The Robots of Death, by Fiona Moore, and Chris Boucher, and Terrance Dicks; and Corpse Marker, by Chris Boucher

I watched The Robots of Death when it was first shown in 1977, and hugely enjoyed it as a nine-year-old. I have rewatched it several times since and still feel the same way. When I first blogged about it in 2006, I wrote:

The Robots of Death has worn pretty well. I had seen it twice before – the original showing in 1977 when I was 9, and I think again some evening about ten years ago watching someone’s video when there may have been booze and conversation as distractions. The robots themselves look superb – swisstone has commented on the origins of the design. I had not previously picked up the very interesting tension between Uvanov, the captain of the trawler, and the First Families representatives Zilda and Cass – it is an interesting inversion of racial politics, since Zilda and Cass are clearly of non-European origin, unlike the rest of the crew, but are also deferred to socially.

I had forgotten how good Louise Jameson is as Leela. She doesn’t steal the show – as always, that is centred on Tom Baker’s Doctor – but it’s a very interesting performance, I guess the only seriously physically assertive female companion bar perhaps Ace. My sister-in-law giggled manically at the line, “You talk like a Tesh!” for a reason that is only comprehensible if you know who my in-laws are. Which is why I think we’ll watch The Face of Evil next. (After catching up with Sunday’s Torchwood and re-watching yesterday’s Doctor Who.)

It’s also unusual to see a Doctor Who story which is quite so obvious in its homage to classic sf. As long-time readers of this blog well know, I hate cute anthropomorphic robots. But the Robots of Death, despite being designed to Asimovian specifications (at least as far as the First Law is concerned), are not cute at all, even if they are anthropomorphic. The one person who does think they are cute turns out to be the psychopathic murderer. There’s a moral there; are you listening, Mike Resnick? Also the mining machine on the surface of a desert planet is very reminiscent of Dune (though no sandworms here as far as we know).

The plot, of course, doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny – as ever, the Doctor happens to arrive just at the moment of crisis, and the powers-that-be accept his credentials as a benevolent actor pretty swiftly (though it must be admitted not as swiftly as in some stories); and we find out who the villain of the piece is long before the characters do (though the Doctor seems to have worked it out). But it’s all done with great conviction, and the whole thing just looks fantastic.

When I came back to it for my Great Rewatch in 2010, I was still convinced, though more briefly:

The Robots of Death is another jewel of a story – Baker and Jameson on top form, a stellar guest cast, a claustrophobic and believable scenario, understated but convincing special effects. Gregory de Polnay’s heroic D84 stands out as a particularly great character – “Please do not throw hands at me!” – but everyone is good; Davids Baillie and Collings as baddie Dask and good guy Poul, and Russell Hunter as the besieged commander Uvanov, Pamela Salem as loosely-dressed Toos. And Louise Jameson, now playing Leela in a high-tech envornment, is just fantastic. I really found it something of a struggle to keep to my one-episode-a-day discipline while watching this.

It’s also interesting that The Robots of Death has a substantial aftertrail. Chris Boucher’s novel Corpse Marker takes up the story of the Doctor and Leela returning to Kaldor City to see what happened to the Sandminer crew, and there are then a series of excellent audios set in Kaldor City by Alan Stevens, Jim Smith, Fiona Moore, Daniel O’Mahony and Chris Boucher, including not only Uvanov but also Paul Darrow playing a sinister character who is obviously Avon under a pseudonym (Boucher was of course script editor for Blake’s 7). Strongly recommended.

Rewatching it again, I still think it is great. Why can’t Doctor Who, or indeed life, be that good all the time? You can get the DVD here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Terrance Dicks’ novelisation is:

‘This time,’ muttered Zilda.

When I reread it in 2008, I wrote (briefly):

Doctor Who and the Robots of Death loses in the transition to the written page; the TV version just looks so memorable, and I think hints better at the background setting of Kaldor City.

Again I have little to add; where Dicks sometimes enriched the narrative for the printed page, here he simply transposed from the TV script. Not one of his more memorable efforts, but you can get it here.

On the other hand, I went back to Chris Boucher’s sequel novel Corpse Marker, and found it an excellent expansion of the Robots of Death continuity. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Watching them, the Doctor had begun to think that what one member of any particular group of six learned, the others in that group would also know. How the information was communicated within the group he was not yet sure and he could not tell whether there was the same communication between the different groups. Were they factory-produced clones? He wondered. Was each group of six effectively a multiple of one single individual? And was that the root of their mysterious powers of communication?

When I previously read it in 2008, I enjoyed it:

Corpse Marker takes us to Kaldor City and the three surviving crew members from The Robots of Death, several years on, in a complex web of political intrigue and threat. Once again Leela gets some good bits, and for once Boucher’s world-building is on form: Kaldor City feels pretty real, and there are a number of very visual moments. One of the characters actually has escaped from Blake’s Seven, but I think I missed that particular episode. My caveats about Boucher’s portrayal of the Doctor still apply, though.

Again, I don’t have much to add: perhaps one point is that we don’t often get to revisit a society after the Doctor has intervened and see what effect he has had. You can get Corpse Marker here.

Unusually for a Black Archive author, Fiona Moore has already contributed fictionally to the Robots of Death universe via the Kaldor City audios, which you can get here. So it’s not very surprising that she comes to the story with an even more positive approach than me, wanting to explain why it works so well, without explaining it away. She succeeds in this.

The first chapter, ‘The Robots of Death in Context’, starts with the big picture of 1970s arty TV, then zooms in on the Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who and then briefly examines some of the aspects of the story that make it work.

The second chapter, ‘Script to Screen’, delightfully finds that some of the best bits were added at the last moment, by the actors including Tom Baker.

The third chapter, ‘The Machine Man’, looks at the very direct impact of Expressionism on the design of the story, specifically through the classic film Metropolis. The second paragraph is:

There are three reasons why the design of The Robots of Death is effective. Firstly, it is of a high aesthetic standard; much of it could work out of context, simply as art. Secondly, it makes use of the common technique of using past design rather than ‘futuristic’ designs, which can wind up dating a story. However, above all of this, the past society being referenced was one whose interests and concerns harmonised with the themes of the story itself.

The fourth chapter, ‘Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Stupidity’, points out that contra some descriptions, the robots themselves don’t actually rebel; and finds roots for the story’s take on AI in the back-story of Dune.

The fifth chapter, ‘Class and Power in the Works of Chris Boucher’, looks at how these themes played out in The Robots of Death and in his other TV work, the series Blake’s 7, Gangsters and Star Cops and the two other Doctor Who stories (both of which have been Black Archived), The Face of Evil and Image of the Fendahl.

The sixth chapter, ‘Cast All Ethnicities’, makes the point that the story is ahead of its time in assembling a multi-ethnic cast and treating them equally, though the character of Leela is a little problematic.

The seventh chapter, ‘The Legacy of The Robots of Death’, lists at the various Kaldor-set sequels in print and audio (though curiously does not mention Moore’s own authorship explicitly, except in a footnote), and then also looks at the treatment of similar themes in the Ood stories of New Who, and Voyage of the Damned, Oxygen and Kerblam!.

All in all this is a good roundup of why the story is a good one, and it also spurred me to reread Corpse Marker. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

BSFA Best Non-fiction

Five finalists here, three of them online essays and two monographs. I found it pretty easy to rank them, and I will be very surprised if voters choose something other than my own first preference. (Having said that, I was surprised last year!)

5) “Preliminary Observations From An Incomplete History of African SFF”, by Wole Talabi

Second paragraph of third section, with footnotes and graphs:

The database contains 30 nationalities represented by 497 authors, but Nigeria and South Africa make up more than 73% of the works. Reasons for this are likely colonial legacies of proximity to Western publishing, size, economics, etc. Looking at this in the context of population[3] and gross domestic product (GDP)[4] and limiting to countries with total works having proportional significance (> 1%), it’s clear that these are key factors in the trend, and the number of works is most strongly correlated to GDP with a linear regression R2 value of 0.97. South Africa produces a lot more than its population would suggest, and Ghana and Tanzania produce less.
[3] Based on the United Nations (UN) official 2021 statistics.
[4] Estimates for 2022 from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

I’m always up for a good bit of statistical analysis, and this has some decent crunchy numbers about science fiction in Africa. I must say that I am surprised to see so little from Francophone countries (let alone others) and wonder if there is some selection effect going on. The writer disarmingly admits up front that it is incomplete.

While I found it interesting, I’m not ranking it higher than fifth out of five. The main text has less than 1100 words.

4) “Too Dystopian for Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective”, by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

Third paragraph (there are no sections):

It has often been surmised, most especially around discussions of war, climate change, natural disasters, and more recently the outbreak of COVID-19, in articles like this in Wired and on The Apeiron Blog we are living in a dystopia. This realization has weaned many of the need for apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian fiction, and has them preferring instead to immerse themselves in lighter, more upbeat and positive work. This is of course valid, as we all must do what we feel right. But beyond personal preferences of individuals for lighter, “happier” works in this period of gloom, there is a wider and more general assertion that dystopias, apocalypses, grimdark, dark fantasy, and the like are now unnecessary because we live in and have it all around us. A Publishers Weekly piece talks about dystopian fiction losing its lustre due to the pandemic and spells doom for the subgenre of doom. But is this really so? In a viral tweet, the account tweets its disagreement, which I quite agree with, saying that “Dystopian fiction is when you take things that happen in real life to marginalized populations and apply them to people with privilege.” The dystopian reality is not new and has been with us for a while. Its fictionalizing continues till date despite those debates regarding its relevance or necessity.

Another very interesting piece, making the point that a lot of concepts which European and US writers consider to be the stuff of dystopian fiction are happening right now in the reality of Africa, specifically in Nigeria. It’s an important perspective and I hope people read it. I’m marking it down, however, for two reasons: first, it could have done with a bit of editorial smoothing – it reads rather first draft-y (even the above paragraph shows this); second, again, it is rather short (3100 words) and I prefer the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction to celebrate substantive contributions.

3) “The Critic and the Clue: Tracking Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker“, by the much-missed Maureen Kincaid Speller

Second paragraph of third section:

Similarly, Garner has ranged back and forth in time. The Stone Book Quartet (1976–8), ostensibly about Garner’s own family—and its cantankerous patriarch, the stonemason, Robert—brought with it the first hint of Garner’s interest in deep time. When Robert takes his daughter, Mary, under Alderley Edge to visit a chamber whose clay floor is marked by thousands of footprints, representing all the Garners who has visited it, we are asked to marvel at this sense of continuity. It is presented as a family rite of passage, although so far as anyone knows, there was no actual family ritual of this sort.

One of MKS’s last bits of criticism, this is a detailed examination both of the reception and of the content of Alan Garner’s recent novel, ending with a reflection on the role of the critic which is perhaps a suitable envoi for her own career. Over 8,000 words, which is getting a bit more substantial compared to the two above. I have not read Treacle Walker, and to be honest Maureen’s review doesn’t strongly incline me to do so. But I like her ending:

As I’ve noted, disagreeing is very much part of the critical process. And reviews are part of the critical process too, even if, in this instance, they do not offer that much critical insight into the novel.

And it is the insight I’m in search of, both when I read criticism and when I write it. I’m not interested in whether X likes a novel, any more than you should be interested in whether I dislike a novel. The questions should always be, “What is this piece of fiction doing, does it work, and if not, why not?” Everything else unfolds from that.

2) Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: Organization Theory and Strategy in Westeros, by Fiona Moore

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The first type of leadership theories we will be considering are the earliest to emerge, largely between the 1920s and the 1960s, and are known as “behavioural theories of leadership”. What they have in common is that they generally assume (a) that there are leaders (as opposed to followers); (b) that leaders can be identified and classified into types; and (c) that those types can be defined by certain ways of behaving. Despite their age, they also, more or less overtly, still tend to have a strong influence on popular management literature and leadership teaching, and some of them have passed into popular culture with regard to leaders and leadership.

Fiona Moore is a professor of Business Anthropology in her day job, and a fan and critic on the side (at least I think it’s that way round), and this is her elucidation of some of the principles of basic management theory as they are demonstrated in the TV series Game of Thrones, with occasional reference to the books where needed. It’s always useful for someone like me to see some of the principles I find myself engaged with at work applied in fiction, so in a sense the book ticks both a fannish box and a professional box for me. Also mercifully short.

1) Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Granny Pratchett, Terry’s paternal grandmother, rolled her own cigarettes. Then, having smoked them, she would take the butts from the ashtray, pick the paper apart and return any strands of unburnt tobacco to the tin where she kept her supply. Waste not, want not. As Terry wrote in a short essay about her in 2004, ‘As a child this fascinated me, because you didn’t need to be a mathematician to see that this meant there must have been some shreds of tobacco she’d been smoking for decades, if not longer.’

This is also a very good book about a very important subject. A lot of us know parts of the Terry Pratchett story – I first heard him speak in public in Cambridge in, I think, 1987, and last saw him at the 2010 Discworld Convention, and spoke to him a couple of times in between. It’s lovely to have it all between two covers, with the laughs and the tears, and with Rob also explaining the complicated nature of his relationship with Terry over the years, beginning as amanuensis and ending as nurse. At 439 pages, it’s easily twice as long as the other four finalists combined, and also surely has more weight and relevance than the other four combined; I am voting for it and I expect that others will do so as well.

I’m conscious that I have ranked these in order of increasing length; but to be honest, if we are ranking finalists by the extent of their contribution to our appreciation of the genre, length is an important indicator of the magnitude of that impact. It’s nice that the BSFA final ballot has a certain diversity of form, but it doesn’t always turn into a fair comparison for the shorter pieces.

BSFA Short Fiction

(See also: Best Art)

There are only four finalists in the Short Fiction category for the BSFA Awards this year. From shortest to longest, they are:

“Things Can Only Get Better”, by Fiona Moore

Second paragraph of third section:

“What?” Wills set her drink down very carefully on the melamine-look surface.

A fun short story about intelligent machines (“Things”) and crime.

“O2 Arena”, by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Second paragraph of third section:

We had a plethora of assignments and projects that kept us buried to our eyebrows, even on weekends. But assignments were rarely my concern on weekdays, much less weekends. And on this weekend, Ovoke was gone.

Grim tale of a near-future Nigeria where people have to pay for everything, even the air that they breathe.

Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard

Second paragraph of third section:

It burnt. The tea burnt. Soggy tea leaves caught fire right in the throne room, in full view of everyone else. Not just in her nightmares or in her bedroom.

Vietnamese-flavoured court politics combined with a g/g love story. Loved it.

Light Chaser, by Peter Hamilton and Gareth Powell

Second paragraph of third section:

“Hello.” She bent down and tickled the purring creature behind its ears. “You liked the fish I made for you, did you?”

Very interesting timeline mystery where the central character keeps visiting planets after very long intervals to find a peculiar legacy.

I liked all of these, but one has to express a preference, so I think mine will be 1) Fireheart Tiger, 2) “Things Can Only Get Better”, 3) “O2 Arena”, 4) Light Chaser. I don’t see an obvious front-runner.

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