Timestamp #90: The Robots of Death

Doctor Who: The Robots of Death
(4 episodes, s14e17-e20, 1977)



This could have been one of those Fox specials from the late 1990s and early 2000s: When Robots Attack!

Really, though, this story could have had such larger implications and deeper meanings, but it stopped just short of the goal line.

The setting is a rock planet with a rolling mining vessel, Storm Mine 4, complete with a pretty nifty video composite effect for the bridge. The vehicle itself crewed by robots who do all the manual labor with humans to make the critical decisions. The TARDIS approaches with Leela being distracted by a yo-yo – a nice moment for her since the yo-yo is actually a rather complex device – before turning to the Doctor with some questions about the TARDIS and their travels – another nice moment that explains how quickly she comprehends the universe around her. The class ends as the TARDIS lands inside the miner vehicle and the Doctor admonishes Leela to leave her disruptor rifle behind as they leave and explore.

What’s missing here is any discussion on Leela forcibly joining the Doctor, or her ability to (accidentally?) start the TARDIS.

The robot crew consists of black “dums”, green “vocs”, and a silver “super-voc”. They conduct a routine scan while their human masters lounge about and find a sandstorm that might stir up a lucrative mineral called lucanol. The crew punching bag, a scientist named Chub, is assembling an instrument package when he is killed by a voc named V45. Meanwhile, vocs detect the TARDIS and remove it from the scoops so they can continue their job, but that poses a problem for the travelers as they try to outrun the oncoming sandstorm. The scoop’s shutters close just in time as the vessel commander, Uvanov, is pressured to abandon the operation and attend to Chub’s murder. Uvanov and Poul investigate Chub’s corpse and find a strange disc, a corpse marker, a device that indicates that a robot is deactivated. Inside the scoop, Leela and the Doctor are discovered by the vocs.

The crew discuss the murder, effectively playing a game of Clue by tossing accusations back and forth as The Doctor and Leela are led to a holding area. The Doctor investigates while Leela is enthused by the futuristic luxury. Super-voc SV7 arrives, asks a few questions, and departs. Shortly afterward, the travelers break out with the sonic screwdriver and go in search of the TARDIS. SV7, on the other hand, informs Uvanov of the stowaways, and the crew suspects that they are the murderers.

Leela wanders off and finds Chub’s body, which the robots haul away. The Doctor finds the TARDIS, then finds another corpse inside one of the mineral hoppers. He is locked inside and the chamber fills with sand, covering the Doctor. He survives with a blowpipe, and when he leaves the chamber, he is restrained. Leela finds a third body, as well as a dum (D84) that can secretly speak, and is soon captured by Uvanov.

I appreciated the fact that Leela stands up for herself quite nicely, especially when Uvanov strikes her.

The travelers are questioned by the crew, which results in a great deal of infighting before Uvanov has the Doctor and Leela confined to the robot storage bay. Poul believes in their innocence, and he frees them so they can track down the real murderer, who the Doctor believes is really a robot.

Those ridiculous costumes are more of a hindrance than anything, but it also shows the class separation between the masters and the slaves. Yes, I said slaves. I could also spotlight an allegory between haves and have-nots.

Anyway, as Poul and the travelers return to the scene of the first murder, a crewmember named Zilda investigates Uvanov’s quarters and proclaims (with abysmal acting skills) over the loudspeaker that the commander is responsible for… something. Poul arrives just in time to find Uvanov bent over Zilda’s body, which prompts Poul to confine the commander. Suddenly, the mining vessel veers out of control, tossing everyone about because the drive links have been destroyed, the engines jammed, and the engineer has been murdered. The overloaded engines nearly destroy the vehicle, but the Doctor cuts the power. The engines stop, but the miner begins to sink in the soft sand and emergency repairs are started.  Within time, the engines are repaired and the vessel gets underway once more.

The Doctor leaves to investigate further, asking Leela to keep an eye on Poul. Poul locks her in the lounge and goes to robot storage where he finds evidence that a robot did kill one of the crew. Poul also loses it at this point. Meanwhile, SV7 contacts a shadowy man who transmits a secret message to the super-voc and refers to him as a brother. Insert a sigh here as the story abandons potentially powerful social commentary for yet another violent cult.

The Doctor finds D84, who reveals that he and Poul are undercover agents for the mining company. The strange shadowy man, now in a golden cowl, reprograms a previously deactivated robot, and we discover that he is Taren Capel, a prominent roboticist attempting to spark a robot revolution. Once the Doctor reasons that Capel is hiding onboard, the Doctor joins D84 on the search. They find the secret robotics lab and evidence that the robots have been reprogrammed.

SV7 hands out murder assignments to the vocs. V5 attempts to kill Leela, but she outwits the robot and escapes to the robot storage bay where she discovers Poul. Acting commander Toos, acting on the Doctor’s advice attempts to round up the human crew on the command deck, but V6 traps her. She calls for help, which D84 leaves to provide. Uvanov tracks the Doctor to the secret workshop, and they’re both ambushed by V4 who has orders to kill the Doctor. Uvanov saves the Doctor just as the power goes out. That causes SV7 to call for reinforcements, which pulls V6 from its murderous task. Leela and D84 tend to Toos, and Leela escorts the commander to the bridge while D84 goes after Poul.

What is this sixth sense that Leela has about impending trouble?

Everyone assembles on the command deck and the Doctor catches everyone up. Poul is suffering from robophobia, and Uvanov recounts a tale of Zilda’s brother, a man who went mad under robophobia and died. Thus Zilda’s earlier accusation against Uvanov.

The Doctor, Leela, and D84 head out to stop the menace as the remaining crew reinforce the bridge and build modified explosives. The crew’s robot custodian, Dask, arrives at the bridge in his true identity, Taren Capel, but Toos refuses to let him in. The Doctor’s team constructs a robot deactivator device (Chekhov’s gun) and set out after Capel.

Meta moment: Capel’s makeup is wacky, and the Doctor agrees.

The Doctor hides Leela and a helium cylinder in a locker just as Capel arrives and stabs D87 with the reprogramming probe. Leela releases the helium as Capel begins to torture the Doctor with the probe. D87 uses its last ounce of strength to trigger the deactivator, sacrificing itself as the rest of the vocs explode. SV7 arrives, unable to recognize Capel’s voice, and kills his master. The Doctor saves the rest by destroying SV7 and ending the threat.

After some humor over Leela’s squeaky voice (and the Doctor’s lack thereof), they depart for another adventure.

I’ve already covered my disappointment over this story’s potential, but it won’t play too much into the scoring because they were my expectations. It’s not entirely fair to expect the writers to write the story exactly to my expectations.

Scoring what was actually on the screen, there were some nice character moments and some really bad acting. There was a distinct lack of suspense in the story overall. We see the robots kill, so we know who the perpetrators are from the go. The introduction of Taren Capel felt tacked on, either as a misdirection to avoid yet another “robot goes bad” story or to tell another “humanity corrupts innocence” tale.

It was an enjoyable story, but it was just slightly higher than average for me. The high three gets a bump to a four.


Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”


UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.





7 thoughts on “Timestamp #90: The Robots of Death

  1. My point of view on this is backwards, of course, because I saw this for the first time when I was six, but this one seems to be to be more in the vain of Asimov rather than a social commentary. In that case, Capel’s involvement is fitting since someone needs to be able to break the “Three Laws of Robotics” for robots to be able to act this way. The eventual solution is also very Asimov. He played with the idea of how to circumvent the laws, by changing how the robot defines what a human is as well. In this case, they’re keyed to a voice. If you ruin the voice, they’re no longer a human in the robot’s definition and ergo do not need to be saved or obeyed.

    As for Leela, I’ve always felt that the Doctor actually enjoys having companions (after Ian and Barbara anyway), so he didn’t really mind Leela bursting in, and apparently she just pressed the right button. It never seems like the Doctor needs to do much to get the TARDIS to dematerialize.

    Leela’s six sense I think is linked to the fact that she’s from a group that reverted to savagery and is therefore more intuitive. This is stated outright I think in one of the later TV stories, although I suppose it might have been one of the novels or audios.

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