The era of Doctor Who produced by Philip Hinchliffe has taken inspiration from all kids of literary sources, nearly always horrors. Chris Boucher instead goes down the route of an Agatha Christie whodunit, via Asimov. The Asimov inspiration is plain enough and largely subverted, but much more interesting is how the world of the whodunit is used as a way to create a Hinchliffe horror. In typical Christie style, everyone has something to hide, even the robots, and they function as both characters and murder weapons, used by the mystery culprit.
This Christie approach, delivered by an inspired writer, leads to some memorable characters. To fit the story they can’t just be generic. There are several characters here who stick in the memory: Uvanov, Toos, Pool, D84. Boucher is unfortunately undermined by a failed special effect, with the identity of the killer revealed all too clearly in Part Three when he is seen on screen and the distortion effect is supposed to hide his identity, but it is not distorted enough. If you are paying attention you will already have worked it all out by this point, especially if you notice his trousers in Part Two, but that’s not necessarily a fault. A good whodunit should lay down clues and the killer should be guessable… just not quite that guessable.
It doesn’t matter too much in a story that has style like this. The Christie approach is coherent throughout, with the gorgeous art deco styling. All the usual pitfalls associated with robots are avoided, and the story manages the unusual feat of portraying convincing robots while also making them individual. D84 is simply magnificent, and there is some good stuff going on there about rising above your perceived limitations in life, whether they are to do with class or people’s assumptions about intelligence. D84’s description of the Laserson probe is gorgeous, and delivered with such melancholy that it is a magical moment.
It can punch a fist-size hole in six-inch armour plate, or take the crystals from a snowflake one by one.
Was ever a sci-fi gadget described with such poetry? There are a few frustrating distractions from all the poetry and design beauty going on: the corpse markers are just bicycle reflectors, the robots’ silver hands are in fact rubber gloves painted silver, something that is amusingly obvious when the Marigold logo is visible in the wriggly finger scene in Part Three, the robots inexplicably need to check calculations by typing buttons on their wrist, and the robot arm trapped in a door doesn’t quite come off (no pun intended). Firstly, the arm is at a different height and distance through the door when seen from each side of the door. Secondly, it is obvious that the detached arm is longer, with material added on to the sleeve. The actor keeps his arm bent in an attempt to hide this, but it doesn’t work. Looking beyond the moments that don’t quite work, it is perhaps slightly clumsy that the robots with the dark faces are the “dums”, but at least D84 gets to transcend that.
So we have to forgive some issues, but when the writing and acting are so inspired that’s not too difficult. A creepy sense of the macabre is built up throughout the story, not just with the uncanny valley nature of the threat, but how people react to it. The key to this is Poul, who is our Agatha Christie detective (well, one of them) but startlingly he has a mental breakdown due to his phobia of the robots. It’s like a Poirot story where Poirot ends up a quivering wreck, hiding under a table. In its sheer wrongness it is exactly right for a Doctor Who take on Christie. Boucher even manages to make Part Three the most exciting episode of the story – since when does that ever happen in Doctor Who? Just when most stories are losing momentum, The Robots of Death kicks into top gear.
Poul failing to function as Poirot allows the Doctor and Leela to step into that role, with the help of D84. Boucher, the only writer who ever completely understood the companion he created, gives Leela a decent slice of the action. The whole point of Leela is that she is not a stupid “savage”, but a highly resourceful and intelligent woman who happens to hail from a society that differs very much from our own or that of the Doctor. That gives her power, because she can see things in different ways. A good example is the scene in the TARDIS, with the Doctor explaining how the TARDIS is bigger on the inside. Perhaps due to a lack of respect for his companion, which he will eventually have to learn, he just fobs her off with some nonsense. He’s doing a First Doctor. For comparison, so we can see exactly what this moment is all about, here’s a quote from An Unearthly Child:
DOCTOR: You don’t understand, so you find excuses. Illusions, indeed? You say you can’t fit an enormous building into one of your smaller sitting rooms.
DOCTOR: But you’ve discovered television, haven’t you?
DOCTOR: Then by showing an enormous building on your television screen, you can do what seemed impossible, couldn’t you?
IAN: Well, yes, but I still don’t know.
DOCTOR: Not quite clear, is it. I can see by your face that you’re not certain. You don’t understand. And I knew you wouldn’t.
It’s not quite clear, because it’s a relatively unhelpful analogy, that gives zero information about how it actually works. In The Robots of Death, the Doctor plays the same trick again, with another unhelpful analogy that is basically a way to dismiss the question.
DOCTOR: Which box is larger?
LEELA: That one.
(The Doctor places it on the time console then goes over to Leela with the other.)
DOCTOR: Now which one is larger?
LEELA: That one.
DOCTOR: But it looks smaller.
LEELA: Well, that’s because it’s further away.
DOCTOR: Exactly. If you could keep that exactly that distance away and have it here, the large one would fit inside the small one.
But what worked with Ian and Barbara won’t work with Leela. Here’s her response:
This supposed savage sees right through it, and knows it’s patronising rubbish, in a way that two schoolteachers couldn’t quite manage. So right from the start of the story we know Leela is not the kind of companion who is going to need to understand the technobabble she encounters in order to function within the story. She has intuition and intelligence, and it’s not long before she is a step ahead of everyone else, just like D84. They are fascinating characters in parallel, both struggling to communicate their ideas.
I heard a cry. I heard a cry. I heard a cry.
…but he can’t quite find the words to elaborate on that. We all know that feeling.
Having said all that, the very best thing about this story is probably the headwear. You can’t beat a good Doctor Who novelty hat. RP
The view from across the pond:
I’ve been watching Doctor Who for too long; the idea of the TARDIS makes complete sense to me. You’ve got a dimension that is separate from ours and you need a way to get to it. Let’s call that a “Real World Interface”. That Real World Interface can look like a hole like we have in the video game Portal or the cartoon Rick and Morty. It can look like a door like we see in the opening moments of the classic The Twilight Zone. Maybe a wardrobe as we know about in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Or it can look like that beautiful blue police box that we all know and love. Where the whole thing fails is that since the beginning of the series, Doctor Who has depicted the interior dimension acting the same way the exterior dimension, but the fact is, there should be no exterior “dimension” as it’s only an interface, it’s only a means by which we enter the other dimension. When the TARDIS dematerializes, that interface goes away. It’s just less dramatic; we can’t have cool “in flight” scenes. So when Tom Baker explains the TARDIS to Leela using two boxes, it’s still implying two separate but linked dimensions which gives it the ability to have some sense of drama. And as explanations go to a “noble savage”, keeping the bigger box farther away so that it looks smaller and then keeping it there even as you move it closer… well, what? Oh, who cares? It’s just good fun, logic be damned! Yet, as wonderful or terrible as this scene is, it’s got nothing to do with The Robots of Death beyond a fun sequence in the TARDIS before the Doctor and Leela arrive for a mystery. And Robots is basically the best murder mystery in Doctor Who!
Robots of Death gives us the Agatha Christie story And Then There Were None, puts it on one of the planets from Dune, and destroys Asimov’s Law of Robotics all for the sake of a damned good mystery. Someone is killing the crew of a sandminer, one by one, and the audience is kept in the dark as much as the cast until the big reveal. For those younger readers who don’t know the most important law of robotics, it states that a robot cannot harm a human nor through inaction, allow harm to befall a human. But someone on the sandminer is able to reprogram these robots and make them kill. The Doctor and Leela investigate but they have a helper: the wonderful D84. As companions go, D84 should be up there with K-9 and Kameleon. He’s fantastic. One of the member of Dum class of robots, he is believed to be mute but he’s actually quite loquacious. His “I heard a cry” is funny, but also perfectly illustrates that this is still a robot and does not understand inflection. D84 needs to be added to the list of great companions! I’m certain he has more screen time than Kameleon too. He adds so much to the story and he’s just the Doctor’s version of Watson for the story. (Well, that analogy doesn’t quite work with an Agatha Christie story, but you get the idea!)
Robots of Death also talks about something called robophobia, or Grimwade’s Syndrome, the latter of which is made up as an in-joke toward Peter Grimwade. But it’s not as fake as one might expect; it’s actually an utterly fascinating thing called the Uncanny Valley. Simply put the concept is this: a humanoid object appears mostly human, but not quite human enough, which elicits an uncomfortable or strange feeling of “eeriness and revulsion” from the observer. It is a real thing and was identified by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970. It takes a close-to-human appearance and makes the observer feel weird and uncomfortable. I can’t wait for the movie Alita: Battle Angel to come out later this year to see how people feel about her because she lives happily in the uncanny valley. She’s mostly human but looks just off enough to be able to elicit that discomfort and it will be interesting to see how many people are bothered by her look. Another of my favorites come from H. P. Lovecraft with his Innsmouth inhabitants who have a slightly fish-like countenance that disturbs the observer. The idea is utterly fascinating and very real. The caveat with these robots is that they really are far enough from human looking that I don’t see them being a viable example of the Uncanny Valley. Yet, for some on that sandminer, the dread is real and it creates an interesting question. If, in the future that this takes place, robots have different levels but they are a class to some extent, is that fear justified? I can’t help but question whether that robophobia would be akin to a racial prejudice. It comes down to being afraid of someone because they look different. We may all be different in our personalities, but once one starts judging based on looks, we’re not showing our own “better” qualities. The whole “never judge a robot by its gears” might apply and be an unfair assessment for a member of our future society. We have to be better than that!
Robots of Death, as a title, might imply a certain level of justification for that fear, but it’s not a quality I’d like to imagine of us in the future. I don’t think it fair to judge any race (human or otherwise) by the way they look … well, except perhaps spiders. But this story is an incredibly well done mystery giving us something to think about while borrowing from one of the greatest mystery writers of all time. We have Agatha Christie…. All we need now is a bit of Sherlock Holmes! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Talons of Weng-Chiang