Last Man Running
Corpse Marker
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.

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"Westworld 1977" by Jason A. Miller 1/7/18

The Robots of Death has never been one of my top-tier favorite Doctor Who stories. My typical reaction to it is one of defensive indifference. It's one of those universally praised stories that have always left me a little cold, right alongside Planet of Evil, Remembrance of the Daleks, and The Zygon Inversion. It's a... good story, but I think there are far better pickings in the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes era. So I've spent much of my time explaining what I don't like about the story, as a way to protect myself from all the overwhelming praise in which I don't share.

Of course, on the other hand, this story is now 41 years old, so sitting back and hurling nitpicks is kind of a ridiculous notion. How would I like it if Chris Boucher were to zip back in time and critique stuff that I wrote in mid 1976? Well, I was still writing in crayon back then, so he'd find it pretty easy to do.

Granted that the story was written in a relative hurry, and heavily altered during the production process, so the seams are showing; maybe they're more visible to me especially after 41 years. For an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, the story goes out of its way to present no mystery at all. The title is an instant spoiler, as we see a robot commit the very first murder moments into Part One. The characters spend all of Parts One and Two trying to figure out just who the killer could be, when we already know. Some ambiguity would have been nice. Once the crew accept in Part Three that the robots are killers, a secondary mystery is introduced as a question of who's influencing the robots -- who on board the Sandminer is the mad scientist ("the very mad scientist") Taren Capel? -- and the production team promptly gives that mystery away too, by showing actor David Bailie's face full-on, barely disguised by primitive CGI effects, moments after the secondary mystery is introduced. The robots then don't kill anyone between mid-Part Two and the final 60 seconds of Part Four, and there are three survivors, which is at least two survivors too many for this sort of tale.

The takeaway after my Nth viewing of The Robots of Death is that several more rewrites of this script 41 years ago would have been nice.

What makes a re-watch of The Robots of Death interesting for me at this point, 41 years after original broadcast and 33 years after I first watched it, is the behind-the-scenes stuff. Boucher has always been lauded for his Doctor Who output, and he's been one of the few original-series writers to have a lengthy career in post-1989 Who, including several novels and spin-offs. So, the text commentary on the special edition DVD release of The Robots of Death? Well, that pretty much tells us that everything people love about the story? Had little to do with Boucher's original scripts, and everything to do with the production team, notable script editor Holmes, director Michael E. Briant, and the various designers.

"I like the slight surprising cliffhangers," Finn Clark says above, "which feel fresher than the usual 'zoom in on monster'." Well, that's because two of the three cliffhangers were created artificially by Holmes and Bryant, due to Boucher submitting a mere 14-page script for Part Two that needed serious restructuring. The creative casting, with minority actors playing the two Founding Family descendants on board the Sandminer, is all up to Briant. And actors Brian Croucher (who doesn't do much in his half of the story) and Russell Hunter (who out-acts most of the rest of the guest cast) were cast to play against their characters as written by Boucher. We also learn that most of the script's most snappy lines were "unscripted business worked out in rehearsal by the actors". So, either Boucher bears little credit for this story's popularity... or the DVD text commentary writer loaned money to Boucher 41 years ago and never got it back, and is taking his revenge through dismissive captions instead.

Where I find that Robots works best is as a forerunner to today's cultural zeitgeist. The hard sci-fi roots are a help, as the story is a gateway to Asimov, and Capek's "R.U.R." -- Boucher really knows his robots. The effect of the robots' eyes turning red as their programming is altered seems a nod to Michael Crichton's then-niche film Westworld, but the new Westworld TV series can't help but build on Boucher's themes of homicidal robots, and the "uncanny valley" reaction to artificial humanoids that Boucher gave us in the form of robophobia. So the story is interesting as a historical artifact, one of the earlier representations of what is now a legitimate pop-culture touchstone.

That's about it for me and The Robots of Death. I still turn back to the Classic Series and watch even episodes that I don't love, every five to seven years or so. It's comfort food for me, and there's stuff to enjoy about this story, even if the whole doesn't really work for me. Most of the acting in Parts One and Two is terrible, but fortunately the worst-acted characters are killed off early. And Pamela Salem spends most of Parts Three and Four in a low-cut nightgown, which complements the story's lush visual look. Honestly, the two principal robot leads are some of the best things about the story. SV7 is a comforting presence as the robot controller and executive officer on the Sandminer, and the stakes are palpably upped when he's turned into a killer. And D84 as the undercover robot detective could have made a fine companion, in the mold of K-9 who came along a year later. In a story nominally about the robots of death, it's really the robots who give the story what life it has.