5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE ROBOTS OF DEATH
"Please do not throw hands at me."
It's robot fightin' time!
Really crap stories are a gift. You can pick 'em to shreds for hours. But when something comes along that's beautifully crafted, tightly written, well characterised and gorgeous to look at, well, there's not much more to say, really. And Robots of Death falls squarely into this camp.
As in the previous Face of Evil, Chris Boucher as writer and Philip Hinchcliffe as producer avoid the oh-so-tedious monsters in favour of a strongly character-driven story, resulting in something a lot more layered and interesting than a green blob bent on evil can ever provide. We're not worthy.
Come on, now. There must be something we can add. Um. After the impressive and Dunely initial shot of the sandminer, then the robots' breathtaking costume design, what hits us smack in the face is the adult tone of the story. It could fit just as easily within the Blake's 7 universe, and in fact it has quite a Blakey nihilistic feel.
The relationships between the crew members are particularly complex and adult in tone (we wish we could say that without evoking a porn movie). That have-we-slipped-into-a-parallel-universe feeling is reinforced by the presence of Brian Croucher, low-rent replacement for lovely Stephen Greif as Travis on Blake's 7, although fortunately he gets killed off PDQ. This all works brilliantly, and the only tiny niggle we can find is that we'd like to have seen all that class stuff about the (again Dune-like) twenty families integrated more into the story rather than just accessorising it.
Robots Of Death's story itself is, like The Curse of Peladon, a classic country house murder mystery, complete with the assumption that the servants are above (or below) suspicion. Glued onto that, though, is a grippingly effective dose of the unease and paranoia humans feel around robots, which gets its claws in right from the outset with that hideous story about a robot ripping a man's arm off. (Hmmm, wonder if there's an award for cramming as many metaphors as possible into one sentence?)
Leela, as a pre-technological "primitive" who doesn't know anything about robots but knows what she likes, is the perfect companion to drop into this scenario. In fact, she upstages the Doctor several times with her more finely honed instincts (which serves him right for being so arrogant, in our opinion). The Doctor's relationship with her here is distinctly cooler than with Sarah Jane - just look at the way he walks away without a backward glance leaving Leela still in restraints - and we certainly don't get the idea he takes kindly to Leela showing him up. The sight of him visibly put out is one of the reasons we like Leela so much - the Doctor's darker side adds depth to his character.
Even this one isn't perfect, of course. The Doctor and Leela are mistaken for murderers for the squillionth time, yawn. Zilda and Toos both do that irritatingly unlikely thing of going alone to their quarters when an unknown mass murderer's stalking the ship. There's an annoying deus ex machina resolution to the Doctor's being caught in an ore shower. They give away who Taren Capel is a bit too early. There are various continuity and blooper-type sillinesses with disappearing scarves, appearing cameramen and the like. But who cares? This is brilliant. Let the wars begin.
DVD: Needless to say, it's worth owning just for the picture quality, but the extras are forgettable. Philip Hinchcliffe and Chris Boucher do their best, but memory-wise they're obviously struggling. (So strapped were they at times for something to say that we thought they'd nipped off for a cup of tea.) Their mildly entertaining commentary gives some interesting general information, but if you're hoping for specific information on how, say, particular scenes were made, you'll be disappointed. As for the rest of the stuff, maybe it's a girl thing, but scribbly studio plans don't exactly float our boat. And the interminable black and white silent model shots? They're having a laugh.
MORAL: Robots are people too. (Occasionally.)
IT'S VERY YOU
Not only are the costumes fabulous, darling, but get this - they're not jumpsuits. Huzzah! And while they might seem a tad impractical, particularly those wonderfully loony hats, why not, we say. It's not as if they're out there scrabbling through the ore with their bare hands, is it?
DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR
Why does SV7 tell the Doctor he's in command?
THISíLL HURT ME MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU
Okay, so they're not exactly strapping physical specimens. But (as usual) Poul only has to tap Uvanov on the back of the shoulder to knock him out cold. Sigh.
CALLING OCCUPANTS OF INTERPLANETARY CRAFT
The range of those wrist communicator thingies seems a bit on the uncertain side. When the Doctor talks to Toos while she's alone in her quarters, some of the time she's holding the communicator up to her mouth and the rest of the time she's just yapping on with her hand down by her side, and it doesn't seem to make any difference.
IT'S IN THE EVILDOERS' HANDBOOK
Why do the robots give the humans five minutes to surrender? Why not make 'em come out straight away?
LOOK WHAT I FOUND
Those bomb things are awfully convenient, aren't they? Not to mention the helium canister.
Now we know Taren Capel had a lot on his mind. But wouldn't you think he'd notice either the hiss of the helium canister or his voice getting all squeaky?
NOT IN THESE SHOES
Somebody, it seems, has to be the pathetic screamer, and since it ain't gonna be Leela, it falls to the hapless Toos. Begging the robot not to kill her without even trying to kick it in the nuts and bolts makes us squirm, but what's really stupid is the way she stands and watches the last robot first attacking Uvanov and then her without even trying to run away. Sad, sad, sad.
I HATE GOODBYES
Far from waiting around to be congratulated, the Doctor and Leela leave with such unseemly haste that they don't even know if Uvanov and Toos, not to mention Poul, are still breathing. Bit abrupt, isn't it? Where's our resolution?