THIS STORY TAKES PLACE BETWEEN THE TV STORY "THE FACE OF EVIL" AND THE NOVEL "LAST MAN RUNNING."
MICHAEL E. BRIANT
'REVISITATIONS 3' DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD3003) RELEASED IN FEBRUARY 2012.
THE TARDIS, CARRYING THE DOCTOR AND HIS NEW COMPANION LEELA, ARRIVES ABOARD A HUGE SANDMINER ON A DESERTED WORLD. THE SMALL HUMAN CREW RELY ALMOST ENTIRELY ON ROBOTS TO CARRY OUT THEIR EVERY TASK AND WHIM WHILE THEY MINE THE PLANET'S RICH MINERALS.
SUDDENLY, ONE BY ONE, MEMBERS OF THE TEAM START TO DISAPPEAR. THE TIME TRAVELLERS DISCOVER THAT SOMEONE OR SOMETHING IS MURDERING THE SANDMINER CREW - BUT, OF COURSE, NOBODY BELIEVES IT COULD POSSIBLY BE THE ROBOTS...
29TH JANUARY 1977 - 19TH FEBRUARY 1977
After the experimental release of The Five Doctors, the first regular Doctor Who DVD was 2000’s Robots of Death, a much-loved adventure from the popular fourteenth season of the series.
The original DVD release, with its distinctive TARDIS roundels artwork (both on the DVD’s cover and on the DVD menu itself) and ‘The TOM BAKER Years 1974-81’ emblazoned across the bottom of the cover, betrayed the range’s more regimented approach when compared to the mismatched array of covers that the series’ VHS releases suffered with. There was also a very nice little booklet designed in the same style, offering a brief précis of the story and its relevance, as well as setting out the contents of the disc in much more detail than the sleeve. Unfortunately the design was a little bland – whilst the TARDIS roundels brought some pedant-appeasing uniformity, a still picture of a sole Voc Robot took up half of the front cover. This would eventually evolve into some stunning artwork over the next couple of dozen releases, but the original Robots of Death DVD and the handful of releases that followed it were really lacking in flair. Clearly the same cannot be said of its 2012 special edition.
Above: The 2000 and 2012 DVDs' differing menu screens
The Robots of Death itself was originally presented looking better than it ever had before, and appeared on the disc as four separate episodes, unlike the original VHS release which pushed an omnibus-style ninety-minute movie on those who bought it. Nonetheless, it’s a pity that the full capability of the format wasn’t exploited – a dual-layer disc could have easily accommodated both the four episodes as they originally aired and a movie version, particularly if seamless branching had been employed. Sadly, save for a few notable exceptions, the range continues to only provide the transmitted episodic serials.
The bonus material originally on offer trumped that of The Five Doctors release simply by existing, but in truth little of it was dynamic or even all that watchable. There was a modest low-resolution photo gallery and some studio floor plans, together with a short featurette containing some film trims, model sequences and continuity cards. The only feature that I found to be worth its salt was the commentary, which saw erstwhile producer Philip Hinchcliffe and writer Chris Boucher share their memories about working on The Robots of Death. Boucher offered fascinating insight into what it was like writing for the show back then, and in particular his experience of contributing two stories in a row, while Hinchcliffe regaled listeners with his edifying and amusing anecdotes.
Turning to the serial itself, as a firm fan favourite, The Robots of Death was an obvious choice to launch the range. Boucher’s script fuses the most interesting aspects of literary science fiction with Agatha Christie-style mystery within the claustrophobic confines of a merchant navy-inspired sandmining vehicle. Michael E Briant’s direction, meanwhile, is stunning in every sense; his framing of the action is redolent of the genres that the story pays homage to, and his decision to make the sandminer a deluxe, art-deco glory proved to be the serial’s ticket to Who immortality - The Robots of Death’s eschewing of the gleaming technology of Star Trek and pitiless grime of Alien in favour of a distinctive and decadent look would render the production timeless.
And then we come to the cast, which has to be amongst the finest ever assembled for the classic series. At this point in his tenure, Tom Baker was at his pinnacle, skilfully blending deadly earnestness with his own inimitable brand of wry, bohemian mischief. It’s always difficult to tell which lines Baker has read from the script and which he’s thrown in himself, but here he delivers both with consummate relish, whether he’s calmly speculating as to whom an advancing Voc robot will murder next – the panicking Commander Uvanov or himself – or desperately trying to rein in his still-to-be-tamed savage of a companion. Louise Jameson’s Leela is almost as entertaining, despite having to make do with plot threads that were clearly conceived with an investigative journalist in mind, rather than a warrior of the Sevateem.
Those supporting the regulars each give wonderfully measured performances, eking every last inch out of Boucher’s thrilling mystery. Russell Hunter’s Uvanov may not have been the stout ship’s captain envisaged by the script, but he’s an imposing presence nonetheless, while Pamela Salem – who was very nearly cast as Leela in The Face of Evil – is absolutely stunning as Toos. However, it is Brian Croucher’s intimidating Borg that is the standout, though both David Collings (who would go on to play the eponymous Mawdryn in 1983’s Mawdryn Undead, not to mention the most dangerous of Big Finish’s Unbound Doctors in the audio drama Full Fathom Five) and future Toymaker David Bailie give him a run for his money as Poul and Dask respectively.
For me though, the most interesting aspect of The Robots of Death has always been the robots themselves. Save for the Hosts on board the Titanic in 2007’s Voyage of Dead, which clearly owed much to their art-deco forbearers, there’s never been anything in Doctor Who capable of competing with them when it comes to putting viewers ill at ease. Perhaps this is why they have turned up time in again in various Who media, popping up in official novels and audio dramas and even becoming the focus of their own unsanctioned spin-off, Kaldor City.
Above: Tody Hadoke resorts to cross-dressing in his battle against Robophobia
It is this ‘robophobia,’ or ‘Grimwade’s syndrome’ (a nod to long-suffering Who stalwart Peter Grimwade, who reportedly lamented the profusion of robots in the series) that comedian Toby Hadoke explores in his irreverent ten-minute skit included on the special edition DVD. This Robophobia feature – not to be confused with Nicholas Briggs’ 2011 audio drama of the same name – provides a playful history of robots and androids in Doctor Who, and looks at exactly why robots and androids become more unsettling the closer their appearances get to our own. Stand an expressionless but anatomically accurate Voc robot next to one of Galaxy 4’s Chumblies and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Above: Cast and crew discussing the making of the serial in The Sandmine Murders
The Robots of Death’s revisitation also offers an ample thirty-minute documentary on the making of the serial, The Sandmine Murders. This beautifully presented programme charts the evolution of the serial from Philip Hinchcliffe’s and Robert Holmes’ initial brainwave, through the writing and design process, all the way up to Louise Jameson’s near-slaying of a cameraman with Leela’s knife on set. The DVD’s new commentary track (which complements, not replaces, Hinchcliffe and Boucher’s from 2000) covers much of the same ground, but with far less reverence and even a few exquisitely discomfited moments. Baker is a natural entertainer – a “creative terrorist,” as Croucher so succinctly puts it – and he’s often at his most compelling when simply sat down in a room with some old acquaintances and given the opportunity to tell preposterous, deadpan lies and rant about ‘ealth and safety regulations for a couple of hours. Jameson, Salem and Briant should consider themselves privileged – as should we.
Whether you’re watching The Robots of Death on its range-launching vanilla DVD, its luxuriant Revisitations 3 special edition DVD or even a battered old VHS tape, the story is sure to hold you rapt throughout. However, Who aficionados should really make of point of folding the Revisitations 3 box set into their collections as it takes three of the classic series’ most outstanding serials and gives them the lavish embroidery that they deserve. And whilst its Robots of Death constituent may be a disc lighter than either The Tomb of the Cybermen or The Three Doctors, make no mistake – it’s the jewel in the crown.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006, 2012
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
Unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are copyrighted to the BBC and are used solely for promotional purposes.
‘Doctor Who’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.