Oh, It's a Robot! (The Robots of Death)


Have you noticed how every
robot story I do a Kraftwerk joke
in the caption? Because I have,
and it's giving me terrible
writer's block on this one.
It's January 29th, 1977. David Soul continues to implore you not to give up on us. After two weeks, Julie Covington takes over number one with "Don't Cry For Me Argentina." As it happens, the truth is that Covington, who declined the title role in Andrew Lloyd Weber's Evita, had never left Argentina, though this is largely because she had also never been there. One week later it goes to Leo Sayer's "When I Need You." Also in the charts are Elvis and... things I have honestly never heard of. Let's try Heatwave, Barry Biggs, Rose Royce, and Harry Melvin and the Bluenotes.

While in real news, between the last episode of Face of Evil and the first episode of this the Massacre of Atocha took place in Madrid. Spain was still in the fragile period of transition between Franco's military dictatorship and a meaningful democracy, and this was basically the darkest day of that process. Neofascists, failing to find the communist leaders they were looking for, simply opened fire, killing five and injuring four more. The gunmen, believing the government would protect them, did not even attempt to flee Madrid. In cheerier news, 2000 AD, arguably the most important of the British comics magazines, publishes its first issue or "prog."

While on television we have one of the big classics - The Robots of Death. First off, this is a story that requires me to situate myself a little bit. I have not read any of Boucher's Past Doctor Adventures or listened to any of the Kaldor City audios. Those who guessed that I would be doing one of the Boucher novels are incorrect, although I'll do one for the book version. But for now we're going to stick to the televised story.

Robots of Death is widely cited as one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time. Certainly the video release supports that - another early story that every Doctor Who fan of a certain age has seen. But like the next story, which is also widely beloved, there is a bit of an asterisk next to that title. It's a much less severe asterisk than Talons of Weng-Chiang gets, but it's still there, and seemingly every discussion of the story these days begins with it: it's a shameless rip-off of Isaac Asimov's novels The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun.

The first and most obvious response to this is that anybody who is just now waking up to the Hinchcliffe era's tendency to do lifts of existing works of fiction should probably have a look at, oh, say, Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, The Quatermass Experiment, Frankenstein, or The Manchurian Candidate. And yet those stories seem to get less stick for their relationship to source material than Robots of Death does. This is a bit unusual, and it's worth looking at why.

A lot of it is, I think, simply that Doctor Who fandom - i.e. the people who write and read reviews of individual stories instead of just watching them like normal people - are largely sci-fi people, and more sci-fi people, particularly when American fans are counted, know and adore Asimov than do the other source material of the Hinchcliffe era (even when that source material is more well-known among the general population). Thus this particular bit of appropriation is more jarring than usual. But this relies on the assumption that Doctor Who is actually a closer cousin to Asimov than it is to the other sources - in other words, that it's a normal sci-fi show. Fourteen seasons in, we should know better. Even though during the 80s it engaged in a (largely disastrous) attempt to reinvent itself as a cult sci-fi show in the Star Trek mould, that is not its default mode, and it's definitely not how the show was being approached in 1977. This is family teatime entertainment for an audience that mostly wouldn't have heard of Asimov. So yes, the ideas are in part taken from Asimov, but surely repackaging Asimov for a mass family audience is a valid thing for a show that has a foot in both worlds like Doctor Who to do.

So even if this were just a straight repackaging of Asimov in the way that, say, Death to the Daleks was a repackaging of H. Rider Haggard or Pyramids of Mars was a straight repackaging of Hammer's Mummy films, there would be some sense to it. Asimov is worth repackaging. Furthermore, there's something to be said for precisely what Asimov is repackaged. The two Asimov stories most similar to this are, as I said, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. Those two books, along with Robots of Dawn, published in the 1980s, form a set of stories following the crime-solving team of Elijah Baley, a human, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot. But the book most people think of first when they think of Isaac Asimov and robots is I, Robot. So the first thing we should note is that there's a profound difference between I, Robot and the Baley/Olivaw books.

I, Robot is really a short story collection. And, though this may sound like an obvious point, the stories in it are about robots. But it's a telling point all the same. In I, Robot, Asimov invents his famous three laws of robotics and then writes a series of stories in which he explores the consequences of those laws. The stories read like little logic puzzles in which the trick is how the rigid laws of robotics interact with an idiosyncratic situation to produce an interesting result. They're quite good for what they are, but they fall into a particular model of science fiction story.

The Baley/Olivaw books, on the other hand, are something more interesting. First of all, they're something we're familiar with as Doctor Who fans: genre fusions. They mash together the sci-fi genre with the mystery genre. And in this regard, Asimov deserves a lot of credit, because he explicitly wrote them to prove to John W. Campbell that those genres could be merged, and that opened a lot of doors for science fiction as a genre. But they also represent a move forward into a more complex sort of story. I, Robot is about how a set of rules invented by the writer work. It's interesting, but a limited thought exercise. The Baley/Olivaw books, on the other hand, are explorations of types of society in which Olivaw is used to provide a detached outsider's perspective that can comment on the society. It's a fundamentally more complex sort of structure.

And, just to gesture at a theme that will play into the blog in more substantial ways soon, this represents an important stage in moving beyond the limited "golden age" version of science fiction as a genre - a transition that is, as of February 1977, about three months out from its defining moment (Or ten months in the UK). As I said, I'm gesturing forward here, but thematically, in terms of the direction science fiction was going in 1977, the particular Asimov books that Boucher is lifting from here are a significant and potent choice.

All of which said, I've been acting for six paragraphs like all The Robots of Death does is pinch some concepts from Asimov. Which isn't even true. I mean, yes, obviously it does pinch some concepts from Asimov, but that's not all it does by a long shot. For one thing, there's a major difference in the sort of mystery stories that Asimov and Boucher are telling. Asimov writes Elijah Baley as a detective in the Hammet/Chandler noir tradition - the sort of detective described in Chandler's seminal "The Simple Art of Murder." That essay, which, if you've never read, you really should, attacks many other mystery writers, singling out the British tradition exemplified by Agatha Christie.

Boucher, on the other hand, writes what is a straight-up Christie-style mystery, with the production team falling into step behind him with a gorgeous art-deco inspired set that perfectly matches the Agatha Christie vibe. In terms of the mystery, this owes far more to And Then There Were None than it does to the Asimov novels, and certainly more than it does to something like The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon. This is a story about a killer among a small group of people all of whom have at least one dark secret. It's vintage Christie.

So off the bat there's something to be said for the story taking Asimov's idea and repatriating it to the British idiom, showing that the British mystery tradition is as suitable to the sort of thing Asimov does as the American tradition Asimov uses. Indeed, he even takes a shot at Asimov - Poul and D84 are clearly analogues for Baley and Olivaw, and by the end of the story one is dead and the other has had a complete nervous breakdown. Far from imitating Asimov, Boucher goes out of his way to screw over Asimov's characters. This isn't just appropriation but a careful and considered response to the original text. (Similarly, the Doctor taking down the ranting mad scientist by making his voice squeaky via helium is very possibly the most beautiful defeat of an enemy to date in Doctor Who - a perfect example of the Doctor simultaneously winning by being clever and winning by refusing to take his enemies seriously.)

And then on top of composing an effective response to two classic science fiction novels Boucher further develops Leela as a character. As WGPJosh pointed out in the comments to the Face of Evil entry, one of the biggest problems with Leela is the way in which she gets pushed into the Eliza Doolittle role to the Doctor's Henry Higgins, thus troublingly reasserting a wealth of Victorian colonial ideologies. We'll deal with the bulk of this on Monday, so for now let's just accept that this is an issue that exists.

Given that, the needed counter narrative is fairly obvious. Leela, due to the nature of her origin, is simultaneously the product of the Doctor's actions and a reiteration of an older form of civilization. The words "savage" and "primitive" are problematic, but they capture a basic truth - Leela's civilization is at a much earlier level of historical development than any companion the Doctor has ever had before. But notably, her culture is also one that extends entirely from the Doctor's actions. She's not so much a primitive as the reiteration of primitive culture. She is, in truth, as much futuristic as primitive.

In which case the way forward is to combine those, using that disjunction to produce insights about the world that are at once savvy and based on her somewhat orthogonal relationship to other cultures. This role, in fact, is one very similar to the one Olivaw plays in Asimov's novels. She can provide, to use the more ideologically charged term, détourned understandings of culture. And this is what has to happen for her character to work - she has to be able to show herself able to outdo the Doctor at times by having a different kind of insight to his.

Boucher pulls that off beautifully by having her figure out what's going on with Poul episodes ahead of everyone else but be unable to frame her insight in terms that everyone else understands. It's not until in the end, in which body language and human nuance turns out to be central to everything that we understand that Leela has spent the entire story ahead of the game. This is exactly what Leela needs to have happen regularly to work as a character. Inevitably, of course, she, like every other innovative companion regresses from the cleverness of these early stories into a more generic role. But here, at least, we see exactly how she's supposed to work - by showing that the reiteration of history contains a form of truth and knowledge and by complicating the notion of "progress" itself.

This also brings us to the otherwise strange explanation of how the TARDIS works at the beginning. The Doctor engages in an explanation of how the interior of the TARDIS can exceed the size of the exterior by framing it in terms of how objects that are closer look larger than they do when far away, then making a comment about how "If you could keep that exactly that distance away and have it here, the large one would fit inside the small one." Which is total nonsense even as technobabble goes. In particular, it doesn't jibe at all with the part of his explanation that ultimately gets adopted as the standard explanation - that the interior of the TARDIS is a different dimension than the one the exterior exists in. That's perfectly sensible - the door is a dimensional portal. We've seen those before in various forms.

But the explanation he gives is ridiculous. The differing sizes of objects at different distances is purely a phenomenon of optics and the human eye. It's a matter of interior human experience, not an actual physical property of objects. The comparative difference in size exists only as an illusion in the human mind based not on objects themselves but on the light bouncing off of them into the human eye. Thus what the Doctor says about keeping an object at a distance and having it here to fit objects into one another is complete nonsense - a piece of technobabble that simply does not cohere to reality on a meaningful level. But crucially, Leela calls the Doctor out on it, accusing him of being silly. Which he dismisses, but this ignores the real point of the scene: Leela is right. The Doctor has obviously just bullshitted an explanation to try to shut her up. (Or, alternatively, the TARDIS is purely a phenomenon of mental perception as opposed to an actual object. Which is closer to the style of interpretation I usually pick, and delightfully compatible with the understanding of Time Lords I proposed for The Deadly Assassin.)

But more than anything, The Robots of Death is a strong validation of the Hinchcliffe approach. It's not one of the most spectacularly ambitious stories of the era. By almost any measure it's the second simplest story of the season. But even in a comparatively simple mode we have a story that uses genre fusion to comment on and subvert a classic of science fiction while simultaneously continuing to develop the series' ongoing themes about historical progress in new and interesting directions. And it can do it while telling a cracking good adventure yarn. The sheer potency of this show's poetics right now is blinding. May it continue like this forever.


Aaron 9 years, 3 months ago

"Leela's civilization is at a much earlier level of historical development than any companion the Doctor has ever had before."

As a historian, I would strongly attack any notion that there is any such thing as a culture that is earlier in historical development than another (as a Marxist, I'd take it back, but that's besides the point). Cultures develop according to their environment, and no civilisation is "before" or "after" any other. Any other reading would come off as extremely orientalist and colonial.

Of course, if you're just saying this because in 1977 Doctor Who assumed that some cultures were earlier or later than others, then fair dos, because I'll certainly buy that. This reading goes pretty well with your "time lords are the protectors of historical progress" idea just fine too.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 3 months ago

A fair point. I think it's clearly the case that within he logic of the show Leela is meant to be in one sense functionally equivalent to someone coming from prehistoric Earth. I think a fairly solid case can also be made for an earlier stage of technological development, which is at least somewhat more continual. You're right that any sense of an ordered progression of cultural development is ridiculous.

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Tom Watts 9 years, 3 months ago

It's the Doctor's refusing to take these enemies seriously that's what's uniquely precious about the show. I don't know of any other comparable. I've only recently watched the Quatermass films (I know a lot about horror, and virtually nothing about non-Who Sci-fi), but I was of course struck by how derivative Spearhead, say, or Fendahl were, but also by how much Doctor Who added. And what it added transformed it utterly, and quite supplanted for me the original. Quatermass is such a dull character by contrast, the dialogue so miserably earnest. I used to think that the Hammer Frankenstein films had a depth and a meaning to them that the Hinch era imitations lacked, but your essays on Morbius and Planet of Evil changed my mind on that, and I re-watched them with fresh eyes. Nonetheless, Baker and Cushing are comparable in as much as they perform their roles with extraordinary intensity and seriousness, and make what might otherwise be stolid or stupid material urgent and unforgettable. Without them, the stories can just fall to pieces, like Horror of Frankenstein!

I agree with you on historical progress, but who wouldn't? Have you critiqued the programme's recurring theme of "race memory" yet? Like Lamarckism, I suppose it will always hold some kind of sway over human imagination. It's not a very progressive concept, but like the world-soul or the national Destiny, it can't exactly be called stupid, what with all the great men who've believed in it, and all.

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Dougie 9 years, 3 months ago

Surely Leela is intended to be a reflection of the Doctor himself? A skeptic, an individualist and an outsider in her own society, she leaves it behind for danger, monsters and life or death.

Furthermore, the Doolittle/Higgins parallel will be, as past posts suggest, recognised by (some of) from the movie of My Fair Lady, rather than Pygmalion. So couldn't it be intended as an ironic comment on patronising, patriarchal relationships? Rather marvellously, a relationship that, reading between the lines in the novel Lungbarrow, will end with the Doctor unwittingly introducing his own parents to each other. (Then he does the same thing for his own missus!)

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Dougie 9 years, 3 months ago

Sorry. "(some of) the audience from the movie of My Fair Lady..." I did a 12-hour stint yesterday!

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Stephen 9 years, 3 months ago

When you do the Boucher novel for the paper version, I recommend choosing Corpse Marker, as it allows you to talk about sequels, Blakes' Seven, and crossovers all at the same time.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 3 months ago

Stephen - That's the plan. :)

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WGPJosh 9 years, 3 months ago

Honoured to be mentioned in your post today!

To me, "Robots of Death" is the archetypical Hinchcliffe-Holmes era story: It perfectly embodies this era's greatest strengths, but also its greatest weaknesses, and in equal share. First thing to note is yeah, the Asimov plot lift is pretty egregious but, as you pointed out, it's tempered by fusing it with some aspects from other mystery genres. However, I maintain that this is like the sixth or seventh time since this era started where Hinchcliffe and Holmes just ham-fistedly steal from other works, mash them up and call it a day. It works better here than it has in the past (though certainly "Brain of Morbius" and "Deadly Assassin" worked and "Seeds of Doom" is a special case), partly because as you said its designed in a way to comment on the original works, but mostly because they've just had so much practise by this point it's second nature to them by now.

What actually bothers me about the plot here more than the usual laughably thinly veiled plot thievery is the fact that, for a story that wants to be a compelling whodunnit mystery, it comes across as a pretty incompetent stab at one. For one thing the whole solution is all but revealed in the opening credits of episode one ("Robots of Death"? Really?) which is honestly pretty silly. As a result, we spend a good half the serial knowing full well the robots are responsible in some way and none of the characters except Leela and The Doctor are in on it. This renders the entire captivating scene in the first few episodes where the crew members of the miner get paranoid and start pointing fingers at each other in a desperate effort to flush out the murderer entirely pointless, because we already know it's the robots and it just feels like the story is wasting our time.

The second thing that always bothered me about the resolution is that its revealed the robots went awry because Terran Capel overwrote their Three Laws Compliance. That to me is rather cheap, because the whole cleverness of The Naked Sun was that the Robots *weren't* mis-programmed at all: They were still very much acting in a way they thought was compliant with the First Law, they just didn't know what they were doing was actually killing the humans. By leaving out that crucial plot point, "Robots of Death" comes across as just another case of Hinchcliffe and Holmes taking a really interesting and captivating story, remaking it and making it less interesting. Also, I'd argue a megalomaniacal antisocial loner raised by robots who wants to kill all humans just because is far less compelling a villain then someone who knows how to cynically manipulate pre-existing software and the social norms they come out of.


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WGPJosh 9 years, 3 months ago

There is an area where this serial really shines, and it's particularly hard to dispute: The world of Kaldor and the characters that inhabit it are incredibly well developed and well-realised. This is where Hinchcliffe and Holmes are really, really good: They excel at world building and are consistently wonderful at crafting living, breathing worlds inhabited by believable, likeable and individualised characters. However, there's a flip side to this: This lush and beautifully realised world is utterly wasted here because the plot is so straightforward, self-explanatory and barely qualifies as a mystery. That's Hinchcliffe and Holmes' defining flaw: They're wonderful at creating living, breathing, fascinating worlds filled with interesting people, but are generally terrible at making anything interesting actually happen in them. There are exceptions of course, but this is a very clear trend I've always noticed every time I watch this era, and this serial especially.

Speaking of characters, both Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are in top form and generally well-used here. Baker flips back and forth between being a commanding lead and a mercurial transgressor, and you're right to point out a vital plot point is that Leela is right from the beginning. However, Leela's impact is dented a bit for me because she spends an entire episode locked in a room doing jack all waiting for someone to let her out. Also, The Doctor making fun of her voice at the end bugs me a lot and comes a cross as unnecessarily mean. Another thing that irritates me a bit is that The Doctor and Leela spend the first two episodes making themselves look as suspicious as physically possible and that stretches the credulity (and my patience) a lot, but I'm not sure if that was intentional or not.


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WGPJosh 9 years, 3 months ago

What I suppose is my final word on "Robots of Death" is that this year Big Finish produced a direct sequel in the form of "Robophobia". The serial stars Sylvester McCoy as The Doctor travelling alone and returning to this world a few months after the events of "Robots of Death". It turns out the incident on the miner has been covered up as part of a vast government conspiracy and an eerily similar series of events has broken out on the space liner The Doctor landed on. As far as I'm concerned, "Robophobia" absolutely blows "Robots of Death" out of the water. Not only is it a better story, but it's a better story in ever way and by FAR. First off is McCoy, who gives flat-out one of his best performances *ever* as he flits around the edges of the story like a ghost; a complete unknown and utterly unreadable to everyone, including the audience. In fact, he's barely in it for the first half and it takes almost the entire serial to find out exactly why he's come back.

The serial really focuses around Nicola Walker's Liv Chenka, who is trying to solve the case on her own and deal with her own feelings of loneliness and alienation. This is where the world-building legacy of Hinchcliffe and Holmes comes into play: The world and characters are in fact so well developed and so well handled that it's almost as if "Robophobia" doesn't belong to a show about The Doctor, but one about Kaldor that The Doctor subtly inserts himself into. If I'm honest, that's exactly how Doctor Who should operate. Crucially though, the story itself is really excellent on its own and doesn't rely on the lushness of the world to carry it: The mystery is actually, well, a mystery that keeps you guessing until the end and the ending is one of the most emotionally moving and gut-wrenching climaxes I've experienced in any work of fiction in recent memory. In my opinion is an absolutely perfect Doctor Who story that not only outclasses its source material but pretty much everything the show's been doing on TV the past couple years.

Now, what does the master stroke of "Robophobia" say about "Robots of Death"? On the one hand, it's arguably superior in every way, but on the other hand it couldn't have happened had "Robots of Death" not been made, not just because of the continuity but because of the legacy of science fiction world building that Hinchcliffe and Holmes were pioneering with this serial, and their tenure in general. Maybe that says it all, if this is the legacy it can leave behind.

Wow...I just noticed all of my responses for this season seem to go back to Sylvester McCoy in some way. I'm honestly not intending to do it, it just kind of happens and I guess it's been relevant to do so. Maybe I'm just subconsciously yearning to get to that era. Speaking of, as for Leela and "Lungbarrow"...Yeesh...Let's just say I think doing that book was a HUGE mistake and doubly so to tie it at all in with the disastrous misfire that was the Paul McGann movie.

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Iain Coleman 9 years, 3 months ago


No credit to Chris Boucher? Shame.

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WGPJosh 9 years, 3 months ago


Well, my using the term "Hinchcliffe-Holmes Era" was implicitly meant to encompass everyone who worked under them during their tenure, including Boucher, because I was using "Robots of Death" as a way to look at these three years as a whole generally. However, you're right, I should have singled him out for his work on this serial and "Face of Evil".

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William Whyte 9 years, 3 months ago

What makes this story great isn't just the world, but the characters. Poul, Toos, Uvanov and D84 live on afterwards in a way that is, apart from them, essentially limited to characters from Robert Holmes-scripted adventures.

I think the character of Poul isn't just a dig at Elijah Baley, but plays with your favoured theme of narrative collapse. Poul, as the undercover detective, is the usual narrator of stories in this genre: he's unflappable, he's one step ahead of everyone, his name rhymes with "cool", and he even bears a certain physical resemblance to Chris Boucher (i.e. they're both skinny). The first time I saw it, Poul's descent into madness was the most startling, askew, and memorable part of the story (nods also to D84's head exploding and Leela's squeaky voice): it showed what transgressive territory we were in by the standards of the world that was being built.

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SpaceSquid 8 years, 6 months ago

It's interesting that you see the Doctor's TARDIS explanation as pure bullshitting. I always took it as a metaphor that gets right to the heart of what's (arguably) going on - the dimension in which the TARDIS interior exists is both here and elsewhere by the application of a trans-dimensional portal - without having to use any of those actual words in a conversation with someone who almost certainly is unaware of the underlying concepts.

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Nickdoctorwho 8 years, 3 months ago

Poul is also a shout-out to SF author Poul Anderson. Didn't he write the "Gateway" stories?

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William Silvia 6 years, 8 months ago

The Time Lords as described by...well, you might harshly disagree.

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Craig 5 years, 6 months ago

I think the Doctor explained the TARDIS in a way that he believed Leela would understand. He did a very similar thing when explaining it to Ian and Barbara back in the day, by describing a television (a small box) that can hold an entire building (or at least show the image of one). Both explanations are bunkum, but they serve the purpose for at least beginning to help the newbies get their head around the concept of relative dimensions.

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