Directed by Michael E. Briant in 1977, the four part Doctor Who storyline Robots Of Death once again finds fan favorite actor Tom Baker as the scarf clad time traveler in a storyline that, while not necessarily the most original to come out of the show, delivers a lot of great Who-style entertainment. When the series begins, the TARDIS. takes the Doctor, with Leela (Louise Jameson) sneakily stowed away, to a distant planet where they arrive aboard a gigantic sand miner dubbed with the dramatic moniker of Storm Mine 4. Robots lock the new arrivals in a room but the Doctor gets the door open in time for Leela to spot some robots scurrying off with the body of the deceased. Wouldn't you know it, as luck would have it the pair arrives just as one of the crew is murdered and who could possibly be more suspicious than the two unexpected new arrivals? Commander Uvanov (Russell Hunter) has Who and Leela locked up in the storage bay for safe keeping until this can all be sorted out but a human named Poul (David Collings) believes them to be innocent and tries to help them out.
Soon enough, Who soon starts to deduce that the robots employed on the sand miner seem to have taken on some bizarre traits of their own. While it's common knowledge that robots 'can't harm humans' as it is strictly against their programming, it soon starts to appear that this is exactly what's happening and that the robots are setting things up for a revolution of their own - but before it's all over a few more human victims will fall prey to murder most foul.
A fairly standard murder mystery wrapped up in some quirky sci-fi trappings, The Robots Of Death may not be much more than an Agatha Christie mystery (by way of Asimov?) set inside a sand miner populated with robots but it is a good amount of fun, particularly for those Whophiles who consider Baker to be the best of the actors to have played the role so far in its long history. He is giving 110% percent here, as was the norm, and he really makes the role quite an enjoyable one to watch. The script is smart enough to make sure that he and Leela have plenty of good back and forth and there are a few subtle bits of good humor worked into the dialogue throughout the four episodes that make up the storyline. Baker's not the only stand out in the story, however, as Louise Jameson, new to the role, proves herself a great sparring partner for Baker's who and they have great chemistry together this time around.
As is typical of the Doctor Who stories of the era the effects budget for the production wasn't much so expect some painfully obvious miniature work anytime the action shifts to outside the sand miner. Some will rag on the series for this, others will just chalk it up to part of its charm - let's go with the latter option. The robots themselves may not be the most convincing but they show some interesting design work and the mechanical voice work that brings their speech to life has an eerie quality to it. The interior set design is interesting, as is the costume work prepared for the various people that inhabit the world that all of this plays out in. the makeup effects don't amount to much more than some odd eyeliner work but the costumes themselves are fancy enough that you can call them flamboyant.
All in all, if this isn't the greatest of the storylines that Baker was involved in it's still a rock solid mix of sci-fi and mystery. The performances and the performers commitments to those performances are what really make this on work but the tight and fairly witty script also helps. There's no shortage of entertainment value to be gleaned from this one and fans of the series should not hesitate to pick it up.The DVD:
Doctor Who: The Robots Of Death arrives on DVD in its original fullframe aspect ratio. There are moments where the picture is muddy looking and fairly murky and detail is generally below average throughout playback as the transfer is sourced from the master tape - but this is probably as good as it's ever going to get and those accustomed to other releases of Who material from the same era will more or less know what to expect. It's all watchable enough and scenes shot inside tend to look cleaner and clearer than those shot outdoors (probably due to better lighting and the fact that in this particular series a lot of the outdoor shots use miniatures and effects work), but this isn't really a great transfer even if it's obvious that the powers that be have done their best with the material that they had available. The disc is well authored in that there are no problems with compression artifacts and as soft as it all is, at least it's clean in that there aren't any nasty issues with print damage. Again, for what it is, this looks fine and those accustomed to earlier DVD releases from this era of the show will know what to expect and have no problems - but those expecting pristine quality will be disappointed.Sound:
The sole audio option on this release is an English language Dolby Digital Mono track that comes with optional subtitles available in English only. The quality of the track is fine in that it's always easy to understand and there are no problems to report in terms of hiss or distortion. There isn't a whole lot of range - this is an older mono mix after all - but the levels are well balanced and the feature sounds just fine.Extras:
Extras kick off with the first of two audio commentaries. Up first are producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and writer Chris Boucher who speak at length in a track carried over from the original DVD release about putting this series together, inspiration for different aspects of the storyline and working with Baker on the show. They spend a fair bit of time talking about the importance of the Leela character, why she was worked into the storyline, how the politics of the day affected her as a strong female character and more. There are a few spots where it's a little dry but overall, there's a lot of good information here. The second commentary is a livelier affair and it's also brand new, having been recorded for this special edition re-release. In front of the mic this time around are actors Tom Baker, Louise Jameson and Pamela Salem and director Michael E. Briant. Baker dominates the track, as he tends to do, periodically discussing his current age in relation to the character he played in the 70s and which he's now of course infamous for. Briant makes some interesting points about the episodes, noting what works and what doesn't and both Salem and Jameson get in their two cents worth as well, noting what it was like being on set and discussing their characters and some of the cast and crew that they worked with on the show. Both tracks are worth listening to and quite informative, though the second one gets the edge just because Baker is such a character.
The Sandmine Murders is a half hour long making of featurette that makes some interesting mentions of Frank Herbert's Dune as an influence and which allows Hinchcliffe to discuss how he managed to get Holmes to buy off on a robot story despite the fact that he had a strong personal dislike for them. There's a good sense of humor to all of this but the cast and crew interviewed take the material seriously enough to keep it quite interesting. Baker's well known eccentricities on set are discussed with some amusing anecdotes provided to back them up, and the featurette also spends a good bit of time exploring the costume and set design seen in the finished version of the storyline as it stands.
From there, a few shorter featurettes fill in some of the blanks, starting with Robophobia, which spends eleven minutes giving us a tongue in cheek history of robots and explaining why they almost always equal trouble for Who. Studio Sound is a quick one minute segment that fills us in on how the robot voice effects were done in the studio before the episodes were broadcast, while Model Shots is a seven minute collecting some black and white footage of the original model insert film. It's presented with time code over top and isn't in the best of shape but it's interesting to see and a nice inclusion on the DVD. Rounding out the extras on the disc is an interactive map of the floor plan of the studio layout recreated from original floor plan drawings, a quick segment on Continuity, a still gallery, and PDF materials including radio times listings, production notes and other tid bits. Animated menus and episode and chapter selection are included. There's also a play all option if you want to watch all four episodes back to back.
Doctor Who: Robots Of Death holds up well decades after it was made. Baker is at the top of his game here and Who and Leela make for a great team, pairing up against some truly memorable villains to solve a fun mystery. The BBC have seemingly done the best job they could with the elements that were available and have once again ported over all the extras from the past DVD and loaded the disc up with equally interesting and impressive new supplements. Highly recommended for fans of the good Doctor and his many storied adventures.