"The Robots of Death". Doctor Who, Serial 90. Tom Baker Years.

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Summary: The Robots of Death features the Doctor and Leela on a desert planet, inside of a giant mineral mining vessel that drives across the shifting sand much like a boat on water. The ship has only a few humans on board and a wide stock of robots to take up the slack. Shortly after arriving, they get caught up in a murder mystery and become natural suspects, before uncovering a deeper and more society-shattering plot.

Monday, 21 December 2009

(23:31:13 CST)

"The Robots of Death". Doctor Who, Serial 90. Tom Baker Years.

This story starts off with Louise Jameson as Leela making a yo-yo go up and down in a primal belief, quick discarded upon contemplation, that it somehow is making the TARDIS go. Moments later, upon "landing", the Doctor tells her to leave a blaster behind, invoking something like the golden rule. She puts the blaster down but brings her knife along. Hence we are shown the template for the Leela containing storylines: the intelligent but uneducated warrior who clashes with the Doctor's sense of nonviolence and introspection. I have heard rumors of a sort that Tom Baker actually personally disliked the Leela character; considered her too violent. I personally like her. Eliza Doolittle in space, the Tarzan to the Doctor's Jane, all that. It was an interesting choice to follow Sarah Jane Smith, the plucky Brit, with such a person, but it also helped fulfill the series inceased pulp, horror, and action motifs that showed up around Tom Baker's time.

Much like "The Brain of Morbius", this storyline brings in a few literary sources. The first is pretty obviously Asimov's Robot whodunit flavored Robot novels with other elements from I, Robot tossed in. Next up is Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, with the isolated group of people dropping off one by one and suspecting each other. There are also shades of Herbert's Dune. The vessel that provides the setting is a sand-ship driven across a desert planet by giant screws, staffed with what amounts to a skeleton staff and their many robots along for the ride to help pick up the slack. They are searching for important deposits on the surface and in the massive sandstorms that flow across the planet. To wit, you have a murder mystery involving a series of narcissistic people getting offed on a tight schedule, a ship's population that heavily leans towards the robot population, and a hostile planet that prevents any sort of escape. Of course, as soon as the Doctor shows up, he and Leela are quick to be accused as a presumed stowaway. The rest of the eposide follows a general pattern of (a) Doctor goes off despite being a prisoner, (b) someone else dies, (c) they blame the Doctor and/or Leela and detain one or both of them. After awhile, the deeper plot is exposed and it has a much wider impact that originally assumed. The cult of robotics versus the need of robotics versus the feaer of robotics and all that.

If you want to toss some complaints at this episode, I can think of two basic ones. First, despite the fact that someone is killing everyone else one at a time, basic precautions like staying in pairs are never taken. The attitudes of the crew explain this somewhat, but it's one thing to hate each other enough to avoid each other on a Saturday night, and another to avoid basic life-saving precautions. Secondly, the tension about sinking into the sand. It makes for a good, even great, world flavor. It is just the fact that all external shots had shown a number of rocky formations all around the sand-ship. Seems like they could have aimed for one of those and "parked". Surely the rocks aren't floating, too? Had the external shots been mostly flat sand, this scene would have worked better.

For those into the craft of taking a cheap budget (time and money wise) as far as you can, this episode has several clever devices. You have three types of robots. The Dums (in what might be considered a crass move, they are simplest, mute robots with black faces), the Vocs (more skilled, can talk, and have green faces) and the Super-Vocs (even more skilled, and silver). The Dums, Vocs, and Super-Vocs are all based on the same pattern, a plastic face and simple but appropriately futuristic looking costume; just color-swapped with a serial number on their front. The exterior shots are very much akin to Eiji Tsuburaya's miniature work with Ishiro Honda (e.g. Godzilla, but even more so stuff like Lattitude Zero and Atragon). Most of the internal shots are a combination of a handful of sparsely decorated but different sets (I am not sure if they are all on a sound-stage or not, a few them have the look of being inside of some sort of industrial place). All-in-all, well done making the show to their budget.

Perhaps most interesting in terms of speculative fiction is D84, a Dum that can speak and seems to have a greater purpose (though what purpose is initially left up in the air). Concepts of "Uncanny Valley" are also discussed, though not named, and contrasted to the reliance of robots and machinery to accomplish basic tasks. "Robotphobia" is linked to the fact that they, at least the models in this episode, fail to display basic body language which offputs some people. In the end, the ultimate question is how much misplaced faith do we have in the status quo? The murders are almost secondary to this. I must warn, though, in Doctor Who fashion, just about the time things get cooking in the "aftermath" sense of the word, the TARDIS is already gone.

Overall very satisfying, and feels less claustrophic set-wise than the previous "The Face of Evil". Tom Baker's delivery in a couple of lines is top notch and Leela, as the savage who actually is much smarter than she lets on, is starting to get some grounding. Poul (a reference to Poul Anderson), Toos, D84, SV7, and Captain Uvanov (a reference to Asimov) are all memorable characters.

I rank this one as Good-plus. I agree with many old-school Doctor Who fans who list this one as a prime example to show those new to the series. The comedy and the thoughtfulness are both well done.

Si Vales, Valeo


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