So a couple of years back, I offered a primer in Doctor Who. I generally recommend people try the newer series. Back then, Season 1, Episode 1, “Rose”, seemed like a good place to start. A few years on, I now suggest Season 5, Episode 1, “The Eleventh Hour”, with the first full appearance of Matt Smith as the eleventh form of the Doctor as a better place to start. With his arrival, the show finally became a full-fledged phenomenon here in the States.
Now let’s say you’re hooked and want to dive into the old show. How do you proceed? Here at Tread Who Safely, I’ll suggest some stories from the classic series that overcome the obvious production limitations that plague almost all BBC programing from the era. (No, really, go watch clips of I, Claudius on YouTube if you don’t believe me). Today, we start with one I think is pretty damned spiffy: “The Robots of Death”
For years, I didn’t get why this four-part tale was one of the first to be offered when Who came to VHS. Now, I get it. It pretty much stands on its own with little-to-no fore knowledge required. It’s self-contained, vaguely reminiscent of an Agatha Christie murder mystery and it features fairly successful production values.
The TARDIS lands inside a giant, moving, ore collector. The Doctor and his current companion Leela, a savage of sorts, go exploring the collector to find it is mainly staffed by identical robots with ornate, Greek-like face masks. After a few misunderstandings, the Doctor meets the human crew, a decadent bunch who enjoy plenty of leisure time and eye-liner thanks to the robot workforce. Each human — Uvanov, Dask, Toos, Poul, and Dask to name a few — has various opinions of the robots and Uvanov’s command of the collector. They’re all hoping for bonuses when their tours of duty end. If it all kind of sounds like Alien, I think this working-class sci-fi thing was in the air. “The Robots of Death” was made in early 1977.
By that title, you might’ve guessed that the robots, stated to abide by Asmiov’s Three Laws of Robotics, go rogue and take control of the ship. One of them also dispatches one of the humans, leading the crew to huddle in the leisure room and point fingers. The Doctor, meanwhile, is hot on the case of the murderous robot with help of, get this, a robot spy! It seems robot control back on Earth caught wind that Taren Capel, the dreaded robo-revolutionary, might be on the collector.
I suppose I shouldn’t spoil too much of the proceedings, but you’ve got a decadent, but easily irritated, human crew, inscrutable, expressionless robots, and a savage girl in a leotard all in the confines of a moving mining vehicle.
I think what makes this one special is the better-than average direction and production values. Doctor Who is much maligned for its wobbly sets, but that’s actually a rare occurrence. The bigger issue tends to be bland sets that fail to create a convincing future world. In “Robots” you get a production design that fairly detailed, thought out, and solid. In this future, even miners enjoy a lush decadence. It goes a long way to reveal just how dependent their society has become on the robots. Hell, they’ve even intrusted certain aspects of law enforcement to the machines.
Director Michael E. Briant also reaches a rare mark of excellence. It took British television a lot longer to produce drama as single-camera mini-movies than its American counterpart. Most BBC productions at the time were still written, staged, and performed as though they were going out as live stage plays. This means a lot of uncomfortable two-shots and an oddly stilted pace. Briant manages to bring a lot of tension and cinematic flare to the story while still working within the confines of the Beeb’s Television Center studios and three massive cameras.
This story also features one of the rare appearances of the wooden TARDIS console room. The producers at the time wanted to mix things up a bit and commissioned a new, gorgeous, primary set.
It certainly fit the scattered Edwardian look of the Doctor at the time and was a stark contract to the old design, which had been essentially unchanged since 1963. Sadly, the set was damaged while in storage over a production hiatus. Baker’s Doctor was seen moving back to the older, grey set in the next story. It would also mark a long run of stories with crappy production values and cruddy stories.
“The Robots of Death” is the perfect entry to classic Who, it’s in color, the sets are great, the costumes rich, the acting pretty good, and the story is pretty modern. Next time, we’ll talk about Earthshock.