09 February 2014

TV: The Robots of Death

Now this gets it right. After the preceding story's slight let down due to the design, it's almost as if Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes redoubled the quality of every department. Even Chris Boucher's script's an improvement on the last, and that's saying something (though I suspect Mr Holmes may have played a small part in this).

I first saw the opening episode of Robots many years ago, when it came free with The Sun newspaper one day. Don't worry, I don't normally buy - or even read, if such a thing's possible - it, it was purely for the DVD. This was probably my first introduction to the Fourth Doctor, and definitely to Leela. It made a brilliant impression on me, I absolutely loved it. I didn't know who anyone was, but it actually looked futuristic and the robots were bloody creepy. There's just so much atmosphere in those initial twenty three minutes, and no single shot is wasted. It's immediately obvious that Michael E Briant (who also helmed another favourite of mine - The Sea Devils) is a much stronger director than Pennant Roberts. There's a lot of motion with the cameras, and this really helps. I don't know how, but it does. Sorry.

It wasn't until last year, when I bought the Revisitations boxed set the special edition of this story came in, that I saw the following three episodes. I'd kind of deliberately, subconsciously, been holding off watching them for fear that they wouldn't live up to the first episode - I mean, let's be honest, not many stories do. Plus, it had been quite a while since I'd seen Part One, so thought I may be remembering it in a more positive light than it deserved. Oh, how wrong I was.

This is a high-quality murder mystery with, thanks to the title, one group of suspects. This is less of a 'whodunnit' and more of a 'whomadeemdoit' (or 'Who made them do it?' for the hard of kerning). Nevertheless, this plays out very well for the first three episodes. Episode Four is certainly a cut above average, but it has a different tone to the remainder of the story by being more action-orientated.

It's a pity that when the human working with the robots goes to have a chat with one of them in Part Two, we see his trousers, in all their grey and black striped glory. I imagine this was meant to be a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot to give a brief clue, but seeing as it lingers too long and all of the Storm Mine 4 crew are in the following scene, it's pretty darn obvious who it is. This aside, it's not particularly easy to guess the identity of the murderer, given it seems everyone has something to hide. The fact that the villain disguises their voice as a stage whisper for only the benefit of the audience (thanks Deadly Assassin!) doesn't help matters either.

There's some lovely design work in operation here too. Just look at the main control room! And the corridors! And the lounge thing! Every room is a visual feast; the eyes certainly won't get bored in this one. There's also a really nice model shot of the interior of the ship with a section blue-screened and a gallery set inserted. It's simple, but really effective. It's this sort of ambition and mixing up of shots that sets the likes of Briant apart from the rest. Whilst we're talking about models, the representation of the planet is really well done, I was really impressed. Likewise for the Sandminer model vehicle. This is fine, apart from when required to be moved suddenly. It tips far too quickly for a craft of its size and mass, but it does keep it exciting.

If there was any doubt as to Louise Jameson or Leela's brilliance after The Face of Evil then surely this story must have erased them. She's just a joy to be around, from the scene with the yoyo and the boxes in the TARDIS (just superb) to her squeaked 'will someone let me out?' at the end of Part Four, I'm fast remembering why it is that I love Leela so much. She has a really likeable quality to her, and it's good to that her background isn't forgotten, as so often happens by the second story. She talks of sayings of her Tribe, bandaging methods, and calls the robots 'mechanical men', quite an astute observation given that there wasn't much mechanical engineering present on her planet - the closest thing was probably the rope and the platform.

The Doctor, as Tom Baker (or is it the other way around?), is exceptional too. He's commanding, assertive, intelligent and a man of action. There's the typical thing of the Doctor arriving and immediately being blamed for a murder (not actually that typical when you think about it), but it feels different this time. The Doctor and Poul's relationship is really enjoyable, and it's a shame they didn't share more scenes as David Collings and Tom Baker play off each other very well. Baker plays the comedy really well too, never tipping into parody by keeping it straight but with emphasis. A particular highlight of this light-heartedness being underplayed is in the final chapter of Episode Four, where he comments to the commander that 'it depends which of us [the robot] wants to kill first'.

All of the supporting cast are particularly strong, though. It's hard to pick a standout perfomer amongst Collings, David Bailie, Pamela Salem (also the voice of Xoanon in the previous story) and Russell Hunter, simply because they're all so good. Tania Rogers, Rob Edwards, Tariq Yunis and Brian Croucher are all good enough while they last, but none of them live long enough to make as much of an impression as those who do. Tania Rogers (as Zilda) and Brian Croucher (as Borg) give it a go, though. The twisting-and-turning revelations never feel convoluted, incredible or ridiculous. They are well timed (see the revelations about Uvanov and Zilda's brother) and don't detract from the main story. Another area where many writers could learn from Boucher.

The cliffhangers in this are so well executed, as well. They fit perfectly with the pace and tone of their episodes. My personal favourite of the three is the moment where Dask tries to stop the Doctor from cutting the power lines as the Sandminer begins to go into overdrive. It comes after increasing tension and excitement, and it's really one of the ones where you're going 'no, you can't stop it there!' and feel like you have to see the next episode right now. The music's a big part of this too, creating an atmosphere throughout the story. I didn't notice it that much, but that's definitely a good thing. There was never any danger of this feeling flat, but the score only helps to move the story further away from that possibility.

Sorry for making this review shorter than normal, but I think I've probably run out of points to make. So I think I'll wrap up.

In conclusion The Robots of Death is one of the finest serials we'll ever be delivered. Unlike The Face of Evil, it doesn't suffer from its lack of exterior filming (the days were presumably taken by The Deadly Assassin, but that was more than worth it), turning this fact more to its advantage than anything else. In this way, Boucher, Briant, Holmes and Hinchcliffe have created an atmospheric masterpiece that surpasses even The Deadly Assassin - possibly down to Louise Jameson. Leela's inquisitive nature and personality make her so much more interesting than other companions. Just look how she responds when her knife (itself an irregularity) is swept aside by the oncoming robot, 'well that's just showing off'. The 'savage' was once again my favourite thing in this story, and could be subconsciously why I chose to undertake this 'Leelathon' as my first series of  reviews in the first place.

Briant must take a lot of the credit for this story's success. In Episode One, when everyone is still calm and 'keeping up appearances', there's headgear in abundance. But by Episodes Three and Four, it's nowhere to be seen as physical survival becomes favoured over social survival. Everyone drops the pretences as the tension ramps up. I know this is a minutely small thing to mention, but it is these smaller points that mark out the good directors from the bad.

We mustn't forget how scary it all is too. Even as an adult (yep, I'm one of them now) the inhumanity of the human-like faces really creeps me out. It feels like I should mention the uncanny valley at this stage, so I have. My personal scariest 'moment' is when the Voc with the probe protruding out the back of its head staggers towards the camera, arms outstretched, head tilted to the side. I don't know what it is about this, but I find it much scarier than the cool, collected murdering of the other Vocs - which is still unsettling. That's another thing I like - we do actually see the stranglings here. Briant doesn't shy away from it, and again like Deadly Assassin, it's all the stronger for it. The other scary thing is the reliance on robots, and what it means if they begin to kill. It reminds me of the Android/Human war mentioned in Big Finish stories over the years (notably Kingdom of Silver).

I also love the effect applied to the camera when viewing Voc POV. It actually picks up the regions on actors' faces to give them the same sort of contours as the robots have, especially in the cheeks. I hope it's clear what I mean there. It's just a shame that Briant then used this for Part Three's sequence with Taren Capel, as it doesn't disguise David Bailie's face at all. The whole subplot with D84 is pitched perfectly too, it never feels underused or over-stretched. D84 is one of my favourite characters in this, too - what does that say about the other actors? The sets are glorious. At the hands of Austin Ruddy, we would probably have got more white, unending flat walls. One of the most realistic future worlds is generated, through a collision of skills and expertise. In fact, it feels more realistic than some historicals (seeThe Visitation), which the BBC are famed for doing well. It's also unusual that Episode Four is the strongest of the lot, when ordinarily the reverse is true.

There are so many things you could talk for hours (particularly Leela) about whilst still only reaching the summary that this is fantastic. I don't know how it could be bettered (apart from adding some sort of modulation to robot's voices or getting right of that shit gold sheet Dask wheres over his head in his lab) and it says something about the quality of this series that it knocks the socks of The Deadly Assassin. It's a shame Boucher never wrote again for Leela (or indeed the series) but it's better to have had two exceptionally strong scripts with solid ideas behind them than six or seven diluted serials. Louise Jameson is again the star of the show (and she uses contractions - BRIGGS!), but there really isn't a low moment in this. Essential, gripping, climactic viewing.

In a Nutshell: Why did I wait so long? There's only one rating this story could receive-

You can buy The Robots of Death from Amazon here, or read Joe from Doc Oho's review here.

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