Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Robots of Death written by Chris Boucher and directed by Michael E. Briant

This story in a nutshell: A robot revolution on a Sandminer…

Teeth and Curls: Of course he can control the TARDIS. Nine times out of ten…well seven times – fives times! I honestly didn’t think that anything could top the interaction between the Doctor and Sarah (and in terms of the chemistry between the actors I don’t think anybody ever did until Tennant and Tate) and Holmes and Hinchcliffe smartly went for something completely different, throwing the Doctor into the role of a teacher to Leela’s pupil. Things get a little strained at points in the next season when Tom Baker starts throwing his weight around but at this point it might just be the most interesting Doctor/companion set up ever. Sometimes he talks like a Tesh (and that is not well meant) and he’s rather fond of bumblebees. The way the Doctor simply restages Chub’s death and makes Poul realise that it could have been a robot is sublime to watch, he knows precisely what he is doing. The relationship between the Doctor and D84 is delightful to watch; initially suspicious of each other, then intelligently reasoning out the situation and before long the Doctor is trying to make him feel better about the mistakes he has made. Whilst I wouldn’t change the relationship between the Doctor and K.9 for anything it might have been interesting to have had D84 on board because it would have been a whole different kind of relationship. And Tom Baker wouldn't have had to have kept crouching down for two shots. He looks genuinely mortified when D84 is stabbed in the head, for once mirroring the audiences reaction perfectly. Whether Baker found this a dreary Agatha Christie pastiche or a compelling character piece, he gives a commanding performance throughout and keeps you riveted to the screen. Despite some outrageous head gear, shiny robots and gorgeous ladies, my eyes were always drawn to Baker who is always acting even when he isn't talking.

Noble Savage: ‘My Tribe has a saying: If you’re belleding look for a man with scars’ This is the first time we get a chance to see Leela since she leapt until the TARDIS at the end of The Face of Evil and it feels like they have been traveling together for a little while. She is playing with a yo-yo which she feels is some kind of shaman magic so whilst the Doctor has been trying to explain the truth about himself she can’t quite ditch all her beliefs so suddenly. This could be how the first Doctor and Katarina relationship might have played out had there been more time to focus on it. Leela’s reaction to the Doctor explaining about the TARDIS (‘that’s silly’) is deadpan and hilarious, perfectly delivered by Jameson. Isn’t it great that whilst the Doctor is going on about some boring mineral extraction technique Leela spies a leather sofa and bounces up and down on it like an excited kid? That's what I would be doing too. I wonder if they were using a tanning lotion on Louise Jameson when she began in the role because she does look awfully exotic in this story. Watch as she argues with Uvanov, I don’t think Leela has ever reacted more like a feral creature than in that scene. It is the first time I can remember the Doctor sending a female companion to protect somebody and it is a refreshing change. Her instincts are sharper than ever in this alien environment, she can sense danger approaching and whilst she doesn’t quite have the words to describe it she can read body language far more intuitively than anybody else present.Some might say that Louise Jameson was a little too good an actress to be playing a role in Doctor Who, especially a subordinate one. I say we were damn lucky to have secured the services of such a sophisticated performer (it always feels like she is thinking about how this character would react to these unusual situations rather than simply phoning it in) at a time when the show was at its zenith, the two things seem to dovetail beautifully for fourteen episodes of absolute bliss (yes I'm talking about Talons and Fang Rock too). Jameson and Baker together for these three stories at least (although I would argue that Fendhal and The Sunmakers count too) are the ultimate Doctor/companion combination - funny, educational, smart, silly, sexy and engrossing to watch.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Just standing here talking to you.’
‘You know you’re a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain.’
‘So what happens if the strangler is a robot?’ ‘Oh I should imagine the end of this civilisation.’
‘Fighting sabotage with sabotage!’
‘I like a man who stays calm Dask but this isn’t the Titanic.’
‘Even for a dum that’s dim!’
‘Please do not throw hands at me…’
‘Its rather like being surrounded by walking talking dead men…’

Scares: This story frightened the life out of me when I first saw it and even subsequent rewatchings give me the same chill of despair as I watch the robots slaughter their way through the crew. It touches on both physical and psychological horror in unusually adult ways for Doctor Who. Chub’s sudden realisation that he is trapped at the mercy of a robot is chilling enough but what really gives me the shivers is the way the robot so dispassionately says ‘yes sir, I heard what you said’ – it's mocking him but it is said without a shred of emotion. Brrr… The torchlight picking out his corpse on the dirty floor of the scoop is pretty nasty. Almost as chilling as Zilda’s dying confession belted out over the Bridge intercom before she is suddenly cut short by a hand around her throat. I remember the crippling fear I had of the scene where Leela was locked in the room at the mercy of whichever robot would turn up to kill her – at the age of nine that made me freeze up with fear, the powerlessness of her situation gave me the shivers. Without airing my dirty laundry in public, Toos being trapped in her bedroom with a menace outside brought home some real life fears I experienced as a child. The psychological instability at the sight of the blood on the robots hand gets me as an adult where it didn’t register when I was a kid. Poul’s fear is locked in his head manageably because such a thing as a psychotic robot is not possible but then his mind snaps at the sight of the blood - it is as destabilising to watch as it is for him to experience. David Collings aces these moments because it could have been so easy to go over the top but his portrayal of a man that has succumbed to insanity is uncommonly sensitive and mature for the show. Then there is the sight of the emotionless robot on the operating table with its hands twitching anxiously as a giant needle is slipped into the workings of its brain – this is some seriously distressing imagery. What about the fear of somebody watching you when you are at your most helpless, asleep as SV7 does to Toos here? The Hinchcliffe era gets near to the knuckle again with graphic POV shots of the robot strangling Toos to death, with her clawing desperately at him. Given that a probe is the equivalent of a large needle it is very disturbing to see them being stabbed into the robots heads.

The Good: From the first second this story looks phenomenal with some of the best model filming ever to appear in the classic series. The camera glides along a rock face as boulders break free and crumble and the awesome sight of the Sandminer emerges through a swirling mist of minerals. When you see model work this phenomenal it makes you why it wasn't always of this standard. Then you have the robot design which in its opulent mockery of humanity adds a considerable amount to their malevolence. They mock the affluence of the wealthy and are the perfect representation of a machine for those who don't like to be reminded that they are automatons. The prosperity of these miners even in their working lives is clear; their rest areas are draped with gold and works of art and the leather sofas covered with luxurious animal skins. They are all decked out in luxurious fabrics and jewellery. No doubt about it – these guys have it good even when they are forced to work for their wonga. Whether it was Boucher or Holmes who wrote the one box inside another scene to explain the TARDIS' dimensional transcendentalism it made absolute sense to me when I was a child – I was mesmerised by such a simple and yet impossible concept and it still thrills me today. All of the sets are impressively designed and realised from the multi level Bridge to Toos’ seductively lit quarters right through to the minimalist scoops…there has been some real effort to make sure that this world which the Doctor and Leela step into looks real. If you come across a non fan who derides the show for its wobbly sets (as you inevitably will at some point) then suggest you should this story to give them food for thought. There is a glorious CSO shot of the Doctor and Leela looking out across the horizon of the desert with the sand storm approaching, which goes to show what can be achieved when they have the right kind of ambition. Uvanov has a very Captain Mainwaring feel from Dad’s Army, surrounded by people that society consider his betters on the social scale, and he is not afraid to tell them what he thinks of the Founding Families (‘Its sickening!’). I love the sequence where the crew assembles to discuss Chub’s death, there is a feeling that these are real people with grudges and a history and their differing reactions creates some memorable character drama (I love the way that Uvanov mocks Zilda in such a nasty way, you have no doubt that the feud between their families is long standing and vicious). I find it amazing that they manage to act through their masks and with the use of their voices alone Miles Forthergill and Gregory de Polnay manage to create such memorable robotic characters. This is something utterly chilling about SV7’s calm arrogance that sets me teeth on edge and who couldn’t help but fall in love with sweet old D84. The fact that the crew doesn’t even consider the possibility that it could have been a robot killer shows how reliant on these things they are and how rare it must be for them to go wrong. I’ve heard people complain about the deviation in the murder plot when the Sandminer is sabotaged but I think that it shows precisely what a dangerous business it is and the end of episode two (‘she’s going!’) is delivered in an awesomely dramatic way by the actors. Cleverly the story doesn’t rely on the murder mystery plot to keep your attention, expertly hidden beneath that is a second story about the death of young man on a previous Sandminer expedition, the involvement of Uvanov and the revelation that Zilda was his brother and Poul and D84 are there to investigate. Taren Capel in his full robot make up might look rather like a bad drag artist but it services his character well, this is man who was brought up by robots and wants to be one of them. The slow motion robot heads exploding are awesome eye candy. What a delicious fate for Taren Capel, being strangled by one of his own killer robots and tossed away like rubbish.

The Bad: Shame about the tin foil feet for the robots. Considering the attention to detail in this story it’s a shame that SV7 has to change colour to eavesdrop on the Doctor. It’s a real shame about Dask’s trousers being in shot; especially since the camera only needed to be an inch or so lower to maintain the surprise. And as for the sight of his face on the screen barely disguised in episode three...tut tut.

The Shallow Bit: He might be a little skinny but it’s so nice to see a bit of male flesh on Doctor Who. I applaud the introduction of Brian Croucher’s character with his top off.

Result: A masterpiece of suspense and horror, The Robots of Death is one of those classic Doctor Who stories that doesn’t put a foot out of place. As a drama it is expertly constructed and the world in which the Doctor and Leela drop in on is packed full of detail to make it one of the most convincing future environments. Micheal E Briant has realised that it is the cast that is going to bring this to life so vividly and assembles one of the strongest ensembles with Russell Hunter, David Ballie, David Collings and Pamela Salem in particular standing out. He might not have thought much of the script (how he considered this less worthy than something like Revenge of the Cybermen baffles me) but it convinced him to go the extra mile and ensure this piece was directed within an inch of its life. The design and effects are perfectly in tune and on his way out the door Hinchcliffe overspends outrageously and makes this as visually stunning a piece as possible. It’s a story that haunted me when I was younger and still gives me the chills when I watch it now, it sees the Doctor and Leela at their finest, continually fires great lines and memorably frightens right until the end and unusually for Doctor Who climaxes with its best episode. I want every classic Doctor Who story to be as good as this but if that was the case we wouldn’t realise just what a classic The Robots of Death is. Terrifying stuff and a top five story for me: 10/10


Anonymous said...

Four had the best companions and Five the worst

Joe Ford said...

Hoo boy, wait until I get to five... :-)

Kevin said...

Must admit I've not read as many of your TV reviews as I have your absolutely superb audio ones, but reading this gave me a big dark thrill! Gonna make sure I read more of Joe on TV DW. Cheers.

Joe Ford said...

Thanks Kevin, I hope you enjoy some of them - I'm especially proud of my writes up for The Daleks' Masterplan, The War Games, Carnival of Monsters and Genesis of the Daleks - to name one from each Doctor. Thanks for reading :-)

Kevin said...

Excellent, I'll start with those ones right now.

Britgeekgrrl said...

Have you listened to the Kaldor City audios? Same setting as Robots of Death, with Uvanov as one of the lead characters - and more, but I don't want to spoil it for anyone. Very good fun. :)

David Pirtle said...

Just amazing. As good as the Hammer Horror season was (as I call 13), this tops them all. The Robots of Death has everything I want in a Doctor Who story and nothing that I don't. Practically perfect in every way.