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Doctor Who : The Robots of Death
The Story: The TARDIS materializes inside a massive sandminer which is harvesting precious minerals on a remote desert planet. The mining crew is made up of a few humans and a large compliment of robots. When a murder occurs, the crew first points the blame at each other until they discover the Doctor and his new savage companion Leela onboard. Being strangers, the two become the instant main suspects. However, the Doctor doesn't think the culprit is human at all, but is a robot. This leads to an odd mystery since robots primary programming is not to harm their creators. When the doctor and Leela find allies in two undercover agents, they soon find out that a mad genius named Teran Capel may be the cause. But, the quickly dwindling crew are vastly outnumbered by the deadly automatons, and they must figure out who Capel is and stop his rampage before he starts a full scale robot revolution.
I am a sucker for Doctor Who. I grew up on it at the tender age when my suspension of disbelief was so strong that I completely believed in its low budget fx and sat at the edge of my seat for every cliffhanger. And, now that I've gotten older and rediscovered it, I appreciate it on a completely different level. Nostalgia aside, it proves to me that my suspension of disbelief is still pretty strong, and there is nothing better than watching low budget shows with spotty pale British people to make you feel better about yourself. Besides, its really good, imaginative, quirky science fiction.
Doctor Who embraces not only old pulp science fiction ideals but a completely Chaotic universe (and notice thats 'chaos' with a capital 'C'). Add to that one of the greatest master strokes in casting its lead character, an eccentric time traveling, galaxy hopping immortal, who has a certain number of lives, regenerating into a new body when he dies and having a slightly different personality every time. Therefore, if an actor gets tired of the role, or fans get tired of the actor, you have an instant way to change up, possibly reinvigorate the show. It would be like Star Trek suddenly switching captains. It is another element that adds to the wonderful chaos.
And there were no better chaotic Doctor Who than the fourth incarnation played by Tom Baker. Robots of Death (1977) is the fourth Doctors 16th adventure made during its the series 14th season. This particular season marked the last of Doctor Who's more dark stories for quite a long time. Its 13th and 14th seasons had focused on more horror/older audience based elements which led to some complaints by media watchdogs that the shows stories were becoming too extreme for its younger viewers. Subsequent seasons would see the horror and violence downplayed, and even a kid-friendly robot companion added to the show, as opposed to this seasons companion, the sexy, dangerous primative Leela running around in a loincloth with dagger in hand. Robots of Death is a basic murder-suspense story, with the old sci fi trappings of a mad genius who believes that human beings should be replaced by automatons. The easiest and often used analogy is, Robots of Death is Issac Asimov meets Agatha Christie.
I don't recall seeing this episode before. Since I saw them as a kid, I've only come across a handful of Doctor Who on video, so this was my first exposure to Robots of Death. It is a very solid Who adventure, great moving plot, good tension, and most of all, some fantastic designs. Of course, Who was always mired by its budgetary restraints, but the design in costuming, models, and sets on Robots of Death some of Who's better work in the Baker era. The leisure coddled crew have neat colorful costumes, headresses, and Egyptianlike makeup giving them an air of royalty and wealth. The robots are especially great, with very placid, delicate faces, eyes going to black when they've been reprogrammed, and sparking red when they are in kill mode. They are pretty creepy, and the solarized funky robot-vision POV shots used when the robots come after a victim also adds to stuff that would have scared the wits out of me when I was six yrs old. The Doctor is in investigation mode most of the time, but we see Bakers usual charismatic, thoughtful, and characteristic mood swings he gave the Doc. Leela (for me the Docs best companion) is her scrappy self, a little puzzled by the goings on, but level headed, with her keen instincts even sharper than the Doctors. All in all, a well-rounded storyline, and I can see why many Who fans talk about it being one of the better ones and among their favorites.
The DVD: BBC Video
Picture- Standard 1.33:1. Well, there is only so good Doctor Who can look. Despite being put away in the BBC archive and then restored, there is little room for improvement on its original video. So, the graininess, softness, or washed out color, is because,... well, that's how it was filmed. Overall, its as good as its going to get.
Sound- English Dolby Digital 2.0. Stereo. Optional English subtitles. Close Captioned. Once again the sound elements are probably the best they can be, and any faults are due to the actual original recordings, so there is the occasional bit where an actors voice isn't miked well or is reverby in the soundstage. But, once again, this is the best it is going to get.
Extras- Chapter Selections--- Photo Gallery of production stills--- Model Tests. Basically ten minutes of B&W test footage of the miner model and planet. Pretty okay, but for serious geeks only. ---Studio Plans, basic eye straining blueprints of the set design. --- Who's Who. A series of introductions/bumpers, long thought to be lost but preserved by a Who fan. It is a basic voice over synopsis into for the start of the episodes and preview for the next episode. --- Commentary by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and writer Chris Boucher. Well, both men add some nice insight, but perhaps its age and time or a British manner but they are a little pensive. There a few gaps, and both try their best to add observations and anecdotes, but you can tell they are often forcing themselves to do so. Boucher is the most soft spoken but does well. Hinchcliffe observes with a producers eye, an equal mix of pride and disappointment, thankful for how it turned out but always conscious of the limitations the series faced.
Conclusion: A solid Who adventure from its greatest era. The DVD does fans justice offering a fine transfer with good extras. A definite must for Doctor Who fans, and a more than far introductory for the uninitiated, though I can think of better tales as a starting point for the potential Who fan.