|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.