by Mark Greig
During his introduction at a recent screening at the BFI, Steven Moffat (current head writer and dark lord of Mordor) described ‘The Robots of Death’ as “one of those rare events in Doctor Who where I think it’s sort of perfect.” It is difficult to argue with that assessment. But I'll give it a try.
I’ve never had any reverence for 'The Robots of Death'. It’s not that I think it’s a bad story. Far from it, I think it is very good, one of the season’s best. Chris Boucher’s script is a clever mix of Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert, and is definitely the best one wrote for the series. I just don’t think it’s as perfect as Moffat and others make it out to be.
Like many murder mysteries, it is not without its moments of absurdity to maintain the mystery. At one point the killer is seen in his lair, working on one of the robots. For some reason he is wearing a mask to conceal his identity. He’s all alone. Apart from the robots, there is no one else there. Why is he wearing a mask? Apart from concealing his identity from the audience, and giving a glimpse of what a G.I. Joe movie would look like if Liberace played Cobra Commander, the mask serves absolutely no purpose. By that point it is already painfully obvious who the killer is anyway.
‘The Robots of Death’ is far more effective as a Christie tribute than ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’. Boucher takes everything that makes for a great Christie story and relocates them to a futuristic setting. The human crew of the Sandminer are not much different from the type of upper class snobs that Christie took a delight in slaughtering. For them, sandmining is more of a pleasure cruise than rigorous work since the actual day to day running of the Sandminer is handled by the robots. Occasionally they are called upon to do work that requires human instinct rather than machine logic (for some reason this requires them to dress up in some ridiculous costumes), but for the majority of the time they are free to lounge around, enjoying drinks and massages.
They are all so unlikeable that it is rather hard to care when they started getting bumped off. And it can be said that some of the acting is somewhat less than good (I'm looking at you, Tania Rogers). Toos and Poul were probably the only ones I sort of kinda liked (mostly because I've always loved David Collings' performance as Silver on Sapphire and Steel), but I found Poul's descent into robophobic madness over the top and silly. It wasn't a bad idea, it was just badly handled. Besides the regulars, the only other likeable character is the undercover robot D84. Oh how I wish he could’ve joined the Doctor and Leela in their travels. He would’ve been a far more bearable robotic companion than K-9.
The Doctor suits the role of detective perfectly. There has long been an element of Sherlock Holmes about his character (something that becomes even more obvious in the following story). The Doctor/Leela team is settling in nicely. There may have been a lot of tension behind the scenes between Tom and Louise (mostly because Tom was, by own admission, an unbearable arse) but little of it shows up on screen. Leela may be a savage, but, like Jamie before her, she shows that she is not stupid and quickly adapts to new environments.
‘The Robots of Death’ is one of the few Doctor Who stories to seriously tackle the issue of robots and the effect they could have on a society. The humans depicted in this story have given so much control over to the robots that they have become completely dependent on them. Even child care is handled by robots. The story’s villain, Taren Capel (one of Classic Who's best mad scientists), is someone who was raised by robots and therefore considers himself one. He sees it as his mission to free his robot brethren from the shackles of human oppression.
The robots are in many ways the perfect slave race. They don’t need to be paid, they don’t complain, and they never contemplate rebellion against their flesh and blood masters, who are so confident of the mechanical servants’ loyalty that they never even consider the fact that they could be the ones committing the murders. Their programming prevents them from taking any action against their human masters (those pesky three laws). But he isn’t really offering the robots any kind of genuine freedom. Capel doesn’t give the robots free will to do as they please. He simply reprograms them to do as he commands, enslaving them to his will so he can free them from enslavement. Talk about ironic.
The robots themselves are one of the story’s most successful elements. True, they are clearly just a bunch of guys in costumes slowly advancing on people like Frankenstein’s monster, but their art deco look is a memorable one. They’re stylishly designed to look human, but not so human that they are walking through the uncanny valley. The fact they remain so softly spoken even when killing people only adds to their creepiness. It would be interesting to see what the current production team could do with them. Then again, in a way, we already have. Moffat isn’t the only recent Who showrunner enamoured with this story. Russell T. Davies remade the VOC robots at least twice during his tenure as showrunner, first as the Ood and then again as the Angelic Hosts in ‘Voyage of the Dammed’. Both are well spoken servants/slaves who eventually rebel and start killing their masters due to an external influence (the Ood's eyes even go red like the robots). I don’t know about you guys, but if I were Chris Boucher I would seriously consider taking legal action against RTD. There is a very fine line between homage and shameless rip off.
Notes and Quotes
--Robophobia (the irrational fear of robots) is referred to as 'Grimwade's Syndrome', a reference to Peter Grimwade, a production assistant who directed some of the filmed scenes in the episode.
--The Doctor tries to explain the TARDIS' dimensional transcendence (how it is bigger on the inside) to Leela at the start of this story. And it makes complete sense. Kind of.
--This story marks the final appearance of the TARDIS’ secondary control room. The set’s wooden paneling was damaged between seasons so the production team returned to the old style set.
--Loved Poul's little chuckle in the background when the Commander steals his 'double bluff' line.
--The Doctor quotes MacBeth, "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes." By The Pricking of My Thumbs is also the title of an Agatha Christie novel featuring her less famous detectives, Tommy and Tuppence.
--Even restrained by robots Leela is still a force to be reckoned with. Slap her at your own peril.
--This story inspired two sequels; Corpse Marker, a Fourth Doctor novel written by Chris Boucher and Robophobia, a audio drama from Big Finish Production featuring the Seventh Doctor. With Boucher's permission, the characters and concepts were used for a series of audio dramas from Magic Bullet Productions entitled Kalador City.
--The Doctor's scarf keeps disappearing and reappearing in Episode 1.
--The name Taren Capel is a reference to Karel Čapek, who is credited with first coining the word robot. Uvanov's name is a reference to Isaac Asimov, while Poul is a reference to the science fiction writer Poul Anderson.
--I love how the robot sent to kill Leela keeps saying "You cannot escape" but leaves the door wide open. DB4 also describes himself as faster and stronger, but the robots are never shown to move faster than a gentle stroll.
--Even by this show's standards, the costumes of the humans are over the top. Just look at the Commander and Toos’ headgear:
Chub: "There was a Voc therapist in Kaldor City once. Specially programmed, equipped with vibro-digits, subcutaneous stimulators, the lot. You know what happened, Borg? Its first client wanted treatment for a stiff elbow. The Voc therapist felt carefully all round the joint, and then suddenly just twisted his arm off at the shoulder. Shoompf. All over in two seconds."
D84: "It is a Laserson probe. It can punch a fist-sized hole through six-inch armour plate, or take the crystals from a snowflake one by one."
D84: "Please do not throw hands at me."
Leela: "You try that again and I will cripple you."
The Doctor: "I don’t suppose there are any weapons aboard this mine?"
Toos: "They aren’t necessary."
The Doctor: "They are now.”
Leela: "You mean you can't control this machine?"
The Doctor: "Well, of course I can control it. Nine times out of ten. Well, seven times out of ten. Five times. Look, never mind."
Poul: “It's impossible. It's just impossible!”
The Doctor: “Bumble-bees.”
The Doctor: “Terran insects. Aerodynamically impossible for them to fly, but they do it. I'm rather fond of bumble-bees.”
The Doctor: "You know, you're a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain."
Three out of four pointless masks that make someone look like Liberace playing Cobra Commander.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.