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: Five through Twelve
I realized a bit of the way through that, in publication order, this is the first novelization to lack internal illustrations. I knew this wasn’t the end of the line for illustrations, because I clearly remember them from books published shortly after this one (Doctor Who and the Green Death, I’m looking at you – or rather, I will be in a week’s time, because you’re two books down the road). Thus, Giant Robot is lacking the now-familiar “Illustrations by Alan Willow” credit on the copyrights page. My thinking is that because Giant Robot follows so closely on from the airing of its parent story – barely two months between the broadcast of Part Four and the release date of the first edition – there just wasn’t time for Willow to work his usual magic. None of the books released after 1975 will carry interior illustrations, so we’ve nearly reached the end of the line for this phase of the novelizations. A big loss.
Last time, we talked about how Terrance Dicks handled his first time out with the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry. So let’s spend a bit of time today talking about the rest of the book, which is based on Dicks’ own script — which he once referred to as “an affectionate homage to King Kong“. The TV serial has a special place for me and my fandom — at age 11, I was home sick from school one day, and watched the last nine minutes of Robot Part One (which I’d recorded onto VHS while summoned away to take out the trash) pretty much on endless loop all afternoon. In my head even now, whenever Patricia Maynard, as the evil Think Tank director Miss Winters, says “I’m not sure you should know about that”, the “I’m” is always partially cut off, because that’s exactly where my recording began. Anyway, if you’re asking me to be objective about Robot, not gonna have it. You want to complain about Christopher Barry’s direction — the Action Man toy tank in Part Three, the floppy prop doll standing in for Sarah Jane in Part Four? Don’t care, this story rocks.
Dicks’ prose style, which sails by crisp and smooth even in much shorter books, is on top game here. It’s got another of his evocative opening sentences: “It moved through the darkness, swift and silent despite its enormous bulk”. The best opening sentences almost always start with “It”, right? The soldier killed by the Robot in that opening scene spends the last paragraph of his life complaining about the cold and boredom of guard duty, because Terrance likes to narrate the banality of Doctor Who‘s numerous red-shirt soldiers in their final moments.
Charmingly, Terrance writes all the dialogue of his story’s eponymous Robot in capital letters. This is a clever editorial device, and also lets you know that the book is being written with tongue planted firmly in cheek. “I AM EXPERIMENTAL ROBOT K-1. MY EVENTUAL PURPOSE IS TO REPLACE THE HUMAN BEING IN A VARIETY OF DANGEROUS TASKS”, it introduces itself. Gerry Davis will, if memory serves me right, repeat this trick for portions of the Cyber Controller’s dialogue in his novelization of The Tomb of the Cybermen, that character also being played by the impressively loud Michael Kilgarriff.
You get pathos, with the Robot, too, though:
Slowly the Robot swung round to face [Sarah]. Lights were flashing agitatedly on its forehead, and Sarah could have sworn she could see the anguish in its great metal face.
This book also allows Dicks the space to do something that’s always interested him – discuss politics and political figures. As the last story of the Barry Letts era, an era that mostly took place on near-modern day Earth and which usually figured mid-level politicians as secondary bad guys in prominent subplots, Robot is very much in keeping with its predecessors. While the only “man from the Ministry” in this story is Harry Sullivan in disguise, the bad guys are the SRS (the Scientific Reform Society), a group of radical government-funded scientists who feel as if the government would work better if they were in charge. I’m sure the SRS, as devised by Dicks in 1974, owes more than a little to the SDS of the late 1960s …
There’s a kernel of truth to the SRS, though, especially in the figure of Professor Kettlewell (the Robot’s inventor, brought to life perfectly on TV by Edward Burnham, with his wild grey hair tangles and his subtle hand tremors). Dicks introduces Kettlewell as he “puffed furiously at a stubby pipe, sending out a shower of sparks that threatened to ignite his bushy beard”.
Kettlewell, we’re shown, dropped out of society to develop alternative (i.e. green) technology, but by Part Three is revealed to be the figurehead behind SRS rather than merely a harmless crank. While we know know today that everything Kettlewell says about the environment is correct (especially today), most of the SRS are shown as fascists, willing to use the threat of nuclear holocaust to advance their aim of preserving the environment. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Kettlewell, though, even as Terrance, half-lovingly and half-mockingly, describes his “grand scheme”:
[A] complete turn-over to pollution-free power that would put a stop to the gradual destruction of the ecology of our planet. He was quite undeterred by the fact that the proposed changes were so enormous that it would take a world dictatorship to put them into effect.
Kettlewell does learn the error of his ways (“Sarah could tell by the expression on the little man’s face that the ruthlessness of his associates was having a shattering effect”), and has time for poetic regret before the Robot inadvertently kills him:
Reluctantly Kettlewell pressed a series of controls. The digital clock above his head clicked into life. The numbers began to count down. 599, 598, 597 … They seemed to flicker across the screen at tremendous speed. With a sense of rising horror, Kettlewell thought he had never realized how short a second really was … 590, 589, 588. Busily the numbers flickered on, ticking away the life of the planet in measured seconds…
When Sarah is smuggled into an SRS rally during the Part Three material, she observes that “the everyday faces around her were afire with terrifying fanaticism”. That’s another classic Dicks modifier, by the way, “terrifying”… right up there with “strange” and “terrible” and “gleaming”. And there’s another Marie Celeste reference, speaking of Dicks favorites.
Miss Winters and Jellicoe, the two Think Tank villains, and high-ups in the SRS, also benefit from Dicks’ keen eye for writing bad guys. Jellicoe is “nervous” and “fussy”, and “combed his thinning fair hair carefully across a spreading bald patch”. Miss Winters “never wasted words”, and finds that Jellicoe gets on her nerves. That’s in their opening paragraph alone, and you can pretty much figure out the rest of their story arcs from there. Later on, Sarah refers to Miss Winter as a “strange woman”, because, “strange”. She’s also, in the end, quite mad:
Miss Winters acted almost without thinking. If she couldn’t have victory, she would have revenge. If she couldn’t rule the world as she had planned, she would end it in flames.
Dicks still knows how to write action sequences. While the book is shorter than his earlier masterpieces, such as The Auton Invasion, there are still plenty of gun battles and chases in the back half of his story, and, as UNIT soldiers futilely turn their sub-machine guns on K-1, “Sarah could actually see the bullets spattering harmlessly off the gleaming metal body”.
And because this is a book rather than Christopher Barry’s fiscally beleaguered end-of-season TV production, Dicks is able to imagine that the robot costume was capable of much more strength and agility than the balsa-wood prop in which Michael Kilgarriff was encumbered on TV.
Before they could open fire, the Robot smashed them down. A huge wooden crate of scientific supplies stood near the door. The Robot lifted it like a matchbox and slammed it against the laboratory door, blocking it completely.
On TV, of course… not so much.
Similarly, you don’t have to worry about the Action Man toy tank; this tank has a commander, is termed a “metal monster”, and “glowed red” before it “exploded into nothingness”. And, instead of dodgy CSO effects, this Robot’s “giant feet stamped a Land-Rover into twisted metal”, and “picked up a lorry and flung it across the fields”. Heck, there are fighter planes which dive-bomb the Robot here — another King Kong homage, and something Christopher Barry really couldn’t have afforded.
As you also expect from a Dicks book, there’s plenty of dry humor, and the chance for the Doctor to make a spectacle of himself. As he tries to disrupt an SRS meeting – in a scene brought fully to life by Tom Baker on TV – we see that Baker was acting to Dicks’ direction:
The Doctor managed to perform quite a creditable little jig. His manner and appearance were so irresistibly comic that several of the audience began to laugh. Someone actually started clapping. The Doctor seemed much encouraged. “Thank you, sir, thank you! Now then, what about a few card tricks?” He produced a pack of cards and sprayed them up in the air in a kind of fountain, catching them neatly and shuffling them back into the pack.
Miss Winters was furious. The carefully built-up atmosphere had been completely destroyed by this mountebank! He seemed perfectly capable of keeping these fools happy until the Brigadier arrived to lock them all up.
In terms of script material that was cut for TV, there’s surprisingly little here. In Part Three, after the Brigadier learns that Harry has been outed as an undercover agent at Think Tank, he and the Doctor in the book have time to pay a visit to Think Tank’s now deserted offices, before heading for the nuclear bunker where the story’s final act takes place. This material was likely cut for time during the very forced and compressed circumstances under which this story was made, but we get it back in the book and, as usual whenever someone in Doctor Who visits a deserted building, someone (here, the Doctor) mentally compares it to the Mary Celeste. The bunker itself is also bigger than the jerry-rigged elevator shaft which we saw on TV. Here, the Bunker is:
a massive concrete building, nestled in a tree-surrounded hollow just ahead of them. It was built in the shape of a squared-off letter U, its two long wings linked by one short one which was crowned with a tower. A concrete path let between the two arms of the U to a massive metal door which formed the only break in the concrete facade.
Terrance later reminds us that the bunker “was obviously made of no ordinary concrete”, too.
The countdown clock inside the Bunker in the book is set to a leisure 600 seconds (“which equals ten minutes”, as Terrance tells the younger readers). That was lowered to 300 seconds in the book, presumably as Christopher Barry felt that ten minutes was too slow for a fairly fast-paced four-part story. In the original script, the nuclear missiles whose launch codes are stolen by the SRS, belong to the various European nations, but on TV someone (probably rookie script editor Robert Holmes) changed that to “the three superpowers” – the US, the USSR, and China. Terrance in the book also predicts that “one of the new African states” has just gotten atomic power, too.
Moving from novelization to plain-old effective storytelling, Terrance milks every bit of emotion out of the final Doctor/Sarah scene. Sarah is disconsolate after the Doctor destroys the Robot. In the New Series, this scene would have seen the companion defiantly reject the Doctor’s solution, and end on a note of sad ambiguity. But that’s not really in Terrance’s playbook.
He produced his key and opened the TARDIS door. “Come with me, Sarah?”
Sarah looked at him. The very idea was ridiculous, of course. She had deadlines to meet, commitments to honor. If she went off in the TARDIS there was no telling where or when she’d end up. Or what kind of terrifying danger she’d run in to.
She looked at the Doctor. His whole face was alight with mischief and the joy of living. “Come with me?” he said once more.
Sarah smiled. “All right,” she said. The Doctor beamed.
After the Doctor and Sarah persuade Harry to come along, at the last minute, the Brigadier gets the last word after the TARDIS vanishes.
The Brigadier sank down upon a stool. “Well bless my soul,” he said indignantly. “He’s off again!”
And so he was.
And so he was. But not us – it’s 10 more months until the 4th Doctor returns in the Target line. Next Time: the return of the Autons, and the debut story (but not the debut novelization) for Jo and the Master. Back to Jon Pertwee and the 3rd Doctor – so soon after this book had made me forget that he ever existed.