The Robots of Death

Special Edition:
Region 1
Special Edition

Region 2
"Revisitations 3"
Box Set
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 90, starring Tom Baker)
  • written by Chris Boucher
  • directed by Michael E. Briant
  • produced by Philip Hinchcliffe
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: Even on a sandminer working the dunes of an alien desert, the humanoid crew live in relative luxury while robots do most of the work. But someone or something is perverting the robots' complex control systems, turning them into killers. Can the Doctor find the real culprit before this blueprint for dictatorship is unleashed on the population at large?

Special Edition DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Tom Baker (The Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), Pamela Salem (Toos), and director Michael E. Briant.
  • Audio commentary by writer Chris Boucher and producer Philip Hinchcliffe.
  • "Sandmine Murders" making-of documentary (32 min.), with Baker, Jameson, Salem, Briant, Hinchcliffe,
    David Collings (Poul), Brian Croucher (Borg), and costume designer Elizabeth Waller.
  • "Robophobia" featurette (12 min.) on the history of robots.
  • Scene of Studio Footage before special voices were added. (2 min.)
  • Model tests (8 min., BW)
  • Interactive Studio Floor Plans
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers Guide version instead.

Unlike the previous story, "The Robots of Death" had a much quicker, last minute inception. Chris Boucher's writing plays it safe this time, using formulae for a whodunit bottle story that is practically guaranteed to work. The sandminer on alien planet setting is the best point of creativity from the script's point of view, even if it was lifted from "Dune". In that respect, this modest little Doctor Who story can be said to be the first attempt to bring some of Frank Herbert's effects-demanding novel to a cinematic format.

The dissolve from the title sequence into the opening shot is something we should be getting much more of; hopefully other stories will pick up on this soon. The model work for the sandminer is particularly well done, as future writer/director Peter Grimwade begins to leave a noticeable mark on the program as Production Assistant / Model Unit Director. Tom Baker even renames a medical syndrome after him in this story.

After an exceptional introduction to the sandminer and its diverse crew, the Doctor, Leela, and the TARDIS get a near perfect introduction as well. Establishing shot, TARDIS interior nicely explained, new Doctor/companion relationship showcased, full materialization for the police box, interior and exterior juxtaposed..... everything you'd want when introducing the series to completely new viewers, except for one niggling element. We still suffer the silly old primitive dark secondary control room. Arrghh! The view on the scanner screen is not particularly interesting or easily understandable at first either, so this control room's one usual strength is not particularly well boasted either.

Dudley Simpson turns in one of his better scores with this story, reusing a simple but effective motif for the creepy advance of the robots on their possible victims, and accompanying many of the wide scene-setting shots with beautiful light and airy synthesizer sounds, adding to the majesty and uniqueness of the story's setting. Plus there are his renditions of classical music in the lounge. All excellent stuff.

"The Robots of Death" works in large part thanks to the eye-candy design of the production, and some expert direction from Michael E. Briant. The cast does a marvellous job, and the robots themselves are unforgettable. Unlike many other monsters, these ones need not hide their physical features in the shadows to remain frightening - their features have been deliberately designed aesthetically. It's what's going on behind their face-plates that is truly frightening and left to our imagination, and Poul's dilemma at the end helps to emphasize this for those with any doubt.

The fixation on strangulation is an unattractive element of the story, and there is some curious non-interaction going on in the plot as well. Leela and even more so the Doctor are kept from meeting the human guest characters until quite a ways into part two, which is too long in my view, and not aided by their voluntary wanderings back towards the machinery near the end of episode one. And after one flippant prisoner dynamic scene with them in the lounge, half the crew is dead, eliminating the Doctor's chances to interact with them further. Then in part three, Uvanov gets no screen time until the cliffhanger, despite the fact that his character is under more suspicion than anyone else, and the fact that he still does a lot of suspicious things. His escape from custody should have been on screen, it would have worked perfectly to keep suspicion where we want it for the time being. A little too much character interaction happens off screen in this story, with someone else coming in and reporting it to the others.

In the end, though, these are all minor points. The story remains gripping, thanks to the solid formula at work in the writing. The characters and the setting are interesting, and one wants to be there to find out how it will all work out. Uvanov gets a lot to do in part four to make up for what he didn't get in part three, and the story builds to a satisfying conclusion that makes up in dramatic quality for what it lacks in non-violent elegance and imagination.

The lead villain revealed near the end of the piece doesn't quite have a motivation as believable as I would have liked, but single story villains don't need to make too much sense in my view - they haven't got their act together, and they're going to go to pieces in the end anyway.

Unfortunately, the heroes' exit is a little too abrupt at the end, not really tying up the loose ends of what will happen next to what's left of the sandminer crew, but generally season fourteen has produced another solid story. Although it definitely leans towards horror, it is much more in my tastes than most of what season thirteen had to offer.

International Titles:

Magyar: "A halál robotjai"

Français: (Les robots de la mort)

Русский: "Роботы смерти"

Español: "El Robot de la Muerte"

Spanish is unique amongst these translations for implying that there is only one robot of death in this tale.

This story has become available on DVD and VHS video:
Special Edition:
DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
NEW for March 13, 2012
DVD PAL Region 2
"Revisitations 3" Box Set
for the U.K.
NEW for Feb. 13, 2012
VHS Video
NTSC A for North America
NTSC B for North America
PAL for the U.K.

Original release:
DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.

Original DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by writer Chris Boucher and producer Philip Hinchcliffe.
  • Model tests
  • Studio plans
  • Photo Gallery
  • "Who's Who" text biographies (may feature on Region 1 discs only)

Comments on this article are welcome. You may contact the author from this page:

Contact page


Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Talons of Weng-Chiang"

Home Page Site Map Star Trek Sliders Doctor Who Tom Baker Era Episode Guide Catalogue