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)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: 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)
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) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44)| The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | The Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | 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)