The Robots of Death

090 The Robots of Death
Doctor Who serial

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

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]


On a distant planet, a huge sandminer vehicle, Storm Mine 4, is slowly scraping the surface of a vast, barren desert in search of precious minerals. The sandminer is manned by nine humans and numerous robots - black 'Dums' that cannot speak, pale green 'Vocs', and a silver 'Super Voc' which controls all the 'Dums' and 'Vocs'. The robots conduct a routine scan of the area and locate a large sandstorm, which the humans decide to pursue, as the storm will bring heavier minerals to the surface. One of the humans, a meteorologist called Chub, goes to collect an instrument package to place into his weather balloon to study the storm. However, he is later found strangled.

At about this time, the TARDIS materialises in one of the scoops. After the Doctor and Leela emerge from the TARDIS, it is removed by a large mechanical arm as it is blocking the scoop. Later, the Doctor and Leela are brought out of the scoop by two robots and locked in a room. The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to unlock the door, and goes in search of the TARDIS, while Leela finds Chub's body being taken away by some robots.

The human crew suspects the two time travellers of murdering Chub, and tensions increase when it is found that they have left the room in which they were locked. By the time they are both recaptured, the Doctor has found a second dead man (Kerril), and Leela has found both a third dead man (Cass) and a 'Dum' robot which can secretly speak. Commander Uvanov orders them to be locked up in the robot storage bay, on suspicion of killing all three humans.

One of the humans, Poul, believes the Doctor and Leela to be innocent, so he frees them and shows them where Chub was murdered. There, the Doctor convinces Poul that a robot may have killed the mineralogist. While this is happening, a woman named Zilda is murdered, and Poul - sent to the room to investigate Zilda's accusations of murder against Commander Uvanov over a tannoy system - finds the Commander standing over Zilda's body and has him confined to his quarters for murdering Zilda.

The sandminer's engines begin to run out of control, threatening the vehicle with destruction. It is found that Borg, the human responsible for controlling power to the motors, has been viciously strangled, and the controls have been sabotaged. The Doctor saves the miner by cutting off the power to the motors, while a man named Dask repairs the damaged controls so that the miner can continue on its way.

The Doctor goes to see the 'Dum' robot that Leela claimed could speak, D84. The robot reveals that it and Poul are undercover agents for the mining company, who were placed on board the miner as a precaution to threats of a robot revolution by a scientist called Taren Capel, who was raised by robots. D84 itself is unique in the fact that it can function autonomously from Super Voc SV7's commands, and appears to possess a high level of logical reasoning. The Doctor and D84 search the miner for proof that Taren Capel is on board, and find a secret workshop where the robots' programming has been changed to enable them to kill humans. The Doctor arranges for all the remaining humans to go to the command deck.

Dask shuts down all of the robots whose programming has not been changed, leaving just the killer robots and D84 operational. Dask is later revealed to be the mad scientist Taren Capel, intent on 'releasing [his] 'brothers' (the robots) from bondage to human dross' and 'programming them with an ambition to rule the world'. Taren Capel orders his modified robots to destroy the remaining humans and the Doctor and Leela. Leela shows the Doctor a damaged robot in the storage bay with its hand covered in blood - which the Doctor reasons is Borg's, guessing that Borg sabotaged the engine controls in a suicidal attempt to destroy the miner and all the killer robots on board. The Doctor dismantles the damaged robot and creates a final deactivator - a device that will destroy any still functioning robots at close range. The Doctor hides Leela in Taren's workshop with a canister of helium gas, telling her to release it slowly when Taren comes in. The Doctor hopes that this will change Taren's voice, so his robots - unable to recognise him - won't obey his orders.

Taren arrives and damages D84, but the robot is able to activate the Doctor's device to destroy a killer robot, knowingly sacrificing itself in the process. Leela releases the helium gas, causing Taren's voice to become high-pitched and squeaky, and Taren is killed by SV7 when it fails to identify his voice. The Doctor then destroys SV7 with a laser probe.

The robot threat over, and a rescue ship coming to collect the surviving humans, the Doctor and Leela return to the TARDIS and leave the sandminer.


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

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

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

Serial details by episode
EpisodeBroadcast dateRun timeViewers
(in millions)
"Part One" 29 January 1977 (1977-01-29) 24:06 12.8
"Part Two" 5 February 1977 (1977-02-05) 24:15 12.4
"Part Three" 12 February 1977 (1977-02-12) 23:51 13.1
"Part Four" 19 February 1977 (1977-02-19) 23:42 12.6

Episodes 1 & 2 and Episodes 3 & 4 were combined into two 50 minute episodes for repeat on 31 December 1977[9] and 1 January 1978,[10] reaching 10.0 and 7.0 million viewers respectively.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] Charlie Jane Anders of io9 recommended The Robots of Death, remarking that "it might be becoming my favorite classic Doctor Who story".[15]

Commercial Releases

In print

Doctor Who and the Robots of Death
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

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. 1 2 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. 1 2
  4. 1 2 3 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. Shaun Lyon; et al. (31 March 2007). "The Robots of Death". Outpost Gallifrey. Archived from the original on 31 July 2008. Retrieved 30 August 2008.
  7. "The Robots of Death". Doctor Who Reference Guide. Retrieved 30 August 2008.
  8. Sullivan, Shannon (7 August 2007). "The Robots of Death". A Brief History of Time Travel. Retrieved 30 August 2008.
  12. Howe, David J & Walker, Stephen James (1998). Doctor Who: The Television Companion (1st ed.). London: BBC Books. ISBN 978-0-563-40588-7.
  13. Braxton, Mark (7 September 2010). "Doctor Who: The Robots of Death". Radio Times. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
  14. Jane, Ian (9 April 2012). "Doctor Who: The Robots of Death". DVD Talk. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
  15. Anders, Charlie Jane (30 August 2012). "Old School Doctor Who Episodes That Everyone Should Watch". io9. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
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