The Robots of Death (TV story)

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The Robots of Death was the fifth and penultimate serial of season 14 of Doctor Who. It saw the Super-Voc, Voc and Dum robots make their first, and only, televised appearance. The serial was based on the works of Agatha Christie, with a series of unexplained murders.

Boucher was asked to write Robots after another serial fell through. He was chosen as his work on the preceding story, The Face of Evil, had been widely appreciated. It was Philip Hinchcliffe who pushed the idea of a "robot story", despite script editor Robert Holmes' opinion that they were dull. Holmes was confident that he could produce a good script for an enclosed space, as the crew were aware the serial would be a studio bound one. Hinchcliffe suggested a setting akin to the machines featured in the 1965 sci-fi novel Dune, and so the sandminers were created.

Tom Baker was reportedly highly critical of the script. He complained to Boucher during the initial read through and later voiced his derogatory opinions of the story to director Michael E. Briant. According to Briant, this was because Baker wanted the Doctor to display certain characteristics of his imagining. (DOC: The Sandmine Murders)


The Fourth Doctor and Leela land aboard a sandminer, whose crew believe them to be responsible for a murder. As the crew continue to be picked off, the Doctor begins to suspect that the sandminer's robots may be responsible for the murders...


Part one[[edit]]

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 Commander, Uvanov, decides to pursue, as the storm will bring heavier and more valuable minerals such as lucanol to the surface.

One of the crew, the disliked scientist Chub, is going to collect an instrument package.

Uvanov is angered at Chub for taking so long, and Poul goes to look for him.

The package is stuck, and Chub sends for a robot. V45 arrives but is acting strange. V45 corners and strangles Chub, killing him.

In the corridor, Poul hears a Man scream. He finds Chub's body. Poul goes to the control deck and tells Uvanov about the murder. Uvanov does not want to go to investigate it, as they will lose the storm, but the other crew make him go to investigate. They find a strange object on Chub's hand — a "corpse marker".

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. Uvanov orders the robots to recapture them. The Doctor and Leela are separated, with the Doctor finding a second dead man, Kerrill, in a hopper which starts to fill with sand that buries them both...

Part two[[edit]]

The Doctor survives by using a blowpipe poking up through the sand through which he breathes. Both he and Leela, who has found a third dead man, Cass, and a "Dum" robot which can secretly speak, are recaptured. Commander Uvanov orders them to be locked up in the robot storage bay, on suspicion of killing all three 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 meteorologist. While this is happening, a female crewmember named Zilda is murdered, who accuses Uvanov of murder over the tannoy system. Poul — sent to Uvanov's quarters to investigate — finds the Commander bending over Zilda's body. He has him confined to his quarters on suspicion of murdering Zilda.

Shortly afterwards, the engineer, Borg, who is responsible for controlling power to the motors, is found dead, and the sandminer's engines begin to run out of control, threatening the vehicle with destruction. A frantic Toos shrieks, "She's going!"

Part three[[edit]]

The Doctor saves the miner by getting Dask to cut off the power to the motors. Once the sandminer has stopped moving, sinking under the sand dunes is imminent. Dask sets on quickly repairing the damaged — and sabotaged — 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. They 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 and considers himself to be one. 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 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. Uvanov arrives after escaping confinement to confront the Doctor, but he is surprised to see a robot enter the workshop. It proves to have orders to kill the Doctor and grabs him by the throat...

Part four[[edit]]

The Doctor and Uvanov escape and head for the control deck. Someone (presumably Dask, whose responsibilities include robots) shuts down all of the robots whose programming has not been changed, leaving just the killer robots and D84 operational. Looking around the miner, Leela stumbles on Poul hiding in the storage bay: he has gone mad and is suffering from robophobia. She then tracks down Toos in her quarters, who has just been attacked by another rogue robot, and takes her to the control deck to join the Doctor and Uvanov. The human crew are surprised by D84's arrival carrying a near-catatonic Poul, but the Doctor explains the pair's real functions as undercover agents. Looking at his Chief Mover, Uvanov sadly remembers another crew member losing his mind to robophobia years earlier who ran outside to escape them and died; it was Zilda's brother, hence her accusation of murder. SV7 — whose programming has now also been changed — tells them to come out and die, but Toos and Uvanov decide to defend themselves.

Dask is later revealed to be 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. Uvanov and Toos get to work on modifying some Z9 explosives to destroy the robots. In the storage bay Leela finds a damaged robot with its hand covered in blood — which the Doctor reasons is Borg's. He had been the only one strong enough to even try to fight back, and he may even have 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. In the process, he tries to explain to Leela how robophobia works. Robots do not display any body language, which the sensitive Leela had already picked up — calling them "creepy mechanical men" — and despite the fact most robots are built in humanoid form, some people are so unnerved that they become terrified of them. The pair head back to Taren Capel's hidden workshop, where the Doctor hides Leela with a canister of helium gas, telling her to release it when Taren comes in. The Doctor hopes that this will change Taren's voice, so his robots — unable to recognise him — will not obey his orders and turn on him.

The Doctor tricks and evades the killer robots.

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 pattern. The Doctor then destroys SV7 with a laserson probe before Leela calls from her hiding place in a high-pitched voice "Will somebody let me out!?"

With 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.


Uncredited Cast[[edit]]


Uncredited crew[[edit]]






  • The Doctor likens the sinking Storm Mine 4 to the Titanic.


  • This story was obviously based on Isaac Asimov's robot mysteries, such as I, Robot. In particular, the human/robot police duo Elijah Bailey and R Daneel Olivaw from The Caves of Steel and its sequels may be the inspiration for the Poul/D84 pair. Prominent mention is made of Asimov's First Law of Robotics: "A robot may not harm a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm."
  • Another inspiration for the story was Agatha Christie's novel, And Then There Were None, in which several people on an island are murdered one by one, with one of them being the killer.
  • The sandminer setting is based on Frank Herbert's Dune.
  • Poul's name is derived from science-fiction author Poul Anderson. In the novel Corpse Marker, also written by Boucher, the characters full name is given as "Ander Poul".
  • Taren Capel's name comes from Karel Capek, whose play R.U.R. introduced the word "robot".
  • Uvanov's name suggests Isaac Asimov; Borg's name suggests the word "cyborg".
  • The story's thematic basis in body language was influenced by Desmond Morris' Manwatching.[2]
  • Clifford D Simak's 1950 short story Bathe Your Bearings In Blood! (also known as Skirmish) suggested the element of an outside influence inciting a robot rebellion.

Story notes[[edit]]

  • This story had the working titles The Storm-Mine Murders and Planet of the Robots. A rumoured working title for this story is War of the Robots, but this does not appear on any contemporary BBC paperwork.
  • This is one of the few stories which explains, in relative simplicity, using a demonstration with two boxes, how the TARDIS is dimensionally transcendental.
  • This story is the last to feature the wood-panelled TARDIS control room, as the wooden walls warped whilst the set was in storage.
  • Robophobia — an irrational fear of robots — is at one point referred to as "Grimwade's syndrome". This was an in-joke reference to production assistant Peter Grimwade (later to become a director and writer on the series) who had bemoaned the fact that the stories on which he was assigned to work almost always involved robots. However, the description of robophobia given by the Doctor in fact coincides with a real-life phenomenon called the Uncanny Valley.[3]
  • An observant viewer would know the identity of the murderer as early as part two, from the scene in which Capel delivers a corpse marker to a robot. While only his legs and feet are shown, the distinctive grey and black stripes of Dask's trousers are visible.
  • The precise setting of this story is disputed. The novel Legacy places it on Japetus, one of the moons of Saturn, despite the fact the story suggests the atmosphere outside the sandminer is breathable and the presence of a vast sandy desert is somewhat integral to the plot (neither of which would be the case on Japetus). The comic story Crisis on Kaldor places it on the planet Kaldor, as does the Kaldor City audio series. Regarding the year the story takes place (which is never given onscreen), The Doctor Who Programme Guide places it circa 30,000, but The Terrestrial Index (by the same author) redates it to the 51st century. Timelink places it in 2777. A History of the Universe and the first two editions of aHistory arbitrarily place the story in 2877, but the third edition redates it to 2881, based on evidence from the Kaldor City audio series.
  • In the DVD commentary, Louise Jameson revealed that she "nearly killed a cameraman" during production of this story. In the scene where Leela throws her knife at the attacking robot, on one take Jameson wasn't holding it correctly which caused it to fly off in the wrong direction and very nearly stab a cameraman in the back. In future stories, the knife had to be blunt to prevent this from happening again.
  • Decades later, the episodes The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and Planet of the Ood also featured subservient creatures (albeit living ones this time) turning on their masters after being manipulated; like the robots, the Oods' eyes also glowed red when under this influence.
  • The Heavenly Host in the television story Voyage of the Damned bear many similarities to the robots in this story. Not only do they look vaguely similar, they also have a habit of chanting, "Kill, kill, kill!", and one even has to remove its hand after getting it trapped in a door.
  • This story also exists in the BBC Archives as 2 x 50 minute compiled episodes as broadcast Saturday 31 December 1977 and Sunday 1 January 1978. (See BBC Repeat below.)
  • Pamela Salem had previously been considered for the role of Leela.
  • Tom Baker disliked the resolution of the first episode's cliffhanger, suggesting instead an action-packed sequence in which the Doctor swings on his scarf to kick the door open. He and director Michael E. Briant argued vociferously until Briant revealed that Graham Williams was present to observe the shoot. Baker quickly agreed to follow the director's instructions.
  • Brian Croucher would later play the second version of Space Commander Travis on Blake's 7, which was script-edited by Chris Boucher and scored by Dudley Simpson. Pamela Salem appeared in the episode "Cygnus Alpha".
  • Ronald Lacey was considered for Uvanov.
  • Hilary Minster was originally offered the role of SV7.
  • Brian Croucher replaced Brian McDermott as Borg.
  • Peter Grimwade discovered that episode two was severely underrunning. As a result, material about the Sandminer's overloading motive units was added to its closing stages; it appears that the cliffhanger had originally centred on the murder of Zilda.
  • Tania Rogers and Tariq Yunus had previously appeared in the Play for Today Gangsters.


  • Part one - 12.8 million viewers
  • Part two - 12.4 million viewers
  • Part three - 13.1 million viewers
  • Part four - 12.6 million viewers


  • The production team considered keeping Pamela Salem (Toos) on as a regular. (This was never considered, but Salem's publicist encouraged members of the press to believe it, to gain publicity for his client.)
  • A Storm Mine is commonly known as a "Sandminer". (According to Chris Boucher, these vehicles are officially called "Storm Mines" and "Sandminer" is just the word the Fourth Doctor uses. As the Doctor has seen this sort of thing before on Korlano Beta, it is likely that "Sandminer" is specifically the Korlano name, not used in these parts.)[4]

BBC repeat[[edit]]

On 24 December and 31 December 1977, the BBC repeated The Robots of Death as a holiday season special during an interval between its broadcasts of The Sun Makers and Underworld. The four episodes were edited together to form two approx. 50-minute episodes. This is the earliest known occasion in which Doctor Who was broadcast in this format, which would be attempted again with Resurrection of the Daleks, then again for one season in 1985, and finally become the standard beginning in 2005.

Filming locations[[edit]]

Production errors[[edit]]

If you'd like to talk about narrative problems with this story — like plot holes and things that seem to contradict other stories — please go to this episode's discontinuity discussion.
  • The Doctor's scarf vanishes and reappears with little to no explanation twice in the serial: once when he and Leela are detained in part one, and again when he and the crew flee to the command centre in part four.
  • This isn't really a production error, but more of an example of the shoestring budget that the actors and the production team often had to work with in classic Who. When the Doctor gets trapped in the hopper in the cliffhanger at the end of part one, eagle eyed viewers may notice that the sand which starts to pour all over Tom Baker is actually CoCo Pops cereal.
  • When Leela bandages Toos's arm, someone is visible on the edge of the set.
  • Uvanov accuses the Doctor of murdering three crew members upon meeting him, even though he is only informed of the third murder a few seconds later when Poul comes into the room.
  • In spite of editing, Leela's knife throw is clearly travelling way off-target (on a downward trajectory) and could not possibly have hit its mark (the robot) as shown.
  • When Leela and the Doctor are talking about the robots after having been placed in a crew lounge, one of Louise Jameson's contacts can be seen to have slipped down, showing her natural blue eye colour. The contact can still be seen as a dark spot in the corner of her eye.
  • Uvanov inexplicably delivers one line in part four in an Irish accent.
  • When Uvanov informs the crew of Leela and the Doctor's capture, there is a noticeable fault in the audio reception.


  • The characters from this episode reappear in several of Chris Boucher's later novels, starting with PROSE: Corpse Marker, and continuing in the Kaldor City audio spinoffs.
  • The Kaldor City Company would later cover up this incident. (AUDIO: Robophobia)
  • The Doctor previously attempted to explain how the TARDIS is bigger on the inside. When Barbara Wright asked how the TARDIS works, the First Doctor explained to her and Ian Chesterton that the inner doors are a gateway to the fourth dimension which cannot be seen in our dimension, allowing it to be concealed inside of the outer box, being the police box. (COMIC: The Secrets of the Tardis)
  • The Doctor has previously stated the impossibility for Bumble Bees to fly as an example for when discussing how something supposedly impossible can happen. (TV: The Dæmons)

Home video and audio releases[[edit]]

DVD releases[[edit]]

Released as Doctor Who: The Robots of Death, this was the first "proper" title in the BBC DVD range of Doctor Who DVDs. It marked the debut of the "roundel" template that didn't prove popular with fans (although it has remained to date as the DVD template) and is the only one in the range not to feature production subtitles. The continuities were meant to be an Easter Egg, but an error was made by the Authoring House and they were included as a regular menu item. This early DVD release lacks subtitles, and features a different image of Tom Baker on the cover to later releases (in common with The Caves of Androzani, Vengeance on Varos and Remembrance of the Daleks, the first stories released for the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors).


NTSC - Warner Video E1120

Extra features:

Rear Credits:


Special Edition[[edit]]

A special edition of The Robots of Death DVD was released on the Revisitations 3 box set, on 13 February 2012. Other stories in the box set are The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Three Doctors.

Special Features[[edit]]
  • Commentary #1 - Original release commentary by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and writer Chris Boucher
  • Commentary #2 - New commentary by Tom Baker (the Doctor), Louise Jameson (Leela), Pamela Salem (Toos), and director Michael E. Briant
  • The Sandmine Murders - Cast and crew look back at the making of this story
  • Robophobia - Toby Hadoke takes a humorous look at the history of robots
  • Studio Sound - An example of a studio scene before the robot voice effects were added
  • Model Shots - Black and white time-coded recordings of the original model insert film
  • Studio Floor Plan - An interactive view of the studio layout
  • Continuity - Off-air continuity for the original transmission of Part One plus a mute continuity slide
  • Radio Times listings (DVD-ROM)
  • Production information subtitles
  • Photo Gallery
  • Coming Soon trailer - The Face of Evil

VHS releases[[edit]]

This story was released as Doctor Who: The Robots of Death.


PAL - BBC Video BBCV4108
NTSC - Warner Video E1120
NTSC - Pony Video
PAL - Video Network
PAL - Transvídeo

Notes: This story was released in an edited movie-format.

  • Second Release:
  • UK February 1995
PAL - BBC Video BBCV552

Notes: This story was released unedited.

External links[[edit]]


  1. Doctor Who Guide
  2. 'The Discontinuity Guide' by Paul Cornell et al, page 205. Virgin Publishing Ltd, 1994.
  4. 'About Time, Volume 4: 1975-1979' by Lawrence Miles et al, page 140. Mad Norwegian Press, 2004.