The Robots of Death
The Robots of Death was the fifth story in season fourteen of Doctor Who. It saw the Super-Voc, Voc and Dum robots make their first, and only televised, appearance. The serial was based on the works of Agatha Christie, with a series of unexplained murders.
Chris Boucher was asked to write Robots after another serial fell through. He was chosen as his work on the preceding story The Face of Evil, had been widely appreciated. It was Philip Hinchcliffe who pushed the idea of a “robot story”, despite script editor Robert Holmes’ opinion that they were dull. Holmes was confident that he could produce a good script for an enclosed space, as the crew were aware the serial would be a studio bound one. Hinchcliffe suggested a setting akin to the machines featured in the1965 sci-fi novel Dune, and so the sandminers were created.
Tom Baker was reportedly highly critical of the script. He complained to Boucher during the initial read through and later voiced his derogatory opinions of the story to director Michael E. Briant. According to Briant, this was because Baker wanted the Doctor to display certain characteristics of his imagining.
On a distant planet, a huge sandminer vehicle, Storm Mine 4, is slowly scraping the surface of a vast, barren desert in search of precious minerals. The sandminer is manned by nine humans and numerous robots – black ‘Dums’ that cannot speak, pale green ‘Vocs’, and a silver ‘Super-Voc’ which controls all the ‘Dums’ and ‘Vocs’. The robots conduct a routine scan of the area and locate a large sandstorm, which the humans decide to pursue, as the storm will bring heavier and more valuable minerals such as lucanol to the surface. One of the humans, a meteorologist called Chub, goes to collect an instrument package to place into his weather balloon to study the storm. However, he is later found strangled.
At about this time, the TARDIS materializes in one of the scoops. After the Doctor and Leela emerge from the TARDIS, it is removed by a large mechanical arm as it is blocking the scoop. Later, the Doctor and Leela are brought out of the scoop by two robots and locked in a room. The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to unlock the door, and goes in search of the TARDIS, while Leela finds Chub’s body being taken away by some robots.
The human crew suspects the two time travelers of murdering Chub, and tensions increase when it is found that they have left the room in which they were locked. The Doctor and Leela are separated, with the Doctor finding a second dead man, Kerral, in a hopper which starts to fill with sand that buries them both…
The Doctor survives by using a blowpipe poking up through the sand which he breathes through. Both he and Leela, who has found a third dead man, Cass, and a ‘Dum’ robot which can secretly speak, are recaptured. Commander Uvanov orders them to be locked up in the robot storage bay, on suspicion of killing all three humans.
One of the humans, Chief Mover Poul, believes the Doctor and Leela to be innocent, so he frees them and shows them where Chub was murdered. There, the Doctor convinces Poul that a robot may have killed the meteorologist. While this is happening, a female crew member named Zildais murdered, who accuses Uvanov of murder over the tannoy system. Poul – sent to Uvanov’s quarters to investigate – finds the Commander bending over Zilda’s body. He has him confined to his quarters on suspicion of murdering Zilda.
Shortly afterwards, the engineer, Borg, who is responsible for controlling power to the motors is found dead, and the sand miner’s engines begin to run out of control, threatening the vehicle with destruction. A frantic Toos shrieks “She’s going!!”
The Doctor saves the miner by cutting off the power to the motors, while Dask repairs the damaged – and sabotaged – controls so that the miner can continue on its way.
The Doctor goes to see the ‘Dum’ robot that Leela claimed could speak, D84. The robot reveals that it and Poul are undercover agents for the mining company. They were placed on board the miner as a precaution to threats of a “robot revolution” by a scientist called Taren Capel, who was raised by robots and considers himself to be one. D84 itself is unique in the fact that it can function autonomously from Super Voc SV7’s commands, and appears to possess a high level of logical reasoning.
The Doctor and D84 search the miner for proof that Taren Capel is on board, and find a secret workshop where the robots’ programming has been changed to enable them to kill humans. The Doctor arranges for all the remaining humans to go to the command deck. Uvanov arrives after escaping confinement to confront the Doctor, but is surprised to see a robot enter the workshop. It proves to have orders to kill the Doctor, and grabs him by the throat…
The Doctor and Uvanov manage to escape and head for the control deck. Someone (presumably Dask, whose responsibilities include robots) shuts down all of the robots whose programming has not been changed, leaving just the killer robots and D84 operational. Looking around the miner, Leela stumbles on Poul hiding in the storage bay: he has gone mad and is suffering from robophobia. She then tracks down Toos in her quarters, who has just been attacked by another rogue robot, and takes her to the control deck to join the Doctor and Uvanov. The human crew are surprised by D84’s arrival carrying a near-catatonic Poul, but the Doctor explains the pair’s real functions as undercover agents. Looking at his Chief Mover, Uvanov sadly remembers another crew member losing his mind to robophobia years earlier who ran outside to escape them and died; it was Zilda’s brother, hence her accusation of murder. SV7 – whose programming has now been changed – tells them to come out and die, but Toos and Uvanov decide to defend themselves.
Dask is later revealed to be Taren Capel, intent on “releasing [his] ‘brothers’ (the robots) from bondage to human dross” and “programming them with an ambition to rule the world”.
Taren Capel orders his modified robots to destroy the remaining humans and the Doctor and Leela. Uvanov and Toos get to work on modifying some Z9 explosives to destroy the robots. In the storage bay Leela finds a damaged robot with its hand covered in blood – which the Doctor reasons is Borg’s. He had been the only one strong enough to even try to fight back, and may even have sabotaged the engine controls in a suicidal attempt to destroy the miner and all the killer robots on board. The Doctor dismantles the damaged robot and creates a final deactivator – a device that will destroy any still functioning robots at close range. In the process, he tries to explain to Leela how robophobia works. Robots do not display any body language, which the sensitive Leela had already picked up – calling them “creepy mechanical men” – and despite the fact most robots are built in humanoid form, some people are so unnerved that they become terrified of them. The pair head back to Taren Capel’s hidden workshop, where the Doctor hides Leela with a canister of helium gas, telling her to release it when Taren comes in. The Doctor hopes that this will change Taren’s voice, so his robots – unable to recognise him – will not obey his orders and turn on him.
Taren arrives and damages D84, but the robot is able to activate the Doctor’s device to destroy a killer robot, knowingly sacrificing itself in the process. Leela releases the helium gas, causing Taren’s voice to become high-pitched and squeaky, and Taren is killed by SV7 when it fails to identify his voice. The Doctor then destroys SV7 with a laser probe.
The robot threat over, and a rescue ship coming to collect the surviving humans, the Doctor and Leela return to the TARDIS and leave the sand miner.