To appreciate the effect Tom Baker's debut as Doctor number 4 in late December 1974 might have had on a contemporary audience, it's necessary to remember all the qualities that made up his predecessor's Doctor. Pertwee was dignified, aristocratic, smartly (if eccentrically) dressed and although occasionally ill-tempered and patronising was at least someone who would give a straight answer to a straight question. Suddenly, after 5 years of this Doctor (yes odd, but reassuring) from the leftist of left fields comes this scruffy, scarf-wearing, boggle eyed basket case who's apparently subject to massive mood swings and can't even sit or lie down in a conventional manner. At times he's just plain silly. One imagines that many people at the time would have just hated this new spin on a much loved TV hero.
However, it's established fact that Tom Baker became one of the most popular and iconic Doctors within a matter of serials and with hindsight it's easy to overlook the jarring change that had just taken place to the show. The writer of ROBOT, Terrance Dicks attempts to reassure the audience by wrapping up the potentially bitter pill of the change of leading man in the sugar coating of familiarity. A fairly uncomplicated plot heavily reliant on the staple ingredients of the Pertwee shows: UNIT, Sarah Jane's career as an investigative journalist, the Brigadier, a monster that is impervious to light artillery means that the audience is gently cajoled into accepting this bizarre stranger as the nation's favourite Time Lord. In fact, regulars Nicholas Courtney and Elizabeth Sladen do a terrific job here and ROBOT boasts some stalwart performances not only from them but also from Patricia Maynard and Edward Burnham - whose hairdo has to be seen to be believed.
However, call me a cynic, but I don't think ROBOT is a great story. It's more of a guilty pleasure. Not that it's trying to be an all-conquering epic. No, its purpose is functional, and in this regard it is effective. To be fair the design of the titular robot is excellent, even if it does look pretty wobbly out on location (my sympathies go out to poor old Michael Kilgarriff who must have had a tough time stomping around in that huge aluminium suit) and there is some good solid story telling for most of the time. Things go pear-shaped however, around the 3rd episode and especially in part 4 when the robot gets a blast from an unconvincing secret weapon that causes it to grow to gargantuan size. It then goes on a KING KONG style rampage with effects that must have looked fairly ropey even in the mid 1970's. Also, I simply don't buy Baker's first go at playing the Doctor. Granted he's laying the groundwork here and there are some amusing moments, but they are at the expense of the delicious detachment and moodiness that makes his Doctor so magnificent. Newcomers to the old-school DR WHO would be better advised to seek out DVD's of THE ARK IN SPACE, GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, HORROR OF FANG ROCK or THE HAND OF FEAR to see Tom Baker at his best.
The extras are not exactly generous, but are fairly good nonetheless. The feature: "ARE FRIENDS ELECTRIC?" covers the casting of Tom Baker and the memories of cast and crew about the making of ROBOT using some rather lovely contemporary behind the scenes footage. The commentary with producer Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks, Baker and Sladen is good humoured and mostly entertaining, although I can't help feeling that it might have been more tactful of the writer and ex-producer not to have referenced the Pertwee period so often in the presence of his successor.