01-03-09 “Robots of Death”
“You look ridiculous in that outfit.” --The Doctor
Like with “Claws of Axos,” I somehow feel I’ve missed the boat on this one. In the middle of a very strong season, “Robots of Death” is supposed to be a huge classic, this colossus among the star-studded repertoire of the Fourth Doctor. I’m certainly not denying it’s good—after all, it’s got Leela in it, though my praise for her takes an entirely different form from Jamie’s—the design elements, while inherently Glam Rock, are memorable; the acting is credible, the script fairly good, enough to be imitated in later stories like “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit,” “42,” and “Voyage of the Damned”—but I guess it just comes down to the fact I found it a little boring. I’m not a huge fan of robots and most of the sources that writer Chris Boucher could claim to be influenced by, I’ve never read and probably don’t want to. Besides, in comparison to the story after this one, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” “Robots” doesn’t stand a chance.
The first parallel with “Impossible Planet” is the setting. The story takes place just about entirely inside a sandminer vehicle (which must have endeared it to the show runners as it made constructing sets cheaper), which is crewed by a small collection of Earthling miners who are going a bit stir-crazy after having been cooped up together for so long (I wonder if the novelization would have the guts to suppose some of the crew had been sleeping with each other). It’s also got a large complement of robots (as opposed to the Ood in “Impossible Planet,” but treated with the same level of disdain). The early ‘70s seems to have been the era for wearing quilted things, as Sarah Jane was wearing one such outfit earlier and now the robots are all decked out in black quilted ensembles that go nicely with their tin-foil shoes. I do like the masks that complete the robots’ faces—the same look of blank, beautiful malevolence of the Host in “Voyage of the Damned.” When we first meet the crew, they are relaxing in some kind of lowered recreational area, somewhere between a dojo and the Roman-esque sets of Morphoton in “Keys of Marinus”—stylish. With the robots attending to the needs of the humans, it feels like a vague stab at satire on colonialism—I’m thinking of the British Raj principally. The acting and design is equally “Curse of Peladon”-like—everyone’s wearing eyeliner and sparkly things—but the décor in certain areas reminds me of the abstraction of “Invasion of Time.” Despite the fact they seem to be relaxing, they also wear their magnificent headgear. You’d think, like their 18th century brethren who removed wigs at home and wore comfy caps instead, they’d abandon the giant hats indoors. Not Zilda, who fish-like hat belongs in “Underwater Menace.”
Before the Doctor and Leela can even get on board, the first casualty of the robots is perpetrated. Of course, no one is quite certain he has been killed by robots, though they are fairly sure that it’s murder—“people don’t strangle themselves.” The accusations start, and because the mining culture, with its emphasis on profit, getting ahead, at the cost of all other interactions, has fostered deep distrust between the miners, everyone is playing the game carefully. I have to admit, in retrospect, the interactions between the crew is written more skillfully than I originally gave it credit for. It’s difficult to write scenes with many characters speaking; easier to write, as RTD calls them, “two-handers.” Boucher is able to keep up the suspense while establishing the characters of the miners. Chub, for example, is a bit of a waster with a casual distrust of the robots; Cass and Borg are uncomplicated, fearing for their own lives but quick to spread the blame to the others; Toos is nominally the most rational and level-headed of the miners, with a certain nobility that is doubtless conveyed by Pamela Salem’s classical acting; but I much prefer her counterpart, the unfortunate Zilda, who is catty, self-concerned, and has a personal vendetta against the leader, Uvanov. Uvanov is nicely complex, and blaming him for the killings has been suggested throughout by some clever writing, even though he is proven to be innocent of this particular crime (though Zilda does discover some underhanded in his past).
Leela and the Doctor are persuaded into the sandminer because “the sand will cut us to pieces!” However, showing a bit of the First Doctor, the Doctor adds, “First we find the TARDIS, then we have a little scout around.” He’s then nearly buried in Cocopops. Leela kicks butt, as usual, as the Doctor tries to persuade the tense miners that he and his companion are not responsible for the murders. How true is it to real life that every time the Doctor and companion land somewhere there’s been a sudden murder, they are blamed, or at least considered as suspects? Is it just because it’s human nature to be suspicious of strangers? Or is just convenient to the writers to do this time and again? The Brigadier would just once to see an alien menace not immune to bullets; I would like to see a community that doesn’t immediately suspect the Doctor just because he has arrived from nowhere. Maybe that’s an unreasonable request! “D is for Dum!” Uvanov as he explains the hierarchy of the service robots; the Dums are the mindless workers, the Vocs the slightly more intelligent, nuanced robots, and there is one controlling SuperVoc.
I did have to express my frustration aloud that the Fourth Doctor is so often a jerk to Leela. She’s so capable most of the time, and her instincts are almost always right. If he listened to her more often he would get into far less trouble. Plus he just enjoys toying with her and making her an object of audience mockery. Now, it’s true I just got through saying that I found it dramatically fascinating to see the Seventh Doctor manipulating Ace and her fighting back, so how is that different? Possibly it has something to do with the fact that Ace is fully clothed. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a lot to be milked from Leela and the Fourth Doctor’s relationship. There is ever little question of companions being the Doctor’s equal in anything—except possibly Romana II, and that made for some dull goings-on occasionally—but I think the writers get it just right in the next serial, because Leela is able to be Eliza Doolittle and be heroic. I mention all this because it’s Leela who opines, “Are you a hunter, Poul?” She has deduced this from body language, which is actually a very important component of the story, and she is in point of fact, right. Poul and his colleague the SuperVoc D84 (who is masquerading as a Dum) are undercover government agents.
While we get mentions of Grimwade Syndrome aka Robophobia (I laughed when they said this because I was thinking of Peter Grimwade, and it turns out I was right) and various reasons why people who reprogram the robots to start this massacre, I knew from the first mention of Taren Capel that he was our culprit. To be fair, I am terrible at guessing whodunits, and for quite awhile I thought Uvanov was the responsible party. But when you introduce a character who has been brought up by robots and finds them the superior beings, you know one of the crew is going to turn out to be the man. Cometh the robot, cometh the man. Anyway, he turns out to be Dask, whose cleft chin should have given him away, muhahaha! When he comes in dressed like a robot in full Ziggy Stardust glory, the Doctor utters the above quote, which is quite apt.
Toos has been lounging about in the harem, but when she actually listens to the Doctor, she saves her life and Uvanov’s. Those two, and Poul, are the only ones left, by the way, besides the Doctor and Leela (“What do you want?” Toos screamed as a robot invaded her harem. “To kill you,” the robot deadpanned). By locking themselves inside a chamber, Toos and Uvanov are told not to let anyone back in. Uvanov, whose previous crime included letting a colleague die, is tempted to disobey the Doctor when he hears Dask outside pleading for help. Fortunately, as I said, they don’t let the Big Bad Wolf blow down their pig-built brick cottage. The Doctor comes up with a clever scheme to defeat Dask/Capel, however: because robots respond to voices rather than having good eyesight (and again, recognizing body language as Leela found out—“the First Principle of Robotics is that robots cannot harm humans!” “The Second Principle is that humans cannot harm robots. I know, I’ve tried!”) he contrives to have Leela release helium to change Dask/Capel’s voice. The robots fail to respond to his commands and he diiiies. It’s the second time in the past five stories that someone has said, “All good things come to an end,” or something like that.
Indeed, “Robots of Death” comes to an abrupt end. As soon as the helium has been released and poor Leela gets mocked as her voice changes but the Doctor remains unaffected, they disappear into the TARDIS and go! Indeed, there isn’t much reason for lingering goodbyes, but still.