On a distant planet, in a distant future, the Sandminer crawls across the desolate surface searching for valuable minerals. Alongside a skeleton human crew is a large compliment of robots… sorry, Robots – the menial and mute Dums, the more advanced Vocs and one controller, a Super-Voc. Just for once, these Robots have heard of Asimov, and everyone knows that a Robot cannot harm a human.
Look, it’s not a spoiler to say that they start killing people – it’s called The Robots of Death, after all. It seems that Taren Capel, a mad scientist, has decided to start a Robot revolution on the Sandminer. Unfortunately no-one knows what he looks like… he could even be one of the crew. Or possibly that strange curly haired man who’s just appeared out of nowhere…
I imagine, if you asked the average Doctor Who fan for an example of a murder mystery from the series, then The Robots of Death is the one that a lot of them will point to. But let’s look at the other aspects of the production first.
Tom Baker is the Doctor here, at the height of his powers, effortlessly taking charge, being serious when necessary and flippant when not. Louise Jameson is Leela, her second outing as the character – and I’ll mention, gives an excellent performance as the savage unwilling to be fazed by her hi-tech surrounding. I know everyone tends to talk about Leela basically just in terms of what she was wearing, but that really isn’t fair at all.
The support cast… well, the main support cast are excellent. Russell Hunter as Commander Uvanov, Pamela Salem as Toos, David Collings (in a rather wasted role in the last couple of episodes) as Poul and David Baillie as Dask all seem to effortlessly get how to do Doctor Who i.e. basically play it straight, even when going a bit mad. Less said about one of the other supporting actors the better, they have to carry an important emotional scene and really don’t convince at all. And as for D84’s vocal performance… just strange.
The script sets up this little world perfectly and no wonder the writer, Chris Boucher, returned to the setting for a later Doctor Who novel, Corpse Marker, and a series on non-Doctor Who audio plays. There’s also an audio sequel from Big Finish, called Robophobia, starring Sylvester McCoy and written by Nicholas Briggs. It’s a better mystery, by the way, but I need to have a re-listen when I get the chance.
Now, the mystery… First of all, the whole thing doesn’t make any sense. Why would Capel try and blow up the Sandminder at the end of episode 2? It would kind of derail his Robot revolution by killing a) them and b) himself. Putting that to one side, I think you’d have to be an idiot not to spot who Capel is. There is basically one alternative – maybe two by the end of episode two but they’re not convincing alternatives. And for the bit where you here his voice – it’s bleedin’ obvious which actor it is. For people (i.e. Wikipedia) who compare it to And Then There Were None or The Mousetrap… well, they both have people being killed in them one at a time, I guess… Nothing else, really.
But it is a fabulous Doctor Who story. The Robots are creepy (despite their odd footwear), the set design is fantastic, the Doctor is on sparkling form and the bad guy gets to do some proper insane ranting. Yes, the Robots are very slow at strangling people at times – how is Toos still alive by the end? – a Robot has its hands round her throat twice! – but as a slice of classic Doctor Who, it has to be seen, if you haven’t already. It’s got a reputation as one of the best stories, and that reputation is thoroughly deserved.
So, great Doctor Who, rubbish mystery. Still well worth a look.