Written by Chris Boucher
Directed by Michael E Briant
Doctor Who is a British science-fiction television series that has been around off and on since 1963. The main character is just known as “The Doctor” and is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. This means he travels through time to various places. One of his favorite places to visit is Earth. Typically, he has a companion traveling with him, usually female, sometimes male, sometimes one of each. He travels in a time machine known as a “Tardis” which is disguised as a British Police booth.
A Time Lord can regenerate if fatally wounded, which has accounted for all the different actors who have played The Doctor throughout the years. In this episode, he is portrayed by Tom Baker. Baker was one of the most popular incarnations of The Doctor, and by many fan’s assessments, he was the most popular.
In The Robots of Death, the Doctor is traveling with Leela (portrayed by Louise Jameson), A Xena-like woman from another world who despite all of her primal tendencies is quite intelligent and adaptable. She provides a good amount of comic relief in her responses to various situations which arise.
The Doctor and Leela arrive on a desert world and end up in a mining vessel manned by a collection of humanoids and their robot servants. The humanoids have grown soft over the years, having gotten used to the robots doing all the work as well as catering to their every whim. Right about the time, they show up, dead bodies begin turning up. To clear himself and Leela from suspicion, the Doctor takes on the task of finding out who or what is behind the deaths. Along the way, he learns he’s not alone as there is both a robotic and humanoid investigator in the vessel as agents of the company which sent them out there.
The story spans what would have been four episodes back when this was first aired. The pacing is good as the mystery unravels slowly as to what exactly is happening and why. The race of people is never clearly mentioned. Overall, though, it works as something of a statement about getting soft and letting machines do all the work for us until they turn. It’s an old theme, but here it’s handled well and done with subtlety.
In keeping with the Doctor Who tradition, the special effects are all fairly low budget, as are the makeup and costuming. The people inhabiting the mining vessel look like something out of A Flock of Seagulls video from the 1980s. Exotic makeup and hairstyles are used to compensate for a deficient budget in this area to differentiate these humanoids from every other human seen in science fiction. The robots are obviously costumed humans with masks on, and the extent of the special effects seems to be a glittery tone given to various scenes as if someone was dribbling glitter paint over the film in certain spots. The costuming is good for the era if still only an attempt at differentiating the humanoids from earthlings by dressing them differently. It does look like some of the crazy 80’s style clothing got their start here. There are a few other very noticeable goofs in the story – continuity is not a strong point of the production – but I’ve found over the years this is more fun than anything else. The only part that confused me was when the wrong model robot appeared at one point in a different role.
The actors who portray the robots do a good job. Although the Doctor assures Leela in the beginning that the robots “have no feelings” the actors manage to convey a wide range of reactions through body language. If the robot is pensive about something, he takes a step and hesitates. If he’s curious, his head inclines a certain way. These robots are not stoic beings inhabiting this world, and although that portrayal might have been more accurate it’s certainly more interesting this way.
Tom Baker is in his usual form as the Doctor. He delivers unbelievable lines with a sense of believability. His affable nature and frequent grins compensate for a lot of the problems the series had, and he is able to convince me that there’s a degree of suspense involved in the plot.
There’s also a nice degree of chemistry with Louise Jameson as Leela. This is only their second story-arc together and there’s a freshness to their camaraderie and the Doctor’s amusement with her primitive ways. This does get old after a while in the series, and while I used to think it was a worn-out theme, after viewing them together in Robots of Death, I think it was more the actors struggling to keep that aspect of their relationship fresh.
That’s not to say Jameson doesn’t do a terrific job, both in this arc and later on in the series. Her reaction to situations is funny, and if anything I thought she accepted too much of what was happening without the wonderment someone who had never witnessed this alien technology would show. However, that’s more on the writers than Jameson as she does a great job with the material she’s given. Right from the beginning, she is delivering humorous moments such as when Leela is using a yo-yo and thinks it’s something she has to keep going to make the TARDIS work.
My entire household enjoyed Robots of Death. It runs a little over an hour and a half without the Special Features and that’s just the right amount of time to keep two pre-teens who love the newest incarnation of the Doctor involved in the story. They don’t mind the old effects and generally laugh at most of it. I have found it to be a great way to spend quality time together as a family.
Robots of Death provides a decent storyline with good acting and a lot of fun. Fans will like it and it’s a place where those who may be getting to know the Doctor for the first time might be able to pick up a bit more information on him.
• From the BBC Archive
• Howard Da Silva Episode Intros
• Who’s Who
• Photo Gallery
• Studio Plan
• Commentary by Producer Philip Hinchcliffe and Writer Chris Boucher