“Robot” was the first Tom Baker episode ever, with Sarah Jane Smith as his companion previous to his regeneration and with the introduction of Harry Sullivan as his second companion. It was a bit jarring to return to watching a 1974 episode after the 1988 “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but the episode was excellent enough to make me forget that I’d gone back in time 14 years in terms of production values.
Since “Robot” is a regeneration episode, the first part of it was taken up with the usual hijinks that happen after the Doctor regenerates, and it was certainly fun. The Doctor started out addled enough that the Brigadier orders bedrest for him, and Harry was assigned to take care of him. He attempted to leave, and when Harry tried to stop him, he outwitted the UNIT doctor by basically confusing him with his eccentric behavior. Why the Brigadier didn’t tell Harry that the Doctor was going to be a handful, I don’t know. Later on, after the rest of the story had started, the Doctor tried on many possible costumes, which the Brigadier rightfully disapproved of, until he finally came out of the TARDIS wearing the Bohemian outfit and long scarf that we all know and love. Great scene!
The rest of the episode is about the eponymous robot, which was created in a think tank which, unbeknownst to anyone else, secretly wanted to rid the world of unintelligent people and rule by (their version of) science. The interesting part of the episode was the treatment of the robot: it had a “don’t harm humans” prime directive, but the think tank deliberately gave it commands to kill humans, so that it would become confused (“Do I do what was ordered, or do I follow the prime directive?”), and eventually it broke down and became psychotic. The only human it respected was Sarah Jane, who, due to her experiences with the Doctor with aliens and robots, recognized that the robot was sentient and displayed care and understanding of it. The episode was a study of sentience and how humans can easily mistreat other sentient creatures.
Another thing I liked about this episode was its unusual structure. Because the Doctor was incapacitated for the first part of the episode, the story had to be carried by the other characters. Sarah Jane went out to investigate the think tank under the guise of her job as a journalist, and the Brigadier investigated the mysterious thefts and attacks that were going on at military and research centers. It gave us a bit of a look at what the humans would do if a situation came up and the Doctor wasn’t around, something that we don’t get to see again until “The Christmas Invasion” (as far as I know, anyway).
One last thing, which I probably wouldn’t have noticed if we hadn’t been watching whatever episodes happen to be in the house at the time, is that the Fourth Doctor seemed in this episode to be a lot more likable than he was later. I’m referring to him in “The Horror of Fang Rock.” In “Robot, he seemed charmingly eccentric, while in THoFR, he was nearly offensively random – at a few points, he had completely non-sequitur outbursts that almost felt like the writer said, “Oh, he needs to be eccentric, so let’s just make him yell something random here.”
Bottom line, “Robot” was a pretty good episode, not the best, but certainly above average, and a great introduction to the new Doctor.