Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Serial 90: The Robots of Death

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Leela

Written by: Chris Boucher
Directed by: Michael Briant

Background & Significance: Gothic horror.

That's right, ladies and gents, we've returned once again to the famed Season Fourteen of Doctor Who with a little story called "The Robots of Death". And there's really no other way to describe this story other than one of Gothic-style horror.

Like the other serials that make up this season in particular (though many of the other stories produced in the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era also share this distinction), this story has a definite horror-bent to it. I think this story in particular, however, neatly and perfectly encapsulates the entire aesthetic of this season. It's intense and kind of scary and yes, it's violent, but it's also fun and top-notch, quality Doctor Who. Everything from the production design to the direction, to the guest cast, to Tom Baker and Louise Jameson; everything fits together in such a seamless way that it's practically perfect. Watching this is a lot of fun and you can just get a sense of the harmony and perfect team that Hinchcliffe and Holmes really were.

This story is significant for a couple of reasons, the most important of which is the establishment of Leela as full-time companion. This being Leela's first official adventure since the Doctor picked her up in "The Face of Evil", the writer of that story, Chris Boucher, was asked to return to help flesh out her character more, especially since it was decided by Hinchcliffe and Holmes that she would only be a short-term companion (though Graham Williams did decide to keep her on as companion til the end of the next season).

Being the companion after Sarah Jane Smith is a tall order and a tough spot to fill, but I think this is probably the best Leela we've seen so far, and Louise Jameson does a great job with the part, as we'll soon see.

Also, this is the last story in which the oh-so-pretty Gothic TARDIS console set appears, as it was warped beyond salvagability in the off-season in storage and had to be replaced. Such a shame, because I love that thing. So pretty.

Enough of all that, though. Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1
Robots are creepy.

No, seriously, they are. They scare the shit out of me. (So why am I reviewing this serial? Excellent question.) And for that reason, I think they’re used quite well in this. Chris Boucher knew what he was doing when he decided on robots. But we’ll get to that a little later.

There’s a lot of things that really strike me while watching this first part. Most notable, I think, would be the production and set design. Having just witnessed “Underworld” for the first time (widely considered Tom Baker’s worst serial… and boy, they’re not far off), the contrast between the two is stark, even though “Underworld” follows just one season later. Everything about “The Robots of Death” is beautiful. The set design for the crew’s recreation room is lavish and exotic, the costumes they wear are well-made and intriguingly designed (complete with silly hats!), even the robots themselves have an air of the beautiful to them, especially their faces and crazy Revolutionary Era Thomas Jefferson hairstyles. Even the model work at the beginning with the mining ship doesn’t look cheap or tiny model-like. It’s pretty great. The Holmes/Hinchcliffe era was notoriously expensive, but just look at all the pretties. That, friends, is the result of a decent budget, and they really pull out all the stops with this one.

Of course, a big budget will get you nowhere without a good director or actors, which this serial also has no shortage of. Even in the short time part one allows us to meet the crew of the mining ship, there’s already some great personalities and characterizations shining through. Of particular note is the Commander, who is awesome (and looks and acts a bit like Tim Curry to me, which I think is pretty great). I love the way he is so focused on making tons and tons of money without being overly ridiculous about it. There’s an especially great moment shortly after the first murder has been discovered: one of the officers informs him of what’s happened in the midst of a mining operation, and his only response is to say “well there’s nothing we can do for him now.” It’s a fantastic moment of dark humor, it speaks volumes about his character, and his delivery is spot on. Great stuff.

In line with that, I want to point out the fact that the dialogue in this is quite good. The scene I think most delivers so far in this aspect is where the whole crew is gathered up in the recreation room from earlier, speculating on who among them could possibly be the murderer. There’s some great back and forth and suspicious pointing of fingers and theories up in the air and even bits of humor, and in their own way all the characters get established a little more through the things they say and the way they’re dealing with this crisis and with each other. This is how large group dialogue like this is done, kiddos.

Last but not least is Tom Baker, who is great in this. We at Classical Gallifrey do like to throw around the phrase “Drunk Tom Baker” often and when applicable, but there is absolutely none of that nonsense here. This is the famed Gothic season we’re dealing with here, after all, and he’s really at the top of his acting game (which is helped by having a good director on board, keeping him focused and in line). His interactions with Leela are good—never is he outright yelling at her, as he does in later stories—and he seems to genuinely care about his new companion and what she thinks, while at the same time challenging her to use her mind. When they’re wandering through the corridors of the mining ship there’s something almost iconic about it; he even looks good, with the vest and the strange tie and the scarf and the overcoat. All very wonderful. I’ll even give you a peek at what I mean (and because this bit blew my mind the first time—any time Robert Holmes wants to come in and add some mythology about the TARDIS, you should let him. Because it is awesome.)

Part 2
In case you didn’t know and I’d forgotten to mention, this serial is a murder mystery. I love murder mysteries. But that means lots of deaths and so this serial gets pretty dark and brutal in places. Watching it through again, this aspect of the story really strikes me, especially in this second part as we begin, along with the Doctor, to learn a little bit more about what’s happening on the mining ship.

We start off with a crew of nine at the very beginning of the story, all well and accounted for, and by the end of the second part they’ve been whittled down to four, all strangled, all marked in a similar fashion with a robot deactivation disc, as kindly explained by Dask (the engineer who looks like David Bowie!) in part one. That’s more than half of the crew offed in a very short amount of time.

That’s insane, man.

I like, however, that we never see the murders happening. We get the before and after, which is, in my opinion, even creepier than actually watching the violence takes place. It’s like an old school horror film unraveling before our eyes, which serves to heighten the tension as to whether or not these people are actually going to die, and it prolongs the mystery. This story is not without violence, however; when Leela is caught and the Commander confronts her the first time after discovering yet another body in the room with her, he slaps her hard across the face. That made me gasp, because holy sh*t he just slapped Leela across the face. Another moment that comes to mind is when one of the crew members, convinced the Doctor is the murderer, strangles him in a fit of madness. It’s pretty dark stuff.

Even the prolonging of the mystery, though, is intriguing in itself. There’s a bit of dramatic irony going on with this serial, since the audience has been tipped off from the beginning that, yes, these robots are murderous and they’re killing people, while the crew is left pointing fingers at each other (and at the Doctor and Leela when they show up) and with no clear idea of what’s happening, which serves as part of the tension in the story. However, in part two we get a tip off in a scene that shows a human, a member of the crew, interacting with and instructing the robots who to kill next (in this case, little Fish-Hat Zilda). Which member of the crew is using the robots to kill his shipmates? I personally think they could have been a little more subtle about it, since we see part of his costume and hear his voice, albeit in a hoarse whisper. The costume gave it away for me, since I was so involved in trying to figure out the mystery that I was paying super close attention to details like that, but I think to the casual viewer it’s a nice touch, as well as teasing you into watching the next part to figure out who it is.

Knowing something major the crew doesn’t seems like it wouldn’t be interesting, but we’re left with other mysteries as well to keep our interest and investment in the story. Like what did Zilda find in the Commander’s cabin before she died? Who sabotaged the ship’s motors? Why? And what’s up with that talking robot who’s not supposed to be able to talk? It’s a really good use of plotting and mystery that I think works really well here.

As far as the robots go, the Doctor makes a point to address in this part the fear and uneasiness that humans have always met with the existence of robots, a sort of catch-22 in which humanity cannot exist with or without them. Which not only TOTALLY justifies my being creeped out by them, I think it’s a really interesting concept to explore, especially in the context of a story like this. So yay Doctor Who.

I also want to talk about Leela in this part. I genuinely like Leela. I think she’s one of those overlooked companions who are actually really great. And I think here, especially, she is most interesting. This is her first adventure after leaving her home planet with the Doctor, so she’s still getting the hang of things. But she’s strong and independent (and I’ve talked before about how I love those sorts of female characters), and I think she makes a really great foil for the Doctor. I think it’s interesting how she is a creature of pure instinct, while the Doctor is one of higher rational thought; I like how he is always challenging her mind, while she’s got his back looking out for danger (though whether he chooses to listen to her or not really depends). In any case, Leela is fantastic, and especially so in this.

Part 3

As has been mentioned in several of the previous entries, part threes are probably the hardest parts to write. You have to keep the interest of the audience engaged while at the same time holding off from jumping head-first into the end game, since that’s what part four is all about. So essentially what you have is a lot of smoke and mirrors tricks, when all we’re really doing is watching nothing integral to the plot happen for 25 minutes.

And the way that’s handled in this story is masterful. There’s a ton of exposition intrigue that gets thrown at us, but the important thing is that it doesn’t feel like exposition at all. Instead, it’s more layers to the mystery unraveled, but done in such a way that it keeps our interest piqued and just sprouts more mysteries. What I’m really reminded about is the way LOST handled its reveals, where they’d finally answer a long-standing question, but that answer just spawned a billion other questions. And I really feel like that’s what’s happening here as well (which is called great storytelling).

For example, we learn that on a tour before this one, the Commander had one of his crew killed rather than lose a profit; Zilda was onboard to do some snooping, since the man killed back then was her brother. We’re told all this by Poul, who was there apparently? But what was that stutter in his speech back then? Is he not telling us everything? Could the Commander be at it again?

There’s also a lot of interesting concepts that we’re presented with, like Poul literally losing his mind when he discovers that the robots really are killing everybody on the ship (which we later learn about as “robophobia”). It might seem totally random, but looking back, there’s been hints about it littered throughout his dialogue as well as his actions. We also learn about the true nature of the threat on the ship: threats of robot revolution from mad-scientist Taren Capel, who was raised as a child by robots, which is pretty nuts in itself, have led the company and government to plant agents on board.

Which leads me to one of my favorite characters in this story: D84. Remember how I mentioned the talking robot that shouldn’t be able to talk? That’s D84.

Now, for a person who hates robots, I do make exceptions. One of those is K-9. Another is D84. He looks just like the other robots on the ship, which should automatically make him really creepy, but the way he talks and moves makes him actually kind of adorable. Once the crisis with the motors (part two cliffhanger) is resolved and the ship is functioning again, the Doctor goes off to find D84 and figure out why he’s so different from the other D-class robots onboard. And then they go tramping around the ship on a mission to find Taren Capel, and it’s the best thing ever.

Seriously, they could have brought this guy onboard as a companion and I would have loved it. Of course I know that they tried something similar in the Davison era with the introduction of Kamelion to the TARDIS team (who I hate. With a seething, terrible passion. Seriously. But I’ll be talking about him in a couple of weeks, so I don’t want to steal all my own thunder for now), but really? Nothing really beats the Doctor and D84 trolling around on this ship. I loves it.

Another great thing this part does? Turns essentially what is a murder mystery to a haunted house type story, with our main characters trapped on the ship whilst murderous robots have been instructed to find them and kill them all, and it ends with the Doctor getting strangled. Is there anything this story isn’t doing right?

Part 4

Here, we get the thrilling conclusion to this fine story. Let’s see how they do.

First thing I notice (and kind of love, actually) is the sudden bromance that just springs up between the Doctor and the Commander. No, seriously. Guy turns up with a nasty bruise to the head from earlier, accuses the Doctor of murder, and then they become bffs when he realizes that it’s actually the robots killing everybody and hey, maybe he should save the Doctor. And while their interaction only lasts several minutes (before the Commander and Toos team up to go robot huntin’ with explosives. Seriously. How great is this serial?), it’s fantastic. I love the way they just kind of work as a team and bounce off of the other.

One thing I haven’t talked about yet but I’ve been meaning to the whole time is the way this serial is shot. The different camera angles are so interesting and not only does it really show off the space and the production design when it’s called for, but it can also be really close and intense and in your face horror, like when the robots are trying to break onto the command deck or even from the beginning when they go to strangle someone and you see the action from the robot’s point of view. It’s positively chilling and a great use of the medium. Great camera work and direction.

This part continues in the story’s vein of being dark; really, in the entire season’s vein of being so. And while violent, I think it really speaks to Boucher’s ability to craft the characters in such a way that we feel for them. There are lots of deaths, yes, but each one is significant in its own way, especially the more time we spend with them. We want these characters to come out unharmed, because we’re invested in it. They mean something, so the violence also means something, and it’s not just violence for violence’s sake (Eric Saward, I’m looking at you, buddy). Of course we’re going to care about the Doctor, or Leela, but what about D84, and the Commander, and Toos, and Poul the robophobic? Even Dask/Taren Capel (the bad guy is revealed at last! If you hadn’t figured it out already, of course) gets some sympathy from me, even though he is the bad guy and a raving lunatic in a silly outfit to boot.

But I think it’d work best if I just show you what I mean.

See that? That’s nuts. If you’re able to elicit a strong emotional response from me about a robot? You’ve done your job. Gold star.

Final Thoughts?: Fuck yeah, D84! The greatest Companion Who Never Was.

Seriously though, I really do love this serial. I think the main thing I personally take away from it is that this story is a great one to just hand to any new Who fan to get acquainted with the Classic series. It's just a great story, and everything about it just works so well. Tom Baker is at the top of his game, Louise Jameson's performance as Leela is one of her best, and it's really one of those rare stories where they just work really well together, before it just degenerates into him yelling at her and the obvious dislike. It's just not there, and their relationship is charming.

I also think that one of the reasons why this works so well is because it's just a quintessential Doctor Who story. The plot and concepts are not mind-blowing (robots and their possible revolt are staples of modern science fiction); this is not a game-changer, or even all that significant. But it's a well-told story with characters whom we're able to invest in, structured in such a way that it's pretty much perfect. The production design is absolutely gorgeous, and, most importantly, it's a lot of fun. The Doctor's having an adventure, and we're along for the ride, and boy is it one hell of a good time.

Next Time!: First Doctor! Time tracks! Other awesome sci-fi concepts! Vicki befriends some revolutionaries! Daleks? An amazing first episode! And three terribly boring ones! Matt's back with "The Space Museum"! Coming next Tuesday!


  1. I can't say I like this story very much. One of the nastier morbid Hinchfliffe stories.

  2. A superbly realised story and a superb review too. Thank you.
    It was interesting reading your review.