Even with Isaac Asimov’s vaunted rules getting in the way, robots will always find ways to kill humans. Perhaps it’s not in their natures, but it’s in our own, and creators are known for molding their creations in their own image. Strip away the gleaming metal and sophisticated machinery and you’ll always find blood and bone.
In “The Robots of Death” the robots are like the famed Cybermen with facelifts and speak in mellifluous voices rather than grating monotone. The robots look like Greek statues, their proper and almost beautiful visages contradicting the menial functions they perform. Then again, the humans living aboard the giant mining ship Storm Mine 4 are accustomed to beauty and comfort.
As the story opens, we find the crew enjoying some R&R in the ship’s lounge. They play chess against robot opponents and receive massages from robot masseurs. Their idle chatter turns to the outside world, and rumors of a robot ripping a human’s arm off. Though the story’s title is a big clue as to what’s eventually going to happen, the rumor is met with derision, and Asimov’s laws are invoked but never enumerated.
The atmosphere on the ship is a strange one. “The Sandmine Murders” bonus feature focuses a good deal on director Michael E. Briant’s art deco vision of the ship’s interiors, and despite the miners’ rough neck dialogue they’re outfitted in flowing robes with super hero collars and insect-like helmets. Commander Uvanov’s (Russell Hunter) headdress and cape evokes Flash Gordon and the Saturday morning serial tradition of flair over function, all of which lends the story an alien and occasionally campy feel.
Beneath all the fabric and complex belts is a very traditional murder mystery, one intended to evoke the work of the great Agatha Christie. Chub (Rob Edwards), the ship’s meteorologist, is the first to die, his death captured in an extraordinary POV shot which shows us the scratchy VHS tape vision of the robot murderer. When his body is discovered, everyone is suspicious of everyone else, particularly the two new arrivals on the ship: the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson).
Even those unfamiliar with the work of Christie will feel at home in this story. The trope of a group of people all suspicious of one another while searching for a murderer works well in this setting, the isolation of a ship on a desolate planet amplifying the paranoia. It’s a fast paced story which rarely drags, even with the characters’ requisite capture and escape and Doctor Who’s patented sequences of characters running through hallways.
Leela, a native of a pre-technological society in her second adventure with the Doctor, calls the robots “creepy”, but she feels like a missed opportunity here. She’s a chance to see robots through another perspective, one that, despite her recent trip on a time machine, might see the robots as something mystical or magical. Humanity’s fear of robots, particularly as it relates to the Doctor Who universe, is explored in “Robophobia”, a humorous look at the history of robots on the series and in the culture at large.
Instead of exploring Leela’s character further, the Doctor’s perspective dominates. People fear robots, he says, not just because of their increased reliance on the things, but because the machines lack body language, the visual cues which clue people in on what others are thinking. Faced with that void, a person is liable to fill it with his or her worst fears about the machines’ ability to destroy.
This is an interesting perspective, and it’s the Doctor’s biggest contribution to the story, such as it is. He’s often hands-off in his adventures, coming in at the right moment to save the day, but here he seems even farther off stage, just another interesting piece of set dressing.
The murder mystery unravels with a hooded figure at its center. He’s the master controller of the robots pledging to “release our brothers from bondage.” This figure again evokes the Saturday morning serial, a mad scientist rejecting humanity for the order and logic of machines. Later, when his identity is revealed, we learn he’s a man raised entirely by robots, a plot point which could be explored in a story of its own.
“The Robots of Death” is entertaining and well-executed, but peeling back its layers offers little in the way of reward. Its strong core mystery is adorned with mind-boggling sets and costumes, but its villains are weak and ineffectual. It all ends abruptly once the robots are defeated and everyone falls back into their usual routines. Despite its success on a structural and design level, there’s a mischievousness lacking from this story, a sense of fun that should be had, but isn’t. Even Asimov knew rules were meant to be broken.