Robots of Death
Target novelisation
Doctor Who and the Robots of Death

Author Terrance Dicks Cover image
Published 1979
ISBN 0 426 20061 6
First Edition Cover John Geary

Back cover blurb: On a desert planet the giant sandminer crawls through the howling sandstorms, harvesting the valuable minerals in the sand. Inside, the humans relax in luxury, while most of the work is done by the robots who serve them. Then the Doctor and Leela arrive - and the mysterious deaths begin. First suspects, then hunted victims, Leela and the Doctor must find the hidden killer - or join the other victims of the Robots of Death.


Maintain tension and fear by Tim Roll-Pickering 26/4/04

This novelisation has a special place for me as way back at the age of eight years old I wrote my first ever Who review of it for an essay in my English lessons. Sadly (or happily?) I no longer have it as the exercise book has long since vanished so it won't be appearing here. Nor can I remember much about what I said then, though it was probably along the lines of "it's great".

Rereading it again all these years later I get the sense that this is one of the books that Terrance Dicks was able to put more effort into than merely recycling the camera scripts. In just a few paragraphs we learn about the way the robots are reanked, how the Sandminer operates, how the humans have settled into a lazy lifestyle, how the Founding Families maintained their position and how self-made men like Uvanov carry huge chips on their shoulders. We also get get glimpses of the Doctor's thoughts as he first works out how to try and explain to Leela why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than the outside, or his reasoning when caught in one of the sand tanks and he realises he needs to take safe action not quick action.

Mystery stories are often amongst the hardest to pull off in print without giving away who the murderer is, but here Dicks manages to achieve it by focusing upon the Doctor, Leela and the robots. The confined environment they have arrived in is described well, as are the characters. In places Dicks' descriptions are so precise that it is clear he must have been working with either a videotape or publicity pictures from the televised story.

Onscreen the story itself is very well written, indeed probably the best of all the Tom Baker stories and so it would be hard to much it up. The story is structured around shattering the assumptions of one of the basic principles of robotics that Isaac Asimov devised, namely that no robot can harm a human being, but this is not expanded upon heavily beyond being the inherent understanding of all the humans aboard the Sandminer. Instead the tension and fear is expanded upon as the humans are slowly picked off one by one and the survivors become increasingly paranoid. Each of the main supporting characters is expounded upon, especially Uvanov who becomes more likeable as the story progresses, whilst even Dask/Taren Capel comes across as sympathetic due to a deprived childhood driving him insane. Throughout there is a constant reminder of the dangers, both from the robots within and also from the desert without.

At 102 pages this book isn't the longest and there is a clear sense that with even 120 pages Dicks wold have been able to enhance it further, but as it stands this is a quick but highly enjoyable read. 7/10

"The Robots of Dicks" by Jason A. Miller 10/8/18

By the late 1970s, Terrance Dicks was pretty much the only writer left in the Target stable, and he was churning out literally eight books a year, adapting most of the Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee stories not yet nailed down by Ian Marter or Malcolm Hulke. If you arrange the Target novelizations in story order on your bookshelf, you'll notice a long run of really slim books, barely cracking a hundred pages each. The Robots of Death is one of those super slim ones.

Terrance's output from this era wasn't very well remembered by adult fans by the time I reached rec.arts.drwho in the early '90s. These novelizations were thought to be slim and cursory, mere transcripts of camera scripts without much depth. And that's what I was expecting when I picked this book back up again on a whim last week, after watching my Robots of Death special edition DVD copy. Something rushed and unimpressive, compared to Target's lush mid-'70s or late '80s output.

I was, instead, impressed by how much depth Terrance was able to add to a barely 100-page novella. His opening pan is typically crisp and moody: "Like a city on the move, the Sandminer glided across the desert sands... It was about to become a ship of death." We learn a few things about Leela, such as how growing up in a Tribe perpetually at war made her an accomplished field medic or how she doesn't understand the runaway capitalism of the story's (unnamed) planetary locale. Dicks finds ways to add surprisingly lush visuals and keen character insights into such a miniscule book.

For example, Dicks drops several clues early on about how the humans on board the Sandminer take their robot servants for granted and lets us know how unprepared they are for the coming massacre. "With practice the human ear could detect the minute differences between one robot voice and another... if anyone cared to take the trouble." And that's all we need to know about the book's human robot-fodder, even before the characters are properly introduced. We also few a few glimpses inside Dask's head, early enough to telegraph that he's the mastermind behind the robots, such as when he notes with "satisfaction" that another human is losing to a robot at chess. Ditto the clue that Poul is an undercover detective, as Dicks cites his "constant watchfulness" in his very first appearance.

On the other hand, though, it's hard to write eight books a year and not have some of the seams showing. There are several moments of sloppiness here. Three straight chapter titles have the word "Robot" in them. The Sandminer is called a massive metal crab in back-to-back chapters, and the phrase "slowly forward" appears twice in a three-paragraph stretch. Cass is shown alive in the background of a scene after Leela has already discovered his corpse, and, in the same scene, someone accuses Borg of knowing a "secret" that the Commander had just announced to the entire room four paragraphs previously. The revelation that D.84 is a SuperVoc robot in disguise and that Poul is his human detective counterpart is dumped by Dicks in expository prose rather than organically worked into the dialogue.

But, by way of redeeming features, Dicks also gives lush descriptions of the colorful desert landscape, in a way that didn't wind up evident on TV, with "the sounds of the storm winds rose like the howling of a thousand angry demons".

Having read these books dozens of time, something else I like to look for now is the evolution of the story. Remember that Terrance was novelizing pre-rehearsal scripts, not a videotape of the completed TV production. Tom Baker added a lot in rehearsal or even on the studio floor, changing lines, adding the odd Shakespeare quote (here, from the Scottish play) or looking for novel ways to enter doorways or jump out in the middle of scenes. None of Tom's improvisational genius comes across in the book, because the material Terrance is working from, predates that (although the Doctor doesn't mispronounce "Terran" in the book, as he did on TV...). Also sadly lost is D.84's "Please do not throw hands at me", an inspired bit of business worked out in rehearsal. The repeated "I heard a cry"/"That was me" banter between D.84 and the Doctor goes on for far longer on TV, as Baker milked humor out of the seemingly dry exchange.

Dicks also describes the short-lived character Borg as "burly" (twice), even though the actor eventually cast for the part, Brian Croucher, looked downright Lilliputian next to Tom Baker. Dicks did, at least, know that director Michael E. Briant went off-script and cast minority actors for Zilda and Cass, and mentions that in the book, although, in 1979, he still felt it acceptable to describe Zilda as a "dark girl", in a way that looks outright malicious today, even though that certainly wasn't the author's intent.

Commander Uvanov is a bit of a tool in the book, literally described as "something pathetic", with Dicks hammering home his ineptness at multiple turns ("Uvanov gave the body a last disgusted look, as though it had died just to annoy him")... which stacks up oddly against the TV story, where Russell Hunter, playing against type, made Uvanov an authoritative, sinister and ultimately heroic figure. Dicks also misses the depths that Pamela Salem would bring to the role of Toos -- compare how limp her dialogue looks on the page versus how Salem delivered the lines.

As always, I love Terrance's wry asides, the way he comments on the action. You can tell whether or not he liked a story based on the nature of his asides.

'All motive units are closing down,' said V.16, reporting success in exactly the same tones it had used for disaster.
At the end, as Dask, the human killer and wanna-be robot is torturing the Doctor, Dicks slips into the Doctor's thoughts and tells us that the Doctor feels "genuine pity" for the killer.

Dicks clearly enjoyed this story to bits. He might not have had more than a week or two to write the teeny manuscript, but he certainly imbued it with as much care as the situation allowed. Had he been given 20 more pages to work with, as he would have both before and after this stretch of eight-books-a-year, this one might be remembered with far more acclaim.