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19 January 2014 @ 07:50 pm
The Randomizer: Robots of Death  
Robots of Death is such a classic Doctor Who story that I've found it quite difficult to think of anything to say about it, or at least anything that hasn't been said many times before.

But then it's occurred to me that not everyone who reads these randomiser posts is, necessarily, a died in the wool Doctor Who fan, so maybe it isn't so bad to both summarise the story and rehash its finer points.

Every so often Doctor Who flirts, with greater or lesser success, with the Whodunnit format. Robots of Death is one if its more successfully flirtations, quite cleverly indulging Doctor Who's fondness for "monster" stories, while also providing a human murderer with clues pointing towards them, red herrings, and so forth. I'm personally inclined to think the visuals give away the villain's identity before the scriptwriter would have chosen to do so, but as the story shifts gear from Whodunnit to a more standard Monster story at around the halfway point it may be wise that the production team chose to reveal the murderer's identity to the sharp-eyed fairly early on. At any rate the Doctor subsequently claims to have spotted them almost straight away because of their "body language" (actually an important point in the story) and so there is something to be said for allowing the audience to keep more or less in pace with the Doctor's own deductions.

There is also some fairly deft world-building going on. The script relies quite a lot on, if not audience familiarity with Asimov's Robot stories, at least an audience awareness of them and, in particular, of the three laws of robotics even though they are never mentioned as such. That allows the story to economically invoke the wider robot-dependent society. Similarly enough thought has been put into the Sandminer's crew as a microcosm of the wider society, with class divides, company targets and scientific research that it is able to hint at a lot with relatively few lines of dialogue. As is often noted, the very striking designs for make-up and costume also help to evoke the concept of a largely idle population in which most of the work is done by robots. I think it is notable that this particular setting has been turned into an, I assume, successful series of audio plays 'Kaldor City' by Big Finish.

Since [personal profile] lost_spook is reading, I should probably also mention that it stars David Collings, perhaps better know as Silver in Sapphire and Steel as Poul:

In fact I shall steal one of her screenshots of him which also illustrates the style of the costumes and make-up in the story. These are very nearly very silly indeed, but actually mostly work remarkably well in context.

Then on top of it all the acting is generally good, with the weaker cast members getting bumped off before they can become too irritating and it is difficult not to like the combination of Louise Jameson's Leela and Tom Baker's Doctor and the care the script is taking to use Leela both as an audience identification point, who insists that the Doctor simplify and explain matters to her, while at the same time letting her frame that identification very much from her own viewpoint. She is one of the few companions who, while clearly trusting the Doctor, rarely lets him get away with brushing her off and is more than prepared to regularly challenge both his opinions and explanations.

This isn't the best Doctor Who story by a long shot since a lot of it is constrained by the conventions of murder mysteries without actually sustaining itself as such for its full length. It is also very similar to a lot of Who's other `Base under Siege' style stories which prevents it really standing out. But it is definitely among the better examples of the show, and the better examples of its era.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/109441.html.
reggietatereggietate on January 19th, 2014 11:18 pm (UTC)
I seem to remember quite enjoying Robots. I liked the idea of a Voc-pretending-to-be-Dum undercover agent, too.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on January 20th, 2014 10:31 am (UTC)
There are lots of really nice touches, like the undercover robot. It's a very well-constructed story.
Young Geoffreyed_rex on January 20th, 2014 12:46 am (UTC)
A good one, yes indeed
I'm almost certain that "Robots of Death" was my introduction to Who. I am absolutely certain it is the first episode I remember seeing. And I was hooked immediately, delighted to discover science fiction on television that was not only as good as (the original) Star Trek, but entirely different from it.

For what it's worth, a few things I remember noticing at the time (I was roughly 12 or 13 when I saw it, 1977 or 1978, I think).

  • The story was so engaging I barely stopped noticed how silly the sand-miner looked;

  • The characters were so well-written I very quickly paid more attention to Leelah's words and actions than to her legs;

  • There were women and non-white people in positions of authority(!);

  • The Doctor was the coolest/funniest lead I'd ever come across in a drama; and

  • That scarf!

You're quite right, too, that it was a pretty sophisticated piece of science fiction, in terms of world-building especially, with hints of a strange economy, differences in foundational philosophies, etc.

Maybe not "the best Doctor Who story by a long shot", but a very good one and an excellent introductory story for someone new to the show.

Thanks for posting this reminder.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on January 20th, 2014 10:38 am (UTC)
Re: A good one, yes indeed
The first Who story I recall is Invasion of the Dinosaurs though only the scene where they drive underneath a dinosaur, nothing else. I don't think I regularly started watching until The Invisible Enemy so I just narrowly missed seeing this one first time around.

I'd put this story in a kind of second tier of Who stories. There are maybe four or five that I think are really excellent, for different reasons, and would contend for the "best" slot, but Robots of Death easily keeps company with a larger group of stories, many from the Baker era, that I would happily show to to an interested non-fan and would expect them to enjoy without much embarrassment (if you see what I mean).
Pollyjane_somebody on February 2nd, 2014 11:12 pm (UTC)
Re: A good one, yes indeed
'The Invisible Enemy' is the first Doctor Who I really remember watching, but then it does have particularly memorable visuals, so possibly I started watching earlier but don't really remember it. I do also have very strong memories of 'The Horror of Fang Rock', but since I strongly remember reading the novelisation of this from the local library (either the first or one of the first of the novelizations I read) I am now not sure how much of that is my mind's eye view from reading conflated with later viewings at Doc Soc.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on February 4th, 2014 10:13 am (UTC)
Re: A good one, yes indeed
I'm fairly sure my parents watched Doctor Who with us fairly frequently, so I'm pretty sure I was seeing it at least semi-regularly from late Pertwee. But I only remember odd images from those episodes.