My Christmas present (well, one of them) from my wife was the DVD release of The Robots of Death, and we just sat down and watched it yesterday after lunch (after watching the other single DVD I got, the 1995 Les Miserables concert – my Christmas haul of DVDs also included the first two seasons of the West Wing, which I have somehow managed to miss completely up to now).
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.
The story has some remarkable concepts for its time – the idea of a computer network covering the entire world, which could be taken over by a rogue artificial intelligence, is a cliché now that we have the internet, but was surely fairly cutting-edge in 1966. One character has to explain to another what “software” is; it’s impossible to imagine such a scene being written now. Of course, the execution is a bit raw; in particular, the War Machines themselves are just cut-price Daleks, the white heat of mid-60s technology being no match for Skaro’s finest. The evil computer WOTAN can speak but needs to have questions typed into it. Hartnell, as ever, makes it all very believable.
It’s also interesting to see the Doctor just fitting in to Britain’s establishment circles, and roping in Sir Charles Summer of the Royal Scientific Society as his automatic ally. Some purists have objected that the Doctor must be an outsider, but in fact we’ve seen him slip in and out of establishment roles right up to the present – the Ninth Doctor is still on the books as a major expert on aliens when the Slitheen arrive, after all. Purists, however, are right to object to WOTAN’s scandalous naming of our hero as “Doctor Who”.
I was sorry to see Dodo go. I realise I have now seen or listened to all of her series except The Celestial Toymaker, and I think Jackie Lane is excellent. She is particularly good here, taken over by the evil computer intelligence at an early stage, completely hoodwinking the Doctor. He is really very angry when he discovers that she is not coming with him at the end of the story. Polly burbles, “She says she’s feeling much better, and she’d like to stay here in London, and she sends you her love.” “Her love!!!” snarls the Doctor, “There’s gratitude for you! Take her all the way round the world, through space and time -” and then Ben interrupts him to ask what he is talking about, and what was looking like an excellent First Doctor rant is cut off. It must be admitted that Ben and Polly slip very comfortably into their roles as the Doctor’s new friends.
It’s fun; you have to make allowances, but it is fun.