2017-07-12

sovay: (Rotwang)
Being sick of not writing about movies, I appear to be writing about TV instead. Some weeks ago, [personal profile] lost_spook recommended me Chris Boucher's The Robots of Death (1977) on the grounds of David Collings and Tom Baker-era Doctor Who generally. The last time I'd seen the Fourth Doctor was "The Day of the Doctor" in high school when a friend who liked Douglas Adams rented The Pirate Planet (1978) with me. All I seem to remember of that one is a cyborg parrot. The Robots of Death delivers all round.

The story is straight science fiction, which I think of as rare for Doctor Who; visible influences include Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Karel Čapek, Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, Art Deco, and Agatha Christie, so we're talking a murder mystery in a remote outpost of a decadent civilization sustained entirely by the labor of artificially intelligent but strictly constrained robots, with sumptuous retro-futurist costuming (Morojo would be proud) and the elegant aerodynamics of streamline moderne everywhere. The robots themselves are sculpted in black and green and silver metal according to their grade and function, their classical features planed into perpetual smiles, their inlaid eyes as serenely empty as a Tiffany shade. As if flirting with the man/machine boundaries that they otherwise take such pains to reinforce, humans on this unnamed planet make up their own faces in the same contoured patterns, though much more delicately, mostly some linear accents around the eyes and nose. I got a slight glam rock vibe off the whole mise-en-scène, although it might just be this future's idea of reasonable hats. Everyone in the guest cast lives and works aboard Storm Mine 4, a vast mineral-harvesting ship on a world of sandstorm-swept deserts staffed by a small human crew and dozens more robots of all three classes. We get a few hints of wider worldbuilding—the Twenty Founding Families, Kaldor City, the Company—but the touchy dynamics among this small group are front and center, as is only appropriate when one of them is about to turn up dead. Strangled, so there's no chance of an accident, with a curious red disc stuck to his hand—a "corpse marker," which we shortly learn are used in technical contexts to identify irreparably damaged or permanently deactivated robots. Suspicion at once explodes in all directions among the already bickering crew, though there is one possibility no one raises until the arrival of the Doctor and Leela (Louise Jameson), the one the title portends. And should the mysterious serial strangler turn out to be a robot, a voiceless Dum, a reliable Voc, an autonomous Super-Voc with all the "million multi-level constrainers in its circuitry" somehow switched off and the ability to contravene the universal "prime directive" against harm to humans switched on? The Doctor's seen it before: "Oh, I should think it's the end of this civilization." We won't get to see that apocalypse, but we will witness the personal equivalent.

Collings plays Chief Mover Poul, a kind of engineering officer, and between this serial, Sapphire & Steel (1979–82), and the casting of ITV's Midnight Is a Place (1977–78), I'm close to concluding it is his life's work to play the characters I would naturally gravitate toward in any narrative where he appears. He has a trickster look here, too, sharp-faced, copper-haired, a dryly spoken observer with a gift for throwaway sarcasm—asked if a body was like that when he found it, his reply is, "Just a little fresher." The audience may guess that he's hiding something even before Leela observes that he "move[s] like a hunter, watch[es] all the time," but it's not obvious what, except that he feels the least likely of the human suspects. He sees more than he says, distracts when tensions escalate, laughs to himself but says nothing when the mine's commander repurposes one of Poul's own ripostes. He has a nervous habit of fiddling with the communicator that hangs like a medal from the breast of his sharp-shouldered tabard. Sometimes when no one's looking his face flickers apprehensively and he sputters with excessive denial at the Doctor's suggestion of killer robots, but his crewmates are dropping like flies with no solution in sight, who wouldn't be afraid? He smiles and talks easily and cynically with Leela about the money to be made sandmining, the only reason he claims he signed on to a two-year tour in this refrigerated, mechanized sluice box when he'd "rather live with people than robots, that's all." Between one scene and the next, very suddenly, he cracks.

We've all got something to hide. Don't you think so, Commander? )

In short, this is one of the reviews where I come in late to a classic, but at least I came in. I am not surprised that it's a fan favorite; I don't even know that I can call myself a fan, but I think it's terrific. It's a good science fiction mystery. It has characters as well as cleverly interlocked ideas. It definitely gives good David Collings. This mental thing brought to you by my important backers at Patreon.

Poul


1. For maximum irony of the sort that comes to pass if a person does enough science fiction, Collings played 51st-century robot detective Daneel in a 1969 BBC adaptation of The Naked Sun (1957), which I assume like its source novel came down to the terrifying concept of positronic brains not bound by the Three Laws of Robotics—robots that could harm humans, even without knowing it—and which the internet helpfully tells me does not survive in any form barring some of Delia Derbyshire's sound work. Damn it, BBC. [edit] In fact, it looks as though the BFI did a reconstruction from the surviving soundtrack and stills, further details of which can be found at WikiDelia. I'm still side-eying the BBC.

2. I appreciate that he survives the story, though I mind a little that it leaves him at loose ends, catatonic on the bridge of the sandminer without even third-party dialogue to point toward his fate. My preferred headcanon would involve him getting offplanet somewhere he doesn't have to be around robots all the time, but it looks as though radio canon has him reappearing full bore loony some years later. Maybe I will ignore radio canon. Opinions? Everyone is just lucky I did not see this serial in high school instead of The Pirate Planet, because I wouldn't have written Poul fix-it fic—I didn't start writing fanfiction until I was out of grad school—but I am pretty sure hopelessly derivative original fiction would have been guaranteed.

3. I would love to know if there is believed to be any link between The Robots of Death and Dan O'Bannon and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), because I have to say that one looks a lot like a direct forerunner of the other, not just in the isolated, claustrophobic and-then-there-were-none premise, but elements of plot and atmosphere like company agents embedded in regular crews and futuristic long-haul work being just as tiresome as the twentieth-century kind. Ian Holm's Ash pretty much is what you would get if you combined Poul with D84 and turned the sympathy way down on both sides.
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