sovay: (Rotwang)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-07-12 06:44 am
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Have you never heard of the double bluff?

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.

Poul, it turns out, suffers from something called "Grimwade's syndrome" or "robophobia," a hyper-awareness of the uncanny valley that causes "an unreasoning dread of robots" and can turn into full nervous collapse if pushed too far. It's the ultimate mental health stigma in a society that depends so intimately and ubiquitously on unquestioned robot labor; it led to a death in the one other case we hear about and the family hushed up the facts to save face. In a nice twist of hindsight, only after Poul's out of commission do we learn he was an undercover agent for the Company, paired with the robot detective D84 (Gregory de Polnay, really fine voice acting) and sent to investigate the possibility of a link between the brilliant, secretive, and missing roboticist Taren Capel and Storm Mine 4. The very talent for reading people that made him abstractly ideal for the job turned it inevitably into his personal hell. Eight months in daily proximity to the robots that his hunter's senses screamed at him were the "walking dead," pretending he thought nothing more of their presence than he did of a table or chairs, and no respite to be found even with his loyal, metallic partner, like an especially neurotic variation on Asimov's Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw.1 He held himself together even after the killings began—and guessed the nature of the perpetrators, half insight, half paranoia, long before anyone else from his planet had a clue—but the sight of a dead robot with its silver hand sheathed in human blood pushes him over at last. He disintegrates with the head-clutching horror of silent film: "No! Oh, no! Please, no!" And it works, because Collings commits to it, because the contrast between the sardonic, decisive Chief Mover and the disconnected wreck of his next scene is genuinely upsetting. Leela finds him in the robot storage bank, sprawled blankly under a shelf as a deadly green-and-silver sentinel moves past him. He's been crying; it starts again as she speaks to him, as he begs her with mounting panic and plummeting lucidity not to give him away to the robots who are always watching, always hating, obeying human orders to preserve their pretense of subservience "but really—but really—" His mouth is the wrong shape for an adult. Leela has to wrestle him into silence before he gets both of them killed, shouting for the robots to spare him and take her. When she looses him finally, he rolls over with his face in his hands, his face to the wall, his whole body curled to hide. He looked like the character who could solve the mystery, the wry hero who could see the hypocrisies his culture tried to hide beneath hierarchy and filigree and not really jokes about robot masseurs accidentally dismembering their human clients; he did and it destroyed him.2 Merciful inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents, eat your heart out.

I should be clear that I like this story even when it isn't being Breakdowns of 1977. Some of the crew of Storm Mine 4 of necessity get more development than others, but it's notable to me now that they are a mixed-gender, mixed-race group who seem to have been written as neutrally and cast as diversely as the crew of the Nostromo.3 Russell Hunter's abrasive Commander Uvanov at first looks like the heavy with his rank-pulling, his class-based jabs at the impoverished aristocrat who works as his navigator, and his reluctance to leave off chasing a lucrative ore blow (I like how much storm-mining resembles whaling) just to investigate the death of a man he didn't like all that much anyway, but he proves a pragmatic and resourceful ally once he stops trying to pin the murders on the Doctor and Leela; he is unexpectedly gentle with his stricken Chief Mover and faces up to the world-warping fact of a mine's worth of robots with their first principles rewired by passing his second-in-command a handful of shaped charges and making like an action hero: "I think it's high time we went on the offensive." Pamela Salem's Pilot Toos injured her wrist in the near-sinking of the mine and was nearly strangled to death by a Voc in her own cabin, but she takes the blocks of Z-9 and follows Uvanov because she's a trooper, stubborn as when she held the sabotaged mine steady; it takes a creepily calm-voiced murder attempt to panic her and even then she defends herself with a vase. I like Leela, who dresses like an extra from One Million Years B.C. (1966), but is perceptive and unimpressed by technology and has no problem kicking dudes in the groin when they accuse her of murders she has not committed. "You must be stronger than you look," Poul appraises her, following his commander's misapprehension that she strangled the man whose cabin she was found in; she fires back at once, "You must be stupider than you look if you think I did that." Much of her function in the narrative seems to be to provide the Doctor with someone to explain things to, but at least the script notices and lampshades it. And as should always be the case in a story of this nature, the heart of The Robots of Death belongs to D84, the courteous, humane, rapidly evolving agent undercover as a mute, drudging Dum. His mild voice seesaws, sometimes stammers and sometimes vibrates with electronic glitches, but he pursues his own investigations even as his partner comes unglued, makes mistakes, learns from them. On the one hand, he's exactly what this culture should be afraid of: not a fancy automaton that can be reprogrammed into a killing machine, but an actual artificial person with a mind and personality of their own. On the other, he's wonderful. He is quite wrong that he's "not important." His rapport with both Leela and the Doctor makes him a tempting companion to imagine in some alternate version of Season 14. And he gets the incontestable best line in the serial, said in just the right tone of polite reproach: "Please do not throw hands at me."

If I am disappointed with anything about this serial, it's that the robot revolution is not self-willed: the human villain is fascinating once revealed, self-contradictory in plausible, meaningful ways and cleverly mirrored to both Poul and D84, but it somewhat undercuts the metaphor of class/race anxiety if the uprising of the exploited workforce is instigated from outside, no matter how strongly that outside wants to represent itself as part of the oppressed. If I look at it as an inversion of Metropolis (1927), where a robot provocateur sows dissent among a human underclass, I like it better. I hope that was intentional.

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.


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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