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Review #3535: Classic Doctor Who: “The Robots of Death”

Posted on the 31 May 2012 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: John Keegan

Written by Chris Boucher
Directed by Michael Briant

This is the second serial in a row from Chris Boucher, and it’s another big winner for the season and the series as a whole. Ostensibly an Agatha Christie murder mystery in space, the story is more or less a bottle show, which puts the majority of the time and effort into character exploration and the usual twists and turns. The result is a story with a strong supporting cast and wonderful moments for the Doctor and Leela.

Review #3535: Classic Doctor Who: “The Robots of Death”

Boucher laces the story with a ton of classic science fiction references, from Isaac Asimov to Poul Anderson to Frank Herbert, and it’s clear that he injects his stories with elements from that material. While the effects are just as basic as one would expect from the time period, they are well-done: the establishing shots of the mining vessel evoke the right images, the robots are solid, and nothing looks out of place.

Within the first several minutes of the first episode, I was hooked by the combination of two story elements that reminded me of my first forays into science fiction as a teenager. The notion of the Laws of Robotics is addressed in terms of the robots’ programming, and the decadent lifestyle of the humans reminds me of the cautionary tale of the Butlerian Jihad of the “Dune” novels. There is a wariness of robots and what they could do, but it doesn’t stop the humans from using them for just about everything.

While the audience is aware that the robots are killing off the humans, the characters are not, and so a great deal of the drama is based in the cracks that naturally form as the tension mounts. With the arrival of the Doctor and Leela, suspicion is initially tossed their way, but matters quickly (and thankfully) complicate. Having the culprit be a human, doing what he thinks is right for the cause of robot equality, makes this less of an “us vs. them” scenario and more of a commentary on human flaws.

Because it depends so greatly on the characters themselves, this is an episode that would have collapsed under the weight of mediocre performances. Instead, the diverse cast is very convincing. Granted, most of them are dead by the mid-point of the story, but there’s never a point where the in-fighting seems disingenuous. More importantly, it moves, start to finish, so the characters are constantly reacting. That they feel like they come from a realistic society speaks to how well Boucher managed to delve into their backgrounds.

I continue to be impressed by Leela. She’s no Sarah Jane, but that’s a good thing. Her instincts are very different, and as this is her first adventure away from home, she is learning a bit about her own limitations. The off-screen tension between Tom Baker and Louise Jameson just adds a bit of bite to the Doctor’s occasional moment of disapproval or impatience. All in all, another solid outing for the newly-established pair.

I’m reluctant to say much more about the episode, because I think it’s one that a lot of fans have already seen, and those who haven’t yet seen it deserve to go in with a relatively clean slate. It’s very clear, though, why this season is considered by many to be the high point of the Classic Who era. While it may not be as consistent as Season 7, it manages to hit similar heights while incorporating homages for some of the most beloved science fiction classics on the shelf, and that’s always going to score high praise.

Writing: 2/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 2/2
Style: 3/4

Final Rating: 9/10

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