Monday, February 18, 2013

Robots of Death

Dear Gary—
I can’t get over the high quality of the show, story after story, during this stretch. They just keep coming, one after the other. Robots of Death is no exception.
“To the rational mind nothing is inexplicable, only unexplained.”
The Doctor has begun his education of Leela.
Leela, the Eliza Doolittle to the Doctor’s Professor Higgins. Leela the primitive with limited learning but with an open and curious mind. And a mind with an eye for the practical.
“That’s silly,” is her reaction when the Doctor tries to illustrate with different sized boxes at different distances how the TARDIS can be bigger on the inside than on the outside. She knows which box is bigger, even if it looks smaller—“That’s because it’s further away.” She knows. “That’s silly.”
“That’s transdimensional engineering, a key Time Lord discovery,” but the Doctor hasn’t time to pursue this further for the TARDIS (the silly, bigger on the inside than on the outside TARDIS) has materialized.
Doctor: “This is the exciting bit.”
Leela: “What’s exciting?”
Doctor: “Well, seeing what’s outside.”
It’s not just an education; it’s an adventure.
What’s on the outside—the adventure—is the outstanding Robots of Death.
Our first glimpse of Robots of Death sets the tone for this adventure. It is Art Deco sumptuous automaton. (I want to aside here, Gary. Art Deco has been used before to great effect in The Black Cat—the Karloff/Lugosi classic. There, too, Art Deco enhanced harsh, stark cruelties.)
It is not just the cruelties that are harsh and stark in The Robots of Death; so too is the landscape. “It’s beautiful,” Leela says as she peers out at the arid desert before them.
However the sandminer vehicle in which the TARDIS has landed and which is extracting minerals from the surface of this desert planet is another story, as are the occupants thereof. These miners are not your average underground, dirt and grime, hard hat miners. Nor are they your typical uniformed space explorers. I like how each uniform is highly individual and hints of rank and caste and ancestry woven into this rich tapestry of costumery. The interplay between the cast of characters, too, hints of multiple threads—this is a soap opera in the making.
And then the dead bodies start piling up. Now we have an Agatha Christie Ten Little Indians mystery going on.
The Doctor and Leela materialize in the middle of this Art Deco soap opera murder mystery with robots.
We know that the robots are responsible for the killings. The Doctor knows the robots are responsible for the killings. The human occupants, the Art Deco soap opera miners, do not.
“Shumf! All over in two seconds.” Our first victim, Chub, probably would have known. But he is dead. All over in two seconds. Shumf!
Robots, everybody knows, have a prime directive: “Robots can’t harm humans.” But Chub knows: “They go wrong, my friend. It’s been known.” Leela knows too: “The second principle is that humans can’t harm robots. I know. I tried and they don’t bleed.”
Our Art Deco soap opera miners, however, take some convincing. (“You know, you’re a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain.”)
A word, Gary, about our Art Deco soap opera miners. Another superb cast depicting deeply characterized roles. Unfortunately many of them get killed off—one, two, three—Chub, Cass, Borg (and Karril who is only seen as a corpse). And then there is Zilda. Zilda is part of the underlying soap opera from a family of wealth and power that has lost both, suspicious of the captain and mourning the tragic loss of her brother. A story told in seconds of looks, tones, throw-away dialogue. Zilda, however, provides the one sour note in this symphonic tapestry. The climactic scene towards the end of episode two when she accuses the captain over the intercom, to my mind, is rather overdone. But she is killed and that is the end of that.
Now we are left with the captain Uvanov, with Toos, with Poul, and with Dask. Our last remaining Little Indians. And the robots. The Robots of Death.
One of these four remaining, we know, has reprogrammed the robots, is Taren Capel in hiding. Taren Capel—the human brought up by robots. Taren Capel the mad, or as the Doctor puts it: “Right now he must be a happy little maniac.” Taren Capel must be on board. (“Oh that’s dim. Even for a Dumb, that’s dim. You realize he’s almost certainly on board.”)
Uvanov was the obvious red herring, with hints of Zilda and her tragic brother accusing him surreptitiously and then outright. Uvanov, the mercenary miner with zelanite rather than blood running through his veins. Uvanov with secret longings of his own.
Toos would have been a master stroke, but Toos is too valuable as she is.
Poul is eliminated early on—Poul who goes mad with ‘Robophobia’ or ‘Grimwade’s Syndrome’ when he realizes that the robots really are to blame.
That leaves the obvious Dask. Dask/Taren Capel. Our villain. Mastermind of the robot revolution, of the robots of death.
I’m not sure why he chose a lonely sandminer vehicle on a desert planet for his master plan, but since this is Doctor Who, who cares?
“Kill, kill, kill.”
“Kill the Doctor. Kill the Doctor. Kill the Doctor.”
Murderous robots. ”Kill, kill, kill.”
Taren Capel. Murderous robots. Kill, kill, kill.
Robots are single minded. You program them to kill, they kill. Kill, kill, kill.
Humans have nuances:
Uvanov: “You have cost me and the company a great deal of money and you have killed three people. Can you think of any good reason why I should not have you executed on the spot?”
Leela: “No, but you can, otherwise you’d have done it.”
Humans do not kill, kill, kill. Humans kill with reason. Humans kill with purpose. Robots, when so programmed, kill, kill, kill.
That is why they are so easily defeated. True, you can reason humans out of killing, but humans are unpredictable. You never know exactly what your human opponent is thinking. Machines, computers, robots—they are all the same, they are all predictable. You know what they are thinking: “Kill, kill, kill.”
And machines, computers, robots—they are all so literal. One comma out of place, one “mouse in the wainscoting” and it is all over.
“All good things come to an end.”
Taren Capel/Dask is dead. The robots are decommissioned. Uvanov, Toos, and the deranged Poul survive.
And the education of Leela continues.
Leela: “Sometimes you talk like a Tesh.”
Doctor: “Thank you.”
Leela: “It was not well meant.”
Well . . . it continues with qualifications. Leela has an open mind and is willing to learn. But don’t give her double talk. Don’t talk down to her. Don’t talk above her.
And so, Gary, we leave these “creepy mechanical men” behind with a “Kill the . . . kill the . . . kill the . . .” echoing back from the Doctor’s time swirl, and the Doctor and Leela enter that loveably unreliable TARDIS (Leela: “You mean you can’t control this machine?” Doctor: “Well, of course I can control it—nine times out of ten. Well seven times out of ten. Five times . . . look, never mind . . .”) and we look forward to the next adventure/lesson.
All good things must come to an end . . . Shumf!

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