‘Doctor Who’: ‘The Robots of Death’ (Special Edition) DVD review

Sometimes watching Doctor Who, one can feel an uneasy anxiety, waiting for the next arch performance or line of clunky dialogue to break the spell. And sometimes, occasionally, one can luxuriate in a story so exquisitely told, it transcends the limitations of its production.

The Robots of Death is such a story.

In its opening scenes alone, it vividly portrays a decadent future world through dialogue pen-strokes which have sustained Who spin-off fiction for years. Kaldor City; the Twenty Founding Families; the Voc therapist who ripped off his client’s arm… All are here in its portrait of a Sandminer crew who face terror from within: from the eponymous robots; but also from their own imaginings.

In this culture, technology has advanced to embrace both beauty and violence. A Laserson Probe, we are told, can punch a hole through six-inch armour plate or take the crystals from a snowflake, one by one.

That the robots of death look so exquisite is only half the story. Yes, they are uncannily beautiful. Art deco in influence, they also seem to channel Ancient Greece and even, as the making of documentary tells us, the Wella hair logo.

But, although it is true that the production design elevates the script, director Michael Briant is wrong to find the story just a futuristic reworking of an Agatha Christie. There’s a genuine science fictional commitment to exploring mankind’s dependence on, and exploitation of, inhuman resources – be they mineral or robot – and when one of the crew succumbs to Robophobia, it’s in scenes as harrowing as you can get away with on a Saturday teatime.

The crewmembers of Storm Mine 4 may be suffering from the stultifying effects of decadence. But the same cannot be said for the production team. This is a programme at the top of its game.

Extras: Unlike its sister releases in the Revisitations 3 box set, The Robots of Death and its extras occupy only one disc, so there is less in the way of bonus material.

The Sandmine Murders is a making-of documentary, which features a talking heads line-up, including Michael E. Briant, Tom Baker, David Collings, Brian Croucher and Pamela Salem, among others: all of whom show a warm affection for the story and pay testament to a company spirit that shines through in the performances.

As leader of that company, it’s quite clear that Tom Baker allowed himself the licence to misbehave, including in front of incoming producer, Graham Williams.

Brian Croucher labels Baker a ‘creative terrorist’, and, in so doing, adds a perfect new phrase to the Who lexicon to describe Tom’s tendency to both anarchy and extravagant flights of fancy. Coming from the maverick Croucher, who allows himself the indulgence of acting out a variety of death scenes for the camera, this is some compliment.

A second documentary, Robophobia, is more tongue in cheek in tone, and examines the depiction of robots in Doctor Who, alongside their presentation in popular culture.

Presented by Toby Hadoke, it’s more proof of Hadoke’s appeal to the producers of Doctor Who spin-off media. You’ll also find him moderating the Tomb of the Cybermen commentary and narrating the Happy Birthday to Who documentary on the Three Doctors release.

Still, when a man is as genial, knowledgeable and self-effacing as Hadoke, it’s hard to begrudge him his ubiquity. In Robophobia, he even channels his Fifties housewife by getting up in drag with ‘interesting’ results.

Of the two commentaries on the disc, the newer, featuring Briant, Baker, Jameson and Salem is a far jollier affair than the original, showing how far Who DVD commentaries have come since the earliest days of the releases.

Michael Briant’s pronunciation of art deco as ‘arr decorr’ is a little off-putting, but he’s the only contributor in a mood to be pretentious, and Tom Baker’s penchant for wistful yarns soon sets a fond tone. When Baker says he misses being young terribly, it’s hard not to respond: to some of us, Tom, you’re still young. To some of us, you’re immortal.

Released on DVD on Monday 13th February 2012 by 2entertain.

> Buy the Revisitations 3 boxset on Amazon.

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