Doctor Who - The Robots Of Death

Actors: Tom Baker, Louise Jameson
Format: Color, DVD-Video, NTSC
Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
Region: 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Number of discs: 1
Studio: BBC Warner
DVD Release Date: September 11, 2001
Run Time: 95 minutes

Features: Commentary by Philip Hinchcliffe and Chris Boucher, Model tests, Photo gallery, Studio plans, Who's Who



OK, for those with a low geek score (especially those in the States), here's the rundown: Doctor Who is a British science fiction television show that ran for an impossibly long time on the BBC from 1963 to 1989 ? twenty-six seasons and 158 episodes in all! (The character was revived in the 2000s, again as a popular BBC show.)

Anyway, the good doctor (he never had a name really, he was just ?the doctor?) was a mysterious so-called alien renegade ?time lord? from the planet Gallifrey who travelled through space and time in a defective time machine called the TARDIS. The TARDIS is supposed to blend in with its surroundings by shape shifting, but it got stuck in one mode, namely that of a British police phone booth.

These police phone booths were quite common in Britain from the 1930s until they were phased out during the 1960s. Resembling the type of booth usually used as a cloak room by Superman (except for the flashing blue light on top of it) they were used by policemen on the beat to contact headquarters as well as members of the public in emergencies. Sometimes they were used as temporary holding cells by policemen on the beat. With the advent of walky talkies they slowly began to disappear from the British landscape.

If any of this seems familiar, it's because Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure stole the concept outright ? except for the bit about the TARDIS being much bigger on the inside than the outside making it the opposite of modern SUVs which are usually bigger on the outside than they are on the inside . . .

Like James Bond, the character was played by several actors throughout the years ? eight in all (excluding the actors who played the doctor in the movie versions).

The show was initially aimed at kiddies between the age of nine and fourteen. It was also supposed to be educational as the doctor travelled through time and met several historical figures. This was however soon chucked out the window as the series became more science fiction-y and the doctor's travels ended up with him battling alien monsters on distant planets.

THE DISC: The storyline represented on this disc is The Robots of Death, featured Tom Baker as the Doctor. Baker was the fourth actor to have played the role on the TV show, and also played the role the longest of all the actors involved. In the popular imagination - myself included - Baker's depiction of the role is widely considered to be the definitive one. After all, when The Simpsons featured Doctor Who in two episodes, it was Baker's Doctor with his floppy hat and impossibly long multi-coloured scarf they featured. Many fans also regard him as the best of the various doctors (each actor gave the doctor a distinct personality).

The four episodes, altogether clocking in at 90 minutes plus, were originally broadcast in early 1977 (thus before the release of Star Wars), and regularly pops up on Who fandom's list of Best Episodes Ever. The plot involves the doctor and his female companion (being the sexless world of BBC children's television don't go jumping to any conclusions here now, you hear?) accidentally becoming involved with mysterious murders on a huge isolated mining vessel on a desert planet similar to the one in Dune.

We early on know who the killer is: namely one of the many robots with art deco facial features. In true Agatha Christie style though the identity of whoever has reprogrammed the robot to commit the murder however remains a mystery for the doctor to unravel. Of course, a robot killing a human violates the three laws of robotics thought up by Isaac Asimov and has enormous implications for several civilizations throughout the known galaxy. Or so the story maintains.

On the commentary track Chris Boucher (it was only his second script for the series) cheerfully admits to being influenced by Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie by the way. There are some good sci-fi ideas in Robots of Death; unfortunately things are hobnailed by that old Doctor Who bugbear: the budget. Or rather, the lack of one.

As you might imagine the sets and special effects for a BBC sci-fi series for children made in the mid-1970s doesn't quite cut it when it comes to production values. The costumes are quite campy, and so is some of the acting. The special effects are pretty lousy too. Now don't get us wrong: we're not one like today's kids who derisively laugh at bad special effects in old(er) movies. Heck, if the story and acting is good enough, anything goes. But the cheap sets and models in Robots of Death remain distracting, maybe because the story loses steam towards the end as it grinds towards a somewhat predictable plot resolution.

WORTH IT? The only notable extra feature on the DVD is the droll audio commentary by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and author Boucher which offers up some interesting info nuggets. The rest of the extras (model tests, the photo gallery and studio plans) are quite senseless.

The sound is its original mono, and the image in its original full screen aspect ratio. The image quality is mostly surprisingly good and clear, except for some shots which look soft and grainy. Considering its roots however, the image looks super.

RECOMMENDATION: If you're a Who fan then you've probably already checked out this DVD. If you're unfamiliar with older Doctor Who and would like to check it out, then this is a good place to start. If you're the sort of newbie who are accustomed to glitzier production values, then you might want to give "classic" Who a skip altogether and check out the new Doctor Who TV series instead.



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