Chapter 48. Doctor Who and the Robots of Death (1979)

Synopsis: Aboard a mining vessel, the crew consists of indolent humans who allow robotic servants to do all the work. When one of the crew is found murdered just as the Doctor and Leela arrive, suspicion naturally falls upon the strangers. But as the murders continue, the crewmembers begin to suspect each other. Leela wonders why the killer couldn’t be the mechanical men, but it’s against their programming – robots cannot kill… can they?

Chapter Titles

  • 1 Sandminer
  • 2 Murder
  • 3 Corpse Marker
  • 4 Death Trap
  • 5 Captives
  • 6 Suspicion
  • 7 The Hunter
  • 8 Sabotage
  • 9 Pressure
  • 10 Robot Detective
  • 11 Killer Robot
  • 12 Robot Rebellion
  • 13 The Face of Taren Capel
  • 14 Brainstorm

Background: Terrance Dicks adapts Chris Boucher’s scripts from 1977, completing Target’s adaptations of Season 14 stories and the first three seasons of the Fourth Doctor.

Notes: The vessel is called ‘The Sandminer’ (it’s ‘Storm Mine 4’ on TV) and Dicks describes it as ‘a massive metal crab on an immense, multi-coloured sea of sand’. Cass is said to be ‘young and muscular, dark-skinned like Zilda’ (he’s also rather difficult to kill as he’s accidentally included in the assembled crew scene in Chapter 6 that takes place after his death. Oops!).

The robots are all silver (not shades of green as the onscreen versions), have ‘high, polished boots’ (not bacofoil moccasins) and their numbers are denoted on a collar around the neck, rather than on the chest. When Uvanov says it’s some consolation that the murders have increased their own share of the takings, it’s Toos, not Zilda who corrects him that it’s ‘no consolation’. ‘Lucanol’ is the rarest mineral of all. Poul clarifies that Chub’s weather balloons contained helium, which sets up the trap that catches Dask at the end.

As the ore threatens to drown him, the Doctor goes full-on Sherlock Holmes to work out a solution to the problem:

In any kind of emergency, the first thing to do is think. Wrong action can be worse than no action at all. 

… and dismisses a number of options before settling on breathing through the tube. 

There were 20 families who came from Earth to colonise the planet and it’s their descendants who are known as ‘Founding Families’.  Poul reveals that many of the crewmembers on this tour were working for Uvanov on the tour that featured the death of Zilda’s brother. Robophobia is known as Grimwold’s syndrome (not ‘Grimwade’ as on TV). Dask’s ‘robot upbringing’ is expanded upon, laying the blame for his madness on the ‘lack of parental love’. The Doctor and Leela stay long enough for the survivors to send a distress satellite and request a rescue ship.

Cover: John Geary joins the family of target artists with a surprisingly golden Voc and a lovely illustration of the Doctor holding a Laserson probe. The 1994 reprint was one of the very last Target publications and it had a painting by Alister Pearson showing the Doctor, a Voc face (as well as a full-length Voc) and the Sandmine, with a background inspired by the sandminer decor.

Final Analysis: Terrance Dicks continues to provide us with a pre-home-video copy of the broadcast story, but he doesn’t get anywhere near enough recognition for the way he paints each scene, not just what we might have seen, but how it should have made us feel, as in this paragraph where the Doctor meets the mine crew for the first time:

He studied the people around him, the elaborate robes and head-dresses, the complex designs of the face paint. It was a form of dress typical of a robot-dependent society, in which no human needed to perform any manual labour.

Efficient, precise and slightly critical. And then he turns his attentions to Uvanov:

There was something pathetic about Uvanov. A middle-aged man pretending to be young, a weak man trying to be strong.

Yet just a few pages later, we’re told:

At times like this, there was something curiously impressive about Uvanov. Whatever his other faults, he was the complete professional when it came to his job.

Chris Boucher’s scripts were already among the best of the series up to this point (and, dare I say it, beyond), but it’s down to Dicks that this opportunity isn’t wasted. 

Even if he does accidentally resurrect one of the murder victims…