A perfectly decent piece of science fiction; but a perfectly decent piece of science fiction which doesn't particularly need to have the Doctor in it. Another Doctor Who story which could perfectly well have been an episode of Blake’s Seven.
We’re in the desert. A huge vehicle is crawling through the sand. It’s full of robots. The world is holding its breath, waiting for Star Wars: it doesn’t know it yet.
It’s not a Sand Crawler, but a Sand Miner. It is chasing sandstorms, because sandstorms bring to the surface Plot Devisium, a rare mineral that people will risk their lives for. The idea of sandstorm chasers is maybe more Thunderbirds than Doctor Who, but Matt Irvine has done a decent job cobbling the model kit together in his bedroom. It will be a decade or two before Babylon 5; but some deft use of green-screen lets us look at the cast through the window of the model. It isn’t that convincing, but everyone is doing their best.
It all feels very 1980s, as things made in the late 1970s are inclined to do. The humans wear silly head-dresses and feathers and tunics with turned up collars. The robots have Greek masks, quilted jackets and sound a lot like the original Cybermen. People say that they look Art Deco: I think they look like porcelain dolls with Japanese styling. Maybe that’s what Art Deco means? Last week, the Tesh also gave the impression of being worked by strings like Japanese marionettes.
But it’s a shrewd piece of design. If you are going to do a story in which robot servitors turn against their human masters, then of course the robots should look ornate and beautiful and unthreatening.
They could perfectly well have been chrome robots. The story would still have worked. They could have been on board a space ship mining for rare minerals among the asteroids. It wouldn’t have made any difference. But porcelain robots in the desert gave Robots of Death a distinctive aesthetic. That’s the main thing we remember about it.
Someone called Chubb is found dead. The crew of the Sandminer is assembled in the library to work out who killed him.
In the classic whodunnit, everyone spends a lot of time trying to work out which of the Duke’s guests slipped poison in the old man’s wine. When all the red herrings are played out, it is revealed that the wine was poisoned, not by one of the suspects, but by the previously un-noticed non-speaking part whose only role has been to pour the drinks. The Butler, proverbially, dunnit. If the story were called the Butlers Of Death this would not be a particularly surprising twist. The question is never “Who is doing the murdering?” but “Who is reprogramming robot butlers to murder people?”
The crew treat the situation as if it were a game of Cluedo. They playfully undermine each other’s alibis and try to incriminate their friends. (“At the time Pohl heard the scream...” says Someone “Says he heard the scream” says Someone Else “Let’s leave the point open.”) No-one remotely behaves as if one of their colleagues has just strangled another one of their colleagues. Jon Pertwee was still hosting a solve-your-own-murder game show on ITV.
Then, in a wholly unexpected twist, the Doctor and Leela arrive. Guess who suspicion immediately falls on?
There are a lot of characters, and it is quite hard to keep track of which is which, let alone care who the murderer is. And Boucher doesn’t stick to the rules: there is no moment where all the clues and red herrings are placed on the table so that we could theoretically solve the puzzle. In Episode 2 we find out that the Captain murdered the brother of one of the crew on a previous trip; in Episode 3 we find out that, no, as a matter of fact the young man’s death was an accident and the Captain has felt bad about it ever since. Both these new pieces of information are plucked out of thin air.
When Leela finds the robot D84 incriminatingly near another dead body, the robot says “If I had killed him, I would have killed you too?" Later the Captain asks Leela why he shouldn’t kill her, and she applies the same logic: if he intended to do so he would have killed her already. It all feels like a Whodunnit written by someone who doesn’t really write Whodunnits.
It fairly rapidly turns out that a mad scientist (“a very mad scientist” says the Doctor) named Taren Capel is on board the miner. Capel was raised by robots, thinks like a robot and wants to ferment a robot revolution. He has been reprogramming the robots to kill humans, not because he holds a grudge against any individual, but as part of a robot versus human vendetta.
So the question becomes “Which of the crew is Taren Capel in disguise?” There are so many characters—and they each get so little screen time—that the final resolution that someone called Dask is Capel does not so much elicit a gasp of astonishment (“good heavens, the Butler”) as a sigh—“Wait a minute, which one was he?” It doesn’t help that he puts silly green and silver make up on his face to try to make himself look more robot-like. When we first see him giving one of the robots a damn good reprogramming with a big red syringe; he is wearing a Klan style hoodie. No-one else is watching: he just wants to keep us viewers guessing for another episode. By Episode 4, the murder-mystery has given way to something more like a base-under-siege Doctor Who story, with a bad scientist and evil robots walking slowly down corridors shouting “Death to all humans!”
Like Face of Evil, Robots of Death contains some quite interesting ideas. Leela, being a “savage” can intuitively read body-language. She spots that there is something strange about Poul because he “moves like a hunter”. Robots, of course, don’t have body-language: and this freaks Poul out to the point of a complete mental breakdown. (“His mind is broken” says Leela.) The idea that robots are uncanny — the concept of “robophobia” — is a strong one. But it isn't particularly relevant to how the story plays out. The Doctor says that a civilisation which is too heavily dependent on robots will come to an end when it realise that they can be reprogrammed to harm humans: but this apocalyptic possibility doesn’t spoil anyone’s day. And while the idea of robotic Tarzan — a human raised by robots who thinks he is one —is quite cool, its hard to see why wiping out the crew of the Sandminer is a sensible starting point for your plot to overthrow the human race.
But this is not a bad way of composing a Doctor Who story. This is Saturday night TV, not hard science fiction and certainly not a treatise about artificial intelligence. Why not throw out good ideas scattergun style — give the kids something to think about while giving them an entertaining story?
Blake’s 7 was structured like a situation comedy: a group of individuals who don't got on are stuck in a situation they can't get out of. The crew of the Liberator spent most of their time bickering with one another. This kind of thing is only entertaining if the individual lines are reasonably sharp: people being bitchy at each other palls after a few minutes. Terry Nation cut his teeth writing comedy, and Blake’s 7 is often quite funny. Chris Boucher can’t really pull it off, and a lot of the dialogue in Robots of Death comes across as merely childish. When the Captain asks the Doctor “What are you doing here?” the Doctor replies “Oh, just standing here talking to you.” This is so funny that he does it again in the next episode “What were you doing in the scoop?” “Trying to get out.” Two crew members, Borg and Toos, have a full on playground spat (“Why don’t you shut your mouth?” “Why don’t you shut yours?”) but the Doctor’s “you are a classic example of the inverse relationship between size of mouth and size of brain” amounts to the same thing, but with added pomposity. Everyone resists the temptation to say "Well, so's your mum".
The Flanderisation of the Fourth Doctor continues. He munches a jelly baby as he walks down a corridor in episode 1; he offers one to Borg in episode 2, who throws it across the room. (“A simple no thank you would have been sufficient.”) When one of the robots has been ordered to kill the Doctor, he puts his own hat and scarf onto a different robot to distract it. If we aren't very careful, then hat, scarf and jelly babies will become what the Fourth Doctor has instead of a personality.
But there are some good Baker moments. At the end of episode 3 The Doctor and the Captain are cornered by a robot. The Doctor thinks, incorrectly, that the Captain is controlling the Robots; the Captain claims that the Robot has simply followed him. “Now either it followed you, or else it homed in on this" says the Doctor, very casually, in a spirit of mild scientific curiosity. "It depends which of us is going to be killed first. That is, you or me.” And then the theme music kicks in.
The Doctor describes D84 as a “robot detective”; and for much of Episodes 2 and 3 the Doctor and the Robot work together, with Leela dedicating herself to the important business of getting locked in rooms. It wouldn’t be quite true to say that D84 is potential companion material, but he does spend a lot of the story acting as the Doctor’s side-kick. When the robot volunteers to lay down his life in a daring plot device because he is not important, the Doctor responds “I think you are very important.” This is consistent with the idea that the Doctor might have travelled alone after Deadly Assassin, with Leela, D84, and Litefoot acting as single-story confidents.
In 1977, most households only had one TV set and there were only three channels: if one person wanted to watch Doctor Who then the whole family had to watch it too. Middle-aged men notoriously dislike all that crazy science fiction jazz: the only thing that prevented them going into another room and reading a dirty book was the tantalising possibility of seeing Louise Jameson in shorts. “Something for the Dads” they used to say. Teenaged boys don’t generally like Doctor Who, and certainly aren’t interested in female flesh. Honestly, I’m not sure how well this theory holds up. But it is certainly true that Doctor Who had to appeal to more than one demographic. It was increasingly a complex, cerebral drama; you had to pay attention if you were going to follow it. That maybe why Episode 1 ends with a silly trap, and Episode 2 begins with an equally silly escape. The Doctor is buried alive in space-sand, but, very fortunately, has a snorkel in his pocket which keeps him from suffocating. Doctor Who may be increasingly turning into Science Fiction but it can still do old fashioned cliff-hangers. The hero in danger. Something for the kids.
But it's still pretty dark. Not realistic: the fights, the strangulation and the face slaps are all done in the style of English stage acting. But I don’t think that allows us to overlook how nasty it is. People are strangled and scream; knives are thrown; other people are stabbed with giant hypodermic syringes; one of the robots is found with blood on its hands. It wouldn’t be Doctor Who without at least one execution: the Doctor is strapped to a bench while the syringe comes down towards his head. And there is some rather sadistic talk about whether the Robots are going to kill the humans quickly or slowly.
People used to complain about the violence on Doctor Who. I am more inclined to use the word “cruelty”. Robots of Death is a strange fit for Saturday evening family viewing. I am not saying that Mary Whitehouse had a point: but it was clear that something was going to have to change.
NOTE: Bumblebees are very small. They flap their wings very fast. Aeroplanes are very big. They don't flap their wings at all. It is perfectly true that a bumblebee would not be able to fly if it was an aeroplane, but it is equally true than an aeroplane would not be able to fly if it was a bumblebee.