Kaldor City: a Magic Bullet Production

Vocs Extended:
What's the Big Deal About "The Robots Of Death"?

By Fiona Moore
(with thanks to Alan Stevens)

The Voc robots: one of the most enduring images in Doctor Who

Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 304

This article referenced on:
the robots of death
at Wikiverse

"In the desert of my dreams I saw you there..."
--Sarah McLachlan, Vox (Extended)

Whatever the fashionable Doctor Who story to like happens to be, people do keep coming back to "The Robots of Death". Although it may not always be the top story, it does make viewers' top ten story polls more consistently than any other, and the anticipation and excitement which greeted the release of Boucher's sequel, Corpse Marker, was higher than that for any other past-Doctor story since Goth Opera.

The Storm Mine crew relaxing in a lounge run by robot servants

The question is, however, why this should be the case. If one sits down and looks critically at it, TRoD has a lot in common with much-derided Base-Under-Siege stories such as "The Moonbase". Like "The Moonbase", TRoD has a multiethnic crew in an isolated location, mysterious robot creatures picking people off one by one, the Doctor having to solve the mystery in order to clear his own name, and so forth. Why is TRoD considered a genuine classic, and "The Moonbase" considered an average story even by the more rabid Patrick Troughton fans?

The most obvious example to anyone who has seen the story is overall "look." Rather cleverly, the design (the art deco look of which is at least partly responsible for the continual comparisons of TRoD to Agatha Christie novels) takes the device of making the future look like the past, rather than like then-contemporary visions of the future. This is a device which has been used to good effect by Terry Gilliam in Brazil, George Lucas in his Star Wars films, and Matt Groening and company in Futurama, and which prevents TRoD from dating as its contemporaries have. The beautiful humanoid features of the robots make them much more menacing as killers than if they had resembled the Quarks of "The Dominators" or Robbie of Forbidden Planet. The humans, like the robots, almost have the air of living sculptures with their elaborate hats and effete makeup; once the gloves are off, however, their appearance belies the viciousness under the surface. The designers also pick up on the script's referencing of Fritz Lang's Metropolis and give Storm Mine Four the look of Lang's pleasure-gardens, the costumes the look of Lang's embattled elite, and the robots the look of Lang's mad robot "Maria". Unlike the standard, utilitarian, boxy and dated look of most Base-Under-Siege stories, TRoD has a stunning style all its own.

The director, Michael E. Briant, must also take much of the credit for the resemblance of the story to one of the better Lang films. David Collings as Poul, the vulnerable detective who falls prey to robophobia, strongly resembles Gustav Froelich as Metropolis' hero Freder, who goes spectacularly mad when confronted with the "Maria" robot's crimes. The sequences in Toos' bedroom also bear a disturbing resemblance to film-noir rape/murder scenes, and the repeated ground-level shots of robots at work add to the sense of menace. By giving the story the feel of a film-noir, the director raises TRoD above the pedestrian level of earlier Base-Under-Siege stories.

Tariq Yunus as Cass

Brian Croucher as Borg

TRoD also, like "The Moonbase", visually heralds a multicultural future by employing an ethnically mixed cast. In "The Moonbase", however, this device falls flat. The self-consciousness of the exercise means that the crew of the eponymous base is nothing more than a collection of stereotypes-- a Frenchman who prances about in a neckscarf, an easygoing Black American, a dour Scandinavian, a take-charge Englishman-- and not a woman in sight. Meanwhile, there is nothing in Chris Boucher's script to suggest that Cass should be Asian, Zilda Black, or Toos female. Brian Croucher, who would most likely have been doomed to play a cheeky Cockney had he appeared in "The Moonbase", here plays a dangerous aristocratic fop. Furthermore, the director's decision to include a variety of ethnic groups and accents means that for the most part the cast is made up of brilliant unknowns; the sole poor performance comes from Tania Rogers as Zilda (her death in mid-OTT-rant suggesting that Taren Capel is a bit of a theatre critic) who, significantly, is virtually the only cast member to sink without trace within the theatrical world following this story.

Another thing setting TRoD off from its closest cousins is the script writing. A story of this nature inherently requires periodic info-dumps; where these are deposited into "The Moonbase" by means of clumsy exposition, here they are incorporated into character development. The scene early on in which Dask delivers key plot information as to how robots are programmed does not stand out because at the same time it marks Dask as the sort of tedious pedant who would ruin a good joke by pointing out its flaws. Uvanov's hair-trigger paranoid rants are perfect vehicles to have him explain some key aspect of the Storm Mine or of the society from which it springs without it standing out as an info-dump. On the Storm Mine, we get the bickering and backbiting which is familiar to anyone who has worked in an isolated small group, and yet which is oddly lacking in "The Moonbase"; the slang, also, is close enough to our own not to be clunky, and yet different enough to be surreal. Similarly, and rather unusually for this sort of script, we get almost unnecessary but 'naturalistic' references to the planet's history and culture in the way that gave the original Star Wars series such a genuine sense of place. Characters refer to Kaldor City, robot masseurs and Founding Families without explaining these to death; they rattle off technical terms in familiar ways without boring the viewer with unnecessary technobabble.

The literary and filmic references in TRoD are also a familiar discussion point; as noted by many critics, Boucher explicitly references Asimov's The Caves of Steel and his Robot novel cycle. As mentioned before, the plot also bears strong resemblances to Metropolis, which revolves around a mad genius using a beautiful robot to foment rebellion against the aristocratic rulers of the eponymous city, and also to that of the original robot story, R.U.R, which has as its protagonist a woman who brings about a robot rebellion through a humanitarian effort to give robots souls. However, virtually any Doctor Who story can be said to reference earlier literary and cinematic works. The thing that makes TRoD stand out is the way in which these references are combined and explored to create a unique riff on the robot-rebellion story; TRoD is neither The Caves of Steel, nor Metropolis, nor R.U.R., but something which instead builds upon them all. Unlike all of these, furthermore, it has strong elements of the psychological novel in its characterisation and storytelling.

Russell Hunter as Uvanov, later to rise to great political power

This attention to psychological detail is probably the area in which TRoD stands out the most strongly. Stories like "The Moonbase" are less concerned with the crew's reactions under stress than they are with cool sci-fi concepts like weather regulating stations or scary monsters. TRoD, by contrast, draws its main strength from the portraits of a crew under fire, in particular the characters of Uvanov, Poul and Taren Capel. Uvanov, brilliantly portrayed by Russell Hunter, is the most engaging character; for all his irascibility, it is his bewilderment and paranoia which make him the character who interprets the ongoing events most clearly to the viewer. His class-based insecurity is apparent from his very first scene with Zilda; later on, this insecurity drives him to pin the murder on the most likely culprit rather than investigate further and risk losing his hold on the crew. However, at the same time the viewer finds him difficult to dislike; how many of us, after all, would react any better under the same circumstances. At the onset of the story, we see Uvanov (in a significant visual reference to The Seventh Seal as well as to the then-recent Deep Blue chess competition) losing a game of chess-- requiring logic and strategy-- to one of the very robots which is shortly to go on a murdering spree, and it is this flaw which nearly costs him and his crew their lives. Once pointed in the right direction, however, Uvanov is able to outwit and baffle the robots through his illogical approach to self-defence; while it is common in SF to employ the plot device of illogical human outwitting logical robot, here Uvanov comes across less as James T. Kirk than as a man discovering his inner anarchist. By being imbued with a key flaw, Uvanov becomes much more real for the audience.

Robots can be found in every aspect of life in Kaldor City

Poul, in many ways, reflects a social condition not unknown in real-life society. The true horror for the crew of Storm Mine Four is less the murders than the fact that the menace comes from within. Another reason why Agatha Christie is often evoked with reference to TRoD is because of the fact that many of her mysteries reflected a similar sort of tension: in the 1920s and 1930s, household servants formed a kind of symbolic fifth column for Christie's middle-class readers. Servants, to them, were people who are like "us," but whom "we" treat as subordinates; however, because of necessity they are close to "us," they have a knowledge of "our" vulnerabilities which can be exploited, and is exploited by the numerous domineering and murdering butlers and housemaids of Christie and her ilk. Robophobia, the viewer is informed, is a pathological fear of robots brought about by their lack of body language; as Poul's description of them as "the walking dead" and Leela's as "creepy mechanical men" make clear, the panic is caused by them looking human but not responding as human. The scene in which Poul and the Doctor reenact Chub's death is particularly significant; Poul takes the presence of robots for granted, when on another level the possibility of a robot running mad has quite clearly crossed him mind. A scene earlier, his quick denial of the Doctor's suggestion that a robot was the murderer, implies less a man dismissing an impossibility than a man denying a possibility which has occurred to him; Poul is not unintelligent, and he has seen the wounds upon the earlier victims. More than any other character in the story, then, Poul represents the social paralysis which would result from a robot rebellion.

Unwelcome visitors aboard the Storm Mine

Taren Capel (chillingly brought to life by David Bailie), is the most interesting and complex character in the story, and arguably in all of Doctor Who. By rights, the fact that sharp-eyed trouser-spotters can identify the murderer early on in the story should mean that all elements of mystery are ruined for the viewer; in fact, however, it doesn't actually matter if the viewer knows that Dask is responsible, for Dask's motives remain to be discovered, and it is the slow unfolding of the multiple facets of his character which drive the main thrust of the story. The Doctor's strong aside to the camera, describing Capel as a "very mad scientist," is the central kernel of the character, and yet Capel is much more than simply Doctor Frankenstein, or even than Fritz Lang's mad scientist Rotwang, who by his own admission is motivated by jealousy and unrequited love. Capel's own actions contradict his spoken ethos; although he idealises the calm and control of robots, Capel himself is quite visibly a sadist, taking pleasure in the psychological manipulation of his crewmates and physical torture of the Doctor. As sadism, as a mental condition, is linked to a fear of loss of control and a need to control people, Capel's fascination with robots would thus appear to stem from a desire to be in charge; robots, unlike people, will do his bidding. However, there are additional elements to Capel which bear exploration.

Capel also has a strong element of confusion of identity. The man who turns out to be the murderer has at least three separate personae (recall that the Latin word persona means "a mask"): the first, a consciously manufactured self, is Dask, a calm, controlled and rather pedantic man; the second, the person Capel thinks he is, is an idealised human "robot" who adopts robotlike speech cadences and costume; and, under both of these exteriors, is his true character, that of a raging madman. The Doctor, interestingly, refers to Capel as "Dask" during the final scenes; by calling him "Dask" and telling him "you're not half the robot your father was," the Doctor refers to the fact that Capel's personae are nothing more than masks, and that painting his face like a robot will not turn him into one. "Dask"'s reply to this is a fit of snarling rage. His death ultimately comes through a loss of identity-- by having his voice distorted, Capel loses the trait which enables the robots to recognise him.

Leela's sensitivity to body language gives her an insight into robophobia

The key to Capel's insanity, however, lies in the parallels drawn throughout the story between himself and Poul. Both Poul and Capel (who are interestingly both named after science-fiction writers) are outsiders in disguise; their true "identities" are also both tied up with a secret held by one or more of the robots on the Mine. Visually, Capel's death echoes Poul's descent into madness an episode earlier; like Poul, Capel falls to his knees before a robot, screaming senseless phrases in his terror. Poul's quick denial that a robot could be responsible for Chub's death also finds a parallel later in Capel's quick denial that robots are dependent on humans for their existence. The two characters thus have more in common than simple madness.

Taren Capel? Never heard of him.

Capel's madness, like Poul's, is therefore not innate, but imposed from the outside. In the scene in which Leela finds Poul hiding in the robot morgue, Poul in his terrified delirium attempts to betray her to the robots, believing that if he lets her help him the robots will view him as an enemy. Poul also implies that he believes himself to be immune from attack by the robots as long as he keeps still and hidden. Similarly, Capel's behaviour could almost be seen as an attempt to ingratiate himself with the robots; he dresses himself like them, repeatedly calls them "my brothers" and offers them a help they do not request. At the end of the story, as a robot's hands close on his throat, he cries out, not "I am your brother," but "I am the master," again implying a terrified attempt to assert control over an unstoppable force. His murder at the hands of a robot parroting the phrase "kill the humans" must be for Capel the most frightening and humiliating death imaginable. One of the few things we know about Capel is that he was raised by robots; for most people, our images of strength and control are drawn from our early experiences with the people who raised us (again, the Doctor's remark about Dask not being half the robot his father was recalls this). By drawing parallels between Poul and his quarry, Boucher has thus hidden the key to Capel's madness in plain sight: it is not Capel's megalomania, but his robophobia, which causes the unfolding of the events on Storm Mine Four.

In sum, then, TRoD stands far ahead of its closest relatives through a fortunate combination of circumstances. The design and direction combined with clever scripting and a sharp insight into character thus raise the story above the level of "The Moonbase", and place it on a parallel with the SF classic novels and films which it references. However, the most important theme in the story is that hidden within the character of Taren Capel; that it is not the robots themselves which bring death, but that which springs from the complexities of human nature.

Internal images copyright BBC
Effects and Voc Head photograph copyright Andy Hopkinson

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