The Fourth Doctor and Leela land aboard a sandminer, whose crew believe them to be responsible for a murder. As the crew continue to get picked off, the Doctor begins to suspect that the sandminer’s robots may be responsible for the murders…
The Robots of Death is the penultimate story of the Hinchcliffe – Holmes era of the show and takes on the conventions of a murder mystery story, in the vein of Agatha Christie. It’s one of the first Fourth Doctor stories I ever watched, loving the title, and it is certainly a high point in a really strong season of Doctor Who.
Chris Boucher’s script is a really strong one, which creates a very well-developed society amongst both the humans and the robots. With the humans, we get the idea of the Founding Families, but there are disputes within them, whilst with the robots, there is a hierarchy between the Super-Voc SV7, the black Dums and green Vocs. The dynamics between the humans leads to increasing distrust after the Doctor and Leela’s appearance. The story introduces Grimwade’s Syndrome, also known as Robophobia, a condition that affects humans who have frequent contact with robots. Boucher also makes sure that this setting is fraught with danger, and it is notable that the first two cliffhangers in this story do not include peril featuring the titular robots but the dangers of the craft itself. This danger helps the story – the Doctor, Leela and the crew of the sandminer are not only in peril from the robots, but the basic situation they find themselves in.
The emotionless robots are pretty sinister before you take into account the fact that their core programming is being manipulated by Taren Capel to kill humans. The scenes where the robots are corrupted by Capel are quite close to the knuckle for Doctor Who with the injections going directly into the head. When the robots start to come for the humans, it is truly terrifying thanks to the performances of the cast, whether it is David Collings as Poul going through a breakdown when discovering blood on the hands of a disabled robot, or Uvanov’s steadfast determination to pretend that everything is normal despite having witnessed robophobia lead to the death of Zilna’s brother. Zilna’s monologue over the address system shortly before she is murdered is one of the most disturbing death scenes in one that is full of them.
The direction of Michael Briant and the production design, in general, ensure that this story is as good as it can be. Briant was an old hand at directing Doctor Who by this point and his experience really shows in the finished product, especially in the story’s opening moments with that panning establishing shot which effectively makes this planet feel like it’s not just another quarry. His directorial flair is on show again whenever someone enters the control room of the sandminer, which makes these scenes feel dynamic and interesting. The miniature work for the outside of the craft is wonderful, whilst the design of the interior of the sandminer is more interesting than the usual grey alien space crafts we are used to seeing. The Robot masks and most of their costume looks really good – it’s just a shame about the tin foil boots! The actors in the costumes do a great job, especially Miles Fothergill as SV7 and Gregory de Polnay as D84.
You’re a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain.The Fourth Doctor
From the behind the scenes documentary, it is mentioned that Tom Baker didn’t like this story, but it doesn’t seem to affect his performance. His Doctor is charming and commanding throughout the story, so utterly compelling and watchable. There’s great chemistry between Baker and Louise Jameson here from the start of the story. The scene between the pair in the TARDIS where Leela is continuing to play the yoyo because the Doctor hasn’t told her to stop leading into the explanation of how the whole ‘bigger on the inside’ thing works is probably one of the best examples of this in the show’s history. Jameson gets her chance to shine here too, spending time apart from the Doctor for large swathes of the story and is trusted to protect other characters in the story, marking her out from earlier companions. Louise Jameson seems to have put some real effort into thinking about how Leela would react to new environments and scenarios and makes Leela as compelling and watchable as the Doctor.
Verdict: The Robots of Death is a great example of the gothic era of Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor. There’s great direction and acting from all the cast, even if the lead apparently had doubts about the script. 9/10
Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), Russell Hunter (Uvanov), Pamela Salem (Toos), David Bailie (Dask/Taren Capel), Rob Edwards (Chub), Brian Croucher (Borg), Tariq Yunus (Cass), David Collings (Poul), Tania Rogers (Zilda), Gregory de Polnay (D84), Miles Fothergill (SV7) & Mark Blackwell Baker, John Bleasdale, Mark Cooper, Peter Langtry, Jeremy Ranchev and Richard Seagar (Robots).
Writer: Chris Boucher
Director: Michael Briant
Original Broadcast Dates: 29 January – 19 February 1977
Behind the Scenes
- This story had the working titles The Storm-Mine Murders and Planet of the Robots. Writer Chris Boucher was asked to write this story after another serial fell through and his script for The Face of Evil was well received. Tom Baker did not like his script for this story, something which he made clear to both Boucher and director Michael E Briant.
- This story is the final one to feature the wood-panelled TARDIS control room, which warped in storage between seasons.
- Robophobia is also referred to as Grimwade’s syndrome, a reference to then-production assistant and future director and writer Peter Grimwade, who bemoaned that all the stories he worked on involved robots.
- Tom Baker disliked the resolution of the cliffhanger from Part One, wishing for an action-packed sequence with the Doctor swings on his scarf to kick the door to open. He argued with director Briant until the director revealed that future producer Graham Williams was present to observe the shoot, which made Baker back down.
- Russell Hunter would reprise his role of Uvanov in Kaldor City, the Magic Bullet Productions spin-off.
- Pamela Salem would go on to play Rachel Jensen in Remembrance of the Daleks, as well as playing one of the voices of Xoanan in the previous story, The Face of Evil. Salem would reprise her role of Jensen in Big Finish’s spin-off Counter Measures and the Main Range story 1963: The Assassination Games.
- David Bailie would go on to play the Celestial Toymaker in the Big Finish audio plays The Nightmare Fair and Solitaire and would play Taren Capel in the Kaldor City audio plays.
- Rob Edwards was one of the voices of Xoanan in the previous story The Face of Evil.
- Brian Croucher later played Kurt in the Reeltime Pictures spin-off video Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans and would voice Cotton in the Kaldo City audio plays.
- David Collings previously played Vorus in Revenge of the Cybermen and also played Mawdryn in Mawdryn Undead. He also played an alternative version of the Doctor in Full Fathom Five and reprised his role as Poul (now Paulus) in Magic Bullet Productions’ Kaldor City and Big Finish’s The Robots, which was released after his death.
- Gregory de Polnay would go on to play V23 in Kaldor City and reprised D84 in The Robots story Closed Loop.
I really love the Doctor trying to explain to Leela how the TARDIS works.
Exactly! If you could keep that exactly that distance away, and have it here, the large one would fit inside the small one.
That’s trans-dimensional engineering; a key Time Lord discovery!The Fourth Doctor and Leela
You mean you can’t control this thing?
Of course I can control it. Nine times out of ten. All right, seven times out of ten. Five times out ten…never mind!Leela and the Fourth Doctor
Previous Fourth Doctor review: The Face of Evil
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