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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. Aaron
    November 18, 2011 @ 7:58 am

    "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.


  2. Elizabeth Sandifer
    November 18, 2011 @ 8:45 am

    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.


  3. Tom Watts
    November 18, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    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.


  4. Dougie
    November 18, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    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!)


  5. Dougie
    November 18, 2011 @ 11:10 am

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


  6. Stephen
    November 18, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    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.


  7. Elizabeth Sandifer
    November 18, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

    Stephen – That's the plan. 🙂


  8. WGPJosh
    November 18, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

    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.



  9. WGPJosh
    November 18, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    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.



  10. WGPJosh
    November 18, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    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.


  11. Iain Coleman
    November 18, 2011 @ 3:05 pm


    No credit to Chris Boucher? Shame.


  12. WGPJosh
    November 18, 2011 @ 3:21 pm


    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".


  13. William Whyte
    November 19, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

    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.


  14. SpaceSquid
    August 13, 2012 @ 7:18 am

    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.


    • Elton Townend-Jones
      September 23, 2021 @ 8:14 pm

      I agree. As a seven year old it blew my mind and – visually and conceptually – made a perfect and paradigm-shifting sense to me. Even now that I’m in my 50s, this explanation and the oft-mocked “dimensionally transcendental” speak to my understanding of what’s going on with the TARDIS with perfect clarity. Not sure what the problem is.


  15. Nickdoctorwho
    November 12, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

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


  16. William Silvia
    June 27, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

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


  17. Craig
    September 1, 2015 @ 6:02 am

    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.


  18. Elton Townend-Jones
    September 23, 2021 @ 8:17 pm

    I agree. As a seven year old it blew my mind and – visually and conceptually – made a perfect and paradigm-shifting sense to me. Even now that I’m in my 50s, this explanation and the oft-mocked “dimensionally transcendental” speak to my understanding of what’s going on with the TARDIS with perfect clarity. Not sure what the problem is.


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