The Robots of Death [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. (However, I already owned this one–but it was rewatching all those others that inspired me to revisit it again).

(Daily Doctor Who #67)

The Robots of Death

Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.
Companion:  Louise Jameson as Leela
Written by Chris Boucher.  Directed by Michael Briant

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  January – February 1977 (Episodes 17-20 of Season 14)

This is one of the Doctor Who stories I’ve been most looking forward to rewatching, but for whatever reason it’s one of the ones that is not available on iTunes. But thanks to Christmas, I think it was, I now own the DVD. Like most of Doctor Who from this era, the story owes a lot to other sources–Agatha Christie mysteries and Isaac Asimov’s robot stories amongst them. And it’s hard to imagine it did not significant influence future Doctor Who in some areas as well–particularly Voyage of the Damned which featured a very similar enemy.

Spoilers Ahead!

As a young teen new Doctor Who viewer, I think I assumed that Robots of Death was a pretty weak story. The robots looked pretty lame, the idea of “Robophobia” just seemed ridiculous, and the title just seemed silly. But in the intervening years, as my tastes have changed (and I believe become more refined) I’ve come to recognize the story for the classic that is.

One of the most interesting things is the contrast inherent in the world that the story takes place within. The actual setting is a Storm Mine (commonly referred to as sandminers by the Doctor and the audience, but not, actually, by its crew)–clearly a dreary sort of existence where one’s day is spent scouring a barren landscape for valuable dirt. But the people within are obviously used to luxury. The robots, far from being less interesting for eschewing the more obvious computerized appearance (that you get in the old Lost in Space, for example) become a fascinating insight into a culture of a people who are clearly comfortable having others do their more menial work. And so the crew all wear elaborate clothes with unique makeup, and sleep and rest in luxurious accommodation, because that, presumably, is how they live back home, even though they are on the science fiction equivalent of a fishing trawler.

With all this mind, the idea of someone suffering from a deep-seated dread of robots actually makes a lot o sense. The story’s robots, as designed by Kenneth Sharp, fit squarely in the so-called Uncanny Valley, and if they were lurking around every corner of my life taking care of all my daily needs, I think I’d get pretty creeped out by them as well.

The characters are all interesting and the performances uniformly excellent. Russell Hunter is good as Uvanov, a character revealed to be a lot more sympathetic than his initial cruelly pragmatic exterior would suggest. David Collings, who one may remember as Silver from Sapphire & Steel, is lively as Poul, although his descent into mania seems a bit abrupt. And David Bailie is certainly memorable as Taren Capel, although he doesn’t get a lot of screen time openly playing the clearly insane criminal.

But of course its Tom Baker and Louise Jameson who carry the show, as well they should. Both are at the top of their game here, reminding us again that the Fourth Doctor and Leela are one of the best TARDIS crews that the show has ever had. The opening sequence with them, when Leela is misunderstanding the yo-yo and the Doctor “explains” the TARDIS’ transdimensional qualities using two boxes, is delightful.

The weaknesses of The Robots of Death (aside from, again, the title) is that the actual solving of the murder mystery is not all that interesting to watch–even if one hasn’t recognized the villain from his distorted appearance in Episode 3, it’s not hard to guess based on just who is left. And some of the characters, like Borg and Cass, are killed off too early in the story to really get to know or be treated seriously as suspects. And while it makes sense that the damaged robot at the end failed to recognize Taren Capel after his voice is altered, it’s a bit odd that the Doctor thinks it will work earlier in the sequence–after all he didn’t know that the robot would turn out to be damaged.

Still, I think the story is structured and delivered very strongly, and I loved the idea of D84, the intelligent investigator robot that was disguised as a “Dum”, and the sacrificial way he helps to save the day.

Incidentally, there are some interesting connections with the TV series Blake’s 7 in this story. Writer Chris Boucher was the script editor for the entire run of that series (and wrote 9 episodes, the most after series creator Terry Nation). Brian Croucher, who plays Borg here, was the Travis on Blake’s 7 in its second season. Michael Briant, who directed this story also directed four episodes of Blake’s 7’s first season, including the first episode. And later, Chris Boucher wrote a Doctor Who novel which served as a sequel to this story, and included a character from Blake’s 7, creating a crossover between the two properties.

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