Title: Doctor Who and the Giant Robot
Televised as: Robot
Written by: Terrance Dicks
Teleplay by: Terrance Dicks
Televised in: December 1974/January 1975
Published in: March 1975
Chapters: One through Four
That’s one interesting cover, isn’t it? It’s a pretty radical design change from the previous 18 months or so of the Target book line. Now, we’ve got the new Season 11-onward stylized Doctor Who logo, scenes from the book dramatized on the front and back covers (rather than the usual collection of different portraits on the front), and a much more comic-book style of illustration. Plus, check out that li’l drawing of Tom Baker superimposed on the O in Who. It’s an interesting effort, but Baker doesn’t look quite right, and this experiment would not be repeated again – although a couple of Peter Davison-era novelizations would somewhat resurrect the effort, with a photo of the Fifth Doctor himself popping up from out of the neon-tube Who logo.
On the whole, this style of cover would only last for another year or so; when Target reprinted the books starting in the late ’70s, all of these Roy Lichtenstein-type covers would vanish, largely replaced by more photo-realistic paintings not featuring the main cast.
Anyway. You don’t want to stand here burbling about cover art. It’s not just the cover art that’s changed. The novelization of Robot has a lot of heavy lifting to do in every other respect, too. For one thing… it’s the first Fourth Doctor novelization! In fact, it came out only about two months after Robot had even finished its first broadcast. This makes it the quickest broadcast-to-novelization transfer up to this point in the Target line, which is funny because it came out immediately after the novelization of The Moonbase, which, at eight years behind, was the slowest broadcast-to-novelization transfer.
But not only is this the first novelization of a Tom Baker story, it’s also the first book to feature Harry Sullivan (in his debut story), and the first novelization to feature Sarah Jane Smith. And the first novelization without interior illustrations, but more on that topic at a later date.
Sadly, after this, we’d have to wait nearly another full year to see another Tom Baker novelization (with Terror of the Zygons being novelized as Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster in January 1976). So my guess is that, for a certain segment of UK fandom, this book got read a lot during that one-year wait, for kids trying to get their new Tom Baker fix.
How well does Giant Robot do its job, of introducing all these changes? Well, that question is answered by pointing to the name Terrance Dicks on the cover. To put it flatly and objectively… pretty awesomely well. In short, this is a lightning-quick read, but not a juvenile one — Terrance gets in more than his usual share of witty jabs and quotably concise descriptions.
One thing that worried me, as I went to pick up this book, was the same slight sense of disappointment that I had in reading Terrance’s novelization of The Abominable Snowmen a few weeks ago. That book, the first adaptation of a Second Doctor story, did a good job of translating Patrick Troughton’s quirks to the big screen, but also managed to miss a lot of the essence of the actor himself. I was afraid that Giant Robot was going to feature a similarly pale-ish reflection of what Tom Baker was like on screen.
Not the case, though. Oh, there’s a lot of Baker’s physical presence on screen which is not here — all stuff that Baker and director Christopher Barry worked out in rehearsal after Dicks submitted the final scripts from which the book was adapted. There’s no jump-roping with Harry Sullivan; there are no non-verbal flourishes like wearing a jeweler’s loupe, or lying back in a Land Rover with his feet up; and no Baker-added lines, such as the riddle about “Why is a mouse when it spins?”. Baker’s first scene in Part Two sees him lying supine in the UNIT lab and speaking through the hat covering his face; this scene is included in the Part One material in the book and regrettably features no hat-talking, because Dicks hadn’t scripted it that way.
But what’s also surprising is how much of Baker’s performance is in here. And that’s interesting, because Dicks is largely novelizing his original scripts, the ones written before Baker had ever acted in the show. But you can read the printed words in Baker’s voice and not be missing all that much.
The Fourth Doctor is actually introduced to us via flashback, with the Brigadier recalling the regeneration a few days after the fact (and getting us up to date on Pertwee swan-song Planet of the Spiders, the novelization of which is still several months away). Dicks takes this as an opportunity to remind us of the two Doctors that he’s written for already:
The Brigadier had already adjusted to one change of appearance by the Doctor. It had taken him a long time to accept that the dark-hared, rather comical little chap who’d helped him against the Yeti and the Cybermen, and the tall white-haired man who’d turned up just in time to join the struggle against the Autons, were one and the same. Now he’d had to face another change. And this one had taken place under his very nose.
And this is where Dicks makes his first attempt at describing Baker’s appearance:
A new man with a new face was lying on the laboratory floor. Like, and yet unlike. Still tall and thin, still with the same rather beaky nose. But a younger man, the face far less lined, a tangle of curly brown hair replacing the flowing white locks.
(Aficionados of the Classic Series DVD release audio commentaries will be saddened to learn that this book was written before Terrance Dicks pioneered the use of the word “bouffant” with regard to Jon Pertwee’s hairstyle).
Once the Doctor arrives, Dicks actually takes us pretty deep into his head – and manages to levy some parting shots at Pertwee as well.
For a moment he stood there in his striped pajamas, as if uncertain what to do next. There was a locker beside the bed. He opened it and looked inside. Clothes. A velvet smoking jacket, check trousers, a frilly shirt. The Doctor fingered the elegant garments for a moment and frowned.
They looked as if they’d fit all right, but , he didn’t like them. Far too fancy. What sort of a chap would go around dressed up like that?
Sarah later observes that the Doctor’s “unfamiliar face was bright and alert, the blue eyes sparkling”, and the curly hair seemed to be standing on end with sheer energy!” (exclamation point in original …). Naturally, the Doctor’s “tangled mop of curly hair” is demonstrated (more than once) by the Doctor running his fingers through it.
After a brief costume change montage (not quite as prolonged as what we got on TV), Dicks debuts his description of the Doctor’s standard outfit, for the first of many, many times.
This time he wore wide corduroy trousers, a sort of tweed hacking-jacket with a vaguely Edwardian look, and a loose flannel shirt. A wide-brimmed floppy black hat and an immensely long scarf completed the ensemble.
(The “multi-colored” aspect to the scarf is quite some time away. But Dicks admits that the outfit “did at least bear a passing resemblance to present-day dress”).
Baker’s screen presence shows up here, in a scene written before anyone knew what Baker could really do with the part:
“So what are we looking for, Doctor?”
The Doctor was sprawled in the back seat, hat over his eyes and apparently asleep, but his answer came immediately.
Harry Sullivan is taken with the sea change that occurs between the Doctor’s clowning in the first half of Part One, and his more serious take-charge nature in the second half:
It suddenly struck him that this was a very different Doctor from the wild eccentric who had jumped out of a hospital bed a few hours ago. For the first time Harry glimpsed the keen mind, the powerful, dominant personality under that flamboyant exterior. There was obviously far more to the Doctor than met the eye.
While this paragraph in isolation seems a bit too tell-don’t-show, there are plenty other examples in the book of Dicks showing the Doctor’s power, dominance and flamboyance all without obvious signposting.
This book is also where we meet Lt. Harry Sullivan, UNIT medic, for the first time. Dicks includes Harry’s character brief in the text:
He was a big, breezy young man with a square jaw, blue eyes, fair curly hair and a hearty manner. Sarah thought he looked rather like the hero of a Boy’s Own Paper adventure yarn. He immediately made you think of Biggles or Bulldog Drummond.
Of course, the Harry that we got on TV was a muted version of what the character was supposed to be – a brawling young man capable of picking up the action mantle, in the event that the Fourth Doctor was cast with a much older actor. That went away when Tom Baker and his immense physicality got the part, and Harry became a bumbling one-season-and-done accessory instead, an afterthought to Baker’s and Lis Sladen’s remarkable double-act. But courtesy of the original scripts, Dicks here is able to tell us what Harry might have been:
Harry Sullivan was a powerful young man in top physical condition. In his service days he had often boxed for the Navy. He advanced determinedly on the Doctor, quite prepared to use force if he had to. After all, it was for the patient’s own good.
Dicks clearly sympathizes with Harry’s getting caught up in the Doctor’s madcap adventures, as Harry is convinced that he left the Navy “for something very like a lunatic asylum”. He got that part right.
Of the three regulars (setting aside the Brigadier and Benton), Sarah’s portrayal is the most curious. Dicks has indicated that he really didn’t understand the character, being more used to writing for Jo Grant during her screaming and bumbling days. Here he has Sarah lament, “I’m very keen to get away from all this woman’s angle stuff, and if I could come up with a really good scientific story …”, and one is not quite sure if he’s empathizing with Sarah’s women’s-lib brief, or slightly mocking her. We never get a description of what Sarah looks like, either, even though this is her first book, too.
Sarah’s big role in the Part One material is to develop an interest in Think Tank (of whom more in the next post), and coax the Brigadier into authorizing a pass for her to go there, take a tour, and write a story about their frontiers-of-science research. Of course, because this is a Doctor Who episode with little time for the main cast to go off on unrelated frolics, Think Tank will turn out to be the big bad of the piece, and Sarah is rightly suspicious of them, leading up to her discovery of the Robot itself at the Part One cliffhanger. In the hands of the correct writer and correct actress, which on TV were Terrance Dicks and Elisabeth Sladen, this is potentially strong material.
In the book, though, written before Lis Sladen’s input in-studio, we can see that Dicks didn’t quite have Sarah Jane Smith the character’s best interests at heart. She gets put back on her heels twice by Think Tank’s dynamic duel of evil, the director Miss Winters, and her assistant (in the book, her PR flack), Arnold Jellicoe, whom Sarah at first mistakes for the director:
Sarah was furious, with them and with herself. It had been foolish of her to assume that the man was inevitably the Director. But she felt that the two of them had expected the mistake, and were using it to put her in her place.
Later, Winters and Jellicoe discover Sarah’s lack of hard science training and use the tour to bombard her with impenetrable scientific data. When Sarah then turns the table by sneaking into the abandoned Robotics lab that just happens to hold the key to the story, it’s strike three on the intrepid Miss Smith. Sarah faints at the cliffhanger moment here (buried inside Chapter 4), and then when she comes to and is more formally introduced to the Robot, she screams as it advances upon her at the end of the chapter. Screaming and fainting all in the same chapter.
Thankfully, Lis Sladen didn’t play the role that way on TV, and, because Sarah made such a strong impression on the portions of the young viewing audience who later went on to produce and write the show, she got to come back and return to the New Series and headline her own spinoff series, until the actress’ untimely death. If Lis Sladen had merely acquiesced to the screaming and fainting as scripted, then we might have been deprived of that future …
Next Time: Writing for Sarah Jane aside, Terrance does what Terrance does best… contemporary spy thrillers with a slight sci-fi twist and with tongue firmly in cheek.