‘The Black Archive #43: The Robots of Death’

❉ Fiona Moore offers a fresh and compelling analysis of a highly regarded serial.

In some respects, writing about one of Doctor Who’s beloved classics represents a trickier proposition than delving into a polarizing story or even one that’s profoundly unloved. When such strong consensus exists not just about a story’s quality but also the reasons why, novel angles to explore can be elusive. Though very few points in the series’ history are as highly regarded as The Robots of Death, Fiona Moore’s newly released Black Archive volume about the story – the 43rd in the series – nonetheless offers a fresh and compelling analysis.

Not surprisingly, behind-the-scenes elements get a good deal of focus, including fairly common elements like reviewing how Chris Boucher’s scripts evolved during the production process. However, Moore’s analysis looks beyond the individual story to examine how The Robots of Death fits both within its particular era of Doctor Who, which remains among the most beloved and respected, and the broader television landscape of the time.

The chapter dealing with multi-ethnic casting – an area where Doctor Who and British television in general – have an uneven record is especially interesting in this light. Because Doctor Who has endured for so long, it can be easy to forget that, for all that makes it special, it’s also very much part of the mainstream of British television and tends to reflect that mainstream, albeit in unexpected ways at times.

This comes through clearly in the chapter discussing how the artistic movements of the early 20th century – and their expression in forums like German cinema of the 1920s – influenced the serial’s onscreen execution. While some of the specific sources, such as the film Metropolis, obviously lend themselves to a science-fiction environment, Moore once again goes beyond the obvious both in terms of what aspects of The Robots of Death were informed by expressionist and modernist stylings and why these work so well within it.

It’s taken as read among fans that the story’s design is among Doctor Who’s finest, but Moore succeeds in conveying the thematic links between the story and the works that helped make it so visually striking.

 

Moore’s focus on the story’s themes carries through to an examination of literary influences – another area where the writer goes well beyond the obvious. Received wisdom about The Robots of Death holds that its setting comes from Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, its conception of robots from Isaac Asimov and his “Three Laws of Robotics” and its plot structure from Agatha Christie.

Unlike much of the received wisdom on Doctor Who, those convictions aren’t inaccurate so much as incomplete. Moore has plenty to say about Asimov’s influence while also spotlighting how other vintage science-fiction speaks to the serial’s themes, including a more subtle connection with Dune than is generally considered.

That ties in nicely with a subsequent chapter discussing how similar themes manifest in Chris Boucher’s other science-fiction work, both within and beyond Doctor Who. Moore is careful to avoid going too far down the “auteur” road. The overall picture is one of a writer who found inventive ways to explore concepts that interested them in an action-adventure context – in short a quintessential Doctor Who writer.

The final chapter – discussing the many spin-off stories that use The Robots of Death as their starting point – is likely to hold the greatest interest for longtime Doctor Who fans. With or without the Doctor, sequels and spin-offs from classic stories became commonplace in the period between the end of the series’ original run and its 2005 revival.

What’s striking about The Robots of Death is that these narrative extensions go back as far as 1981 and continue to the present with various releases from Big Finish. Amid all this variety, Moore finds a common thread in how these works, not to mention several episodes of 21st century Doctor Who, engage with the original story’s ideas. In a book bursting with examples of why The Robots of Death just simply works, this examination of its legacy arguably makes the strongest case of all for its enduring acclaim.


❉ ‘The Black Archive #43: The Robots of Death’ by Fiona Moore is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £8.99. Buy Black Archive books from the Obverse Books website!

❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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