Doctor Who can sometimes be a little mired in its own stock formula, which is to pit the Doctor against some relatively narrow set of science-fictional menaces—a megalomaniacal mad scientist, an army of alien monsters, or some combination thereof. 1977’s “The Robots Of Death” has both. Since the mid-1960s and up to the present, it’s been rare for the series to break away completely from that formula, which has after all proven to be what fans will reliably tune in to watch again and again in whatever new iteration. There’s value in breaking that cycle, and some of the best stories in Doctor Who’s history have been the ones that offer up something completely fresh. But it’s not the only way to go. During the first few Fourth Doctor seasons especially, the preferred way was to use the standard Doctor Who formula as a base for exploring other genres that had their own set of expectations and rules, to see what sparks would fly when they collided. When it worked, it came close to genius. And it worked awfully well in the claustrophobic “Robots Of Death,” which spun its plot together from elements taken from Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, especially those featuring the man-and-machine detective duo of Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, which were themselves Asimov’s attempts to fuse Golden Age science fiction with the puzzlebox mysteries of Agatha Christie.
In this case, the Doctor’s gift for landing the TARDIS with spectacularly bad timing puts him and his knife-wielding friend Leela on an isolated sandminer—a huge land-crawling machine that siphons valuable ore out of the sandstorms of an unnamed desert planet—and in the middle of a murder spree that isn’t supposed to be possible.
The ship is crewed by only a handful of humans, who are vastly outnumbered by the contingent of hundreds of robots who they order to do most of the actual work. This is, we gather, par for the course in this interplanetary society, and the first scene establishes in a few quick strokes what will soon be the story’s driving conflict. During a quiet moment between sandstorms, the bridge is temporarily left to the control of the robots when the humans relax belowdecks in sybaritic luxury, served by robot masseurs and bartenders. The imagery is something like a rich Roman Empire villa where slaves wait hand and foot on their supposed betters. But in all societies like that, the rich have reason to fear their servants, and here too, even though the slaves aren’t actually people, the raw fear of revolt is lurking just below the surface. The very first spoken line is a story about another mechanical masseur who cured a client’s sore shoulder by ripping off his arm. Perhaps it’s just an urban legend, but it gives voice to the human crew’s otherwise unacknowledged terror of what might happen if the servants decide to break their chains. The more you rely on something to work for you, the more dangerous it is to you if it should start to resent taking your orders. Which is why robots in this culture have such strict safety protocols—a single wrong move could cause bloody havoc, and a plague of wrong moves is something nobody wants to imagine. It’s a bad sign, then, that the ship’s ruthless captain, Uvanov, is introduced losing a game of chess to a robot after what can ony have been a series of wrong moves. Uvanov can be a domineering bully to his crew, especially the down-on-her-luck one-percenter Zilda, but chess is not the only game in which the machines are nine moves ahead of him.
Well, not the machines, exactly but whoever has found a way to make them go against their programming. “Robots Of Death” is a murder mystery, but the identity of the killers is spoiled right in the title. (And the name of their ultimate controller, Taren Capel, is a play on Karel Capek, the Czech playwright who invented the word “robot.”) The question is not who, but how and why, and those are generally better questions.
Without the Doctor’s presence, of course, they could not have been answered, because the very nature of the crime is inconceivable to the two detectives who were already aboard the sandminer. Asimov’s Baley and Olivaw characters are homaged here in the characters of Poul and D84, who clearly would make a good team in better circumstances—the rakish human undercover agent and his quiet but stolidly logical companion could have starred in their own series. But each, in their way, are blind to their own cultural limitations, which is especially catastrophic for Poul, who is reduced to gibbering insanity by the idea of robot killers like an H.P. Lovecraft character after a session with the Necronomicon. That’s a much darker take than the classic Asimov robot mystery, which is like a little frosted canape of logic, built more around why the robots aren’t obeying their programming than the more ugly aspects of death and murder. (For his part, the Doctor is only half-interested in playing detective: He only offhandedly mentions to anyone that Dask is really Taren Capel until it’s nearly too late to do anything about it, though there are signs that he might have figured it out much earlier than he lets on.)
And the setting here is closer to classic Agatha Christie than Asimov’s style—an isolated location in which are trapped a small group of people who all have suspicious motives and reason to hate each other. Nobody on board is there for pleasure—they all dream of the money they’ll make if the two-year mission goes well. But after two years in close quarters, sniping and petty resentments are getting in the way even of normal work, and the crisis at hand leads to open mutiny against Uvanov. This focus on the characters of the crew and their failure to pull together in the face of doom is one of the story’s real strengths—the outfits and headdresses they wear are outlandish (though awesome in a 1970s Ziggy Stardust way), but the people themselves are written and acted as grounded and realistic, particularly Russell Hunter as the sometimes odious, sometimes heroic Uvanov.
As murder mysteries go, neither Asimov nor Christie are typically very pessimistic—in those stories, murder itself is rare and strange, and usually caused by a single set of circumstances not easily repeated—a robotic malfunction, a long-nursed grudge, a secret plan for revenge against a single person. “Robots Of Death” takes a more apocalyptic view, which fits well with the decidedly cynical outlook of this Doctor Who era’s script editor, Robert Holmes, and scriptwriter Chris Boucher, who had also written the breathtakingly anti-religious previous serial, “The Face Of Evil.” Here, Boucher uses the isolated, thinly populated sandminer to briefly but effectively sketch a much larger culture whose existence is threatened by the crisis at hand not so much because of the threat of direct conquest made by Taren Capel, but because Capel’s success in undermining the robot safety rules makes painfully clear that the foundations here were always terrifyingly weak.
The real spirit of this story is closer to noirs like Chinatown or Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest with their implication that even if the detective solves today’s crime, the real rot is inextricable from the human heart, and there’s always something wicked on its way.
That bubbling fear of robot revolt gives the story a distinctly Marxist edge—the society of “Robots Of Death” has made its humans into lords and masters who thrive by the exploitation of robot labor, and Taren Capel, insane though he is, thinks he speaks in the voice of the proletariat.
If you think that might be a stretch, consider that the Doctor specifically compares Uvanov’s blase attitude to the French Revolution’s Marie Antoinette. And as the story’s most ruthlessly capitalistic character, Uvanov himself is a sharply ironic comment by Boucher and Holmes. Though “Uvanov” is a sideways homage to “Asimov,” it’s even closer to another famous Russian name: V.I. Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. (Surely it’s no coincidence he’s also a balding goateed man.)
A quick word about Leela: This is the second appearance of the uncultured-but-not-unintelligent Amazonian huntress, picking up directly after her debut in “Face Of Evil,” and it can’t but have helped to have Boucher be able to write for her twice in a row like that. Leela is probably my favorite Doctor Who companion, but she’s an unusual character to say the least, and having her creator work on her for eight episodes straight surely helped define her. Take her first scene: The fact that she’s confused about whether the Doctor’s yo-yo is part of the TARDIS’ “magic” is comical, but crucially, she’s not comical, just out of her comfort zone. In fact, she’s one of the only characters in the entire series who goes beyond merely observing that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside and actually asks the Doctor why it is. She and the Doctor are in many ways much more starkly different from each other than nearly anyone else he’s traveled with, but they’re also closer in spirit than most as well: They’re both rebels and iconoclasts who have run away from their own culture to see the greater universe. So the Doctor doesn’t catch the irony in his own complaint that “I wish that girl wouldn’t wander off like that.” Why not? He does.
• Originally broadcast Jan. 29-Feb. 19, 1977.
• “Please do not throw hands at me.”
• Somehow I could Arrested Development crossing over perfectly with “Robots Of Death.” In the words of Lucille Bluth: “Where the hell is my maid? ROBOT!”
• Upcoming schedule:
• Doctor Who Classic reviews will publish monthly on the first Saturday. For the next few months, every other review will tackle the Fourth Doctor’s “Key To Time” arc from 1978, skipping around to other seasons inbetween. Coming up:
• Feb. 7: “The Power Of Kroll”
• March 7: “The Sea Devils”
• April 4: “The Armageddon Factor”