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Recap / Doctor Who S14 E5 "The Robots of Death"

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Huh... where's Ben Stein when you need him?note 

Leela: Doctor, what is "robophobia"?
Doctor: It's an unreasoning dread of robots. You see, most living creatures use non-verbal signals. Body movement, eye contact, facial expressions, that sort of thing.
Leela: Body language!
Doctor: Exactly. But while these robots are humanoid, presumably for aesthetic reasons, they give no signals. It's rather like being surrounded by walking, talking dead men.

Production code: 4R

The one where a man slaps some Jelly Babies.

Written by Chris Boucher. This four-episode serial first aired from January 29 to February 19, 1977.

This serial begins in the recreation room of a giant sandminer ship belonging to a civilization utterly dependent on robots. The workers discuss the urban legend of a guy whose arm was ripped off by a robot massaging him. But of course, they all know the robots have tons of safety systems in place and that they could never kill a human, right? Just then, the robots announce that they've detected a sandstorm, which stirs up ores in the sand that are worth a fortune. One poor Red Shirt, Chub, goes into the storage room to collect instruments for a weather balloon when he's strangled by... go ahead, guess. Thus begins a round of Agatha Christie-style paranoid accusations.

Enter the Fourth Doctor and Leela, who materialize in one of the sandminer's scoops. They're brought out by two robots and locked in a room, as the workers of course suspect that the two killed Chub. It doesn't help that after they escape, the two are separately caught in the same rooms as dead bodies #2 and #3. So, the blame game enters Round Two; the crew cannot decide whether the Doctor and Leela did it or one of their own. At any rate, they're locked up in iron shackles in the robot storage room. When a rather nervous man named Poul frees the two out of belief in their innocence, the Doctor points out that they all completely overlooked a possible suspect: the robots. Poul laughs; the robots couldn't possibly kill a human!

While the Doctor tries to convince Poul otherwise, a woman named Zilda goes into Commander (and Large Ham) Uvanov's room and announces over a loudspeaker that she knows he's the murderer, but before she can explain how or why she gets strangled. For those watching at home, the body count is now up to 4. Suddenly, the ship shakes! Turns out, the ship has been sabotaged, and Red Shirt repairman Borg (no, not that Borg) has become dead body #5. The ship can't handle the stress and is about to blow up, but the Doctor cuts out the power and gets a man named Dask to repair the motors so the ship won't sink into the sand. Leela bandages up the hand of acting commander Toos, who heads to her quarters.

Suddenly, a robot named D84 reveals that it and Poul are undercover agents for the mining company. They were placed on board the miner due to threats of a robot revolution by Mad Scientist Taren Capel, who was Raised by Robots and therefore a bit funny in the head. The Doctor and detective 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. He tells Toos over the communications system to get the others and head for the command deck, but as soon as she can get to the door, she's blocked by a strangle-happy robot and just barely gets away by making the door slam onto its hand. Leela manages to find Poul, but he's too busy lying on the ground in the fetal position while he screams about how the robots have always controlled him. Meanwhile, it dawns on the Doctor and D84 that "Dask" is really Taren Capel, and he wants to liberate robots by giving them the ambition to take over civilization. (Meanwhile, Leela makes her way to Toos's bedchambers and the two engage in some rather sweet Les Yay for a bit.) Taren Capel — now wearing the robots' clothes and metallic face paint to mimic them — gives his order to the robots: destroy all remaining humans on board. The Doctor realizes that this is the end of this civilization, as the robots they so depend on will become a source of overwhelming fear.

The Doctor comes up with a plan to destroy the robots. They're all being controlled by one particular robot: SV7. If it dies, the others will stop killing. He uses parts from a broken robot to create a final deactivator — a device that will destroy any still-functioning robots at close range. At the same time, Uvanov and Toos have arrived at the command deck and built makeshift anti-robot bombs, which they proceed to kick robo-ass with.

The Doctor hides Leela in Taren's workshop with a canister of helium gas, telling her to release it slowly when Taren comes in. The Doctor hopes that this will change Taren's voice, so his robots — unable to recognize him — won't obey his orders.

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 (Dead Body #6...ish?). 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 Doctor explains that he used his own respiratory bypass system to keep his Compelling Voice intact and ponders a bit about how this society might now crash in on itself. He and Leela vworp off.

Chris Boucher wrote a sequel novel, Corpse Marker, and an audio spinoff series based on this story, Kaldor City. It was produced by Magic Bullet Productions and stars many of the original actors. Another direct sequel, "Robophobia", was written by Nicholas Briggs, and another Kaldor audio spinoff series, The Robots, produced as Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays. Boucher's novel and audio works feature some characters from Blake's 7, and he has said he considers the two series to take place roughly contemporaneously.

David Collings, who appeared here as Poul, went on to play an alternate version of the Doctor in the Big Finish Doctor Who episode Full Fathom Five.


  • Alternate Character Interpretation (In-Universe): It's stated by Poul that Uvanov left Zilda's brother out to die ten years before because he didn't want to waste time and money. Later, Uvanov reveals that he in fact tried to save him when he came down with robophobia and panicked. The boy's father didn't want the boy thought of as a coward and had the records altered.
  • Androids and Detectives: D84 and Poul turn out to be a buddy cop team sent to the sand miner to identify which member of the crew is secretly a terrorist. Unfortunately, Poul's Uncanny Valley phobia causes him to have a meltdown and D84 dies in a Heroic Sacrifice to protect the Doctor. In fact, until the second half of Episode 4 (in which D84 carries an unconscious Poul), the two of them never actually interact with each other throughout the serial.
  • Art Deco: The design team admitted to basing the sandminer sets on Art Deco.
  • Base on Wheels: The Sand Miner functions as this.
  • Big Bad: Taren Capel is the one reprogramming the robots to kill the humans.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": Caught in the middle of a murder plot that he (incorrectly) suspects the Doctor of being responsible for, Borg turns down the Doctor's offer of a jelly baby with all the politeness and tranquility of a bulldozer smashing through an occupied home (and slaps the jelly babies out of the Doctor's hand, to boot).
    "Well, a simple 'No, thank you' would've been sufficient."
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The reason the Doctor's voice didn't go all squeaky, building on the reveal of Time Lords' respiratory bypass systems in "Pyramids of Mars".
  • Break the Badass: While the Doctor comfortably confronts the robots and murderers, the thought of what may result from robot terrorism seems to genuinely scare him.
  • Casting Gag: David Collings had previously played R. Daneel Olivaw in an adaptation of The Naked Sun.
  • Categorism as a Phobia: Robophobia is a clinical condition caused by the Uncanny Valley of androids. A character suffers such a breakdown when he realises the robots have been programmed to Kill All Humans.
  • Continuity Nod: The Doctor again (incorrectly) cites that it's technically impossible for a bumblebee to fly.
  • Cranial Processing Unit: The robots have their 'brains' in their heads, as more than one is 'killed' by having a laser probe plunged into its brain through its head. This makes sense given what we know of the society that created them, with the robots having been made in human form for aesthetic reasons.
  • Deadpan Snarker: SV7 gets in a surprising (for a robot) amount of snark, notably when the Doctor escapes by throwing his hat and scarf onto V5, and V4 promptly starts strangling his fellow robot.
    V4: Kill. Kill. Kill.
    V5: Do not kill me.
    SV7: V4, that is not the Doctor.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: The story explores the real effects of living in a society with robots as a work force. Wouldn't, for example, Uncanny Valley rear its head?
  • Depth Deception: The Doctor's explanation for the whole "bigger on the inside" thing. One box is actually larger than another but appears smaller because it's far away. The TARDIS uses transdimensional engineering to put two similar spaces in the same place, while keeping those relative sizes.
  • Doesn't Like Guns: The Doctor tells Leela that he never carries weapons because "If people see you mean them no harm, they never hurt you... nine times out of ten."
  • Easily Detachable Robot Parts: When Soos prevents a robot from strangling her by slamming her door on its hand, the robot merely detaches the pinned hand from its arm.
  • Elite Mooks: SV7 is designated a Super Voc.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: In a twist, the viewers already know that the killers are robots, but the crewmembers initially dismiss this as impossible and focus on the Doctor and Leela as the likeliest suspects. However, after it becomes clear that the robots have become homicidal, the question remains of who among the crew has been reprogramming them.
  • Evil Gloating: Dask declines to do this, instead deciding to burn out the Doctor’s brain.
  • Freak Out: Poul suffers a really horrible one when he finds a deactivated robot with fresh human blood on its fingers.
  • Friendlessness Insult: When Borg — who is pointlessly nasty and spiteful to the point no one likes him — takes offense at being accused of murdering his "friends", Zilda retorts, "you don't have any friends!".
  • Funny Background Event: When Uvanov invokes Poul's "double bluff" idea in some Hypocritical Humour, Poul can be seen having a good chuckle to himself in the background.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: We are kept from seeing any gore thanks to Shaky P.O.V. Cam and cutting away... until Poul comes across a robot hand covered in bits of his friend's brain. This does not have very good consequences for his mental health.
  • Helium Speech: After Taren Capel orders the robots to kill the humans (except himself), the Doctor gets Leela to open a cylinder of helium so that robots won't recognize the villain's voice and kill him. The Doctor is unaffected by the helium though, due to his Bizarre Alien Biology.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: D84 destroys a killer robot via the Doctor's "final deactivator", a device that will destroy any still-functioning robots at close range — including D84.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Taren Capel is killed by his own robot revolutionaries when Leela uses helium to change his voice.
  • Hollywood Science: The Doctor's explanation to Poul that bumblebees fly even though that's "impossible" is an urban legend which has been traced back to at least 1934 if not earlier and is based on applying equations to bumblebee flight that were known to be the wrong ones even back then.
  • Jerkass:
    • Every crew member is a jerk, but Borg appears to be a rather abrasive person, thriving on arguments and being the only crew member who gets in this setting's swear word "give it to a robot". (He may mean it literally, since he's responding to Uvanov saying he's given an order.) He slaps Jelly Babies out of the Doctor's hand and starts choking him in response to a sarcastic joke the Doctor makes at his expense. At one point, he becomes affronted that people are accusing him of murdering his friends, causing Zilda to retort, "you don't have any friends!"
    • At first, Uvanov seems to care about little more than getting as much sand (read: money) as possible. Of course, this is before he realizes how truly screwed he is.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Despite Uvanov's apparent greediness and acerbicity, when he tells the story of what happened to Zilda's brother, it's clear that he's haunted by the memory. He also tries to keep Poul calm when the latter suffers a Freak Out.
  • Just Between You and Me: Subverted. When the Doctor pegs Capel as "one of those boring maniacs who's going to gloat" and asks him if he's going to describe his "plan for running the universe", Capel replies that he'd rather burn out the Doctor's brain, "very, very slowly".
  • Kick the Dog: The Doctor offers Borg a jelly baby and Borg smacks the bag out of his hand. The Doctor is quite perturbed.
  • Killed Offscreen: Borg. We don't even see his body.
  • Killer Robot: The clue's in the title.
  • Machine Monotone: Much less severe than usual for the show. The result is somewhat sing-song-y, which just makes it that much creepier.
  • Mad Scientist: Due to being Raised by Robots, Taren Capel suffers from the delusion that he is himself a robot and wants to start a robot revolution. He's also a genius roboticist able to completely overhaul the systemic programming which prevents the robots from harming people.
  • Mobile Factory: The Sand Miner moves across the planet for its job.
  • Mooks: The Voc and Dum robots are reprogrammed to do this.
  • My Greatest Failure: Uvanov sees his failure to save Zilda's brother, who fled into a storm after being afflicted with robophobia, as this
  • My Species Doth Protest Too Much: D84 is the only good robot in this serial — though to be fair, the others didn't start out evil, and the one having its "good" programming rewritten on the operating table is very distressed throughout the process.
  • Nightmare Face: The robots are an in-universe example. Some people in the story are fine with them or even relate to them, but others subconsciously equate their weird, distorted faces with disfigured people or animated corpses, a recognized psychological disorder in the setting.
  • Off-the-Shelf FX: The robot deactivation discs look to be out-of-the-box bicycle reflectors.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: For one line in Episode Four, Uvanov suddenly becomes Irish. His actor was actually Glaswegian.
  • Perspective Magic: The Doctor tells Leela that that this is the principle that enables the TARDIS to be much bigger on the inside than on the outside. She's understandably sceptical.
  • Phlebotinum Analogy: The Doctor attempts to explain the transdimensional TARDIS to Leela by showing her two boxes and explaining that if the bigger box (which has been placed farther away and looks smaller than the actual smaller box) could be kept where it was and yet located where the small box is, it would fit inside the small box.
  • The Plot Reaper: The Doctor had become quite fond of D84 and D84 had no reason to want to stay in its world (it was disguised as an undesirable social class even by robot standards, its only friend hated it, and it was at risk of getting implicated for murder). Chances are the Doctor would have wanted to give D84 a trip in the TARDIS, but a creepy robot companion probably wouldn't work and so D84 sacrifices itself to save the Doctor from V5.
  • Raised by Robots: Taren Capel was raised by robots. Having more empathy for them than his fellow humans, he decides to start a robot uprising.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: An effect of the manner in which the robots are reprogrammed.
  • Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain: An absurdly high number of robots take laser probes to the head.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: Subverted. Taren Capal, who thinks that robots should be free of human rule, is a maniac and the villain of the story, and is pursued by a secret agent robot. It's a dangerous step to go from "Robots should be free" to "I must kill all my fellow humans to free the robots", but Capal takes it. The robot society is also portrayed as having three classes of robot — Dums, which are basic machines with human form but no intelligence, Vocs, which can speak, and Supervocs (like the previously mentioned secret agent detective robot), which are intelligent and can make reasoned decisions, possessing something close to free will other than being programmed Three Laws-Compliant and still being much less perceptive than even a below average human. The Supervocs struggle with certain modes of perception (as they can't recognize humans, they have a kludge based on voice patterns, which the villain was able to exploit) and D84, the most intelligent robot in the story and possibly in the whole setting, still makes blatantly obvious logic mistakes in its reasoning that the Doctor points out as being typical robot psychology mistakes.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The plot involves robots that instinctively creep people out — basically, the Uncanny Valley effect, which had been newly described at the time.
  • Robot Buddy: D84, the one robot who never gets reprogrammed.
  • Robotic Psychopath: The eponymous automatons, because they were reprogrammed by a psychopath.
  • Sanity Slippage: A visible sign of Grimwade’s Syndrome. See Freak Out.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Poul's name is a homage to SF writer Poul Anderson. Likewise, Taren Capel recalls Karel Capek, inventor of the word "robot", and Uvanov is reminiscent of Asimov.
    • The Sandminer was inspired by Dune.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: The Doctor quotes Macbeth:
    "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes."
  • The Speechless: The robots are divided between "Dums" that cannot speak and "Vocs" that can, a trope originated by Isaac Asimov. In addition, "Super Vocs" like SV7 have advanced intelligence and command the lesser 'bots. D84 is a Super Voc disguised as a Dum, allowing him to operate Beneath Notice.
    D84: This is a communicator. It can function on either human or robot command circuits. Would you like to use it? I cannot speak...
  • Shown Their Work: The buoyancy physics of the Storm Mine and the Doctor explains to Leela how Helium Speech works.
  • Space Clothes: The robot-chic fashions are inspired by the Art Deco movement.
  • Spin-Off: Magic Bullet Productions have produced plays centered around this civilization and their robots. Russell Hunter reprised his role of Uvanov for them, with David Collings and David Bailie making guest appearances as Poul and Capel.
  • Spoiler Title: The robots did it. (Although the actual mystery of the story quickly turns into which of the human characters is reprogramming the robots to kill).
  • Standard Female Grab Area: Used on Leela and immediately subverted when she kicks Uvanov in the goolies and threatens to cripple him.
  • Starship Luxurious: The mining ship is quite luxurious, despite being crewed by people desperately hoping for a good strike.
  • Strapped to an Operating Table: One robot is seen immobilized on a table in Taren Capel's workshop with its face removed while Capel sticks a laser probe into its CPU. The robot is clearly aware of the whole process, and being Three Laws-Compliant, it loudly protests against being reprogrammed into a killer.
  • Ten Little Murder Victims: The twist being that the killer is obvious, hence the titles; likewise, the mastermind behind reprograming them is revealed early on. The mystery is trying to figure out which of the crew is Capel in disguise.
  • Three Laws-Compliant: The robots are more or less presumed to be, before Taren Capel starts messing with them.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Once Uvanov and Toos get the supply of blasting packs out, much shiny metal ass is kicked.
  • Tuckerization: Robophobia is officially known as "Grimwade's Syndrome", an in-joke regarding production assistant (later to be a director and writer) Peter Grimwade, who had complained that all the stories he worked on seemed to involve evil robots.
  • Uncanny Valley: The Doctor describes how, in a society rife with humanlike servant robots, the total lack of body language from them results in some people developing a chronic form of this trope called "robophobia" or "Grimwade's Syndrome", where the robots come off as "walking, talking dead men". Poul suffers from robophobia and slowly grows increasingly unstable as a result of the murders of his crewmen by modified robots. Taren Capel, meanwhile, was Raised by Robots and accordingly finds humans to be the uncanny ones.
  • Undercover Cop Reveal: Poul is revealed to be an undercover agent — and so is one of the robot drones, which is actually a highly advanced robot disguised as the most primitive and stupid model in use on the Sandminer.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The story is a mashup of Isaac Asimov's work, particularly his Baley/Olivaw books (especially in the subplot concerning the human and robot detective team). Only the plot structure itself is Ten Little Murder Victims. And certain aesthetic elements are taken from Metropolis.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Dask/Taren Capel tries this in order to trick the remaining human survivors into letting him in their control room. Fortunately for them, they listen to the Doctor and refuse to let anyone in — sure enough, the camera cuts to 'Dask' wearing the robots' silvery clothing and metallic face paint, surrounded by a band of robots waiting to storm the control room.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: "Robophobia" or "Grimwade's Syndrome" is a reasonably common psychological condition in the setting, apparently caused by people with particularly keen body language skills subconsciously associating the stiff, humanoid robots with walking corpses. Poul suffers from this condition, and in the sequel Expanded Universe material it is revealed that both Toos and Uvanov have developed cases of it as a result of the trauma they suffered at the hands of the robots, while Poul's has worsened to the point of being barely functional.
  • The X of Y
  • Your Head A-Splode: The "final deactivator" causes nearby robots' heads to explode.


Video Example(s):


Not big on jelly babies?

Caught in the middle of a murder plot that he (incorrectly) suspects the Doctor of being responsible for, Borg turns down the Doctor's offer of a jelly baby with all the politeness and tranquility of a bulldozer smashing through an occupied home.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / BigShutUp

Media sources: