he meets the evasive Professor Kettlewell he disarms him with his interest and knowledge before hitting him with his demand for answers. And when confronting the SRS he beguiles them with dance and tricks before calling in the troops.
And he does it all with his pockets bulging. The Doctor has always pulled surprises out of his pocket; fourth generation Doctor’s pockets seem to be bottomless. Not only does he carry jelly babies (first produced from the second Doctor’s pockets), but he empties out a scroll from Skaro, a pilot’s license from the Mars-Venus rocket run, galactic passport, and honorary membership in the Alpha Centauri table tennis club. Deep pockets indeed.

The Doctor’s long-standing dislike of computers is yet another constant: “The trouble with computers, of course, is that they are very sophisticated idiots,” he says as he averts another Doctor Who constant, the ominous count down. However he achieves this by overriding the programming rather than past generational solutions of smashing or re-wiring.
Tom Baker is the definite article.

“There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”
That, Gary, sums up the Doctor.

And I think, Gary, that it just might give a key to the lateral thinking; to the Ish Kabibble factor.
I remember babysitting for Robert when he was very young and we were watching Robot. “Why is that car yellow?” he asked and Cindy and I laughed at the absurdity of the question. Why not yellow? What difference does it make? Because that is the color it was when it came off the assembly line. Why ask? Watching Robot now, though, it struck me—yellow Bessie is leading a long line of army green vehicles. All the cars are green except Bessie. Why, Robert’s young mind was asking, is the one yellow when all the rest are green?

It was the same frustration my childish mind wrestled with when I once asked Mom while we were driving at night what the towers with the blinking lights were for. “So the planes won’t hit them,” was her reply. They built the towers so that planes wouldn’t hit them? Why not just not build them? She of course thought I was asking what the lights were for when what I really wanted to know was what the towers were for.
And so, dear Gary, “Why is a mouse when it spins?” might not be such a nonsensical question after all. We might have to look at the world upside down and sideways and through the mind of a child before we can make sense of it, but there is sense, even if it is nonsense.

I hope, Gary, that somewhere out there in the Doctor’s time swirl you are able to ponder these questions, and perhaps you do know why is a mouse when it spins, and maybe even what’s the difference between a duck. (I know, Gary . . . . One leg is both the same.)

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