People, unappealing traits and The Robots of Death (1977)

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I wonder what normal people would make of The Robots of Death. You k’now normal people, not fans. We love it, natch. Loved it for years. Not gonna change.

But I suspect that for a certain set of viewers, this story is the epitome of what’s rubbish about Doctor Who. It’s got people with silly names and even sillier costumes. The special effects are hokey. The Doctor’s assistant is barely dressed. The monsters have cardboard shoes. They use bike reflectors as props. Even the title is generic sci-fi tosh.

And there’s one other thing which might put the not-we off;  it’s about a thoroughly hateful group of people.

We’re introduced to the crew of the Sand Miner in an ensemble scene early in Part One. So difficult to get right, but writer Chris Boucher nails it, telling us all we need to know about life on a Sand Miner without resorting to plodding exposition. One by one he introduces us to the cast of characters, all of whom have names like Romanian villages. Pompous, spoilt, smug, entitled types. These lot are argumentative whiners: they don’t want to take orders, they stop work to take breaks arbitrarily, they needle at each other.

In that first scene, government observer Chub (Rob Edwards) taunts mover Borg (Brian Croucher). Borg is getting a massage from a robot, its cold steel fingers on his unprotected flesh, and Chub chooses this particular moment to tell a story about how a robot masseur once went berserk and ripped someone’s arm off. (“I heard it was a leg”‘ says fellow crewmember Zilda (Tania Rogers), offhandedly.) It’s a nice foreshadowing of what’s to come, as Chub is the first chump to be killed.

It’s classily done. Chub stuck in a storage room, calling for a robot to help him get a package from a storage rack (spoilt, y’see. And lazy). When it comes, its eyes glow red with blood lust (a trick Russell T Davies would later borrow for the Ood). We see a distorted POV shot with Chub slowly being backed into a strangle hold. Suspenseful direction from Michael E Briant.

Next up, it’s Cass’s (Tariq Yunus) turn to die (Well, apart from Kerrill, who’s dead before we can work out how annoying he was). Cass isn’t around for long, but while alive he’s ready to argue with anyone at the drop of an outlandish hat. His murder, like Kerrill’s, happens off screen. But we might feel a bit sorry for Cass because resident boofhead Borg thought it might be funny to stick a corpse marker (our murderer’s calling card and favourite bike shop spare) on his hand as a joke. Sick puppy.

Next to get necked, it’s rich kid Zilda, sulky and bitchy, probably because her costume resembles that of a Fish Person from The Underwater Menace. Zilda sneaks into commander Uvanov’s (Russell Hunter) office and uncovers incriminating details about him and broadcasts them to the ship. It’s at exactly this moment that she’s murdered, a convenient plot convergence of two (as it turns out) unconnected events. It’s meant (in plot terms) to shed suspicion on Uvanov, but it’s still a contrivance.

Uvanov could have escaped from Horrible Bosses. Smarmy and bullying, he’s a typical middle management type. When he finds out about Chub’s murder, he has to be forcefully persuaded to abort the mining of a lucrative storm. Then once he’s seen the body, he sets out breaking the news gently to his traumatised crew. ‘Now you all know Chub is dead. One of you killed him’  he announces.

He’s winning no people management awards theree. Later he leans into Zilda’s personal space, face almost touching face, and demands to know ‘why do you hate me?’ Well, she suspects him of killing her brother, but it could just be because he’s a knob.

As the end of Part Two beckons, the Sand Miner is sabotaged. Exactly why remains a mystery. Except perhaps for this; in the midst of the chaos, Borg, he of the hilarious gallows humour, is killed (again off screen) so perhaps letting the mine sink into the ground is a simple case of distraction.

We don’t get to see Borg’s body, which leaves open the possibility that he might have faked his death and be the murderer. Uvanov’s another suspect, but he’s been locked up (he later escapes, off screen of course). As for the saboteur though, the Doctor (Tom Baker, in a filthy mood throughout) is not fooled. ‘I’m sure Dask knows exactly where to look for the damage,’ he says subtly as Part Three opens.

Dask (David Bailie) as it turns out, is our resident murderer. He grew up with robots, a kind of mechanical Romulus or Remus, and thinks he’s one of them. His plan, apparently, is to start a robot revolution, but why the first step towards this is to murder everyone onboard a mobile mine miles from civilisation is a unclear. In the final two episodes, for a want of characters left alive, it becomes clear he’s our man.

But oddly enough, once we get to the final two episodes, the robots don’t succeed in killing anyone else. Instead of robots of death they become robots of close shaves. Leela (Louise Jameson, an element of jungle savagery in this corporate, futuristic world) can fend for herself, but helpless Toos (Pamela Salem) in her clamshell bed is as vulnerable as Botticelli’s Venus. (There’s an unnerving sexual tone to a robot’s attack on her, with that porn star bed, the lurid pink lighting and the shot of the robot lunging back and forth as it attempts to throttle her.)

But any thought Toos might be the one human to sympathise with disappears when she’s nursing a sore arm, first aid tended by Leela. She sulks an order to a waiting robot. ‘And find that girl Leela’, she says, as if summoning the hired help. ‘My arm hurts,‘ she moans. Oh that’s a shame. Why not ask Zilda or Borg how their arms feel?

That leaves undercover detectives Poul (David Collings) and robot sidekick D84 (Gregory De Polnay). Poul’s the closest thing to someone to like, but he’s also the resident smart arse. He loses his mind at the sight of a blood stained robot, so he may not have been the ideal choice of investigator for this mission. He nastily tries to betray Leela to the robots while cowering under a desk (‘Help! She’s in here!’), but we’ll forgive him because, as Leela says, his mind is broken.

D84, on the other hand, is sweetness itself. He stutters and makes dry jokes and tries to please. He’s got an adult’s voice and a child’s innocence. He’s too nice to make it all the way to the end, and so he gets his head blown off. And he was the nicest of the lot.

The Doctor doesn’t hang around to bid the survivors farewell. Who can blame him? A couple of seasons later, the Doctor meets some more robot killers in The Androids of Tara. One of the humanoids says to him that he never feels entirely comfortable around androids. ‘Funny thing’, says the Doctor. ‘Some androids feel that way about humans’. Surely he’s thinking of the Sand Mine Suckers as he says it.

LINK to Delta and the Bannermen. Hmm, two very different stories! But how about this; both are about one race of beings trying to eliminate the other, based on the fact they’re different.

NEXT TIME… I don’t like your face. Nor your hair! What’s that in the sky? It’s The Tenth Planet.

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