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14x5. The Robots of Death
Writer: Chris Boucher
Director: Michael Briant
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: The Doctor and Leela arrive on an advanced sand mining vehicle where the human crow are highly dependent on robot labor. When some of the robots turn murderous, the Doctor and Leela become drawn into the mystery, exposing a plot by the scientist Taren Capel to incite a "robot revolution."

Review: Like its immediate predecessor "The Face of Evil" (also written by Chris Boucher), "The Robots of Death" succeeds not by doing any one thing exceptionally, but by doing a lot of things very well. It's a well-constructed mystery, a solid character piece for the Doctor and Leela, and a perceptive social commentary about a future human society that has become overly dependent upon the use of robots.

This society appears to have been through some recent changes in terms of upward mobility for average citizens: Uvanov, the commander of the sand mining vehicle, is a self-made man (albeit one with a ruthless streak -- he seems partly eager to resolve the murder mystery so that it won't further interfere with productivity), whereas Zilda's station in life is apparently derived from royal lineage. Still, the overall impression is one of materialism and decadence. Uvanov's coldness is apparently what has won him favor with the mining company, and it's clear that the robots do much of the real work -- so much so that the Doctor speculates that the developments on the sand miner could mean the end of this civilization as it currently exists.

The social commentary is painted in appropriate shades of gray, depicting neither the robots nor the humans as the clear "good guys" in this conflict. While the Doctor does his best to stop the killings, he also seems to have a certain sympathy for D84, the robot who has infiltrated the sandminer under the guise of a "Dumb," i.e. a robot who performs only basic tasks and cannot speak. When he finally confronts Taren Capel at the end, he argues that the robots cannot exist without humans, but not that the robots should simply be slaves. His comment about Marie Antoinette is actually right on the mark: like the French Revolution, Capel's robot revolt is based upon legitimate concerns but has gone too far. The serial never quite makes it clear whether the robots are meant to be seen as possessing some degree of sentience or not: obviously they are at least somewhat limited in this regard given that they can be programmed to murder, and the possibility of "robophobia" -- fear of robots based on the inability to discern emotion or intention in their unrevealing visages -- seems to indicate that perhaps the solution is simply not to create artificial life in the first place.

Boucher's script picks up on the contrast between the Doctor's scientific outlook and the less rational dispositions of Leela's society that he explored in "The Face of Evil," with the Doctor acting as a sort of mentor to his new companion. I don't think I understand the size of the TARDIS any better after the Doctor's demonstration at the beginning, but the scene works on its own terms, and obviously we're dealing with a concept that the writers can't actually explain. For the most part, the Doctor is willing to educate Leela along the way, though he occasionally betrays some impatience ("Do you have to talk so much?" he asks her at one point), and Baker hits the right note in these scenes. On the other hand, there are times when Leela picks up on something that the Doctor misses. She correctly deduces that Poul is hiding something (he's part of the same undercover investigation as D84) by noting that he moves in the manner of a hunter, and her sense that something bad is about to happen shortly before the sabotage of the sandminer also turns out to be right, despite the Doctor's dismissal of her warnings.

While I'm not sure if I'd rank it quite as highly as some, "The Robots of Death" is a strong installment that works on multiple levels and sits nicely in what is shaping up to be Tom Baker's best season to date.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)