The Robots of Death

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090 – The Robots of Death
Doctor Who serial
Robots of Death.jpg
A scene from part four, where the Voc Robots are attempting to kill the Doctor.
Directed by Michael E. Briant
Written by Chris Boucher
Script editor Robert Holmes
Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe
Executive producer(s) None
Incidental music composer Dudley Simpson
Production code 4R
Series Season 14
Length 4 episodes, 25 minutes each
Originally broadcast 29 January – 19 February 1977
← Preceded by Followed by →
The Face of Evil The Talons of Weng-Chiang
List of Doctor Who serials

The Robots of Death is the fifth serial of the 14th season of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, which was first broadcast in four weekly parts from 29 January to 19 February 1977.

Influenced by the works of Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert, The Robots of Death was Chris Boucher's second contribution to Doctor Who as a writer, Michael E. Briant's final contribution to the series as a director and Philip Hinchcliffe's penultimate story as producer. It has been described by Radio Times as a "fan favourite", "suspenseful" and "beautifully designed" serial featuring Tom Baker "in his prime".[1] It was chosen to represent the era of the Fourth Doctor at the British Film Institute's 50th anniversary celebration of Doctor Who.[1]


The Doctor and Leela arrive via TARDIS on "Storm Mine 4", a large sand-crawling miner vehicle used to gather valuable minerals from a desert planet brought to the surface by powerful sandstorms. They find the vehicle has a minimal human crew that oversee the menial work down by numerous robots, which are divided into three classes: "Dum" which cannot speak, "Voc" which interact with the humans, and "Super Voc" that manage the other robots.

The Doctor and Leela arrived shortly after the discovery of the corpse of one of the human crew, recently murdered. The Doctor offers to help to find the murderer and prove their innocence. During the search, Leela comes across D84, a Dum that is able to speak. The investigation is cut short when two more of the crew are found killed, and the Doctor and Leela are secured. However, crew member Poul is doubtful of the Doctor's or Leela's involvement, and when Poul finds Commander Uvanov standing over the corpse of yet another victim, he allows them to go free, convinced that Uvanov was guilty.

The vehicle's engines go out of control, threatening the crew, and they find the ship's engineer Borg appears to be another murder victim. The Doctor helps to regulate the engines to get them out of danger, while Dask stays behind to repair the damage to the controls. The Doctor and Leela continue to investigate the murders, with the Doctor convinced one of the robots is behind it. Leela takes him to meet D84, and D84 explains that he and Poul were planted on the vehicle as a precautionary measure against a robot revolution that may be initiated by Taren Capel, a scientist that had been raised by robots and with delusions of power. D84 joins them to search the vehicle, and they discover a secret laboratory where the other robots have been reprogrammed to kill humans. Suspecting that Taren is aboard, the Doctor requests all the humans to meet them on the bridge.

However, Dask refuses, and reveals himself as Taren; he shuts down all of the robots except those he had reprogrammed (excluding D84), and orders Super Voc SV7 to start hunting down the remaining humans. As Poul and D84 help to protect the others, the Doctor and Leela return to Taren's workshop, and find a damaged robot with Borg's blood on it; the Doctor surmises that Borg had realised the threat from Taren and attempted to sabotage the ship on purpose to end Taren's endeavor. The Doctor uses the spare parts to construct a deactivator that will shut down all robots in close range, and then instructs Leela to hide with a canister of helium gas to use when Taren returns.

Taren is lured to the laboratory by the Doctor and D84, and D84 sacrifices itself to use the deactivator to shut down SV7 and itself. Taren begins to give orders to the other robots, but Leela opens the canister, causes Taren's voice to become high-pitched and unrecognized by the remaining robots, and they advance and kill him. The Doctor helps to shut down all the robots and revert Taren's programming. After assuring that Poul and the others are safe and help is on the way, the Doctor and Leela take their leave.


This serial marks the final appearance of the wood-panelled secondary TARDIS console room. The audio story Empathy Games gives a possible explanation for its loss. This story reveals the Doctor's immunity to the vocal-altering effects of helium. The Doctor explains this by saying to Leela, "You know, two hearts, respiratory bypass system".

The BBC Books spin-off novel Corpse Marker by Chris Boucher is a sequel to this serial, as is Robophobia, a Seventh Doctor audio play by Nicholas Briggs. There's also the independently produced Kaldor City audio plays, not featuring the Doctor.


Early titles for the script included "Planet of the Robots" and "The Storm-mine Murders".

Cast notes[edit]

Russell Hunter was allegedly cast against the intention of the script, which implied that Commander Uvanov should be a physically imposing man, much in the mould of an eighteenth-century sailing master. David Collings, who plays Poul, previously appeared as Vorus in Revenge of the Cybermen and would later appear as Mawdryn in Mawdryn Undead as well as an alternative incarnation of the Doctor in the Big Finish Productions' Doctor Who Unbound audio drama Full Fathom Five. Pamela Salem, who plays Toos, had provided voice work in the preceding story The Face of Evil and would later appear as Professor Rachel Jensen in Remembrance of the Daleks. Salem had been one of the actresses considered for the part of Leela.[2] David Bailie went on to play the Celestial Toymaker in the audio plays The Nightmare Fair and Solitaire.

Outside references[edit]

The murder plotline owes a great deal to Agatha Christie; notably Ten Little Indians and The Mousetrap. The sandminer was derived from Dune.[3] The treatment of robots in this serial has many intentional nods to Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. The villain of the story is named Taren Capel, which is a reference to Karel Čapek,[4] who is credited with first coining the word "robot". Uvanov's name is a reference to Isaac Asimov,[5] while Poul is a reference to the science fiction writer Poul Anderson.[4] The script several times refers to Robophobia (the irrational fear of robots) as 'Grimwade's Syndrome', an inside joke reference to Peter Grimwade, a production assistant who directed some of the filmed scenes in the episode. Grimwade had frequently lamented that he was always working on material involving robots.[3]

Broadcast and reception[edit]

Episode Title Run time Original air date UK viewers
(millions) [6]
1 "Part One" 24:06 29 January 1977 (1977-01-29) 12.8
2 "Part Two" 24:15 5 February 1977 (1977-02-05) 12.4
3 "Part Three" 23:51 12 February 1977 (1977-02-12) 13.1
4 "Part Four" 23:42 19 February 1977 (1977-02-19) 12.6

Episodes 1 & 2 and Episodes 3 & 4 were combined into two 50 minute episodes for repeat on 31 December 1977[7] and 1 January 1978,[8] reaching 10.0 and 7.0 million viewers respectively.[9]

Paul Cornell, Martin Day, and Keith Topping, in The Discontinuity Guide (1995), called the script "one of the best ever" and praised how it was enhanced by the design, acting, and direction.[4] In The Television Companion (1998), David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker expressed similar praise, describing it as a "true classic" and praising the Art Deco design.[10] In 2010, Mark Braxton of Radio Times noted a few production errors but overall praised the design and voices of the robots and the score. He also called the story "extraordinary", despite there being a coldness between Baker and Jameson that made it to the screen.[11] DVD Talk's Ian Jane was less positive, giving the story three and a half out of five stars. He found the plot "a fairly standard murder mystery" but still "a good amount of fun", and praised Baker and Jameson.[12] Charlie Jane Anders of io9 recommended The Robots of Death, remarking that "it might be becoming my favorite classic Doctor Who story".[13]

Commercial Releases[edit]

In print[edit]

Doctor Who and the Robots of Death
Doctor Who and the Robots of Death.jpg
Author Terrance Dicks
Cover artist John Geary
Series Doctor Who book:
Target novelisations
Release number
Publisher Target Books
Publication date
24 May 1979
ISBN 0-426-20061-6

A novelisation of this serial, written by Terrance Dicks, was published by Target Books in May 1979. This novelisation was the shortest and notable for featuring the character of Cass attending a meeting after being murdered in the previous chapter.

Home media[edit]

This story was released on VHS in omnibus format in April 1986 and in episodic format in February 1995. It was released on DVD on 13 November 2000. A special edition of the DVD, with new bonus features, was released in the UK on 13 February 2012 in the third of the ongoing Revisitations DVD box sets.


  1. ^ a b Mulkern, Patrick (13 February 2013). "Doctor Who at 50: BFI announces The Robots of Death for April". Radio Times. Retrieved 8 January 2016. 
  2. ^ Doctor Who: The Face of Evil. BBC DVD/2Entertain. ISBN 0-7806-8517-2
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ a b c Cornell, Paul; Day, Martin; Topping, Keith (1995). "90 'The Robots of Death'". Doctor Who: The Discontinuity Guide. London: Doctor Who Books. p. 205. ISBN 0-426-20442-5. 
  5. ^ Hunter, Russell. "J' adore Kaldor!" (Interview). Interview with Alan Stevens. Retrieved 6 November 2013. 
  6. ^ "Ratings Guide". Doctor Who News. Retrieved 28 May 2017. 
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Howe, David J & Walker, Stephen James (1998). Doctor Who: The Television Companion (1st ed.). London: BBC Books. ISBN 978-0-563-40588-7. 
  11. ^ Braxton, Mark (7 September 2010). "Doctor Who: The Robots of Death". Radio Times. Retrieved 29 September 2013. 
  12. ^ Jane, Ian (9 April 2012). "Doctor Who: The Robots of Death". DVD Talk. Retrieved 29 September 2013. 
  13. ^ Anders, Charlie Jane (30 August 2012). "Old School Doctor Who Episodes That Everyone Should Watch". io9. Retrieved 29 September 2013. 

External links[edit]

Fan reviews[edit]

Target novelisation[edit]