Doctor Who #449: The Robots of Death Part 4

"Dask! You look ridiculous in that outfit. Not half the robot your father was."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Feb.19 1977.

IN THIS ONE... The robots attack, Dask is "revealed" to be terrorist Teren Capel, and he is killed by his own "brothers".

REVIEW: The third chapters of 4-parters typically get slammed for padding, but the ones I dread are the finales, which so often fall short of their set-ups. Usually, it's because the action tends to overwhelm the crisp dialog of the best stories, and that's somewhat true here. There's an awful lot of barely choreographed choking going on, and fewer juicy lines. In fact, the dialog is at times risible, especially when matched to an equally risible image, the best example being Dask's "We will be irresistible!" while all made up in glitter. Raised by robots, this Tarzan of the mechanical world - or I guess he's Bizarro Magnus Robot Fighter, isn't he? - takes on the colors of his robot brethren in the final reel, but it somehow makes him more emotional. Perhaps that's something the director should have looked to, though the script is in no way blameless. Leela, for example, is reduced to being supernaturally intuitive (though in Boucher's defense, it does contrast her "purer" humanity with this culture's diluted reliance on technology). The Doctor is made to carry Uvanov in his arms like a damsel in distress, but perhaps the commander doesn't mind, not the way he seems to swoon at his savior. Maybe the more sexually flexible future of the Whoniverse didn't start with the RTD era.

The episode's biggest flaw, however, is its lack of proper closure. Registering at less than 22 minutes of new material, there should have been room for a longer farewell than the abrupt departure we actually got. Perhaps a eulogy for poor D84 who gave his life. Or some gratitude from Toos or Poul. A coda telling us where these characters are headed now, whether their civilization will indeed fall or if this incident will be hushed up. The Robots of Death end in a rush, with the Doctor all too eager to get off the sandminer, but there's no real call to. And since he's still making mouse references, it's as if they're coming directly from the climax. It doesn't feel like those missing moments happened even off-screen.

That said, there are still a great many things to enjoy. I mean beyond Pamela Salem hanging out on the control deck in her nighty. There's Uvanov's little story that gives his more human side an airing and shows that Zilda really misunderstood the situation. There's the Doctor's use of helium to change Taren Capel's voice so the robots wouldn't respond to him, a fun solution that the kids watching would have immediately embraced, no doubt having indulged in squeaky voices at least once in their lives. D84 continues to lay on the accidental poetry with "Please do not throw hands at me", his sad tones making him the one robot you sort of want to hug. The translucent doors are a nice piece of design, and about as creepy as watching robots get stabbed in the back of the head. Robots of Death is pretty good even when it's not that good.

VERSIONS: I'm not aware of any important deviation between the Target novelization and the televised story.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - The breakneck pace of the finale doesn't allow for a proper detente at the end, and the dialog resolves to a steady stream of "Kill all the humans". Still, there are some good moments in there and the designs continue to prop up the production.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Despite its directorial hiccups, The Robots of Death, along with The Face of Evil, provide a welcome and well-written break to the Gothic stylings of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, an island of purer SF in a sea of horror tropes. Robots is overrated where Face is underrated, but both are good and feature some excellent design work, dialog and themes.


Matthew Turnage said...

The reveal of Dask as Taren Capel is the one image of this story that always sticks with me. Even though, as your previous entries have stated, we all know who the villain is by that point, there's something about that first shot of him in his robot makeup that struck me as freaky the first time I saw the episode. I don't know if it's the suddeness of the hard cut to Capel or what, since the makeup isn't really that bizarre. Still, it really makes me feel like he's unhinged, and that creepy feeling I got on first viewing seems to carry forward on subsequent viewings, even though I know it's coming.

Siskoid said...

Yeah, it's pretty freaky (we sound like Jo Grant), and only dulled due to familiarity, at least on my end. It's the reveal we deserve after the previous reveal was blown.

Yes we all know Dask is Taren Capel, but we didn't know Capel was THIS!

Peder said...

The design of the robots is simply wonderful. I'd love to see them return to the new Who.

Siskoid said...

They sort of have, in Voyage of the Damned, as the Host. Definitely cousins there.

Anonymous said...

Even closer siblings are the Robots in The Girl in the Fireplace.

Peder said...

I'd forgotten about both of those newer robots. I'd have to rewatch Voyage of the Damned, but I wonder if the angel get up disguised the similarity from me. They don't have the same creepy ambiguity of these robots.
(I love that to comment on this, I have to prove that I'm NOT a robot.)

Siskoid said...

The culture seen in Fireplace looks very much akin to that of Robots, that's true!

Peder: The Host have very similar voices and faces, and the episode has visual references to Robots of Death, like one losing a hand in a doorjamb.

Calamity Jon said...

Between Dask's Bowie/Gabriel-esque facepaint and the Roger Dean-ness of the Robots' design, I've always liked to think of this as the most Prog Rock Doctor Who episode.

The Horror of Prog Rock!

Siskoid said...

Did you know there's an 8th Doctor audio Paul Magrs-penned story called Horror of GLAM Rock?

Calamity Jon said...

Haha, no, that's hilarious!


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