BBC recently released a Special Edition of the Doctor Who serial “The Robots of Death.” The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his new companion, Leela (Louise Jameson), appear on a mining planet. They are quickly captured and blamed for the recent murder of one of the crew. As more and more people wind up dead, the mystery of who the killer is deepens. Can the Doctor and Leela figure out who is responsible and stop them before the pair is found guilty, or worse, wind up dead?
“The Robots of Death” plays on a fear of mechanical beings, which is a prevalent theme in science fiction. The four-part story features three different kinds of robots, including one that is mute, and one that is in charge of the others. The Doctor soon suspects that a robot is the one doing the murdering, and he is right, though the sandminers are not eager to accept this theory. But “The Robots of Death” also features a heroic robot that sacrifices itself to save the others.
This duality is not the only thing that sets “The Robots of Death” apart from other anti-robot fiction and makes the story more complex. The man programming the robot to kill is Dr. Taren Capel (David Bailie, Pirates of the Caribbean), a guy raised by robots. Capel has sympathy because he sees the robots being treated like slaves, and because of his deep affection for them, wants justice. However, he takes it a little too far when his robot starts killing the people around him.
The moral issues of whether robots should have rights is one much debated, and often depends upon sentience, or lack thereof. The robots within this Doctor Who story complicate the issue because they are programmed, not self-thinking. Even the robot that helps the good Doctor is assummedly programmed by someone to do so. His sacrifice seems noble, but on closer examination, may just be what he is told to do.
Where does programming end and choice begin? What if a robot is programmed to make its own decisions? This is more of a spectrum question than a black and white one, and kudos to Doctor Who for not making the answer so simple.
One must wonder what is going through Leela’s mind as she battles the robots. After all, she lives in a low-tech society until the previous serial, when she chooses to join the Doctor as his latest companion. While all the companions have quite an adjustment to make, hers seems even more extreme than most. She handles it well, of course, as she is a worthy assistant to the Doctor. But still, a transcript of the words going through her head in this story would be invaluable.
Like other Doctor Who Special Editions, “The Robots of Death” is loaded with extras, this time crammed remarkably onto a single disc. The usual photo galleries and PDF materials are included, as well as two audio commentaries. The first is the one that was packaged with the original release of “The Robots of Death” twelve years ago, featuring producer Philip Hinchcliffe and the writer of the story, Chris Boucher. The second brings in actors Baker, Jameson, guest star Pamela Salem (Never Say Never, French Fields), and director Michael E. Briant.
Picture and sound are remastered, of course, making for a better viewing experience than was previously available. A thirty-two minute feature entitled “The Sandmine Murders” is the expected Making Of short documentary for this serial. A studio sound feature lets viewers hear the robot voices without special effects for comparison, and to better appreciate the post-production work that goes into such a show. There is a neat, interactive layout of the studio. Seven minutes of the original model insert film, in black and white, are also present.
The most enjoyable feature may be “Robophobia.” Toby Hadoke, an actor, writer, comedian, and Doctor Who fan, goes over the history of robots. Hadoke uses his comedy chops to keep “Robophobia” as entertaining as it is informational, making for a delightful surprise.
Doctor Who – “The Robots of Death” Special Edition is on sale now.