The Robots Of Death
January – February 1977
‘I will release more of our brothers from bondage. We will be irresistible’
Sounds like robot porn to me.
And indeed ‘Robots’ is irresistible. From its literate and witty script, finely drawn characters to its ‘art deco’ (there I’ve said it – art deco and Robots Of Death seem to go hand in hand) sets and costumes it’s a classic right down to its bicycle reflector ‘corpse markers’.
Plot in a nutshell – The Doctor and Leela arrive aboard a mining ship, the Sandminer, where the bitchy crew suddenly find their gorgeous robots have turned to murder. And can you guess who's turning them bad...? Well, yes...it's bloomin' obvious. The frilly trousers give it away.
The important thing to note is that again Chris Boucher is very aware that for SF to work it has to be able to build worlds in the minds of the audience. By way of Asimov, Agatha Christie and Frank Herbert, not only does he succeed in doing this with the Sandminer and its crew but there are suggestions in the script of the outside world beyond the miners’ workplace with its references to the Founding Family, Kaldor City and the fate of Zilda’s brother. Right from the start, information is coming at you to enable you to construct the universe these people exist in - both visually and narratively.
Visually everything is working together coherently. The appearance of the Sandminer crew, the interiors and models of the Sandminer itself (sterling effects work from Richard Conway) and the elegant designs of the robots all communicate to you the nature of this world. It has a ‘glam rock with the edges knocked’ off feel to it in both the make-up and costumes. They all look like some weird hybrid of Wizard and Roxy Music. But it works in the context of the environment, particularly with set designer Ken Sharp’s homages to Gustav Klimt all over the place. Performances are mainly first rate, particularly Russell Hunter as Commander Uvanov, Pamela Salem as Toos and David Collings as Poul. The only let down on the acting front is the rather shrill and often unconvincing performance from Tania Rogers as Zilda, The wonderful robots are represented by some good work from Miles Fothergill and Gregory De Polnay as SV7 and D84. D84 is so charming that I wish I had him around to do the housework.
Symbolically the story has some interesting things to say about the unconscious, dual personalities and phobias. Dask and Poul are both aspects of a similar union. Dask is a schizophrenic amalgam of man and machine – Taren Kapel and his robots. He identifies with the robots so much that he thinks he is one to the point of dressing similarly and wearing a rather fetching Ziggy Stardust make-up equivalent of a robot’s face. Poul is on the other hand phobic about robots. His instincts, like all of us, are to look for signs of life in beings around us – ‘body language’. We all get the creeps if we’re interacting with something that looks human but doesn’t give off the same signals as us or gives none at all. However, the phobia is buried subconsciously in Poul and he works alongside a ‘humanised’ machine, D84, who is perhaps the antithesis of Taren Kapel.
Both characters are repulsed and attracted to the robots in equal measure. Whereas Dask embraces the notion of becoming like them, Poul rejects their presence when his mind breaks. More fascinating still is that D84 actually rescues and saves Poul’s life whereas it is the very whimsical idea of altering the resonance of the human larynx with helium that strips Dask of his robot persona and his life.
The altered robots, woken from their sleep of slavery, are random unconscious Egos let free by Kapel/Dask’s interference. Their unbridled nature, in contravention of law and reason, leads to murder, death and disintegration of the conscious lives of the Sandminer crew. The crew are also projecting their anxieties onto the robots. Indeed, their anxiety is a major thread in the narrative. Their projections onto the robots are their way of confronting their own complexes and coming to terms with them. A huge motivation for most of the crew is to be successful at what they do but at the same time they dread failure and the robots become their anxiety realised in murder and death. It is certainly true of Uvanov who goes from a rather pompous, self important Commander to a man confronted by the truth of Zilda’s investigation into her brother’s death which ultimately he feels sorrow for. And it is a literal mind shock for Poul, whose anxieties are all about the robots themselves. Poul wants to face the unconscious realm of the robots but cannot from fear of the consequences in doing so.
This animation of anxiety is driven home by the pulsing, heart beat like sounds and music as robots advance upon the humans. The neat touch of seeing the attacks from their point of view ensure that we see the environs of the Sandminer and the pain of the crew in a lurid, unearthly frame of reference (thanks to ‘Top Of The Pops’ video effects again). Outwardly they have impassive, blank eyed but elegant faces. Artifice embodied with a killer instinct.
On a final note, there are some wonderfully quotable lines: ‘Please don’t throw hands at me’, being one of the best. Tom and Louise are on top form, Tom particularly when he’s being questioned by Borg and Uvanov, and the theme of Leela becoming educated in an Eliza Doolittle relationship with the Doctor continues to develop and will find its apotheosis in the next story. Good also to see that her savage nature allows her to be a step ahead of the rest of the humans in recognising Poul’s true function and the zombie like nature of the rampaging robots.
It’s a story that glitters on the surface, all silver and green and sparkly costumes but is merely a camouflage for the relentless, murderous power of anxiety and the unconscious (it's written literally on Dask's painted face). We are trapped in Taren Kapel’s waking nightmare for 90 glorious minutes until his voice goes all camp and squeaky and I, for one, will never tire of it (his camp squeaky voice and the glorious 90 minutes!).
THE ROBOTS OF DEATH Region 2 DVD (BBCDVD1012 Cert U)
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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