Doctor Who: The Robots of Death Review

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his new companion Leela (Louise Jameson) land on Storm Mine 4, a large craft that crosses a barren desert planet, prospecting for rare and valuable minerals. A small crew of humans leaves much of the day-to-day running of the craft to a large number of robots. The robots have stringent safeguards built into their programming, and are unable to harm a human being. So when one of the crew is murdered, the Doctor and Leela are suspected.

Doctor Who could never be accused of great originality, but that would be beside the point. You could argue that true originality doesn’t play to a mass audience anyway, and over 12 million people watched The Robots of Death on its first broadcast in January-February 1977. No, better to take existing ingredients and produce a fresh blend. Chris Boucher, in his second script for the series (his first was the previous story, The Face of Evil, which introduced Leela), takes elements of Dune (the sandminer) and Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and uses them to tell Ten Little Indians in outer space. At this time, Doctor Who was going through a purple patch, with a combination of intelligent scripts that weren’t afraid to be scary and didn’t speak down to their supposedly juvenile audience, solid direction and an actor rapidly making the Doctor role his own. Also, though Doctor Who was never a megabucks production, it’s obvious from The Robots of Death that money was being spent: the art-deco look of the robots and the relatively lavish sets show this.

Three years into his seven-year tenure, Tom Baker is in top form here, adding humourous and occasionally eccentric inflections to the role. Leela was always a rather two-dimensional character (given a mannered interpretation by Louise Jameson), but her unreconstructed-savage bearing seemed quite a novelty back then. Her skimpy costume attracted quite a few viewers at the time, mainly older and male! There’s a solid supporting cast, headed by Russell Hunter as the sardonic and cynical ship commander. Pamela Salem, who had been considered for the role of Leela, fulfils a more traditional role, changing over the course of four episodes from capable second-in-command to gibbering wreck.

This serial is a solid SF whodunit, which holds the attention throughout. It’s always been highly rated by fans (eighth place in the 2003 Doctor Who Magazine poll) though – and this is entirely a personal thing – it’s never been a favourite of mine. There’s no denying its quality though.

The Robots of Death is a very early DVD release, and it’s fair to say that the BBC’s releases have evolved quite a bit in the three years since this was released. The disc is, as usual, encoded for Regions 2 and 4.

As you’d expect from a 1970s TV production, The Robots of Death was shot in 4:3. That, quite rightly, is the aspect ratio of the DVD transfer, so no anamorphic enhancement is necessary. The show was also shot on videotape with some 16mm film inserts, and unfortunately some of the shortcomings of 1970s videotape are apparent. There’s a lot of fine detail, especially on the crewmembers’ and robots’ costumes, that cause aliasing, with some silver surfaces causing colour flaring. There’s nothing too unwatchable though (and remember that in 1977 we would have been watching this on rather less forgiving TV equipment than nowadays), and I don’t doubt this is as good as you’re likely to get, given the source materials.

The sound is mono, as it would have been at time of broadcast, and it’s an entirely professional job of work as usual. There are twenty-four chapter stops, six per episode. Subtitles are provided for the feature and the commentary but there are no informational subtitles: they made their debut with the next DVD release, Spearhead from Space.

The main extra is an audio commentary, provided by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and writer Chris Boucher. This has a lot of solid information on the making of the programme, though is less chatty and anecdotal than later commentaries involving cast members. Apart from this, there are few extras: Doctor Who DVDs have evolved a lot since this one was released. A featurette begins with the BBC continuity announcement for Episode One (0:21), then gives us the scene of The Doctor and Leela’s first meeting with SV7 as originally shot , that is without music, effects and with the robot voices muffled by the costume (1:14). Then there is a section of model shots of Storm Mine 4 on black and white timecoded videotape and no soundtrack (7:35). Finally, there’s a continuity slide as used by BBC1 during the show’s fourteenth season. Although these items have separate title numbers, the “featurette” link on the menu will play them consecutively. Frankly, these are all really one-watch items, as are the interactive studio plans – click on any section to look at any set plan in more detail. The final extra is a stills gallery, half of them in black and white and half in colour, with a simple back-and-forth navigation.

This was the second Doctor Who DVD release in the UK, and it’s fair to say that subsequent discs have become more comprehensive packages than this. But ultimately it’s all about the show itself, and this is one of the Doctor’s most popular adventures with the picture and sound quality probably as good as you are likely to get.

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