The Robots of Death *****

Robots attack their masters aboard a Sandminer in this immaculately crafted whodunnit – "my Desert Island Who"

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Doctor Who story guide
Mark Braxton
Mark Braxton
The Robots of Death *****

Season 14 – Story 90

"Your orders are to find and destroy all remaining humans. Secrecy is no longer necessary" - SV7

Storyline
The Tardis lands on Storm Mine 4, a sandminer vessel quarrying an alien world. When members of its robot-assisted human crew are killed, the Doctor and Leela become the prime suspects. Does Commander Uvanov know more than he is saying? Why is an undercover agent aboard? And could the unthinkable be true: that robots have been programmed to commit murder?

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 29 January 1977
Part 2 - Saturday 5 February 1977
Part 3 - Saturday 12 February 1977
Part 4 - Saturday 19 February 1977

Production
Visual effects filming: November 1976 at BBC Visual Effects Dept, west London
Studio recording: November/December 1976 at TC1 and TC8

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Leela - Louise Jameson
Uvanov - Russell Hunter
Toos - Pamela Salem
Dask - David Bailie
Poul - David Collings
Borg - Brian Croucher
Zilda - Tania Rogers
Cass - Tariq Yunus
Chub - Rob Edwards
SV7 - Miles Fothergill
D84 - Gregory de Polnay

Crew
Writer - Chris Boucher
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Kenneth Sharp
Script editor - Robert Holmes
Producer - Philip Hinchcliffe
Director - Michael E Briant

RT review by Mark Braxton
Long-term viewers would have been forgiven for yawning at the prospect of more tin-pot foes: The Dominators, The Krotons and Robot all clanked and stank in varying degrees. But it's clear within seconds that this streamlined, immaculately crafted whodunnit is a very different batch of circuits.

The titular tinheads here are arguably the best pieces of design the show has ever seen. (They clearly made an impression on Russell T Davies, if the golden Host in Voyage of the Damned are anything to go by.) With their clean lines, graceful choreography and perfect diction, the robots are utterly beautiful. The fact that they are dispassionate killers makes one's admiration all the more confused.

The voices, too, are wonderful. The calm and cultured tones of SV7 are in brutal contrast with the content of his statements ("Our controller orders that you will die slowly if you not surrender"), while the apologetic timbre of D84 is both adorable and amusing ("Please do not throw hands at me").

The hiring of Miles Fothergill and Gregory de Polnay to play the above are just two examples of the greater-than-average lengths the casting director went to. Russell Hunter is classy as the pragmatic but profit-obsessed Uvanov, his eyes blazing with don't-mess-with-me authority and avaricious zeal.

Not all the casting is canny. Brian Croucher seems to believe he's in The Sweeney ("Why don't you SHUTCHYOURMOUTH!") and Tania Rogers's breakdown scene… er, lacks conviction, shall we say.

And while we're picking… just a few seconds' work would have corrected some basic errors. The moment the capsizing sandminer levels off with a real-time jerk destroys all the good work of the modelmakers and special-effects team. Just a touch of slow-mo is all that's needed. A close-up of a damaged robot's thrashing hands clearly shows the Marigold emblem on its gloves. And who thought the Chucklevision-standard "whoosh-doink" sound effect of Leela's knife flying into V5's chest was a good idea?

But it's a multidimensional script, full of thematic punch (class, greed, the perils of automation) and referential heft (Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Karel Capek). And considering the crew is so objectionable, they are individually fascinating. All human foibles are here. Maybe the impractical headgear drove them over the edge.

Dudley Simpson excels himself via the lightest of touches: his electronic pulse to convey robotic menace is as simple but effective as John Williams's Jaws motif. And I love the sassy little rattle of a tambourine when Leela skips down a corridor.

In only her second adventure as the Sevateem savage, Louise Jameson comes into her own. Naive but quizzical, untutored but instinctive, Leela is an inspired introduction. For one thing it gives viewers ingenious explanations of baffling concepts such as trans-dimensional engineering. And it sets up a Higgins/Doolittle dynamic - more fully expressed in the next adventure - that works wonderfully. I particularly love the way Leela speaks, without the contractions of modern-day English ("I do not think I like this metal world").

The shame is that Tom Baker's oft-reported irritation with the character of Leela, and prickliness towards Jameson, is all too apparent. Leela asks the Doctor is he is all right but he doesn't reciprocate. It's a tribute to Baker that in spite of this, the Doctor still comes across as funny, mentally sharp and very much the man in charge.

From the establishing shots of episode one, The Robots of Death means business. That low view of the rumbling sandminer, the semi-aerial introduction to the crew in the recreation area, the robots criss-crossing on deck… all immerse us in the situation with alacrity. And as both a plot tip-off and capsule review, Dask's comment about their metallic servants ("They're unbeatable, commander") is a perfect statement of intent.

Director Michael E Briant has described The Robots of Death as a dreadful script. I find this extraordinary. Either the story just wasn't to his taste or the rewrite - by script editor Robert Holmes or perhaps Briant himself - must have been absolutely award-winning.

If I were forced to pick one Desert Island Who, I'd have no shame in naming this one. It's as subtle as a mouse in the wainscoting, and as powerful as a fist-sized laser-blast through armour-plating.

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Radio Times archive

RT billings

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Compilation repeat billings

Part 1
Part 2

  [Available on BBC DVD]

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