THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Robot
Last Man Running
Corpse Marker
BBC
The Robots of Death

Episodes 4 The cause of robophobia
Story No# 90
Production Code 4R
Season 14
Dates Jan. 29, 1977 -
Feb. 19, 1977

With Tom Baker, Lousie Jameson.
Written by Chris Boucher. Script-edited by Robert Holmes.
Directed by Michael E. Briant. Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe.

Synopsis: A series of murders take place on a mining ship that could only have been carried out by the most harmless creatures on board.


Reviews

A Review by James Mansson 8/2/98

The Robots of Death is a classic Doctor Who story and a strong contender for anyone?s Top Ten. Chris Boucher successfully draws on a number of different sources and combines this with his flair for characterisation and incisive dialogue.

The basic situation is typical of a detective story; a group of people are locked in together, knowing that there is a murderer among them. The setting draws on classic science fiction; Boucher cites Dune as an influence, and there is also a hint of Asimov?s Three Laws of Robotics. We see a decadent society that is dependent on robots and yet, as the Doctor observes, wary of them. Poul?s robophobia is an extreme manifestation of this fear.

The characterisation and dialogue is of a high standard. The Doctor is his usual self and gets plenty of good one-liners. Leela avoids the fate of many female companions who have a strong introductory story but then slip into the background to scream and be rescued by the Doctor. It was fortunate that the majority of her adventures were either written by Chris Boucher (who created the character) or Robert Holmes, since both of these writers understood how to use her effectively. The tension between the crew members is most effectively done. We get a good sense of the grievances that build up when a group of people are confined together in a restricted area for several months. We also get some sense of the past histories of several characters and, indeed, life outside the sand miner.

The quality of the writing is backed up by some solid acting all-round. The design of the robots is good, as is the crew?s decadent clothing and make-up. Others aspects of the production are solid; in any case, this is not a story that demanded too much of the BBC?s resources


A Review by Joseph Nunweek 16/2/98

This could well be my favourite story ever. Apart from the title, which ever so slightly dilutes the mystery of this fabulous four-parter, the rest of the serial is a ripping yarn of mystery and suspense, supported by a good cast, excellent design, more plot twists than something with a lot of plot twists, as well as humor and terrifying action sequences. I can't even make this a balanced review, I don't think there are really bad points to it.

As usual, Tom Baker shines as the good Doctor. Leela was a great companion, one complex enough to belong in the New Adventures. I can't really fault any of the performances from anyone in it. The crew backgrounds are excellent. Capel isn't another maniac: He's a radicalist for robot rights doing what he thinks is right. Zilda hates Uvanov because she feels he is responsible for her brother's death. Poul is a slightly neurotic but well-meaning man, whose sanity is crushed when his worst nightmare becomes reality.

D84 was good as well, and I think he should've become the Doctor's companion. Give me him over a little robot dog any day.

The Hinchcliffe and Holmes seasons were Doctor Who's golden era, and after seeing The Robots of Death, I wish they could've made a few more seasons.


A Review by Keith Bennett 28/6/98

Few Doctor Who stories look as good as Robots of Death. The Sandminer is impressive inside as well as out, while the robots themselves are absolutely marvellous, benefitting greatly from their straightforward, human-like design which, accompanied by their emotionless voices, makes them genuinely chilling. And it's this eyecatching look that is one of the main reasons this story is so memorable.

The characters are a bit of a strange bunch... not terribly likeable, yet very well performed. Poul stands out both as the confident, different member of the crew and then with his dramatic collapse into robophobia. One problem could be said is that too many of the characters die too early; by the end of the second episode, nearly all of them have kicked the bucket. And yet, that doesn't tend to take away from the tension, for the last two episodes are quite wonderful. There's genuine growing tension as more and more of the robots go on the rampage which, again, shows how "unkiddy" Doctor Who could really be. D:84 is a character that's simply impossible to dislike and one of the most unusual ever to appear in Doctor Who -- his unsure, almost stuttering vocal mannerisms are curious and intriguing, and it's easy to imagine having him as your best buddy or, as Joseph Nunweek suggested in his review, as a companion to the Doctor.

There are one or two things about Robots of Death that have me feeling a bit unsure of it as a whole and, to be honest, I can't quite put my finger on them; but overall, this is another outstanding story from the Philip Hinchcliffe era which holds the attention throughout, due to its enthralling visual design, superb performances and tight script. 8/10


Dead Men Don't Wear Foil Slippers by Rob Matthews 29/5/00

Yes, it's probably one of the five best Doctor Who serials. A chilling variation on Night of the Living Dead, except a lot better acted and more entertaining. It's hard to see how they could fail with a premise like this, and indeed they didn't. Just a couple of standout things-

  1. The Voc robots are like Troughton era Cybermen. No swaggering or "Excellent!" here.
  2. Leela is used exceptionally well. Who better than a savage to demonstrate a human being's instinctive reaction to living with the 'walking dead'? She is the perfect companion for this story.
  3. Poul's breakdown. Magnificent. 'The horror... the horror...' (yes, I know he doesn't actually say that)
  4. The story includes the Doctor's well-known 'that box over there over here' explanation of the TARDIS interior (I'm still none the wiser)
  5. "LET ME INNNNN!"

And just to stir things up, a couple of little niggles-

  1. From the moment we see Taran Capel on that heat-sensitive camera thing, it's obvious that he's Dask.
  2. Having all those explosives at the end is a bit convenient.
  3. D84 would NOT have made a good companion. He's fine for this one story, but if he'd stuck around any longer, he'd have been remembered about as fondly as Adric or Kamelion. Imagine how difficult it would be to write him into The Talons of Weng Chiang...
  4. Robots of Death. Why on Earth did Who stories always have to be Something of Something? How about Robophobia? Or indeed, Corpse Marker? Short Circuit? The Electronic Revolution? Ah, forget it!
  5. After the Doctor left at the end, the camera should have closed in on the twitching hand of a 'dead' robot...


An underated classic by Mike Jenkins 14/11/01

Yes it's well recieved but not nearly enough. It's easily of the calibre of other stories in the period such as The Deadly Assasin and The Talons of Weng-Chiang but is not as well recieved even though in many ways it is much stronger then these.

The creator of the Robots has a believable cheesyness about him that makes this story great fun. This is some of the greatest interplay between Leela and the Doctor and she is clearly out of her element here, forcing her to realize that she's not as powerful as she might have thought she was before. Louise Jameson's best performance on her tenure during the show. The Robots horrific charm has the perfect atmospheric horror. The Florence Nightinggale faces make this story dark and humorous all in same scene just as their voices do. Not to mention the fact their faces don't move. This lends them an extra entransic quality. Yet none of these things shy away from the fact that this is basically a good old murder mystery set to sci fi themes.


A Review by Daniel Spelner 18/1/02

The penultimate story of the Hinchcliffe era is a near masterpiece. Bouchers' taut script is free of padding and creates a highly believable as well as claustrophobic setting aboard a futuristic sand mining vehicle serviced by a crew of unnerving robots. Giving the orders to their imperturbable slaves are a group of humans who detest each other and when one of them are murdered the strain mounts... With a scenario like that, Boucher is effortlessly able to provide an exhilarating piece of drama. The intensity of the story is bolstered by the human crew who, with their clashing personalities, heighten the reality of the drama. The robots are strikingly well designed and together with their calm, emotionless voices they seem to emit coldness. Director Michael Briant excelled himself with this mesmerising, gripping story - one of the resounding greats of Doctor Who, indeed it was one of Hinchcliffe's personal favourites.


Robot Wars Extreme by Andrew Wixon 22/2/02

This is milestone story - for me, anyway. It's the event horizon at which old DW stories stop being the stuff of archive, synopsis, re-run and video release, and become actual memories from my own youth. I can still remember quite clearly images and dialogue from this story's first run, back when I was... well, very, very young. Lucky for me that it's such a great story (the next one I remember is Invisible Enemy, for example).

It's also an interesting story, mainly because of its relative strengths and weaknesses - there are the stunning robot designs, for example, and the frequent comment that this is one of the few stories where production values actually add to, rather than hobble, the script is a very valid one. But this is only a small part of what makes the story so unusual.

Robots of Death is memorable not primarily because of the murder-mystery plot - the story itself isn't particularly well written or directed. The villain is identifiable as early as episode two, that same installment's cliffhanger isn't explained, and what exactly is Taren Capel doing on this particular mine? Where the story scores more heavily than any other is in its presentation of a wholly plausible futuristic society. The robot designs contribute to this, but so do the sets, the costuming and makeup, the performances, and the script - full of neat touches and authentic-sounding slang. (As a pastiche of Asimov's Bailey & Olivaw stories, it fails, mainly because the robots would never be the killers in an Asimov story).

There's solid acting all round, even from the major robot characters, and a very effective score. Tom gets some quotable lines, too - many like the 'inverse ratio' one liner but I prefer the line about 'you're not half the robot your father was'. Another impressive Louise performance too. All that really lets the story down is the plot - and even that's pretty good. And how often do you get to put a sentence like that in a DW review? A lucanol-plated classic.


A Review by Michael Hickerson 6/3/02

Take one part of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, add a large portion of Frank Herbert's Dune with a dash of the patented Hinchcliffe years horror and stir and you've got Robots of Death.

It's easy to see why this story from Tom Baker's third season as the good Doctor is considered one of the best not only of the season, but also of all-time.

The premise is right out of the Troughton years -- the TARDIS crew show up in an isolated environment where a series of grisly murders are taking place. But whereas in the Troughton years, the threat would be an external one, such as the Cybermen or the Yeti, in Robots of Death, the threat is internal. Instead of the Cybermen attacking an isolated base and threatening a society's way of life, the robots are attacking from within and threaten to do more damage should they get out and affect the way of life in the society that the story creates.

It's a fascinating way of turning the assumptions we usually have about what a typical Doctor Who story is totally on their ear and creating a superlative Doctor Who adventure.

Robots of Death was produced at what was probably one of the heights of the Doctor's popularity -- and it's easy to see why the show was so popular. Tom Baker is completely comfortable as Doctor, Louise Jamison is at her best as Leela and the supporting cast are nothing short of stellar. Add to it Chris Boucher's literate script that springs to life with tension and a good cracking mystery and you've got one of the rarest of Doctor Who things -- the near perfect story that only gets better on each viewing. Knowing who the murderer is (and I won't give it away if by some odd reason you haven't seen this one yet) only adds to the layers upon layers that Boucher has created here. Knowing the identity and watching how the murderer manipulates people and events makes second, third or even hundredth viewings of this story much more compelling.

But beyond the script and the acting, Robots is memorable for the production design. Looking at this story now, it's amazing what the production staff achieved on the very limited budget they had. The design of the Robots themselves visually is one of the most striking features of the entire story -- so much so that the robots still look fresh and original over 20 years later.

The Robots of Death is one of those stories that I would gladly show non-fans to show them just how good Doctor Who can be. It's easily accessible, it's a cracking good "Who-dunnit" (no pun intended) and it's got some great character work. Season 14 is packed full of stories that can be considered classics and it's arguable that season 14 may be the most consistent in all of Who's long history. But of all the stories in that season, it's Robots of Death that I return to again and again when I want to watch a story that so well personifies what it is that makes Doctor Who special. It's just barely ahead of the pack for the title of Best Story of the season -- and in a season that includes Deadly Assassin, a Robert Holmes/Gallifrey story, that's saying a lot.

If you've not seen Robots of Death, do whatever it takes to see it. If you've not seen it lately, dust off that video and give it a whirl again. Better yet, if you've got the technology and the cash, splurge on the DVD release. It's one of those stories that is worth the price of admission -- and the DVD extras are very well done. (The commentary by Boucher and Hinchcliffe is nicely done and if you're in the U.S., the DeSilva intros and exits are pure nostalgia.)

Robots of Death is the Tom Baker years at their best.


A Review by Gareth McG 15/9/02

Robots of Death usually finds itself tucked in amongst the top ten in Doctor Who fan polls and while it's not quite as brilliant as the likes of Genesis or Caves the one thing that it does share with these classics is that it keeps us gripped throughout the four episodes. It's testament indeed that we don't have a minute the whole way through to stop and think about the sets - which as it happens are quite good anyway. The robots are generally accepted as one of the best design jobs in the programmes history and there is no better description of them than Leela's "creepy mechanical men". All in all this is great Doctor Who because it's exciting for just about every kind of viewer - be it frightened kiddies or the critical adult audience who demand more than just a battle of guards and crooks.

Speaking as a Psychology graduate I found all sorts of fascinations with this story. Poul, one of the robot designers, falls victim to a debilitating anxiety disorder called Robophobia. It's the perfect illustration of how ignorance can be bliss because while the rest of the crew get on with trying to save their lives Poul falls to pieces, so completely aware is he of the capabilities of robots programmed to cause chaos. D84 fails to understand the intricacies of his creator's plight because he is forever searching for the logical explanation. It's a brilliant example of how being too logical can make us fail to recognise human frailty, particularly mental illness. If D84 were a bit more rude and outspoken he'd probably tell Poul that he needed to get his arse in gear quickly, much in the same way as people often write off depression as laziness.

This human tendency towards being rational actually raises its head much earlier in the story when the Doctor attempts to explain to Leela why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside. As a bit of a novice this is the first and only time that I've seen Leela in action and this particular scene sets in motion the worst characterisation of a "savage" that you're ever likely to see. For here is a (well spoken) savage who is polite enough to apologise to the Doctor for disturbing his concentration, warm enough to comfort Toos after an attack, intelligent enough to realise that it's not SV7 on the intercom, funny enough to rip the piss out of the Commander for claiming that D84 is a mute robot, and girlie enough to run down corridors with her hands in the air. And yet Leela really works, probably far more so than if she had been portrayed as a typical one-dimensional Neanderthal woman.

Anyway it was as good an excuse as any to get Louise Jameson into a leather leotard (Mmmmm....). Baker meanwhile plays a blinder, showing his professionalism by putting his much publicised off screen dislike of Leela's character behind him and co-operating towards a great chemistry between the pair. He is his usual practical self, surviving the thrilling opening cliffhanger in the sand hopper with what looks a straw-come-snorkel. But most interestingly of all and somewhat surprisingly too the Doctor expresses a very clear dislike for all this logical thinking, criticising D84 for having "no imagination" and quoting the aerodynamic impossibility of bumble bees' being able to fly to challenge Poul's ramblings about the limitations of robots. His dry wit also comes out in spades particularly with one of the best put down lines of all time when he slags off Borg for being "a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain" (one to remember for your next drunken argument).

The rest of the characters are all well developed in the context of a murder mystery though not, at times, in other contexts. Like D84 I'm just a bit too logical to believe that Capel could have been brought up by robots (it raises too many questions) and if Commander Uvanov, for example, is such a good leader then why, even in a futuristic society, is he held in such low esteem by the crew. On the other hand Uvanov's physical appearance - a cross between Ming the Merciless and the Superman baddy General Zod - is enough to instantly begin casting suspicion upon him. Furthermore he is a known murderer and his reaction to Chubb's death is as cold as ice. The great distinctive feature of this murder mystery though is that it is set in the future where human values are very different. It is not just Uvanov, but the whole crew who convey a pathetic lack of emotion at the announcement of Chubb's passing. This might simply be down to bad acting but let's just assume that it's because the human race of the future are completely defined by their work and the loss of a life is viewed more in terms of a hindrance to productivity.

For that reason alone nobody can be discounted as the brains behind the murders. We even begin to suspect decent characters like the lovely Toos. We wonder if Zilda is attempting to cast suspicion on others to prevent herself from being exposed. We notice Dask's dodgy look - anybody who resembles Gary Glitter is automatically dubious in my book. We start suspecting Borg when he gets violent with the Doctor and places a corpse marker on Cass's hand moments before Cass turns up dead. We wonder why Poul hasn't been on a sandminer in years, and whether he is simply befriending the Doctor to advance his own devious strategies. Even the wonderfully characterised D84 isn't beyond question because while he has the innocence of a four year old, he is at the same time so logical as to be reminiscent of a cynical old man. That scenario would have been shocking indeed because it is true that D84, with his polite manner ("please do not throw hands at me") is almost impossible to dislike although like Rob Matthews I doubt that he would have provided a good long-term companion for the Doctor. His calm and methodical approach would quickly lose its charm and eventually become infuriating.

As Andrew Wixon perceptively points out there are times in Robots of Death when the plotting is weak but far more often than not - "nine times out of ten" as the Doctor might say - it succeeds in being very imaginative. It's true that the explosives are a bit too convenient but it's actually a much more intelligent plot device - making Capel's voice patterns unrecognisable to the robots by releasing gas into the air - that causes the downfall of the villain in the end. It's only one element of an exciting climax in which we witness the tragic death of D84, the near death of the careless Doctor (shades of Pyramids of Mars) and the Doctor's hilarious piss take of Leela the "mouse". And so as the final credits roll there's that rare feeling of satisfaction at witnessing a really meaty and highly accomplished Doctor Who production.


A strong social commentary and murder mystery by Tim Roll-Pickering 17/9/02

The very title of this story may give away who is actually carrying out the killings but that just makes the mystery of who is behind them even more compelling. Otherwise The Robots of Death has extremely little for which it can be faulted.

Chris Boucher's second set of scripts in as many stories produces a miniature civilisation that is highly thought out and thus generates much of the characterisation. From the start we learn how the humans aboard the Sandminer come from a class ridden society and how Uvanov bitterly resents the influence of the 'founding families', seeing himself as a self-made man who has risen through the system. All of the humans are given distinct characteristics, even the short-lived ones such as Cass and Borg. The result is a highly developed environment that leads to a strong degree of believability. The robots also have a hierarchical system, ranging from the mute Dums with their simple functions, the Vocs and the Super Voc. It s perhaps unfortunate that the Dums are coloured black, especially given the multi-racial nature of the human crew. This is very much a story about individuals seeking to break out of the confines of these structures, with Uvanov seeking to rise about the Founding Families and Taron Capel seeking to free his 'brothers' from being enslaved by humans (though tellingly we only see Vocs and the Super Voc coming under his influence). By contrast D84, one of the representatives of the established order, goes undercover at the lowest level of the society in order to investigate Taron Capel.

The Sandminer itself can be seen as both a science fiction equivalent of a treasure hunting ship staffed by fortune seekers as well as the travelling location setting that many a mystery novel has. This is a story which works on many levels, ranging from an Agatha Christie style murder-mystery to a commentary on the structure of society to an assault on Asimov's principles of robotics. There is a genuine sense of uncertainty in the script about just who the true villain is until towards the end that adds to the enjoyment of the story.

The whole tale is helped by some very strong production values that work with the story rather than against it. Most obviously is the way that humans, especially Poul, dress and wear make-up that makes them look similar to the robots, showing just how integrated an element of life they have become and making Grimwade's Syndrome all the more easy to understand. The leisure areas of the Sandminer are suitably luxurious whilst the rest is mechanical and functional and thus entirely in keeping with the needs of the story. The modelwork is also strong and easily integrates with the interior sets without too much of a fuss.

On the acting side the main honours go to Pamela Salem as Toos, though many of the other cast members also give noteworthy performances including Russell Hunter (Uvanov) and David Bailie (Dask). Gregory de Polnay has the difficult role of a robot with a strong degree of independent thought but he succeeds in bring D84 to life and delivers his lines as though he has just learned the language which is entirely appropriate.

Michael E. Briant's direction is especially strong in this story and the way in which all the elements of production work together to enhance one another really makes it stand out, even above its contemporaries. Of all the Tom Baker stories this is probably the best one and fully deserves to have been the first of his stories to appear on DVD. 10/10


A Review by Will Berridge 2/10/03

Robots of Death shares a lots of characteristics with Caves of Androzani. Both adventures feature largely unsympathetic casts who get killed of abruptly and violently. Both uses automatons of some sort as the principle "monster". Both have "of" as the second word of their title. Both were watched by me in the last couple of days, probably the reason this particular comparison is being made. And both are regarded on the whole as all time classics of Doctor Who.

One is. One isn^?.

One of the principle deficiencies in Robots of Death is, in fact, the unsympathetic nature of (most of) the characters. I'm going to university this weekend, and if I meet anyone like Uvanov, Borg or Zilda in my corridor I'm going to change accommodation. So what, you ask? All the characters in Caves of Androzani are thoroughgoing bastards. Yes, but they're bastards with attitude, brilliantly acted in their callousness and brutality. But in this story... well, let's take Uvanov. He's a right tit. His sneering of lines like "Ever heard of the double bluff?" and virtually everything he says to Zilda really get under your skin. And the other are just as bad in finding any old way to accuse each other of the killings. Yes so the murders are making them paranoid, but in real life people are more subtle when they go about throwing random allegations!

Also, some of the writing with regard to their characterisation and motivation is extremely sloppy. Told about the death of Chub, Uvanov is completely uninterested ("well all right, all right, there's nothing we can do for him now") but later expresses remorse at the death of Zilda and her brother. He behaves like a coward in Episode 1 ("I'm in no hurry to get myself killed!") but takes the battle to the robots in Episode 4. In Caves, when a plots twist occurs (it's Morgus supplying the gun runners I'm thinking of), it fits in with the earlier action. When we find out Poul is a company agent investigating "Taren Capel" and rumours of a robot revolution, it just doesn't make sense. Because when the Doctor suggests to him that the Robots are doing the killing in ep 2, he seems to find the idea genuinely ridiculous. And what on earth do the Doctor and Leela actually do to persuade him they aren't the killers/Taren Capel, so that he releases them, anyway? And if Dask really is Taren Capel, why does he defend Uvanov when Zilda seems to have nicely set him up in the 2nd episode?

Hence the majority of characters in Robots of Death come across as unrealistic and irritating. Which is unfortunate, because they are the real victims in this story. In Caves it's the 5th Doc and Peri, who represent much more vulnerable figures than the Doctor and Leela, and as such receive much more concern from the audience.

It doesn't help Robots of Death is an analogy to some extent for revolution like 1792 and 1917, with the robot proletariat fighting the decadent rich. The Marie Antoinette reference is the biggest give-away, but the art deco design and gaudy clothing of the crew members help signify a culture in which wealth and fine living are highly prized. Humans like Uvanov, Toos and Poul are often quite rude to the robots, making sure they treat them as the slaves they are, often in a way quite reminiscent of Thawn's contempt for the Swampies in Power of the Kroll - except in that case Thawn was portrayed as the bad guy. It's an interesting example of technological advancement not necessarily making for progress, but in this case cultural retrogression. Unfortunately, in this case liberty for the robots get portrayed as rather a bad thing, as we listen to Capel shouting "Freedom! Power! Death". I thought it was 'egalite, fraternite' that followed. Never mind. The result is that the only thing the Doctor is fighting for in this adventure is the lives of the sort of oligarchic elite he seems rather more keen to fight in stories like The Sunmakers, The Happiness Patrol, and even Full Circle to a point.

Champions of Robots of Death (ie. almost everyone) advocate it as a suspenseful "murder mystery" type thriller, but I can't see the "mystery" aspect of it functioning that well. The title, and the fact we see a Robot strangling Chub to death five minutes in, make all the accusations and counter-accusations of the Sandminer crew rather redundant. As soon as we discover one of the crew is disguised as Taren Capel, it's virtually given away who it is. Not only do we get a scene of Dask discovering a bloodied robot who had obviously just battered a human to death, and obviously being more concerned for the robot, but we get a great big whacking close up of his "disguised" face as he overrides SV7's command structure! And what's particularly aggravating is that the writer thinks that his audience is somehow na?e enough not to be able to work Dask out. Otherwise why is "the Controller" hidden under a mask for a scene in late ep 3, but at no other point, why does SV7 leave his identity ambiguous with the "and I will kill the others" line, and why disappear Uvanov from the plot from the plot for the whole of said episode? This would all be terribly clever writing if it wasn't patently obvious who Taren Capel was already!!! Grrrrrr! OK, calm down, calm down, it's only a kid's programme, as Mike Morris would say.

And this isn't the only example of lacklustre story telling. In episode 1, the Doctor reveals there's a sandstorm approaching the ship which could tear him and Leela to shreds if they don't get away from the shutters which are opened to suck the ore stream in. But in the last scene, Uvanov has ordered the operation to be temporarily ceased, so we already know how our endangered heroes are going to get out of it. Why not edit the scenes together to heighten the tension?

Right, I think that's the last little thing I wanted to moan about. Apart from all that, it's a pretty good story. No, really. The music and direction (the aforementioned blip aside) are solid if unspectacular, and the design's a big improvement on previous spaceship sets, some of the garish paintings really helping evoke the decadence of the society that built the Sandminer.

And if it fails as a whodunnit, it still works as a thriller. Some of the dialogue, even if it is overdone at points, is wonderfully tense and clever at others ("One of you killed him." "One of US." "That's what I said!" "No, you did say one of YOU.") It's the robots that do it, of course. Comparisons with Troughton era Cybermen don't go far enough - for a start none of the robots deliver lines like "only your stupid earth brains would have been fooled". But the true horror lies in the humans being utterly dependent on the robots for their way of life. It's like if our computers suddenly started fighting against us, but worse, because we only rely on computers for some of our needs. It's an ingenious piece of speculation, if probably a rip-off of Asimov. What's particularly disturbing, however, is that the robots in this case truly are mindless automatons, the horror of which is brilliantly explored through the concept of robophobia. The robots have no emotions, no reason kill other than that they have been instructed, and hence no reason not to kill. What's frightening about the robot closing in on Toos, or Leela, or the Doctor is you know it's not going to stop and announce "No! You would make an excellent hostage."

And there are the two leads. Who are fantastic. The contrast between their personalities made them an excellent team, whatever Tom Baker thought. The "attack of the killer robots" scenario is perfectly suited to Leela, whose "instincts" get put to use more than once. The Doctor scoffs at this at first, but ends up having to say "Don't say 'I told you so'", and by the time of Horror of Fang Rock treats her with a great deal of respect ("Leela's senses are particularly acute, and if she says it's getting colder, it's getting colder!"). This adventure also marks the Fourth Doctor at his enigmatic best. He gets plenty of excellent one-liners, but there's one moment that stands out for me. It's when a killer robot appears behind Uvanov just before the ep 3 cliff hanger (oh the cliff hangers to eps 2 and 3 are superfluous, by the way). The Doctor tells him to come over, then coolly explains "Now either it followed you, or it homed in on this. It'll depend on that which one of us it'll kill first." It's so... detached. So cool. So 4th Doc. It's fantastic.

So, having spent the majority of this review slating this story, since no-one else wants to go into its cons that much, I'm actually going to give it 8/10. Because it came from an era where the producer knew how to scare people, and uses the best Doctor ever (can't people just appreciate Tom Baker's brilliant whether he chooses to be frivolous or enigmatic?) to his maximum potential.


"He must be a happy little maniac by now." by Terrence Keenan 5/10/03

The Robots of Death is a hybrid story, mixing a whodunit with Night of the Living Dead, covered in a Sci-Fi/Future wrapper. Combine these elements with a cast that is strong all the way through, and an interesting psychological premise, and you have one whale of a Who tale.

And as a bonus, toss in some intriguing art deco designs for robots and humans.

The robots are zombies, more or less. Their method of killing -- strangulation -- adds weight to this idea. They could have been given weapons -- laser guns, bullets, whatever -- but they would have been less menacing. Poul refers to them as walking, talking dead men. The deactivation discs are called "corpse markers". Their voice and look, meant to be pleasing to the humans, adds to their overall zombie vibe.

So, with the robots being the walking dead, we actually see some interesting psychological insight on human/robot relations. The more we try to make them human, the more inhuman they will be. Poul, who is not all that enamored with robots in the first place, ends up snapping when his worst fears are confirmed. Leela, the ultimate creature of instinct, is immediately on edge from the first time she sees the robots.

The murder mystery is well done, because there's a level of suspense added on by knowing that Dask/Taren Capel is our boy in the second episode (The pants cock-up). The Hitchcock rule always works. Give the audience more information than the cast, and let them sit on the edge of their seat. So by the time we see Dask in robot-drag, we feel relief that the Doctor has figured out who the maniac is by now.

On the acting front, there are no bad performances. I'll repeat that. There are no bad performances. If pressed to name a standout, my vote goes to Russell Hunter as Uvanov. He pulls off a wide range of emotions with very little effort.

It's pretty obvious that I like Robots of Death. It's #3 on my Top Twenty list. Says it all, methinks.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 15/12/03

A lot of Doctor Who works well when borrowing from other sources, the case in point being Agatha Christie here. And this in itself makes a strong story, albeit a murder mystery. Everything about The Robots Of Death works, the plot is simplistic yet great, the dialogue shines (the Doctor gets to utter one of the show`s best insults), characterisation is strong and the sets and indeed the robots look impressive. Indeed it is the robots that remain the most memorable, Miles Fothergill as SV7 and Gregory De Polnay as D84 remain the stars of the show, aided by a worthy and well-acted guest cast. As to the regulars, Leela and The Doctor are also strong simply because their characters are so different, therefore making for an interesting partnership that is a joy to watch on screen. In short then, The Robots Of Death is must-see Doctor Who.


Robots of Delight more like... by Steve Cassidy 3/2/04

It has been claimed in many website and press sources that when Dr Who comes back in 2005 there will be quite a build-up. Lorraine Heggessy, the controller of BBC, and one of his main advocates plans to show a couple of the old episodes weeks before the new ones begin. And in the true spirit of our fickle age plans for the viewers to ring in and vote for which one they want to see. You can imagine the shopping list to chhoose from - probably the very first one - An Unearthly Child, perhaps The Sea Devils and Genesis of the Daleks, and possibly Talons of Weng-Chiang or Ark in Space? All these are some of the most accessible Who stories. But pride of place to get the nation back to it's Doctor worship has to be the fabulous Robots of Death.

What a cracker!

Such a rollercoaster of an adventure. Not a scene wasted, not a line which hasn't been thought out and not an opportunity missed for suspense, intrigue and terrifying it's audience. Everytime I watch it I wonder why some Hollywood studio hasn't used the idea. You can imagine it can't you? - some million dollar production with state-of-the art special effects, a big name director and a star tearing around with a machine gun, not to mention a script with dialogue so bad it smells like a troop of monkeys. Actually, when you think about it then perhaps it is better that Robots is left alone as the classic it is. It has its faults. Many people can't get past the terrible costumes and 1977 special effects. But once you do - my god - you never go back. You watch this adventure for the rest of your life.

Chief kudos has to go to Chris Boucher who had the advantage of writing two adventures back to back. This is especially useful with the character of Leela - but all the characterisation in Robots is good. The crew especially are well drawn. Commander Uvanov we have all seen before, in fact many of us have worked with an Uvanov. A man who gets results but is such a bad 'people manager' that he eventually alienates all who work with him. Not a bad man, not a cruel man - but just one who is so tied to his job or position he doesn't care if feelings get hurt. We've also all worked with a Zilda - a woman who lets feelings and emotions get in the way of her judgement. She doesn't think logically and her "preciousness" gets on peoples nerves. The tension of living with people for a two year tour of duty is palpable - the crew can easily be imagined committing murder on each other. The others are very well done especially Toos (Pamela Salem) who is especially good at her job and is rather a good 'peacemaker'. The scenes where SV7 is trying to strangle her are still horrific today. Gratuitous horror for children on a Saturday teatime.

But that is what is so good about Chris Boucher's script. The characters and situation are believable. The society he created in his mind's eye is incredibly evocative. A decadent society which is underpinned by the slave labour of robots. A society that doesn't value robots only wealth, class and individual happiness. This is underpined by the crew's attitude to the robots ie Toos' airy dismissal of a Voc in her quarters and Chubb's abuse of a Dum in storage before it strangles him. Occasionally, and only occasionally do you feel sympathy for the robots' plight. And of course there is Taren Capel. There have been a couple of reviewers on this site who don't believe that a man can be brought up by robots. I think it is possible, extremists come in all kinds of colours and this is a most interesting villain - a man who associates with mechanics rather than humans. I love the way his raving meglomaniac outbursts at the end are sent up by the Doctor "At the moment he must be rather a happy little maniac.."

And there is the Doctor and Leela, who whether they like it or not, make rather a good team. I have a theory that since The Deadly Assassin the Doctor has rather wanted to be on his own in the TARDIS. I don't know whether the loss of Sarah Jane hit him hard but with Leela he is harsh and off-hand - almost as if she is unwanted baggage. In many ways she is, she invited herself aboard the TARDIS as she saw him as a way off her savage jungle world. She, like the audience, rankles when she is told she is talking too much - and when she does do something right, such as bandaging Toos' arm and the Doctor congratulates her - the audience beams with pleasure. And for me, she does a lot right - she senses danger before it hits, she correctly judges Poul as 'moving like a hunter and not to trust him..' and her outburst and kick in Uvanov's groin when she is arrested for murder is most enjoyable. In my opinion this is one of the best teams ever - when Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are on screen the eye does not know which one to focus on first such is the charisma of the pair.

A word must be said about the production design and music. The interior of the sandminer is very claustraphobic and there is good use of matte and colour overlay to show the immensity of the craft. The sandminer works with its Matt Irving special effects and I love the opening scene with the rocks rolling off the mountain as the sandminer approaches. The production design and set interiors also work very well - the bridge and Toos' quarters show the right amount of art deco and the design of the robots themselves is beautiful and eerie at the same time. You flinch like Toos as one appears behind the doors and the soft sibilant voice each one has is incredibly sinister. This is of course backed up by the brooding pulsing music of Dudley Simpson which adds to the tension. He gets it right with the grandiosity of the sandminer and it's setting with the slow ponderous threatening beat which accompanies the robots as they carry out their orders to kill. Good stuff.

To sum up this is the Doctor Who adventure that you should show people to see what the fuss is about. It may not have the million dollar budget of the big Hollywood epics but the ideas conjured up here by Chris Boucher are better then a lot that tinseltown produces. The ensemble acting is superb and richness of depth is provided by the 'robophobia' theory and the underlying menace of a decadent society that would be helpless if the slaves/robots it relies on decided they would take no more.

Unbeatable. Magnificent. Chilling. Doctor Who at it's very very best. 10/10.


Brrr... by Joe Ford 15/5/04

It strikes me as odd that director Michael Briant should criticize the script for this story and praise the incidentals that he added to explain its overwhelming success. There are very few Robots-bashers and I am not one of them but there are some flaws in the story that should be addressed to give a more balanced view of the story and alas, poor Michael, it is the direction that is most at fault. Don't get me wrong, most of his work is great and he achieves a level of terror and claustrophobia that makes you realise how much to learn some of those early base under siege stories had.

The story is a terrific Agatha Christie homage and one that shares her love for concealing the villain behind clever dialogue and plotting. So it baffles me when Briant chooses to reveal that Dask is the villain very early on. What should be a harmless suggestion that the killer wears a certain pair of stripey trousers is blunted by the fact that Dask is the only person wearing those trousers! Okay, so this could be a clever cheat (could be, but isn't) and the killer could have dressed up in his clothes as a disguise but then Dask appears on a screen programming a Robot to kill, there is some distortion to hide who this could be but not enough. It is obvious and unfortunate because my love of murder mysteries stems from the plotting which conceals the killer, I often go back and watch programmes like Jonathon Creek to see how cleverly the writer has concealed his twist villain whilst handing out enough clues to make it easy enough if you've been paying attention. Fortunately there is enough class in the story already and frightening incident to blind you to the fact that the climax where Dask is revealed in all his green and silver robot make up glory as the murderer is an insult and anyone shocked by this revelation should hang their head in shame.

There are more moments of poor direction that admittedly don't come close to sabotaging the production in any serious way but shock considering the effort that has gone into the rest. The Robot who eavesdrops on the Doctor and Leela supposed to be D84 and yet he is entirely the wrong colour. Robots aren't supposed to have necks beneath their face plates. And a cameraman is shockingly whack bang in the middle of a shot. Oh and the end of episode three is a mess, the Robot attacking the Doctor drawls his monotonous threats whilst Tom Baker calmly states "It'll either be you or me!" like this is just a game of homicidal automatons. Oh and you can see Toos clearly breathing after the Robot strangles her to death (or this at least is what the script and direction are leading you to believe). These might seem like pathetic nitpicks but there are some who will try and convince this is a perfect story and although it scores high on practically every level the direction slips enough to rough up its edges a bit.

World building. Not easy to do in four twenty five minute episodes but the ever reliable Chris Boucher, continuing his run of luck after the imaginative Face of Evil, manages to paint a rather depressing picture of the future in his script. The power of money is frightening, causing rich sorts to spend months (even years) out in a barren desert with only a handful of humans to mine their wealth. Decadence drips from walls, Robot slaves are on hand to fetch and carry so these so-called miners can do as little work as possible that can actually be called work. There is talk of Kaldor City and the Founding Families, proving it's not what you know but who you know as Unvanov points out to Zilda. The crew of the Sandminer are an opinionated bunch used to getting their own way and their very appearance, make up dripping from their faces and glittering clothes, and attitudes proves the luxury they are afforded is a corrupting element. They even have the Robots built in the humanoid image, smiling faces and stylish 'hair cuts', nobody wants to be reminded that these are in fact slaves. Just watch as the crew laze around and play games and how they suddenly become alert and professional the second a potentially wealthy storm hits the ship. It is rare to meet such an arrogant bunch, they point the finger at each other when there is a murder but are fully prepared to accept the Doctor and Leela are responsible simply because they are there. Tarren Capel might be one circuit short of a positronic brain but maybe he was the one who could see how damning the human race had become. You could almost see it as poetic judgement as the humans are slaughtered by grinning versions of themselves, instruments of their own self-indulgence.

I have heard Hinchcliffe say time and again in interviews that he did not like SF clich├ęs or relying on monsters (especially when the budget so often failed to realise the writers ideas convincingly) and Robots of Death sees him ignoring both these rules. This was a man who was attuned with the series he was producing and knew how to break the rules but still make it work. Because for one story only we have a terrifying threat for the Doctor to face and one that sits comfortably in the series' SF genre and still manage to be a man in a suit. I think it was my pal Rob Matthews who said it was more like watching a zombie movie (of which I am not the greatest fan). Then again perhaps it was Poul ("Not Robots! The walking dead!"), well wherever the source came was it is a potent statement because these walking, talking cadavers fulfil the zombie role perfectly. Just without the melodramatic (argh that word! It's catching Mike!) moaning and groaning. They kill. They are grotesque parodies of humans. They cannot be killed. They are relentless. And oh boy are they scary. <>I can remember when I first watched this on video and my Pops telling me the garbage men made killer robots out of the refuse they took away. What a bastard, I still get a pang of terror every time they pull up outside. Mind you he said the same thing about the Daleks so perhaps I should have noticed a pattern.

When I think of September the 11th all I can think about is the crushing fear the passengers on board those planes must have felt. It was an awful tragedy and the pain of those needless deaths freezes my heart to this day but I cannot imagine anything scarier than knowing you are about to die. My heart goes out to every victim of that despicable act but it makes me sick to think of the terror those poor passengers must have experienced in that wait.

The only reason I mention this is because Robots of Death shares a similar terror, characters who know they are going to die soon and the feeling of throat-clenching horror is dizzying. When Chub is mouthing off to the Robot in the storage room he is blissfully unaware that his executioner has entered the room. The scene is almost funny until the event snaps into place and Chub realises the Robot is not being stupid by ignoring the weather balloon and approaching him with his hands ready to strangle, but deadly serious.

There are plenty of similar scenes that play on that one fear we cannot rid ourselves of, the fear of death. The scenes in Toos' quarters are nail biting, this is a defenceless, snobby cow and a Robot is waiting outside her door to wring her neck. The loss of control is frightening; Toos rather pathetically tries to assert herself ("Attend to your duties!") but is presented with a corpse marker so she slams the door and tries to convince the murderer of its implausibility ("It is forbidden for Robots to harm humans!") and she suddenly realises, snapping her eyes shut, that she is not going to escape this one. The wait is unbearable so she opens the door to see if it has gone and her worst fears are confirmed when it is standing there, frozen, blood red eyes and advances into her personal space and grips her neck. This is adult stuff; Pamela Salem is almost too good at portraying Toos' hysteria and with the Robot hand jammed in the door and the attack on her bed, it cannot fail to have some similarity with the idea of rape. It is tapping into a psychological horror that the show usually steers clear of because it is far more frightening than body horror.

Poul is the most fascinating character in the story because he has so many layers. As the story continues his character is peeled away from smart arse miner, to private investigator, to robophobically unstable. You can almost feel the barriers of his mind coming down as he is confronted with the Robot hand dripping with blood, David Collins plays the anguish at just the right level to truly disturb. When Leela finds him cowering in a corner dribbling on about the walking dead he such a contrast to the confident examiner of the early episodes, Boucher knowing well enough that for the audience to be afraid his characters have to be too.

Dropped into this story are the Doctor and Leela and at this point in their relationship the most interesting we would see of them. I had a chat with my mate Matt recently about how effective the story would be had Sarah Jane stayed on after Hand of Fear. He was very much in the different but still great camp, whereas I think it is Leela that makes this story. In a story full of hunters (Poul is hunting Capel, the Robots are hunting everybody, Unvanov hunts the Doctor) she fits in perfectly, her senses are so attuned to her surroundings she makes an invaluable companion to have. It is interesting to note that her 'feelings' are spot on; Poul moves like a hunter, the Robots are creepy; the sabotage to the miner and it is the Doctor who seems naive ignoring her warnings. I love her feistiness, she kicks at Unvanov, throws her knife in a Robot's gut, rushes to save Toos. Don't listen to the rumours about the new series being revolutionary because of a capable, pro-active companion because Leela got there first (comment courtesy of Rob Matthews). The Eliza parallel has already begun and the Doctor's conversation with her about body language is fascinating. Her dialogue ("If you're bleeding look for a man with scars") is terrific throughout. The Doctor is still in his moody years, very much the alien and Tom Baker plays the part so effectively. He can be funny ("Would you like a jelly baby?" "SHUT UP!" "A simple no thank you would have sufficed"), he can be intense ("We'll all blow to pieces if you don't cut the power!"), he can also be sarcastic ("Are you going to tell me your plan for running the universe?"). What's more he manages to convince you that the death of a Robot is a tragedy (his face when D84 is killed). Its one of his last totally straight performances and is one the best because he lets the script and the guest actors impress and simply provides some background gravitas.

I could go on all day about the stylish art deco sets and costumes and the totally convincing model work for the Sandminer but that's been done to death. Dudley Simpson's intense, throbbing score is the icing on the cake of what is one of the best productions Doctor Who has to offer.

There are so few Doctor Who stories that genuinely manage to make you afraid to sit in the dark alone and watch them. I am pleased to count Robots of Death amongst their number. Even my Ma thought this was creepy. What more can I say?


What do you say about a story that has everything? by Brian May 31/8/04

How many superlatives can you use to praise a brilliant, exquisite slice of Doctor Who, before people suspect you're in the employ of Chris Boucher, Philip Hinchcliffe, or indeed anyone else involved in the production?

The Robots of Death is one of those stories to show to non-fans. In my own experience, a flatmate once came into the living room while this was in the VCR - "I remember this one!" they said (or something to that effect) and were still impressed by it.

This story has great acting, direction and writing; just about everything else is of the same high standard. From the impressive desert landscape after the opening titles, the great model of the Sandminer and the excellent superimposition of the robots on the bridge across the exterior, to the robots themselves, it's perhaps the best designed Who adventure ever. Don't forget the art deco (with a hint of pop art) Sandminer interior and the elegant, decadent costumes of the crew. There's also the great score, including the dramatic, sweeping theme at the beginning and, of course, the sinister heartbeat that accompanies the robots.

Chris Boucher's script, which draws obvious inspiration from Isaac Asimov and detective fiction (especially Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None), is beautifully constructed, with believable, three dimensional characters who have desires, ambitions, fears and secrets; the central players and incidentals are both well portrayed and presented. There's not a bad actor in the house. Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are excellent; Leela proves to be a great companion, and it's strange to fathom why Baker disliked the character so much (and let this be known without much subtlety during season 15). But here they look to be a terrific team.

Of the guest cast, it's difficult to pick a standout but, if forced to, I would probably choose David Collings as Poul, followed closely by Gregory De Polnay as D84. The former displays the caution and suspicion that defines his character and conveys his mental deterioration exceptionally well. The robot detective is charming, with none of the forced cuteness of K9. He has the subservient nature true to this society's expectation of a robot, but he is so gorgeously self-aware. He is not human and therefore cannot understand their idiosyncrasies (which would have made working with someone like Poul interesting to say the least). But he makes inadvertent jokes ("I cannot speak"), shows inquisitiveness ("I heard a cry") and a willingness to be of assistance ("That would be a pleasure"). Plus he also gets the story's best line! ("Please do not throw hands at me!") His robot mind would have understood the concept of friendship as nothing more than a lexicographical definition, but he realises what it really is in his final sacrifice, which is a very sad moment.

Thankfully, it's all done without any of the "striving to be human" schmaltz that's to be expected from Star Trek. The script also succeeds because of the atmosphere that Boucher successfully maintains. The murder mystery template comes into effect here, creating an edgy feel throughout. My favourite episode is the third, when the story veers into the realms of psychological horror. Poul spotting the blood on the robot's hand; the hooded figure operating on the robot; the opening of SV7's secondary command channel (a great psychedelically edited sequence) and his cursory, almost mocking, bow to Toos before he leaves her cabin, are all memorably scary scenes.

Others include Leela's discovery of Poul hiding in the robot mortuary. What exactly happened to him in between seeing the bloodstained hand and now is left ambiguous, leaving the viewer to imagine it in his or her mind (which is a lot more disquieting). The door to Toos's cabin opening, revealing the robot poised to strangle her, is another great moment. The glowing red eyes of the robots, which occur from episode one, are another creepy addition to the abundance of memorable images.

Of course, it's not perfect. There are a few little flaws. The corpse markers are obviously bicycle reflectors; the robots wear silver painted washing up gloves, and the identity of Taren Capel is a badly kept secret, although the script bravely throws red herrings at us. (For much of the time Uvanov is hinted as the killer, especially his long absence in part three.) There's also a little goof, which I don't think anyone else has noticed - when Uvanov confronts Leela in part two, he says "You've killed three people!" before he has been informed of the third murder.

But these are mere trifles! For the greater part, the story is one of the best examples of what to do with a modest budget. It's a brilliantly written, acted and directed story. The crowning glory is in the exquisite design.

Style and substance! 9.5/10


A Review by Finn Clark 26/4/06

I'd had false expectations when I first watched this. It has a reputation for being scary... and it is, but in its own way. It's hardly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You've got to get past the barriers of BBC production values and unspectacular lighting, but if you surrender yourself to it then it's pretty damn creepy. It may not be the lovechild of John Carpenter and Dario Argento, but it's not trying to be. It's just seventies BBC television, played with guts and conviction.

It has a fairly clear structure, with each episode have a distinct function. Part one sets up the fictional environment, with killer robots just a sinister backdrop to the character dynamics of the Sandminer crew. Part two is a bloodbath as the cast goes down like ninepins... but always offscreen. It's all relatively bloodless, like the Agatha Christie adaptation it's so often accused of being. In contrast, part three is a slasher movie. The actual body count isn't high, but now the robots are actively hunting down our heroes. Then finally part four resolves everything, the villain being unmasked as his robots are finally stopped.

So far, so simple. However Robots of Death does something I've never seen done properly except in Doctor Who. It successfully combines the slasher genre with the whodunnit. Horror movies don't get the Agatha Christie-ness right, whereas Doctor Who has had decades of practice in effortlessly combining her drawing room gentility with bloodthirsty stalker sequences.

As a whodunnit, it's well-crafted. It does a Columbo, showing us the murderer immediately instead of leaving the viewer to scream "it's the bloody robots" at the television for three and a half episodes. Even the story's title doesn't exactly draw a veil over what's going on. However there's also the mystery of who's controlling the robots... but we don't even learn that such a figure exists until episode two.

Once our attention has been drawn to this question, though, there's still considerable doubt about their identity. Dask, Uvanov and even Poul are all suspects. The latter behaves suspiciously throughout and his nervous breakdown could be just acting. Hell, had this really been an Agatha Christie novel then it would have been D84! Everyone has their own possible motivations and red herrings. Admittedly there's that giveaway face on the viewscreen in part three, but I'd never noticed it for myself until someone else pointed it out and even that's not conclusive. Given this civilisation's tech level, the villain could surely create a faked CGI face. He's already using some kind of filter to obscure his identity over the video link, so going one step further isn't unimaginable. Maybe he's taking precautions in case someone hacks the robot's memory?

Of course the real star is Kenneth Sharp and his visual design. The show's lovely to look at, especially Pamela Salem with no bra. They're doing a Jean-Paul Gaultier twenty years before Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, which ironically these days seems much more realistic for having well-spoken designer robots instead of the usual SF buckets of bolts. We hear computers talking all the time these days, e.g. train station announcements, and they don't sound like Daleks. There's also something creepy about close-ups of the Sandminer robots' beautifully sculpted faces.

However there's more to the design than that. You've got luxury and catwalk costumes for the human crew, but a "handrails and rivets" industrial look for the robot-only lower levels. Even the make-up is as extreme as the wacky outfits. It's a well-realised world in all respects, with the script being completely clear throughout on how this robot-based society operates. Admittedly Chris Boucher lifted it wholesale from Isaac Asimov, but that just makes it more solid and convincing. Chris Boucher thinks so too. He's since returned to that setting for a BBC Book (Corpse Marker) and a series of Kaldor City audios for Magic Bullet Productions.

These days the secondary console room is less surprising than it used to be, feeling instead like foreshadowing for the TVM console room. It's fun.

Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are one of my favourite Doctor-companion combinations, but their chemistry here isn't the best. Tom wasn't happy about this murderous leather-clad companion and it shows on-screen. No matter. Leela still kicks arse. She's ignorant but not stupid, with a lovely directness that you normally only get from young children. ("That's silly.") I don't love the entire cast, Tania Rogers and Tariq Yunis giving us some iffy line deliveries, but those glitches aside it's a strong line-up. Russell Hunter as Uvanov in particular manages to play it impressively theatrical without ever quite slipping into outright ham.

It's one of the few Doctor Who TV stories to be inspired by science fiction novels. It's said that Chris Boucher was inspired by Frank Herbert's Dune as well as Isaac Asimov's Robot series. Personally I can't see the Dune connection except perhaps in its desert setting, but hey. Whatever works for him. I like the slightly surprising cliffhangers, which feel fresher than the usual "zoom in on monster". I like the story's characters, especially D84 who's always fun. I like SV7's line about "door and light malfunctions", in which one realises that Doctor Who's writers were also well aware of the problems of studio floodlighting and weren't above putting reasons in their scripts for turning down the lights!

Overall, a taut little thriller with a pleasant combination of horror and hard SF. The script's impressively clear about its self-set rules of robotics and their interesting ramifications, but it's equally clear about its purpose of scaring the kiddies. In a way, it's an inversion of the usual "base under siege"... on the Sandminer we're locked up with them, with nowhere to run. It's not terrifying, but it's creepy. It's also rather good!


A Review by Harry O'Driscoll 15/5/10

This is one of my favourite stories ever. It has everything you would expect in good psychological thriller: a claustrophobic setting, a murder mystery, emotionless killers running around the place. The whole story is a work of art.

The setting of the sandminer is one of my favourites in Doctor Who. A small area with a handful of people cut off from the rest of the world is something that works great in stories such as Horror of Fang Rock, The Edge of Destruction and Midnight. It's all about isolation which in turn creates fear. The robots add to that fear with a face just like a human but with no human reactions no body language. Their method of killing through strangulation is much more terrifying than any laser gun. Their pleasant voice despite trying to kill the crew add to this chilling idea of how indifferent the robots truly are to the survival of people. They really are weapons as much as servants.

The production values are very high for a classic Doctor Who story although the identity of Taren Capel is hardly kept a mystery when you see him on the scanner! But, for me, the story doesn't rank so highly because of the whole murder mystery, it is through the tension of the setting and the terror of the robots.

I don't think much of the title though. Horrendously cliched.


Murder on the Sandminer Express by Jez Cartner 13/2/12

If Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov and the Doctor Who production office decided to combine their individual talents and produce a Doctor Who story, what would the end result be like? The answer of course is the classic 1977 story The Robots of Death. It's an intriguing marriage, and it's a story that is still compelling viewing to this day.

The episode finds the Doctor and new companion Leela landing aboard Storm Mine 4 as one of the crew is murdered. The travellers are naturally accused of the crime and when the crew start getting picked off one by one the Doctor must find out who is behind the robots' murderous behavior.

From reading the above description the references to Agatha Christie's work becomes apparent, but while other reviewers of this story have likened this story to Murder on the Orient Express I believe the 1939 novel And Then There None, where a small group of people in an isolated location are picked off one by one by an unknown assailant, to be a more likely source of inspiration. A small group of people in a confined space find themselves being killed off by an unknown assailant and begin to accuse each other of the murders, until the assumed suspect becomes one of the victims and the guesswork begins again. Over the years, many television programs have paid homage to this classic scenario, the nineteen sixty six episode of Get Smart 'Hoo Done it' springs to mind, but for me The Robots of Death leaves these others for dead, as it were. Like any good Christie novel, the suspense never lets up for a minute, and although it maybe blindly obvious who the killer is (his face is plainly visible on a monitor at one point), the tension builds from the very start and never lets up until its epic conclusion. It actually made me think about how the good Doctor would react if he ever happened to meet the real Agatha Christie, which is a scenario we were finally able to witness many years later when the tenth Doctor met up with her in the episode The Unicorn and the Wasp.

I'll let you in on a little secret; this was the story that got me hooked on Doctor Who all those years ago. I can't say for certain whether it was my first exposure to Doctor Who, but it was certainly the episode that had the most impact. What struck me most on that first viewing, and again when I re-watched it recently, was of course the robots of the title. They are in a word absolutely beautiful. Beautifully designed and magnificently executed, in my opinion they are the key ingredient to the episode's success. It is of course with the robots where the Isaac Asimov influences really kick in. The robots are all bound by Asimov's famous first law of robotics, which states 'A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm'. This provides our villain Dask - or Taren Capel as we are to discover later on - with the plot device he needs to reprogram his brothers to carry out merry mayhem and murder. The actors portraying the robots are simply brilliant, and at times threaten to steal the limelight from the Doctor and Leela. The way all the robots speak in the same monotone well-mannered voice, even while killing someone, is incredibly creepy and only adds to the tension. The portrayal of D84 is arguably the most successful of all them, and as played by Gregory de Polnay he becomes a character in his own right and you actually find yourself caring for the plight of the robot than you do for the human characters being stalked and murdered.

The influences on this story aren't limited to Christie and Asimov, however, as the setting of the story, the sand miner, is clearly inspired by Frank Herbert's Dune series. Indeed, with the constant pursuit of sand storms, you half expect sandworms to appear at any given moment, but of course this is when you go from simply taking inspiration from a work of fiction to blatantly stealing it.

These marriages of inspiration - combined with terrific directing, acting and a score that stretches the tension like a rubber band - results in a piece of Science Fiction that well and truly deserves the accolade 'classic'. It's no wonder the 2007 Christmas special Voyage of the Damned borrowed a good chunk of the plot and indeed the visual execution of the heavenly host, even down to the way they spoke. From Russell T Davies, this is high praise indeed.

In the words of Hercule Poirot 'Ah, you are not accused... you are ex-cused!'


Red Eye by Joe Briggs-Ritchie 14/2/13

There are several stories wherein Dudley Simpson provides a superb musical accompaniment to the opening scene. He did it in The Claws of Axos with that wonderfully bleak accompaniment to Axos heading towards Earth and thereby set the tone for the remainder of the story. He did it again in The Invisible Enemy with those ominous opening chords hinting at a much darker path than the story chose to go down unfortunately. The other notable example which springs to mind is The Robots of Death. Here we have a glorious opening shot of a barren planet, a vista of sand, cliffs and tumbling rocks. The Sandminer comes into view and we are treated to an ominous musical theme that turns into a kind of sinister waltz as we get our first exterior view of the bridge. Dudley Simpson's score for The Robots of Death is one of his best and he sets the scene beautifully right from the word go. He frequently uses it to build tension, that creepy 'heartbeat' theme being a particularly good example.

It's difficult to find something to say about The Robots of Death that hasn't been said many, many times before. It's easily one of the finest stories of the Tom Baker era. But we all know that. It's easily one of the finest stories in the history of the programme. But we all know that as well. I'm not out to provide an imaginative new critique. The content of this review is simply what I think about this story, my own biased view of it.

It's also one of the best-looking stories. It really is a feast for the eyes, from the costumes to the sets to the desert landscape. The overall visual style would appear to be a delicious combination of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, with the Sandminer interior making a nice subtle change to most spaceship sets. It's brightly lit but not offensively so as would become the case in the 1980's; it looks opulent and is certainly not what one would usually expect of a mining vehicle. The costumes too are a joy to behold. The future is often clothed in jumpsuits which may be practical but aren't exactly imaginative. Fortunately, the sartorial aesthetic of this story is much more developed than that. Elizabeth Waller's costumes manage to be simultaneously imaginative, futuristic and elegant while also having a very distinctive 'style' in common. Throw in the headwear and you have clothing which was clearly designed for aesthetic value rather than functionality.

The robots fare just as well. Art Deco with an Oriental touch just about sums them up. They look stunning, all the more so considering they were produced on a late 70's BBC budget. Their silky smooth voices are a perfect accompaniment to their appearance and both of these things contrast wonderfully with the use to which the robots are put by Taren Capel. They come across as elegant, calm and unhurried, explaining to humans that they are to die as casually as if they are talking about the weather. Miles Fothergill and Gregory de Polnay do superb jobs bringing their respective characters to life through the power of their voices alone.

In fact, all the guest cast are very impressive with Russell Hunter, Pamela Salem and David Collings being right at the top. The interplay between the crew is very similar to what would be seen in Alien two years later; i.e. complaining about money, sniping and bitching. It's quite a realistic portrayal of what would probably happen if a small group of people were kept together in a confined space for an extended period in order to do a job. The camaraderie would eventually diminish as the novelty of the situation wears off and people begin rubbing each other up the wrong way. Russell Hunter is delightfully pragmatic as Uvanov, never for one moment hiding the fact that his main aim is to make money, even when it becomes apparent that there is a murderer on the ship. He is initially unconcerned at Chub's death and even after he learns that he was murdered all he can think of is getting back to work and tracking down the lucanol streams. And of course David Collings gives a wonderful performance as Poul, his descent into madness particularly well portrayed.

Then we have the sets; the bridge is a wonderful Art Nouveau type affair, bright and spacious with smooth, organic curves. The corridors seem to avoid the standard Doctor Who cliche of all looking the same. They do look the same of course, but they somehow skirt beautifully around the impression, instead contributing to the same sense of elegance and smooth lines as the bridge. The pieces of artwork dotted here and there are the icing on the cake.

There's a definite subtext of class issues running through this story. The robots are the slaves, the humans the masters, a moral issue which is offset by the fact that the robots themselves are automatons, incapable of any emotional perception. So is it questionable for the humans to treat them merely as things? Of course the viewers' sympathy vote is rather redundant since the robots are the killers. There is also a nod to the days of slavery as the Dum robots, the very lowest of the low on the Sandminer, are black.

Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are on top form. Leela is continuing to learn that science is the way forward, adapting to her new surroundings well yet still retaining her hunting senses and instincts. It's also interesting how she acts as a foil to the Doctor's lofty musings, best exemplified here when she describes the transdimensional engineering as 'silly'. She deflates his pomposity but in a good way. And of course Tom Baker is gives a wonderful performance. I'm not sure if it's one of his great performances but even an average Tom Baker performance is loaded with brilliance.

One thing that strikes me about The Robots of Death is that it's a story full of nice touches: Uvanov playing chess with a Voc, the Doctor and Leela in the scoop looking out at the desert, SV7 curiously watching the Doctor eating jelly babies, that gloriously moody opening scene, the robot coming up behind Uvanov outside the Laserson workshop and the Doctor's response to this, the Sandminer going out of control, the build up to the climax of episode two, the Sandminer beginning to sink... they just go on and on.

It's not perfect, of course. You can tell from Dask's stripey trousers that he's the one controlling the robots. But this is a mere quibble, hardly even that.

This is definitely one to show to somebody if you want them to see what makes Doctor Who great.

It's a classic. It's one of Tom Baker's finest. It's one of the best ever. Treasure it.