Monday, 9 December 2013

Review: Doctor Who Classic: The Robots of Death

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The robot design is gorgeous. They are really wonderful.
Doctor Who - Season 14, Story Five - The Robots of Death
Written 8/6/13 

The Robots of Death begins my push into what is a considerably unfamiliar territory for me in regards to the show, one which will last until the end of Leela's tenure. My expectations were quite high, the story having been worked out as the most popular story when the results of several Gallifrey Base fan polls were averaged earlier this year for their fourth special Timelash section. Did it live up to expectations? Well, I think so. The are an odd few repeated Doctor Who standards that I didn't like, but it was quite captivating when it wanted to be.
     My journey into the unknown was somewhat tempered by this episode's plot, which struck me as rather familiar. I soon realised that this story reminds me of Voyage of the Damned, and the similarity in plot almost certainly has me thinking that RTD was a bit naughty when he wrote that story. A society that runs on angelic-faced mechanoids who rebel due to exterior evil control. I think Robots of Death is a lot cooler in that regard, with awesome POV shots and the strange serial-killer-esque trademarks that they leave behind. Even if the "corpse marker" disks do look a hell of a lot like bike reflectors.
     The episode's guest cast were surprisingly diverse, with two women and two minorities (who are unfortunately consecutive victims of the robots, but at least not the first). There's a certain charm to them all, even if the identity of the main villain is quite hilariously unsubtle. This lack of surprise (mainly due to a process of elimination) follows another of the story's main issues - how often it curtails to Doctor Who stereotype. Hey, The Doctor and Leela arrive just as someone is murdered, I wonder if they'll take the blame. Oh, they do, what a surprise.
     The direction, production and acting all came up to the plate, with the impressive set designs and the iconic design of the Robot masks being most memorable. The flexibility of the Robot mask to display the story's theme of Uncanny Valley and "Robophobia" is shown by the fact that it's used both for the killer Robots and the docile spy robot D84, who ends up being quite cute and saves the day with a heroic sacrifice. It almost made up for the fact that the villain wasn't very well-developed, turning out to be a prior-unheard of background character masquerading on the mining ship for purposes unknown. (Like, if you want a robot revolution, do it at the Robot HQ or something, not on a mining ship in the middle of nowhere).
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Leela is cracking on nicely.
     I think what's most impressive here is the world-building, which is some of the most elaborate in Who so far, allowing us an understanding of the culture which creates and lives with these robots through some choice dialogue and a series of minor-cast characterisations which make everything evidence. The idea of robophobia (the nickname of Grimwade's Syndrome, jokingly named after future director/writer Peter Grimwade who complained about doing Robot stories) is very well explored, and for 1977 it's a pretty in-depth examination of the reasons for what we now call the Uncanny Valley effect, in which lack of body language and secondary characteristics makes humans uncomfortable with realistic facsimiles.
     The Robots of Death is not as perfect as I had expected it to be, but of course the expectations of fan reputation are rarely the source of any full excitation. One of my small tiny issues with the Tom Baker era thus far is that any themes are hidden deep behind many layers. Perhaps I am a little stupid, and I need my obvious moral themes spat at me like in The Two Doctors or The Happiness Patrol. The Robots of Death is a fun story and I enjoyed it immensely, though, and nothing that I've come up with to fault it is ever really going to dent that.

Thanks.

NEXT WEEK: The most racist episode in the Classic Era. I paint my face yellow for The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

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