The Robots of Death

Posted in Episode by - January 01, 2017
The Robots of Death

Aired 29 January – 19 February 1977

‘The Robots of Death’ is yet another classic story from the early Fourth Doctor years, effortlessly telling the tale of a megalomaniacal scientist while blending genres to explore Isaac Asimov’s famed robotic principles and to create a tense and claustrophobic mystery. As the Doctor and Leela land aboard an isolated sandminer crewed by a few humans and hundreds of robots as they attempt to extract ore from an unnamed desert world, they quickly find themselves entrenched in a series of murders with no logical explanation.

This era of the programme has been exceptionally good at layering a semblance of horror just beneath the surface, and ‘The Robots of Death’ follows suit as a discussion amongst crewmembers makes mention of a robotic masseuse who tore off a human’s arm to relieve the soreness. It may be a false tale for all they know, but it showcases an intrinsic fear of the subservient robots that the people of this time have despite rigorous safety protocols and assurances that they are programmed to be completely harmless. It’s a common story thread in any culture with a subservient class, but the raw strength and emotionless nature of the robots along with the confined setting amplifies the threat immensely.

Intriguingly, as ‘The Robots of Death’ channels Asimov’s robot stories featuring the human and robotic detective team of Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, only the presence of the Doctor allows for the mystery to be solved, the team of Poul and D84 unable to even think of the concept of robots doing harm. It’s quite telling that Poul is effectively reduced to insanity as the truth of the situation becomes apparent, the brutal carnage of the robots taking this tale to a much darker area than the more logic-centred Asimov ones. Strangely, though, the Doctor seems to discover the identity of the man behind the truth quite early on, only casually mentioning the identity of Taren Capel- itself a subtle take on Karel Capek, the Czech playwright who invented the term robot- at the last possible moment to avert disaster.

Yet as fascinating as the harrowing robot menace aboard the ship is, the claustrophobic environment and its effect on the crew after so many months in isolation is equally effective in setting the tone of the story. With tensions running high and mutiny on everyone’s mind, the raw emotions and the eventual bonding of these people in the face of adversity keeps the story incredibly grounded in realism regardless of the interesting costuming choices for the crew. Indeed, seeing how quickly and effectively Capel is able to undermine the foundations of safety that this culture aboard the ship and beyond is so reliant on is frightening and hints that the events on the ship are only a microcosm of what could happen on a much grander scale elsewhere, lending an air of fragility to this initially-strong culture as a whole and support to Capel’s strong beliefs that his attempts to liberate the robots are the proper ones.

Leela is also very well-served in this story, her second one and the second consecutive one that Chris Boucher scripted. Her rebellious nature meshes well with the Doctor’s own, and her attempts to place the Doctor’s world of seeming magic into context is riveting as she tries to cope with her new circumstances. Having eight consecutive episodes written by her creator to first introduce Leela and then to show how she would manage somewhere else proves to be an incredibly wise choice, and Leela is already becoming a very well-rounded and engaging character as a result. In fact, all of ‘The Robots of Death’ is incredibly engaging, and the science fiction take on a classic murder mystery in an isolated environment that represents the external world as a whole works superbly and easily justifies the tale’s lofty reputation.

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