The Robots of Death: DVD Special

Written by:
Chris Boucher
Directed by: Michael E. Briant
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1977
Video Availability: Try

One of the unwritten "rules" of my episode by episode reviews is that I can't go back and change my views afterwards. No tidying things up and going back to correct myself - if I start a review by saying something's poor I then have to look foolish if I decide by the end that it's a great.

So that I once said, despite Deadly Assassin being a classic, Talons is even better. I began the Talons review in the same vein, before I got to the end and realised that, unlike Assassin, it clearly doesn't hold up to repeated viewings.

And so it that, doing them completely out of sequence, I come to my fourth season fourteen review (the first being The Hand of Fear, which was never a contender in the first place). With all of this in mind, I'm confident that The Robots of Death will stand firm in my evaluation, as it does exactly what's expected of it, simply yet efficiently. Here's the deal: Tom, the most iconographic of all the Doctors, meets strangulating robots on a mining ship. Sure, there's a bit of psychology and some funny lines, as well as a bit of a social subtext, but just in case you didn't get it, here it is again - robots that kill!! I mean, come on - is that cool or what?

It's just so hard to put into words why something is right. We're a couple of minutes in when a character talks about a rogue robot who ripped out a man's arm from the socket. By showing no gore at all, Chris "friend of The Anorak Zone" Boucher has managed to place a frightening psychological image in the viewer's mind. That's great writing. Similarly, there's his later "nine times out of ten " speech for the Doctor, which explodes the corniness of his soapbox moralising. That never happened with Jon Pertwee.

Michael E. Briant, who flailed around like a soaking girl in Death to the Daleks, here does absolutely superb work, helped by the gorgeous sets, robot design and voices. Yeah, the human costumes are more Blake's 7 than Blake's 7 itself, but they're all well portrayed. Chris Boucher's writing has a clipped, too-witty-to-be-real-life style, which can work magnificently in the hands of strong actors, yet fail badly in the opposite arena. (Much as it pains me to admit it, some Star Cops episodes did quite badly out of it). It works on a first-rate basis here, be it the Dæmons-riffing bumblebee bit, or the bit everyone loves about the size of the brain. Also of interest is the "you people stick together" racial element, though this is hypocritical from a period of Who that rarely features non-Caucasian actors.

Thanks to carefully built up psychology, the Voc Robots are actually far scarier than the Cybermen in any of their appearances. By having the camera force you to take the perspective of the murderer it also deeply unsettles. For such a simple plot this is deceptively intelligent. It's not high brow, but does what it does with a level of what is near-perfection and has "classic" written all the way through it. Oh - and Leela's well fit, too.
* * * * *

You know, credit where credit's due: it may still be enormously loud by modern standards, but Dudley's score here is superb. The pulsating heartbeat effect is magnificent.

I know as fans we claim to not mind cheapness in Who (it goes with the territory), but isn't it better when it isn't? The production in this studio-bound story is extraordinarily good, with the direction to match. Other observations: an interesting opening shot of the Commander, fingering a white king; and, of course, the juxtaposition between effete art deco and impassive killer robots makes the robots all the more frightening.

The only sticking point for me with Boucher's writing is Leela's "No, but you can, otherwise you'd have done it" response. I mean - she's tick, innit? She'd never come up with anything as clever as that. But it's a one-line slip in an episode full of class ones. Note that when Borg puts his hands around the Doctor's throat it's the first time we've seen an (attempted) strangulation in the story. The Robots of Death is clever because, Hitchcock-style, it implies rather than shows. Cast observations: Pamela Salem (18'45m) - it's rude to point; Tania Rogers can't act for shit; Louise Jameson - I definitely would. The episode? Superb.
* * * * *

I suppose on reflection the fact that Dask didn't get more than two or three lines in the first couple of episodes should have been something of a giveaway. Don't look at me, I'm the guy that doesn't say anything. This of course becomes redundant here when it's made blindingly obvious who the villain is less than eight minutes in. Strangely, it doesn't effect your enjoyment, even though it's supposed to be the big revelation in the following episode.

The pace dips a little here from time to time with some extended dialogue sequences, but this can't afford to be a typical "episode three" - there's killer robots on the loose! And it rocks! Best bit? The blooded metal hand, a classic bit of genuine horror. This also features the only lacking bit of production with the Laserson probe producing CSO bleed. I mention this as observation, not as criticism - if only all stories had such trivialities as "flaws". Weird how SV5's arm grows a foot when his hand falls off, too. D84 comes into his own here, and the society making the "dumbs" black is an interesting commentary on Imperialism. If you think that's me reading too much into it then I hadn't noticed until Hinchcliffe said so on the commentary.

Another great episode - is it just me or when Toos is on the bed saying she needs Leela do you think… you know? Be a must-see episode then, wouldn't it?
* * * * ½

Chris Boucher knows exactly what buttons to press. He allows us to breathe during part three (keep it that taut all the way and it will dissipate) and then opens episode four with a power failure.

Also nice to see lots of touchy-feely stuff with Leela and Toos on the bed for a hint of sapphic tendencies. Or that could be my imagination. Boucher's writing is not without necessary contrivance here, such as Robots being called away before killing Toos, or not checking the hopper. A future society with no viewscreens on doors or a trace on communicators is also unusual. Then there's the double contrivance of the use of the helium/the Doctor's immunity to it. Yet quibbles aside (and the "release more of our brothers from bondage… we will be irresistible" line is priceless) this is still a fantastic last episode.

Uvanov's shift in character is a nice development, his earlier bigotry now revealed as misplaced repressed guilt. With the revolution this can be seen as a social commentary, and you know what stands out most for me this episode, if not the whole story? The bit where the Doctor tells Leela "do you have to talk so much." It's an oddly harsh, embittered response and said with such genuine spite that you almost feel Tom ad-libbed it. I remember my mum, distractedly reading the paper - mums never like Doctor Who, do they? - looking up at this bit. Actually, seeing it again maybe it's not as harsh as I recalled and quite humorous, so I've just contradicted myself. Oh well.

David Bailie made up as a green and silver faced Voc should be laughable, but it's terrifying - this is real insanity in the show, even if the whole set up does illustrate one of Who's eternal problems: if you've got a first-class villain then how can he be beaten? And if I'm really honest then there is a mild sense of something missing at the climax. It's only a small feeling, but you do feel a mite shortchanged, like a coda is absent. It's a small matter though, and this is another good one.
* * * * ½

Top five story or what? A classic.
* * * * *


One of the earliest DVD releases, this one uses the Tom Baker theme, which is better, but edited badly. Also strange is the auto start on the story if you leave the disc alone for a while. Now it is, of course, tempting to say the extras are… well, crap. Any DVD package that advertises "scene selection" as an extra has be lacking something. It's like those DVD releases that offer "interactive menu" as a special feature. These things aren't freebies or extras, they're stuff that should be taken for granted. I mean, what would the alternative be, for flip's sake? "Special Feature - Non-Interactive Menu. Put in your DVD disc and you can access bugger all."?

So, real extras - what do we get? A feature that comprises 0'21m of a continuity announcement, 1'14m of untreated footage (interesting), 7'39m of black and white model shots with no sound (good to have but tedious) and 22 seconds of looking at a still that the BBC used to use to advertise Who at the time. On top of this are 30 navigatable stills and some line drawings of the set. Hidden Easter Eggs? Don't be stupid! Though if we think these are crap extras then maybe we've just become spoilt by the latest extras-packed releases, a case in point with the commentary too. How many releases of big budget films have the stars doing the commentary? You'll find in most cases it's the technical personnel, or with some older, arty films they'll be done by people who haven't even worked on the movie but are just critics or biographers. (Sam Peckinpah's PA makes a stab of Straw Dogs). So while people turn their noses up because Tom or Louise couldn't make it, having the producer and the writer is still well worth hearing. While Philip may talk to the audience a little too much, and is fond of monologues, you'll certainly learn more than Katy twittering on incessantly and remarking that everyone was "lovely".

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