Monday, August 22, 2016

"The Robots of Death"

Aired Jan 29 - Feb 19, 1977

4 Episodes

Story 90

Written by Chris Boucher

Directed by Michael E Briant


Materializing on a desolate alien world, the TARDIS is scooped up by a massive vehicle roaming the planet for precious minerals. The sandminer boasts a small crew of humans bolstered by the aid of a support staff of robots. The robots exist in three classes, the mute and simplistic Dums, the more sophisticated and verbal Vocs, and a single Super Voc to oversee them all. As the Doctor and Leela arrive, the human crew are being murdered one by one by an unseen killer.

The travelers immediately come under suspicion for the crimes, especially in the eyes of the avaricious and petty captain Uvanov. As the bodies pile up, the Doctor is able to obtain two allies, both undercover government agents; the human Poul and his robotic associate D84, a Super Voc posing as a Dum. 

Together, they soon uncover the real culprit is one of the crew members, Dask, who is in fact the renegade mad scientist Taren Capel. Capel was raised by robots, and subsequently became the foremost expert on robotics before disappearing. Capel believes robots need to take their true place in dominance over the humans, and insanely regards himself as their brother and leader. He has been reprogramming the robots on board the sandminer to kill the humans.

The Doctor manages to trap Capel by offering himself as bait, allowing Leela to release a helium canister in the room that alters Capel's voice print to the point where the Super Voc SV7 no longer recognizes Capel's voice and therefore murders his master. This allows the Doctor to use a laser probe to destroy the Super Voc and end the threat from the robots.

With a rescue ship on the way, the Doctor and Leela depart in the TARDIS to continue their travels once more...


The Robots of Death sits near the top of many people's list of best classic Doctor Who stories ever. There's a lot to love here, to be sure, but there's also a few significant flaws on display, flaws that for me place it below, say, The Face of Evil and some other Fourth Doctor stories that often fall lower on such lists.

When Michael E Briant received the scripts for this story, he was reportedly disappointed by them. Both Briant and designer Kenneth Sharp considered the scripts to be sub-par drawing room mystery, with little redeeming features and never amounting to more than Agatha Christie in Space. To some degree, they're both right, but it's an unnecessarily harsh assessment. The scripts have much to enjoy, but I would argue that as a mystery in the vein of Ten Little Indians, it's ridiculously simple to uncover the culprit. What makes me temper my criticism of the script is that the direction in at least two or three instances completely sabotages the scripts' attempts to conceal the murderer's identity.

First, let's take the positives of the script. Boucher effectively creates an interesting caste system for the robots that is also reflected in the caste system of the human society as presented by the crew. The crew themselves are more problematic. Boucher does present fascinating relationships and conflicts between them in opening scenes, creating a cast that is a motivated by a combination of indolence, petty jealousies and greed. But he slips up in never giving them enough individual time to become credible suspects. In fact, most of the murders happen in such a short space of time that the victims are little more than sketches, while those who remain never materialize into viable suspects.  So, as a mystery, it doesn't quite function well enough. 

However, Briant could have made the mystery far more compelling if he had bothered to conceal the murderer effectively. There's a scene where the killer meets with a robot that is clearly scripted to conceal the killer's identity, but Briant has the killer remain in their distinctive costume for the scene. The killer is shown on a screen via an electronic effect that in no way conceals his identity, despite another scene that has him completely concealed in a hood and cloak that would have worked well. 

But, this is no way means the The Robots of Death is a failure. Kenneth Sharp's design and all the other elements of Briant's direction maximize production values and create a superb and unconventional style for the story. In an era that maximized production values, this story is one of the towering achievements. The robot design is elegant and capable of being both sinister and non-threatening, while the direction of the action, the choreographing of the robots and the visual effects are all top notch. The guest cast each make the most of the characters and turn in terrific performances. Boucher continues to show how well he wrote Leela, as in the story she comes off as smart and funny and with great agency and skill. She is never stupid here, in fact

And in the end, the scripts may suffer from being too simplistic a mystery, but the construction of the characters and the wit of the dialogue shines through. D84 is one of the most memorable supporting characters of the era, a noble and eloquent, poetic even, sad-sack with a sense of duty and great lines. 

So while I do think The Robots of Death is a tad overrated, it's only because it's surrounded by such incredible classics as The Deadly Assassin, The Face of Evil, and our next adventure. Still, it remains a cornerstone of what may be one of the most assured, accessible and out and out enjoyable seasons of Doctor Who ever.

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