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The Robots of Death

Production Code: 4R

First Transmitted

1 - 29/01/1977 18:20

2 - 05/02/1977 18:20

3 - 12/02/1977 18:20

4 - 19/02/1977 18:20


The TARDIS materialises on board a massive sandminer vehicle combing an alien world for precious minerals. The miner is run by a small human crew with the aid of numerous robots split into three classes: Dums, Vocs and a single controlling Super Voc. The crew are being picked off one by one by an unseen killer.

The Doctor and Leela immediately come under suspicion but are able to convince two undercover government agents - Poul and his robot associate D84, a Super Voc posing as a Dum - that they are innocent. The real culprit is one of the human crew, Dask, who is in truth the scientist Taren Capel. Raised by robots, Capel regards them as superior to humans and has been reprogramming those on board with orders to kill the other members of the crew.

He is tricked by the Doctor into outlining his plans for conquest while a helium canister discharges itself into the room, and is consequently killed by one of the robots as it can no longer recognise his voice.

Episode Endings

The Doctor is trapped in a storage unit within the sandminer as it rapidly fills with sand.

The sandminer's engines run out of control, threatening it with destruction. The Doctor opens an inspection hatch, intending to fight sabotage with sabotage, but is restrained by Dask. As the power builds to a near critical eighty-five percent, Toos desperately shouts: 'She's going!'

A robot with orders to kill the Doctor seizes him about the neck with its hands.

The Doctor and Leela return to the TARDIS, which dematerialises from the sandminer.


Isaac Asimov's I, Robot (et al).

Frank Herbert's Dune (the sandminer).

Arthur C Clarke's A Fall of Moondust (the sinking sandminer).

Murder on the Orient Express.

Ten Little Indians.

The Naked Sun.

Superman comics (Kaldor city).

Poul's name is derived from SF author Poul Anderson.

Taren Capel comes from Karel Capek, whose play R.U.R. introduced the word Robot.

The story's thematic basis in body language was influenced by Desmond Morris' Manwatching.

Dialogue Triumphs

Chub : "There was a Voc therapist in Kaldor City once. Specially programmed, equipped with vibro-digits, subcutaneous stimulators, the lot. You know what happened, Borg? Its first client wanted treatment for a stiff elbow. The Voc therapist felt carefully all round the joint, and then suddenly just twisted his arm off at the shoulder. Shoompf. All over in two seconds."

D84 : [Speaking of a tool used on board the sandminer] "It is a Laserson probe. It can punch a fist-sized hole through six-inch armour plate, or take the crystals from a snowflake one by one."

D84 : "Please do not throw hands at me."

The Doctor : "You know, you're a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain."

Dialogue Disasters

Leela : [Drops out of character completely when her knife does not harm a robot] "Now you're showing off."


The Doctor tries to explain the TARDIS' dimensional transcendence to Leela. However, his demonstration using two differently sized blocks at varying distances isn't very helpful, indicating more of the nature of optics than physical space. Helium doesn't affect the Doctor's voice. Mention is again made of his two hearts and respiratory bypass system (Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Zygons). The Doctor's pockets contain a [telescopic] breathing tube.

The planet, with its 100 million miles of uncharted desert, isn't named, although it seems that there are many such worlds with advanced robot 'slaves'. Voc class robots have over one million circuit constrainers to prevent them from harming humans. Deactivated robots are returned to construction centres bearing deactivation disks (nicknamed corpse markers).

Robots are very common on the sandminers, and less common on the planet's cities (the only one named is Kaldor City). Irrational fear of them is known as Grimwade's Syndrome, or, more commonly, robophobia.

The sandminers travel across the shifting deserts, extracting minerals such as Zelanite, Keefan and (most importantly) Lucanol. Most humans show an unusual respect for descendents of the Twenty, the founding families of the civilisation (cf. The Caves of Androzani).


The Doctor's Age


Storm Mine 4.



The Doctor claims to have seen similar 'moving mines' on Korlano Beta.


Russell Hunter, well known for his role as Lonely in the counterespionage series Callan, plays Commander Uvanov.

Brian Croucher, now renowned for his portrayal of Travis in Blake's 7, plays Borg.

Robophobia, an irrational fear of robots, is at one point referred to as 'Grimwade's syndrome'. This was an in-joke reference to production assistant Peter Grimwade (later to become a director and writer on the series) who had bemoaned the fact that the stories on which he was assigned to work almost always involved robots.

Peter Grimwade directed, uncredited, all the film insert sequences for this story.


When Leela throws her knife at the attacking robot it makes a cartoony 'shhhh doinkk!' noise.

The corpse markers are bicycle reflectors.

The Doctor's scarf vanishes while he's detained in the crew's quarters.

In the second episode it's possible to tell who the villain is as his feet, lower trousers and (slightly distorted) face are shown.

When Leela bandages Toos' arm someone is visible on the edge of the set.

V35 to V40 are said to have searched the ore hoppers, but V35 spends the entire story in the 'morgue'.

The robot listening outside the crew's quarters was presumably meant to be D84, but it's actually a Voc.

Cast & Crew


The Doctor - Tom Baker

Leela - Louise Jameson

Borg - Brian Croucher

Cass - Tariq Yunis

Chub - Rob Edwards

D84 - Gregory de Polnay

Dask - David Bailie

Poul - David Collings

Robot - Mark Blackwell Baker

Robot - John Bleasedale

Robot - Mark Cooper

Robot - Peter Langtry

Robot - Jeremy Ranchev

Robot - Richard Seager

SV7 - Miles Fothergill

Toos - Pamela Salem

Uvanov - Russell Hunter

Zilda - Tania Rogers


Director - Michael E Briant

Assistant Floor Manager - David Tilley

Costumes - Elizabeth Waller

Designer - Kenneth Sharp

Film Cameraman - Peter Chapman

Film Editor - unknown

Incidental Music - Dudley Simpson

Make-Up - Ann Briggs

Producer - Philip Hinchcliffe

Production Assistant - Peter Grimwade

Production Unit Manager - Chris D'Oyly-John

Script Editor - Robert Holmes

Special Sounds - Dick Mills

Studio Lighting - Duncan Brown

Studio Sound - Tony Millier

Title Music - Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, arranged by Delia Derbyshire

Visual Effects - Richard Conway

Writer - Chris Boucher

Bottom Line - from The Discontinuity Guide

'I see. You're one of those boring maniacs who's going to gloat, hmm? You going to tell me your plan for running the Universe?' The script is one of the best ever: a tightly constructed, claustrophobic SF thriller, with moments of great psychological insight. Even Chris Boucher, though, must have been delighted when he saw the finished product, a rare case of something being enhanced by clever, opulent design. The art deco robots are all the more frightening for being beautiful and well spoken. The actors put in flawless performances, and the direction is superb.

Analysis - from Doctor Who, the Television Companion

The Robots of Death is another in a succession of high quality stories, and one of the very best to be produced by Philip Hinchcliffe. Excellent writing, superb direction, great performances and wonderful design work combine to make it a true classic.

'Chris Boucher's script was magnificent,' wrote Chris Dunk in Oracle Volume 2 Number 8, dated May 1979, 'containing something basic with which virtually everyone can identify - namely a petrifying fear of violent death. This phobia was personified in the sleek and lethal robots... The [thought] of a Voc clamping its vice-like digits around [someone's] throat... never ceases to terrify me... the pulsing theme invented for this act of murder by Dudley Simpson instantly recalls the emotionless machine lowering a cadaver gently to the floor. Their finesse totally belied their true intentions.'

The sandminer clearly owes a debt of inspiration to Frank Herbert's Dune, and another source often cited for the story is Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, in which a group of people in an enclosed environment are killed off one by one by an unknown murderer. However, as Gordon Blows pointed out in the Doctor Who Appreciation Society Yearbook 1977/78, there is much more to The Robots of Death than this:

'Most Doctor Who stories these days seem to be based upon a well-known film. But to compare The Robots of Death [to] Murder on the Orient Express is only a joke, this [story's] sophistication lying very obviously with the contemporary science-fiction novel.

'Although the more science-fiction-style adventures tend to be the most popular Doctor Who stories, the first and foremost factor of all successful series has to be a strong cast of interesting and believable characters. The Robots of Death won hands down on this. Commander Uvanov and his restless crew, more at war with each other than the adversaries that came of their servants, were each interested only in their own ideals...

'The Doctor's defeat of Capel was simple but ingenious, and very well contrived on the part of... Chris Boucher... Writing two stories on the trot he was able to characterise Leela, and she has remained as close to the Sevateem and her savage instincts as the day she left the jungle of her home world.'

The robots themselves recall the stories of Isaac Asimov - no doubt one of the novelists whose work Blows had in mind - and make for a very effective threat when reprogrammed to ignore his famous First Law of Robotics: 'A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm'. D84 is particularly well portrayed by Gregory de Polnay, successfully coming across as a character in his own right, and the calm, well-mannered voices used for all the speaking robots only serve to increase their effectiveness still further.

'I must say that the format for The Robots of Death was very imaginative,' observed Owen Tudor in TARDIS Volume 2 Number 3 in 1977. 'The restrictions placed on the script by the setting were used well, and the idea of a robot revolt was good. However, I did not like the way in which it was shown that it was all the fault of the baddie that the robots were being nasty. I think it would have been better if the robots revolted because they wanted to be regarded as equals with the humans, because of the way humans maltreated them. Still, that might have been a little difficult - the robots would have had to be very advanced.'

The adoption of an art deco look for the story's sets and costumes is a real master stroke, giving the whole thing a sumptuous and highly distinctive look and further emphasising the contrast between the outward refinement of the robots and the violent actions they are called upon to perform. 'The production was excellent,' affirmed Blows, 'and for once the special effects and exterior designs corresponded perfectly with the interior sets, even to the point of superimposing the control deck across the window of the [model] sandminer, so that one had the impression of looking into the ship.'

The Robots of Death is a fine example of a story on which everyone involved was clearly committed to achieving the best they possibly could. The results speak for themselves.

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This episode guide is made up of the text of The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, and Doctor Who: The Television Companion by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker.

The Discontinuity Guide © Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping 1995.
Doctor Who: The Television Companion © David J Howe and Stephen James Walker 1998, 2003.

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