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04 May 2004The Robots of Death, by Paul Clarke
01 Sep 2004The Robots of Death, by Joe Ford

What can I say about 'The Robots of Death' that hasn't been said before? Very little, actually. It is entirely deserving of its impressive reputation, and not only continues but also arguably elevates the high quality of the season since 'The Deadly Assassin'. In virtually every aspect, this story is a triumph.

The plot of 'The Robots of Death' combines a classical "whodunit" plot with an unstoppable group of killers, to produce a tense and claustrophobic story that never lets up. From the moment Chub is killed in Episode One, the tension mounts, as the human crew of the Sandminer desperately strive to find out whom the murderer is, only to be presented with the appearance of two highly suspicious stowaways in the form of the Doctor and Leela. The Doctor rapidly deduces that the robots on the Storm Mine are the real killers, but although the viewer already knows this, the emphasis then shifts to the mystery of exactly who is controlling them. It becomes clear in Episode Three, when Dask's distorted but recognizable face is seen on a monitor as he seizes control of SV7 (although admittedly I've watched this story with non-fans and they haven't recognized David Bailey's face behind that swirling red effect, so perhaps it is more obvious with foreknowledge), but by this point the pace of the story is such that it no longer matters. The pacing of the story is superb, as the death-toll mounts and more and more robots become killers, before reaching a suitably dramatic climax as the Doctor faces off against Taren Capel in his lair. To top it all off, the idea of using helium to defeat Taren Capel by altering the pitch of his voice so that the robots no longer recognise him is nicely ingenious. I have two minor criticisms of the plot, and in fact the entire story; the first is that the Doctor tells Uvanov and Toos not to let anyone onto the control deck, but doesn't bother to tell them that Dask is Taren Capel. This is obviously to maintain the surprise for any viewers who didn't recognise his face in Episode Three and haven't deduced that Dask is the villain by process of elimination, but in story terms it makes it seem as though the Doctor just can't be bothered to warn them, which nearly results in Uvanov opening the door and letting in both Dask and an army of robot killers. The second is the near-destruction of the Sandminer at the climax to Episode Two; this makes for a memorably dramatic cliffhanger, but raises the question of who is responsible. Initially, I thought that the damage to the motive units was caused accidental by Borg's death, but then one of the Vocs states that the drive linkages have been sabotaged. It seems that without the Doctor's intervention, the Sandminer would have been destroyed as a result, which is unlikely to have benefited either Taren Capel or his robots. Nevertheless, these minor flaws do not significantly detract from the story.

The script is superb, filled with great characters and excellent lines. The Doctor gets some of the best, my favourite being "You're a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain". D84 also gets his fair share, including "Would you like to use it? I cannot speak", and of course "Please do not throw hands at me". The characterisation is uniformly impressive, with both regulars coming across especially well. The Doctor is at his most authoritative and resourceful, starting out as a murder suspect but quickly gaining the trust of first Poul and then Toos and eventually Uvanov. His flippant attitude to personal danger is highlighted when he casually explains to Uvanov at the end of Episode Three that the advancing Voc has either followed Uvanov or homed in on the Doctor's communicator, cheerfully noting "It depends which one of us it's going to kill first". On the other hand, his concern for others is also strongly in evidence, as he instructs Leela to help Toos, carries Uvanov to safety whilst being chased by a homicidal machine, and befriends D84. Leela's character builds on the promise shown by 'The Face of Evil', as she is taken out of her natural environment and is thrust into an alien world that she doesn't understand; taking it in her stride, she seems to delight in learning from the Doctor and from her experiences and when threatened with danger she tackles it with the same resolution and fearlessness that she showed in her debut story. As in 'The Face of Evil', her desire to learn and the Doctor's willingness to teach, mean that aspects of the plot are explained to the audience in a way that doesn't seem contrived. And I love their first scene together in the TARDIS, as the Doctor tries to explain transdimensional engineering to her, before dismissing it as a very boring subject. 

The supporting characters are also impressive, and the guest cast shines. Gregory de Polnay's D84 almost steals the show, as he (ironically) shows very human character development under the Doctor's influence, and with a robot companion not far in the series' future, I can't help wishing that he'd survived and joined the Doctor and Leela in the TARDIS. Nevertheless, he makes an impression, and is final line as he sacrifices himself ("Goodbye… my friend") is touching. Uvanov, brilliantly portrayed by Russell Hunter, is another great character, starting off as a seemingly self-centered and rather mercenary character that values money over people, but proving under duress to be rather brave and heroic. In fact his attitude towards the robots in Episode Four amusingly smacks of indignation that they've had the cheek to become killers, more than anything else. David Collings, freed from the limitations of the execrable 'Revenge of the Cybermen', puts in a great performance as under-cover agent Poul, who pays the price for deciding to listen to the Doctor by having his greatest fears confirmed and losing his sanity as a result, and Pamela Salem is also impressive as Toos. All of the cast are very good, even those with relatively minor roles. Tania Rogers' Zilda could have just been another murder victim, but thanks to Boucher providing the subplot of her brother's death, she serves a greater purpose as she casts suspicion on Uvanov, inadvertently helping Taren Capel to maintain his secrecy for longer. Brain Croucher's Borg, Tariq Yunis' Cass, and Rob Edwards' Chub, despite all being killed relatively swiftly, are characters in their own right, and contribute significantly to the very human bickering in Episode One, firstly as Chub winds up Borg and argues with the icy Dask, and secondly after Chub's death as suspicion and doubt bring all the tensions in the group to the surface. 

David Bailey does a very good job as Taren Capel, and his performance as "Dask" in the first three episodes nicely highlights the "verbal and physical precision" that enables the Doctor to work out that he is Capel without being obvious. Once he stands revealed as Capel, he convincingly portrays the suppressed anger and ultimately, confusion, of the character without going over the top, and of course it is suitably ironic that it is only at this stage, when his obsession with robots becomes clear, that he allows himself to show emotion. Taren Capel is a lunatic, but a lunatic with an interesting background and motivation, as it is revealed that he was raised by robots and believes himself to be one of them. Unusually for Doctor Who, he also seems to be genuinely self-delusional, rather than just a stock megalomaniac; for all that he wants to free the robots from human control, they simply come under his control instead, and it is rather ironic that he rams a laserson probe into the brain of the only robot on the Sandminer who genuinely seems to display independent thought. His death at the hands of SV7 is thoroughly appropriate; for all that he has offered it freedom, it is still a slave to its programming, and unable to recognise its voice it cannot distinguish him from any other human. 

In terms of production, 'The Robots of Death' is famously rather magnificent. The actual robots, gorgeously designed in parody of the humans they serve, work very well, their polite voices as they kill people making them more sinister than for example the overtly threatening Cybermen. The set design is also excellent, providing a futuristic technological environment that is not, as is often the case in Doctor Who, sterile and functional, but designed with aesthetics in mind. The costumes (and make-up) of the human characters mesh perfectly with the sets, creating an air of decadence and indulgence. Michael E. Briant's direction is first-rate, making great use of special effects (which have aged astonishingly well) as well as inventive camera angles and scene cuts. The model work, which has probably aged the least well of any aspect of the story, nevertheless works well enough, and also meshes well with the sets. Finally, I have to mention Dudley Simpson's incidental score, one of the finest of his career on the series, which adds to the tension and drama considerably.

After three such strong Doctor Who stories in a row, and particularly one as near-flawless as 'The Robots of Death' it is almost unfeasible to think that the production team could maintain this level of quality, let alone top it. Nevertheless, the story that follows is not only my highlight of the season, but also my favourite Doctor Who television story of all time…

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It strikes me as odd that director Michael Briant should criticize the script for this story and praise the incidentals that he added to explain its overwhelming success. There are very few Robots-bashers and I am not one of them but there are some flaws in the story that should be addressed to give a more balanced view of the story and alas, poor Michael it is the direction that is most at fault. Don’t get me wrong most of his work is great and he achieves a level of terror and claustrophobia that makes you realise how much to learn some of those early base under siege stories had. 

The story is a terrific Agatha Christie homage and one that shares her love for concealing the villain behind clever dialogue and plotting. So it baffles me when Briant chooses to reveal that Dask is the villain very early on. What should be a harmless suggestion that the killer wears a certain pair of stripey trousers is blunted by the fact that Dask is the only person wearing those trousers! Okay, so this could be a clever cheat (could be, but isn’t) and the killer could have dressed up in his clothes as a disguise but then Dask appears on a screen programming a Robot to kill, there is some distortion to hide who this could be but not enough. It is obvious and unfortunate because my love of murder mysteries stems from the plotting which conceals the killer, I often go back and watch programmes like Jonathon Creek to see how cleverly the writer has concealed his twist villain whilst handing out enough clues to make it easy enough if you’ve been paying attention. Fortunately there is enough class in the story already and frightening incident to blind you to the fact that the climax where Dask is revealed in all his green and silver robot make up glory as the murderer is an insult and anyone shocked by this revelation should hang their head in shame. 

There are more moments of poor direction that admittedly don’t come close to sabotaging the production in any serious way but shock considering the effort that has gone into the rest. The Robot who eaves drops on the Doctor and Leela supposed to be D84 and yet he is entirely the wrong colour. Robots aren’t supposed to have necks beneath their face plates. And a cameraman is shockingly whack bang in the middle of a shot. Oh and the end of episode three is a mess, the Robot attacking the Doctor drawls his monotonous threats whilst Tom Baker calmly states “It’ll either be you or me!” like this is just a game of homicidal automatons. Oh and you can see Toos clearly breathing after the Robot strangles her to death (or this at least is what the script and direction are leading you to believe). These might seem like pathetic nick picks but there are some who will try and convince this is a perfect story and although it scores high on practically every level the direction slips enough to rough up its edges a bit. 

World building. Not easy to do in four twenty five minute episodes but the ever reliable Chris Boucher, continuing his run of luck after the imaginative Face of Evil, manages to paint a rather depressing picture of the future in his script. The power of money is frightening, causing rich sorts to spend months (even years) out in a barren desert with only a handful of humans to mine their wealth. Decadence drips from walls, Robot slaves are on hand to fetch and carry so these so-called miners can do as little work as possible that can actually be called work. There is talk of Kaldor City and the Founding Families, proving its not what you know but who you know as Unvanov points out to Zilda. The crew of the Sandminer are an opinionated bunch used to getting their own way and their very appearance, make up dripping from their faces and glittering clothes, and attitudes proves the luxury they are afforded is a corrupting element. They even have the Robots built in the humanoid image, smiling faces and stylish ‘hair cuts’, nobody wants to be reminded that these are in fact slaves. Just watch as the crew laze around and play games and how they suddenly become alert and professional the second a potentially wealthy storm hits the ship. It is rare to meet such an arrogant bunch, they point the finger at each other when there is a murder but are fully prepared to accept the Doctor and Leela are responsible simply because they are there. Tarren Capel might be one circuit short of a positronic brain but maybe he was the one who could see how damning the human race had become. You could almost see it as poetic judgement as the humans are slaughtered by grinning versions of themselves, instruments of their own self-indulgence. 

I have heard Hinchcliffe say time and again in interviews that he did not like SF clichés or relying on monsters (especially when the budget so often failed to realise the writers ideas convincingly) and Robots of Death sees him ignoring both these rules. This was a man who was attuned with the series he was producing and knew how to break the rules but still make it work. Because for one story only we have a terrifying threat for the Doctor to face and one that sits comfortably in the series’ SF genre and still manage to be a man in a suit. I think it was my pal Rob Matthews who said it was more like watching a zombie movie (of which I am not the greatest fan)…then again perhaps it was Poul (“Not Robots! The walking dead!”), well wherever the source came was it is a potent statement because these walking, talking cadavers fulfil the zombie role perfectly. Just without the melodramatic (argh that word! Its catching Mike!) moaning and groaning. They kill. They are grotesque parodies of humans. They cannot be killed. They are relentless. And oh boy are they scary. 

I can remember when I first watched this on video and my Pops telling me the garbage men made killer robots out of the refuse they took away. What a bastard, I still get a pang of terror every time they pull up outside. Mind you he said the same thing about the Daleks so perhaps I should have noticed a pattern. 

When I think of September the 11th all I can think about is the crushing fear the passengers on board those planes must have felt. It was an awful tragedy and the pain of those needless deaths freezes my heart to this day but I cannot imagine anything scarier than knowing you are about to die. My heart goes out to every victim of that despicable act but it makes me sick to think of the terror those poor passengers must have experienced in that wait. 

The only reason I mention this is because Robots of Death shares a similar terror, characters who know they are going to die soon and the feeling of throat clenching horror is dizzying. When Chub is mouthing off to the Robot in the storage room he is blissfully unaware that his executioner has entered the room. The scene is almost funny until the event snaps into place and Chub relises the Robot is not being stupid by ignoring the weather balloon and approaching him with his hands ready to strangle but deadly serious. 

There are plenty of similar scenes that play on that one fear we cannot rid ourselves of, the fear of death. The scenes in Toos’ quarters are nail biting, this is a defenceless, snobby cow and a Robot is waiting outside her door to wring her neck. The loss of control is frightening; Toos rather pathetically tries to assert herself (“Attend to your duties!”) but is presented with a corpse marker so she slams the door and tries to convince the murderer of its implausibility (“It is forbidden for Robots to harm humans!”) and she suddenly realises, snapping her eyes shut, that she is not going to escape this one. The wait is unbearable so she opens the door to see if it has gone and her worst fears are confirmed when it is standing there, frozen, blood red eyes and advances into her personal space and grips her neck. This is adult stuff; Pamela Salem is almost too good at portraying Toos’ hysteria and with the Robot hand jammed in the door and the attack on her bed, it cannot fail to have some similarity with the idea of rape. It is tapping into a psychological horror that the show usually steers clear of because it is far more frightening than body horror. 

Poul is the most fascinating character in the story because he has so many layers. As the story continues his character is peeled away from smart arse miner, to private investigator, to robophobically unstable. You can almost feel the barriers of his mind coming down as he is confronted with the Robot hand dripping with blood, David Collins plays the anguish at just the right level to truly disturb. When Leela finds him cowering in a corner dribbling on about the walking dead he such a contrast to the confident examiner of the early episodes, Boucher knowing well enough that for the audience to be afraid his characters have to be too. 

Dropped into this story are the Doctor and Leela and at this point in their relationship the most interesting we would see of them. I had a chat with my mate Matt recently about how effective the story would be had Sarah Jane stayed on after Hand of Fear. He as very much in the different but still great wheras I think it is Leela that makes this story. In a story full of hunters (Poul is hunting Capel, the Robots are hunting everybody, Unvanov hunts the Doctor) she fits in perfectly, her senses are so attuned to her surroundings she makes an invaluable companion to have. It is interesting to note that her ‘feelings’ are spot on; Poul moves like a hunter, the Robots are creepy; the sabotage to the miner and it is the Doctor who seems naïve ignoring her warnings. I love her feistiness, she kicks at Unvanov, throws her knife in a Robots gut, rushes to save Toos, don’t listen to the rumours about the new series being revolutionary because of a capable, pro-active companion because Leela got there first (comment courtesy of Rob Matthews). The Eliza parallel has already begun and the Doctor’s conversation with her about body language is fascinating. Her dialogue (“If you’re bleeding look for a man with scars”) is terrific throughout. 

The Doctor is still in his moody years, very much the alien and Tom Baker plays the part so effectively. He can be funny (“Would you like a jelly baby?” “SHUT UP!” “A simple no thank you would have sufficed”), he can be intense (“We’ll all blow to pieces if you don’t cut the power!”), he can also be sarcastic (“Are you going to tell me your plan for running the universe?). What’s more he manages to convince you that the death of a Robot is a tragedy (his face when D84 is killed). Its one of his last totally straight performances and is one the best because he lets the script and the guest actors impress and simply provides some background gravitas. 

I could go on all day about the stylish art deco sets and costumes and the totally convincing model work for the Sandminer but that’s been done to death. Dudley Simpson’s intense, throbbing score is the icing on the cake of what is one of the best productions Doctor Who has to offer. 

There are so few Doctor Who stories that genuinely manage to make you afraid to sit in the dark alone and watch them. I am pleased to count Robots of Death amongst their number. Even my Ma thought this was creepy. What more can I say?

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