BBC Video // 1977 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Josh Rode (Retired) // March 18th, 2012
"You're a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain."
The modern incarnation of Doctor Who is available in full season sets, but for whatever reason BBC Video continues to release old episodes in these "Special Editions" which are limited to complete story arcs. Doctor Who: The Robots of Death aired from January 29 through February 19, 1977 and features jungle assassin Leela (Louise Jameson, Doc Martin) becoming The Doctor's newest companion.
The Doctor and stow-away Leela materialize on a roving sand miner (imaginatively called the "Sandminer") carrying a human crew and a bevy of menial robots. This being Doctor Who, their arrival coincides with the murder of one of the crewmembers. Since everyone knows robots can't harm humans, the unexpected strangers get the blame.
Full disclosure: Tom Baker (Monarch of the Glen) is my favorite Doctor. Sure, the others present some combination of bold, funny, and charismatic, but no one has managed this blend with such perfect harmony as Baker did in his seven years in the TARDIS.
Doctor Who: The Robots of Death is one of the less complex segments in the series' tableau; a simple sci-fi theme that borrows heavily from Isaac Asimov, set in an enclosed space with no outside communication and nowhere to run. Described by the production team as "Agatha Christie in space," this storyline was decried by director Michael E. Briant and Baker himself, so they spruced it up by gathering the best actors they could find to play the multi-cultural but otherwise generic crew, and decorating the entire set in an "art deco" style that holds up surprisingly well.
As always, the writing drives the show. The Doctor gets most of the good quips, but the rest of ensemble does well adding dimension to their characters. Jameson was figuring out how to play Leela, but has the general naïve-yet-deadly persona down, as demonstrated by a nice kick to the Sandminer captain's groin. Gregory de Polnay (Space: 1999) turns in the best performance as an emotionless robot, working on his meandering-pitched voice to good effect, and getting in a couple quips of his own ("Please do not throw hands at me.").
Typical aspects of the series are on full display, including cheesy sets and models, strange-looking equipment, and contradictory story elements. For instance, the robots are said to be stronger and faster than any human, but Leela is easily able to avoid her plodding would-be-killer. These are things that would cause scorn in some contexts, but only add to the fun of the series. The modern Doctor Who may have a higher budget, but it doesn't have the old series' soul.
BBC has once again cleaned these old episodes remarkably well. Presented in standard definition 1.33:1 full frame, the transfer offers deep balanced colors and minimal grain. The Dolby 2.0 Mono mix gives the experience a somewhat tinny air when too much is going on. Bonus features on this "Special Edition" are fairly extensive. Two commentary tracks -- the first by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and writer Chris Boucher; the second by Baker, Jameson, Briant, and Pamela Salem (who played second-in-command Toos) -- are both informative and interesting. The second one takes awhile to get cracking, but once Baker gets comfortable, he becomes a fount of self-deprecating information. A third commentary comes in the form of a Trivia Track that runs along the bottom of the screen and points out things like where the set got damaged during storage. Other extras include a making-of featurette, a mildly humorous short called Robophobia, snippets of the set's sound, and the Sandminer model, a studio floor plan, and a photo gallery.
Doctor Who: The Robots of Death's claim-to-fame is Leela becoming a companion. Otherwise, it's an average Tom Baker adventure...which still means great fun.
Not guilty. Would you like a Jelly Baby?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Trivia Track
* Short Film
* Photo Gallery
* Official Site