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The Robots of Death

Reviewed by Paul Scoones

My Philosophy of Metaphysics lecturer at Auckland University remarked a few months back that the idea of humans being able to construct an artificial intelligence filled him with dread. He went on to say he would find it even more horrifying if this artificial intelligence saw itself as superior to its makers.

The Robots of Death goes some way towards elaborating on this issue, but it was undoubtedly spoiled by placing a human traitor behind it all, commanding the Sandminer robots gone astray. The serial would have been even more spine chilling if the robots had rebelled against their human masters of their own accord.

This story stands out as unusual because it is set entirely aboard the Sandminer vehicle and big it is, too. Obviously we could only see about four rooms, the corridors, and a mineral storage tank, due to the ever- present BBC budget restrictions, but a very real sense that what we did see was only a tiny portion of the total area of the miner was achieved satisfactorily with comments like the one made by Toos, that Kerril "was in the rear section, it'll take him a while to get here."

The disadvantage in setting a Doctor Who serial entirely aboard a vehicle of any kind, although usually a space-ship in such cases, is that after more than an episode of watching characters walking around the sets, it becomes painfully obvious that they're not walking on some super-titanium starship alloy, but a painted wooden set, bits of which, I rather suspect, I've seen in more than one story recently. Thank goodness, also, that this was the last story in which we would see the 'antique' TARDIS interior, known as the Secondary Control Room, and only ever seen inside this season. Quaint and decorative as it was, it didn't have nearly as much appeal as the traditional white console room we're all so used to.

But what the sets lacked, was more than made up for by the stunning costume designs. The Kaldor society was obviously thought out as well by Chris Boucher, who, incidentally, also wrote the previous story, The Face of Evil, and it was interesting to see that present trends of facial makeup and clothing on Kaldor were based on the stylised robot designs - or was it the other way round?

As with The Seeds of Doom, this story was on one level a study of the psychological reactions of a small group of characters under pressure in a situation they cannot readily escape from, The most extreme reaction coming from the detective, Poul devastated by Grimwold's Syndrome, more commonly known as' robophobia'.

Leela, whom I have never liked as a companion, nevertheless had some good scenes in this serial; her hunter-like instincts were at work when she sensed the impending jolt rocking the Sandminer before it happens, and her correct prognosis that Poul is a hunter, and that he and D84 are not as they seem.

What original ideas there were in The Robots of Death were all but clouded by the terrible cliché of the man raised by robots supporting their cause. Groan! Dask was the most uninspired creation of a Doctor Who villain I have seen in these repeated serials for some while, now, and the best thing about him was his name - Taren Capel, obviously an in-joke, as Karel Capek was the writer of what is recognised as one of the first robot stories - R.U.R, a play first performed in 1922. A nice touch for those who picked up on it.

Taking the good and bad points of this serial, it averages out to be just that: an average story It was good enough for the BBC to release it as one of their first official Doctor Who videos, but it's not the best from Chris Boucher in my opinion, and I'm eagerly awaiting his Image of the Fendahl thriller, one of the few Doctor Who stories to give me nightmares for weeks afterwards, as I remember!

This item appeared in TSV 2 (September 1987).

Index nodes: The Robots of Death