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The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion, Leela (Louise Jameson) find that the TARDIS has landed inside a vast, tank-like mining vehicle traversing a barren desert world.
The travelers in time and space also find that they are in terrible danger. Specifically, crew members aboard the colossal rig are being killed by an unseen assailant who leaves behind “corpse markers” on each victim. These tags are typically used to signify that a robot has been destroyed.
The Doctor and Leela soon learn that the rig’s crew -- and the society from which it hails -- is completely dependent on humanoid robots. In fact, several “classes” of robots are aboard the rig, including the Dumbs (mutes), the Vox, and the SuperVox. The Doctor concludes that somehow the robots have overcome their peaceful programming and are committing murder.
The question soon becomes one of human survival. Are the robots developing awareness of their status as slaves, or is there a dark humanoid force behind the killings?
In my 1999 book, A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television, I tagged “The Robots of Death” as one of the best Doctor Who serials ever produced, and I still feel that my initial assessment is accurate. In particular, I believe that this conclusion regarding quality is merited because of the production design and costuming, which enhance a story that is about nothing less than the horrors of slavery. In this case, however, the slaves are not human beings, but robots.
First and foremost, the robot costumes in “Robots of Death” underline the theme about slavery. The machines wear Asian-themed serving clothes which suggest their status as underlings. Their molded plastic faces, similarly, show only a mask of politeness. In other words, the robots represent the smiling but subservient face of a peasant or slave class. The Robots don suits of plain green, or black, and this gives the impression that they are not really meant to be noticed. They are but…background noise in an indulged culture.
By purposeful contrast, the men and women aboard the mining rig wear impractical, ornate, glittering costumes that shine and dazzle. These costumes are frequently gold or silver, to boot. Each human character also wears an ostentatious or flowery head-dress to indicate his or her individuality and even, in some sense, “royalty.” Again, a clever costuming touch creates a contrast with the appearance of the robots, who all look virtually identical. Individuality then, is for masters, but not slaves.
Similarly, the mining rig “crew” wears elaborate painted eye-make-up, and again, if there is time to apply such intricate designs on the face every day then it is clear that someone else -- namely the slaves -- must be responsible for the day-to-day operation and survival of the Empire.
The costumes and make-up in “The Robots of Death” thus express beautifully the idea of an alien culture both decadent and indulgent in its own luxury. In regards to the production design, the interior of the mining vessel forwards the very same notion. It looks more like a comfortable ocean liner than a utilitarian mining craft.
The crew’s behavior -- indulging in petty competition, gossipy talk, and lavish feasts -- also reinforces the notion of a culture that is so separated from the struggle for life and death that its people no longer even recognize that they are in danger. The humans here treat the robots only as things, and have grown so lazy and complacent that their race would actually die out without the robots serving and maintaining the basics of civilization.
Outside of the production design, wardrobe, and make-up choices that adeptly reinforce the notion of a corrupt society and an exploited underclass, “The Robots of Death” plays very much like an Agatha Christie novel. Each character on the mining vessel boasts a mysterious history, a secret identity and perhaps, even, a motivation for murder.
The story resolves with the truth about a man named Taryn Kapel who was raised by robots and is sensitive to their exploitation. The name Taryn Kapel seems very similar to Karel Čapek, the late-nineteenth century author who introduced the world to the term “robot.” In this way, "Robots of Death" connects right here to our experience and history on Earth, and the development of automation.
“The Robots of Death” is a remarkable serial, and one augmented by brilliant execution, but it succeeds so admirably because it reminds viewers of an unpleasant human quality (and one later seen in regards to the Ood).
Humans prize comfort, at times, over equality or justice. Only the Doctor -- an outsider -- can point out this foible.
And he does it with a grin.