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8 February 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 404: Robot, Episode Four

Dear diary,

‘Gentlemen, I’m afraid I have some bad news. This room is surrounded by film!’

There was a time, when I used to just dip in and out of various Doctor Who stories at random and not pay a great deal of attention to them, when I never really noticed the difference between film and video tape. I mean, I was always aware that the majority of location scenes were shot on film, while anything built in a BBC television studio was more often than not videotape, but I never really noticed it. Since starting out at the pace of an episode a day, I’ve become much more accustomed to the differences, and I’ve grown rather used to noticing when a fight or special effect is about to kick off, because we switch to film (which usually - if not on location - means we’ve moved to Ealing film studios, where they can better execute their plans).

It reached the point once we’d switched to colour in the Jon Pertwee years that I couldn’t help but notice just how much better the series looks on film. Oh, I’ve banged on about it enough times over the last few months, so I won’t do so again here, but suffice to say I’m a total film convert. I find it ironic, therefore, that the very first Third Doctor story is the first Doctor Who story to be shot entirely on film, while the first Fourth Doctor story is the first to be shot entirely on video! They even use the same location for bits of the outside filming!

The purpose for switching to all-video here was to cover several bases. For a start, Outside Broadcast (OB) cameras were now becoming lighter and easier to take out on location. Not for the first (or last) time, Doctor Who became something of a testing ground for a new technique and the idea of shooting all-video was carried forward by Barry Letts into some of his later positions within the corporation. By the time we reach Season Twenty-Three, John Nathan-Turner will take the decision to shoot everything in this format as standard, which is why the picture quality of some later McCoy stories doesn’t always hold up.

The second reason for this new approach to production was to try and better integrate several of the effects shots in this episode. In the making-of feature on this story’s DVD, Barry Letts talks about how poorly the shots of the models from Invasion of the Dinosaurs, shot on videotape in the studio, match up to the location footage shot on film. I can’t say I really noticed it as being a problem at the time, but some of the shots used to highlight his point do seem to make it rather stand out. Therefore, in his last story as producer, he decided to try and blend things better. Trying to do the shots of the robot growing to an enormous size and stomping around the Think Tank grounds in film would be possible, but it would take a lot of time, effort, and money. It’s easier therefore to do the whole thing on video tape, so that the CSO shots in the studio can line up better with what they’ve filmed outdoors.

I’ve seen people over the years really knock the sequences with the giant robot from today’s episode, and while it’s true that they don’t always work, there’s an awful lot that they do get right. The shot of him growing to the larger size, for example, is great! It’s almost a good excuse for shooting the whole story on video…

…Except that it does lend the whole production a far cheaper look than usual. I’ve not mentioned it until this final episode because I didn’t really know how to sum up my thoughts on the way it looked, but then it clicked for me today - it has the same kind of finish as a ‘fan film’. There’s a few sequences - especially looking back - of people walking and talking out on location, and it has the same feel as something like Downtime did in the 1990s. That’s nothing against fan productions (there are some fab ones out there!), but they do have a look about them that instantly tells you it hasn’t been made in the same way as regular Doctor Who. We’ve got another ‘all-video’ production later in the series with The Sontaran Experiment, so I’m keen to see if it works any better for me there.

I think I’ve realised today why it was I couldn’t get a handle on this story in the first couple of episodes. I suggested that it was a hollow shell in which Tom Baker could find his feet, but that was proved wrong in the second episode, when he’s already settled in and the story starts to take a more central place. It then turned quite dark in episode three, with lots of Nazi imagery inside the SRS meeting, before all our human enemies have fled, and we’re left with a monster story which takes heavy inspiration from King Kong. Robot as a story shifts it focus a lot more than some others do, and that’s made it difficult for me to really get a grip on.

That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed it, though. A lot of that praise has to be given over to Tom Baker, who has so completely settled himself in as the new incarnation of the Doctor. Had this been a Pertwee story, I don’t think it would have rated as well with me. That’s not trying to take away from Pertwee, but a lot of the fun and charm in these four episodes is hinged on the fact that we’ve got a new leading man who’s bubbling with a very different kind of energy to the one I’ve been used to for so long.

And with the first two instances of ‘would you like a jelly baby?’ - a phrase which in many ways is so integrated with the programme, and yet I realise someone asked me today and I completely failed to make a Who-related joke! - we’re off into time and space again. I’m in for a long, long, haul with this new Doctor, so I’m thrilled that he’s made such an impression so quickly. Frankly, I can’t wait to see where we go from here!


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