Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Robots of Death - "Well, of course I can control it. Nine times out of ten. Well, seven times out of ten. Five times. Look. Never mind ..."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Robots of Death - Details

Season 14, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #90) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Doctor Who Gifs
The one on the jungle planet, the one on the blandly futuristic spaceship, the one where there's lots of running about in a disused quarry, the one with the medieval castle ... there are a handful of motifs that render even good DW stories difficult to hold apart in memory due to their repeated use. "Robots of Death" is not one of them. One look and you immediately know which story you're revisiting, whether it's the sandblasted exterior of the sand mining rig, the robots, or the crew, this one's got a style all its own. Happily, it's also a well-paced story with a mystery that, while not particularly mysterious, is stocked with distinctive characters and several charming scenes.

This is a milieu where Doctor Who can excel: the Pygmalion-inspired Doctor/companion dynamic dropped into a hard sci-fi mystery (Asimov's robots in Agatha Christie mode) on planet that's a little bit Arrakis, with a character that name checks Poul Anderson. It's borderline chop-suey -- if you want to see DW do this sort of thing not-quite-so-well later, contrast with "Terror of the Vervoids" -- but under Hinchcliffe & Holmes it's right in the show's wheelhouse.

Without getting too far into the behind-the-scenes politicking, I gather (from the About Time entry) Hinchcliffe was hogging the budget as his time was running out, spending money his successor probably would've appreciated having at his disposal. So as much as it's tempting to credit this team for doing so well in the design department with so little, it may be due to some less than generous cost overruns that had to be eaten later. If we put that aside and just consider what's on screen, this is the show confidently executing florid interior designs and daring fashion choices (especially for this line of work), not to mention impressive model shots of the massive mining crawler.

Hinchcliffe, on the commentary track, makes a clever point about that model shot that feels like a key to success for any show-runner trying to make the budget the work. The trick, he opines, is not to stay on the shot too long. Lots of stories before and after this one probably could've benefited from not giving the viewer quite so long to find the wires.

Leela is on her first trip (well, televised anyways, there may be stories in the audios or other media squeezed in between this and "Planet of Evil") and we catch up with her and the Doctor after opening on the sand miner. The Doctor is giving an Introduction to Transdimensional Engineering lesson in the wood-paneled alternate control room, a lecture that's not half bad, and to which Leela gives a completely sympathetic response.

As a youngster, I think I didn't take the departure of Sarah Jane very well, and held a bit of a grudge against Leela for following her. But Louise Jameson is fantastic and she works well with Tom Baker. Maybe forcing him to change gears and get out of having a best friend to play against, now taking on a somewhat more paternalistic role -- one that I suppose could've easily turned disastrously anti-feminist, but thankfully never did. Although I may have Dude's Blind Spot to just how exploitive her costumes are. I mean, OK, clearly they're "for the dads," but ... I should probably just stop.

Dialogue like this:
DOCTOR: I wonder where we are?
LEELA: You mean you don't know?
DOCTOR: Well, not precisely, no.
LEELA: You mean you can't control this machine?
DOCTOR: Well, of course I can control it. Nine times out of ten. Well, seven times out of ten. Five times. Look. Never mind, let's see where you are.
(Leela picks up the Tesh weapon.)
DOCTOR: You won't need that.
LEELA: How do you know?
DOCTOR: I never carry weapons. If people see you mean them no harm, they never hurt you. Nine times out of ten.
(Leela has her knife drawn as she leaves the Tardis.)
is what I love in a strong Doctor/companion dynamic and there was a plethora of it to be had under Hinchliffe and Holmes's stewardship.  Later, under Graham Williams the tenor of it changes ever so much more towards the absurdist (or what John Nathan-Turner dismissively labeled, "the undergraduate,") especially while Douglas Adams was script editor, that Tom Baker was brilliant at, but felt like the show straying a bit from it's roots in dramatic sci-fi. But that's a little later.


  • In the DVD extras, writer Chris Boucher mentioned he based Leela's name on a Palestinian freedom fighter, Leila Khaled.

  • Diversity isn't always DW's strong suit, so with Every Single Word currently (and entirely righteously) buzzing, it's nice to see characters played by a black woman and an Indian.

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