Failure’s one of the basic freedoms.
Odds are good in Doctor Who that the robot did it. And if the robot is a butler, as in Chris Boucher’s “The Robots of Death” (Story Production Code 4R), then there’s no question who the murderer will be. Though the title sort of gives it away, too.
Boucher’s second story, following “The Face of Evil” just prior, even manages the neat trick of keeping the real villain hidden until the third of four episodes, sadly with the unfortunate side effect that the events of the first three segments serve mostly as action-flavored filler.
After the Doctor gives Leela an impromptu lesson on trans-dimensional engineering, the TARDIS materializes inside an enormous ground vehicle, a sand miner crawling across a forbidding desert landscape in search of zelanite, a rare and valuable mineral. Staffed predominantly by robots, with a small, coddled human crew to oversee them, the miner has been trawling these wastes for eight mostly uneventful months, but the moment the TARDIS arrives, one of the human crew is murdered.
There’s no mystery in it—veteran director Michael Briant films the attack from the robot’s blurry point of view. Given the establishing scenes of the crew discussing how utterly impossible it would be for a robot to harm a human, cribbing from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the story’s primary question becomes how the robot was able to kill one of the human crew. The violation of this prime directive would mean the end of their civilization, dependent as it is on robot labor for most of its functioning.
Boucher and the production team go to great lengths to sketch out a decadent human culture primarily concerned with the acquisition of wealth and prestige. Surrounded by opulence and art, the crew dons unwieldy headgear when performing their assigned tasks on this two year expedition, the symbols of their individual status and position never far from hand—or head. Even when alerted to a murder, the commander of the miner, Ulanov (Russell Hunter), insists that they continue pursuing a rich zelanite deposit before focusing on the fact that someone in their isolated environment has evil intent. He’d sooner return to base with full ore tanks than a full crew, and he almost gets his wish…
Their unerring arrival at the very moment of crisis puts suspicion squarely on the Doctor and Leela, who are captured, then manage to escape, then are captured again. Enough tension has been established amongst the human crew, though, that some of them harbor doubts about the new arrivals’ culpability, warily suspecting each other instead. This inter-crew intrigue breaks up the monotony of the typical situation where the Doctor and companion are inevitably blamed for the catastrophe du jour and must talk their way out of it.
These various motivations of the crew, however, lack sufficient depth to carry the plot forward; there are simply too many crew members to enable any real differentiation between them in the time allotted. When Zilda (Tania Rogers) breaks into the commander’s quarters and rummages through his personnel files, her claim of a major revelation falls flat, because the viewer has no idea what she’s upset about, having only seen some hint of a grudge between the two of them previously. That an unseen human figure commands a robot to kill her just before this point only muddles matters.
Boucher’s story drops the Doctor into events that would have played out in an interesting manner regardless of his presence. Such tales tend to reduce the Doctor’s role to being in the right place at the right time to do some right thing that he invents on the spot, and such is the case here. The strong casting of the refreshingly multi-cultural crew is wasted by reducing the characters to brief sketches. Some crew members utter but a few sentences before being dispatched by the robots, and the lack of a clear sense of the relationships between the crew members drains these killings of any impact beyond the merely visceral.
And visceral these murders are, continuing Season Fourteen’s fairly graphic violent streak. Multiple characters, including the Doctor, are strangled in extended sequences, and a robot’s gore-laden hand lingers on the screen for several disturbing beats. Even the Doctor’s insistence that he never uses weapons goes by the wayside, with robots fair game for all manner of explosion and impalement.
Louise Jameson, as Leela, certainly gets in on the action. Though the Doctor forbids her from bringing one of the Tesh ray-guns with her when they land, insisting, “If people see you mean them no harm, they never hurt you. Nine times out of ten,” he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t mind the knife on her belt. Leela wields that knife with gusto, eventually throwing it, quite ineffectually, at a killer robot.
Narratively, an indeterminate amount of time has passed between the end of “The Face of Evil,” where Leela jumps on board the TARDIS uninvited, and here, where her presence seems, if not warmly welcomed by the Doctor, at least tolerated. Her character shows strong, almost uncanny intuition and an incredible curiosity, with a tendency to pick up and rummage through objects wherever she goes. The Doctor veers between pleasure at being able to pontificate due to her questions and frustration at her continued inquisitiveness. It’s not an endearing characteristic on the Doctor’s part, to be frank, especially since, on the evidence of two stories at least, he leans towards the dismissive more often than not. Too, the Doctor is willing to risk Leela’s safety in ways he would never endanger Sarah Jane, bringing her along into the robot-controlled part of the miner when Sarah would be told to stay behind in the relative safety of the control deck.
The story dances around the issue of robot sentience and servitude, frustratingly never addressing it straight on despite it being at the heart of the story. In the third episode, the Doctor discovers that one of the robots, D-84, has been placed onboard the miner by the unnamed Company that owns it, to investigate letters threatening a robot revolution, led by a scientist named Taren Capel. Setting aside that these letters and this revolution simply appear out of thin air halfway through the story, the notion of robotic freedom is regarded as fanciful, the Doctor later insisting that robots owe their existence to humans. And yet, the story portrays the robots as having some capacity for emotion, some degree of intellectual capacity and growth.
The robots cry out plaintively when attacked, suggesting feeling, though the Doctor dismisses these emotive affectations as part their programming to make them more humanlike, for aesthetic purposes. But when robot D-84 tells the Doctor that its continued existence is irrelevant next to serving the Company, the Doctor recoils at the thought:
Doctor: D-84, this is a final deactivator. If I have to use this and you’re around, it’ll destroy your brain.
D-84: I am not important.
Doctor: What? I think you’re very important.
The Doctor here imbues D-84 with significance beyond that he would accord to a machine, his general disregard for computers and mere mechanical beings a long-established trait. And when Taren Capel, who had been hiding amongst the crew as Dask (David Bailie), has the Doctor bound to a table, about to fry the Time Lord’s brain, a wounded D-84 crawls to reach the deactivator, grabbing it and crying out, “Goodbye, my friend,” before triggering it, destroying itself and all the nearby robots to save the Doctor. Perhaps this selfless act, too, comes from mere programming, but the story obviously does not want the viewer to think so, having bestowed D-84 with curiosity, self-awareness, and now valor.
Capel, raised by robots, fancies himself to be a robot, going so far as to dress like one, with matching facial makeup. A gifted roboticist, he aims to re-program all the robots with the ambition to rule the galaxy, something of a mini-Davros in that respect. But when the Doctor has Leela release helium into the room where he conducts his experiments, the robots, controlled as they are by specific voice prints, no longer recognize his authority and carry out his standing order to kill all humans, himself now included.
It’s a pithy and wholly unsatisfying ending, with the mad scientist cast simply as an unhinged lunatic rather than someone who senses a real wrong that requires solution, albeit not this particularly bloody solution. At no point does the Doctor mourn D-84 nor pause to question whether these robots have inched into some form of sentience, a concept that the very last story introduced as possible. He and Leela just walk away at the end, entering the TARDIS not with a discussion of the morality of sentient robot servitude but with an explanation of why helium does not affect Time Lord vocal cords.
Tom Baker continues to inhabit the role of the Fourth Doctor quite fully, with wide and mischievous smiles his particular speciality. There’s not much depth to the Doctor’s role this time through, though. Once he realizes that the robots operate via voice pattern command, he helpfully stumbles on canisters of helium used to launch research balloons (in the far future) and comes up with a quick plan, snapping at Leela who has the audacity to ask what he intends.
“The Robots of Death” does succeed in creating a coherent atmosphere. The costume and effects team nicely realize the vision of a robot-dominated culture, with the robots’ ornate design providing just enough divergence from the human form to create a sense of unease, one highlighted by a character, Poul (David Collins), who suffers from robophobia due to the “uncanny valley” of their near-verisimilitude.
But the story itself, like many Doctor Who stories of Hinchcliffe and Holmes’ run, does not quite live up to its narrative possibilities, sacrificing potentially interesting characters and a chance to explore the nature of consciousness in favor of violent shock value and some admittedly memorable quips. D-84 beseeching Leela, “Please do not throw hands at me,” after she hurls a disembodied robot appendage at it, should be proof enough that robots deserve to be free.
(Previous Story: The Face of Evil)
(Next Story: The Talons of Weng-Chiang)
Post 93 of the Doctor Who Project