Doctor Who #446: The Robots of Death Part 1

"Well, of course I can control it. Nine times out of ten. Well, seven times out of ten. Five times. Look. Never mind, let's see where you are."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD, both in standard and Special Edition formats. First aired Jan.29 1977.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor famously explains why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside

REVIEW: Another Chris Boucher script? Yes, please. While The Face of Evil mashed together various Star Trek ideas, this one is Dune meets I, Robot meets... Agatha Christie?! Right away, Boucher creates a political world, with his various characters, though quickly sketched, having different opinions, motivations and backgrounds. He also implies a larger world out there with urban legends of Kaldor City, the privileged Founding Families, etc. Whatever future we're in, humanity has grown indolent, leaving the hard or tedious work to their robot servants while they enjoy life. That makes this sand mining crew the perfect bunch of characters to play the roles usually afforded the stately manor residents is Christie's closed room murder stories. If robots DON'T have feelings and the puppets of humans, then which human had the unfortunately named Chub killed? The only clue, a "corpse marker" (robot deactivation disc) left on his hand. Is it Borg, who didn't like the guy? The callous and greedy Commander Uvanov? The down-on-her-luck (and badly acted) aristocrat Zilda? Dask, who is well-informed about robots? In a surprising twist, Poul the murder's snarky investigator or obvious Doctor's ally-in-waiting Toos? The robots, somehow grown aware and murderous? Though I know the answer, it's still enjoyable to see how the production throws accusations around to create the mystery.

This world likely wouldn't work without the brilliant art deco design. Taking the humans' indolence and quasi-decadence as its core aesthetic, it gives us some rather fantastic hats and costumes instead of the usual futuristic uniforms, some lavish sets contrasting with the sandminer's Spartan industrial areas, and makes a a fine use of tall multi-level sets, overhead shots, and CSOed screens. The robots' design is of particular interest, of course, and they're treated as works of art, just the sets and clothes. These humans surround themselves with beautiful things. The robots are made in their image, with similar clothes, "make-up", and hair (they have Cass' hairstyle), so one might imagine models changing with the fashions.

The episode also features the Doctor's wild explanation for how the TARDIS can be bigger on the inside and it's a howler, albeit one I still use to explain it to befuddled friends. It makes no sense and yet perfect sense. Like Leela, we just don't have the maths background to think it anything but silly. While our two heroes have some good scenes - Leela finding beauty in the desert, the Doctor never noticing she's wandered off and is no longer following him, the cliffhanger which clearly shows Tom Baker getting buried alive - they never meet the guest cast. This is unusual and perhaps necessary to get all the relationships in gear before the Doctor gets to play Poirot, but it still creates a bit of insatisfaction, as if we're still waiting for the story to properly start.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Highly memorable designs only improve a well-constructed and executed murder mystery set-up. Just wish the Doctor and Leela had a greater role to play in it.


Craig Oxbrow said...

For the full effect, the trailer for the Christmas 1977 repeat featured "The Crunch" by The Rah Band.

This tribute uses the whole song and thus rather a lot of footage from the whole serial, so it's a bit spoilery...

Siskoid said...

Thankfully, I *have* seen it before :-).

Matt said...

The way robots were featured in films is much different than the world of robotics we know today. But there is still plenty of room for imagination.

Siskoid said...

The Robots of Death take place around the year 3000 so who knows what kind of advances, setbacks and fashion choices might be made by then.

LiamKav said...

Watched this episode for the first time today. One thing with old Doctor who is that I often spend the first few minutes mentally adjusting for the age of the show. So the first time I see the model of the mining machine, it's obviously only a couple of inches tall. By the second or third time I can ignore it.

Similarly, I often go into these mentally preparing myself for "how people talked in old TV shows". Y'know, patient explanations, no-one talking over each other except by actors mistake, things like that. I was therefore really surprised by how everyone spoke in this. The dialogue was quick, witty, with (as you say) background information liberally thrown about to enrich the world. I was really quite impressed. Let's see if the rest of the story lives up to the first part.

(Also, I think this might be my favourite Forth Doctor look. I prefer the darker coat to the earlier lighter one, and the scarf is long without being insane.)

Siskoid said...

Those four first stories with Leela are one of my favorites runs of Doctor Who ever.


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