“The Robots of Death” is the second-to-the-last episode in Season 14, which is the third season of Tom Baker’s run. His sole companion at this point is Leela, and the next episode is the highly-regarded “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” which is next on our viewing schedule.
Spoilers, of course.
Plot-wise, I’d consider this episode to be pretty average. The Doctor and Leela land on a mining vehicle, which is traveling across the surface of a planet prospecting for minerals. It’s run by a group of about six humans, supplemented by a large group of robots. It’s made very clear that the robots have been programmed deeply with the rule to not harm humans. One of the crew is murdered, and it becomes apparent that the robots are killing off the humans one by one. The Doctor eventually deduces that one of the crewmembers is a human who sympathizes with the robots and thinks they should rule the humans, and that he destroyed the no-harm circuits in the robots so that he could order them to kill. The Doctor then tricks the last modified robot into killing the villain.
The episode tried to address through dialogue the moral issue of whether or not it’s ok to enslave a robot race, especially when the humans are artificially making them subservient. However, it failed to really compel me to think about it, because ultimately the issue was being forced by a human villain who wanted robot dominance and human death; to be truly thought-provoking, the villain needed either to be a robot with evolving sentience or a human or robot looking to free the robots without the need to destroy. As it was, you don’t feel any compassion towards the robots or their leader. Comparisons can be drawn to “Planet of the Ood” – instead of robots, the Ood were enslaved by artificial means and had no thoughts of anything other than remaining slaves. However, while the Ood were trying to fight back, they were only looking for freedom, rather than dominance, and the real villain was the man who enslaved them. Perhaps it’s harder to care about robots than the obviously organic Ood, but on the other hand, the Ood look like monsters and had been portrayed as treacherous both in “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit” and in the first half of “Planet of the Ood,” and by the end of the episode, you’re completely on their side. “The Robots of Death” could have done something very similar.
What I really found interesting about this episode was the people in the crew. The first two parts of this four-part episode dealt mainly with the crew and how they reacted to the first murder and other events. For example, the commander of the vessel was mostly interested in the profits to be made from the exploration, so when the murder was reported to him, he more or less blew it off to get back to the survey. Through the actions and reactions of the different people, you start to see that they all have different backstories, attitudes, and aims, which actually have a bearing later on the plot, as the Doctor starts to piece together what’s happening based on what each person knows and wants. It’s far more of a character study than a Doctor Who episode, and honestly, the only reason the Doctor is needed in this show is because he’s the only person that can look at all the events and personalities neutrally and figure out what’s going on.
In summary, I’d say this was a pretty good episode: nothing outstanding, but enjoyable. It’s deep in some ways, and rather trite in others, but in general, worth watching.